My friend’s t-shirt depicts a silhouetted island, and just returned from my favourite tropical paradise I identify the familiar outline as Magnetic Island. But a closer look shows it to be Tasmania. The eye sees what the brain thinks.
On my lower back I carry a third version, a microcosmic islet drawn in smooth pale gold. I was marked at birth with this beautiful shape, an enchanting precursor on my skin of the marks two islands would one day make on my psyche.
A week ago, sitting in shorts and singlet in my tropical retreat, I wrote about islands as magical transformative places. Now I write from a snug eyrie on an island thousands of kilometres south. I’m back in Hobart, garbed in layers and ugg boots. The wild spring weather dumped a load of snow on Mount Wellington last night and the tropics seem worlds away. As does the magic of islands. I’m home, sweet home, chilled to the bone. My island haven, my cold cold prison.
The enchanted isle has a dark side.
Just as the physical characteristics of islands encourage positive transformation, they can be entrapping. Being remote and surrounded by water can be liberating, but also dangerous. The castaway may survive, or die a desperate death if the isolation is not breached and there is no escape. The words ‘isolate’ and ‘isolation’ themselves gives rise to both positive and negative synonyms: ‘separation’, ‘inaccessible’, ‘loneliness’, versus ‘secluded’ and ‘sequestered’. Being on an island may be a release from the rat race or an experience of disconnection and alienation.
It’s notable that Australia sends refugees to islands for ‘offshore processing’. The geographical disconnection is mirrored by a psychological one – out of sight, out of mind. They are effectively cast out and cast off. As were convicts sent to Van Diemen’s Land from Britain. Yet some of the latter were transformed by the opportunity to begin anew, establishing successful livelihoods unfettered by the past.
Prison, or paradise?
My family emigrated from South Africa in 1987. Our destination: a remote and mysterious island, Tasmania. We’d searched photographs and pamphlets to gauge the nature of our new home. It was a haven we sought, free from violence and fear. How perfect it looked, the wilderness untouched, the thousand lakes, the pure white sands, the green pastures. An earthly paradise.
Our arrival encompassed relief. Overwhelming relief. With a slow adjustment to the freedom that comes with a gradual release from fear. And an earthly paradise it was. Our island haven. Our place of peace. Tasmania was our salvation and our absolution.
On some days it still is. On days when the sun shines warmly on lush lawns and the blue river and beauty entrance utterly.
And other days I feel trapped, trapped by the seemingly endless cold, trapped indoors, trapped by Bass Strait, trapped in a narrow world where too few people result in inward-looking politics and where my penchant for bright clothing stands out like a sore thumb.
Over time my relationship with Tasmania developed an intense ambivalence. A love-hate dichotomy – can’t stand it, but can’t leave it. I’ve tried.
Tasmania became imprisoning because I felt disconnected. For a decade mainland Australia was a blank map for me. I felt stuck on this southern tip of the continent, more connected to that other southern tip, the tip of Africa across the vast ocean, than to the rest of Australia. I had to work at that new connection deliberately and purposefully. And I did. And in doing so found another island haven, a tiny, warm, soft island, my magic isle of the far north.
But is my magic isle thus because it is somewhere I visit rather than reside? Is this how it retains its enchantment? Would my sacred place of contemplation and retreat become claustrophobic if I lived there permanently?
And is the life-enhancing and spiritual experience of an island ultimately affected by whether one has the means to leave it?
I know that when I leave Tasmania, I miss it. Not the inclement weather, but the bonds, loved ones, the tracery of roots and memories. This island allowed me to become who I am now – so different to the shy Southern African woman I was on arrival. Someone who girded her fishmobile into action one year to traverse the desert and explore unknown territory. If I’d not been confined to an island, would my need to do so have been so compelling? Would it have required as much courage?
I escape the confines of the island by travelling beyond it, at least annually and usually in winter. It gives my body and mind space to expand and the capacity to return with gratitude. For this earthly paradise with its fresh air, crisp fruits and exquisite natural beauty is indeed a place of peace, and it is home.
An excellent book that captures the dual nature of islands is A Hostile Beauty: Life on Macquarie Island. It has stunning photographs by Alistair Dermer and a thought-provoking commentary by Danielle Wood, whose passage on islands as paradise and prison led me to write this article.