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

Driving the Fatman
March 30, 2011
The Fatman: Tasmania’s smallest, remotest ferry

Traveling around Tasmania on my rapidly disintegrating bike, I recently had the honor of spending a few days with the crew of the “Fatman”, Tasmania’s smallest, remotest ferry. In the course of of my visit, I had a chance to take a turn at the helm.

So what’s it like to drive the “Fatman”?

A lot, it turns out, like driving my ten-dollar bike. In places where you’d expect high dollar, legit parts, you’ll be more likely to find a lawn mower throttle with a wood handle. Or a plywood dash with wires bulging out the back like a 12-volt afro.

In the audio recording you’re about to hear, I turn to Nick Johnson, one of the Fatman’s operators, for some answers. As the clip starts, I’m talking with him in Fatman’s wheelhouse – asking him how he, a guy from “the good old U. S. of A….” got a job driving a Tasmanian ferry.

Nick, the Fatman and the bike

Then the chat takes a twist. He fires up the ferry and lets me take her for a spin across the Pieman river. As I’m standing behind the controls, he points out all the quirky bits to his marvelous charge.

Ready to join Nick and me at the helm? Then hit the audio button and let’s get under way….

Nick and the Fatman’s horn.

A control panel to make Radio Shack proud: the keychain, visible at the bottom left, once operated the solar powered safety barriers – until they broke and were replaced by a yellow board and two sawhorses
The throttle: once it controlled a mower, now it controls a ferry.
The rotating yellow light: it’s supposed to spin while the Fatman is under way. During the interview it jammed to a stop – but was restarted with a firm thumping.
Another load: the Fatman crosses the Pieman River with another vehicle.
Posted Wednesday March 30, 2011 by Bernie
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Listen to the Fatman Basics
March 26, 2011
Tasmania’s west coast: the only thing that connects it from north to south is a small road, in many places, still gravel. (outside Balfour, Tasmania)

It’s a curious thing. Travel down Tasmania’s rugged west coast on a bike, as I did recently, and about half way down, the gravel road comes to an abrupt stop at the Pieman river. Full stop. No bridge. Some days there’s not even a safety barrier to keep cars from driving into the river.

Sort of like someone took the Pacific Coast highway along California’s west coast and removed a key bridge, making through-travel impossible.

How to cross?

Enter the “Fatman”.

The Fatman (Corinna, Tasmania))

The Fatman is a steel barge that carries cars across the Pieman river. Half Mad Max, half fish farm barge, it floats cars across the river so they can continue their journey.

I thought this unusual. Enough so that I spent two nights camped in Corinna, where the barge is located. While there, I got to know the Fatman’s crew. What emerged in those days was a curious tale of hunger, bridges unbuilt – and some heavy duty Aussie bush technology.

In the interview you’re about to hear, you’ll meet Blackie Stewart, chief ferry operator. You’re going to hear more from Blackie in the next few days. But here he covers some Fatman basics. Like how it gets across the Pieman river. How it got its name.

Blackie Stewart: ferry driver. Here Blackie is shown sitting below the ferry deck, just above the water. Normally, he steers from the wheelhouse.

So, ready to hit the water on a marvelous mechanized creature? For a basic overview of how the Fatman works, click on the audio player below.

Wondering how the Fatman got such a politically uncorrect name? Then hit the play button below…

The proverbial end of the road. It’s at this point that wish you’d brought your inflatable bridge. Or you could just pay the Fatman a few bucks to carry you across the Pieman river.
Instead of a propeller, the Fatman relies on a 2-cylinder diesel Lister engine for propulsion (Left). This drives a hydraulic pump which runs a simple pulley system (Right). Look closely and you can spot a thin cable running over a pulley sheave. This cable pulls the Fatman. Look even closer and you can see another, fatter, cable which guides the vessel across the river.
The view from the bow, with skinny and fat cables pulling and guiding the Fatman.
Pay the Fatman: a system of clickers and tickets keeps track of passages sold. In 2011, it cost cars Aus $20 to ride the Fatman. Bicycles could ride for half price.
The helm: instead of a traditional wheel, the Fatman is operated with three hydraulic levers – one for direction, the other two for raising and lowering the ramps
Posted Saturday March 26, 2011 by Bernie
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Welcome to Paradise
March 22, 2011

Biking the back roads of Tasmania for almost 5 months now, I’ve had plenty of time to mull things over. Like Paradise.

Paradise. Ever since early man struck a rock to a stick, this notion of Paradise has been around taunting man. The deal was simple. Life here on Earth is tough. If you behave – don’t cave you’re neighbor’s head in with a large rock, think pure thoughts, don’t steal sheep – one day you’ll get to Paradise.

Trouble is, it was a sliding goal. You never actually got to Paradise while on Earth. So no matter how hard you tried, through good deeds and better donations, you never got to enjoy the earthly Nirvana you’d been saving up your wholesome acts for. No flash of light after 20 wholesome years to signal you were entering the Land of Milk and Honey or the Abode of 72 Virgins. Not even a sorry book of matches if you were a well behaved cave dweller.

Nope, to get to Paradise, you had to die. And then, if the cosmic arithmetic penciled out, you were in. Or maybe you weren’t.

It all sounds pretty dicey to me….

Flash forward to now. Recently, traversing the northern coast of Tasmania on my junk shop bike, I took a detour to, you guessed it, Paradise, Tasmania. Just to see how folks there might enlighten me – get a taste of the place.

Welcome to Paradise – and in the background, Mount Roland.

There, nestled among at the foot of Mount Roland, I ran into a fellow with an ax. Watching him was a brindle steer and a black dog.

John Chapman, his steer and dog BJ

The man’s name was John Chapman and his dog was BJ. He was using the axe to peel the gum logs he was going to split for firewood. Seems Paradise got cool at night.

John, under BJ’s watchful eye, peeling logs in Paradise
And so we visited a while and he painted a picture of Paradise I figured you’d enjoy. I asked him if it was okay to make an audio recording. He thought it would be fine. So there in Paradise, with my bike leaned against the welcome sign, I captured one man’s version of heaven.

As the recording starts, you can hear John talking with his dog BJ. Then he goes on to describe life in Paradise. How the sign occasionally goes missing. How the dogs aren’t all perfectly behaved. And why, when I first met him, he was peeling logs with an ax.

Now I won’t get all semantic on you and pull apart the theoretical Paradise from the earthly one. You have to decide for yourself which one you believe in. But there in the lee of mount Roland, with a cow and a dog and a man explaining why his life was good, I know which one I’d live right for. Or at least keep pedaling toward with what I already had.

So, ready to listen to John Chapman describe Paradise? Then click on the audio player below.

Mount Roland in the mist. John says if there’s three days’ of mist around the peak, it’s going to rain in Paradise
A cow in Paradise
Milk and honey flow down the streets of some folks’ heaven. In Paradise, Tasmania, it’s blackberries
Off to work
Paradise is only fifteen minutes away from the Sheffield emergency room
Posted Tuesday March 22, 2011 by Bernie
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Hauling Apples
March 15, 2011

It happens. Biking around Tasmania on a junk shop bike, I come across stuff I’d like to take with me. But often there’s just not room.

Take the apple season. In these late summer days, wild, well, lets call them feral, apple trees drape their bounty across the dirt road shoulders. (Quick apple lingo: “feral” means you can reach them from your bike. “Someone else’s” means you have to climb across a fence and sidle up next to an apple picker. Stick with feral.)

A load of feral apples (Outside St Marys,Tasmania)

Trouble is, traveling on a bicycle, there’s only so much you can carry. And that’s if you have good bike panniers. I don’t. The two gear bags that grace the front of my bike are actually camcorder bags – and cheap ones at that. They’re designed for carrying a small, light load, not ten pounds of apples.

Then there’s the helmet. Though I should be wearing it, I wear my wide brimmed hat instead to fend off the hole in the ozone layer above Tasmania. But there are only so many apples you can pile into a cycling helmet hung off the back of your bike.

Recently, to take on a few more wild apples – and stretch the budget – I had a brainwave. Why not pull off my boots then fill my them with apples? You can pedal a bike barefoot you know. After all, you did it as a kid.

So off came the boots and into them went the apples.

And it worked. My feet got a nice tan and my belly got an even better feed of wild apples.

A boot full of wild apples (Outside St Marys,Tasmania)

Just goes to show in life, as in cycling, you don’t need loads of custom stuff. Better to head out a little hungry and imaginative and see what comes up. Even, if at the end of the day, your apples have a mild “footy” taste to them.

Good luck hauling a little extra of what you’re schlepping these days!

Posted Tuesday March 15, 2011 by Bernie
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Sounds Like the Roaring Forties
March 12, 2011

Recently, while traveling across Flinders Island on my cast off bike, I took a break next to a sign welcoming me to the Roaring Forties. After toasting the event, I whipped out my audio recorder to capture the sound the sign was making. I bottled it up in my audio recorder and today you’ll have a listen.

The sign you’re about to hear

What you’ll hear is the wind blowing over two bolt holes on the Roaring Forties sign. A short distance from the sea, it welcomes passersby but mostly the wind as it blows off Bass Straits, the stretch of water that separates mainland Australia from Tasmania.

One of the two holes you’ll be hearing

As you listen to the recording, note the rhythmic rise and fall, almost breath-like cadence, of the Roaring Forties wind. It’s not in its screaming mood. It’s not in the mood that wrecked over 50 sailing vessels and steamers on Flinders Island in the past 200 years. Rather, it’s blowing about 20 knots (just over 20 miles per hour). The rise and fall in pitch corresponds to variations in wind speed. Sounds like bottles hanging in the wind….

If you listen carefully, you can hear a currawong, a black, crowlike bird, cawing in the background. Toward the end of the recording, you’ll hear grasshoppers too.

So, ready for an eerie earful of Roaring Forties?

Then click on the player below.

Posted Saturday March 12, 2011 by Bernie
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Toasting the Roaring Forties With a Fly
March 9, 2011
Cheers! Toasting the 40th Meridian (Emita, Flinders Island, Tasmania)

In the last update, I was on Flinders Island toasting the Roaring Forties. To be precise, I was beneath the “You are crossing the 40 South Parallel” sign lifting a jar of scotch to my lips. That’s when I heard the buzzing in the air.

What the hell was that?

It didn’t sound like an albatross, cliff or flapping sail, all the sounds I associate with this way-south part of the globe. No, it was more annoying, high pitched.

It stopped.

Then I spotted it, a black spot on the jam jar. A black spot that, as my eyes focused, turned into a very wind-flattened, very determined, fly. A fly which, as soon as it gained a grip on the slippery glass, began making its way one… step… at… a… time… into… my… scotch…..

The fly and eye. Moments later, my flying guest crawled into my jar and slaked his thirst.

Dang! Now this was some tough fly. I had to admire the little fellow. How he shared the skies with albatross that soared around the world on 6 foot wings. How, instead of suffering an inferiority complex when he saw the big birds soar, took to the airways with his stubby wings. Wings, when I looked closer, looked like waded up cellophane that had been un-stretched by a miser. The sort of thing that would make guys like me, if they saw it on a blueprint, smirk, “that’ll never take to the air….”.

But there he was, roaming that terrible sky on his lonesome.

No wonder he needed a drink.

So I let him.

Which is why, if you drove by a certain sign on Flinders Island last week, you would have seen a guy on a crusty bike taking a long pull on a short jar. And if you’d have stopped and approached slowly, you would have spotted, on that jar, a fly partaking with the same gusto.

A recent scene on the 40th Meridian

Then we went our separate ways. I pedaled my way south into the Roaring Forties. He jumped into the air, and belly full of scotch, carved a magnificent, wildly curved, getaway into the sky.

The last I saw of the fly, he was heading for this horizon

Coming next: an audio recording of the Roaring Forties sign.

Posted Wednesday March 9, 2011 by Bernie
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Welcome to the Roaring Forties
March 6, 2011

Roaring Forties. The words conjure images of the salt captain braced against the ship’s helm, sparks flying from his pipe. Sails tattered. Lee shore looming, hard and horrible, under the dolphin striker stay.

The skeletal remains of a fishing boat driven ashore by high winds (Killiecrankie, Flinders Island, Tasmania)

But just what are the Roaring Forties? Where do they lie? What do they sound like?

A few years ago, I got close to them in my sailboat “Sea Bird”. Sailing alone around the world, I entered the Southern Ocean to sail around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. I’d been close to the Roaring Forties then – but not quite. The Roaring Forties actually begin about 200 miles below the southern tip of Africa, the so-called Cape of Storms.

Off the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, Sea Bird heads toward, but not quite into, the Roaring Forties (Will Seabrooke photo)

Flash forward to Flinders Island, Tasmania. Recently, instead of entering the Roaring Forties on the deck of a plunging barque, I crossed the Fortieth Parallel on my junk shop bike.

Technically, the Roaring Forties run from parallels forty to fifty south – easy to define for a cartographer but hard to explain to a poet.

Which makes Flinders Island, Tasmania, the length of which I recently pedaled on my $10 biker, unique. The 40th Parallel only crosses four land masses and Flinders is one of them (the other three are South America, New Zealand and King Island, Tasmania.

With so little land standing in the way of the wind, it can whip around the globe practically non-stop, raising enormous seas in the process. This is what make the Roaring Forties so legendary. Recently, a weather buoy off Pedra Branca, an island south of Tasmania, measured a wave over 70 feet high.

Roaring Forties surf: a 70 foot high wave was measured by a Waverider buoy off the island of Pedra Branca less than 30 miles from where this photo was taken. (Outside Port Davey, Tasmania)

At sea, of course, there’s no sign at the 40th parallel saying “Welcome to the Roaring Forties”. So it’s largely a matter of feel, of heart, of standing on the deck of your ship and saying, “damn, the wind really does sound louder down here” or “sheeesh that albatross is wheeling hard and fast across the sky”. It’s the poet thing. The trying to explain with words and pictures what you can’t capture with numbers.

Trouble is, I’m an engineer at heart and need figures, lines and data, to describe what I’m seeing.

You are crossing the 40 degree South Parallel

On my recent visit to Flinders Island, on a day windy enough to mute my cursing, I came across a sign. “You are crossing the 40 degree South Parallel” it read. From it, torn free by the howling wind, came a low, slow moan. Aha! Here was something I could capture with my audio recorder– the sound of the wind blowing through the bolt holes on the Roaring Forties sign. Something I could cram into my magic black box. Something I could let back out for you to listen to.

Crossing the starting line. The white line marks the 40th South Parallel

But first, I reckoned a bit of ceremony was in order. I mean really, entering the Roaring Forties, a man doesn’t send a text message. He has a drink.

Lifting a page from the mariner’s book, I decided a toast was in order. Rummaging through my gear, I extracted a small jar labeled “Apricot Jam”. A gift of new friends in Killiecrankie, it came into my life full of apricot jam but now contained the remains of my scotch. Leaning against the sign roaring above my head, I raised the short jar to my lips.

Cheers! The jar contains stronger contents than its label implies. I mean really, what sea captain worth his weight in black powder would toast the Roaring Forties with fruit jam…?

Which is when I heard the buzz. Thin and high, not rumbling and low like you’d expect from a stormy sky.

(To be continued)

Posted Sunday March 6, 2011 by Bernie
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That Old Buggered Hat
March 2, 2011

You see them here in Tasmania. Hats so beat up the only thing keeping them together is gravity and nostalgia. But really, it’s sorta rude to ask a guy “hey mate, why’s your hat all wrecked lookin?”.

A hat with a story (Outside Deviot, Tasmania)

No matter. I ask anyway.

This week I had a gam with Mark, a fruitpicker looking for work in Tasmania. Me met along the Tamar River outside Deviot where we’d set up our respective travelling abodes – he a Volkswagon Combi Van, me my trusty hammock. Over tea, we talked Vegemite, sand dune water and Tassie rhyming slang. Then, over the second or third cuppa, talk turned to hats. It was at this point in the conversation that he produced a hat more bashed than anything I’ve ever owned. And that’s saying something.

Gam time: a cup of tea inside Mark’s Combi Van
Beat to buggery

Curious, I had him tell me the story behind it. It only took a minute and half. But you can listen in by clicking on the audio player below.

Posted Wednesday March 2, 2011 by Bernie
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