At some point, when you take the Lyell Highway, you hit a sudden wall of water, a thick sheet of rain that comes belting against your windscreen. It happens every time. Last week, I met it shortly after the King William Range was behind me, as I entered the tenebrous green rainforest; I slithered down the hairpins throughout it, but the weather cleared up by the made it further west, and I could speed towards the bulk of the mineral mountains of the west coast, from which Queenstown is made.
Later, from the windows of my quarters for the weekend, I saw a beautiful afternoon spread out before me. I had been given a room in the old nurses’ accommodation, which is currently being renovated into a hotel of sorts. It was a splendidly quirky establishment, with an equally genial and eccentric host, and perched on one of Queenie’s various hills, it gave a good perspective on the diverse moods that seize that town so suddenly.
I was out there for a festival called the Unconformity. To those who do not know geology, the name may seem a bit artificial, somewhat forced; but aside from allusions to outsider behaviour, the word ‘unconformity’ refers to a situation in which two different strata of geology stand side-by-side, two eras of rock formation forced next to one another. The west coast is notoriously non-conformist, yes, but it is also made up of jarring elements of landscape, barren rock and thriving rainforest, industrial wealth and impoverished soils, booms and busts, fires and floods.
I was working at the festival; throughout it, my role allowed me to wander off-site several times, going with groups down to this spot, the confluence of the King and Queen rivers. This is a special spot, and I was happy to return to it. I would hover around listening to the interpretations of two experts in western Tasmanian natural history: they gave a concise explanation of the botany, the geology, and the hydrology of the region.
The dark King River runs uncontaminated out of a high range of dolerite mountains further to the north; but here it picks up the poisoned Queen, a dead river, devastated by the run-off from the old copper mine, so laden with heavy metals that it may be a millennium before it’s healthy again. Yet around us, myrtles towered and huon pines hung with their foliage just above the water. More unconforming ecosystems – what could be more jarring than the near presence of both life and death?
Later, of course, I played the footy match on Queenstown’s infamous field. Its surface is gravel; few participants emerge without shedding a bit of bark, as they say. As usual, I kicked waywardly, ran a lot, drank a beer during the match, smirked at opposition players and cursed the umpire – and as usual, my team lost.
Mostly, during a footy match, you are in the moment; but every so often, you get a chance to contextualise yourself. You see the rough mountains around you. You identify your mates on the field with you, and you realise that these liquid events are already firming up into stone-like memory. That though much dissolves in your life, some trace elements will remain.
At one point or another, after the footy and in the final hours of the festival – while we were still all together, before taking off on our long road trips towards homes afterwards – it became clear that, however briefly, we had been a part of something irrevocable in the history of the area.
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