Captain Abel Tasman had suspected there were mineral deposits in the mountains of western Tasmania; his compass acted up as the Zeehaen and Heemskirk approached the island in 1642.
In 1877 the work of intrepid government surveyor Charles Sprent confirmed the presence of various ores in that rugged country, including deposits of magnetite iron ore, on the Savage River, whose tenebrous waters flow down from beneath Mount Bertha through pristine rainforest into the Pieman River and the west coast.
But the ore was of lower quality (only 38% iron) and it took nearly a century for mineral investors to believe in the economic potential of a mine there. The town of Savage River came to be over the years 1965 to 1967 and the mine began its life. Today it is operated by Grange Resources, a Chinese-owned company which is the largest non-government employer in north-western Tasmania. An 80 kilometre pipeline brings the magnetite concentrate to a plant near the port town of Burnie.
In 1990 a young couple from New Zealand arrived to practice medicine in the town. A bushfire had just ripped through the Hazelwood River valley. Local stories varied as how the disaster had occurred: as one of these doctors recalled in a recent letter, it was either “campers who hadn’t doused their fire properly” or “the forestry boys who prior to the end of the financial year had $ to burn so would experiment with dropping fire bombs from helicopters.”
Meanwhile, the Savage River was being severely polluted by run-off from the mine. 30 kilometres of the river was poisoned by acid seepages and other contaminants. By 1995, the Environmental Protection Agency reports, parts of the river “were found to have lost 90% of its invertebrate biodiversity and 99% of its invertebrate abundance”. Even by the standards of other local environmental ravages, this was a terrible result.
In the 1990s, though, an environmental rehabilitation process was implemented.
For three years these Kiwi doctors worked at Savage River; their work had seen them attend to snakebites, jackjumper anaphylaxis and indeed mine fatalities. this year, they returned to Tasmania to tour the island in a campervan. I had met these doctors previously on a bushwalk; in a remarkable coincidence, we found ourselves camped on other sides of the Savage River on rainy west coast evening.
A letter had just been written to me, full of observations from their time revisiting the area. “May as well save on the postage,” we agreed.
As the road wound its way towards their old place of work, they were greeted with post-bushfire reforestation, and the mizzling rain that they had lived with most days of their three-year stint in western Tasmania. However, the sight of the Savage River township was “a savage shock.” The accumulation of waste rock, removal of temporary homes and buildings, boomgates installed over roads: twenty-six years of memory were undone in an instant. “The squash courts remain – as what?”
The doctors were taken aback by the visual impact of the mine, and suggested that what had seemed like a contained site in 1990 had now spread malignantly into the surrounding forest.
In the meantime, other sites in the area have moved away from such industries and are hoping to survive from tourism. This area is now widely known as the Tarkine or takayna, a broadly-defined region covering much temperate rainforest, mountainous terrain, and rarely-visited coastline. A recent publication, Tarkine Trails, invites recreational visitors to the area in order to promote its conservation value. On the other hand, some sixty-odd mineral exploration licenses are valid in the Tarkine region, which environmentalists worry will continue to “significantly disturb river environments”.
They are campaigning for a Tarkine National Park: a proposal which they accept will have no effect on the current lease of the Savage River Iron Ore Mine operated by Grange Resources. North of the mine, the Savage River National Park is Tasmania’s least accessible national park, and the river, untouched, drops down through forested gorges before it comes upon the mine.