A couple of nights ago at dinner I pulled aside Mick, our expedition leader, to see if I couldn’t finagle my way on to the Coles Bay Oyster Lovers Tour in Freycinet. I knew it was a long shot. There were only 12 slots open and those had been filled before the ship even sailed and earlier Mick had told me they had at least four people on the waiting list. Still, you’ve got to give something like that a shot — an afternoon spent at the renowned Freycinet Marine Farm slurping just-shucked oysters from the Freycinet National Park which is said to have perhaps the cleanest, most pristine ocean water in the world.
Well, I got lucky. Last night, after dinner, there was an envelope slipped under my door with a message from Mick saying there has been a cancellation and if I still wanted to go, I needed to let him know by eight this morning. Which I did. So shortly after lunch a dozen of us hopped into two of the Zodiacs and were whisked over to Coles Bay where our guide, Brad, a young twentysomething dude with a pony-tail, showed us to his little minibus to begin our tour.
“Right,” said Brad. “Just wanted to let everyone know that there are no oysters on our oyster tour.”
Not my fault, said Brad, slipping the minibus into gear and heading away from the harbor before anyone could jump ship, as it were. The weather didn’t allow the boats to get out. The oyster farm doesn’t have any oysters.
A guy from Melbourne, sitting behind me, said, Well, someone in Cole’s Bay must have some oysters. You need to find them. Brad, sensing that things were going south very, very quickly, got on his cell phone while driving and tried to rustle up some oysters. No luck. Not a single supplier in Coles Bay had even one bivalve. “Look,” said Brad, trying to lighten things up, “we’ll just pop on over to the oyster farm and have some mussels instead. You like mussels don’t you?”
Well, yes, everyone liked mussels and it was generally agreed that if there were no oysters to be had the next best thing would be to at least eat some mussels.
At the oyster farm there was a little rustic café (just a pass-through window, really, and a half dozen picnic tables outside) where normally they serve customers lots of lots of Freycinet oysters. Thinking that perhaps they had just a few hidden away, Brad went to the window and asked the owner, Julie, if she didn’t perhaps have a dozen oysters tucked away somewhere. “These people are on a cruise ship and they’re taking the Oyster Lovers Tour and they’d be perfectly happy if they could each just have one little oyster.”
Sorry, said Julie. Sold out. No oysters today.
Well, what are you going to do. Brad ordered several pots of mussels from Julie as well as a couple of bottles of Sauvignon Blanc wine and we sat at two of the picnic tables and shared the mussels and drank the wine from plastic cups and joked about being on an Oyster Lovers Tour with no oysters. After I’d had three or four mussels, I got up and took a photo of a picture on their outdoor menu board that showed a dozen Freycinet oysters on a plate. I figured that was as close as I was going to get to any oysters.
We finished up and everyone got back on the minibus except for me. I was wandering around the oyster farm looking at huge piles, four feet tall, of scallop and oyster shells and taking photos when a pickup came up the dirt road and pulled up to the back of the café. Curious, I walked over. Two oyster farmers were unloading a couple of bushel baskets of oysters fresh off the boat. “It’s all we were able to get today,” one told me. “It’s pitiful but we had an obligation to a client we just had to meet one way or the other.”
Brad, back at the minibus, honked the horn and leaned out the window entreating me to get onboard. “We’re waiting for you,” he yelled in the wind. I ignored him and turned to one of the oyster farmers. “Listen,” I said, “I’m on the Orion cruise ship and I’ve just spent a $125 on an Oyster Lovers Tour for which we were told there were no oysters. I don’t suppose you’d be willing to let me have just one, would you?”
“Ah, yeah,” said the farmer. And right there, at the back door of the café, he took an oyster knife out and shucked me the largest oyster in the bushel. “There you go mate.”
I quickly slurped it down while Brad continued to honk his horn.
It was lovely. Smooth and sweet and lightly brined from the most pristine ocean water in Tasmania. It was both the best oyster I’ve ever had as well as the most expensive.
When I climbed back on the minibus everyone wanted to know what I’d been doing in the back of the café. I had an oyster, I confessed. You didn’t, said the man from Melbourne behind me. I did, I told him.
“And how was it?”
“Better than you’ll ever know.”
Which was a little mean. But also true.