Saturday, October 30, 2010

Extrusion Intrusion

This chapter picks up where the last one left off, with George still talking. All those years alone on the moon seem to have made him very fond of the sound of his own voice, because he never stops talking and he doesn't really care if anybody is listening.

He believes that the answer to Cerebus' 4th question concerns the history of Suenteus Po. The one that Cerebus occasionally communicates isn't the first one. The first 2 were father and son and were apparently warlords who created an army of child soldiers that eventually conquered the lands of the Pigts. This will be connected with why they worship an aardvark, but I'm getting ahead of myself there. The curse of the rereader.

While George drones on Cerebus wanders away and the combination of being able to see the world and the fact that the gravity allows him to float impress upon him that this isn't some sort of bizarre dream (well, it could be), and that he REALLY is on the moon!

He rejoins George who has gone on to describe in great detail and length the history of Suenteus Po which seems to end with the entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem riding on a donkey. George eventually gets onto what, in his view, Tarim is. Tarim is what came before something and before something there was nothing. Tarim is the Void and the Void is Tarim.

To tell the truth I always got the impression that these chapters really had nothing to do with the continuing story in Cerebus, but were more about Dave trying to sort out issues with faith in his own head. At times Cerebus was all about Dave Sim's religious journey, which seems to have continued post the book.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


There were a few happenings out there this week. Most of them come from prominent blogger Werthead at his Wertzone.

First, Battlestar Galactica prequel Caprica was cancelled by Syfy, see what Wert has to say about that here

A couple of authors, mainly recent Hugo award winner China Mieville, have had a problem with Facebook, Wert brings this to our attention: here

As George Martin's A Dance with Dragons grows it's looking increasingly like the book will be split in 2 for the mass market paperback release, especially in the UK: have a look. Good argument to buy the trade paperback really.

There's another great guest blog over at Pat's Fantasy Hotlist, this time author Mark Hodder explains how he came to choose explorer Sir Richard Burton as one of the heroes of book: The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, read and enjoy

For the Aussies out there, Chris at SFFNews supplies a list of the best selling SFF works on the Australian charts, here

Following the success of the Cage Match earlier this year Suvudu are doing it again, this time with villains. The roster sucks (Cartman, Prince Humperdinck and Bender, WTF?), but this match is interesting: give it a read. Go vote and try not to let this one turn into another GRRM fanfest.

Finally the folk over at Gestalt Mash have been doing yet another A Game of Thrones read through, yes 'groan' I know, not another one! This one is a bit more fun mainly because one of the 2 readers; Elena Nola, has never read the book before:
enjoy Elena's considered option of Viserys Targaryen

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Local Habitation

A Local Habitation is the 2nd of Seanan McGuire's urban fantasy series featuring the changeling detective October 'Toby' Daye.

Following the events in the first book (Rosemary and Rue) Toby is in the process of putting her life back together. She's left the exciting world of checkout girl in a late night supermarket and has regained her PI licence. Following a drunken night with friends she receives a visit from her liege lord; Sylvester Torquill, the Duke of the Shadowed Hills.

Sylvester wants Toby to go to the County of Tamed Lightning, which is in Fremont, near Silicon Valley. He has fallen out of contact with the Countess of the County, his niece; January O'Leary and he is concerned that all may not be well. This is especially concerning as Tamed Lightning is a buffer between the Shadowed Hills and an aggressive rival duchy.

Cool, I thought, roadtrip. Better was yet to come, Toby would have a sidekick; the teenage Tuatha de Danaan fosterling Quentin. Readers had first met Quentin in Rosemary and Rue. I liked him as a character and looked forward to getting to know him better.

Things are not good in Tamed Lightning. Members of January's computer company are being picked off one by one and despite multiple attempts she has not been able to contact her uncle for assistance. This doesn't make sense to Toby as the very reason Sylvester sent her there in the first place was to check on January, because he hadn't been able to make contact with her.

Toby is soon fighting for her own life and that of her friends Quentin, the selkie Conor and the Cait Sith King of Cats Tybalt. Toby needs to find who the killer is before she becomes the next victim.

This was a change of pace from Rosemary and Rue. Whereas the first case readers saw Toby investigate was rather Raymond Chandleresque, A Local Habitation put me in mind of some of Agatha Christie's work, especially And Then There Were None, where the guests on an island are picked off one by one by an unknown killer.

I did like the Toby/Quentin dynamic and her big sisterish protection of the teenager, it was rather reminiscent of the relationship between Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden and his apprentice, Molly Carpenter. The ending of the book left it unclear as to whether Quentin will play a major part in further volumes or not. I'm not a particular fan of Tybalt, but I know other readers are and things will probably head down that road, I'd rather see Toby with Conor, but as he's married to a crazy lady that more than likely won't happen. Toby trashed her car again and this seems to be a running gag ala Janet Evanovich's bounty hunter Stephanie Plum.

Again Seanan explored some of the lesser known fae, such as bannicks, coblynau and Gean-Cannah. I always look for these now in the books, to see if I work out what they are before the author lets the readers know.

The 3rd Toby book; An Artificial Night is out and I know Seanan has plans for at least 3 after that. I'll be reading.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Judge

No, not the demon from Buffy Season 2, but the title of the first chapter of the 7th book of Church & State II. I said I'd try and do one Cerebus chapter a week and I'm going to try and hold to my word.

Cerebus is at long last on the moon. He jumps off the tower and crash lands on the moon. Once there he meets a large black suited balding man with a little moustache. First he tells Cerebus that with the stories about him and the fact that he's been on the moon for hundreds of thousands of years with no contact whatsoever he's rather disappointed by Cerebus' actual physical appearance. He was pulling for Weisshaupt.

He sets a few things straight right off. He's not Tarim. Exactly what he is and who he is remains unclear. He's had many names; the Man in the Moon, The Watcher (and there are some similarities between him and the Marvel comics character of that name), he's also been called George and that's what he became known to the fanbase as.

He rambles on about how he's seen the world for years upon countless years from the dinosaurs to a redwood civilization to Cerebus' here and now. He then answers Cerebus unasked questions.

1) Cerebus does not conquer the known world when he arrives back there. There's a great panel of a stricken looking Cerebus with a thought bubble containing a disintegrating map of the Aardvarkian Empire.

2) Fred, Ethel and the little fellow with the hair eventually enter Earth's gravitational field, but burn into a giant sprinkling of ash.

3) Cerebus is not in Vanaheim. He's on the moon; a nearly airless hunk of rock. George claims that Vanaheim, Heaven and Valhalla do not exist. I think at this point Dave was an atheist, he did later get faith of a sort, but when he wrote this it's pretty clear that he was an atheist.

Next will be Cerebus' 4th question and no doubt some sermonising from George, because that's what he does.

Friday, October 22, 2010


I thought I'd try doing a weekly round up of things I found of interest around the place, so welcome to this my first Thank God It's Friday post.

Pat St Denis from Pat's Fantasy Hotlist has given author Peter V. Brett (The Warded Man and The Desert Spear) an opportunity to review Lev Grossman's debut novel The Magicians. You can see how Peter stacks up as a reviewer here

If anyone has read this blog for a while you'd be aware that I'm a fan of George RR Martin's epic A Song of Ice and Fire. George keeps a fairly active livejournal, which he rather interestingly refers to as his Not a Blog. George is in Ireland at the moment, if anyone is curious about exactly what a best selling author who is late on the long awaited fifth volume of his masterwork does while on vacation, take a peek at this

It's been a while since the author of The Gentleman Bastards series Scott Lynch stuck his head up, but he updated his livejournal early in October, have a look at what he had to say here

I'd be remiss if I didn't recommend a look at the livejournal of The Princess of the Kingdom of Poison and Flame, also known as author Seanan McGuire, you can jump in anywhere and get a laugh right here

It was fairly quiet week, so that's it for now. Keep an eye out next Friday when more fun and frivolity will be on it's way.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


I’ll admit that this is going to be a weird review, mainly because Palimpsest is one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read.

If you like your novels with a coherent storyline then read no further, because Palimpsest will not be for you. At times I wondered if author Cat Valente just wrote down every strange and disconnected thought she’d ever had, rolled them all up into a big ball, threw them at the page then wrote about whatever happened to stick.

It’s rather hard to describe Palimpsest. You don’t have to know what the word means to read the book, but the dictionary definition fits and helps:

a parchment or the like from which writing has been partially or completely erased to make room for another text.

There are 4 main characters: Oleg, a transplanted New York City locksmith who has never recovered from the loss of his sister; the beekeeper November, based on the West Coast of the US; Ludovico, an Italian binder of rare books in Rome; and a young, Japanese trainspotter named Sei. Palimpsest is what binds these 4 disparate and geographically distant individuals together, that and the loss of someone significant in their lives.

Palimpsest is a world that can only be reached by having an intense physical encounter with another individual who has a part of the world tattooed on their skin. Once Palimpsest has been visited, the visitor has contracted the ‘virus’, and will forever wear some of the world on their own body and this will allow them to transmit it to other travellers in the same way they first encountered the strange and terrifying world.

The world of Palimpsest is one where the author took her imagination off the leash, let it run wherever it wanted and leave it’s mark all over the place. The breadth and depth of Valente’s imagination is jaw droppingly astounding, the words she uses to bring it to life are perfect and make it real, despite how truly odd it all sounds.

You don’t read Palimpsest so much as you experience it. It’s not a book I can recommend as being good or bad, It transcends that sort of categorisation. It is not surprising that it was nominated for a Hugo, it’s also not surprising that it didn’t win.

I’d never read any of Catherynne M. Valente’s work before and this is not a book I would have picked up without having seen the author at Aussiecon. Despite the brilliance of the prose I struggle without a genuine storyline and I found it hard to connect to any of the characters. They were interesting, but I simply could not empathise with them. This won’t stop me from reading more of Cat’s work, she’s a writer of rare talent and she has upcoming works which have piqued my interest.

I’m not at all sad that I read Palimpsest, in fact I think my reading life would have been the poorer for not discovering it.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Greatness Among Flies

When we last saw Cerebus (I really should make an effort to do at least one chapter a week) he was in the clutches of the mad artists Swamp-Thing/Man-Thing hybrid.

The problem with this is that the monster is the size of a small building and could quite easily crush our hero. The first part of this chapter has the artist preaching to Cerebus about his greatness and fitness for godhood, he's developed quite a case of craziness there. That forms the major part of each panel, there's a smaller bottom series of panels which are closeups of Cerebus' face as he's manhandled. It's almost like there are 2 books going on at once.

Once the artist thinks he's convinced Cerebus to jump off the tower the perspective switches from having Cerebus face/head at the top and the artist and his creation at the bottom. Cerebus does not in fact jump to his death, he lands on a secondary level of the tower.

When the artist and his 'thing' lift the giant sphere the top of the tower breaks off and falls back to earth, while Cerebus clings to his bit of the tower which is now the top as it continues it's ascent to the moon.

Quite a bizarre chapter as many of the space and moon ones are. Cerebus does not say a word throughout the entire thing. His story is entirely told in his expressions. This is is the end of book 6.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Tasmania Part 8: in which a wrong turn is taken and cheese is eaten

The snow did not keep up overnight, but it was still very cold, so the car was covered with snow. This tickled Kirsty, because she could take a picture of it to prove that it did in fact snow up there.

As we drove out of Cradle Mountain along the tourist route of more winding mountain roads through forests we were regularly treated to jaw dropping scenery. By this stage it was becoming almost passe. With the exception of the Inca Trail in Peru I have never seen consistently fantastic scenery like that in Tasmania and this includes New Zealand’s famed South Island.

As we came out of the hills we went through idyllic pastural land of rolling green meadows filled with cows and sheep. That’s the other thing about Tassie, the scenery can change so quickly, you never know what you’re going to be treated to around the next bend or over the next hill.

It was about then that we and the GPS had a disagreement. We wanted to take a fairly roundabout way to Devonport so we could visit the Ashgrove cheese factory, known for it’s painted cows and excellent cheese, on the way. The GPS disagreed. It eventually stopped talking to us altogether, we later found out that was because we’d turned the volume down. The ‘perform a u-turn when possible’ was really getting on my nerves, so it was just as well. However this meant we went left when we should have gone right and wound up on the Midlands Highway and not the Bass Highway which was where we really wanted to be. Around Campbell Town we figured this out and backtracked. We not only got to the cheese factory (try the pepperberry cheese if you ever get the chance. Awesome!), but also found a chocolate factory!

Then it was into Devonport, which was a lot larger than I expected, for the ferry back home.

Tasmania Part 7: in which there is snow

We bid Strahan a fond farewell and headed down the road to Zeehan, a former boom mining town. We’d been to Zeehan before and thought there wasn’t much there, but since that the museum had been recommended to us.

I’m a bit of a sucker for a museum. I love history. The museum is in a beautiful old building, although like most old towns in Australia the best building in the entire place tends to be the post office. I’m not sure why this is, but it’s almost always the way.
I highly recommend the Zeehan museum. It’s got an excellent mineral collection and it’s not just about the history of Zeehan, which as a town went bust in the early part of the 20th century, but the entire area. Unsurprisingly the emphasis is on the mining. There’s an entire room devoted to the Mt Lyell mining disaster of 1912, which still remains one of the countries worst.

After the museum we got back on the road to Cradle Mountain. For some reason the GPS seemed to think it was roughly 3 hours away, yet every other indicator pointed to about half that. I’m not sure where the GPS thought it was going, but it wasn’t the same place we were.

The scenery changed to windswept plains with few trees and snow on the ground as the road climbed and the temperature dropped.

It was 3 degrees by the time we got to the Cradle Mountain Chateau. The girl on reception asked if we had had any trouble with the snow as it had snowed earlier and bugger me if the minute we walked out the door to get the bags it started to snow!

After settling in we took a look at the gallery next door. The Chateau houses this great photographic gallery. It features nature work done mostly by Australian photographers, but not all of the shots are in Australia. One of the most impressive rooms was entirely of Antarctic pictures by an Australian who specialises in that.

By the time we emerged the snow had really set in. We had planned to do at least one short walk, but we weren’t prepared for the snow. Honestly, who expects snow in the middle of spring! As the weather wasn’t cooperating I took my book and curled up in a comfortable chair in front of the fire in the library and watched it snow. Snow is a novelty for me, aside from a ski trip in school I’ve never actually seen it snow before. When I got back to the room there was a currawong outside on our little balcony, looking pathetic and eyeing the inside hopefully. We didn’t let it in and after a while it shook the snow off itself and flew away huffily.

We had dinner that night in the Grey Gums restaurant. It serves dishes largely made from local products, it also presents them wonderfully. When I can I like to try local beer. They had something called Seven Trees, it wasn’t a bad drop, but it still can’t match my beloved Yarra Valley brewed Hargreaves Hill.

Tasmania Part 6: in which the scenery continues to be awesome and we go back in time

Not having anything planned allowed us the luxury of a sleep in. Once up and about we thought we’d go to Queenstown.

The drive itself is more of the spectacular variety that is common place in Tasmania. There’s one section that is rather eerie. It’s a button grass plain with forests of white trees. They have no leaves, but as the majority of trees here are evergreens, and it’s spring anyway, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s a relatively windy area, but most of the other trees have kept their foliage, so I couldn’t figure these ones out. Fire is another hazard that could do this to trees, but fire isn’t that selective and the trees didn’t look blackened. I can only assume that the activity at the nearby mines has somehow affected the soil that these trees grow in, the way it’s also affected the rivers.

We drove through Queenstown and were surprised that it seemed to be a good deal larger than the nearby Zeehan and appeared to be much more lively. We kept going through and took a high road to Lake Burbury. We stopped off at a couple of lookout points on the way up to the lake for photo opportunities. They were all impressive, but the best one was at a place called Mt Huxley. We never actually found Lake Burbury itself, but Crotty Dam was beautiful and I think it utilises Lake Burbury. Following the road we found ourselves on a narrow unsealed road that led into the Franklin River National Park. This is great territory, God’s own country.

On the way back to Queenstown I reflected that we hadn’t seen a lot of roadkill. You may not get much traffic on Tasmania’s roads, but you do get roadkill. It’s mostly possums, although we have seen one kangaroo, it may have been a wallaby, it was a pretty small roo. The dead wildlife attracts a wild example; a big crowlike bird called a currawong, they’re largely indistinguishable from crows, except for one thing; the eyes. Crows have glittering black eyes, currawongs have shining silver eyes.

Queenstown is best known on the mainland for one thing. The football ground. Due to mine activity Queenstown at one point had not a blade of grass in the place. It was a blasted hell in a heavenly landscape. It was described as a moonscape, and old pictures of the place really do give it an alien appearance. Despite this they still loved their footy, so they built a ground, completely comprised of gravel. It’s still there and it’s still like that. They still play football on it, which leads me to the conclusion that they breed bloody tough footballers down here. I can only imagine the pain that tackling someone to the ground on a gravel field could cause. The ground is a tourist attraction these days, I think if any grass did ever grow on it they’d kill it.

We had lunch at a cafe in Queenstown. There’s an unreal feel about the place. I didn’t pin it down until we were driving to a lookout above the town. It’s like it’s still in the 1950’s. Take away the modern cars and this is a 1950’s Australian town.

The lookout gives you a view of the entire town and some of the surrounding area. After many years the area around the mine is starting to come back and green up, that is except for the hills immediately surrounding the mine, they are still these featureless, bare mounds with that weird orange tint to them. It’s strange that something so ugly can exist amongst all of nature’s beauty.

We got back to the village in the mid afternoon. We didn’t have anything booked. We had tried to get on the Bonnet Island tour, but that had been cancelled due to it being the little penguins breeding time. Apparently they’re somewhat shy about being observed at it. I can’t think why. We were able to relax a bit and go up to the View 42 Bar for a cocktail and some late afternoon views over the harbour, we had dinner at the Fish Cafe, some of those beautiful fresh Tasmanian scallops. Yum.

Tasmania Part 5: in which there is a train and a lot of food is eaten

We had to be at the train station by 10:00 for the West Coast Wilderness Railway trip. Fortunately the station is only 5 minutes by car from Strahan Village, so it wasn’t a hard ask.

We’d booked what is called Premier Class for the tour. It was advertised as having a more personal touch, better seating and a lot more food and drink. Kind of like cattle class as opposed to first class. We were greeted on arrival by a pretty attendant called Paula, who gave us a complimentary guide book (quite a high quality product for something that they gave away) and offered us a drink.

There’s a commentary provided by one of the long term guards on the train for everyone, but Paula was able to shut that off when she wanted to or needed to and could advise us personally. She’s a local and quite experienced, so knew what she was talking about as well.

The railway was initially created to allow a quicker way for the Mt Lyell copper mine to get its product from Queenstown to Strahan and then taken to Hobart. That they were even able to hack this railway out of the most incredibly wild and challenging country in the world during the mid to late 1890’s is astounding. The fact that they did it just using man power and shovels and wheelbarrows is even more incredible. There’s quote from a journalist who was taken to observe it all and he was extremely uncomplimentary of the undergrowth, referring to the horizontal (that’s a tree that literally grows horizontally, not vertically) as abominable vegetation that didn’t even have the courage to grow up straight like a normal tree and went so far as to say that any convict who escaped and made their way to freedom out of that wilderness actually deserved it!

We look at things differently these days and find the surroundings very beautiful and picturesque. There are 2 major rivers along the way in the rail trip; the King and the Queen. There are sections of both of these rivers that are quite literally dead. For years the Mt Lyell mine dumped its tailings in the river, it may eventually come back to life and the guard said that he has noticed signs of life in the last few years, but they suffered years of abuse. In other parts of the rivers you can see another effect of the nearby mines. There’s a lot of orange coloured sediment on the side of the river, the dirt and the rocks are a tandoori orange. Whenever it floods, and as this part of Tasmania is the second wettest part of Australia, as they’re fond of saying here it only rains twice a year: ‘once for 5 months and once for six months’, then the sediment washes into the rivers and parts of them are this unnatural shade or orange, almost as if they’ve been dyed.

There was one amusing story about the men who made the railway. They worked hard and they played hard, they liked a drink. Alcohol wasn’t easy to come by in the bush, so they experimented a bit. The leaves of the locally abundant sassafras tree can be used to make tea, so why not try to make moonshine using the bark? They did just that and made a drinkable beer, the side effect was that the bark used in this way also produces an amphetamine not dissimilar to speed! Paula had actually had one of the old timers fool her into drinking some of this stuff, she said that it tasted vile, but hadn’t experienced any of the other effects of the drug that it resembles.

As well as providing information about the history and the characters of the area, Paula kept pushing food and drink onto us throughout the day, both Kirsty and I almost waddled off the train at Queenstown. It did make Premier Class worth the extra we had paid for it. It was late afternoon by the time we arrived back to our accommodation and we only had time to rest briefly before washing and dressing for dinner.

Having been unable to have a proper anniversary dinner the previous evening (we were on the Gordon River Cruise) I booked in at Strahan Village’s high class restaurant View 42. It’s actually a decent walk to View 42, up a steep set of wooden steps. It’s on the hilltop, and this gives it an amazing view over the harbour, particularly impressive, not to mention romantic, at sunset.

The buffet was good and comprised of some of the best seafood and meat that the region has to offer, it was quite delicious, but I have had better. It was really the view, the experience and the ambience that was being paid for and they were all in evidence. We had a wildlife encounter when returning from dinner. As we were making our way down the steps we saw something scampering up them. Initially I thought it was a cat until I got a good look at its bushy tail and ratlike face. It was actually a fairly large brushtail possum. We get plenty of them at home, but rarely this big and never this close. Normally they do their level best to avoid people, but this one was content to share the path with us for a moment or two until it realised there wasn’t any food nearby and dived back into the brush, where it presumably shinned up a tree to spend the night at the first opportunity.

Tasmania Part 4: in which there is a river, a forest, an island and rain

The day dawned clear and we decided that the best option would be to try and get on the afternoon Gordon River Cruise. During October they generally only run a morning cruise, but the girl on reception the previous night had informed us that due to demand they were running an afternoon one as well on Monday.

Because we had the morning free we did some exploring. We drove out to Ocean Beach, a windswept stretch of sand from which whales are often seen. Tasmania doesn’t have the weather for it, but it was a great surf beach. If you set sail from there then the next land you see will be Chile. Shearwaters also nest there during their annual migration.

We then went out towards the mining town of Zeehan. It’s a mining area and the two major towns are Zeehan and Queenstown. I get the impression that Zeehan is dying these days. They’ve pretty much mined the area out. There’s still plenty in Mt Lyell at Queenstown, but not enough to support 2 towns. Driving through Zeehan you can tell that many years ago it was a thriving town, but those days are long gone. In fact the whole area: Strahan, Zeehan and Queenstown were all very prosperous 100 or so years ago. They accounted for most of Tasmania’s exports in fish, minerals and timber.

On the way to Zeehan we stopped off at a lookout just off the road. It had a view right across the button grass plains to the beach we had driven to earlier. We also drove some of the way that the West Coast Wilderness Railway (another tour we had booked for the next day) would take us.

Back at Strahan we were able to get a better look at the town. The village isn’t the major part of town, not anymore. It obviously once was a century ago when Strahan was a big port that exported copper, timber and fish out to Hobart and then to the mainland, but today it’s been restored for the tourist trade. In fact we were staying in one of a collection of restored cottages for tourists. Beautiful spot and with great views of the water. You almost felt at times as if you’d stepped back to turn of the 20th century.

The Lady Jane Franklin II is a big cruise boat that takes people out of Macquarie Harbour, through Hells Gates, into the Gordon River and the rainforest, then brings them back via the convict prison of Sarah Island.

Unfortunately the expected showers had materialised by the time we boarded the Lady Jane Franklin II so vision was somewhat restricted as the boat cruised through Macquarie Harbour, which is significantly larger than Sydney Harbour, but only has 1,000 permanent residents around it. There’s an interesting and informative commentary provided by the captain as the tour continues. The first attraction are the fish farms. They farm atlantic salmon and rainbow trout in Macquarie Harbour, they also catch a lot of crayfish and abalone. The salmon and trout are farmed extensively and grow to good sizes in the harbours waters. The farms are protected from the cormorants, who will feed on the young fish if they can, by nets, however they don’t necessarily work with seals. Recently a seal got into one of the farms and managed to release 80,000 atlantic salmon before they could close the farm again. There was some good fishing had for a bit there.

The crossing through Hells Gates is a another highlight. Although the crossing is narrow and treacherous and a number of ships have come to grief getting in and out it is not mariners who named the gap. This name comes from the convicts who considered the opening to Macquarie Harbour the gates of Hell as it was the entrance to the notorious prison camp Sarah’s Island, known to the inmates as Devil’s Island.

A change of pace is the Gordon River, it’s a world heritage area and it is beautiful. It’s a deep still river and the brown colour of the river comes from the button grass plains, despite the colour the water is perfectly safe to drink. Despite the river having dense, healthy forest all around it there is remarkably little bird life. The reason for this is that the fish are too deep to be easily caught by fishing birds and the rain forest trees don’t support enough insect life or produce enough seeds or fruit for the birds. The forest is however inhabited by possums, tasmanian devils, quolls (native cats) and platypus in the river.

The Gordon River rainforest actually satisfied 7 of the World Heritage Organisation’s 10 reasons for being protected, it is one of only 2 areas in the world to achieve that high a rating.

We got the opportunity to have a brief walk through the forest. We went along a circular boarded walkway. Even though it was a wet day there had been enough sun during the day that it shouldn’t have still been damp in there, but it’s never dry in a rain forest, they’re dark, damp places. The forest is so incredibly thick that I’m in no doubt that it could easily support a number of extinct or nearly extinct animal species with no one being any the wiser as to their existence. Some of the convicts tried to escape through it, hardly any of them were ever seen again and I’m not at all surprised. If someone went off the marked track they would be hopelessly lost in a matter of minutes.

The final stop was Sarah Island. The camp was initially started as a place to make the convicts pay for their sins using serious hard labour and severe physical punishment for any infractions of the rules. The original idea was to have the convicts gather the Huon pine wood for transportation to Hobart to build boats, but they discovered that it was easier to have the convicts actually build the boats, so Sarah Island became a boat building hub for it’s 12 years of operation.

Our guide: Jenelle, gleefully told stories of the brutality of commandants like Lieutenant Cuthbertson who met a swift and unlamented end. We heard of convicts who escaped successfully (not many), some who managed a lovely little racket on the island during their time there and about corrupt guards and doctors who were all part of the island’s colourful past. The island was eventually wound up as being unprofitable and the inmates were sent to the better known Port Arthur closer to Hobart, although just as hard to escape from and at times every bit as brutal. There were a handful of convicts left there to complete a partially built ship, along with some guards. They finished the ship and mutinied, leaving their guards on the coast with some food, they sailed until they reached Chile. A number of them became successful and built lives for themselves in Chile. Some were later turned over to British authorities by the Spanish governor of Chile. They escaped the noose and the charge of piracy by arguing that as the ship was incomplete and had not been named then they were guilty of nothing more than taking a pile of Huon logs.

We arrived back late and exhausted, but also well fed and thoroughly entertained with a new appreciation of the area and little known episodes of Australian history.

Tasmania Part 3: in which there is a lot of driving and the GPS gets lost

We were leaving Hobart and heading to Strahan on the West coast. Part of the reason behind this trip was to do the west coast of the state, as the previous time we really only visited the east coast. Hobart to Strahan is a fair drive. Oddly enough it doesn’t look as far as Devonport to Hobart, but it takes twice the time. This is because most of Tasmania is protected wilderness areas and roads have to skirt them.

We’d heard about a thing in Huon valley timber country that was called the Tahune Airwalk. Looking at the map we figured that it was on the way to Strahan, so we could do it and then head off to Strahan.

The drive to the airwalk was extremely pleasant. It meanders past rolling cow and sheep filled pastures and along the pristine Huon river. Tasmanians are very proud of Huon pine. It’s a remarkable tree that is only found in Tasmania. It’s the 2nd oldest tree in the world and they have examples in the state that have been verified at over 2,000 years old. It’s a very slow growing tree, growing at 3 - 5 millimetres per year. It was logged extensively years ago, but is now protected and only properly registered and qualified businesses and tradespeople are allowed to harvest the wood, and it’s wood that has fallen and is no longer growing. It was initially prized as a boat building wood. The Huon pine has an oil that makes it both water resistant and inedible to borers and termites. When the boat building industry started to use materials other than wood for their craft the bottom pretty much fell out of the Huon pine industry and that’s also when they began to protect it. Because there’s not so much of it around these days it’s very valuable. You can easily and cheaply buy small items made from it, but bigger things like tables, could run you as much as $10,000.

The Tahune Airwalk is in the middle of a working forest. You drive up the winding Arve road dotted with walks and picnic spots and find yourself at the Tahune Airwalk. It was recommended to me by a work mate who had visited it as a fun thing to do. There are a few walks that can be done and a sort of flying fox thing with a hang glider. It was supposed to be totally safe, but I have a bit of a problem with heights and we were pushed for time, so I decided against that. We took the most popular walk, which takes you into a dense forest, they have various types of trees labelled, with a little bit about them. You gradually ascend until you wind up on this metal framework, which takes you into the treetops. This is the airwalk. It’s quite a vantage point and allows you to see just what monsters many of the trees around you are, it also gives a good view of the river, where you can see the kingfishers flitting about, wheeling and diving as they fish for food on the surface of the water. Even for someone with height issues I found this quite enjoyable and extremely safe. It may have been different on a wet day, but we had really nice weather.

Remember I said we thought that the airwalk was on the way from Hobart to Strahan? Apparently not, at least according to our Navman GPS unit. It took us all the way back we’d driven and back through Hobart before directing us towards Strahan. This is a hell of a drive. I don’t mean it’s not enjoyable by that. It’s long and varied and actually quite fun. Tassie has a really good system of highways and you hardly encounter any traffic. Doing a similar drive on the mainland, especially Victoria or New South Wales, would probably take twice as long due to traffic.
We went through more of those verdant fields with cows and sheep. I seem to go on a bit about how green it is. Most of the country has been in a drought for the past couple of years, obviously not in Tasmania. We found ourselves in more timber country, driving through pine plantations, often one side was deforested and the other had replanted areas which were growing for harvest at a future date. We regularly saw snow on the side of the road, evidence that although it is officially spring, winter is still hanging around down on the Apple Isle. At one point the GPS directed us off the main road and down 20 kilometres of unsealed road, that was fun, glad we have a 4WD. We drove through some of the world heritage listed Franklin River wilderness area. Eventually we wound our way into the mountains and the rainforest. That was where the GPS lost its signal, it was rather amusing to look at it telling me that I was driving off the road. Fortunately I wasn’t, because that lead to a fairly steep, heavily forested ravine. The only part of the drive I didn’t enjoy came towards the end, and that was through the Queenstown area. I’ll talk more about Queenstown later on, but the whole place has been devastated by mining and it’s just desolate looking hell hole, the road went up steeply and wound around tight turns, taking you along the edge of some dizzying drops into the mine ravaged landscape.

It was dusk by the time we rolled into the picturesque and loving restored fishing, mining and pining village of Strahan. We got some takeaway fish and chips for dinner, because it was one of only 2 places still open in the village. More of Strahan and it’s rugged northwest surrounds tomorrow.

Tasmania Part 2: in which there is a market, Buddhist monks and a cellist

Salamanca Market is a big deal as far as Hobart is concerned. The market is something that is well known even on the mainland and is one of the things that all visitors to Hobart are recommended to do if they possibly can.

In many ways it’s not a lot different to Victoria Market in Melbourne. Vic Market is semi permanent and while it’s gathered various stalls and hawkers over the years it essentially began as a fish, meat, poultry, fruit and vegetable market and grew. Salamanca is different in that respect. There is some fruit and vegetables available, but that’s not what Salamanca is all about.

The market itself is set up in a large public area of Salamanca Place. Salamanca Place was a quarry years ago, but now it’s a shopping precinct in Hobart and the home of the now famous market. I’m not sure how long the market has been going, but it was a big deal the first time Kirsty and I visited Hobart in 2007 and even before that when Kirsty went there with some friends.

Some of the stalls are ones you’ll find at any of these markets around the world, offering the same sort of mass produced, cheap tatt, but a lot of them specialise in hand made goods using local materials and only available in Tasmania. In some cases you can only get some of the items on offer at Salamanca Market. Things like Huon wood products, glasswork and jewellery using minerals prevalent in Tasmania, cheap leatherwood honey (only made in Tasmania from the pollen of the indigenous leatherwood plant), the list goes on.

The market has a rather carnival feel to it. There are buskers and performers, many of the stall holders themselves are rather theatrical, there’s a lot of food on sale, shopping can be hungry and thirsty work, plenty of colour and loads of people, it just has a fun feel about it all. Where else could you see a group of Buddhist monks watching and filming two buskers; a cellist and a keyboard player?

After having been parted from far too much of our money at Salamanca we went back to Wrestpoint and had a few drinks while watching the AFL Grand Final replay on the big screens in the casino. Collingwood won. (drat!)

Dinner that night was at The Point. The Point is the restaurant located on the 17th floor of the Wrestpoint Casino tower. One thing that makes it special is that it revolves. I only know of two revolving restaurants in Australia. One is The Point and the other is on top of the Centrepoint Tower in Sydney. The movement of The Point allows wonderful views of Hobart from all angles: mountains, water and the bridge. It also serves excellent food and drink.

The waitress asked if we were celebrating anything special and we said it was our anniversary (okay it wasn’t the actual date, but it was close enough and easier to explain than tell her it was 2 days early). While Kirsty was having dessert the waitress appeared with a dish containing a small amount of dry ice and something that was wreathed in steam. She set it down in front of us and it was 2 chocolate covered ice cream balls on sticks and a chocolate plaque with the words Happy Anniversary done in white chocolate. It was such a lovely gesture, unexpected and unasked for, but definitely appreciated. Yet another example of the service that Tasmanians seem to pride themselves on.

I can’t let an experience at Wrestpoint pass without mentioning something else. Valet parking is free, at an Australian hotel, especially a high end city based one that is unheard of. They all offer valet parking, but they charge an arm and a leg for it.

Tasmania Part 1: In which there is a boat and scenes from Tasmania's colonial past

There are only 2 ways to get to Tasmania from mainland Australia. 1 is to fly and the other is to go by boat. Due to the fact that it’s still relatively cheap and it takes little over an hour to get from Melbourne to Hobart by plane the majority of visitors elect to fly. Last time my wife and I went to Tasmania (incidentally the first time either of us had visited the island state) we flew and hired a car. That’s the other thing; there’s a lot to see in Tasmania, it’s not very big, but the only way to get around really is to drive. This time my wife worked it out, if we flew and hired a car it was going to wind up costing us twice as much as if we took the overnight ferry and used our own car. Given that we have a 4WD with plenty of room in the back as opposed to some little buzz box like a Hyundai Getz that we’d hire (I use the Getz as an example, because we hired one of those when we went to Sydney and the Blue Mountains and it was a huge mistake, it handled Sydney and it’s surrounds just, but the Blue Mountains, forget about it. The only car I’ve ever seen that is actually scared of anything resembling a hill). There was going to be a lot of driving, so we took the boat. Yes, it takes a whole night to get there, but that’s all part of the adventure.

I’ve always felt that Tasmania gets a raw deal with regards to tourism. Not just from overseas visitors, but within Australia itself. As far anyone not from Australia seems to know there’s only one city here, that’s Sydney and only one state worth visiting and that’s Queensland, sometimes the Northern Territory may get a look in, because it’s a got a dirty great rock sitting in the middle of it. Tassie is just this odd bit of an island down the bottom that looks like it was put there as an afterthought. The thing is that Tasmania is Australia’s jewel. I’m positively convinced that millions of years ago New Zealand had 3 islands, one of them was Tasmania, it floated over here and became part of Australia. As far as I’m concerned Tassie has it all over the Land of the Long White Cloud, it’s got the mountains and the waterways, similar climate, same ease of getting around, it doesn’t have the earthquakes or unstable volcanoes that New Zealand has, either. This place was absolutely made to be the setting for a good old fashioned fantasy epic.

The boat docks at about 6:30 AM in Devonport. That’s up the top and we had our first 2 nights accommodation booked in at Wrestpoint Casino in Hobart. Hobart is Tasmania’s capital and it’s down the bottom of the state. Not really a problem, it doesn’t take that long to drive down. We left the boat somewhere between 6:30 and 7:00 and despite some mix up with disembarkation where we got stuck faffing about in a queue for 30 odd minutes in Devonport, we still ended up in Hobart at around 11:00, we also stopped for morning tea along the way.

Outside of Australia Tasmania is mostly known as the home of the Tasmanian Devil, I’m not talking about the marsupial, I’m talking about the cartoon creature known as Tazz. It’s a remarkably inaccurate portrayal. Devils are actually fairly small, they’re about the size of a very small dog, they do look rather doglike, although they are marsupials, they’re black and white and while they growl and make all sorts unpleasant noises, it’s mostly for show, they’ve got extraordinarily powerful jaws and they will take a finger off if you’re stupid enough to put your hands to close to them. They’re excellent carrion eaters, though, because they can bite through pretty much anything and they eat everything, including fur. Regarding the cartoon character I could never understand why in the series Tazzmania, made in the 80’s, why he was able to create a small hurricane and spoke in a series of inarticulate grunts and squeals, the rest of his family dressed in human clothes and spoke normally, of course I could also never work out why his father was Bing Crosby. The Devils are in pretty dire straits these days. It’s estimated that about 90% of the wild population has been wiped about by a facial tumour disease, they only occur in Tasmania and I hope they can find a cure, because they’re unique little creatures and it would be a great shame to lose them from the wild. Tasmania is also known for another native marsupial; the Tasmanian Tiger or to give it the more scientific name; the Thylacine. It wasn’t actually a tiger, it wasn’t even a cat, it was in fact a marsupial dog, it got the name from the yellow colouration of it’s fur and black vertical stripes, which were rather tigerish. I refer to the creature in the past tense, because as far as anyone knows the last historically verified one died in captivity in the Hobart zoo in 1936. There is a school of thought that it may have survived in the wild and there have been various reported sightings ever since, even on the mainland, where the creature never seemed to occur naturally, not one of these sightings has ever been proven. It is possible that some of them may have survived in the wild and have hidden in some remote parts of Tasmania. There are some sections of forest, especially in the Franklin River, that are so dense that they are completely impenetrable.

We stopped for morning tea in a place called Ross. Ross is kind of an odd little town, it’s very old, even by Tasmanian standards, which is one of the first European settled states in Australia. It’s in the middle of nowhere and it’s largely a collection of antique shops with a couple of non related businesses, one of these is a great little bakery. I only knew about it and decided to stop there en route to Hobart because we’d stayed there on the previous trip, because it was the closest place we could get a booking to Launceston. That’ll happen on the weekends there’s an AFL match in Launceston. They love their football these people, yet the league won’t give them a team. They’ll stick another one in Queensland where the Lions struggle to survive even with their 3 Premierships won between 2001 - 2003, go figure. It’s a bloody good bakery, the one in Ross.

What will strike you first about Tasmania is the scenery, it is spectacular. Verdant rolling hills, historical monuments dotted all over the place. It’s lambing season, so there were fluffy sheep (shearing season is about to start) with their offspring in nearly every paddock you could see. I’ve never seen that many sheep anywhere and that includes New Zealand. We had mountains and hills rising all around us on every side. In the fields and paddocks that ran alongside the Midland Highway they had positioned metal sillhouettes that recall the state’s natural and European history. There was everything from a couple of emus to a bushranger holding up a horseman.

We had elected to stay at Wrestpoint Casino. Wrestpoint isn’t in Hobart as such, it’s in Sandy Bay, which is a suburb close to the city centre, it’s a high class suburb, full of large stately houses and has the University of Tasmania located in it. On the point, next to the marina on the Derwent River, they built a 17 story tower, which houses Wrestpoint Casino. Wrestpoint is Australia’s first legal casino, it was pretty big news when it first opened back in 1973, it was on the telly and everything. We’d actually stayed there before and been impressed, so we decided to repeat the experience. We had a waterfront room with views of the river. What really gets me is the price. It’s incredibly cheap, Tasmania is like that, high class accommodation is remarkably reasonable compared to the rest of the company and the service is excellent. A comparable room at Crown Casino in Melbourne would cost me twice the price and get me half the service. From our room we could see the river and observe the comings and goings of the small flock of ducks that make the grounds of the casino home. We were there for 2 nights largely because we wanted to go to Hobart’s famous Salamanca Market on Saturday morning.