Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

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  • The Highwayman

    The Highwayman

    They say this cave on Mount Wellington was once the hideout of John ‘Rocky’ Whelan, the bushranger highwayman.

    Sent to the colonies from England as a convict, Whelan – like so many others – absconded. Like all bushrangers in Tasmania, he targeted the many isolated homesteads for plunder; but he also roved the forests ambushing lone travellers, robbing and often killing them.

    He’d never been a likeable man. Nicknamed for his gnarled, pock-marked face, Rocky Whelan was transported in 1829; he spent time in Sydney, Norfolk Island and Hobart, each time making efforts to escape. Myths surfaced about his fondness for dimly-lit cells, or his supposed imperviousness to the lash or other forms of corporal punishment. His final disappearance came as he was assigned to a public works gangs in Hobart. It took only two days for him to abscond into the bush around Mount Wellington.

    Without doubt, Whelan was bold. During his winter on the mountain, he would visit a local magistrate, repose in front of a roaring fire, and read the newspaper. He stopped visiting the day he read his own profile as a wanted man.

    But most of his time was spent in this curvaceous edifice of honey-coloured, quartz-rich Triassic sandstone, alone, with but a small fire to keep himself warm against the damp southern weather.

    In the end, Whelan was caught, by chance, outside a boot-maker’s workshop. He was repairing the boots of a missing man. He admitted to five murders. He was hanged at the Imperial Gaol in 1855 with 112 offences against his name.

    There was an old man near Brown’s River, the youth Dunn on the Huon track, an elderly gentleman at Bagdad, a young fellow on the Westbury Road, and a hawker near Clevelend. A chequered career of murder, fatalities scattered across the island. At one stage he appears to have travelled around 100 miles in three days.

    “Dead men tell no tales” was the highwayman’s mantra. And yet, this cleft of sandstone in which the cold-hearted bushranger John Whelan took refuge during his days of terror in Tasmania bears his story even still. Nowadays, a small detour off a popular recreational walking route on the mountain points out his old hideaway. I was there last week with a friend, sheltering from the wind, eating from a small container of grapes.