We’d managed to find the A10. We were headed north from Hobart, through Tasmania’s forested heart, our hired black Commodore straddling the highway’s narrow lane. Steve gripped the wheel. His body tensed with the effort of driving on what we still secretly felt was the wrong side of the road.
Originally from Canada, we’d recently held our hands to our chests and pledged our loyalty to Australia. Our stiff new passports featured dingoes and kookaburras. Keen to explore more of this vast and baffling country, we were road-tripping around what I’d come to think of as New Zealand Lite.
Bright summer sky arched above us. We’d planned a spontaneous, stop-wherever-the-drive-takes-you day, at least until we arrived at our Airbnb in Launceston, a town neither of us could pronounce. We settled on Lawnchester.
As we passed a sign for something called the Tarraleah lookout, I pushed myself upright.
This was exactly the sort of spontaneous Tasmaniana I’d been hoping for. I pointed to the sign.
“You haven’t seen enough lookouts yet?”
After a decade together, I knew Steve wasn’t as keen on lookouts, or wineries, or anything that involved stopping the car. He likewise knew this ran counter to my enforced spirit of road-trip spontaneity. With a sign, he attempted to signal the turn by flicking on the windscreen wipers.
An industrial pipeline, large enough to drive the Commodore through, ran parallel to the scrawny side road. Another sign indicated the lookout was “ahead”.
“You’re sure you haven’t seen enough lookouts?”
“Just keep going.”
Single-storey houses appeared, lining the street. Rectangular structures with tidy triangle roofs, it seemed their architectural designs were based on preschooler art. The neighbourhood colour palate was Easter pastel – sea-foam green, lavender, pale pink.
The small front gardens were uniformly kept.
No other humans were in sight.
“Does something feel odd about this?” I asked.
Steve nodded. His eyes narrowed. The street signs were also not quite right: too decorative, in pastels that matched the house paint. It was as if we’d driven into a museum attempting to replicate small-town Australia in the late 20th century, except with a Latin American colour scheme.
There was no lookout in sight. Was this a trap? Was this whole town some sort of murder village, luring tourists off the highway with the low-risk charm of a lookout, only for their vehicles to later be pushed down a ravine and their bodies dissolved in barrels of acid? No, this was Tassie, not South Australia.
Steve pulled into an empty café car park. An open sign hung on the door.
“Lunch?” he asked.
“Aren’t you kind of creeped out?”
“Sure, but I’m mostly hungry.”
Inside, a teenager stood behind the counter, thumbing her mobile. Fluorescent lights accentuated the dozen tables and accompanying metal chairs. Billy Joel was on the speakers. There were no other customers.
Steve shrugged, stepped up to the counter, ordered the soup of the day – pumpkin – and took a window seat.
“Do you live in Tarraleah?” I asked the teen as I dug my wallet from my bag.
She kept her eyes on the till, waving a hand vaguely toward Steve. “There’s some info on the tables.”
On each table was a laminated A4 handout, printed on blue paper. It was titled “Answers to all the questions about Tarraleah you are dying to ask”. Originally a hydro village built in the 1930s, Tarraleah’s reason for existing vanished when the hydro operation was automated, the handout explained.
In 1996, Tarraleah closed down like an unprofitable convenience store. Most people left, taking their houses with them: “The houses were sold then literally cut up and were loaded onto trucks to be relocated around Tasmania”.
By 2005 only four people still lived in what remained of Tarraleah. In the meantime “a Tasmanian company” (left suspiciously unnamed) had bought what was left of the town and converted it into a resort with “a various number” of “accommodation types” and a golf course. The resort staff were now “the only people now living in Tarraleah apart from 24 ducks, 2 goats, 6 geese and about 30 highland cows”.
Tarraleah was no longer a town, but a five-star luxury lodge, with clientele including Australian dominatrix Madam Lash. The pamphlet noted Madam Lash “specialised in S&M services”, but did not clarify whether this was a not-so-subtle hint about the availability of said services, or just a fun nugget of Tarraleah trivia.
“What a weird place,” Steve said, dipping a piece of sourdough in his soup.
I nodded, looking out the window to the empty parking lot. I’d been partly right.
Tarraleah wasn’t a museum of the past, but an inadvertent glimpse into life to come.
Here was an Australian town at the vanguard of a dystopian future. Robots had taken nearly all the jobs, a shadowy company ran civic life, and ducks were considered people.
But the pumpkin soup was quite tasty, so the future isn’t all bad.
This article was originally published in the Big Issue, and was originally written as part of my debut memoir, How to Be Australian, in stores now.