Walking the Cataract Gorge

On the first day of my holiday, I woke up thrilled. I had entire days without having to worry about work, my exercise routine, or chores. I felt liberated.

And I was, it was my first real vacation in over three years and my first ever without carrying my laptop since I got my first laptop. Before this, every time I travelled, whether it was for work or to visit family, I’d always go prepared to log into work in case something blew up. But here, in Launceston, I was free of my life. It felt like I’d gotten rid of the huge baggage on my shoulder.

I was up at 5. I had no reason to stay in bed. I was in the Launceston Backpackers hostel—a hundred-something-year-old building which looked and felt its age but was so well maintained by the staff. It’s the cheapest accommodation you can find in the city, and it was still way better than I imagined. They even gave me two blankets when I only asked for one!

Almost jumping out of bed on day one, I brushed, yoga-ed a bit, pulled on my long comfy pants, and marched off into the biting cold. Mid-autumn in Launceston is often colder than winter in northern Australia. But for me, coming from Canberra and loving the capital’s winter season, Launceston was perfect. Just the right amount of chilly. Of course, I soon lost all sense in my fingers and toes, but I knew it wouldn’t be for long.

I’d done my research. I headed off to the most popular tourist attraction in the city: Cataract Gorge. It’s a short 20-25 minute walk from the heart of the city, and the main feature of the gorge is the King’s Bridge-Cataract Walk, a beautiful path along the South Esk River. The passage was built by volunteers in the 1890s and is the main pathway leading further into the gorge where there’s a world-renowned chairlift. The longest single-span chairlift in the world, going up to 457 metres. It’s one of the must-do, must-see things in Launceston, second perhaps only to the ridiculous amount of vineyards in the Tamar Valley region. All this, I knew from my research and by exploring the Cataract Walk the previous day, not too long after I landed in Tasmania.

This morning, however, I wasn’t going for the Cataract Walk or the chairlift. Instead, I’d read and heard about another path leading into the gorge. A much more challenging and steep climb: The Zig Zag Trail. This trail, I realised, is much more secluded from the outside. You see, to get to the start of the Cataract Gorge walk, you have to cross the King’s Bridge which runs above the South Esk River. So even while you cross the bridge, you get stunning views of the gorge and the river running through it. As soon as you cross the bridge, the Cataract Walk begins on your left. With the Zig Zag Trail, though, you don’t have to cross the bridge at all. The beginning of the walk is what looks like a pile of large rocks stacked against each other with steps going through it. While the river is on one side of the trail, the other side is a commercial building. Unless you know that it’s the trail leading into the gorge, you’ll likely miss it.

Most people who walk the trail, I later realised, start the walk from within the gorge—after exploring the attractions, the views, and the chairlift, they chance upon the Zig Zag Trail with an ominous message: Steep – Hikers Only. It’s enough to pique the curiosity of anyone, but not enough to tell them how steep is steep.

As I entered the trail from the city, it was just after dawn. The sun was still behind clouds, and a chilly breeze lingered around my ears. My fingers and toes were numb, and my adrenaline at an all-time high. I climbed step after steep step. Within minutes, my heart was pounding in its cage, and I had the highest of highs I’d had in a long time. I stopped to look around, and amidst the dense bushes around me was the King’s Bridge in the distance and the rising sun further behind it. I stood for a good few minutes, entranced but also to catch my breath.

  • View of the Cataract Walk from the Zig Zag Trail, Launceston, Tasmania
  • View of the South Esk River from the Zig Zag Trail, Launceston, Tasmania
  • Zig Zag Trail, Launceston, Tasmania

When I turned back to my path, I had renewed energy—all I wanted to do was to get to the other side of this trail and feast my eyes on the view.

After 15 more minutes of heart-hammering cardio and smiling at the locals who clearly did this every day, I got my view. It was about 8 in the morning. I was looking out at the gorge and the infamous Alexandra Suspension Bridge that connected one side of the gorge to another. It was too early for the tourists, and I got the entire bridge for myself.

View of the Alexandra Suspension Bridge from the Cataract Gorge First Basin lookout, Launceston, Tasmania
Alexandra Suspension Bridge

As I gingerly walked onto the bridge, drinking in the views, it dawned on me how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things. All around me, water and forests and wallabies thrived. As the sunlight hit the water, it rebounded on the millions of leaves around, nourishing and feeding countless lifeforms for hundreds of years to come. And here I was, just a traveller with my backpack and a petty iPhone, clicking away as if I could capture the essence of what was happening around me.

Heart full of joy and satisfaction, and a slight disappointment for those who couldn’t be there and experience what I’d experienced, and for those who were there and still had different experiences, I turned to go further into the gorge. For I’d heard that even though the Zig Zag Track ended in the First Basin, there was a much longer and more rewarding track not too far: The Duck Reach Trail.

And like me, if you think it’s a track that’d lead to a pond with a handful of ducks in it, my friend, you couldn’t be more mistaken. More on that later.

Going on holiday

I booked my tickets two weeks in advance and my accommodation just a handful of days before the big day. 

No one in Australia does that. For instance, my friend booked a week’s stay in a cabin far, far away—five months in advance. That’s normal.

And here I was booking flight tickets to Tasmania, about to spend ten days in a city I knew nothing about. In hindsight, I’m proud of myself for choosing Launceston—it’s a delightful place to visit. But even until the last moment, the day of my journey, as I sat in the back seat of the cab, looking out at Canberra’s iconic welcome to Autumn, I wasn’t excited. Even as I went through security check, I was more alarmed that we no longer have to take out our electronics for screening than I was excited about my upcoming trip.

photo of the ocean as seen throug the flight windor

Sitting in the plane, watching the ground become bigger and bigger as we soared into the sky, I felt nothing. My glasses fogged from me breathing through my face mask, but I had the best seat in the house—the window. Still, my insides felt like a balloon that failed to balloon.

It didn’t feel like I was going away on holiday.

I landed and walked into the biosecurity area of the Launceston arrivals zone. And I texted my trusty friend and brother: Launceston Airport is a massive tent.

We queued up in what looked like a huge white canopy with three podiums with officers checking everyone’s border permit and asking each person individually if they’ve travelled to any hotspots or have any symptoms. It’s incredible how much we humans function on trust systems. Once I’d shaken my head no to all his standard questions, my officer—a stubby man wearing a polo t-shirt and pants—gadded me a card that had some contact information in case I developed any symptoms. I thanked him and walked out—and into the actual airport. It was smaller than the Canberra airport—just two conveyor belts for baggage. Brilliant and easy to find. A good five minutes later, my yellow backpack waded its way to me, and I hoisted it up on my shoulder and turned to face the exit.

Those glass doors didn’t open automatically.

No worries. I’m used to motion sensors not sensing me. I went closer only to realise that the double door had a big circular sticker on either side of the partition with text that read, “Touch to open door”. Amused and highly sceptical, I touched and viola! I was out in the chilly breeze and the sunny outskirts of Launceston.

Following the sign, I turned left, looking for a bus. The airport shuttle was supposed to be waiting for passengers who wanted to go into the city. Instead, there was a van—an approximately 15-seater vehicle with a chubby bald and smiling man waiting outside. On the van, clearly visible, was a sticker that read, The Airport Shuttle. I had to ask. “Is this the airport shuttle?”

He didn’t sneer. He wasn’t sarcastic when he replied, “It is! Where do you need to go?”

“The city, please.” As if that was a destination by itself.

“Do you have a specific place in the city?”

“Ah, yes. The Backpackers Hostel.”

“Sure thing. I can drop you off right at the door. How long are you in town for?”

I told him, and he suggested I go to the visitors’ centre and get myself a walking map. He helpfully added that it’s inside the post office, which I knew was built in the early 19th century and was still functioning handsomely.

photo of the old clock tower, Launceston
Post office, Launceston

I thanked him, paid him, and took my seat. And at long last, I removed my mask and did a full mouth rotation to make sure my facial muscles were still operating. 20 minutes later, I stood outside the hundred-year-old building—just another old building, I realised as I later wandered around town—that was the hostel I’d be staying at.

And then it hit me. 

I had ten glorious days to do anything but the things that defined my life.

photo of the suburbs of Launceston as seen from across the Tamar river
Welcome to Launceston

To be continued…

First world problems

One of the initial and biggest culture shock for someone visiting a western country from the third world is walking into a toilet cubicle and seeing a roll of toilet paper. 

On the first morning of my first trip to the United States, in 2017, I texted my brother from the bathroom.

“First world question: is it safe to flush toilet paper?”

I had my reasons, too. For in many parts of the world, places that are still undeveloped after more than fifty years of developing, the toilet system can’t even handle a healthy person’s plump and fibrous roll of waste. It takes more than a few flushes to make sure everything is indeed flushed off and not as disgusting for the next person.

That’s why I was terrified of flushing a wad of toilet paper and messing up the four-star hotel’s drainage system. And so, a wave of relief swept over me as the response came in the affirmative.

Later that morning, my colleague pulled me aside to discuss, in hushed voices and rolling eyes, the great toilet paper incident and how bizarre it is to have so much bog roll but not knowing how to use it. We couldn’t figure out how first worlders could feel comfortable with a backside that potentially harboured dried waste.

Growing up in Asia, my colleague and I were both used to washing ourselves with water. As toddlers, we were potty trained, which not only helps strengthen thigh and waist muscles for later in life but also makes it so much easier to wash ourselves after we finish our business. Even to this day, countless Indian homes have potty-style bathrooms that are highly effective in preventing the spread of germs introduced by western commodes.

However, even when Asian countries adopted the modern and more convenient commode system, they still retained the washing habit by installing hand showers in the bathroom. Hand showers that required some additional plumbing, but made a lot of sense nevertheless. Resembling a sprinkler garden hose, it’s fitted into the wall next to the toilet, making it easy for the loo-goer to squish, splash, and then return it to its stand and walk away clean.

I’ve visited the US a couple times afterwards, and since migrating to Australia last year, I’ve become far more accustomed to the idea of using toilet paper multiple times every day. 

Source: Giphy

All that said, when coronavirus came into the picture, just as the bushfires were settling down, we went from one unprecedented incident to another one. From donating supplies to people evacuating fire zones, we’ve gone to physically assaulting each other for a roll of toilet paper. This paper crisis and the disastrous fight for bog roll has taken over the internet with memes, devastating videos, graphic images of empty supermarket shelves, and suggestions to use yellow pages instead of toilet paper. 

Amongst this incredible, insane situation, a few odd people have been brave enough to suggest the time-tested Asian washing method, only to be sneered at. It’s not unheard of, of course. Many Australians have travelled widely, and the country itself homes millions of migrants in every state. The hand shower idea isn’t as novel as the coronavirus. It’s even the more environmentally-sustainable option compared to toilet paper. Sure, recycled toilet paper is marketed as better than regular ones, but hey, nothing beats water.

Dear first world, welcome to the third world.

National Multicultural Festival

Volunteering is the best way to experience a new society, right?

So when the Multicultural Festival came around, I signed up as a general volunteer—you know, the ones wearing a red festival t-shirt and a hat, and a lanyard too large for their body—wandering around the perimeter smiling at those gorging on meat on a stick, sipping their beer before stepping away so that it doesn’t spill over before they reach their friends. 

The festival started at 4 pm last Friday, with cultural performances and food stalls all the way through 11 pm. When I showed up at 4, a half hour earlier than the start of my shift, the place thronged with a hum of excitement. The sun sprawled on us as volunteers scattered throughout the city circle, taking their positions, armed with brochures, information packs, while the area wardens double-checked their walkie talkies, strapped on and ready to go.

The moment I stepped out into the festival ground, I regretted not carrying my water bottle. The festival organisers had done a tremendous job of setting up water filling stations every few metres, but without my bottle, I didn’t stand a chance. When at last I gave up my ego and picked up a plastic water bottle, drained and desperate, I promised never to do that again. 

It didn’t take me too long to study the festival map. Six stages with three or four tents that accommodated smaller performances, spread across five major streets in the city centre. I’d walked around that part of city enough of times to know what lay where, and after two complete rounds, I’d memorised the locations of each stage.

Equipped with so much information, I began wandering. For that was my role as a general volunteer. I was to walk around with a welcoming smile, answering questions, and helping out anyone in distress. It had all seemed easy and fun on paper. And yet as I walked around I felt myself suffocating under the smoke of charred meat, barbecue and grilled citrus waffling throughout the streets, mingled with the joyous cries of lolly-sucking kids and the satisfied lip-smacking of bratwurst-wolfing adults.

On my right, noodles were sizzling, fried with eggs and chicken. From the left came yells advertising crepes—savoury and sweet—French, with gluten-free and vegan options. Baos, or steamed buns, weren’t too far away, sitting right next to the street food extravaganza of masala dosa and curry. A little further were Croatian beers, Sydney ice-cream, Ethiopian lentils and beef stews with flavoured injera.

Row after row showcased food from all over the world, in various shapes and sizes—from pulled pork burgers to the so-called healthy zucchini fritters, from paella to pan-friend momos, from fresh-squeezed orange juice to vodka-infused lemonade.

  • Greek coffee at the National Multicultural Festival

Overwhelming is an understatement. For five hours, I let the crowds push me from one place to another, as I tried to find my way through, only wanting to return to my starting point. As I left the festival that evening—four hours before the performances ended for the day—I was ready to hit the bed and not return for my shift the next day. I didn’t want to volunteer ever again.

But on Saturday afternoon, I arrived again, signed in to my shift three hours early, and started patrolling the grounds, looking for something more engaging than dead meat. Fortunately, that second day was the best.

In most cultural events that are advertised on Facebook with flyers abound and hashtags galore, people throng in thousands, flashing cameras at dancers as if they’d never before seen a blend of colours or beaded jewellery. Our impression of culture is often so stereotypical that we can’t imagine anything beyond a stage performance featuring slender female dancers and flavoured meat.

However, this multicultural festival tried to showcase some genuine culture. Not only did it feature music and food from various countries, but it also accommodated embassies of various nations. Why, one of the most popular aspect of the event—aside from the German beer and sausages—was the EU village. For an entire day, a large section of the festival hosted embassy stalls where delegates and foreign representatives shared brochures, travel advice, traditional information, and snacks. They even gave away free EU passports at the European Union tent—a fun activity for the young and the older where you could walk your way through all the tents of the EU countries and get your passport stamped at each tent.

  • National Multicultural Festival, Canberra - 2020

A little later that day came the iconic Multicultural Festival Parade. As the name suggests, it’s a tremendous walking and dancing display of culture by the many countries that call Canberra (and Australia) home. From indigenous musical representatives to Chinese dragon dance, to Korean music, south Indian drumming, Bulgarian dancing, Brasilian samba, belly dancing, and more, the entire parade was a blurry flourish of colour.

Each of the six main stages represented a region. For instance, stage five was for African and Pacific Islander performances, food, and crafts, whereas stage two and its surrounds featured Celtic performances and Scottish traditional foods, information, and dance troupes.

Day two was more satisfying than the first one.

When I woke up on Sunday, hoping to make it on time to hear some multi-lingual poetry at 10 am, I realised I’d been stressing myself out. I had to lie in bed until I had to leave. My shift was to start at 1pm and I checked in 10 minutes prior.

Having spent two whole days at the festival without staying anywhere long enough to enjoy any performance completely, I’d decided to let it all go and have fun.

The section I stood at featured the Greek community and culture. From Zorba dance and olive pastries to sipping black traditional Greek coffee, I had a wonderful time, nodding to tunes I’ll never get out of my head. 

As I waddled over to the Latin American zone, loud maracas and drums invited me with floral t-shirts and unpronounceable words. It was the most warm and welcoming experience I’ve ever had. Charged by my volunteer status, I walked right to the front—not because I was being an arsehole, but because being 5 feet and a couple of inches, in a crowd, I can’t see anything other that people’s sweaty, muscly, arms. 

While the groovy Peruvian music troupe sang and danced, the audience had a party of its own. People in all kinds of clothing set their bags on the ground to jump onto the dance floor. It was a perfect amalgamation of traditions—performers came from various Latin American countries and the audience featured black, white, and all shades of the brown in between.

National Multicultural Festival, Canberra 2020
National Multicultural Festival, Canberra 2020

As the festival wound to a close, I’d changed my mind about volunteering. I’d so it all again next year, but now that I know the scale of the event, I’ll be more strategic about channeling my energy and enjoy the event. 

After all, what good is volunteering if we don’t have fun?

Swooped. Almost.

I’ve written about Australian wildlife being wild and at times, aggressive. Magpies swoop down on runners, bicyclists, and pedestrians even potentially leaving in their wake painful holes in heads and a bloody mess. All over the country, crocodiles await adventurous wanderers, kangaroos could become too friendly and shove all their weight on you, and venomous snakes slither into your home, making themselves cosy under your bed or on your toilet.

Even ducks waddle their way up to you wanting to pick a fight.

However, all of this is book knowledge. I’ve heard stories of others’ homes infested with eight-legged monsters, injured pedestrians keeling on footpaths nurturing magpie wounds, and countless other incidents that curdle your blood.

But you never understand it until you experience it yourself.

As I did today. While I jogged down my usual route by the lake, a woman walking a few yards in front of me shrieked. It all happened fast—by the time I realised what had happened, she’d recovered, a man walking behind her had helped her avoid the magpie’s talon. She held what looked like a leather bag that probably shielded her. The two of them quickly walked away while the magpie settled itself on a light pole between me and the path ahead.

I’d stopped jogging, my heart in my mouth. It seemed harmless. It was just a tiny bird sitting on a pole, watching the world beneath it. Nothing about it suggested any hatred towards humankind. And yet, as I watched, a cyclist pedalled his way towards me from the opposite side. As he rode under the pole, the bird screeched, bent its knees, and lifted off towards the bobbing red helmet.

It was ferocious. The cyclist didn’t deter even for a second. He rode onwards, steady, and almost oblivious to the potential death hovering over his head.

In a split second, without thinking, I took off. Seeing as how the bird chased the cyclist going the opposite side, I ran straight ahead, hoping it would be distracted long enough for me to escape.

But of course, nature is smarter than humankind. I ran like Phoebe, and the bird chased after me wailing and sending shards of panic through my entire being. I hadn’t run like that since my relay races in fifth grade.

As the bird’s cries died down, I slowed and stopped. From behind me came huffing noises, and I turned to smile surprisedly at a runner. She looked far more seasoned than I, and she slowed down long enough to add laughingly, “they went for me, too when I came in earlier.” And she went on as if nothing had happened.

For her, and the cyclist, it was just another morning.

Australian wildlife is crazy, but Australians are crazier.


Photo: Joel Herzog on Unsplash.com