It’s a credit to my seventh-grade geography teacher and the entire Canadian education system that I’d always assumed Tasmania was one of the South Pacific islands, most likely a sister of Tahiti. It certainly sounds exotic. Tasmania! It was disappointing to discover the island is actually a miniature version of Scotland named after a Dutch guy – and the Dutch weren’t all that excited about it either.
It was the Christmas holidays, and my husband and I were in Tasmania for the first time. We’d recently become Australian citizens, and how better to celebrate than by experiencing more of this vast and baffling country?
Beyond finding the one place in Australia where the summer weather wasn’t a murderous inferno, I had a much more important goal for our Tasmania trip: to hike the Cradle Mountain summit on New Year’s Day.
My past few years had been meandering and futile, and I’d recently found myself unemployed. For months my typical day involved scrolling through several hundred jobs ads that all reminded me I was not, technically speaking, qualified for anything, and trying to hold off until at least noon before having my first glass of coffee-flavoured tequila.
Years ago I’d read that Australia had the highest rate of skin cancer per capita in the world, but also the highest recovery rate. This particular article attributed the high recovery rate to the cheerful, easygoing, no-dramas national attitude. Whether this was scientifically defensible or not, it made an impression on me: if the average Aussie could manage skin cancer with a positive attitude, surely I could at least stop handling my lack of career prospects by lying facedown on the floor in a puddle of tears and snot. I was, on paper at least, Australian – it was time I started acting like it. I’d discovered the Cradle Mountain hike on Tourism Tasmania’s list of 60 Great Short Walks. At six to eight hours, it seemed pretty long for a ‘short’ walk. But doing an ambitious hike with the definitive reward of a summit struck me as exactly what I needed to kickstart the year.
On January 1, Steve and I stood in the Cradle Mountain car park as dawn broke on a brand new year.
‘Hey,’ Steve said as we laced our hiking boots, ‘how about we do the Dove Lake trail? It looks nice.’
This was about the eighth time he’d suggested this.
‘I told you already, it’s mostly flat. How is walking in a circle around an oblong lake going to set me up for a hard-charging, success-filled year?’
‘It’d just be nice.’
‘Says the man with a career!’ I retorted, as if this made perfect sense. How could he possibly understand? When it came to redundancies, he’d always been on the giving end.
We set off, bypassing the deep blue calm of Dove Lake and its forested surrounds. Steve looked dejectedly over his shoulder.
Bushwalking was one of the few ways we thought we fit into our new country. We’d always thought of Aussies as outdoorsy, people that liked getting out to surf, swim and hike. We’d been outdoorsy people in Canada, at least when the temperature was above -35.
But it turns out there’s outdoorsy people, and then there are Australians, who combine a love of nature with recklessness verging on insanity. Steve formed this impression from the first Aussies he’d met, while on vacation in Europe. There, a group of Australian blokes had invited him to go hang-gliding. In the Alps. They’d already been rappelling, bungee jumping, white-water rafting, parachuting and bull-running, and frankly, if things didn’t get a little more interesting, they were going to have to rollerskate the wrong way down the Autobahn, blindfolded. (As it turned out, one of them slept with a local’s wife, and they had to clear out of town abruptly when the husband rounded up a posse to demonstrate just how interesting Germany could be.) Moving to Sydney, we discovered this was part of the national character. Barefoot toddlers regularly flew downhill on scooters straight toward traffic, people casually drank more alcohol in an evening than I’d consumed in the past decade, and just beyond the bright yellow signs with NO SWIMMING – RIPS or pictures of deadly jellyfish, there were always, always people in the water. It was like the whole country was united in a joyous death wish.
In contrast, Steve and I have insurance on our insurance. We weren’t sure we could ever adapt to the fearlessness of Aussie culture. We’d lived here five years, yet we couldn’t shake our Canadian accents, we still asked where to find the whole bathroom instead of just the toilet, and despite having it explained to me numerous times, I still couldn’t distinguish between a mole and a dead-set mole.
None of this bothered Steve, but it irked me. I admired Aussies. I craved their carefree attitude. If I pushed myself, I thought, I was sure I could be more Australian. And that began with staring danger right in the face by hiking a really big mountain.
That said, despite some reviews I’d read online (including one with the memorable comment, ‘I thought I was going to die’), I assumed the Cradle Mountain hike wasn’t actually dangerous – just strenuous. Besides, I was seasoned at Great Walks, Short and Long. I’d hiked on five continents, including all four days and 4215 vertical metres of the Inca Trail. I could handle whatever Tasmania had to throw at me.
This excerpt from my current manuscript-in-progress, How to Be Australian, was shortlisted for the Lane Cove Literary Awards and first published in the 2017 anthology.