The morning we took the boat out, clouds hung low in the sky at Pumphouse Point, a lakeside retreat deep in Australia’s central Tasmanian highlands. With Jim at the oars, Maggie and I scouted for rocks as we maneuvered through reeds to open water. Finally arriving at the center of the lake, we marveled at the beauty around us—the glassy surface of the water, the tall pines, the craggy slate. It was then that it began to rain.
Initially, there in the boat in the middle of the lake, it felt like a party. As the rain came down, first lightly, and then hard enough to turn the drops into pellets that bounced off the surface of the water, Jim and Maggie were ebullient. It would, they knew, be enough to soak the earth, enough to offer some relief from the drought that had lasted two years and nearly ruined Jim’s sheep farm. We hugged each other, and laughing, let the rain drench us.
Eventually, we started getting cold. Jim took up the oars again, and aimed for a shortcut that turned out to be too shallow to cross. By the time we made it back to land, sopping wet and hobbling barefoot over the rocky ground because our shoes were too soaked to wear, it was raining even harder. Jim’s phone rang. It was a call from Maggie’s daughter back at the farm. Concern clouded his face as he learned that the creek on their property had swelled to a turbulent river, cutting off some of the sheep from their paddock and threatening to wash them downstream. We hurried back to the truck.
As we clambered in, I caught a glimpse of Maggie. From beneath the worn leather hat she had pulled over her wiry, reddish-brown hair, her face was calm, but in her eyes was a determination I hadn’t seen before. Although she would later insist that she still didn’t feel at home in Australia’s southern island state, in that moment, to me at least, she looked wholly Tasmanian.
The memoir became a best seller. In the wake of its success, Maggie appeared on a television program that showcases the lives of extraordinary Australians. A Tasmanian sheep farmer named Jim Walters saw the program and was spurred to write Maggie a letter. “I had just been divorced and was filling a ream of pages trying to figure out what had happened,” Jim says. “On the show, Maggie said the same thing—that she wrote the book to try and make sense of it all. She had just had a bit of heartbreak, and I had had a bit of heartbreak.”
Maggie didn’t answer Jim’s letter for three weeks. But when she finally did, they quickly fell into correspondence. “He was very eager,” she recalls. “I would get emails from him at 2 a.m. with the subject line ‘Sleepless in Little Swanport.’ ” After a few months, he flew to the mainland to meet her. He was tall and broad, with a passion for Springsteen and an ability to make Maggie, already so accustomed to taking care of herself, feel safe. It wasn’t long before the uprooted Sydney intellectual and the Tasmanian sheep farmer fell in love. Months later, Jim invited Maggie and her kids to come live with him on his farm.
“I knew what I was getting myself into when it came to the work,” Maggie says. “I had lived on my aunt and uncle’s farm for years by then, and I knew what was involved—I liked what was involved. I like being useful, being competent. But I didn’t know how hard Tasmania would be.”
Jim tried to make it easier. When Maggie arrived at the farm, he had converted an old cottage on the property into a writing studio for her, put up a jump course for her daughter, an equestrienne, and erected rugby posts for her son. She fell in love with the thick stone walls of the house, its garden, and its history. The house, she learned, had been built by former convicts. She was drawn even further to Jim’s rootedness. “He’s like a big tree,” she said. “This is his place.”
The day before the rain finally came, we were on a small tour of the places that had been meaningful to Maggie as she adapted to her new home. We were headed to the cottage in Coles Bay, on the Freycinet Peninsula, where Jim had spent holidays since he was a kid and where Maggie had worked on her second book, another memoir, titled How to Get There, about her early days of trying to settle into Tasmania. It’s a place where thick forests tumble down to sandy beaches, and at one of them—the turquoise watered Wineglass Bay—wallabies brazenly hopped across the sand. We found ourselves at the edge of a field, seated at a sky-blue picnic table piled high with shells. At the Freycinet Marine Farm, whose young owners, Giles and Julia Fisher, raise oysters and mussels, we feasted on the glistening shellfish, our fingers sticky with brine and butter, a fat brown Labrador dog at our feet. “Definitely New Tasmania,” Maggie said.
By then, I had a sense of what she meant. New Tasmania, I saw now, was artisanal cheese and craft beer; it was well-curated goods that looked like they came straight from the pages of Kinfolk magazine and young couples who raise pristine seafood. It was fostered by initiatives such as millionaire David Walsh’s astonishing Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) just outside Hobart, and expressed in artful shops and farm-to-table restaurants and simply but beautifully decorated hotels like Pumphouse Point.
Old Tasmania was trickier. When the British started colonizing the island in 1803, they not only began a war against the indigenous people who had lived there for tens of thousands of years but also set about trying to tame Tasmania’s rough, gorgeous wilderness. In the process, they turned the island into a prison colony harsh even in comparison to the brutal one they had already established on the mainland. Many of the convicts who survived long enough to be released ended up staying on the island, and today, an estimated 74 percent of Tasmanians can trace their origins to them. That link may help explain the locals’ clear-eyed toughness, their insularity.
1 / 12Coles Bay, AustraliaSave PlaceSince Giles and Julia Fisher bought the Freycinet Marine Farm in Coles Bay, they’ve managed to increase their production from 50,000 oysters annually to 4 million, and have opened an outdoor café that serves fresh seafood to happy diners (and one very fat Labrador, who waits patiently below the picnic tables).
2 / 12Hobart, AustraliaSave PlaceThere’s no better place in Hobart for a sundowner than this bar and restaurant, situated on the pier where the ferry to the Museum of Old and New Art departs. Its menu is filled with Asian-inflected dishes such as Korean fried chicken and pork belly bao.
3 / 12Swansea, AustraliaSave PlaceOn 10 acres not far from Freycinet National Park, travelers can pick up homemade treats for every variety of sweet tooth, from freshly picked organic raspberries and chocolate-dipped walnuts to lavender ice cream and French crepes.
4 / 12Cygnet, AustraliaSave PlaceThe dining room is tiny and the menu is short at Port Cygnet Diner, but every dish—the savory organic beef burgers, the crisp and buttery fish sandwiches, and the milk shakes in flavors such as blueberry and cardamom—is beautifully prepared.
5 / 12Bothwell, AustraliaSave PlaceTasmania’s highlands, like Scotland’s, produce fine whiskey. Nant Distillery offers tours and tastings of its prizewinning single malt, and its restaurant is the perfect stop for lunch.
6 / 12Hobart, AustraliaSave PlaceAt this airy restaurant, built into the former newsroom of a local paper, chef David Moyle treats his pristine ingredients—delicate abalone, opalescent kingfish—with the lightest of hands, cooking most of them in his kitchen’s wood-fire oven.
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8 / 12Lake Saint Clair, AustraliaSave PlaceA 1940s hydroelectric plant at the southern edge of the Cradle Mountain–Lake Saint Clair National Park was recently transformed into a glass-walled lodge, part of which juts 900 feet into Australia’s deepest lake. Eighteen adults-only rooms, some with soaking tubs, are split between the art deco Shorehouse and the overwater Pumphouse, with rooms that seemingly float like boat cabins. From $170. This appeared in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue. See our full list of Where to Go 2016
9 / 12Hobart, AustraliaSave PlaceThe ideal complement to a visit to MONA, this harbor-side hotel, which was once a jam factory, is close to the museum’s ferry launch and packed—in both its convivial public areas and its 56 industrial-chic rooms—with contemporary works of art.—From $200
10 / 12Berriedale, AustraliaSave PlaceIt’s not an exaggeration to say that this museum, a 30-minute ferry ride from Hobart, put Tasmania on the international art map. Founded by millionaire native son and bad boy David Walsh, it is at once provocative and pleasurable. (Its nickname, after all, is the Museum of Sex and Death.)
11 / 12Battery Point, AustraliaSave PlaceThe sprawling complex of galleries, shops, and theaters also holds one of Maggie’s favorite cafés—Tricycle—and on Saturdays is home to an outdoor market that brings hundreds of local farmers, artisans, and craftspeople to sell their wares.
12 / 12Coles Bay, AustraliaSave PlaceOne of the star attractions of the savagely beautiful Freycinet Peninsula is this horseshoe-shaped beach with electric-blue waters. A hike (don’t be fooled by the Australian proclivity to refer to such excursions as “walks”) down to the sand brings you up close with wild wallabies and kangaroos, some of them so habituated to humans that they’ll nose up demanding picnic scraps.
The very thing that Maggie loved about Tasmania—that powerful sense of identity forged in a tight-knit community surrounded by harsh nature—seemed destined to keep her an outsider.
After our drenching in the boat at Pumphouse Point, it should have taken two hours to get back to the farm, but the rain, which was now flooding soil too dry and hardened to absorb much of it, complicated the journey. Over the radio, we heard that the road we had planned to take was closed. Arkie called again: Rain was pouring through the kitchen wall and flooding the ground floor; Maggie calmly told her to roll up the living room rugs and start laying down all the towels she could find. Jim dialed the police, desperate to convince them to let us through the blocked road. “I’ve got a thousand head in danger,” he said to the cop, who told him that as long as he had four-wheel drive he could attempt it. Minutes later, we came to a deep pond bisecting the road. Several cars had stalled, but Jim didn’t hesitate. We plowed through.
Finally we reached the farm. Water was still coming in through the kitchen wall, and the power was out. Sopping towels covered much of the floor. But Arkie and Clancy were undeterred, cheerfully sweeping out the water almost as quickly as it came in. Jim went immediately to check on the sheep, and came back relieved. Although the flood-swollen river had cut them off from their paddock, none had washed away. That night, Maggie and I cooked by candlelight while Jim fielded calls from neighbors. Every conversation started with “How much’d you get?”
The next day, I accompanied the two of them to assess the damage. Jim went ahead in the tractor, slowing down to throw feed out the back as he moved from one paddock to another, and Maggie and I followed in the utility vehicle. As she drove, she recounted some of the things about life on a Tasmanian sheep farm that had been hard to get used to: the dramatic shift of seasons; the intensity and length of the drought; the fact that during shearing—the most exciting week of the year on the farm—she was expected to cook for the crew of eight men hired to relieve the sheep of their fleece. And that there was always so much to do, so much that kept her from her writing.
Periodically, Jim’s voice would crackle over the walkie-talkie with a request that Maggie shut a gate, or circle around to get a closer look at part of the flock. He led us into a pasture where kangaroos circulated among the sheep, nearly as eager for the feed. “There’s a lamb down,” he said. Maggie pulled up the vehicle alongside the ailing animal, got out, and carried it into the back of the truck. The lamb looked to be near death, but Maggie was unsentimental. “It’s probably worms. We’ll take him back to the yards and dose him, but he probably won’t make it.” It was there again, that look I had seen when she was climbing into the truck, intent, like Jim, on getting back to the farm. As she did the day before when the rain started pelting, Maggie displayed the competence and confidence of a seasoned farmer—and of a Tasmanian used to battling the unpredictable forces of Mother Nature.
As I listened to Maggie’s plans, I felt pretty certain she would one day find her place—not necessarily by making artisanal cheese, but rather through the writing that always seemed to help her make sense of the most challenging moments in her life. Having published two memoirs, she was now working on a novel.
As the sun went down over the Hobart harbor, and I watched the bearded and tattooed pedestrians share space on the promenade with the rugged and weather-lined, a couple of the final sentences from How to Get There came to mind. To strive for happiness, Maggie had written, means I will never be content. But to live here means I have a chance at it.
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