Friday, November 22, 2013

Paradise may have its serpents, but it still appeals

Outside it's raining; it's blowing on the windows and on the seemingly endless row of neighbours' roofs. My glimpse of the sky is cut into segments by terracotta tiles and brickwork. I feel closed in, in a way I didn't feel for ten days earlier this month.

I've been in Paradise, you see. Godzone Country. In other words, Tasmania. In this underpopulated island there are big skies. When it rains, you can see the rain approaching for many kilometres. Even in Hobart and Launceston, the world is on a human scale and you still get the sense of space and sky.

It's even better in the country. We stayed by the sea in Bicheno for a few days, watching the weather change kilometres away and the seas turn from dead calm to white horses to waves crashing against the shore and up through the blowhole. It rained - it poured! - but somehow that didn't matter. We chucked on our raincoats and headed to the shore to watch nature at work. Who cared if it was only 13 degrees with summer a fortnight away? Not us. I prefer cool climate holidays to tropical islands anyway.

We stayed in Ross, in the midlands, where the river had broken its banks, creating a wide blue pond that reflected the wide blue sky. Around us the hills were green and gentle. Tassie has had a very wet winter and spring, and the island is rejoicing in it. Lushness everywhere.

We were snowed on at Mt Wellington near Hobart. From the top of Mt W you get, if the mountain isn't in cloud, a superb view of Hobart itself. Our time there was limited so we took a chance and drove up, passing joggers and cyclists who clearly had masochistic tendencies. Higher and higher, until little blobs of snow sat at the side of the road. I was excited. I love snow. What I didn't expect was that before we would reach the summit the weather would turn and we would be caught in a snowfall. Not a heavy one, but enough to make me pull on hats and gloves, laugh and stand in it, catching snowflakes on my tongue. Beside me a family of tourists were clearly unprepared for the weather and stood in shorts, skimpy tops and flip-flops, shivering for the camera.

As quickly as it started the snow stopped, and we were wreathed in cloud with crunchy white stuff underfoot.  Driving down the mountain Hobart reappeared when we slipped below the cloud base, dotted along the riverbanks on either side of the Derwent. It's a town that looks at peace with its environment; not too encroaching, with the only blot being the high rise Wrest Point Casino at Sandy Bay.

Launceston is even nicer in that regard, with heritage buildings - none over six stories - and a friendly feel; ten minutes' drive and you're out of town and in the country, with spring all around you, exuberant with wild colour. The road winding beside the Tamar gives you panoramic vistas. Launceston isn't a blot on the landscape, there is no pall of smog hanging over it - or Hobart come to that. You know it's there, behind those hills, but it has a kind footprint.

Our final few days were with G's family in a remote spot down the side of the D'Entrecasteaux Channel, near Gordon, a one horse village whose one horse was probably a Shetland pony.  The Cousin lives on 5 acres outside town, up on a hill with the Channel visible through the gum trees. There's some space around the property for fire protection, and the farmlet is home to native chooks, goshawks, possums and the odd tiger snake. The bloke next door has set up a rescue home for retired racehorses, but in a very minor way; he only has half a dozen as that's all he can support. The Cousin is building a veggie and fruit garden and is going to enclose it in chicken wire because of the possums.  It's a magical spot only an hour south of Hobart, on a two lane road that winds along beside the channel through villages and small towns. From the Cousin's deck you can see forever.

We drove away from the Cousin's place feeling very envious. Neither of us is particularly handy with our hands - unlike the Cousin, an ex-carpenter and builder - so we probably couldn't manage the maintenance on a property like that. But oh boy, did we ever wish we could!

I had been to Tassie before but G hadn't, and I could see the stars forming in his eyes from the first day. Like me, he was bewitched by the place. After only a few days he was thinking sea change. Not right now, as we have my elderly Mum to look after, but in the future.

All Paradise has its serpents, however, and Tassie has a couple of big 'uns. One is the cost of living. Despite being a farming island a hell of a lot of stuff is imported from The Big Island/The North Island/The Mainland, which puts the prices up. Petrol is 20c a litre dearer than Sydney. Utility costs are higher too and if you have a really dry summer you can cop water restrictions as the dams aren't as big. Winter is cold, so heating your property is more expensive. The Cousin is a dab hand with a chainsaw and has plenty of firewood to hand, so his heating bills won't be horrendous.

Land and housing, on the other hand, is cheaper than Sydney (most places are!!!!), except for upmarket areas such as Battery Point and Sandy Bay in Hobart. Lovely suburbs right close to town but almost at Sydney prices. If you had a good enough house in Sydney you could sell, move to Tassie and live off the leftover money, invested wisely.

Unemployment is another serpent. We drove through several towns down on their luck with businesses for sale or simply closed down and boarded up; not pretty enough for chocolate-box photos, and with no outstanding natural beauty nearby, they are truly struggling. (Fingal springs to mind here.) Life is not pleasant if you're living in a small town and unemployed, wondering how you're going to keep your poorly insulated house warm next winter. The Cousin keeps his doors and windows locked and blinds down even when he drives to the nearest town to pick up groceries, as crime is a real problem in the less affluent rural areas.

The prettier towns, the tourist spots like Ross, have a fair percentage of Big Islanders as residents. They've moved from Sydney or Melbourne, cashed up, and can afford a pretty cottage in a nice place; often they have started their own tourism/hospitality business there. Cafes, BandBs…

Realistically if you are self-employed you can do okay, particularly in the trades people need, although the Cousin told us that Tasmania operates on Tasmanian Time, which means tradies have a relaxed interpretation of the word urgent. My business might survive in Tassie - heaven only knows it's barely surviving here, where there are thousands of potential clients. However if we moved south I'd be giving up the business and taking on art and writing fiction I should think. Ideally we would be in a position where I wouldn't have to work full time.

Until then… we'll be spending a bit more time there, exploring, researching, calculating. G is already talking about having a longer holiday in Tassie within the next two years. I did warn him ten days wouldn't be enough!

Still raining - but I can't see beyond the neighbour's house to find out what the weather has in store for me. Oh for those big skies!

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