Back In the Cradle Again

21st June, Sheffield & Cradle Mountain, Tasmania, Australia

Ian writes:

Another glorious morning. I say 'another' like we've been getting them one after the other, but it's very hit-and-miss. We were in Ulverstone, and there's not much there to do, other than move on and find something else more interesting. We had pretty much done the complete circuit of the Apple Isle (that's Tasmania, folks), but there were still a few places that we had missed by choosing one route in favour of another. Sheffield was one such place. Previously, when we had made the journey from Launceston to Cradle Mountain, we reached a junction and had a choice - safe haven in Sheffield from the poor weather (which was getting worse by the minute) or go further in to Cradle Mountain. We chose the latter ... and soon after got snowed in.

Sheffield itself is not the most happening place on earth. Actually, it would be difficult to call most places in Tasmania 'happening', but most of them are pretty, and Sheffield has something other towns don't - murals. Heaps of them! If there is an available wall space without a silly door or window getting in the way, it's most probably got a mural of some kind on it. We didn't walk all round the town taking photos, but saw enough on a drive-through to realise that its claims as a mural town were not false.

A mural (one of many) in Sheffield.

Another reason to come to Sheffield is this:

Mt Roland.

Mt Roland looms in the distance behind Sheffield, but we didn't just stay there to view the mount. We took a scenic drive south (marked on a tourist map as a scenic circuit) on one of the two roads that skirted Mt Roland to the east, then looped back around on the other road, trying to find the perfect place for a photo. On the tourist map we were carrying with us was a road marked King's Road that had a little picture of a camera next to it. This looked promising, so we eventually tracked it down and discovered that it was an unsealed road. No biggie - Ethel can handle it, we thought. We followed the rough gravel track some way up and then it got a bit steeper, but still we had momentum on our side. 'Private: No through road' said a sign as we made our way up. Great - we'd just missed the 'car park' (in truth, it was little more than a layby) so I came to a stop, then went to reverse, slowly, back down the track we'd just come up.

Ditching Ethel

Gravity had other ideas though - it wanted us to come back down a lot faster, and when I put on the brake, Ethel veered off to the left and seemed to be heading into a ditch. I managed to settle the old girl, pulled on the hand break and took my foot off the brake pedal - only to discover that gravity still wanted its wicked way. OK, so the van wants to go back, I thought, better put some revs on. I put her in first gear then tried to pull away up the steep hill, only to find that the wheels were spinning. We had no traction, a heavy-ass van on a steep hill, and a wheel that was partially in a ditch, presumably the reason why we were lacking somewhat in traction. And I couldn't trust the hand brake either.

A range of colourful expletives went through my head, all too explicit to repeat here, dear reader. But trust me, they were as colourful as a rainbow and highly justified.

We had a couple of choices. Sit tight and wait until someone comes past with a 4-wheel drive and a tow rope (not as unlikely as it might seem - the people who live at the top of this road must have some serious transport!) or try to get out by ourselves. The only way out would be to roll back, possibly taking us further into the ditch, but allowing me to turn the wheel so that I could straighten up. Then, I just had to hope that I could bring her to a controlled stop, and not roll back even faster, backwards. Gravity got us into the ditch, alright, but Manda had to get out and give Ethel a good shove to encourage her back out again. Thankfully, there were no obstructions to cause us problems as we came back out of the ditch, just a light brushing of some branches along the side which didn't even scrape off the layers of grime. Ethel was back on the gravel road, rolling backwards but this time I managed to bring her to a stop without skidding.

We both breathed a big sigh of relief. To think of all the miles we've done in that van in some pretty nasty weather (snow, rain like you wouldn't believe, 40 degree heat with hot Saharan-style winds - not good for an air-cooled engine!) and here we were on a perfectly clear day, almost scuppered in a ditch. Next time I see a sign that says 'No through road' and I'm at that angle on a gravel road ... well, you can screw the advice - I'm waiting until we have somewhere to turn round safely!

Back to Cradle Mountain

Given the excellent weather, we decided to carry on past Mt Roland and head towards Cradle Mountain. Yes, that was the place we visited earlier in our Tassie adventure (where we got snowed in) but in such fine weather it seemed so close to us now - under 50km - that we thought we should try taking a look once more. No snow, better light, perhaps a cloud-free sky and a perfect reflection from Dove Lake? Well, none of that happened. We got to Cradle Mountain but just 10 minutes outside the weather changed and we found ourselves in grey drizzle. We got just 5km from Cradle Mountain itself, but turned back after a lunchtime toasted sandwich at the information centre. Predictably, 10 minutes out and we found those blue skies again. I reckon that there's a permanent cloud hanging over Cradle Mountain, constantly dumping water on the area, or snow, or whatever other foul concoction it chooses to.

Our route out from Cradle Mountain took us along a stretch of road that we hadn't been on before as we headed north. It was marked on our map as Letterbox Trail. Very apt, as it turned out - all the residents have put a lot of effort into their road-side letterboxes, many of them qualifying as works of art, sculptures or lessons in metal-work. We stopped to take a few pictures, but only once we'd passed the best of the letterboxes.

Letterboxes along the Letterbox Trail: (l-r) a steam train, gas cylinder and pig.

The Letterbox Trail took us up to Forth, and from there to Devonport - where we first arrived in Tasmania. Given that we had pretty much done the lot here, we booked on to the evening ferry to Melbourne - just over three hours left on this pretty island state, what could we do to pass the time? Penguins!

Despite being told by a few people that we would not see penguins at this time of year, we gave it a go anyway. At the Lillicoe Coastal Reserve, just west of Devonport, we spotted around 10 or so fairy penguins coming out of the water at nightfall, making their distinctive calls and scrambling for the shelter of the long grasses at the edge of the stony beach. We made sure not to point the torch directly at the little fellas, but even with the beam set to wide and pointed away from them, these were a wary bunch - much more so than those we'd seen at Bicheno. We didn't stay long, deciding to leave them in peace, but as we got to the walkway that exits the beach, I turned round and scanned the beach once more with the torch. Swept left - saw two walking inland, carried on scanning the horizon, then swept right, passing the beam back over the two I'd just seen. Both were ducking down, trying to avoid the light. They looked so comical: "You can't see us! We're not here!"

With that, it was back up to Devonport proper and on to the Spirit of Tasmania for the crossing to Melbourne. Just like New Zealand, Tassie had been a break from what is now the norm (Australia mainland), and had so much natural beauty to offer in a small space. The people here are great and, despite what the mainlanders might tell you, they don't have two heads. Could I live here? Unlikely. The unemployment is high in Tassie, and most youngsters leave for the big cities on the mainland. But for retirees it's the perfect mix of nature and true community spirit. In almost every town we visited, I felt as though everyone knew each other, and it was a nice feeling you don't get very often. I was glad we'd brought Ethel over here. But after today's fiasco, I was even more glad that we were able to bring her back out in one piece!