My plane drops below a blanket of clouds and skims wind-scoured Bass Strait, a cold stretch of sea between mainland Australia and its southernmost state, the 68,400-square-kilometre island of Tasmania. The shoreline appears dark and forbidding against a veil of rain; a sky like dirty sheep’s wool stretches away forever.
We make our way toward the far end of the island, then touch down in Hobart, Tasmania’s capital, one of the world’s most southerly landfalls. I disembark into a gust of warm air and the perfume of eucalyptus. I pause to take in an oddly familiar stand of gum trees. Tasmania was my happy boyhood home, and this is my first time back in 25 years. I’ve come in part to relieve nostalgia—and to find something exceedingly rare.
My quest came to me when a waiter in Chicago brought me water that had been bottled, according to its label, in Cape Grim, Tasmania, “Home of the World’s Cleanest Air and Water.” How could anyone make such a claim? The waiter vouched for the water: “It’s the sweetest and crispest I’ve ever tasted.” At $15 a bottle, I think to myself, it had better be.
“Try it,” he urged.
“I will,” I replied.
I decided right then that I would go straight to the source for my tasting—and to see if I could also find some of that pure air the label touted.
I’d done some research, which supported the claim of Cape Grim’s purity: Its atmosphere measures 200 particles per cubic centimetre of air versus tens of thousands of particles measured in major cities. That had settled it. I would go to breathe free and to revisit the “Tassie” spirit that had given me so much joy and vitality as a child. My plan was to meander in a generally easterly arc from Hobart and points south, exploring wild coastlines and forests before ending my journey in the far northwest, at Cape Grim, on the very edge of the land. I’d cover roughly 1450 kilometres miles en route to the world’s cleanest air.
After a night of rain, the morning light in Hobart has a special quality that sharpens the lines and enhances the warmth of its old sandstone buildings. I amble down the alleyways in this city founded in 1803, enjoying the tang of the sea, and arrive at a harbourside esplanade under a bower of century-old poplar trees. I’m in one of the great open-air bazaars, the popular weekend Salamanca Market.
Slim hippie girls flick through racks of vintage clothes. Baskets overflow with apricots and black cherries. I pick up a cucumber as long as my arm; a Vietnamese vegetable vendor chuckles at my astonishment. Nearby, a woman offers samples of cheese soaked in Pinot Grigio. I run my hand over a crate of Jonagold apples—my favourite—then follow the sound of laughter to a rotund man in a red-striped shirt.
“Madam!” he cries at a passerby. “Please have a free taste of my sour bubble-gum liquorice. It will make you young again.”
Confectioner Peter Terry looks like the right person to answer my big question.
“What, to you, makes Tasmania special?” I ask him.
“Its naturalness,” he says without hesitation. “There is a beauty about the people. And this one island has everything mainland Australia offers, all within a 240-kilometre radius.”
I slip between a pair of stalls to watch the busy market scene playing out in front of me. I see an Indonesian woman bend over a rack of herbs and flavourings, inhaling the scents of Tahitian lime, stevia, and French tarragon. A nattily dressed couple busily chatting in British accents waft by. A Brazilian man with a green string bag slung over his shoulder dances barefoot to the music of a cello.
I wonder to myself if these folks, like me, are also pursuing a promise found on (or is it in?) a bottle. Although Tasmania has been considered a backwater by some, the world is discovering Australia’s largest island.
One of Tasmania’s showpieces lies west of Hobart in a place known as the Styx Valley of the Giants. My companion for this leg of the trip is Vica Bayley, a sprightly fellow with spiky red hair who works for the Wilderness Society. He is bringing me to the Styx Big Tree Reserve, which includes a trail called the Tolkien Track. We pass through pastures dotted with sheep and a town called Plenty that is so small it comes and goes between beats of my heart. We turn off the highway and follow a logging road into the hills, stopping at dusk on the edge of the Styx River. From there we proceed on foot with flashlights. Bayley leads me over fallen tree trunks padded with moss. Huge ferns arc overhead. A bird swoops like a ghost and alights on a branch.
“It’s a tawny frogmouth,” Bayley whispers. “They’re rare to see.”
Then Bayley vanishes. Suddenly, he calls out, “In here!” Following his voice, I climb down into darkness. He shines his flashlight, and I see that we’re inside the hollow trunk of a giant tree—a space so large that 20 people could swing their arms around without ever touching. “It gets better,” Bayley says, and he’s gone again.
I scramble to catch up and then stop. A vast pillar soars through the canopy without tapering, a tree trunk almost as thick 200 feet up as at its base. I whistle in astonishment.
“We call it Gandalf’s Staff, after the wizard in The Lord of the Rings,” Bayley says. “It’s a 280-foot-tall Eucalyptus regnans, the world’s tallest species of hardwood tree.” He adds that all of the specimens taller than California’s redwoods were logged long ago.
When Tasmania’s remaining old-growth giants were subject to logging some years back, activists, including Bayley, protested by living on platforms on the flanks of Gandalf’s Staff and in ground camps until the government stepped in. The tallest trees are now protected in a small preserve, but areas nearby are still vulnerable to clear-cutting. Up to 90 percent of the felled trees will end up as wood chip, Bayley tells me, destined to be turned into newsprint and toilet tissue. His mission is to get “high conservation value” forests like these protected in perpetuity.
“This whole forest is central to your clean air pursuit,” he observes.
I head north from Hobart along Tasmania’s east coast. Halfway up, I stop in the town of Bicheno, where I meet men who catch “crays,” or southern rock lobsters, an important Tasmanian export. A lone lobster fishing vessel, the Even Stevens, tugs at its moorings as a kid dangles a line from the jetty. I ask him who owns the boat.
“Me dad,” he says. The boy is Connor Bailey, apple-cheeked and earnest. The arrival within minutes of his father, Andrew, kindles an adoring smile from his son.
“As soon as he fit into a life jacket he came to sea with me,” Bailey says. “He was three.”
We climb on to the boat, and Connor scoops a crayfish out of the wet well. The lobster writhes in his hand, clacking its tail. I ask Connor what he likes best about life at sea. “I have wonderful experiences catching fish and helping my dad,” he answers.
“Yeah, and you get paid loads for doing it,” Bailey chimes in. Father and son land up to 50 lobsters a day, the meat fetching an average of $60 per kilogramme. What will the boy do with all the money that he is earning?
“I have three dreams,” he answers—to attend college; to buy his dad a Ferrari; and, one day, to own the fishing boat.
I ask his father what makes these crays so valuable.
“You just couldn’t find a cleaner environment,” Bailey says. “On a still day you can see down in the water 20 metres. Without this cleanliness, the crays wouldn’t taste the way they do.”
It’s time for me to make my way to the place that lured me here to begin with, Cape Grim. I head inland and west, aiming for Tasmania’s northwest coast. Four hours of driving brings me to an expanse of sea fringed with white sand near Montumana. Though it’s midsummer here—January—not a soul is on the beaches or surfing the crystal green barrels peeling down the coast. I soon get lost in all the beauty, literally, and spend an hour trying to find my way back to the main road. Disoriented, I pull up to a farmhouse and ask a fellow wearing an undershirt for directions. He signals for me to follow him toward an old shed. I ask his name.
“Poss,” he says.
“As in Possum?”
“Yeah, something like that.” He grins.
Poss (aka Laurence Good) leads me inside the shed, and my jaw drops. He has converted the structure into a pub. Not a pokey little wet bar with refrigerator; it’s a full size pub. A blonde mannequin stands at the beer tap.
“That’s Monica,” Poss says. “She never complains.”
A logging saw is nailed to the wall. Hanging from the roof beams are hobnailed boots, a World War I helmet, a blacksmith’s bellows. Poss, leaning over the bar with a cigarette dangling from his lips, tells me he sometimes uses the pub for community meetings but mostly it’s a place to meet new folks.
“I get the odd lost tourist and end up giving them a feed and shower and a bed for the night. I’ve got mates from all over: French, Yanks, Swiss, you name it. It’s part of the Tassie way, you see. We like meetin’ people.”
When I decline Poss’s offer of a midmorning beer, he hands me a can of Sprite. “Better check the use-by date on that, mate,” he says. I start to look, then catch his joke; not many of Poss’s visitors turn down a beer for soda, even at 10 a.m.
Poss left school at age 12 to cut timber. He says that Tasmania’s conservationists and industrialists need to reach a compromise. “Tassie can’t survive on tourism alone,” he notes. “You’d have to have a coffee shop on every corner.”
The following day I’m closing in on Cape Grim. I’m hoping to visit the government’s Baseline Air Pollution Station here; it provides baseline clean air samples to labs around the world. But public visits, I discover, aren’t allowed. It seems that just a whiff of hair spray or cologne can disturb the station’s highly calibrated pollution-detection devices. The officer in charge, Sam Cleland, offers to meet me instead in Smithton, a nearby town where he has an office at a safe distance from the station’s sensitive mass spectrometers and gas chromatographs.
Cape Grim was chosen for the air-monitoring station, Cleland explains, because prevailing westerly winds arrive here after an uninterrupted journey of more than 19,000 kilometres across open ocean.
“Is it really the cleanest air in the world?” I ask.
Cleland qualifies his answer as any good scientist would.
“That’s tricky,” he says. “I can’t measure all the air everywhere at once. But I can say that Cape Grim sets the standard for clean air in the world.”
What does that mean for Tasmanians?
“To have a place that’s so clean is rare,” he says. “We have to be very careful not to spoil it.”
Cleland shows me a sealed glass flask holding an air sample bound for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, where the Cape Grim air will be measured against California air.
“From such comparisons we have learned that some ozone-depleting gases banned in the 1990s are finally declining,” Cleland says. “That’s great for the planet. On the other hand, we’ve seen rising levels of carbon dioxide, which is causing global warming.”
Now I’m hankering to get to Cape Grim itself, a few kilometres away. But access is via private land, and I’m not allowed in for another two days. I detour south to the town of Marrawah, where I meet Geoff King, a ruddy fellow with a puff of white hair poking from the neck of his shirt.
“How are you?” I ask, shaking his hand.
“Thriving, mate, thriving,” he says.
King, a farmer, has offered to show me a rare spectacle. Before we set off, he lashes a dead wallaby—roadkill—to the trailer hitch of his truck.
“With it we’ll lay a scent trail for the devils,” he explains. I gag and edge upwind. “Rich, isn’t it?” he says with a laugh.
I trail King in my car through the thick bush and onto a plain that is spiked with jagged rock. We stop at a fisherman’s shack, where a replica of the skull of a Tasmanian devil sits on a shelf. A big window overlooks a patch of grass. I dump my pack in the shack and follow King outside again.
As we walk, King tells me he scaled back his cattle operation when he learned his land was home to Aboriginal historical sites. He touches a bank of exposed dirt thick with broken shells.
“A midden,” he says. “Here the Manegin people left the remains of the shellfish they’d collected along this coast.”
I try to picture Tasmania’s Aborigines, who lived in isolation for millennia before being driven from their homes— and murdered— by European invaders.
“There’s an incredible story in this landscape,” King says. “I feel a passion for it, a responsibility.”
Back at the shack, King stakes the wallaby carcass to the ground outside the window. He comes inside, reeking, and turns off the lights. In the darkness he tells me how the Tasmanian devil, a marsupial with the strongest bite, pound for pound, of any animal, has been persecuted by farmers.
“I was frightened of them,” he says. “They were vermin. But then I became fascinated. I’d come to the shack with a good book and wait for the first crunch of bones.” Now King brings wildlife enthusiasts here to raise awareness of the endangered devils’ plight. Since 1996, 80 percent of the devil population has been lost to an infectious cancer that causes facial tumours.
I hear a rasping sound outside. King flips a switch, illuminating a black primeval creature—a big male devil we can watch through the window. Looking like a cross between a rat and a feral cat, it burrows its face into the wallaby’s belly and gnaws through the backbone.
“They’re solitary scavengers, very timid, actually,” King says. This devil doesn’t look timid, with blood streaming from its teeth. Its ears prick up at a sound in the bush, and it scampers away. A smaller, prettier female takes its place at the carcass, but soon the big boy is back. The devils roar at each other like brawling drunks, then the female flees. We watch as the male reduces the wallaby to a mash of grey fur.
I’m on the final leg of my journey. Dark clouds march in from the horizon as I pass a turn for Dismal Swamp, a blackwood forest, and another for Footrot Flats. Cape Grim is all that lies ahead, on the farthest edge of northwest Tasmania. At a fork in the road I rendezvous with Helen Schuuring, grey-haired, sharp-eyed, wearing a long cattleman’s coat. Schuuring runs tours of Woolnorth, a 50,000-acre farm near the Cape Grim water-collection facilities. She strikes me as a stern character, until she tells me about the tourists who buy bottled air at the farm gift shop.
“How do you bottle air?” I ask.
“You put a label on a bottle,” she says dryly. I like her already.
We drive past old stone shearers’ quarters and along meadows where dairy cows graze to the rocky headland of Cape Grim itself. I spot the government air-monitoring station—its air intakes and anemometers whirring on the roof—on a bluff a kilometre away. Exiting the car, I lean into a fresh wind and push through saltbush and poa grass to the edge of the world. I find black cliffs plunging 300 feet to the Indian Ocean.
“It’s a quiet sea today,” Schuuring declares.
That’s not what I observe. Huge swells rolling in from Antarctica are detonating against the murderous rocks. Spouts of wind-whipped water tear like mini-tornadoes across the waves. Schuuring gives a little skip, as if to take flight, her long jacket dancing on a gust.
“I feel as if I’m a professor in a Harry Potter movie,” she says. “This place just fills you with the desire to soar.”
After a bit she leaves me to explore on my own. This is my chance. I turn my face to the wind, spread my arms, and suck in lungfuls of air—air that has raced more than 19,000 kilometres around half the globe without touching land, air that I’ve crossed continents to breathe, the purest air in the whole world. It tastes a little grassy, but I savour it because I feel incomprehensibly lucky to be here and not in Mumbai or Lagos or Manhattan, where the air can choke you. I’m tingling all over. This is one of the great moments of my life.
Then Schuuring appears at my side.
“The wind’s blowing from the wrong direction,” she drawls. “This breeze is from the north, full of muck from Melbourne.”
“This isn’t it? This isn’t the world’s cleanest air?” I ask.
“Not today. You’ll have to return when the westerly’s blowing.”
“Arrghhh,” I moan, incredulous and deflated. I sit in the grass and watch the weather fouling. Then I think about karma and wonder if I’ve worked hard enough to deserve a taste of the supercharged superwind of the great southern oceans. I haven’t yet offset the carbon from my flights to Tasmania. Maybe I need to ride my bicycle more and plant a tree occasionally.
The world’s cleanest regularly monitored air may have eluded me, but its significance has not. Records from the air-monitoring station show that the cleanest days today are as dirty as the most polluted days of 1976. I think about how we are each a guardian of our environment. I make a pact with myself to do more to help. I send a prayer up on the breeze, a prayer that wisdom will prevail and that one day my kids will breathe air even cleaner than this.
Appeared in the January 2013 issue as “In Search Of The World’s Cleanest Air.”
The island of Tasmania is the southernmost state of Australia, separated from the mainland by the Bass Strait. It is around 300 km south of Melbourne. Hobart, which is in the southwest of the 68,000 sq km island, is Tasmania’s capital.
Tasmania’s primary airport is in Hobart. There are no direct flights from India to Australia. Flights on most carriers require at least one layover in a South East Asian country. The journey takes a minimum of 15 hours, including layovers. Domestic flights to Hobart are available from Melbourne (90 minute flight), Sydney (two hour flight) and other Australian cities. Daily ferries also sail between Melbourne and Devonport (9-11 hours).
There is no major public transportation on the island of Tasmania. There are no passenger trains, and buses are infrequent and only ply between major cities. The most convenient way of getting around is to rent a car, which can be done easily from Hobart airport, and within the city (www.hertz.com.au; www.thrifty.com.au). The typical rental for a five-seater hatchback is around ₹3,000 per day.
Indian travellers to Australia require a visa. A tourist visa is issued for a period of 3-12 months. A visa costs about₹7,173 and the application process takes approximately 15 working days. Forms and the list of required documents are available at www.vfsglobal.com/australia/india/.
These are the warmest months in Tasmania and days are bright and sunny. There is light rainfall all across Tasmania throughout the year. A number of festivals such as Festivale in Launceston, Taste of Tasmania in Hobart, and small local fairs take place during the summer months (Dec-Feb).
The southerly winds from Antarctica make May-Aug the wettest and coldest months in Tasmania. The state also experiences snowfall. Winter festivals include the Antarctica Mid-Winter Festival in June and the Chocolate Winterfest in Latrobe, in July.
Hobart Cabins and Cottages at Elwick, has family rooms for 5 people, holiday homes for up to 14 people, and a large barbecue area (+61-3 62727115; hobartcabinscottages.com.au).
The Bicheno Backpackers Hostel, near Douglas Apsley National Park has a 28-bed dormitory as well as four bedrooms(+61-3-63751651; www.bichenobackpackers.com/).
Rydges Hobart is a heritage hotel 2 km away from Hobart’s Central Business District (CBD), with airy rooms and quiet gardens (+61-3-62311588; www.rydges.com).
The Bicheno Ocean View Retreat is a boutique hotel with rooms overlooking Diamond Island and the pristine shores of the east coast (+61-3-63751481; www.bichenooceanviewretreat.com).
The Hotel Grand Chancellor has rooms overlooking the Hobart harbour and is just a few steps away from Salamanca Market (+61-3-62354535; www.grandchancellorhotels.com).
The Winged House in Cape Grim is ten minutes away from the regional airport and has its own helipad. It has facilities for kayaking, trout fishing and golf (61-2-92476894; thewingedhouse.com.au).
Along with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, Taz the Tasmanian devil was one of Warner Bros’ most iconic cartoon characters. Quite unlike the goofy and good-natured Taz though, the cuddly-looking devils are fierce carnivores, and watching them attack animal carcasses on the road is considered quite an adventure, for locals and tourists alike. Kings Run Wildlife Tours in Marrawah gives visitors the opportunity to see the endangered Tasmanian devils in the wild. For those who would like a closer look, the Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park in Taranna has viewing areas to watch the devils feed, and also allows visitors to hand-feed kangaroos.
is a filmmaker and journalist who lived in Tasmania before moving to Norfolk Island and, then the United States.
is a contributing photographer to National Geographic Traveler (U.S.), based in Hong Kong.
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