Australia: Tassie-Mania!

Australia: Tassie-Mania!
Complacency can kill. I'm accelerating away from a gas station near Wynyard on Tasmania's A2 north coast road when I see a "ute"  -  an Aussie pickup  -  heading straight for me on my side of the road. For a second I'm stunned. Then just as the ute swerves violently to its right and out of my path, I realize what the problem is: I'm on the wrong side of the road...

The eerie feeling starts when Virgin Blue's 737-800 crosses the hazy Tasmanian coastline. Below, hedgerows and winding roads border patchwork meadows and copses. "We'll soon have you on the ground in Launnie," says the pilot. The sensation sharpens as Rodger Mortimer of Tasmanian Motorcycle Hire drives me through sleepy Evandale. Still there as I tour Launceston's somnolent downtown on Rodger's Yamaha 900, it intensifies as the setting sun sends long shadows and warm amber light down its quiet side streets. I could be cruising the lanes of 1950's England.

The red brick houses, corner pubs, neat walled gardens and narrow streets all echo Tasmania's British heritage. Australia's third oldest city, Launceston nestles in a valley at the confluence of the North and South Esk Rivers. A densely treed rift, Cataract Gorge dominates Launceston's westerly aspect, a setting that evokes many English West Country towns.

Next morning, in the parking lot of the rustic Balmoral Hotel, I meet Terry and Shane, two motorcycling "mates" from Traralgon, near Melbourne. They're here for the same reason I am: a five-day tour of Tasmania in celebration of Australian Motorcycle Week. Together, we cruise to Launceston's Civic Square for the start. I had in mind 20 riders at most, but the square rapidly fills  -  cruisers, sportbikes, standards, even a Vincent Rapide. In all, 170 riders have registered. So, as the facts on the ground suggest, this ride will be different from the familiar small group tour with its own guide and a support truck for luggage...

Our able guide is the former Aussie Superbike star Malcolm "Wally" Campbell, and he leads our phalanx out of Launceston heading for Scottsdale, an inland logging town, on our exploration of Tasmania's east coast. Spectators line the town's streets and traffic signals have been set to allow uninterrupted passage.

November means late spring in the southern hemisphere, and warm sunshine dapples a road lined with a tangle of spindly trees. Little of Tasmania's terrain is flat, and the Tasman Highway rambles a serpentine course east over successive ranges of hills. The group spreads out, but our course (and riding behavior) is steered by two ST1100-mounted Tasmanian policemen, Constables Pete McCarron and Errol Farrelly. Did they volunteer for this duty?

According to Lanceston-based McCarron, "Word came down from the bosses: You've been selected."

"But," Farrelly adds, "we already have our hands up for next year."

Through the historic tin-mining town of Derby we wind over the Weldborough pass to St. Helens, a meager fishing port, where I grab that famous Aussie staple from a bakery: a meat pie. It's delicious  -  savory and filling. By now, we're split into small groups, but a daily route sheet makes it easy to follow the course. Further south, the sandy coastline hovers behind a screen of gum trees, twisty as the road, as we summit Elephant Pass and cruise down into seaside Bicheno, day one's destination.