Launceston, Australia (Jan 23rd 2007)
Well… where can we start with Tassie? It is so unlike any other part of Oz that we've visited, it's no wonder the Aussie's don't consider it to be part of their country. First off there are the locals, queer looking and sounding bunch, most with some kind of mullet hairdo, both the men and women. They also seem not to have grasped in any way shape or form the concept of manors and how to converse with other humans and will often just shout words at each other as means of communicating. Now this may seem a little mean on our behalf but our lonely planet backs us up quoting 'It's still a vaguely pugilistic town - there seems to be as many bikers and shirtless, shouting drunks as there are police.
After experiencing many of the big cities on Australia's mainland, arriving in Launceston felt like we had stepped back in time. The airport seemed to consist of one large room functioning as check in, departure lounge and arrivals lounge but our biggest shock came when we went to collect our luggage. As we looked around for a luggage carousel we spotted a door leading outside labelled 'Baggage' where a few people seemed to be gathering. It was only, a few minutes later, when the baggage trolleys from the plane arrived behind the doors that we realised there was no carousel and we had to fight our way to the trolleys and retrieve the luggage ourselves! The first hurdle over, we trudged outside to find the advertised 'Airporter', the airport shuttle bus, which promised to take us directly to the door of the hostel for $12. Fifteen minutes later there was no sign of the bus and no one in the airport seemed to have any idea when it was due to arrive. As there was a few of us waiting, one man suggested we share a maxi taxi (mini-bus) that had just pulled up and after negotiating a $10 fee each we all piled in.
When the taxi dropped us outside a fairly inconspicuous house overlooking a park on a quiet suburban road we were sure there must have been a mistake but on close inspection it was indeed our hostel, Launceston Backpackers. The office wasn't open when we arrived so we had a quick wonder around and found there was a nice large TV room, a clean kitchen and an open dining room. As we checked in, because we didn't have sleeping bags we were told we would have to hire sheets and a blanket at an additional charge to the room rate. We found it quite strange as most of the other hostels we have stayed in don't allow the use of sleeping bags so to prevent the spreading of little nasties...obviously not something they were too concerned about here! Anyway the room came as a bit of a surprise to us, not to dissimilar to what we imagine a prison cell might be like, but at least it was a twin room and we had our own space. It almost made up for the view we had out of the only small window in the room, which looked across a metre gap (the insulation gap) onto another window, which was bricked up behind! Staying in such a quiet place we figured that we might at last get some time to catch up on stuff like sleep & washing too (so boring I know) and to generally laze around and maybe even save ourselves a bit of cash.
We soon left the 'comfort' of our room and went to explore the town a little bit with the help of a free map from the hostel. Ten minutes later we were in the centre but to us it seemed like a ghost town, only one or two people crossed our paths while we were out and we wouldn't have been surprised to see tumbleweed rolling by it was that quiet. The one thing that we did see quiet a lot of thought were the lorries carrying logs, which would speed through the town not stopping for anything. It was only later that day that we realised why it seemed the whole town was shut down...it was Australia Day weekend and everyone was somewhere else celebrating so it seemed! We managed to find our way to the River Tamar which was a breath of fresh air after wondering the streets. A long boardwalk sat parallel to the river which was overlooked by houses of all shapes and sizes built into the hillside, reminiscent of a beautiful European seaside town. The boardwalk took us to a marina type area that seemed in the midst of development with new luxury river front apartments and designer bars and beauty salons creeping up everywhere. It seemed like Launceston really was trying to shift the stereotype it had gotten stuck with and become more in line with the cosmopolitan Hobart. We carried on wondering around the city and came across the City Park which we found to have an enclosure housing Japanese Mackay's, not your average finding in a city park!We let the monkeys entertain us for a while, watching them go about their daily routine eating and playing before having a walk around the park itself. It was quite a beautiful park with dozens of huge oak trees, a bandstand and an elegant fountain. At the centre of the park is a glass conservatory built in 1892 housing all kinds of flowers and plants.One of the things Launceston is most famous for, and the reason a lot of people visit the area is The Cataract Gorge, where near vertical basalt cliffs crown the banks of the South Esk River as it enters the Tamar River. It was only a ten minute walk from our hostel so we decided to pack up a bit of a picnic and go and explore. It really was stunning and looks just like it does in the photos, if not better. We walked along a path from King's Bridge that hugged the side of the cliff, and every so often jutted out to give you the most spectacular views of the Gorge as we approached the First Basin. Just on the walk up to the basin there was a real feeling of life around the cliffs as people abseiled down them and climbed up them seemingly defying gravity and groups of children swam in the river and jumped off rocks, plunging into the water below. Cataract Gorge it's stunning and yes it really looks like the photos, but better... We stopped to have dinner once we reached a grassy picnic area known as Cliffs Grounds Reserve and found ourselves accompanied by peacocks casually strolling around. We were then surprised to see a Wallaby rummaging in the leaves not too far away from us and it was only when we got a little bit closer did we see it was carrying a baby in its pouch, popping its curious head out every so often.It didn't seem fazed by us at all and let us get quite close once we gave it some of our fruit but them some kids came stomping towards us and off it went. It was a really nice experience as it's the first time we have seen a kangaroo or a wallaby with a baby in its pouch and we were able to get so close.As a treat we decided to catch the chairlift over to the other side of the basin as it is famed as having the longest single chairlift span in the world as the central span is 308 metres. We didn't really feel it was worth the money we paid to go on it but the views we got were really beautiful, almost a 360 degree panoramic of the gorge, the basin and the swimming pool below. To get back to our starting point we opted to walk across the Alexandra Suspension Bridge which seemed quite sturdy when we first stepped on it but as we got towards the middle and people walked past us the wobbles began, of both the bridge and Kara's legs! It was quite strange thinking how something so beautiful was so close to the city and made us wish we had visited it earlier on in our time in Launceston so we could maybe have spent another day there, enjoying the swimming pool and the various walks that the Gorge has to offer.