The restaurant at the end of Corinna
If Douglas Adams were still alive, he’d find Corinna uncannily similar to the quirky café from his famous book The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.
Corinna nestles in the midst of a rainforest on the Whyte River in East Tasmania and can only be accessed in two ways: a barge from Zeehan or a long and winding gravel road.
The population is zero and its last permanent resident died nearly 50 years ago. These days, it’s inhabited by transient workers who staff the popular eco-tourist lodge.
Corinna’s remoteness and serenity are perfect for those who enjoy kayaking, fishing, river cruises and bush walks or the thrill of being close to world’s end.
I’d heard about this far-off place several times and been urged by my friend Dave to go for a day trip.
Dave is a grizzled Vietnam veteran who’s wandered through many of the world’s rainforests. He particularly likes the Tasmanian wilderness because it’s far from the centre of anywhere and has a beautiful, untouched landscape.
On the morning of my visit to Corinna, the weather is cold and blustery. I’ve arranged to collect Dave and as I arrive at his farmhouse it starts to rain. Dave assures me that the weather report expects it to clear. “It won’t get any worse,” he adds.
We set off with my teenage son in the back and he soon feels nauseated as we wind our way along the roads. He says he’s going to be sick so we stop at a small petrol and grocery shop in Warratah — a clean, quaint little town that was once a thriving community of miners and their families.
The shop’s proprietor — an old woman dressed in what looks like a nightie — apologises for the lack of fruit juice when we can’t find any in the fridges. My son chooses a raspberry soft drink and she encourages us to buy the bigger bottle for the same price. We don’t take up the offer and she squints her eyes and stares through her granny-glasses at the tall boy standing in front of her. “Your son, I presume?” (I doubt any teenager would travel alongside a Vietnam vet and a middle aged woman to the remote wilderness unless they were related to one of them, but I nod anyway.)
Dave is talking to an elderly man decked-out in Hawthorn colors who is sitting in the shop window. The Hawthorn supporter says he once panned for gold around here but emphysema has taken its toll and now he sits and waits and keeps the old lady company.
My son asks if the windy roads are over. “I’m afraid not,” the old lady replies and tells us that a sailor told her that if you eat but don’t drink much liquid you are less likely to get motion sickness. “I assume it’s the same for cars,” she adds.
Just as well we didn’t buy the bigger soft drink bottle.
The shop has a small grocery section and tucked away near the newspapers is a collection of pamphlets, bound together with a rubber band promoting the Word of John. I guess this place is also the local supplier of Christian literature, though it doesn’t explain why the old lady is in her nightie.
We continue the drive and soon pass Savage River, an iron-ore mining town. The miners’ huts line up in neat rows along the river, but the place is barren and bleak and a few sullen miners wander around. Luckily, the roads are well-maintained because of the mining industry and there is only the odd truck that passes us going in the opposite direction. Suddenly, a white gravel road replaces the tarmac and stretches endlessly before us. A sign warns drivers to be careful on the unsealed road and it is a further 20km drive to our destination.
“Oh dear,” I look at the long and winding road, “ it would be better to have come in a four wheel drive.”
“This is nothing,” Dave says, “The gravel road is pretty.” And it does have a certain charm with its white rocks and scenic outlook over the water. A grey car, the only traffic I’ve seen going in our direction, pulls over to let us pass. “Bloody Victorians,” Dave says when he spots the number plates. “Afraid of a white gravel road.”
I don’t take offence even though I’m Victorian because I’d rather pull over too. The rain pours down making the gravel road slippery and hard to navigate.
“Agh, you’ll be right,” says Dave when I suggest we stop. “Just drive slowly.” I continue to steer with some difficulty as the gravel becomes slippery. At one stage the car swerves close to the edge of a sheer drop and I slow right down.
“It’s a beautiful road,” Dave says. “You Victorians want all the comforts. This road’s a lot better than it used to be, geez.” The gravel rocks ping around the car.
“That doesn’t sound good.”
“Nah, you’re fine. Just enjoy it.”
Eventually, the gravel road gives way to tarmac again and we pass a few huts and a disused pub and then pull into the car park outside the reception office.
“I hate to say this,” my son says looking around, “but have we just passed all of Corinna?”
“What were you expecting? I said it was sparsely populated,” Dave cackles.
The grey car that had pulled aside for us earlier reaches the car park and a man in his eighties gets out. He’s looking for the barge to Zeehan. Unfortunately, the barge is in dry dock having less than an inch of its hull left. The old man is disappointed that he must now backtrack up the long gravel road.
We enter reception — which is also the restaurant and bar — to find a blonde-haired woman busy behind the counter, even though there appear to be no customers. We order a hot drink and she says I can make it myself. She shows me the kettle and the teabags located at the back of the restaurant. There is a small Bunsen burner and as she puts the kettle on she apologises that it might take a while. When it boils, I find the lid to the kettle is also broken. Renee, another staff member, comes over to help and lifts the lid with a long spoon and pours in the water.
She’s friendly and I ask her about working in Corinna. She says they have six permanent staff and this number swells to 18 during summer. She copes with the isolation, she says, because she enjoys fossicking and even though the gold is mostly gone, someone found a nugget a few years ago. And there is a man who finds shavings and his wife makes them into earrings. She says that they also find discarded materials from late nineteenth century gold miners. “If you enjoy doing things like that then you don’t feel isolated. Besides, it’s only a two hour drive to Burnie.”
I can’t imagine having to drive regularly along that gravel road, but she doesn’t seem to mind. She’s been working here for a year. Staff are rostered on for ten days and then they have four days off, during which they return to Zeehan for a few days.
If you can cope without your phone then you’ll be okay, she advises. Surprisingly, there is no mobile coverage but there is a landline and as for the internet, they lose it for up to three days at a time. She says the staff watch DVDS and socialise at the pub and that they have fun. I imagine they do — but still, you could grow stir crazy here after a while.
We go for a walk in the rainforest. Dave is quite knowledgeable about the wilderness and points out a Huon Pine. He stands in front of it and I want to take a picture. I move the camera away and he places himself in line with the camera again. I move the camera again and take the shot.
“I saw that.” Dave looks offended. “You didn’t want me in the photo. You Victorians are bloody rude.”
I say I’ll take one of him in front of the tree to make him happy. He says it’s too late now and walks away. It becomes a joke as we move through the rainforest. Whenever I take a picture of the fauna I ask him first whether he wants to be in it. He soon lightens up again and points out birds and trees. After an hour or so, the trail winds round back to the village and we exit next to the accommodation. The huts are nestled unobtrusively in a semi-circle around undercover camping benches and a wooden fire.
We return to the pub which by now has several diners. I ask for the lunch menu but Renee says she hasn’t written one but can whip up a soup and sandwich. I also ask her for accommodation prices and she writes them on a piece of paper. I say I’ll take a picture of the paper so she won’t have to re-write the prices for the next people who ask.
Dave starts talking to some scientists who are traveling up from Hobart and I play a round of table tennis with my son. He’s cheered up a bit now that he no longer feels nauseated. The rain has stopped and even though the sun remains hidden behind clouds, it is mild and pleasant.
We stay for another hour and then it’s time to head back along the gravel road. The drive is easier without the rain but some people in four wheel drives come tearing round the corner. “Bloody Victorians,” Dave says after checking the number plates. “Think they own the road.”
The drive back is uneventful and we drop Dave back at his farm. Two of his lambs have gotten through the fencing so he has to go and fix it rather than curl up in bed. I tell him I feel we’ve been to Middle Earth and back. There is something unique and otherworldly about Corinna.
“Told you so,” he laughs, and screws up his face like a mischievous hobbit. As I drive away, I ask my son how he’d found the day. He told me it was mostly boring with a few enjoyable bits which, for a teenager, means that it wasn’t too bad overall.
After five hours of driving I’m exhausted, but happy to have seen the restaurant at the end of Corinna.
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About the author
Sue Bell is an entertainment writer and author of Backpacked: A mostly true story, Beat Street and When Dreamworks came to Stanley.