Friday, 17 June 2016

The Gates of Hell, Complete with Devils

More Art by Susan
We arrived at the charming town of Wilmot, just south of Devonport, not far from Cradle Mountain - a World Heritage Area - entering a pleasant little cottage with a bountiful garden, clearly lovingly cared for. Susan explained that as far as she was concerned, Wwoofing is not only about work, but also about learning, a philosophy I could not disagree with. As I discovered - at first to my delight - she  meant it , and as the next few days progressed, she instructed me on correct weeding, wrapping trees in wire and mulching, and I got down to some hard graft.

Alas, the balance was quickly disproportionately tipped as I was listening significantly more than working. Susan talked NON-STOP, albeit enthusiastically and knowledgably - on Tassie's disappearing indigenous forests and wildlife, the problems of logging and mining, and rather a lot of general tree chat. But more than that, acres of talk of her past ailments, of being hounded by the local farmers angered by her anti-pesticide and anti-forestry propaganda, who would throw dead wallabies over her gate, and of dejected berserk lovers setting fire to her front porch.

Still, Susan was a genuine hippy with the best of intentions. She was a true believer in community, a non-dual universe and accountability for each other, forever exploring ways of improving the environment and helping others. We had some bonding moments of warmth and kindness - after I'd suffered bad sunburn at the end of the first day's work, with the UV index being clearly harsher than in Victoria, she provided a soothing rub with her aloe vera plant, which certainly saved me from several agonising days.

This was also where I'd  encountered the first hint of Tassie's strong link to spiritual practices, in particular influenced by indigenous ritualistic paganism and shamanism. On the bookshelf in my room I found a Book of Shadows of disreputable and mysterious origin, and I was so fascinated and delighted with it, Susan offered to give it to me. However, already aware that her gifts invariably carry a hefty price tag in various unexpected forms, I declined, a decision I regret to this day. It was quite a special book.

Most serendipitously, Susan showed me a letter of introduction she had received from a fellow Wwoofer, which made rather an impact. Sent to all hosts in the Wwoofing community, this initiative was unprecedented and very old-worldly. It carried a certain gallantry and consideration I was impressed with. The person's name itself struck an intuitively familiar chord, such that I knew we would have a significant connection, despite the chances of us bumping into each other, or being at the same location at the same time, being entirely negligible. Leo was out there, and his presence vibrated through the molecules of air, and gently mingled with mine.

There was no doubt Susan's immense expanse of knowledge was illuminating, as it turned out she was also one of the first permaculture instructors, working with Bill Mollison, the "Father of Permaculture", and teaching it for 14 years. However, the incessant chatter was growing more and more controlling, with any attempted input from me completely shut out and unwelcome. She began following me around, criticising things like my method of preparing an egg, or arguing - with no one in particular - about the basics of a band setting up their instruments for recording, me having mentioned I played in a band. Any work I attempted in the garden was scrutinised to an inch of its life. Basically I could do no right.

She also grew erratic in her expectations. She cried a lot. She told me to have time off then huffed at me about how she'd been working non-stop and what have i been doing. It was getting difficult, in particular as I depended on her for making contact with my family, trying to keep track of how things were progressing with my sister, as she now had a treatment plan and was shortly due to begin chemotherapy.

The idea behind Wwoofing, as previously explained, entails working for your host 4-6 hours per day, and, depending on whatever was agreed, you get a bed or shelter and 3 meals a day in return. Supposedly you work about half a day, which leaves the other half for exploration and, well, for making the most of your stay in the area, as essentially this is an ethical and pan-beneficial way of travelling. If you're at all unhappy, or the host is being unreasonable, you're only required to stay a minimum of 2 nights. 

Thankfully, despite all of her manoeuvres and attempts to control my whereabouts, I did manage to go on one fantastic hike to the local falls, off the Forth River and through a beautiful rainforest. Setting off trepitatiously on a trail not far from Susan's house, plenty of wallaby, rabbit and wombat rears were spotted disappearing into the thicket upon hearing my clumsy footsteps. However, it was mainly the eerie silence with the occasional bird squawk and man-sized ferns growing amongst the gum and pine trees, which made it a memorable experience. It was really just me and the animals, and i kept having to reassure myself that i was still on the right track. My marks were bright pink ribbons tied to a branch every so often. There were several occasions where I experienced anxious rapid heartbeat, and i kept expecting to stumble upon those fabled snakes, having been warned about them so many times, but no - none were to be seen. I suppose my stumble through the forest was making enough noise to scare them off. Or perhaps THEY NEVER EXISTED.

The walk took me past Lake Barrington and eventually, at a crossroads, I mistakenly took the upper route viewing the Forth Falls from the less frequented vantage point above them, rather than the conventional water's edge. Not the intended destination, but a beauty spot nonetheless, I chose not to regard this as an accidental pioneering attempt of unchartered territory, but mark the expedition a success.

Forth Falls
On my third day at Susan's she informed me she was going to nearby Sheffield - the town of murals, apparently - to pick up her alcoholic lover, Colin. I was welcome to tag along for the ride, but she was only going to be there a mere half hour. Happy to get out of the house for however short a time, and with the prospect of an extra person around the house to take the pressure off me, alcoholic or not, i agreed. I had a quick wander around town - yet another mysterious oddity of a place with the main street decorated in wall sized outdoor murals, western-style, on the walls of the shops, featuring scenes from a bar, a stable and other 19th century imagery.

The olden days, Sheffield, Tassie
It also had, for some unknown reason, a completely out of place specialist Scottish café, complete with an in-house bagpipes player, demoralising and irritating the customers, and a world weary waitress, both dolled up in tartan. Hmmm. 
We collected Colin and his aggressive dog, Rock, and hurried back. But my oh my if for a moment I thought things were going to improve. The atmosphere was intense, every word the man uttered was hissed at and belittled. It wasn't pretty. I really felt for the poor chap. I went to bed early, leaving them to their charming dynamic, not before I'd been coerced into watching a sort of Aussie music revival festival on TV, featuring stars of the 60s 70s and 80s making a spectacle of themselves in overly tight sparkly leotards and smeared tired makeup. Needless to say none of the songs were familiar. That is until Leo Sayer appeared on the screen. That man is a truly hard working guy. 

The next morning I woke up feeling suffocated. Susan was already pottering around passive-aggressively, commenting out of the corner of her mouth that 'maybe you should have the day off' but didn't seem convinced about it, and I sensed a definite angry rant in the works if I had. I knew I had to get out, for good. The plan had been to spend a week or two at Susan's, visit the Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair National Park for a couple of days, then head off to the next Wwoofing spot, which had already been tentatively arranged, pending confirmation of exact dates. But this plan, as it stood, was clearly not going to work out. I made some excuse about going to the nearest shop - 1.5 miles away, where I sought advice about the quickest way out of town. They seemed very sympathetic over my predicament, and said I could easily hitch a ride out of there if I just hang around outside the shop for the next hour or two, as there'll be plenty of people stopping for petrol on their way to Cradle Mountain. Very kindly they offered to ask about a lift on my behalf.

I went back to the house and warily informed Susan i was leaving. In response I got a vicious snarl and was manipulated to hang on till after lunch, despite me mentioning the time factor - Wilmot is not a place you can easily get out of after dark. The bus service runs twice a week. I rushed the meal and our awkward goodbyes, and headed back down to the shop, to make it just in time for a sweet Goth girl in a tiny red Fiat, who happened to be a staff member of the Cradle Mountain Lodge, walking in for a can of Red Bull on her way to work! Well, that extraordinary bit of luck couldn't be ignored, and I knew I was making the right decision after all - I did feel a bit bad things didn't work out at Susan's, and I was wondering if I should've grit my teeth and bore it just a few more days. But no, all signs pointed out and away! 

A sign of good things to come

Baby Echidna
The Tassie Goth Melanie drove me all the way to the Cosy Cabins campgrounds at the Cradle Mountain resort, a stunning national park in the north west, where I got out of the car and immediately encountered an alive and well echidna munching some button grass around the campsite welcome plaque - another sign!

I registered at reception with the most cheerful and remarkable George Dubbuya Bush doppelgänger, and spent the rest of the afternoon at a presentation about the all the park had to offer, followed by a feeding demonstration at the Tasmanian Devil centre.

‘Devils @ Cradle’ managing director, Wade Anthony, and devil keeper Nicole Dyble with Ossa and BJ
Here I went mad taking photos of these odd animals running around with bits of rabbit in their mouths, chasing each other and screeching, a most amusing display. I even got to pet one, although the handler seemed unnaturally attached to the creatures, in particular to the female - we could touch her " but only on the back from the waist down please!". To be fair though, he was very passionate and dedicated, and as such, great to listen to speaking about them. These animal have become endangered due to the spread of an extremely nasty disease known as DFTD (Devil Facial Tumour Disease), at first thought to have been a type of genetic cancer, several affected animals having been first spotted in 1996, but has since been discovered to be a transmitted viral disease, impacting only this species. The causes are still speculated on but may have something to do with carcinogenic flame retardant materials, perhaps linked with various detrimental industries around the forests. Susan's calls for environmental injustice rang in my ears! There has been a campaign ever since to preserve the species, with a strategy of developing an insurance population in captivity. Cradle Mountain National Park was one of the spots where this was in place.

A Demanding Devil

I ended the day with a lovely light evening's walk, where I saw a wombat for the first time - probably the sweetest creature ever and a close relative of Winnie the Pooh! Or perhaps an inspiration for the much maligned Ewoks.  Saw some wallabies too.

Winnie the Wombat

Wallaby Scuffle
I enjoyed to an unnatural measure a bowl of pot noodles and bottle of beer, more so than all the healthy hearty meals I've had at Susan's put together, and knew once again I was finally on the right track. After some light chat with the other travellers at the communal kitchen I went to bed feeling positive for the first time in days. 

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