JARS v61n1 - Tasmania, Australia: Conference 2006

Tasmania, Australia: Conference 2006
Diane Weissman
Mountain View, California

"Stop watching the Discovery Channel...and start living it" read the Tasmania Tourism advertisement. Little did we know, as we booked our tickets to the Pacific Regional Rhododendron Conference in Burnie, Tasmania, how true this would be.
Members of the Emu Valley Rhododendron Society love having overseas visitors and worked hard to welcome us with enthusiasm and warmth. Local Senator Perry, along with Alvwyn Boyd, the Mayor of Burnie, is actively involved in the society and both joined the welcome committee. Emu Valley has over 200 members who together have created a 32-acre rhododendron show garden on a hillside outside the city. Emu Valley Rhododendron Garden is already a local landmark and will soon be recognized as a national and international destination as they celebrated their 25th anniversary in 2006.
Excellent food, splendid gardens and a diverse selection of speakers made for a superb conference - even for those who'd been attracted to our group more for the north Tasmania destination than the genus. Guan Kaiyun from China showed outstanding photos of native plants in full bloom, Holger Hachmann from Germany was a delight, and Ken Gillanders gave a very impressive presentation on Southern Hemisphere plants, whilst other volunteers complimented their presentations with local knowledge.
Outstanding private garden tours are always a highlight of any conference and we were not disappointed. The Kibbles garden was the most beautiful for many, the maples in the garden of Ron Dosser was very memorable, and the impossibly steep garden of Fairie Nielsen in a canyon will be difficult to forget.
Flying into Wynyard airport we'd seen the flat headlands to the east covered with the bright colors of fields of tulips grown for export around the world. The town of Burnie itself is small enough that on our one free evening we were able to walk to the observatory to watch the fairy penguins come ashore at dusk.
The post conference tour took us south to the World Heritage area of Cradle Mountain where dramatic uplifts of the earth have created peaks and lakes and a very different eco system from the fertile north shore of Tasmania. Our coach pulled over to watch a wombat grazing at the side of the road, then a dendrochronologist (professional tree ring counter) led us on a short tour demonstrating the age of the forest and explaining the historical importance of the various species of trees.
Unfortunately, at this point one of our participants slipped on the gravel and needed her foot x-rayed so I had the rare privilege of riding back to Burnie that night in the front seat of an ambulance, seeing a variety of wallabies and smaller marsupials grazing by the roadside and startled by the vehicle's lights.
Thursday a riverboat cruise took us upstream through the Gordon River World Heritage preserve. Sailing from Strahan, our captain first took us briefly through Hells Gate - so named by prisoners entering the harbor for incarceration at Sarah Island. This was the dreaded destination for convicts who had committed further offences after being shipped to Australia. Harsh conditions and cruelty were meant to teach these people a lesson.
Friday we drove through the Rivers National Park and over Mt. Arrowsmith to Hobart encountering unseasonably late snow as we stopped to view the huge hydro electric plants that power Tasmania. A rest stop at Lake St. Clair allowed us to catch sight of a few of the local birds and gain an appreciation of the wilderness hikes (treks of 5 to 10 days) that serious outdoors folks come to Tasmania for. Leaving the park we visited the Paradise House, a convict built farmhouse lovingly restored by the owners with antiques and collectables of all kinds.
The Davidsons' vireya garden on our approach to Hobart warrants a story of its own - what a story of perseverance and dedication of two school teachers. They, and many others from the Hobart Rhododendron Society, welcomed us for a BBQ dinner that night at the home of Joy O'Keefe and Ted Cutlan of Jubilee Nursery who also have an amazing hillside garden.
Hobart itself is a walkable city and Saturday morning gave us time to visit the famous Salamanca market and enjoy the annual Hobart rhododendron display at the Town Hall. Six inches of (unseasonable) snow had fallen overnight but thankfully rapidly melted so that we could continue with our planned garden tour on the slope of Mt Wellington. What an unusual sight for visitors and locals alike to see a rhododendron garden in full bloom with snow on the ground. (Winter snow is not uncommon and generally melts quickly, true frost is rare.) We learned that brush-tailed possums are the local equivalents of deer in terms of rhododendron pests. They climb the trees and large bushes which can't take their weight causing branch breakage and serious damage to trees and larger plants. Possum fencing is marginally effective, so traps are used to catch up to 50 per year in one garden. Later we visited a valley garden - a most amazing reclamation work of half a century. Until recently a display garden, but now a private retreat, it was almost a park with lakes and a garden of many "rooms" and vistas. We were truly privileged to visit this garden which hopefully will one day become a piece of national heritage.
Saturday evening saw us exploring the waterfront. The dock area has been redeveloped and now hosts excellent seafood restaurants - yum! Our group split up Sunday, some going on to the New Zealand Rhododendron Conference in Greymouth, with others heading off for independent exploration.
Our last day took us eastward to Port Arthur - a popular destination for Australian visitors for whom it is now fashionable to trace their convict heritage. Port Arthur was built after Sarah Island was closed as a penitentiary for the re-offenders. The shortage of skilled craftsmen, though, meant that all but the most recalcitrant had opportunities to teach or learn new skills, become productive and earn their freedom.
For us, though, the highlight was the Tasmania Wilderness Cruise from Pirates Bay. Craig and Nick, two local entrepreneurs, had just purchased a (30-passenger) pontoon stabilized, former whale-watching boat to expand their growing business taking visitors along the impressive south east coast of Tasmania. We soon encountered a pod of around 100 dolphins who frolicked around us, leaping out of the water singly, and in tandem to heights that would make the trainers at Sea World green with envy. Thousands of mutton birds darkened the surface of the water splashing and diving as a group then suddenly took to the air in a giant cloud of birds - and lined the high cliffs of dolerite and sandstone.
Suddenly they spotted a humpback whale and it was full power ahead to get a closer view. Cutting the engines at 100 meters from the giant animals we drifted and watched a group of three humpbacks interact with the dolphins and who gradually approached our boat, spy hopping and breaching quite regularly, and coming at one point within 10 meters of our boat as if to check out the new arrival. Our thoughtful guides produced a snack of smoked octopus, salmon and tuna as we sped back in record time to the harbor, talking of the great travel movies that we'd be making.
Perhaps we'll send our movie to the Discovery Channel!