Kookaburras and ferries: Tasmania by motorcycle

In the summer of 2019 I put together a spreadsheet detailing where in the world my husband John and I could spend two to three weeks exploring the countryside on motorcycles. I dissected Spain, Portugal, Norway, New Zealand, Croatia, Iguazu Falls and Tasmania in detail, including in my analysis the cost and duration of flights, bike rental and the availability of a tour for those places where we were illiterate. The winner for lowest cost and most intriguing destination was a self-guided tour in Tasmania, an island state off the southern coast of Australia.

When an early snow abbreviated our scheduled trip to the Dakotas, we were even more determined to get back to touring on two wheels. For the rest of the fall and winter of 2019, our touring energy focused on the Tasmanian trip. Emails flew across the Pacific nailing down the exact dates, itinerary, ferry accommodations, must-see places and must-do activities, all the while making sure John had at least one day of guided trout fishing. Dena at Bike Round Oz was amazing at giving us what we asked for! Once the itinerary was set, I spent a day entering the recommended routes into John’s Garmin using the Basecamp app and into my phone’s Google Maps. I then printed out the map for each day, just in case my U.S. phone didn’t work down under.

Great Ocean Road and the Apostles

Meanwhile, we looked intently at the news regarding brushfires in Australia. We were no strangers to wildfires, as we endured the 2014 Carlton Complex Fire in Washington and significant wildfires and bad air quality almost every year since. We knew life and motorcycle touring can happen amid a wildfire, as long as every action is governed by answering the question “Is this safe and wise?”

Kookaburras

By the New Year we were pleased the brushfires were under control, with few in Tasmania. However, by the middle of January we were aware China was fighting a new virus, and already one person was sickened with it in the Seattle area. By the night before our scheduled flight on February 20, 2020, we were again asking ourselves if it was safe and wise, this time about the virus. Having already decided this motorcycle vacation was within our criteria for safety and wisdom, we concluded riding motorcycles on the “wrong” side of the road in a foreign land—while under the influence of jet lag—was probably a lot more risky than the threat of the novel corona virus. We loaded our bags bound for the Alaska/Qantas flights to Los Angeles and Melbourne.

The only real downside to Australia (pun intended) was the long flight. We were mentally prepared for 20 hours of flying, but we needed another seven hours just to cross the Cascade Mountains in winter, battle Seattle traffic, get the car parked, take an Uber to the airport and make adjustments to luggage/carryon capacity at the airport.

Customs and immigration went smoothly in Melbourne due to the pre-authorization required by Australia’s government. We exchanged our U.S. phone SIM cards for one of the several Australian SIM cards available, making it so we could call each other if we were separated, and my Google Maps should work with ample amounts of talk and data. Taking the red double-decker bus brought us to downtown Melbourne by noon on Saturday; though we left on Thursday, the magic of the International Date Line cost us a day in the westward travel. We schlepped our luggage in the late summer heat from the Southern Cross rail station to our hotel and started exploring the city on foot.

Tasmanian devil

We soon discovered the free zone for Melbourne’s transit system; it makes Melbourne a visitor-friendly city for those on foot. We spent Saturday and Sunday getting rid of most of our jet lag and enjoying the city, sampling its coffee culture and restaurants and visiting its cathedral, a few museums, the ferry dock and St. Kilden’s beach, all by transit. We congratulated ourselves on this means of jet lag decompression.

Pickup of our bikes was scheduled for Monday afternoon in Melton, a suburb of Melbourne about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the ferry dock. After an efficient and inexpensive train ride, it was a quick exchange of stuff from suitcases to motorcycle side cases and a change from walking gear into riding gear. The motorcycles, BMW R 1200 GS and F 700 GS, were well worn and had more miles on them than we usually ride, but we were assured they would do whatever we asked of them. We were out of Melton by 4 PM, just in time for rush-hour traffic back into the city. John’s Garmin would not accept the recommended route to the ferry, so I was the navigator using Google Maps. Traffic was civilized even in congested areas.

The first few miles on a rental bike are always sketchy: figuring out the sweet spots on the clutch, throttle, fore and aft on the saddle, pegs, mirrors; understanding the different road signs, not to mention being on the left side of the road and learning lane positions and how to exit a highway. I gained a good bit of needed muscle memory during the short trip to the ferry.

Motorcycles had already started congregating at the ferry dock, some with sidecars, some looking antique. It took a while for me to figure out this was the Australian Indian Club—about 70 bikes about to enjoy their annual two-week fling on Tasmania. What a delightful bunch of people and motorcycles! They even had a cowboy and cowgirl from Texas riding an Indian.

Vintage Indian motorcycles on the ferry over to Tasmania.

Unlike Washington ferries, where motorcycles are given priority over cars in both loading and exiting the ferry, all bikes had to wait until they could be secured amidships. This minor inconvenience was worth it to have the proficient deck hands secure the bikes to prevent damage from ocean swells during the nine-hour voyage to Tasmania. Unbeknownst to me, they also used a rubber band to secure my brake handle, further limiting vibration-induced movement. I discovered the rubber band when my bike started to smell something odd and almost stalled climbing out the gang ramp. Surprise, my brake was half on! The bike worked a lot better after I got rid of the rubber band.

Our first day in Tasmania probably had the best twisties of the entire trip from Devonport to St. Helens via Scottsdale. It also had a little sprinkle of rain punctuating the “Slippery When Wet” signs present on every great curve. Delightful riding! Stopping at an overlook, we heard cackling and saw a bird flying out of a eucalyptus tree, which Aussies call gum trees. Yup! Kookaburra Up in the Old Gum Tree. We had to sing the song.

Bay of Fire

The first day of riding also included the Bay of Fire, which was a slight disappointment as it’s not really on fire except when the tide is just right. During our first fill-up with petrol we learned there is no pay at the pump and it is illegal to wear your helmet into the petrol station.

The obligatory fishing day dawned with ominous skies and an even more threatening weather report. The only problem with an established tour is customized events like fishing with a guide must be nailed down in both time and location months ahead. The short morning ride to meet the guide was an experience itself, as road repairs on slimy and poorly compacted gravel added treachery to the rain, wind and hail. The fishing guide was so accommodating—he and his wife provided us with tea, biscuits and a warm, dry place to change into fishing gear. Fishing was difficult and challenging, but John learned a new technique for casting in dense brush. I spent the wet morning chatting with Fiona, the guide’s wife. Once the weather cleared, I headed to Launceston to see the Cataract Gorge, one of Tasmania’s must-see places.

After the fishing day, our schedule allowed a more leisurely exploration of the island. Although each day’s journey was entered into the Garmin Navigator V with the most up-to-date maps available, the Garmin was next to useless. We were warned by Bike Round Oz not to rely on GPS for navigation, but we didn’t expect Garmin would show we were in an ocean or a field/forest when we were actually on a road. Consequently, the Aussie SIM card in my phone using Google Maps, updating in short segments, took us where and how we wanted to travel.

Wineglass Bay

One of the topics of conversation we enjoy while zooming along on our bikes is identifying roadkill. Back home, we are adept at distinguishing one road smudge from another, but in Tasmania we had no idea what we were seeing—and we were seeing a lot of it. We satisfied our curiosity by visiting the East Coast Wildlife Sanctuary outside of Bicheno. There we met real live Tasmanian devils, Eastern and spotted quolls, echidnas, wombats (a cousin of the koala), wallabies and kangaroos, cockatiels and parrots. Regrettably, our roadkill recognition skills improved only slightly, as most still looked like a smudge with a tail—some bigger, some smaller. Nonetheless, we learned to avoid echidna dead or alive (or else we would need to buy a new tire) and wombat (or else we would need to buy a new wheel).

Adventure Bay (on the left)

The rest of the Tasmanian must-see places followed in daily succession as we journeyed clockwise around the island: Wineglass Bay, Port Arthur (just brief visit—no need to wallow in man’s inhumanity to man), Remarkable Cave, Hobart, Adventure Bay (definitely not the home of the kiddy cartoon Paw Patrol), Strahan, a cruise on the Gordon River, and finally Cradle Mountain.

Our two-day experience at Cradle Mountain National Park consisted of staying in a fully equipped cabin with a wood stove for heat and some fire-starter that looked but didn’t smell like marshmallows. The innkeeper hinted about one guest who actually ate some fire-starter. With the weather forecast promising rain for our second day, we crammed as much hiking as possible into the first day, ending with a delightful walk home from dinner among the paddymelons, a species of small nocturnal kangaroo-like critters with eyes that glow at night. The rain the next day was relentless, so we took advantage of the bus system in the national park to explore the various trailheads, lodgings, souvenir shops and dining spots. This do-nothing day was thoroughly enjoyable, despite the news from home, where Washington was reporting several deaths from COVID-19.

The direct route to the Devonport ferry from Cradle Mountain was a mere 82 km (51 miles), but in looking at maps and photos, the town of Stanley looked interesting with its Nut, a tall rocky hill with cliffs extending to the sea. We spent the day exploring the north coast of Tasmania for about 325 km (202 miles), just because it was there.

Stanley and the Nut

Looking at the road signs out to Stanley, one for the town of Penguin intrigued us. This turned out to be a worthy stop on the return trip to the ferry.

The author and her husband in Penguin.

At the ferry, we again met the Indians. They did Tasmania in a counterclockwise manner, whereas we went clockwise. They were quite envious of our wood-fired cabin the day before, since some were still cold, wet and muddy. Once more, we patiently waited to be loaded onto the ferry amidships, and the bikes were skillfully attached to the ferry by the deckhands. It was an uneventful crossing—the best kind—and this time I took the elastic band off the brake handle before I started my bike in Melbourne.

Early in the planning phase, we noticed Melbourne was a gateway to the Great Ocean Road with its Twelve Apostles; only about eight of the famous sea stacks remain. It is truly a destination highway, though our experience was somewhat impaired by the Australian version of Labor Day weekend, which generated more than average traffic and congestion. Nonetheless, it was spectacular and worth the diversion.

After the Apostles, we turned north to Grampians National Park to stay amongst the kangaroos, emus, cockatiels and kookaburras in Halls Gap. Climbing the Pinnacles turns out to be the thing to do, so we did it.

A walk-up overlook at Grampions National Park.

All through our Aussie adventure, the official evening and morning news kept us informed of deaths and illness from COVID-19, especially in the Seattle area. We were both quiet on the return leg of our journey to Melton/Melbourne, trying to avoid traffic and highways, extending our Australian experience as long as possible, trying to stay in a place unaffected by COVID-19 and hoping there would be many open seats on our return flights. The bike check-in was efficient and routine; no extra charges for anything. While taking the train back to our hotel in Melbourne, I was keenly aware of the unlimited opportunities for disease spread, having been oblivious to those same opportunities only 16 days before.

The return flight on March 11 did not have as many empty seats as we hoped, but I was again aware of the potential for disease transmission during the 20 hours of flights, lining up for immigration and customs, baggage claim and whatever else it takes to go through three airports. When our Uber arrived in Seattle, the first thing the driver did was hand us some alcohol wipes.

Taken during the Gordon River cruise.

The lack of other cars on the road confirmed our realization the universe had changed. The same traffic that hampered our progress going to the airport in Seattle traffic had evaporated on the trip home. Listening intently to Seattle radio, we learned the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic, Tom Hanks and his wife had COVID-19 while in Australia and Governor Inslee implemented social distancing and limited gatherings to no more than 250 people. We had take-out supper on the trip home. The next day, schools in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties closed and others soon followed. On Friday, President Trump declared the pandemic a national emergency.

During the summer of 2020, we found ourselves unwelcome in Canada and unwilling to accept the risks of overnight accommodations aside from camping. We used our motorcycles for essential travel, even claiming the annual BMW service was essential. We bought a new tent. When vaccines started to be safe and effective, we immediately signed up for a tour of the Alps, expecting to receive immunizations by May. We continue to be hopeful we will once again be welcome in Europe and Canada by June 2021 for non-essential travel. Then as before, we will continue to ask ourselves the important question—is it safe and wise?—and hope for better days in 2021.