Tasmania: The Land Before Bros
Up in the wilderness of south-western Tasmania is a white mountain, a gleaming hunk of quartzite shaped like a shark’s tooth, high above an ocean of otherwise black and craggy peaks. Convicts thought it resembled a type of continental hat, and so the mountain is now known as Frenchman’s Cap.
It is possible to climb Frenchman’s Cap, if you have a spare three-to-five days and an appetite for wet feet. It’s a popular walk for those who enjoy multi-day hikes, but prefer to avoid the $200 permits and crowds of bucket list-ticking mainlanders on the nearby Overland Track. Attempting the Frenchman’s track is still free, probably because researching it online is enough to dissuade most from having a go.
The track is difficult. According to the national parks website, it is only for “fully self-sufficient, well-equipped and experienced” hikers. Despite recent renovations, large portions of the walk still involve tramping in ankle or even knee-deep mud. There are long, infuriating slogs up mountains of slippery roots, and your first proper view of the wider world beyond the tangled, dripping forest doesn’t come until halfway through the second day.
So when my girlfriend and I had finally psyched ourselves up to try it over a recent long weekend, we were startled to find it full of young families, complete with children aged anywhere from eight to 16. These miniature mountaineers carried their own packs, helped with dinner and pitched their own tents. What’s more, they seemed to be doing so voluntarily – I heard no harsh words from parents, nor did I see any chains, weapons or other instruments of imprisonment.
This is not something you’ll see on the mainland. What was going on?
Now, it’s easy to compare these kids with their chubby, obnoxious counterparts over in suburban Melbourne and say that city kids don’t have the same appreciation for nature, but that’s not it. I spent my high school years in the New England region of New South Wales, hill country with a similar climate and geography to central Tasmania. There are loads of hiking trails exploring various peaks and gorges, but rarely do you see families on them. Even rarer are families who are enjoying themselves.
I began to see differences everywhere. Suspender-wearing musicians gathered in the pubs of Hobart, with fiddles and banjos, to play Irish ballads and Australian folk tunes. I never heard a single ‘Wonderwall’ cover in two months on the island. Nor were the streets and campuses of Launceston or Hobart decorated with posters of bikini-clad models in headphones behind DJ decks. In smaller communities like Marrawah, on the north-west coast, local pubs proudly (and without irony) displayed photographic testament to local feats of fishing, surfing and nautical navigation. Hipsters and hippies, bogans and bushwalkers, scientists and farmers, geeks and goths – they were all flourishing in Tasmania. Why?
One morning, near Cradle Mountain, I watched a young couple from Queensland shivering in their hoodies, short shorts and matching his-and-hers trainers. And then it hit me: Tasmania has no bros.
If you’ve spent any time in Australia, or even a foreign country where Australians tend to congregate, you know all about bros. Loud, chiselled young men in pastel-coloured shorts and stringlets. Heavily made-up women, tanned, with invariably straight hair – yummy mummies in the making. Tight bods and leg sessions. EDM and Von Zippers. Fist pumps and fist bumps.
Bros and broettes have become ubiquitous in mainland Australia, and our society has changed to accommodate them. Obnoxious gyms have sprouted in fashionable suburbs, with glassy walls so your bro can be seen working on his glutes. Tanning salons linger nearby, like remora fish on a shark. Bros killed the Big Day Out (did I just betray my age?), and now have their own subset of summer EDM festivals. The bro’s courting ritual of mashing drunken fists into faces has even been deemed responsible for Sydney’s draconian lockout laws. Bros are in the countryside, turning dingy pubs once favoured by bogans and underage drinkers into sleek establishments of stainless steel, rendered concrete and lurid cocktails. In short, bros have developed an outsize influence over Australian culture, from the design of our cars (increasingly large and aggressive utes) to our perceptions of beauty (tight stomachs, straight hair).
But a bro cannot survive Van Diemen’s Land for long. The sun comes out too seldom for effective tanning, and bronzing salons are virtually non-existent. The modest Tasmanian economy revolves around agriculture, tourism and scientific research, so there are no high-powered financial corporations or law firms for which bros can “suit up”. Groups that usually linger on the mainland’s cultural margins fill the cultural vacuum, and tiny Tasmania (population 500,000) feels wonderfully diverse as a result.
Tasmania’s bro-less society is unattainable on the mainland – there will always be bros. But it does give a glimpse of a more equitable society, one where they are just a piece of Australia’s cultural mosaic, and where the rest of us can emerge free from the menace of a tribal tattoo.
Cover by Jorge Flores