Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: March 1, 2001
Tasmania is of course separated from Australia by a bothersome stretch of water we call Bass Straight. Over 200 km of water put a real damper on plans to hitch-hike to and from Tasmania. This January I was keen to try though and looked at the options.
There are two ferries that ply its waters regularly. Alas neither of them offers a pricing structure permissive of hitching a ride. On some ferries I've hitched there is a flat fee for a car and passengers, meaning you can flag a ride on board quite smoothly, on the Bass Straight ferries each passenger pays a hefty fee - considerably more than the car itself which is ironically subsidised! The ferries cost more than flying.
All the same I'd heard from friends that it was possible, and not all too uncommon to smuggle people across, by hiding them in the back of a van - that the security was fairly lax and permissive. Mostly friends helping one another out came across like this - freaks, hippies, alternate-lifestylers, were all open to smuggling their friends across from time to time to lower the total cost. It would be altogether a more difficult task to find a willing vehicle on the spur of the moment alas.
It was all a little too far on the shady side of the law for my tastes, and besides I was in a slight rush and had no friends going over soon in a suitable vehicle, so I bought instead a bargain basement non-transferable, non-alterable, non-refundable flight to Tasmania and back. It was basically a be there or be square deal - show up or forfeit your seat. In the month I had on Tasmania, the plan though metamorphosed - as plans are wont to do.
I had met some freaks at a gathering in the north east who had in fact smuggled some of their fold over in an old minibus, which was encouraging. Then I ran into the same charming Slovenian hitch-hiker a third time in recent weeks and threw my lot in with her (I'd met her in Victoria on the way south ever so briefly, then we crossed paths in north-eastern Tasmania again and ultimately on the streets of Hobart - was some unseen force at work here?). After some days of thumbing and trekking together around the south east, realising our travel plans overlapped admirably Mo proposed we stick together along the west coast till Melbourne.
But I hadn't the time anymore. My flight was coming up and it was inflexible. "What a shame you don't have another week," she suggested, and with that confessed her plan to hitch across Bass Straight on the ferry inviting me to follow suit.
It was a big ask, I was hesitant. Let a pre-paid (non-refundable) flight lapse, in exchange for a big maybe at crossing the water as a stowaway in some yet-to-be-found vehicle? Hmmm. She knew me and my passion for adventure and hitch-hiking well enough by this stage to guess I'd bite though. And I think I did.
In any case we travelled west and north together, and as I watched my flight lapse, I realised we were partners till Melbourne. I think neither of us particularly wanted to try this alone, and appreciated the moral support of the other.
Not only had the plan metamorphosed radically, but so too was our relationship. Inside of a few days I realised I was travelling not only with a damnably attractive Slovenian hitch-hiker with the cutest of accents, but an ardent anarchist (with a predeliction for blacks and greys and steel-capped boots), an incorrigible lesbian (with a chronic distaste for touch), who confessed openly that she was impossible to travel with and of a generally grumpy disposition. To be fair I came to think of her as my psychotic Slovenian lesbian anarchist hitching partner and that fairly sums it up. But we were partners till Melbourne all the same - through thick and thin .
The trip was eventful to say the least. On the way we shared our plan with any willing listeners. We were keen to run into someone after all who'd smuggle us across. We rode with travel agents, sailors and bank robbers among others, some of who told us what we were about to do was called "ringbolting" locally. It seems it was once very common, almost open - there being some implicit agreement among Tasmanians that they had a right to affordable transit to and from the mainland which encouraged ferry staff to turn the occasional blind eye and passengers to help one another out. It had become far more difficult of late though, they generally concurred.
Arriving at the Devonport ferry terminal, we immediately spotted a colourful VW-Combi parked there! Mo worked her magic wiles and immediately we had a ride with Bianca and Kristy. We loaded into the van and were just getting comfortable under the copious bedding in the searing heat of the day, when the plan changed again. Kristy had spotted what looked like full vehicle checks taking place and clandestine security staff with walkie-talkies. They were understandably less keen on running the risk of detection than we, so we got out again, and thanked them for their offer all the same.
We thus loitered in front of the terminal building watching the entire loading procedure as closely as possible. Cars came off the road (or out of the waiting car park) and up to a ticket booth. There I presume, the ticketing for the car and driver were checked. They drove on 20 m where a man in black with walkie-talkie in hand, asked all passengers to step out, and often, though not always, cast a cursory glance over the innards of the vehicle through whatever windows were available to ensure they had. From time to time an enclosed van would drive by without heeding him and he'd radio something to someone. Most disconcertingly he'd occasionally look our way and radio something to someone. Either way the vehicle (and driver) would then pass us and move on to a gate where a man in yellow directed it into one of the holding queues where they waited until directed by other men in yellow to board the boat. From the holding queues onto the boat was a 50m U shaped drive into the stern of the boat. We knew that once on the vehicle deck the drivers proceeded free of checks to the passenger decks. Thus, stowaways, could exit the vehicle discretely, and follow suit, free of checks. The trick thus was to get onto the vehicle deck somehow.
I could see no full checks though. Granted, the man in black was a concern, but not overly, he looked sinister but not thorough. Bianca then emerged from the terminal. She'd come out to let us know that there were in fact no full checks, it was a false alarm. This was good news. We were still in the game.
Loading was now in full swing though and very few vehicles stopped in the car park for us to approach (most went straight from the road to the ticketing booth), and of course the full car park was in view of the man in black and terminal building which was also uncomfortable. So we parked ourselves at the terminal entry just around the corner and out of view. The idea being, that if a suitable hippie type van came by we could try desperately to flag it down, or if the queue at the ticketing booth were sporadically long enough, they may even come to a stop on the road for us to approach them.
No such van arrived.
Ten minutes before the closing of the gate I shared a last ditch crazy plan with Mo. I had mixed feelings about it, it was in-your-face, it was highly unlikely to work, and it was only really an option for one, I felt, at a time - two would be too imprudent. I felt loyal to Mo in spite of huge communicative failures between us and had mixed feelings even about possibly succeeding and leaving her behind. I felt burdened by the whole scene somehow.
The plan was as follows: to get to the vehicles in the holding bay and ask them for a lift for the last 50m onto the vehicle deck.
The only obstacle was one man in yellow at this stage and the possible prying eyes of the man in black. But I'd just watched them for a while, and it appeared to me that they were fairly lax about foot traffic between the terminal and the holding queues. Passengers seemed to me to be going to their cars from time to time, presumably to pick things up, drop things off, chat with their friends, unobstructed by the man in yellow. This was encouraging.
The cross I would bear was my rucksack. I would have to try it with full, and conspicuous, luggage. If I got through without being stopped, all the better. If I were stopped, I'd have to try and sweet-talk my way past the man in yellow. I could ask him permission to drop my bag in a friends car, whatever, all else failing, I was quite prepared at this stage to ask him, perhaps audaciously, to turn a blind a eye.
In the event, things proceeded a little differently. I had no desire to walk in off the street past the man in yellow in full view of the man in black. So instead I entered the terminal building, as any normal passenger would. I proceeded directly to the first floor where there was a waiting room and the gangway with a hostess collecting boarding passes. It occurred to me that she too was the only obstacle to boarding. If it were possible to pass her without a boarding pass, all would be well. I couldn't imagine that easily though, so I stuck with the man I yellow - he seemed easier to pass.
There was an external viewing platform on the first floor, a kind of large balcony, which overlooked the holding queues and the boat. Standing there, I noticed a flight of stairs to ground level, and it looked to me as though they descended into the holding area. I took them. They did. I was behind the man in yellow, inside of the holding area. I walked nonchalantly over to the waiting cars, past cages of sniffer dogs (who barked no more than usual on my passing), and dropped my pack out of view between two cars.
Loading was slow, and tedious, and as a consequence many drivers were walking around, chatting to one another to pass the time. This was a mixed blessing. It meant on the one hand that walking around the cars was not a very conspicuous thing to do, and on the other hand that many of the vans were empty and I couldn't see who belonged to which vehicle. I began to mingle with drivers.
I'd introduce myself as a writer with a bold plan, express my understanding if the plan didn't appeal to them or if it did and they had no desire to participate all the same, and then share the plan: I needed someone to drive me these last 50m, having made it past all the security checks myself. On rejection I'd ask them politely to keep this conversation to themselves - I didn't need any whistle-blowers really.
After perhaps a dozen rejections I scored with a German pensioner who was happy to take me on board. I got on, endured what seemed an endless wait in the back of his mobile home, lying low so as not to be seen by the men in yellow directing traffic, until we were on. On the vehicle deck I thanked my driver, we parted company and I set about finding a bed.
I was on.
First things first, I offloaded my bag in closet on the hostel deck and explored the boat. By the time I got to the decks we were already leaving Devonport, and I could no longer see Mo at the terminal. I was haunted with a little sadness for her, and wished she was here, where she so needed to be. A pang of conscience also reminded me that we were partners till Melbourne, and somehow to have left her standing on the dock wasn't quite what I had in mind. The sun was slowly setting and I wished for her to catch a ride on the next boat in two days. Perhaps I'd see her in Melbourne then.
It would be politic to have a place to sleep, possibly required of me by staff after all the bars had closed, so I set about to find one. I thought at first maybe to find a free hostel bed. But the hostels were locked by key cards. A passenger told me I could get a key card for $5 deposit at the purser's. My brain not in gear I went to the purser's office and asked for one.
"What's your bed number?" "I'm sorry I've forgotten, I'd better go check my ticket." "No that's all right what's you're name?" "Never mind, I'll just go check my ticket." "No, no, it'll be quicker like this, what's your name?" "Hmmm. Wechner."
Purser looks my name up on the passenger list
"Looks like you're not on the list, maybe it'll be quicker if you check your ticket"
I wipe my brow and go back to the hostel deck, telling myself to get my brain back into gear here. In the corridor I meet Caleb, a young man who'd pulled over for us thumbing up the west coast and played hackey sack with me for a while. I explained my situation and asked if there were any free bed's in his dorm, I needed a bed number (clearly my brain still wasn't fully in gear). Caleb didn't like the idea much, he was a little too proper and law abiding for that sort of thing. I wasn't about to corrupt him, expressed my understanding and said I'd be fine on my own.
The boat was full of fire-points, doors behind which lay small alcoves and rooms housing fire hydrants and hoses. Most were as wide as the doorway and half a metre deep or less, and had no door handle on the inside. I found one on G-deck though, which was a good metre or more deep and more than 2 metres wide, empty (bar the wall mounted fire hose), clean, with a door handle on the inside. I had found my cabin! There were showers I could use on K-deck, and toilets all around the boat. . .
I bumped into Bianca and Kristy who gave me a boarding pass for my dinner (checks at the restaurant were lax, they didn't check everyone, but true to form they checked me). I had some beers with Caleb. Watched a pitifully boring movie (Love and Basketball) and slept like a baby.
Arriving in Melbourne, I was at once satisfied with success and quietly sad at the thought of Mo left standing on the dock, who really needed and deserved to cross .... (she made it across two days later, ringbolting of course).
"Ringbolting" is a term that finds its origins in New Zealand. The Oxford suggest it means "To stow away or travel clandestinely by sea with a crew member's connivance" and can trace it back to the 1960's. I can't say when and how it arrived in Tasmania but it seems to me that it probably arrived with that same meaning though it's taken on a somewhat broader meaning (the crew members connivance no longer features) in the meantime.
The DevilCat is the other of the two ferries that ply Bass Straight and we did in fact try to ringbolt this ferry without success. The ticketing and boarding system employs parking valets which make the same array of commonly employed tricks nigh impossible to implement. I have never heard of anyone ringbolting the DevilCat, the Spirit of Tasmania appears to be the regular target.