By Ruth Dawkins
Everyone says this is the coldest winter in Tasmania for years.
When I wake up each morning I peer through the bedroom curtains at the sports oval across the road, and see there has been another hard frost. The pinnacle of Mount Wellington keeps disappearing under a fat puff of cloud, and when it re-emerges there is snow. At school pickup time the parents all stamp their feet and watch their breath, grumbling about how cold it has been for so long.
I grumble too but secretly I’m wondering if, after just two years here, I’ve turned soft. For all our complaining it has barely dropped below zero.
The houses in Tassie aren’t built for winters though. They’re good at keeping the heat out in summer, but terrible at keeping it in. Newer ones are built of weatherboard. Older ones like ours are double brick, with few options to insulate. Double-glazing is rare, and there is no central heating – instead there are air conditioners that are run on reverse cycle and known as heat pumps. We at least have a log fire in the kitchen, and have worked our way steadily through the neat stacks of wood in our garage. The rhythmic thudding of someone in a backyard with a maul and a splitting log is part of Hobart’s winter soundtrack.
People seem to go one of two ways when it comes to dealing with the weather. Most of us abandon any attempts at elegance, and rug up in multiple layers of fleece. There is no shame here in owning a pair of fur lined Ugg boots. Others – children and tradies – try and tough it out. Even on the coldest of days I’ve seen men in shorts and kids in t-shirts, their skin pale and mottled. I’m always slightly horrified when we go to the park and my son throws off his shoes and socks to spend an hour running around barefoot, before pulling up the legs of his jeans and splashing into the river for a paddle. But we have picked up far fewer colds here than we ever did in the UK. All that time spent outdoors must be good for something.
I am getting a little tired of winter food now. There is such a focus on local, seasonal fruit and vegetables in Tasmania that imports are rare and it’s almost impossible at this time of year to find any colour. There are still a few boxes of berries in the shops, but they are sad looking specimens that are now $9 a punnet instead of the $3 or $4 that they were in summer. I was briefly puzzled by the arrival of mandarins and sprouts on the shelves - food that I had associated specifically with Christmas rather than winter.
But the apples are as sweet and crunchy as ever. Our lemon tree is still producing fruit at such an impressive rate that I’ve had to gift most of it to friends, and the first wild Tassie Scallops of the season have just started to appear on the fish punts down at the docks.
There’s also an abundance of venues in the city nearby that are well set up for winter: the warm, lively New Sydney with its open fire and Irish music on a Saturday afternoon; the Lark Cellar Bar for a nip of single malt that burns pleasantly in your belly; The Winston, for some spicy chicken wings or a soft bun so stuffed with pulled pork that the juices run like rivers down your chin.
And of course there is DARK MOFO, the festival of contemporary music and art organised by the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA).
Shopkeepers here tell me that before DARK MOFO, local residents hibernated for the winter and businesses struggled. If you wanted to, I suppose it would still be possible to have a festival experience from the warmth of your fireside armchair. Without leaving our house, we were able to hear Anthony McCall’s Night Ship as it made its way slowly up the Derwent each night, We could see the light of Rafael Lozano Hemmer’s Pulse Column – a light installation that mimicked the heartbeat of whoever was holding the electrode at its base - beaming into the clear, dark skies above the city.
But really it is a festival that you need to see and hear and feel from the streets of the city.
One end of Hobart’s waterfront was given over to a five night Winter Feast, with bonfires, bands and more than sixty food and drink stalls. At the other end of the docks was the Dark Park, home to a Fire Organ, a parlour of curiosities serving up Hendricks Gin cocktails, and a Balinese Ogoh Ogoh. Festival attendees were invited to write their darkest secrets on the demon-like sculpture, and on the final night of the festival it was paraded through the city to a ceremonial burning. If the fire and flames left you feeling too hot, there was always the option to take part in the nude solstice swim the following morning, when hundreds of people plunged into the chilly waters of the Derwent and celebrated the end of the longest night of the year.
The last event associated with DARK MOFO – the Huon Valley Midwinter Festival – took place last weekend. It was an altogether folksier affair. The Huon Valley is one of Tasmania’s main apple producing regions, and the three-day Festival is based on the ancient tradition of wassailing: awakening the cider apple trees and scaring away evil spirits, to ensure a healthy and plentiful harvest.
In the fields surrounding Willie Smith’s Apple Shed, we sat around on bales of hay, warming our hands on oil barrel bonfires and being watched by a field full of cows that I suspect we had forced off the land for the weekend. There was a Maypole and Morris dancing, folk music, storytelling, delicious smelling food stalls, and lashings of warm, spiced cider. It was not a bad way to spend a weekend.
It is coming towards the end of July now – the equivalent of late January in the north. This week I saw the first tiny bursts of colour - pink cherry blossom starting to bloom on our street. The warmth and the light are coming our way again, and they will be very welcome.
Ruth Dawkins is a writer, editor and campaigner, originally from Scotland but now living in Tasmania with her husband and son.
She is a columnist for The Island Review, and will be contributing to the site regularly.
You can find her blog here.
Photographs by MONA/Rémi Chauvin.