Stories from Bernie's new trip - heading "down under" to explore Tasmania

New Year Fossil WIsh
December 30, 2010
In a moment, you’ll find out about the funny looking rock between my fingers.

It’s the age old tradition. You go to a foreign land. It’s New Years Eve. There’s a fountain in the town square. You throw in a piece of local currency. You make a wish. You go back to drinking champagne.

Or, if you’re like me, you don’t see the sense of throwing good money into the drink just because others are doing it.


Then there’s this New Year.

Okay, so it was about a week ago. While out crayfishing off the coast of Tasmania, I suddenly remembered 2011 was about to break upon us. And here I was, miles at sea, thinking about how folks throw money into pools. When it dawned on me that I was floating on a big a pool as you can get – the Southern Ocean.

So I dug out my clam.

For the past weeks, I’ve been living in the focsle aboard a crayfish boat the Southern Ocean. The focsle is the forward part of the boat.

Focsle: My lodgings for the past month

Lined with little more than berths, it’s where I kept the few possesions I travel with on my $10 bike. Sleeping bag, camera, notebook.

Clam. Clam?

In 1998, Paul Welles of Triton Yachts hauled my sailboat Sea Bird to Oriental, North Carolina, where I began my solo sailing trip around the world. The storage yard where I prepared my boat was covered in fossils from Aurora, North Carolina. Before I departed, I nicked a small fossilized clam as a souvenir and sailed most of the way around the world with it tucked away in Sea Bird’s hold. Then it went over the side – and I sailed back to Oriental.

So I figured if it worked once, I’d do it again (the lucky clam trick, that is). So before leaving Oriental this fall, I dropped by Paul’s yard and picked up another fossilized shell. (For more on that story and Oriental, North Carolina, click here.)

Close up the fossilized clam

Fast forward to last week.

We’re off the southern coast of Tasmania. I’m thinking of the New Year ahead. So out came my Oriental clam. And over the side it went.

Just like that.

Did I make a wish? Sure I did. And no I’m not going to tell you what it was. Just like I don’t expect you to tell me yours. That’s right, I’d say that old clam fossil that I chucked over the side has plenty of wishes left in it. So close your eyes, imagine you’re off the coast of Tasmania. That fossil’s in your hand. You feel the chalky grit. You’re reaching back, giving it fling – and off it flies to live with the crayfish and albatross.

Your wish lives here now. Look closely, and you’ll spot the albatross (but not the crayfish).

So what did you wish for….?

Happy 2011 all you Southern Ocean Dreamers. Now go whack a bottle of bubbly in the head…!

(PS: Yes, Melinda and Michele, your bits of home were launched as well…)

Posted Thursday December 30, 2010 by Bernie
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Remains of the Bait
December 28, 2010
The remains of the bait: a barracouta head after a night on the Southern Ocean floor. Crayfish and sea lice have stripped most of the meat from the skull.

The longer I stay in Tasmania, the farther I’ve strayed from my original objective – travel Australia’s southernmost state by horse or mule. Instead of traveling overland, I find myself drawn back to the sea. But that’s okay. It’s hard to jump aboard a crayfish boat for a stint at sea if you have to worry about housing your equine transport. The junk shop bike I settled for has made for a much more seaworthy travel mate – especially strapped to the pilot house of the crayfishing boat “Miss Carmen”.

Miss Carmen, visible at the end of the dock, is my most recent way of seeing Tasmania.

In recent posts, we went face to face with a Tassie cray and had a listen to what one sounds like.

But what I found just as interesting as actually catching the crayfish was letting my mind wander, have a look at some things that weren’t on the agenda. It’s the old saw about letting life play out as it wants – giving up the mule travel bit for a jump on a crayfishing boat. Looking at, instead of just the crayfish, the bait.

Right, the bait. Especially after it’s soaked in the Southern Ocean overnight.

To catch a spiny lobster, fishermen bait round lobster traps then chuck them in the drink. At the end of the day, or the next morning, they pull them up so see what’s inside. The focus, as it should be, is on lobsters. With fishermen forking out thousands of dollars every time they put to sea, it’s only fair they stare mighty hard at those crayfish that pay for it all. And granted, they’re pretty remarkable creatures, as these close up photos reveal.

But what about the other stuff in the fish trap – as in the bait that’s left over after the lobsters have eaten their fill?

Aboard the “Miss Carmen”, the pots are baited with horse mackerel and barracouta heads. The flesh, blood and guts that cling to them entice the crayfish into the traps. But overnight is along time to spend on the Southern Ocean seafloor. In addition to crays, it’s swarming with crabs, wrasse, starfish, octopus, leather jackets (a type of fish similar to the unicorn fish), hermit crabs and sea lice. Any dead fish that winds up on the sea bottom is quickly reduced to bone, tooth and cartilage.

Which makes for some pretty cool photos.

First, there is the eye. After spending the night on the bottom of the Southern Ocean, the eyeball is reduced to a clear, leathery shell. In some cases, the crystalline lens, when it hardens, is all that remains.

Barracouta eye: the small white ball visible in the center is the lens.

The skeleton, cleared of flesh, turns clear. Viewed closely, it appears made of crystal.

Barracouta bones

Other body parts fare better. But not much. After only a few hours in the water, all the soft tissue is stripped from the barracouta’s jaws, leaving a ghostly set of teeth set in soft bone.


While most soft tissues are quickly eaten away, others, like the gills, are not as appetizing to deep sea creatures. When their fragments fall from the traps, they take exquisite, almost embryo-like shapes.

Gill structure
Gill fringe

In the end, though, it all goes away. Leave a crayfish trap in the water long enough and all the bait disappears. A subtle reminder of the beauty, and impermanence, of it all. And, dare I say, occasionally straying from life’s plot for a close look at something entirely unplanned.

Posted Tuesday December 28, 2010 by Bernie
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Message on a Tin Can
December 24, 2010

First, a damn big thank you to everyone who’s subscribed to the Postcard from Tasmania service – that’s where I send folks a real postcard, complete with genuine postmark, from Tassie. I mean really, didn’t you feel better when that Tasmanian devil card showed up in your letter box? The postman sure was amused and hell, it paid for my pint down at the southernmost pub in Australia. Made everyone’s day and I hear one even ended up on a Christmas tree.

The Tasmanian devil postcard

Wait, that’s another card….

Seems a few weeks ago, while crayfishing in the Southern Ocean, I found myself on the empty end of a can of Cascade beer. Feeling a tad lonely. With no postcards. And a postcard due. And a stamp. And a pair of scissors…..

You can see where this is going.

Yep, sliced the top and bottom out of that can and turned it into a beautiful red and green aluminium postcard.

The world’s first Tasmanian tin can postcard? Probably….

Each features a coat of arms emblazoned with 4 now-extinct Tasmanian tigers. Straight from Australia’s oldest brewery. Says so right there on the metal. You just can’t get more Tasmanian than that.

As close as you can get to a Tasmanian tiger these days. They’re extinct. The last one died in the 1930s. But you can still get one in the mail…

So I send this card off, go back to sea for another stint of fishing, and when I return, get a message from my friends that they enjoyed their tin card so much they’re thinking of putting it on their Christmas tree. Yowza, that’s pretty good!

Hell, I got so excited when I got this news that I drank another beer. Or should I say “made another postcard”.

In case you want one…..

That’s right, if you’re a Postcard From Tasmania subscriber and want the “Message on a Beer Can” postcard (as opposed to the message in a bottle), drop me a line. Then again, I’m having so much fun making these cards, I reckon I’ll just send all of you the tin can/Christmas ornament postcard. It would, come to think of it, make a fine coaster for your hot or cold drink of choice.


Not getting any letter box joy? Not a Postcard From Tasmania subscriber? Friend, we can fix that right now.

Posted Friday December 24, 2010 by Bernie
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Sounds Like a Tasmanian Crayfish
December 22, 2010

Home in Carolina, the sound that cheers me most is the sound of a mule heading up the road, wagon in tow. It was a sound I’d hoped to replicate here in Tasmania.

Instead, I’ve ended up listening to crayfish.

Georgie and the cray: Georgie works the pots aboard “Miss Carmen”. Here, he’s holding up a large cray or “dog” as they’re called. Behind him are the cliffs off Port Davey.

Yep, instead of hitting the road in a equine drawn conveyance, I find myself afloat these days. Literally. I’m writing you this update from the cabin house table aboard the crayfishing boat “Miss Carmen”. My home for the past three weeks, she’s taken me places where, I now grudgingly admit, no mule and wagon would ever tread.

Miss Carmen (Spain Bay, Port Davey, Tasmania)

Like off the south coast of Tasmania. That’s where the crayfish live – and make their distinctive sound when they’re hauled from the depths. A sound you’ll hear in a moment.

But first a bit about crayfishing.

Here in Tasmanian, crayfish, a cold water species of spiny lobster, are caught in the Southern Ocean in circular, baited pots. Built traditionally of tea tree and wire, the newer versions are also constructed in metal and webbing.

Cray pots: Most of these are of the traditional tea tree sort. Visible in the center of the pile is a modern version of steel and mesh. (Southport, Tasmania)

The concept is simple. Bait the pot with mackerel, trout or barracoutta heads. Chuck the pot in the water. Come back a few hours later. Jerk the pot back on board and see what you’ve caught. With any luck, there’ll be some crayfish inside – alongside the occasional starfish and octopus. SInce the traps have escape slots, undersized crays often as not slip free before they even hit the deck.

Full pot

Legal sized crayfish, or “fish” as they’re called for short, go into a live well aboard the fishing vessel. With most crayfishing boats carrying 50 pots, that calls for a lot of baiting, hauling and sorting. Especially since they deploy their pots twice in a 24 hour period – once during the day and once overnight.

These are deep waters, though. So a pot hauler, a hydraulic winch of sorts, is used to haul the pot from waters that vary from 10 to 50 fathoms (60 to 300 feet).

Pot winder: the winder is the circular disk at 9 o’clock

In the recording you’re about to hear, you’ll hear the three phases of cray pot retrieval. First, you’ll hear the hydraulic pot winder hoist the trap to the surface. You can hear the pot break the water. Then you’ll hear a clang as the pot is haul across Miss Carmen’s gunwale. Next, you’ll hear a flapping sound. That’s the sound of a large crayfish, called a “dog” in these parts, snapping its tail in the trap. Finally, at the end of the recording, you’ll hear a voice shout “One!”. That’s ace deckhand Georgie yelling to the skipper how many legal lobster have been caught. This number is entered in a ledger book that lists how many crayfish each boat catches – and later, what the fishery quota will be.

What you won’t hear is the fog, wind and spindrift that occupies this fishery. Still, go ahead and imagine it’s a foggy, rainy day. You’re wearing white rubber boots and yellow bib pants, hand on the hauler, waiting for that lobster trap to break the surface.

Now hit the player below and catch your crayfish…. Hold fast!

Posted Wednesday December 22, 2010 by Bernie
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Maps are coming
December 21, 2010
Overlooking Spain Bay, Tasmania. But just where is it? And what’s the range of hills in the background called….

It’s confusing as hell. First, no one knows (including me for my first 30-something years) where Tasmania is. But Spain Bay, Tasmania? Forget about it…

Until now.

Yep, maps have been added to RiverEarth.com. So soon you’ll be able to find out just where those freaky looking lobsters were caught. Or where the guy with the kangaroo bullwhip collection lives. Or, for that matter, where Spain Bay lies.

So take a moment and have look at the map below. For a peek at the aerial view, click on “Satellite”. Then play around a bit and zoom in and out for some amazing views of southern Tasmania. It’s rough country. Accessible only by boat or foot. And now, aerial view. So have at it.

Now, though, it’s time for a shower and a shave. I’ve just returned from almost three weeks on the go aboard “Miss Carmen”, a Tasmanian crayfishing boat. So the beard you see in the photo above has to go. Then come clean socks and a haircut.

And then, lots more maps, photos and postcards.

Hold fast!

Posted Tuesday December 21, 2010 by Bernie
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Tasmanian Crayfish
December 17, 2010

By now you know the drill. My attempt to ride a mule around Tasmania failed because, well, mule are near impossible to find here. Still, the ten dollar-bike I ended up taking off on has served me near as well as an equine companion. Better, in fact, I’d argue, when it come to meeting crayfish.

Last time I wrote, I mention how I landed a berth on the crayfish boat “Miss Carmen”. On it, I ended up going to sea for over a week trapping crayfish. Along with farm raised Atlantic salmon and abalone, saltwater crayfish, also called rock lobster here, flush out Tassie’s export coffers. Let’s just say I happened to be on the end of the pier when “Miss Carmen” rocked up, I chucked my bike aboard, and from there the journey was on – a week spent among the albatross and Southern
Ocean swell.

Southern Ocean deck cargo: Taking a ride on Miss Carmen (south of South East Cape, Tasmania))

Oh, and crayfish.

Suffice to say, for this mule traveler, it was a pretty intense week hauling pots and keeping my balance. And it was a calm week. Still, I took the chance to take some cool crayfish photos and learn a bit about these critters.

If you’re like me, when you think “crayfish”, you think “Nitty Gritty Dirt Band” and a piece of bacon on a string. Also called mud bugs (or yabbies in Australia), the crayfish I grew up with were the kind you fished out of the creek and boiled in a tin can to earn your Boy Scout survival merit badge.

Wrong crayfish.

Nope, Tasmanian crays are what we call spiny lobster back home. They live in the ocean and, if you don’t watch out, will pinch you so hard you’ll wish you’d stayed a Scout long enough to get your first aid merit badge. The ones that live inshore, off Tasmania’s cliffy southern coast, are dark crimson, the color of a ruby. They’re called “reds”. The ones that live in deeper water are lighter colored and stripped. They’re called “brindles”.

They also don’t look anything like the pale excuse for lobsters you find at the local mega supermarket – the ones that spend their final days under fluorescent lights crawling through milky water aerated by cut rate bubblers. Nah, these critters fight for survival out here, sandwiched as they are between Tasmania and Antarctica.

If you look really closely, you’ll see they’re built for survival. Their eyes bug out on stalks protected by horns. The plates on their tails sport spines. Their anntenae are sharp enough to puncture leather gloves.

But look closely and you’ll marvel at their rugged beauty. Here are some up close shots I thought you’d enjoy.

(Note due to internet troubles I can’t load all the shots. I’ll post you when they’re up. Dang… Bernie)

(For the albatross’ view of where these photos were taken, browse the map below. For a neat look, click on “Satellite” and zoom in a ways.)

Posted Friday December 17, 2010 by Bernie
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Going to Sea
December 13, 2010

Damn Skippy! The Plan’s not going as planned. The original hope had been to ride a mule across Tasmania. Silly me. I never bothered checking whether or not Tasmania had mules before I showed up.

Bugger. They didn’t. Seems Tassie’s a Mule Free Zone. But it’s not bike free. Which is exactly what I bought at the junk store. And just hit the road with that.

So last week I’m standing on the Southport dock talking with a fellow called Razor the Amazer . And a bit later, this wood crayfishing boat rocks up. Name is “Miss Carmen”. I meet the skipper and deckie (deckhand) and next thing I know, I’ve got my ten-dollar boke lashed on the deck heading out to the Southern Ocean.

Miss Carmen (Southport, Tasmania)

Hell, I could never have done that with a mule (Lyle Lovett, by the way, was dreaming when he sang about heading out to sea with his pony).

Deck cargo: I never said I was going to RIDE my bike around Tasmania

So the Plan has gone from mule to bike to fifty-foot wood crayfish boat heading into the Roaring Forties. Ready to come along? Good. Days I’m told I’ll be pulling crayfish pots. Nights, holed up in my focsle berth, I’ll be writing you about what I see. But now I’ve gotta run like Hell as “Miss Carmen” is about to drop her dock lines and I’d better be aboard.

So stay tuned for some pretty amazing photos involving lobster, albatross – and skeletons.

Hold fast mateys!

Posted Monday December 13, 2010 by Bernie
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Meet the Ashlands
December 11, 2010
Meet the Ashlands: Yee haa! Nothing finer on spring day in Tasmania than an oar, a crayfish pot and a parked boat. If you think kids these days are all hooked on cell phones and internet, you haven’t met Melissa and Judd Ashland’s family. They’re keen!

Slowly, I’m coming to grips with the notion that I may be touring Tasmania by bike and boat instead of horse, as I’d hoped. Like Mick Jagger sang, you don’t always get what you want – but added that you get what you need. In my case, it’s been a ten-dollar bike. In the Ashland family’s case, it’s a whopping fine vacation built on some pretty basic gear. While scouting a camp site on Cockle Creek on Tasmania’s southern tip, they showed me just how much fun you can have with tinkering, imagination and everyday stuff like a bus, boat and crab pot. Here are a few shots of a family having a whopping Tasmanian summer break.

Melissa and Judd hail from Geeveston, Tasmania, just outside Hobart. For the past years, in ever-larger vehicles, they take their kids, all half-dozen of them, on summer vacation. Judd’s latest moving summer home is the bus he’s rebuilt from almost scratch. You can see it in the background. In the foreground, Bailey, center, is enjoying a baked bean snack.
Girl power: Klarissa (foreground) displays some rowing jubilation. Days, the Ashlands fish from their aluminum skiff. Evenings, they enjoy the catch. In its previous life, the skiff was used by crayfishermen to fish the shallow waters. Now, powered by a trusty Mariner engine, Judd and family use it to put food on the table – for now. With the kids growing larger, Judd hopes to buy an18-footer.
Feet and crayfish pot: Judd found this old crayfish pot a while back. Made in the traditional style of tea tree branches and wire, he says it’s well over twenty years old. When he salvaged it, it was pretty beat up. Over the years, he’s patched it repeatedly. Still, it sits nice and quite on the bottom, a definite plus when it comes to luring crabs and lobsters inside. He reckons it catches more crays than the new traps. They’re made of plastic and don’t sit as quietly. Though he plans to retire it one day, he says it won’t be soon.

Next generation rower

It all got me to thinking. Wouldn’t it be neat to actually put to sea on a boat? See the Southern Ocean from the deck of a fine vessel? Then, a few days later, standing on the end of a pier, something really odd happened…..

(Thanks Judd, Melissa, Bailey, Jamari, Bailey, Kyle, Ellie May, Kioni andKlarissa for visiting with me – and giving me my first taste of Tasmanian crayfish!

Posted Saturday December 11, 2010 by Bernie
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South East Cape - The Farthest South You Can Go In Tasmania
December 8, 2010
South East Cape, Tasmania

Recently, to get a better sense of what Tasmania’s southern coast looks like, I biked to Catamaran on the southern coast. There, I picketed my bike (you can tell I miss my mules because most people just refer to parking their bike) and hoofed it cross-country to the shore of the Southern Ocean.

WIthout getting all geographic on you, South East Cape is the the southern-most cape in Australia. Along with Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope, it is one of the world’s Great Capes. And it’s way down south – about 43 degrees. That’s lower than the Cape of Good Hope. And it’s way windy.

This far south, aside from the southern tip of South America, there’s nothing to stop the wind from blowing non stop all the way around the world. That means waves have thousands of miles to grow to enormous heights. Recently, a weather buoy measured a swell over 70 feet tall.

On the day I visited, the mood was calm. Powerful but calm. Sort of like a dark cloud that has just thundered. Brooding. I aim to write more on this fascinating piece of coast in the future. But for now, enjoy a few photos of the scene.

Rocks and twig
Lone Bush
Posted Wednesday December 8, 2010 by Bernie
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The Exploded Life of Tiny Orchids (Part 2)
December 5, 2010

Last time we spoke, my bike was spilling its guts across Deborah Wace’s doorstep deep in the Tasmanian bush. Deborah is an orchid expert. Luckily she and her husband Laurie are resourceful folks, used to making and mending what they just can’t run into town to buy.

Deborah Wace with one of her orchid prints

And so it went with my bike repair.

On a bike, the bottom bracket is the unit that helps the crank spin freely. On older bikes such as mine, it’s composed of two bearings. Each bearing contains ball bearings held in a round frame. On my bike, because I took off on it without greasing the bearings, the round frame ran dry and bent.

Then, on Deborah’s doorstep, the bearings fell out.

Luckily, I was able to find them and re-seat them in the bearing holder. Laurie loaned me some tools ( (axle grease, multi-tool, toilet paper and standard spanner for a metric pedal) and in short order I affected a “She’ll be Right” repair”. As in “she’ll be right until I get the right part….”

It was during my stay with Deborah and Laurie that I learned about bearded orchids.

The Tasmanian bearded orchid that grows wild around Deborah’s home

A self described orchid “advocate”, Deborah has taken to these tiny flowers, and through the power of her super-size engravings, has made them tall – really tall – as in human height. Suddenly it’s us humans that feel small and we start thinking about all the things we’ve ever done to slight the orchid. Blow up a tiny bearded plant to 6-foot tall and you feel like a lady Grizzly Adams is in the room and you better play real nice.

Respect: Deborah and one of her orchid prints

This super-sizing is a painstaking process. To get a better sense of each orchid, Deborah first meticulously studies the whole plant – root, stem, leaves and flower. Using a microscope and lighted magnifying glass she analyzes the whole thing – not just the flower. Then, when she’s studied it from every angle, she makes a print of the entire plant.

Tools of the trade – and what they produce

Which brings us back to the horse and bike thing. Yeah, I miss the flash and companionship of horse travel – loads. But the whole point of visiting Tasmania was to learn about its people – folks like Deborah and Laurie. And for that, I reckon my junk-shop bike, as long as she breaks down regularly, will keep me in orchids and grease and fine new friends.

So are you ready to get big with a tiny orchid? Then click the player below and enjoy Deborah’s story.

For more on Deborah’s artwork, be sure to drop by her site.

(Thanks Deborah and Laurie for the orchid story, wallaby curry, road trip bread and Doc Watson pickin’. Reuben and Isobel, sure hope you enjoyed your new bikes on Bruny Island!)

Posted Sunday December 5, 2010 by Bernie
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