I came to Hobart for an escape. The onset of autumn at home had triggered a deep foreboding in me, reminding me that the glory of summer was over and that months of Melbourne gloom was about to weigh us down like a sodden woollen jumper. We had all been sick with the bug, and while that provided an initial modicum of excitement, we all got better within a week. Our worst symptoms had been a spike in cabin fever and an unwillingness to eat food other than ice cream. Escape to Queensland seemed too pedestrian, too much like we were trying to slap a smile on our collective dials. Queensland is a simulacrum of normal life, but sooner or later you have to wake up. We wanted to grab life’s stringy tendons in the hope of making contact with reality.
Forget the Gold Coast. Let’s double down on misery.
Let’s go to Hobart.
The first thing you notice is that the sun slants in at a flat angle, no matter where you are. It drills into your retina leaving a ghostly green afterimage and a cramping headache as your optic nerve spasms in shock.The sun knifes between buildings and surprises you coming around a corner when you least expect it. Somehow, and this is yet to be fully explained, it is around all the corners. Something about being at a very low latitude, the sun is never quite overhead. It is at eye level, always. You are trapped within a disorientating prison of photon assassins.
This is not people’s normal expectation of going to Hobart, the capital city of Tasmania, Australia’s southernmost and smallest state. Cold and wet are the most common impressions, which are valid. Although I’ve never visited in winter, it is reportedly brutal, but lacking the validation of snow. Sleet and darkness are the prevailing moods, and people come out of winter with expressions that indicate that they’ve seen some shit, man. The flip side is that summer is glorious, so long as you’re not expecting beaches and drinks made from cheap rum and exotic fruit. The days are very long and not too hot, perfect for the kind of rugged outdoor adventurer that seeks Hobart out. More about that in a minute.
Thinking about expectations, the other word that comes up frequently is “insular”, both in the maritime and cultural sense. Of course Tasmania is an island, but the separation from the mainland seems at least as much psychological as it does physical. There’s that old joke about going from Melbourne to Adelaide, that you have to set your clocks back half an hour and also thirty years. Well, when coming to Hobart there’s the feeling that Melbourne could almost have been a twin, but that some kind of Sliding Doors event happened in the 19th century which caused Hobart to stay a backwater. It feels like the end of the earth, the last stop before oblivion.
But had it been anywhere else in the world, Hobart would have been huge. Settled early in the European colonisation of Australia, it sits on a superb natural harbour surrounded by hills that ensure that every house has a view. Scenic doesn’t begin to describe it. There’s a broad beachfront with playgrounds and children. There are historical neighbourhoods that are made for the ‘gram, as well as the usual assortment of university students and hipsters that make a place feel alive.
There’s also a kind of indeterminate maritime feeling. Everything seems to be connected to the sea, and everything makes reference to it. If you drive to Port Arthur, the colonial-era prison/slave labour camp, it’ll take you two hours of winding forested roads. But if you glance at a map you’ll realised that you could have sailed back to Hobart in half a day – indeed, that is exactly what the convicts did.
These days you’ll find the giant RSV Nuyina docked in Hobart’s harbour. A mountain of orange-painted steel, this city-in-a-ship is the Australian Antarctic Expedition’s main research and resupply vessel. This makes sense of course – Hobart is the closest Australian city to Antarctica. At the time I visited the Nuyina was having some teething problems and undergoing repairs, but still seemed monstrous, like a really ugly cruise ship looming over the heritage warehouses on the waterfront.
The nautical vibe lurks in the bones of the place. I went into a pub for a quick drink in the aptly named Battery Point, and the place was decorated wall-to-wall with naval memorabilia, including paintings of ships in the Battle of Trafalgar and actual, real-life ships-in-a-bottle. When walking through the historical areas, if you sort of squint you could almost be in Bristol. You can’t recreate that kind of authenticity – it’s in the air.
But Hobart wouldn’t be Hobart without its outdoorsy vibe. Tasmania is known for its natural recreation opportunities, but they’re of a particularly rugged and demanding variety. Some of the best hiking in the world is here, but you feel like you’ve driven days through the wilderness to get to the starting point. Mountain bikes and kayaks sit atop half the cars in the street, but hidden in the cabin are the wetsuits and warm outer layers required to survive the expedition. A casual hike in Tasmania is not to be undertaken lightly.
This sylvanian vibe washes over into everyday life. Having a drink in central Hobart with my great friend Han Wei, I noticed that all the young women hanging around outside the nightclubs and bars were wearing regulation orthopaedic-injury heels, but also identical black puffer jackets. Really heavy ones too, the kind you’d take to the Arctic.
So was Hobart an escape? In a way. Visiting anywhere I always end up asking myself whether or not I could live there. Living in Hobart would be an adjustment – it’s much, much smaller than Melbourne, and it feels extremely remote. I love the lifestyle that doesn’t involve meaningful commutes and allows frequent excursions. But I fear the winter – months of darkness and deeply grim weather, ameliorated only by warm company and a log fire.
Am I a fair-weather Hobart friend? It seems likely. But I’m ok with that.