Friday, 7 July 2017

A Final Wwoof

The drive to Hobart, at the very south of Tassie, was long and reflective. My thoughts kept turning back to Leo and the direction that whole situation had taken. My mind wasn't quite engaging with my feelings, I was overcome with an odd mix of relief, vague dread at the hurt I've inflicted and echoes of my own emotions, gone unacknowledged, by me.

The journey wound us back up to the top of the national park, then looped back southwards, and was mostly uneventful, save for a stop at Lake St Clair, where a drove of exhausted trekkers, having just completed the overland track from Cradle Mountain, got on the bus, thin, dusty and stinky. I was, predictably, jealous. Why oh why, I lamented, was I not organised enough to find a way of fitting this in - it would've served as perfect preparation for the New Zealand portion of my trip, where I planned to do some wilderness exploration. Or conversely, why oh why was I too rigidly organised, pedantic, even, so that I couldn't find a way to rearrange my plans and allow this to happen. But then, if I were different, I suppose other things would've been different too... At any rate, the trek I missed out on was purported to be exhilarating, yet not too challenging, through easy to moderate beautiful landscapes, half the way down Tassie. Not for the first time, nor the last, I was sad at how short this segment of my trip was. I'm still unsure how I came to decide five weeks in Australia and Tasmania would suffice.

Definitely non-Aussie Estate Agents
And so, eager for second hand participation, I spent the bus journey haranguing a couple of trekkers about their hike. They were two guys who met on the trail - an Aussie and a Japanese. 'Us Japanese', the man ruminated, 'tend to travel in groups, which means I'm regarded by locals and my fellow countrymen alike as a bit of a suspicious maverick'. The three of us engaged in a pleasant and friendly chat, until, for whatever reason, estate agents were mentioned, and I vociferously offered my opinion of them and their ilk, which deeply offended the Australian. It may well be, he sulkily insisted, that in the UK they are evil soulless creatures, but not in Australia, nope - never in Australia. 

Greeting me in Hobart was a luminescent woman named Jacqueline, and her two Korean
Wwoofers, a giggling pair, Stella and Iris - names they've adopted for themselves when taking an English course in Sydney - real names Keung-Ah and Ni-Keung. Stella was chatty, with a sarcastic twinkle in her eye. Which also meant, as her English was still far from fluent, I could never tell if she was speaking sincerely, or being facetious. This led to frequent awkward silent staring between us over the next few days, with me trying to gauge her intention by careful scrutiny of her poker face. Her companion, Iris, was a quiet woman, who, I've come to realise a full day later, could speak excellent English, but chose not to.

Jacqueline soon turned out to be the nicest Wwoofing host I've had. A semi retired nurse, she tended to my thumb's splinter infection, told me to help myself to the computer - a rare luxury for a nomad backpacker, and announced we were only to work four hours a day and never ever exert ourselves!

Her husband was a lighting specialist, working on giant projects such as the man-made islands in Dubai. He'd been called abroad the previous night, and we were therefore left just us four women, along with three dogs, one cat and two cockatiels.

The house itself was set on a beautiful hill, surrounded by forests, and overlooking the Huon Valley. It had been lovingly built ensconced in the midst of wild gardens, stubbornly rooting into the rocky hills. My room overlooked the harbour and wooded slopes leading down to it. 

Huon Valley, Tasmania
I spent my first evening taking it all in, chatting to Jacqueline late into the night. She told me about the new age movement prevalent in Tasmania, mainly of newer settlers from the past 40 or 50 years - baby-boomers really, alongside the more traditional farming and logging communities. These groups were influenced by indigenous and Shamanic practices, incorporating them into their way of life. Her group would meet regularly and engage in rituals, sometimes augmented by hallucinogens, to facilitate causes close to their hearts. Here was where I first heard of smudging, a ritualistic practice of cleansing an environment of unwanted energies, using a bundle of sage leaves set alight and left to smoke like incense, or waved around an "affected" area.
In the morning I caught up on my emails, then got to work as per our instructions - lugging firewood up a steep hill, which did in fact take some considerable effort, and digging up and transplanting certain flora - a delaying tactic to the house being caught in bushfires. My co-Wwoofers were less than keen to test their English in elaborate chats, and this limited our interaction to short exchanges of fatigue signals, nods and awkward smiles.
Jacqueline was working a night shift and not due back till morning. With my uncommunicative colleagues keeping themselves to themselves, I found myself truly alone in the big house, the rain coming down hard outside, and I surrendered to an evening of comfort telly and canine time, with an occasional fridge venture - for me or the dogs.

One of the three dogs, an impossibly ancient 18 year old called Bear, couldn't quite use her
 hind legs anymore, and needed to be lifted off the floor at times, or she would flop down, only able to get herself up again with great effort. She was a sweet, loving pooch, and during our afternoon's work would occasionally wobble out, and keep us company. At one point that day, I saw her standing on the trail looking over the valley, as if deep in thought, and had a sharp pang of foreboding.

Jacqueline had given me feeding instructions, and mentioned Bear doesn't get very hungry anymore, in fact she rarely eats at all. That evening, however, Bear seemed eager to eat, finished her portion of food and then scarfed the cat's bowl clean as well. It got very cold and as I sat with the dogs I expected her to signal she needs to go outside, having eaten so much, and so kept my coat at the ready, but she slept and slept. Eventually I retired to my room.

The next morning, I went downstairs to find a distressed Jacqueline, who told me Bear's not well. She'd had a few "accidents" during the night, and Jacqueline came back to a messy living room. Bear was looking weaker than ever. Sorrowfully lowering her head, Jacqueline explained she thinks it's time to take Bear to the vet to have her put down, as it isn't right for the dog to suffer any longer. I told her about the cat food and she said it's happened before, but as Bear's been getting worse and worse, there was no point in delaying the inevitable. I suggested I'd come with her and she was relieved to have the company.

We worked in the garden for an hour or so and then drove to the vet's and sat with her as she slipped into unconsciousness, both of us quietly weeping. Jacqueline wiped her tears and said, 'this is not something you'd expect to be doing on your Wwoofing trip'. I shrugged;  you never really know where life takes you and it's all part of the journey after all.
We got back before noon, and worked in silence for a time. Jacqueline then said she had a hospital appointment in Hobart, and asked if we wanted to come along for a couple of hours' exploration of the town, while she's at the doctor's. Naturally, we all said yes. I only had a couple more days before my flight back to Melbourne. It was a 6am flight, which meant I would need to spend the night at a hostel to make it, so this was a good opportunity for me to get the feel of the town and maybe check out some potential accommodation.

Lovely Hobart Harbour and wharves
After a quick wander in town, during which I managed to locate the hostel i'll be staying in, we drove back, and Stella announced she would prepare Korean food for dinner. Despite the lacking level of communication between us, I felt we had very subtly bonded over the past couple of days. It was clear I connected with Jacqueline, but it was nice to be reminded that some sympathetic connections form naturally and unexpectedly, and didn't necessarily require verbal interaction. I suddenly felt sad about her leaving soon, particularly as it's been a day of difficult goodbyes. After dinner, we all sat together for a short meditation, wishing Bear a swift journey, getting constantly interrupted by a curious and cheerful Piper, the puppyish white Retriever, which lightened the mood and gave the evening a sense of continuity and a life circle, all that crap.
All my female Wwoofing hosts in Tassie so far have experienced at some point or other in their life a serious illness. It was interesting how differently each of them handled it, and I wondered if it could be taken as a measure of character. Never having been seriously ill for a lengthy stretch of time myself, I couldn't imagine how I'd have dealt with the situation - most likely with a demand for martyrdom peppered with a high degree of whinging - which makes me fairly certain you could estimate people's position on the positivity-negativity spectrum that way. Using the three women as examples, Susan had been very ill once upon a time, and was all better now, but would never stop talking about it, forever wringing pity out of the listener. Kathy had an ongoing, non-life-threatening condition, albeit extremely unpleasant and long-term, and she allowed it to suffocate any feeling of joy and obstruct her making any changes or improvements in her life. In contrast to them, Jacqueline was gravely and terminally ill, but hardly ever mentions it, despite the fact that, as it turns out, it was most probably caused by toxic crop spraying nearby their then house. Others would no doubt have taken the wronged victim approach, but she refused to dwell on it, nor was she bitter. She may not have had long to live, but you wouldn't know it. She went about life with the same love and joy of a person touched by a moment of clarity, or miraculous healing.
My last day's Wwoofing in Tassie was quite memorable. In the afternoon, Jacqueline drove 
An oyster glut!
Stella, Iris and me to the bay, where we watched the water turning red by the sunset, and spotted a couple of suspicious fins peeking out - presumably dolphins, although, true to form, the creatures wouldn't break my streak of bad luck by making themselves known to me, the teases! We were then led along the coastline towards a vast beach completely covered in... oysters! We couldn't believe it. I love oysters, but oh, I was a mere amateur next to Iris, who screeched with excitement, swooping along the shore, picking a few select juicy ones, then proceeding to frantically bash them open with a rock, and we spent a happy hour eating briny-sweet wild oysters in the twilight, a once in a lifetime experience.

The next morning, Jacqueline drove me to Hobart and presented me with a hand-bound notebook she had crafted as a parting gift, with a touching message of friendship inside. I didn't know whether I'd ever see her again, as even if I ever made it back to Tassie, she may no longer be alive.

Constitution Dock, Hobart
I spent the day walking around the colonial town - in places picturesque, more frequently rough, certainly economically under some duress. I walked around the redeveloped docks, purchased from a street stall a dinner of fresh scallops and chips with a nice local beer, then made my way to the hostel to settle for the evening.

The common area was sparsely populated with a few friendly travellers. Chatting to them, I mentioned I had an unused, still safety-capped gas canister, bought in preparation for my planned hiking trips, or to be used if I ever needed to camp out on a Wwoofing stay. Unfortunately, I'd have to dispose of it as I wouldn't be able to take it with me on the plane back to Melbourne. A sweet and friendly German guy helpfully pointed me in the direction of a nearby shop, where I was able to sell it. This seemingly innocuous thoughtful act made my stay here such a different experience, especially juxtaposed with the next seaside hostel i'll be staying in...! It's incredible how such small gestures can make you feel utterly taken care of, or utterly alone.

The Hobart hostel

When I got back to the hostel, the place had come alive with the addition of an extremely chatty Japanese girl and a silent Korean girl, staying in town before starting Wwoofing in the next couple of days. They were approached by an American man in his 50s, who cheerfully offered several horror stories about the dangers of Wwoofing. Clearly taking pleasure in alarming them, he warned that they must possess the necessary chutzpah to ask vital questions before committing to any long stays, such as 'do i get to eat?' and 'are you going to sell me off?', stuff like that. There have been many cases, he explained, of Wwoofers, particularly women of East Asian origin, being taken advantage of due to their timid demeanour. There have been cases of hosts, particularly on commercial farms, using Wwoofers in place of paid labour - making them work long hours, without break, appalling conditions, even preventing them from leaving. The Japanese girl was suitably horrified and grateful, assuring him she would not let that happen. But then, she was not the quiet timid type.

Although friendly, it was grimy little hostel, made worse by the albeit lovely German guy's revolting pair of shoes, stinking like a pair of over-anxious skunks in our shared dorm. I set my alarm for 4am and tried to sleep through the foot odour fug. At around 1.30 i was jolted awake by a god-awful row between two severely inebriated gentlemen, shouting somewhere in the hostel. The racket got louder and louder, doors and bodies slammed with heavy thuds. The dorm beds all rustled at the disturbance, but no one got up. It was odd - everyone just let it run its course, as if accustomed to the routine. There was a final slurry shouting, an angry door slam, then silence. Half an hour later i was awoken again to the same voices, now laughing and singing, best of friends, harmony recovered. Thankfully, the two appeared to have passed out soon after, and i got a couple of hours' sleep, before trundling to the tiny Hobart airport in time for my one hour flight to Melbourne.

I spent the night in the city, then got a coach heading along the Great Ocean Road, overlooking the shores of Southern Australia - I've had several gasping protestations from various people at my failure to visit the area - it was a must see, I was told. With little time left in Australia, I stopped off for one night in Apollo Bay, a small beach town, as I haven't yet visited a single beach, nor even used my bathing suit. And yes, it was true - how could I possibly justify having been to Australia and not once been to the beach?

The spookily endless shores of South Aus
Apollo Bay itself was nothing to write home about, but the shores were spectacular - deep emerald green waters and white sands, surrounded by forested hills. I got into town around lunchtime, checked into the hostel, then popped down to the beach with my towel and book. I looked in both directions. The coastline appeared to continue indefinitely, with not a soul to be seen. It was, in fact, slightly spooky. I sat there for a while, reading and trying to relax, contemplating going in for a dip, imagining delightful scenarios filled with sharks, stingrays and jellyfish, or a lone lunatic making off with my belongings, or worse. Relaxed I was not. All of sudden, it got very cold - although the sun was shining, a chilly cutting wind was blowing, and this was the excuse I needed - I grabbed my things and headed back to the hostel.

Here I spent a riveting afternoon and evening putting a jigsaw puzzle together with a progressively drunker Italian girl, who, with each sip of vodka, became more and more irate about her boyfriend, who was apparently at the pub, watching the cricket and late coming back. Even so, we at least managed to have a nice chat. The rest of the characters at the hostel were composed mainly of 20 something year olds visiting town with the sole purpose of looking good, topping up their tan and doing nothing other than drinking and posing some more. Not my sort of crowd. Needless to say, they didn't particularly take to me either, and i was grateful I was only to spend the one night here.
The next day i walked up a nearby steep hill, to Mariners lookout, overlooking the bay and surrounding beaches, and got to the top just as two hang gliders drove up with their equipment, setting up for a little late morning glide. It was majestic and exhilarating just to watch, definitely an add-on to my bucket list. The only complication was they had driven to the top with all the gear, had their glide down, then had to hitch a lift up to the car again - I passed the two on the way down the hill almost an hour later, no one would stop for them! Out of jealousy, no doubt... 

Mariners Lookout - when hang gliding, aim to land near your car
I still had 4 hours to pass before getting the coach back to Melbourne. I sat at the hostel unencumbered by human interaction, I may as well have been wearing a leper sign around my neck and ringing a warning bell. The common area was filled with groups of hip young posers, getting ready for a night of debauchery. My attempts at friendly chat to pass the time fell flat. My tip would be, if ever you plan to go anywhere such as Apollo Bay, go with friends, or you'll never feel as alone - this is one cliquey party town.
Back in Melbourne i was requisitioned by a sweet, yet rigid, German woman, who demanded I come to dinner with her, as she would 'never eat on her own'. I could not argue with that. We grabbed a cheap and odd curry, which tasted nothing like a curry, yet was still enjoyable. The woman explained she had just finished her studies at university, and, having already moved out of her Melbourne flat, she was reluctantly staying at the hostel a few days before she goes back to Germany. She complained vehemently about how there was no way for her to take all her belongings back with her, lamenting how much it all meant to her. Why not have it sent to Germany?, I
asked. She pooh-poohed the idea sternly - 'No. I do not intend to spend a hundred Aussie dollars on sending it.' 'A hundred dollars...? That doesn't seem much to pay for sentimental value...', I tried. 'I won't do it', she stubbornly insisted. 'Can you not afford it?', I asked. 'That's not the point, it's so much trouble and I shouldn't have to pay for it at all', she maintained. 'But,' I continued, baffled, 'if it means so much...' It was no use. She balked at my attempts to solve her predicament, and refused any further discussion.
My last day in Australia was spent walking around Melbourne, visiting the Prahan district
St Kilda's beach
and, of course, St Kilda. Prahan was achingly trendy - similar to east London's Shoreditch. St Kilda was lovely too, with an amazing beach, where i strolled for a while. A few beach dudes were doing beach acrobatics and somersaulting tricks, which I took photos of. As I walked off, they caught up with me and asked if I would send them the photos, to use on their "awesome" website of, well, beach acrobatics. This being over a decade ago, my phone camera capabilities were limited to say the least. I told them if i ever worked out a way of getting the photos off it, i'll send them on. As it turns out, however, my phone's days were numbered.
For my final dinner in Australia I stopped off at an idyllic beach bar for some beautiful moules marinière and a celebratory glass of white wine, there I sat reading my Bill Bryson book, till it was time to head back into town, and make tracks for the Greyhound night bus.
I made it to the airport just in time to board the New Zealand bound plane. My glee was premature, as here i was informed that due to a ticketing error by the booking agents, I would need to pay for a paper ticket (again, over a decade ago, airline computer systems were still clunky), and therefore would have to pay an extra $75 if I wanted to get on the plane, a not insignificant cost for a backpacker. This has not been the only slip up by the agents so far, and I was not impressed. Having reluctantly paid up, I boarded, slightly aggrieved, with a first bitter taste associated with my NZ segment of the trip. First of several. 


Friday, 4 November 2016

Whitecross St Market

Go there
"... because who knows what they put in it, it's dirty and it's dear", said an older-generation in-the-good-ol'-days Londoner colleague when I asked him why he never gets his lunch from Whitecross St market, down the road from us. I knew there's no point arguing, the man is blinkered by his own conviction and that's that... but I know otherwise.

The prep
My greatest pleasure walking into work each day is passing through the still dormant market street. The stalls are only just being set up, some not even fully erected yet. The earlier birds already prepping their wares. And this is where the magic lies for me - mounds of fresh, crunchy vegetables being chopped, later to be made into curries, stir-fries, pies, nestled into sandwiches, wraps and salad boxes; falafel batter assembled, dotted with coriander and glistening like gritty wet mud; rice fluffing gently in pots, its musky aroma wafting enticingly;
Chicken and kimchee, a creative process at work, #Bibento
Pots of rice left to silently steam
Eerie calm before the storm
meat browned and braised, pit-roasted and grilled; a row of women stretching Turkish gözleme dough on large round metal plates, preparing to fill them with cheese, sausage, spinach; a long table groaning under the weight of an odd assembly of homemade cakes, imaginatively married with chocolate bars and cereals; coffee beans ground and a display of fresh pastries laid out. And men and women pushing heavy carts loaded with steel bars, canopies and wooden boards, warming trays and containers of water to boil for the heated display units. Everyone knows each other, talks to each other, collaborates, there's laughing, singing. Some days you'll see the chorizo sandwich woman working on the Bulgogi stall, others the Italian ciabatta guy is chopping veg with the vegan curry team, mixing and helping out. A true community.
What are our lunch alternatives? Mass produced Pret, Eat, Abokado (it's spelled avocado, fools) and their ilk, or worse - supermarket ready meals? Factory prepared and distributed from miles away? Low to mid-range chain restaurants such as Haz, Thai Square, Chilango et al? With their off-site precooked low-cost high-revenue menu items, lifeless and joyless?

Gaby's Ravello
THE spot for... well... ANY pasta you fancy!
Whitecross at full throttle

Ideally, of course, lunch is sensibly brought from home - economic, healthy and exactly to your taste. But what of those days where you weren't organised, got up late, simply empty-fridged before shopping day? You could enjoy some of the best and most varied cuisines in London, all in one place. And yes, street food markets are not exactly rare these days. But this market's edge is that it's very much on a residential street, small enough not to overwhelm, obscure enough not to be flooded with tourists, substantial enough not to be irritatingly hipsterish, old enough to still have something for everyone, even those who resent the prices - my grumpy colleague can't resist Holmesbake, the pie and mash stall once in a while... made from scratch daily, with heaps of fluffy potato mash, slathered with gravy from the generous portion of meaty pie, nestled within it. It's enough to make one seek an empty office for an afternoon nap!

What better than being familiar with the trial and tribulations of Bibento, the bulgogi stall, its many incarnations and its owner's Bogna's negotiation of its journey to its eventual direction. From Swedish soups, then Korean soups, to bibimbap, to tea, and finally here we are, a fusion Korean creation which has stuck and succeeded.

Veggie sushi wrap from #Bibento

Or salivating at Big John's cake stall, where his sweet creations can tempt anyone away from an aspirationally sugar-free existence. And where else would you find the kind of trader who is encouraging about your succeeding in staying away from his wares - 'good for you!', he would tell me, 'I wish I had the willpower!'. The man is purely in it for the love of baking.

These babies speak for themselves

Yes, this is a tray of cream egg brownies!
Or how about having a chat with Joe, the extremely successful owner of Chao, and him picking your brain for development ideas, to keep his thumb firmly on the pulse of public tastes! Joe reveals he arrived in the UK as an infant, as one of the "boat-people" at the end of the Vietnam war. We smile sadly at the thought of current affairs bringing a sombre reminder from the past... Joe had a restaurant on the Shoreditch Viet-strip, then decided to keep it simple - a no-frills, but always authentically soul-satisfying, takeaway. The main branch has all the basics - Phở , Huế, banh mi and bún thịt nướng (yeah alright I'm showing off a bit) are on the menu. His enterprise has now diversified to include another shop, and three stalls, selling tom yum soup, chicken satay, and addictively decadent crispy pork! 
Crispy nomnomness
That is one mo-pho

Or talk politics and psychology with Stéphan of Whitecross Coffee, (pka Pitch 42), over a freshly ground, fastidiously prepared cup of flat white and a croissant, me ensuring I allow the testy office bods, gasping in the early morning queue for their first hit, to be served as we chat. A warm spot in my heart remains for long-standing servers - Harriet, who is finally a full time partner in the venture, embarking on its artistic redesign and branding; and still pining for Doug to come back - oh Doug, your effervescent charm could pierce any cynicism, and no grump could remain so in your presence! This is how you want your coffee - strong, flavourful and warming. Doug took care of the warming, even on the coldest days.

The ceremonial apportioning - an 11 hour affair
Or one cannot fail to mention Sawadee, probably the best Thai in London and the most worth-the-wait, slowest queue since Soviet Russia. The couple running it disappear on holiday for a whole summer month, to the distress of the surrounding office workers, and on their return raise the cost by a teeny-tiny margin, still managing to remain the best value meal on the market. Ladled out with careful, loving deliberation, the curries on offer are never less than an aromatic journey for the palate, with a decent heat upgrade option for the chilli enthusiasts. The experienced, will slyly turn up at 12:00 on the dot, as the man pulls the blind up on the van front, revealing the trays of steaming coconuty sauces, in order to at least be in the running for a relatively short wait.

There are always new stalls popping up. Some make it, some don't. When one-item menu stall, The Shack Food Co, started out, I wouldn't have placed any bets on it lasting. Coming up the rear of hipsterish pulled pork revilval, Yan and his partner set up, with their facial hair and 80s semi-ironic retro tunes playing. They did fairly well - ethically sourced meat, freshly made sauces and salads, and just on the high end of Whitecross prices, but not overly so; they quickly sussed the foodie market had tired of the product, and managed to cunningly turn it around, with a fresh spin on Japanese chicken katsu curry with smacked cucumber, pickled chilli and rice. Beautiful, moreish, and they even do a double-meat portion for an additional £1.50. Dangerous.

It would be impossible mention all the traders here. They are all fantastic and popular. Hoxton Beach is truly the best falafel I've had in London. They appear in several other markets, including the atmospheric Maltby St on weekends. Say yes to the aubergine and the pickles. The queue at Luardo, the burrito stall is ALWAYS long, as is the queue at Maison Crepes, the gluten-free galette stall. The chicken tikka wraps and the salads and the game burgers, Spanish paella, Italian ciabattas, more Thai, Brazilian stews, German wurst...

Just beware of the belt and/or wallet unbuckling.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Shutting Leo Out

Over the week or so I'd stayed at Kathy and Gary's, Leo and I grew close. We took trips together, worked together, and seemed to enjoy an intuitive bond. Naturally, we had discussed how wonderful it's been. We pondered our age difference, over 20 years, and the way we each see our individual futures, our hopes and plans and wondered if we could converge our paths and attempt to build a relationship. In fact, the seafood dinner at the harbour restaurant was the perfect opportunity for Leo to put his cards on the table, and find out whether I was game.

In spite of, or perhaps as result of, the strange pull we experienced towards each other, I hesitated to run with it. There was awkwardness, as, try as I might, I couldn't bring myself to see through the fog of fear and uncertainty. I kept thinking of how romantic taking this path with him would be, how wild and entirely the way I pictured the true life I should be leading to be - untethered, in harmony with the moment, off the grid. With a person I am in synch with, with whom I experience mutual empathy and love. But the truth, as I had to admit it to myself later on, was, that although I felt love for him, I had not fallen in love with him. Not as yet, anyway - from experience, it takes me more than just one week. And perhaps that indicated some great deficiency in my emotional makeup, a failure to engage my feelings. Perhaps I could've overridden this temporary, trivial and superficial resistance. Or perhaps in the back of my mind I was preoccupied with thoughts of home, my sister, my parents, and the uncertainty of when I'll be needed. Still, I couldn't help it, and it stood against my character to try and fake it.

Leo was understanding, as men who possess the mature capacity for empathy, and an appreciation of the complexities of life, tend to do. We left it be, for now.

The Gordon-Franklin river cruise is a beautiful, serene ride, once the extremely touristy bellowing loudspeaker announcements of 'and you can purchase one of those at….' touting souvenir tat subsides. Still, I suppose it is part and parcel of taking this sort of cruise. The boat manoeuvred out the harbour through Hells Gates - for us, an exciting feat, as we'd seen it from the Macquarie Head beach angle, and now got to experience just how narrow it was, and the cause for many a shipwreck. Once through, a massive rock lobster was waved at us from shore by a couple of successful fishermen, returning from their early morning run. We then careened towards the Gordon river as the boat glided into the silent forest.

The Gordon-Franklin river

The photo which changed the course of a river (or, rather, kept it)
It was lovely, especially since I'd taken my precautionary sickness pill, and was in a borderline-psychedelic, dreamlike state. It was, however, frustrating to see, but not be allowed to actually walk through the dense forest. This was a preservation requirement, of course, as these areas are untouched by human hand nor trampled by its foot. Having already had a chance to walk through some Tasmanian rainforest, I couldn't help but feel slightly short-changed – to see but not touch. In fact, when we did dock for a rapid ten minute trot around a decked path within the forest, we were sternly warned not to touch anything. It was a little too much nannying for our liking, the place was too beautiful not to connect with its inhabitants physically. And after all, as far I was aware - according to my hippy wannabe guru, Susan of Wilmot - trees like being hugged. This was all too contrived, too artificially constructed as a plastic bubble within a world of wonder. At one point our attention was even directed at what was purported to be the hide of a tiger snake, but the guide oddly seemed to know it was going to be there before we got to the spot. I knew snakes are territorial, and therefore easy to monitor by a wildlife expert, but Leo and I narrowed our eyes in suspicion. Could a faux-snakeskin have been left on the log as a permanent photo-op? Who could tell.

Having been herded back onto the boat, it then carried on to Sarah Island, upon which - could it be?... - who awaited to guide us through the site, but those same actors from the Ship That Never Was production! Understandable, as the play is the story of an attempted escape from the island. This was truly a conglomerate, a labyrinth of tourist traps from which there was no escape. We were permitted, though, this time, to walk through the island unaided, free to fondle the flora to our heart's content. We wafted from ruin to ruin, hut remain to hut remain, taking in the feel of the place and catching a passing hammed-up anecdote from the thespians, as they waxed lyrical about life on the Island, bringing it all back to life as if we'd been transported back in time.

Described as a "living hell", the British penal settlement was nigh impossible to escape, due to its location, making boat access very tricky. The unruly labour force was used in turning the place into a profitable pine logging and shipbuilding enterprise. A means to discipline and control the uncontrollable, conditions on the island were, as to be expected, extremely harsh, particularly as supplies were short and difficult to transport across from the mainland. Lasting only eleven years, the place was practically a fully functioning village, attempting to utilise any of the inmates' skills to keep it going. However the challenging access forced its closure in its penal capacity, later on to be used as an occasional pine logging resource only.
Sarah Island 1822-1833
Once the island has been sufficiently explored, the actors were popped back into their boxes, and us ignorant uncouth masses were hoiked back on the boat for a hearty lunch - mounds of smoked salmon, although oddly nothing from the local rainbow trout farms we had pointed out to us on the way. The boat then lulled gently back to the Strahan harbour.
On our return, Gary was having a late afternoon nap, which meant we were jobless. This was to be my final evening here, and I took it upon myself to prepare dinner. When he awoke, Gary brought out a bottle of wine 'for my last night', and we supped on my rather delicious borscht. With Kathy being veggie (and on a diet of no sugar, salt, yeast or fun), Gary often reminded me of a ravenous dog forced to live on lettuce leaves. I asked Leo about it and he said that they had a BBQ one night, and despite the meat being extremely sinewy, Gary scoffed the lot, gnawing on the bones and leaving absolutely nothing for the distraught cat. I saw that as a sign of deep commitment - an enthusiastic bone gnawer voluntarily opting for an exclusively leafy lifestyle.
After dinner, the wine, the stories, Leo and I took a long sunset walk along the harbour, ruminating how amazing life can be when you just allow it to happen. It was a beautiful evening.
The next day I got up early to make up for yesterday's laziness and got to work on the carrots in the garden. Gary took pity on me about midday and sent me off to cook lunch for us three, Kathy having gone to work. I came through again with a hearty veggie curry, although suddenly realised I might've taken this rare opportunity to throw some animal protein on the hob for the flesh-yearning guys. Thankfully, whatever disappointment they were experiencing was not evident, and Gary fell into a chatty mood again, embarking on a talking spree. This time, unfortunately, I was forced to stop him mid-flow, as I had to rush for the bus headed to Margate - a tiny town near Hobart - Tassie's capital - to meet my next host.

This all meant a hurried goodbye with Leo, who drove me to the bus stop. The stress of rushing, my conflicted heart, the anger at Leo for wanting more and not having the opportunity to search my own feelings further, caused a less than adequate parting, with me practically storming off - frustrated at my inadequacy at a final tender moment. This was the last I saw of him.