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Tasmania: The Land Down Under the Land Down Under

To the Edge of the World


ARTHUR RIVER, Tasmania – I'd made a wrong turn. We were close, but we were lost and about to miss the sunset.

I pulled over to ask directions. It occurred to me as I rolled down the window to hail a stranger that a dubious sailor on the Santa Maria might have asked Columbus this same question.

“Excuse me,” I said to the woman in a wool cap.
“Do you know where the Edge of the World is?”

She didn't blink. She just pointed back to the main road and said, “Take the next right. Can’t miss it.”

My wife, Pam, and I had set out for this place – the far western tip of Tasmania – with a sense of adventure, an occasionally misread road map and a wild hair I’d brought from halfway across the globe.

We had managed to tack six days onto a business trip to Melbourne last August, which didn't leave us much time to see Australia. So we scouted around for a single locale to explore in depth. Tasmania immediately caught my eye.

It’s an island about the size of South Carolina below the southeastern tip of the mainland, literally the Land Under Down Under. I pointed it out to Pam.

“It’s winter,” she reminded me. True, August in the Southern Hemisphere is like February here, and if we go farther south, we’d be getting colder. But Tasmania lies just below the 40th parallel, the equivalent of, say, Iowa. How bad could that be? Weatherwise, I mean.

“Doesn’t the road from Melbourne to Adelaide look nice?” she asked, but I was still reading. The guidebook said Tasmanian winters were wet and chilly but otherwise temperate. “There are some nice wineries near Sydney,” Pam said.

But the more I read about Tasmania, the better it sounded. Seafood, exotic wildlife, scenic vistas, breweries, pubs and B&Bs ... “Hey, they have wineries, too,” I said.

“What about New Zealand?” she said.

And then I found something that sealed the deal. It was a small photograph that showed a rugged shoreline, a point on the remote northwestern coast.

The sea west of Tasmania is the longest uninterrupted expanse of ocean on the globe. From Argentina, the currents sweep unimpeded more than halfway around the planet before they hit this point. And the air here, the caption read, is the cleanest on Earth.

The locals had erected a monument and christened the point the “Edge of the World.”

Suddenly, visiting that spot became my reason for going. I needed to go to the ends of the Earth. I needed to step out to that metaphorical edge and just stand in awe. With my mouth open, perhaps.

I showed the map to Pam and poked my finger on the spot. “That’s where I want to go.”

She heard the determination in my voice. She sighed once, closed the New Zealand

travel book in her imagination and said,  “OK, let’s go.”

She was on board and all in. 

When we landed in Hobart, winter was nowhere to be found. It was spring. Flowers were blooming, the weather was mild, and what a nice town. Hobart, Tasmania’s capital in the southeast, is quaint and full of shops, history, pubs and friendly people. We would have gladly stayed another day, but we had a date with a rental car.

As in England, they drive on the left side of the road in Australia, and this took some getting used to. As a matter of fact, for several hours it took both of us to operate the car – me at the wheel and Pam shouting: “Stay on the left! Stay on the left!”

The controls in the car were reversed, too, so on the drive from Avis to our hotel, a distance of about six blocks, I activated the windshield wipers five times to signal my intention to turn. We were honked at a few times, but only one driver actually flipped me off.

We followed the Derwent River out of Hobart, heading northwest into the interior. The road was in great shape – for our entire stay in Tasmania, we never encountered a poorly maintained highway. And thanks to Pam’s gentle reminders, we managed to stay on our side.

As we crossed the island, the climate and the landscape would change abruptly. We didn’t know what lay around the next curve. One minute we were looking at sheep grazing on gentle hills, and the next we were passing a vast plain of rusty-brown button grass. And then we’d be in a rain forest with towering ferns, old-growth oak and myrtle.

This is a land of contrasts, and they come quickly.

Tasmania is known as “The Natural State,” says so right there on the license plates, and more than a quarter of the island is protected as preserve or park. The forests are beautiful and forbidding, particularly in the west, in Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park.

Many of the tree and plant species in this primal wilderness are found nowhere else in the world, and swift black rivers and deep gorges cut through it just as they have for thousands of years. Most of the park is inaccessible except to the most intrepid – and perhaps foolhardy – hiker.

We wanted to go for a walk, a short one, so I pulled off onto a side road.

We’d apparently left the park, because the side road emptied immediately into a logged-out, clear-cut tract. Where once there was old growth timber, now there was the stubble of forest memory.

Logging is huge here. One of Tasmania’s biggest exports is the wood chip. Logging is also a passionate topic, the old jobs-versus-preservation thing, and the guidebooks warn tourists to avoid joining the debate. Eco-fanatics have been known to spike trees, and the loggers wield axes. We followed that advice.

It was getting dark, so we set our sights on Queenstown, an old mining town. About 5 kilometers out of town, with the sun setting, the road began to twist downhill, and a great gorge opened up. Soon we were maneuvering hairpin turns and hugging steep mountainsides. The guardrails were either nonexistent or ominously missing in places.

“Stay on the left,” Pam said, “but not too far.”

It was clear from what glimpses we dared to take that we had entered a sort of perverse Dante-esque landscape, a bleak, strip-mined hell. Acid rain from long-burning smelters had killed off the vegetation. Slag heaps and machinery littered the valley, where copper and iron barons had raped and scraped the hills for a century and then, apparently, abandoned it all.

We found lodging in an old hotel, the Empire, where we were given a key to a room without a doorknob. It was the last available room, we were told, but we never saw another guest.

A sign above the sink warned us to boil the water, but there was no means to do so. We left the next morning. Early.

Our goal was to make it to the Edge of the World by sundown, but Pam suggested we take a side trip to Cradle Mountain National Park to wash the taste of Queenstown from our mouths. It was a good call.

Cradle Mountain, barely 50 kilometers from the strip mines, is a wildlife reserve where

wallabies foraged within feet of hikers, and trails led into the woods, along rushing streams and off to the mountains. A lodge contained a restaurant and sitting rooms with soft leather chairs.

We dawdled and sipped coffee, and I read about how this vast area was preserved primarily through the efforts of one individual who worked for years to have this land set aside. Between Queenstown and Cradle Mountain were the dichotomous consequences of human activity. There was an effort to preserve nature's wealth here, and over there greed had stripped it bare.

Reluctantly we left Cradle Mountain and drove north, wondering whether we would reach the Edge of the World by sundown but not at all sorry we had stopped.

On the way to the northern coast, about 80 kilometers, we passed through more button grass moors and rain forests, and mountain ranges that reminded us of Colorado and marshes that looked like the Everglades. We saw a mountain lake and a rainbow. We topped a hill and found Wisconsin, and then a spectacular Oregonian ocean burst into view along with a flock of yellow and white cockatoos.

At the northern coast we turned west, feeling confident now that we'd reach our destination in time. This was a beautiful road, with miles of beaches to our right and cattle grazing to our left. If I could have put the top down I would have, but this was a hard-top Toyota Corolla, so I hit the accelerator instead.

A few minutes later, a Tasmanian police officer was explaining to us the difference between 80 kilometers an hour (the posted speed limit) and 80 miles an hour (what he calculated our actual speed to be). He was very civilized about it all. He gave me a “caution,” posed for a photograph and said no, he had never heard of the Edge of the World.

So off we went, slower now, and watching with wary eyes the relentless march of the sun in the western sky.

The roads narrowed and the land became more barren as we cut toward the west coast. We arrived at the little town of Arthur River and caught our first sight of the Indian Ocean. I made a wrong turn, asked for directions, and soon we were driving between sand dunes down to the spot I'd seen in a guidebook on the other side of the world. Our timing was perfect. In 15 minutes the sun would set.

The wind was stiff and cold, and the roar of the surf gave us a chill that had nothing to do with the temperature. Wave upon wave crashed on red rocks, and we were the only humans around. We watched as the sun dipped behind a streak of purple clouds. We stood there a long time.

The monument I had seen in the photograph was smaller than I'd imaged, and I didn't know it contained a poem. The words struck me as both simple and profound, speaking of the permanence of nature and the relative insignificance of man.

And it made me reflect on what we'd seen in the last two days on this marvelously diverse and fragile place at the other end of the world.

“I cast my pebble onto the shore of eternity,” it read, “to be washed by the oceans of time ... One day I will be no more, but my pebble will remain ... mute witness for the aeons that today I came and stood at the edge of the world.”

When it was our time to go, after the sun had slipped over the edge, Pam and I picked up a couple of stones and tossed them into the sea.

—  30 —

This story originally appeared in The Kansas City Star.



Somewhere Over the 

     Rainbow: The People

     Who Live Outside


The Run for the Wall:

     Motorcycles and


Return of a Radical:

     Oscar Winner Barb

     Trent Returns to Old

     Stomping Grounds

Along the Jack’s Fork:

     Canoeing in the Ozarks

Scott Joplin House

     preserves the rhythm

Ghosts in the Attic of

    the Old Save House

Collected written works  |  Gary Marx

“Not that the story need be long,

but it will take a long while to make it short.”


Journalism, Commentary and Stories

— From The Southern Illinoisan and Good Living 
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— Scratchings in
the prairie soil