Winding roads and thickly-trenched trees span for miles either side of the descending Lyell Highway. The old Tassielink minibus rattles with each lunge as the balding wheels cackle underneath my seat. Looking out of the mouldy frosted window and ignoring the various small fungi growing from beneath the glass, I gaze towards Frenchman’s Cap. The seemingly-endless bushland rolls into a deep descent down the mountain. I am looking down the deep end towards the end of the world.
I force myself to look away. It’s been raining. The sky is constantly dark and overcast so it shouldn’t be a surprise that it is raining now, a thin coat of water speckling the ground. Dew sticks to the trees despite Earth’s aggravated breath circulating through the different green, brown and grey leaves. A yawn escapes my lips and I lean into the torn bus seat letting my eyes slowly shut as I drift off to sleep.
If one were to travel by car, the trip between Hobart and Queenstown would only take three-and-a-half hours. However, by bus the trip takes roughly five hours with a short 30-minute break at Derwent Bridge. I have memorised the timetable for Tuesday and Friday mornings. I remember each turn and swerve towards my destination so as not to become startled when we hit a bump or the bus gets a little too close to the cliffside edge.
In my sleep, I dream of the town I once called home. Hiding beyond the unnerving trees, in the depths of Australia’s secret state of Tasmania, is the small mining hamlet of Queenstown. My mind brushes against the tenuous memories of the once red-dusted roads filled with potholes and cracks and the empty buildings littering the streets.
My family moved to the West Coast in the ripe year of 2006. I was only six years old at the time and I remember sitting in the backseat of Dad’s old Holden Volvo, my brother to my left and our old long-haired Border Collie, Buster, on my lap. He died at the age of nineteen, when I turned eighteen, only one year older than me.
It was October and the wind still had a sharp, icy bite to it. We packed the car with everything we had and drove until we found somewhere we liked. My parents bought an old run-down house and fixed it up over the years. They fell in love with the light snow stretching along the peaks of Mount Owen and Mount Lyell throughout the year.
Just like now, the mountains surrounding the town have a patchy coat of snow flecked across their brown and barren exteriors, consequences of the mine. The blue sky is blocked by the ever-present stream of rain clouds.
The dirt roads that once spread all over town are now paved and sealed with fluorescent white lines, glowing to indicate which side is the right one.
As I arrive, long-neglected houses are being renovated and filled with families from all over the world. The main strip is bustling with tourists year-round and attendants rush to greet them in bookstores, galleries and take-away shops.
However, these changes have brought uncertainty to the town; the housing market has sky-rocketed, while generations of families have been forced to move in order to find work. Now, the vast number of new faces continue to replace the recognisable ones.
The bus rocks uneasily under me, bringing me back to the present. The radio crackles and the faint sound of Kenny Chesney’s ‘Back Where I Come From’ forces their voice through the static speakers.
I open my eyes and see that the rain has started pounding against the window, heavy droplets cut wide channels leaving smaller drips behind as they race each other down the frosted glass.
I look up from the window and spot the bright red, glowing numbers pulsing from above the bus driver’s thinning pate.
Fifteen minutes until I reach Queenstown.
I drop my gaze to the road rushing past. A sudden jolt brings the bus to a stop and a single wintery leaf settles against the window. Its cracked veins stick flat against the glass, making it appear translucent. I let out a heavy breath and the leaf detaches itself. As the bus begins to ambulate once again, I imagine the way the leaf crunches and snaps under the weight of the heavily-worn tyres like a bone breaking under pressure, bleeding onto the road and disappearing, any evidence of its existence gone in a flash.
Every time I return, it changes. New faces attached to new people. I can feel a smirk spread faintly across my dry, double-coated lips as my mind falls across the different people I’ve acquainted over the years.
I always say I can’t wait to leave and yet I keep coming back.
The bus suddenly rushes through Linda and in to Gormanston, passing rotting power poles and the occasional forgotten cemetery. At first glance, Linda could be seen as a forgotten ghost town hidden amongst the long grass and wiry trees. A fire scar is spread across the landscape, turning it into an ashen wasteland. Stubbled grey branches lie over the hills to the left of me. I watch them through a window as the bus rushes past, making it seem as if the colours are blending into one long constant stream of grey—light, dark and everything in between. If I look carefully, I can spot small sections of green regrowth among the dead trunks.
To my left is a singular orange phone booth, standing in solitude, light still lit on top. Buzzing against its frosted and scratched windows, the attention-seeking blue T is a light in the darkness. On my right, I see the large old hotel made of crippling stone and covered in signs of age and disaster. It has now been converted into a tourist attraction in the form of a café. I’ve never been.
I feel nauseous. My stomach churns as the flavour of my 8am coffee coats my palate, tainting any sweetness and moisture that remained. I struggle to swallow as I feel the nervousness hidden beneath my skin start to prickle through, poking its way through my hair follicles and exposing my truth. Anxiety floods me as we delve deeper into this new world, the deep end of the Tasmanian wilderness.
I look at the clock again: 1.32pm.
Outside my window, instead of seeing the hypnotic silhouette of trees against the dark backdrop of the overcast Tassie sky, a sign to Iron Blow Lookout catches my gaze. Indicating to the large winding road on my right, I remember driving up to the mysterious hole-in-the-ground known as Iron Blow, filled with crystal-clear rain water. My dad would take us on late-night adventures, using the excuse that he just wanted to ‘head up the mountain’. We used to go Geocaching there.
We drive past the freshly-built walkway which leads up to Horsetail Falls. A rushing waterfall crests through the tree gap in the mountainside, the water roaring as the rain becomes heavier and the stinging winds thrash against the bus’s windscreen.
As the road dips and we descend down the tightly-wound mountain, I see the rooftops of houses reaching over the horizon as if trying to crawl out of the hole that Queenstown sits reluctantly within. Chimneys puffing smoke from smouldering wood fires within tiny living rooms. Generation after generation, packed with families hovering around to scream at the evening footy game.
The bus pulls up outside the iconic West Coast Wilderness Railway, the doors tightly shut to keep out the raging storm.
The Railway was known for its long but stunning scenic route through the rainforests between Queenstown and Strahan. I wish I could say I’d taken the trip at least once, especially after having lived there for fifteen or so years, but with the constant flow of tourists, I simply haven’t had the chance.
The bus doors swing open and a blast of cold air invades the stuffy interior. I shiver as I get up, grab my small purple suitcase, and exit. Within seconds, my hair is drenched and I am running to find refuge. Under the shelter of a local art gallery, I make my way slowly towards my mother’s shop as I usually do after my travels, case in hand and my sweater sticking to me like wet rubber. I see her smiling customer-service face through the cluttered window as I enter. She looks up at me.
Despite it being wet, my mother still leaves her precious counter and wraps her arms around me, embracing me in the first hug she’s given me in months. Her smile is contagious, and I can’t help but imitate her enthusiasm. People start to fill the tiny shop, some faces I recognise, others I don’t, but all are welcoming. All greet me with warm arms and warm smiles, asking about my trip and how long I’ll be staying.
No matter how many times I complain or how many times I leave, Queenstown will always and forever be here, dirt roads, red river, smiling faces, and all.
For what always feels like the first time, and definitely not the last time, I am undeniably and ecstatically home.
Heather Mathews grew up in Queenstown and wrote to fill the time. Heavily influenced by the established works of J.K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman, writing soon turned into a passion and became an active role throughout her early adulthood. She is currently studying a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Tasmania, majoring in English. It is here she wishes to establish her craft, not only as a writer but as an academic.