In years gone by, Tasmanians with the means to do so would escape winter by heading to warmer climes – Bali, Europe or the Pacific islands for those with the means, the Gold Coast or other parts of Queensland for those with more limited funds. Those of us without the wherewithall simply stayed home and shivered through winter in poorly insulated homes that were inadquately heated by open fires or (in the case of my childhood) smelly kerosene heaters which required regular cleaning and trips to the local garage for refills.
Thank goodness for insulation the and reverse-cycle airconditioner (known in Tasmania as the heat pump), which in the past couple of decades have made staying at home for winter less of an ordeal.
More recently, the tides have turned and interstate folks who previously believed that winter on the island was akin to February inside the Arctic Circle* are drawn to Tasmania in increasing numbers by a range of festivals that help light up the darkness and celebrate the chilly months with art events, bonfires, music and good food and drink.
Dark MoFo, the cool and dark cousin of January’s MoFo, burst onto the scene a few years back, literally lighting up Hobart’s winter skyline with massive installations involving searchlight beams reaching into the stratosphere.
Flames greeted guests to the Salamanca waterfront precinct for the Mindwinter Feast and locals and visitors alike encountered each other as never before, exploring the city under unaccustomed circumstances. The Festival builds up to the Winter Solstice, which is marked with a mass skinny-dip at daybreak following the longest night of the year.
It is followed in early July by the Festival of Voices, which describes itself as Australia’s premier celebration of the voice. Indeed, the extensive program offers something for everyone, from pop and rock to mass choirs performing with orchestras. Hobart’s dowdy but charming 1920s City Hall is transformed into Voicebox, an ideal venue for intimate cabaret performances in a range of styles, and the program increasingly spreads around the state. Masterclasses with Australian and international vocal coaches and choral conductors attract entire choirs to the Festival, filling beds and pubs at an otherwise quiet time of year.
The hero event of the Festival of Voices is the Big Sing and Bonfire, which sees Salamanca Place closed to traffic on a Friday evening and occupied by thousands of people who gather around a huge bonfire out in front of the market street’s sandstone warehouses who paricipate in a mass singalong.
The Bay of Fires Winter Arts Festival is a regional event that is beginning to develop a profile and reportedly increasing the population of the St Helens area in the state’s north east by thousands over the June long weekend. It incorporates an art prize, workshops, films, open studios and gardens with an art market and live music.
Founded by the lads from Willie Smith’s Cider and happening in and around their Apple Shed, a half-hour drive south of Hobart, the Huon Valley Midwinter Fest takes pagan winter celebrations as its inspiration.
Patrons are encouraged to dress up in pagan style, Morris Dancers lead celebrations and the whole bacchanalia culiminates in bonfire of heroic proportions, all accompanied by plenty of local produce whipped up into tasty offerings by the area’s leading caterers.
In Latrobe, near Devonport, the ‘food of the gods’ is celebrated in August’s Chocolate Winterfest. Naturally, it celebrates chocolate as a food, offering demonstrations by local choclolatiers, with plenty of opportunity to taste their wares, but the event doesn’t limit itself, adding chocolate as wearable art to the program. The one-day festival culminates in a lantern parade through the streets of the town.
Keen photographers rug up and head out into the night as Tasmania’s often crystal clear winter skies result in perfect viewing conditions for the Aurora Australis and for photographing the billions of stars visible when the moon and clouds are absent. This season is celebrated in Tastro Fest, in a program of lectures and demonstrations around astronomy and astrophotography, held in the north west coastal town of Ulverstone.
Well before any of these festivals hove into view, the good people of Hobart celebrated the city’s and the state’s cultural, historical, scientific and institutional links to the continent of Antarctica during July. After an absence of some years, this celebration has been resurrected in the form of September’s Australian Antarctic Festival. It offers a program of talks, walks and open days as well as art exhibitions and concerts. It even resurrects one of the perennial favourites of the earlier festivals, the huskies, although they no longer charge through the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens hauling their sled behind them, having been relocated to the Hobart Waterfront.
By the time all these festivities are over, it will be well and truly spring, which offers plenty of reasons for a whole new slew of festivals, events and celebrations as the sun returns to Tasmanian skies.
*Tasmanian winters are relatively mild; it shares a relative latitude similar to parts of Italy and Spain.
Dark MoFo Hobart, 10-21 June, 2016
Festival of Voices Hobart and around Tasmania, 30 June – 17 July, 2016
Bay of Fires Winter Arts Festival St Helens, 10-13 June, 2016
Huon Valley Midwinter Fest Grove, 15-17 July, 2016
Chocolate Winterfest Latrobe, 14 August, 2016
Tastro Fest Ulverstone, 12-14 August, 2016
Australian Antarctic Festival Hobart, 8-11 September, 2016