“A road is not like a railway, built mile by mile, inching along to an inevitable goal. No, a road begins with tracks, either of men or animals; it is improved haphazardly as occasion demands.”
So wrote George Hawley Stancombe, in his self-published history of the Midlands Highway, History in Van Diemen’s Land (1968). Anyone making the journey between Tasmania’s two urban centres today would notice that the haphazard improvements continue. The earth along the highway’s sides scoured and graded, big boulders broken, lanes added, and (for the meantime) vehicles being slowed down to a grinding halt at certain sections.
But we presume that in the end it will make the journey between Hobart and Launceston smoother, quicker, and safer. We chip away gladly at the amount of minutes spent on that road as it glides amidst the farmlands and villages of Tasmania’s eastern interior.
In doing so we dismiss the efforts of Lieutenant Laycock, who on February 12th 1807, accompanied by four men and three weeks worth of provisions, staggered bedraggled into Hobart Town, having hoofed it from the Tamar to the Derwent.
Their route was not identical to our highway’s, and the landscape is not the same. They spoke of thick forests – now all the land is cleared for agriculture – and they seem to have been in the vicinity of New Norfolk. Their adventure, along with those of several other parties that followed theirs, may have involved encounters with Aboriginals and bushrangers, and required that they overcome swollen rivers and tough terrain, not to mention the transport of their possessions.
The first vehicular passages occurred in 1824, with two mail carriages relaying, meeting centrally at York Plains on Friday afternoons. Rendezvousing at the White Hart Inn, they quickly toasted one another, and then returned from whence they came with the other man’s cargo. (Mr. Presnell, proprietor of the inn, is said to have served “good mutton, indifferent wine and very poor bread.”)
The name of York Plains, along with Ross, Epping Forest, and anything with his or his wife’s name in it came from Governor Lachlan Macquarie, who, with Elizabeth Macquarie and other dignitaries, traversed the island in the early days of the colony. But was Antill Ponds named after one of his men, one Major Antill, or a bushranger whose head was bashed in by one of his colleagues? And who is responsible for the naming of Jericho, Jordan and Bagdad – and were they really reading from the Bible or the Arabian Nights?
Each traveller in Tasmania has their impressions from the road. Many have a story of accident, or more often, a near-accident. The weather has come and gone on us, hazing up Ben Lomond or the Western Tiers on either side; Mount Wellington, either ahead or behind, looks stern and foreboding, or glorious and inviting. On a recent trip down, there was snow down to about 500 metres in the midlands.
We have had a good toasted sandwich in Kempton or a kick of the footy at Oatlands. Sometimes the two hours have passed too quickly, and sometimes, they’ve dragged on forever. Everyone has had a coffee at Campbell Town – but do you prefer Zep’s or Red Bridge?
Poor old Brighton, bypassed a few years back: who knows what happens in Brighton now? These days, in and out of Hobart we pass the former Pontville Detention Centre. This was an army barracks, and then for a short while, housed asylum seekers. It is back in private hands now, and its history, shadowy, may just disappear as we familiarise ourselves with it as a benign, unregistered, fairly bland landmark along the highway.
Just as we ignore the silhouettes in steel commissioned, I am told, to help drivers keep their attention as they head through the Southern Midlands. The gunpoint mugging of a gig, the surveyor’s strained efforts, the emus and thylacines, and the forlorn figure of the hangman at the turn-off to Stonor all blend into the hedgerows, the sloping fields, the solitary gums, the homesteads and so on, as we mostly move hastily between the urban centres.
But I have missed too much out! History and anecdote crowd my attempts to write this brief account of the Midlands Highway. There are those who have lived along the highway, who have seen it snake towards and away from them, and those people and animals who formed its basic route before Europeans ever dragged their sheep to the fields or planted a radiata pine or poppy. There are truly funny stories to tell, and miraculous moments, and maybe I could even muster up something romantic. I am sure there will be many readers who feel the same.
I won’t tell it all now. But someday I, like Lieutenant Laycock, will stroll from the Tamar to the Derwent – and then there will be time to unravel the stories. Even a highway journey ought be taken on foot sometime.