I am reminded again that we each perceive and measure the passage of time differently. The seasons do not simply pass in a sequence, in four successive movements. Sometimes you belatedly catch that an important chunk of your life has finished, that you have gone beyond it. You jump out of the car to open the gate, and discover that it is prematurely dark, and that the metal of the gate is peculiarly cold. You realise that a companion has left you, and that you suddenly must decide what to do with the rest of your life.
Yet again I recently found myself bushwalking through forests of memory, over the last lost petals of the leatherwood trees, ragged white clumps lying in the dirt like the wings of an extinct moth. To me, this is the most sentimental sight in the world; leatherwood flowers remind me of lost loves, of dreams that fell away from me, of opportunities I squandered, of certain things of which I have been deprived. The flowers burst like stars as the year turns, and then fall shredded to the black earth as the summer ends.
The rainforest started hissing. Hard snow was rushing into the green ambience, snowflakes falling in helices, streaming towards invisibility, in union with the moss and lichen. Like skinks’ feet, they were sticky; I caught them on my eyelids, they clung to my leg hairs. Neon tigers glowed in the gloaming – I speak of Eucalyptus subcrenulata, the alpine yellow-gum, whose bark begins to radiate bright caramel yellow at this time of year. It is as though they have swallowed the summer’s saturated light, its endless days, and have held onto it all for this moment when twilight comes crowding in. These trees are electric, powered by heavy rain. It is another of those symbols that I take to my heart.
At the height of summer I found myself on one of those mountain ranges from which you look out and see only more mountain ranges, layered against each other, jagged blue strips fading out into an impossible horizon. These mountains of diminishing opacity, they are like dreams of the future, or of the past. They disappear into an unclear haze of the faintest blue. Now summer is over and the other day, from such heights, what I saw were sheer silvery veils, the colours of minerals, and a hefty storm swaggering towards me as if it were a footballer with their chest puffed out. And I thought, so that is over. I thought: the time has come to begin to wonder keenly – almost painfully – what is next.
Currently showing posts tagged Tasmania
I am reminded again that we each perceive and measure the passage of time differently. The seasons do not simply pass in a sequence, in four successive movements. Sometimes you belatedly catch that an important chunk of your life has finished, that you have gone beyond it. You jump out of the car to open the gate, and discover that it is prematurely dark, and that the metal of the gate is peculiarly cold. You realise that a companion has left you, and that you suddenly must decide what to do with the rest of your life.
I had smelled it whenever I’d been in the bush over the past few weeks: vaporous and gaseous, like something that was begging for a match to be put upon it.
Now I’d driven west, following rivers running up their fertile valleys, straw and stubble where the spouted spit of irrigators hadn’t reached. The rivers themselves had a hot glare about them. On the colourless road out to one of Pedder’s dams, spitting up a grey wash of dust, it seemed somehow like I was driving into a desert.
I was aiming for a particular mountain range, an array of queer quartzite peaks. Their summits are so often like antennae for heavy cloud and rain, in the wet south-west, where the winds of the roaring forties thrash oceanic gusts against whatever they meet. But the forecast was for days hotter than thirty degrees.
So it was that I found myself on a moraine, on a slab of quartzite and in the midst of a hot morning, sitting with an ecologist. He’d previously surveyed the golden sedgelands where we’d camped, which were now far below us. Those plains appeared clean and smooth, soothed by the fires that once rode through. Meanwhile, on odd slopes, wedged in gullies, there were myrtles and king billies. A palette of myriad greens of the south-west rainforest.
I was on a mountain range of planets and stars, Hesperus and Aldebaran and Sirius. Even in the bright day, the constellations were found in the black tarns, those indented into shelves of rock beneath barbarous bluffs.
At night, by Lake Cygnus, we were briefly walloped with stray weather. Tinny thunder rumbled around our quartzite bowl. Over the bony ridge, there were fast, fatal flashes of lightning.
From the heights we hiked the next morning, we could see a series of fires burning on Pedder’s shores, plumes of smoke up the Huon and behind several other mountain profiles. The skies were muddied with mauve haze. Apparently over a thousand strikes made landfall, in various swathes across the island. So we wear the scars of lightning without rain.
I had been on mountain heights when bushfires burnt the guts out of forests several summers ago, in 2016. I’d seen the forked lightning then too; watched a spiral of smoke coming from a landscape I loved. In the weeks that followed, my poet’s tongue contorted with furious, artless passion. It’s all fucked, I felt, and I felt it loudly. I savaged a lover because she didn’t understand.
These trees, I tried and failed to say. Their green is drawn from too far back for this. See this one? It is, itself, over a thousand years old. Yet the whole species may be extinct before I disappear.
But some land likes to burn too. Some of our commonest species are pyrophilic, as they say – ‘fire lovers’. Eucalyptus, buttongrass: fire has been healer. The old people cleaned up country with it, used it to turn ground. The torch can be an ecological tool. But other flora is tremendously sensitive to fire; these glean no hope from it. They simply die. Too much fire, and they will be gone altogether. We seem to be getting too much fire.
The fact that they sometimes live side-by-side – such different ecosystems, plants that respond so differently to fire – is one of this island’s usual mysteries.
At the end of the third day on the range, a helicopter arrived to evacuate us. We looked upon the tortured track we’d picked at, those twisted staircases of white stones between the bizarre grey boulders, the nipped ridges and narrow saddles we’d skipped upon, and those star-filled tarns, black in the broad day. It was a shame to leave it below. But everything before us was smudged in smoke, swirling upwards to the sanctuary of our summits.
Now I’m home. Silent at this distance, the fires are deafening in forests elsewhere. I know their roar, black and violent and quivering with rage. I know the hissing heat of those growing beasts, the sudden unflinching flux of leaves converted into flames. The whirling vortices of smokes are representations of our changed conditions.
We must learn the colours of bushfires, must learn fire’s moods. We must adapt to a fire-ravaged land. Perhaps we will. But there is much that simply cannot adjust itself so suddenly. I am proud of plenty of the plantlife that may not survive this overheated century; they are part of my identity as someone who belongs to this island. Perhaps we may hope that in secret pockets, those peculiar species will cling on. Yet in a sense that has less science – that an ecologist is not able to describe, clever though he may be – with each of these summer fires, another sacred stand of king billy pine is plainly razed, out of sight, in my heart.
A couple years back, photographer Pen Tayler and I were approached to choose twelve Tasmanian towns and approach them through our chosen media. This week, Towns of Tasmania: a journey through time will be foisted into the public domain.
I’m yet to physically handle a copy and, naturally, I have had nothing to do with the editing or design of the book. The publishers always do a tidy job of their editions – I’d not have taken on their project if they didn’t – but nevertheless, as the book’s development reaches its conclusion, I have my quiet concerns that I won’t be satisfied with what I have written.
Mostly, I worry that I won’t have done justice to the dozen towns we selected for the title, that the people who belong to them will feel I have missed the point of how they live.
What is most interesting, to me, is that I didn’t have a hometown for almost the entire duration of the genesis of this book on Tassie towns. Much of it was written whilst I was scooting around the island in my ’92 Laser (may the poor old rustbucket rest in peace), or indeed while I was elsewhere in the world. I vividly recall writing about Ross while I was in a Sarajevo café, about Queenstown in an Istanbul apartment, and about Derby on a balcony from which I looked upon a Balinese temple.
It is entirely coincidental that this peripatetic period has concluded concurrently with the release of the book. After two years, I’m renting a room again. My books are piled precariously in the northern-eastern corner of a house in Meander; spinebills and fairy-wrens come tapping on the windows as I type. The other day I was cooking with the kitchen doors wide open and a score of currawongs swept into the trees only a few metres into the yard, and began a five-minute chorus of their cackling call.
Meander isn’t featured in the book; we chose Deloraine as a representative of all the townships of the Great Western Tiers. But even after a few weeks in Meander, I feel I could write a lengthy tome on the town. After all, I have been eavesdropping on a great deal of gossip lately. And either way, it’s a town that is both deeply interconnected and fractious, with a rich and rippling history, and a close proximity to landscape.
Yesterday the Meander Town Hall hosted a community concert, a memorial for a music teacher who died here last year – a young woman who had inspired many in the Meander area. Various locals cobbled together the gig, from performers to impromptu set designers. It was a manifestation of a special community spirit out here, a will to contribute, to cultivate and create a space for people to belong.
Over the years, there are several Tassie towns that I have considered home. One is featured in the book: Beaconsfield, where I spent my first years. There is also Penguin, where those who bore my surname first set themselves up in the 1850s. The edges of Launceston have looked after me too, and I have spent so much time in the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park that it may as well be home. I have no idea how long I will be able to stay in Meander, but I already know that it’s a place to which I will hopefully maintain a sense of belonging over the years.
When I arrived at the hall, Mother Cummings wore a scarf of rain; by the time we finished the bush dance, it was terrifically warm and the mountain was clear. There is nothing more important to Meander, I would dare assume to say, than this mountain peak. If there’s anything I hope to have said in the book that comes out this week, it’s that human communities are indebted to their landscapes, and that any township ought to have a strong relationship with its rocks and shrubs and rivers. If we all had deeper maps of the places where we lived, I’m quite convinced we would have healthier and happier communities.
For whatever reason, several years of frequent movement have developed in me a sense for uncovering the layers beneath a location. A more stationary season, especially in beautiful Meander, can only help me go deeper.
Towns of Tasmania will be launched in Hobart on Wednesday evening, and again in Launceston on Thursday night.
This past weekend, a group of concerned Tasmanians gathered in Launceston, under the unlikely and unpretty acronym of “Fawaha”: Fishers and Walkers Against Helicopter Access. Specifically, they were appealing against the construction of a private tourism operation on Halls Island in Lake Malbena, a remote and rarely-visited spot in the eastern part of the Walls of Jerusalem National Park.
The self-styled author and fisherman Greg French gave a short speech, which highlighted the concerns of many interested Tasmanians. They range from issues of ecology to issues of governance, including a lack of transparency, the thwarting of usual National Parks processes, and a general arrogance on behalf of the tourism operators and the government departments involved.
Lake Malbena, the latest of countless contested places in Tasmania, is within the boundaries of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, a large patch of country accepted by world experts as having value for all of humanity. That includes the many who will never get to visit it. Tourists and other visitors may see it, but the implication of such listings, I believe, is that we can only encounter these places on their own terms. To try and alter this wilderness, it would seem, undermines the reasons why it is considered valuable. It is not inscribed on the list because it is financially useful. It is a World Heritage site because of its precariousness, because we need it as it is in order to maintain the diversity of our existence.
Wilderness is a wriggly word, and I understand why the Lake Malbena project may have some supporters in the Aboriginal community and also among the former graziers and old-timers of the high country. These parties have good arguments as to how the word ‘wilderness’ deprives them of their heritage. My opinion, however, is that the Lake Malbena project does precisely nothing to encourage our understanding of the human history of this special country.
Part of the issue that faces us is around the idea of accessibility. Proponents will argue that these wilderness areas are without value if they are only available to the small percentage of the population who are able to walk in self-reliant manner to remote places.
The frequent argument for operating tourism businesses in the World Heritage Area (and I actually work in one) is that by increasing the ease of access for visitors, we are promoting them for protection. At the best of times, this argument doesn’t entirely convince me – I have taken hundreds of visitors for bushwalks on the Overland Track, and my summation is that the conditions of buying a bushwalk usually preclude a real encounter with the kinds of things that make many of us desperate to keep Tassie landscapes in reserve. In the case of Lake Malbena, the argument cannot be made at all. That a handful of parties will be allowed to chopper into Halls Island, while the rest of us are banned, achieves precisely the opposite.
The other side of that argument is that by expanding business operations in the World Heritage Area, we are decreasing a version of land use that is special to Tasmania. “Perhaps the most important thing about the preservation of wilderness is that it provides inspiration and solace,” Greg French said on Sunday. We risk diminishing the possibilities of solitude, and eroding the amount of non-commercial land we have. Such things are endangered in the world. There are so few hectares like this on the surface of our world. We are lucky to have a decent amount of it here, but few us recognise it as a defining characteristic of Tasmania. I think it is.
Places like the Walls of Jerusalem are special because they are – for the moderately fit, well-prepared, and willing – actually quite easily accessible. A few hours by road, and a few hours on foot, and you have access to a huge area of landscape that has been recognised for its uniqueness and beauty. Without having to ascend high mountain peaks or use technical skill and equipment, you are in a rare place. Commercialising these spaces sabotages that potential.
You have been told that Tasmania has, or is, a ‘brand’; I contest that we have a way of life, and I resent that our culture has been distilled into something saleable, by marketeers and politicians who care nothing for it. So much of what has made modern Tasmanian life is related to the vast spaces of rarely-visited, uncompromised land. These spaces are a presence behind our every action. For the colonists, and for the contemporary greedy of Tasmania, they represent the very worst of the world; but for those who have chosen to stay here or move here over the course of a couple hundred years, the choice has been made with some relationship to the grandeur of the Tasmanian landscape. We have breathing space here. We have slowness. We have solitude, or at least the option to pursue it.
As a young man I would have left Tasmania had I not discovered these landscapes. Fortunately for me, I discovered a culture and identity in the bush. I found something that Greg French echoed on Sunday: “Wilderness is transcendental. Uplifting. There’s not much of it left. Anywhere in the world.” I realised that Tasmania is extraordinary. However, we may lose much of it if we let our landscapes go into the hands of those who wish we weren’t so special, who prefer a version of Tasmania that is entirely commercialised and therefore (I would argue) globalised and generalised.
It is typical that this has been achieved by abusing the process we have laboriously put together over the years, the blueprint as to how we look after these spaces, which are, after all, on Unesco’s register of the world’s special places. Pathetically, there has been no tenable response from any of the proponents, including government, about the fact that they secretively changed the official management plan so that this project could fit with it. (This information was leaked.) The proponents – developers, tourism and government representatives – will wave their hands all around, trying to distract the public with caricatures of the conservationists involved, but they don’t have the guts to admit that they’ve steamrolled a legitimately-developed management plan to suit their own greedy whims.
This is a pattern in Tasmanian industry, of course: forestry and hydro-electricity are not bad industries, but we gave their representatives such power that they became unbearable. I wrote an article for Crikey three years ago suggesting that tourism could easily become the same sort of monster. I believe we have reached that point in Tasmania, and I am both pissed off and distraught about it. Thankfully, this lot, for their latest attempt to do whatever the hell they want with our National Parks, is being taken to court.
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.
I come home on a quiet Sunday evening to find dozens of faces staring at me in the streets.
There’s no-one walking the streets, of course. It’s Sunday night. Lengthy shadows ran down the South Esk as my aeroplane landed. The fields were golden, but cold. The mountains were grey and indistinct from the sky.
The faces are those of council candidates, contenders for the position of alderman. A lot of them are familiar. Some are good friends, admirable people. Some, I have reason to believe, are not. (The athlete Usain Bolt is also edited onto a panorama of Launceston, for an Optus ad.)
A town like mine writhes with competing motives, and I see these in the eyes of those on the posters (although what Bolt is doing I don’t know). While I criticise some council wanna-bes, I know my own wishes seem to be weird and wormy, outdated and obsolete. Very few people want what I want: solitude, diversity, the intermingling of simplicity and complexity.
A few years ago, outside Town Hall, I had an alderman tell me off for calling Launnie a town. “City! It’s a city!” But it feels like a big ol’ town to me. The sun comes out and every day I see a dozen people I know. Nina’s in the park, Luke’s in the street, Barnesy’s in Civic Square, Sinead’s in Service Tas, Wombat’s in Saint John, Stacky’s at the Oak. I like to see the old cobbers, but I am also ready to be alone.
The mall has been rejuvenated; so too has the square outside the library. I find them clean, open, uninspiring spaces. Their motifs seem meaningless: a honeycomb design, some skinny thylacines, x-rays of human skeletons. Northern Tasmania has a million pertinent symbols, but these are sourced from nowhere, from nothing. They are for everyone and so they are for no-one.
I try and found comfort in the grounds of the Cataract Gorge, but there, the lawns are being torn up and a pile of playground equipment is being installed. The trucks’ blaring signal cuts through the excavator’s dull roar. The quiet peep of the fantail is impossible to hear.
I have been away for some months, and I know that much of my dissatisfaction in what I see comes from inside of me. I’m restless; I’m ready to finish up travelling for a while, but still I find myself crashing in a different spare bed every night, living out of my backpack. I test-drive cars around Kings Meadows, up the Tamar, Waverley. It’s nice to get behind the wheel, to muster up a bit of speed, to have movement on my native island. But one car runs too hot, another seems to have oil in the radiator. I get on an empty bus. I walk up hills and through parks.
What, then, do I take comfort in? The sight of raptors above Tamar Island. The slouching wattles, prudent plovers, and boofy casuarinas. The first flowers of native mint, its sticky sour smell, and the reminder it offers of a woman I met last year who described it in novel terms. The greys of dolerite, the greens of ferns, the blues and browns and blacks of river-water.
I take comfort in the plethora of fine editions in second-hand bookstores and charities, and the hours I spend in the library.
I take comfort in the council candidate, my friend Tim, who pointed out the racist remark of a prominent Launceston businessman online. (I try and smother the misery I feel that this git probably won’t be held to account because he’s contributing to the local economy.)
Mostly, I take comfort in the map. My eye is drawn to the central section. In this representation of the island, it’s empty. But I know it’s the most interesting place of all. I will head up the steepest track and I will keep going on. I will hop over creeks, circumnavigate lakes, camp on peaks, suck up snow, chew on bitter berries. Who knows what will be waiting there for me. The travelling, then, will be finally over – for a time – and I will be properly home.
I could hear the snow, like the impossibly soft paws of mythical possums scuffling on the roof.
It was September in southern Tasmania. I’d been sliding upon all sorts of roads, scraping my crappy car along gravel tracks. No wonder it died later that summer. But now I had left the car at the bend and taken a more reliable form of transport, my own two legs. I had taken a short walk along a marked track, and then veered off, through scrub, along a rough footpad of dirt and pineapple grass, following occasional cairns of short stature.
In my backpack I had only the bare necessities: a sleeping-bag, a sleeping mat, my billy, some bread and chocolate and cheese, a comic novel, and some warm clothes.
I lowered myself down an outcrop and glimpsed the hut only moments before I came upon its door. In terms of colour, it is well-camouflaged – another shade in a palette of exquisite greys, from weathered dolerite to snow peppermint trunks. It is the foreign angle which makes it stand out, an a-frame of corrugated iron in amongst the bending trees and polymorphous boulders.
I could see a fair wedge of Hobart, a panorama only occasionally obstructed by eucalypt branches. It’s a beautiful city, clinging mostly to the waters of the Derwent estuary, running up the gullies of forested foothills without uniformity. Southern Tasmania is mostly water; the land is largely made up of peninsula and isthmus, in often blonde tints offset against marine tones.
The Derwent is a montigenous river that turns, somewhere, into the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, which later empties into the Southern Ocean. Several other rivers do the same, galloping down from the mountains north and west, riving the land, offering fertility to the valleys, hinting at the country’s wintry history. The surfeit of water before me in turn reminded me of the surplus of mountains at my back: from another secret spot nearby, I might have looked west, where the sky’s vastness would be reduced to a thin band of off-yellow, squashed by iron-coloured cloud.
The mountain silhouettes would be bold in that gloom, black and bleak, and beckoning. For such spectacular geographies often bring out the more audacious aspects in us.
Septembers always make me reminisce. It is from September that I take my measurements. Perhaps you’ll recognise the sort of things: who was I then, who am I now? In which ways am I diminished and what within me has grown? What matters to me today that wasn’t significant then? What metamorphosis is taking place today?
Then I was wondering what I would do with my spring and summer. I was curious about where to live, how to earn my money. Such scrutiny is one part of life. But sometimes it is overcome by spontaneity, like a swift change of weather. That evening, when light turned so grey I couldn’t read any longer, I climbed up into the loft of the mountain hut, stretched out on the bunk, and listened to the eucalypts bend and reach in a southerly – as if they ached, they yearned.
But then there was the snow, the quiet white flurry of possum-ideas. I took a deep breath and made a decision on the spot. When I woke, I broke the fresh white clumps all over the heath. A decision had been made.
That was a year ago though, and the decisions of that season are due to be revised.
I ran into a Tasmanian mate in Transylvania. We marched around under the mountains waiting for the weather to clear, and then wandered up to the ridgeline for a few days. When we came back down we got drunk and sat in a hostel kitchen ranting and raving about the honey of R. Stephens of Mole Creek. I feel like I may have done an impersonation of the legendary bushman Bert Nichols.
My mate Jill is from Western Creek, underneath the Great Western Tiers. She’s from a farming family and like myself, she works as a bushwalking guide. I have no doubt that any other backpackers listening to the anecdotes of Jill’s life would have found it fascinating, even if they had to filter out the inebriated hubris of her travelling companion.
I have spent the last two months away from Tassie; as always, being elsewhere makes me think of home more often, perhaps more clearly, certainly more critically. In Transylvania there are rich cultural expressions at the surface of everyday life – in tripe soup, the română language, gypsy music, and so on. Naturally, I wonder what lies beneath the surface. And I wonder what we Tasmanians display of our lives back home, what a traveller notices, what we obscure from them – what we don’t even recognise in ourselves.
Because I think there’s plenty. I rarely hear people speak of ‘Tasmanian culture’. But perhaps that’s changing; perhaps Tasmanians are starting to realise that we are doing something different down home, and, quite apart from the attitude that I grew up alongside, we’re beginning to recognise it’s something we might enjoy.
It’s not just Dark Mofo and blunnies (although I’m very fond of the winter solstice skinny dip, and I recently explained to a woman in Budapest that she was wearing ‘traditional Tasmanian boots’). It’s our bushwalking and woodwork practices; it’s wallaby meat and rhubarb jam; it’s an arvo at the footy or at a protest to look after the bush. There’s much that we draw from the old ways, from migrant customs (including those of our convict forebears), and most of all, the Tasmanian climate and landscape.
Tasmania was truly one of the most unique places on Earth before colonists came. For 40,000 years a human population developed a way of being in this remote, southerly, curious location; a quarter of that time was spent in complete isolation. Much of this is lost, but not all. I am convinced that the more we are able to listen to today’s Aboriginal community, the more we will sense our own uniqueness, and love our island all the more.
The land itself gives us much of our culture. I have been yarning with Jill about the foibles of our workplace (a theme to which bushwalking guides return again and again), as well as discussing our own journeys up Mother Cummings or to Frenchmans Cap or into the Walls of Jerusalem. We are lucky: we have been granted opportunities to get to know the moods of the mountains, the feel and smell of our rocks and trees and rivers, more than most.
We also discuss farming (a topic about which Jill knows plenty), the arts (a topic that baffles me even as I try to exist as a writer and performer), and food (which we both love). In Tasmania, all of these have a unique bent. Although we might beat our chests and boast about them in hostel common rooms, there is also plenty – in these three topics as well as all others – about which we might be concerned.
Jill and I part ways on a drizzly afternoon beneath another citadel, another castle. She travels west, I go east. The shared delirium of being Tasmanian will be put on hold for now. But I have no doubt how much my being born amongst the blackwoods of the Tamar River has shaped me. Tassie is not the entirely remote island that it once was, but I believe I still grew up in special conditions.
Have you ever seen black-hearted sassafras? Sometimes the timber of this rainforest tree is infected with a fungus that stains the wood with beautiful streaks of black and brown. The way I move, talk, eat, dance, dress, think and write: like this, I am marked with streaks of culture.
Speaking of sassafras: the flowers of the sassafras tree are one of my favourite landscape markers.
I suppose it was six months ago that Jimmy and I decided swiftly to head out into the boisterous weather and see if we couldn’t reach that waterfall after all. It would be a most wonderful bushwalk, but we would come back to camp both knackered and hungry.
It was the second-last night of the year, so in the last half hour, as we crossed plains in the dark, trying to redirect our attention away from our bellies, I asked Jimmy which was the most beautiful place he’d been that year.
We both had plenty of the world to choose from. We’d wandered far and wide, made new friends and reunited with mates we knew from long ago. We had done much of it on hoof. There had been high mountain summits, pastures, pine forests, marketplaces, city streets.
The question was only a way to hear a story, and Jimmy had a story. He painted a terrific scene of a landscape of exquisite beauty, and some of the most important relationships in his life tied to it. There they were – I saw them as he described it – tethered delicately high above the layers of mist, and the world.
Of course he turned the question on me, and I weakly answered with an anecdote, when all I could think of was that the best place I had been all year was that waterfall – or rather, the route to it, through an extent of myrtle forest that seemed endless, and between the big stringybarks whose bulk made Jimmy gasp with glee. Those black creeks from which we drank like animals, where I tried to tell a ghost story. The slippery black rocks beneath the waterfall – which now chutes through my mind in a single silver strand. I am sure that even today it is roaring through central Tasmania. But inexplicably, in memory, it is silent.
Half of this year is done. Where is the most beautiful place you’ve been? The questions raises two equal spirits in me. There is the sadness and satisfaction of the past, in which what we had is lost but they are at least complete; and there is the excited anxiety of the present, in which I feel that everything could be plucked from me at a moment’s notice.
Perhaps I am the only one who feels this way, although I could believe it is a condition that Tasmanians might easily feel. Perhaps it’s familiar to all modern people, but it seems keenly Tasmanian, a facet of life in a land with peculiar meanings, where memory serves us in a series of ways that are unique outcomes of our human history, and with which we do not easily contend. Or maybe it’s just dear, dreary old me.
Jimmy and I also went to this party for an old hut last year; in fact, Jimmy baked cakes for it.
It is is morning. I have been up for hours, although only now did I just serve myself my first cup of black coffee. I suspect a second isn’t far off. Now I have settled in to a morning of writing. I’ve been commissioned to write reference material for walking guides who will begin working on the Three Capes track in south-eastern Tasmania in spring. I have laid my hands on surveys, maps, and specialist reports. “The Tasman Peninsula has a coastline of around 323 km in length and an area of 473 km2,” I begin.
The anomaly in the situation is that I’m sitting in a hiker’s shelter underneath the volcano Eyjafjallajökull, in Iceland. I woke up this morning on a pass between two glaciers. It was one of those ugly wet-tent pack-downs. I suspect it was about 4a.m., and I began to head north, off the mountainside and into a verdant valley populated by handsome birch trees. North: further away from Tasmania.
I believe I’m about 17,000 kilometres from the Three Capes track, but that won’t stop my head from spinning with the Latin names of Tasman Peninsula flora (as per the ecological survey of Wapstra et alia). Mixing this in with the Icelandic vocabulary I’m trying to muster up, I’ve got a wild porridge here. But how pleasant all these words are. If you listen carefully (and with some imagination) you can hear some similarity between Eyjafjallajökull and the word ‘eucalypt’, I think.
There is no familiarity in volcanoes and glaciers, in the young black rock that washes down murky rivers like soot. But there are numerous commonalities, in the size, the population, the sense of distance, the islandness. The ptarmigan in its dappled winter coat puts me in mind of a favourite bird back home, the Bassian thrush.
Not the least commonality is how we both sit aloof from our continents, far north and far south, sparsely populated. It’s possible to find days of solitude. Icelanders and Tasmanians may both take the beauty of our home places for granted, and yet we both may identify with it and romanticise it too.
Icelanders and Tasmanians, we live on islands. What was it that the poet Louis Macneice came up with? “There is only hope for people who live on islands.” Macneice had his reasons, but there seems to have been a truth to it when he said it. Overpopulation is perhaps the great threat of the planet’s future, and we seemed, for a time, to be immune for it. But people are now looking to disperse to the islands.
In a fjord off northern Iceland there is a rock-island called Drangey, which is famous in Nordic literature. Here an outlaw named Grettir the Strong lived out his last days. It can’t be an easy swim out there, but in the saga written for him in the 14th century, we read that he managed to do it. It’s a story that relates to my research. Archaeological evidence of Aboriginal activity has been found on Tasman Island, off the southern tip of the peninsula where the Three Capes runs. A skull discovered there by early European scientists was disregarded as being that of some ‘accidental adventurer’ stranded there, somehow.
Now, we’re rather more sure that the Pydairrerme ancestors did indeed visit the island often enough, swimming and boating out there. Only, unlike the exploits of Grettir, we don’t have any written stories of who these swimmers might have been. As is so frequently the case in Tasmania, we don’t know the heroes of our island’s history.
In Iceland, writing about Tasmania. Maybe it isn’t so strange. Last night, eating polenta and mushrooms from the billy-pot, I took account of my appearance. The possum fur beanie was a gift. My woolly jumper was from a charity store in Zeehan. The shorts I wear most days of my life (even in the waist-deep snow of the Fimmvörðuháls track) are from an op-shop in Queenstown. My pink socks were given to me by an overly friendly lady in Tullah. My soggy hiking boots were from the Deloraine op-shop, $15. We drag our homeplaces with us.
The connections between Tassie and Iceland also involve a 19th-century adventurer.
It was such a bad night’s sleep that it was unrealistic, a cartoon version of a bad night’s sleep. There was heat, mosquitoes, and every kind of noise: traffic, laughter, techno music. I smothered myself with a pillow to muffle the sounds, mummified myself in the bedsheets to discourage the mozzies. I tossed and turned for hours, trying to assume a position in which sleep might grip me. But it didn’t come for many hours.
Often as I fall asleep I will enter into a narrative, one of several ready-made daydreams that usually succeed in drawing me into the depths of rest. The morning after this recent oppressive night, I explained this to a companion at an alfresco lunch table. As she asked for more information on these thought-narratives, I realised that they were each fairly childish, and I was far too embarrassed to describe them in any detail. All I would admit is that were well-worn, smoothed – that I had carried them with me for many years. They are journeys, adventures, and accomplishments that are borne from a younger self.
It is not only at night. They sometimes come upon when I’m hiking, particularly on long routes where even terrain allows for the body to move without too much attention to every footstep. Whilst walking, in fact, I further embellish the fictions, improvise on their outcomes. I have never thought this through either.
Of course, having revisited them so often, so unconsciously, over the years, they are now very deeply a part of myself. They tell much about me, and so I will not tell about them. But today I must accept that many of the disappointments I have relate to failing to meet the expectations set by these self-fictions that swirl about my brain at night.
My restless night was in a rented room in a country that is not my own. Another season of my life in Tasmania is concluded, and I have wandered off elsewhere, a pattern I have now followed for some years. I make the effort to mark the passage of time. It allows me to savour again any particularly sweet memories from the summer past, to let any dismay sink deeply into me, and to accept where luck and choice have taken me.
The first time I left Tasmania for so many months – some years ago now – I found myself shambling about wintry European streets, wind-bitten and lonely. There I made a new daydream, a daydream of home, and for the first time felt myself as a person made by my island. As each day drew me nearer to Tasmania, I knew I belonged to this scene: a black brook, fringed with ferns growing from dark earth, a spindly pepperberry clinging to its banks, its spicy leaves shining.
I have five nights in this rented room; this is the longest I have stayed in the same place for nearly a year. When I flew out of Launceston a week ago, I left it with some regret, discontent, and resentment. Here, the other night, I had a restless night’s sleep; for nine months I had a rather restless life. I chose that: although as the season passed, the choice seemed less my own, part of a collusion of forces, many of which I have succumbed to but some of which I resist.
I have tried very hard to learn to love in Tasmania. I don’t suppose it has amounted to much, at least when I contrast it with what seizes me in the moments before I sleep. When those night-thoughts fail me, new ideas appear, rattling on in errant trajectories – not soothing narratives, but splintered fragments of thought that I must learn to put together.
I suppose I leave home in order to revisit my daydreams, to return to the narratives I have let make me, to the dark thoughts put in my head by a lifetime on an island, half-wild, saddened, shadowed, and storied. Sleepless nights are little cost for this chance to imagine things anew.
I’m not sure when the word ‘branding’ became common parlance, but I do remember when I learned that the word ‘Tasmania’ had a certain appeal. I was on my first extended journey overseas, and it became clear to me that my native toponym warranted an excited response for people from, say, the U.S.A. or Italy or Germany.
That has only increased as the years have passed, and now I realise that there’s now an official effort to elicit responses like this to ‘Tasmania’. That’s what branding is – a deliberate attempt to attach certain positive associations and assumptions with a name. Those euphonious syllables – Tasmania, Tasmania – have no meaning of their own.
Now is not the first go at this: the renaming of Van Diemen’s Land in 1856 was intended to rid the colony of a certain stigma. Lately, we’ve become interested in the brand of Tasmania as tourism has become a big part of how we make a crust on our island. Tourism has begun to make a noticeable impact on our lives here, and we’re told it’s only going to continue to grow.
I started working in tourism just as it had begun to rumble. It’s an interesting time to have accidentally wound up in this realm of work. I have to say that it’s given me plenty of opportunities. Yet I also have some grave reservations about it.
I’m addicted to looking at marketing material. Usually I find it tacky and laughable, but I nevertheless look, wonder – often mystified – and critique. If you’re Tasmanian, I encourage you to pay close attention to the ideas within the ads around Tasmania. We must learn to read between the lines.
Maybe I worry about how we advertise ourselves because I know what the marketing material doesn’t tell. Tasmanians don’t all drink fine wine or snack on goat’s cheese. Half of us are reportedly illiterate, and very many Tasmanians certainly can’t afford a gourmand’s diet.
I’m not expecting tourism brochures to spruik the issues we have in health or education, but nevertheless, we must not let ourselves be distracted or deluded by the glossy images.
All too frequently I am encountering news that reminds me of the shadow side of our advertised identity. For example, the government’s recent attempt to redefine areas of World Heritage country so that they can be adapted for high-end business. Or the unfair involvement of politicians in the proposal for a cable-car on kunanyi-Mount Wellington. Or the cost-cutting short-cuts that the Chinese owner of the Van Diemen’s Land Company farms is hoping to implement. Or the way individuals and families struggling to find housing are camping on the edges of Hobart while visitors are encouraged to come glamping on the edges of national parks.
This is sadly a part of Tasmanian life: part of our history, and very much a part of our present.
The troubles that are associated with tourism branding is to do with what we’re trying to sell ourselves as, and to whom. Inviting visitors to come and voraciously consume our offerings is dangerous, and in the long term, counter-productive. Tourism is a fragile industry. It seems to me that the more slowly it is developed, the more robust it becomes. We can’t rely on merely being trendy – trends veer off in wild trajectories sometimes.
This is especially relevant in Tasmania, which, as an island, has an inherent ecological and social fragility. We emphasise quality over quantity, and among our major commodities are slowness and quietness. Not to mention the fact that most of our special landscapes can’t handle an inundation of humans galumphing through them. We have plenty of incentives to moving more cleverly and less brazenly into a future of tourism.
There is nothing inherently wrong with tourism, nor with branding. I had a conversation this weekend with a well-known restaurateur who mentioned, with some passion, that he wanted to see Tasmania become world-renowned for our skills in service. Now this would be a worthy way to portray ourselves. Likewise, I would like to see us as an island of ideas, a locus for experimental education, for landscape studies, for science, for attentiveness.
We can be bold with our brand. It seems to me that, in a sense, Tasmania is in a position to choose its tourists. For example: why shouldn’t the visitors centres in our national parks stop selling takeaway coffee? That would communicate a raft of fine messages about the identity of Tasmanians, our connection with place, and our commitment to conservation. Drink slowly, we are saying. Linger in beautiful places. Don't wreck the joint. Those who want to consume rampantly can go elsewhere; those who will savour reflective moments – those who will truly taste what we are offering – will be more attracted to our place than ever.
But of course, that couldn’t just be branding. A brand without substance is a brash lie. And in the end, I don’t want us to focus on improving the brand of Tasmania. I’d rather improve on the place, on how we live here. Goat’s cheese, chardonnay and lavender teddy bears aren’t truly the crucial materials of Tasmanian life. We have other, deeper resources that give this land its meaning.
A couple of months ago I guided a party of walkers into the Frenchmans Cap area. We didn’t make it very far: into Vera Hut, a day’s walk in. We swam in Lake Vera, watching the sun reflect off the glorious, glaring white range above us. But then the weather turned, as had been forecast, and rain and hail belted us in the hut all day, where we mostly sat around and talked.
The two married couples that made up the party were on a reunion tour, of sorts. 50 years ago they had come to Frenchmans, shortly after both couples had become engaged. They were young, adventurous, and had little certainty about their futures. But as the years had progressed, they had each achieved quite a lot with their lives. And as careers and families grew around them, they had made the effort to return for anniversary trips to Frenchmans Cap along the way.
Dick Smith was one of the party. I wasn’t surprised to find that he said a lot that I agreed with, and a lot that I didn’t. (I suppose I wasn’t surprised that he said a lot in general.) Hut-bound, I had read his manifesto on curbing population growth in Australia. There was plenty of sense in it – and a few bits that made me cringe. Either way, it was good fodder for conversation.
There was another reason for Dick, his wife, and his mates to be up near Frenchmans Cap that week. Dick Smith has tipped a lot of money into building a new track towards the famous mountain summit. The track bypasses the Loddon Plains, buttongrass moorland that has degenerated into a mucilaginous sludge over the years. Dick was pleased with the results; although I reckon most bushwalkers are happy not to have to tackle the ‘Sodden Loddons’ these days, I also know plenty of knowledgeable folks who find the new trackwork nothing less than hideous, an artless, almost medieval monstrosity.
I was disappointed, but not surprised, to see photos of Dick standing next to Will Hodgman, the Premier of Tasmania, at a press conference about Tassie’s wilderness areas. The Premier was unveiling a new plan to ‘rezone’ part the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. They want to call it the ‘Self-Reliant Recreation Zone’.
“A lot of people have a keen interest in our wilderness areas,” the Premier said. “Some would see them locked up forever and not have enjoy them.”
This kind of flagrant fib makes me livid. National Parks in Tasmania are some of the least locked-up places in the world. Private property, business enterprises, mining leases – they are locked up. The bush – the considerable percentage of Tasmania that is reserved – is completely open, to anyone.
Yes, there are parts of the island that are hard to access. But that’s actually part of the point. National Parks don’t exist to attract tourists or create business, but because they encompass a landscape that is rich in life, and even human history, that needs protecting from our slash-and-burn approach to the world around us.
There is a great deal of pressure on these places. Mostly, they come from population growth, as Dick Smith rightly says. I hope that Dick put a hard word on the Premier about that topic. I also understand that Tasmanians are delighted to have thrown off a mantle of economic malaise for the first time in a long while. I can see why a government would like to make the most of the spontaneous increase in tourism, put their fingerprints on it – even though they had almost nothing to do with it in the first place. (Watching Will Hodgman talk about the bush, as if he ever had an interest in it before it became a useful commodity, is an ugly thing to witness.)
Soon you will need to book and pay to walk to Frenchmans Cap. From all reports, this is inevitable. It’s not an entirely dreadful thing – I reckon there are good reasons for and against it. But to my eyes, it is a step towards the ‘locking-up’ of the bush, as is the talk of a standing camp in a remote part of the Walls of Jerusalem.
In 2011 the French writer Sylvain Tesson wrote, “Cold, silence and solitude are conditions that tomorrow will become more valuable than gold.” We are already starting to see that in Tassie. However, the haste with which our government will sell the special conditions of our island life is deeply troubling. We can squander them in a matter of a couple of years, in a single term of government. We sabotage ourselves when we sell our sense of place for the short-term gain of a tourism industry that becomes full to overflowing. For one thing, we damage the reason why tourists want to come here. But more importantly, we wreck a place that is unique in the world, our place, a place to which we belong and for whose future we are responsible.
At 216 metres it’s not the most impressive of mountains, but wukalina / Mount William affords a fine view of the north-eastern tip of Tasmania, and the islands of Bass Strait beyond it. “Them islands are very special to us,” Ben said as we crouched on a rounded lump of granite for lunch. Later – a little further south along the coast, yet with the islands still faintly blue on the horizon – he would tell me how his grandparents met there.
I was working on the wukalina walk, an eco-tourism project run by the Aboriginal Land Council in that far corner of the island. They have built a most impressive shack on Cod Bay: called krakani lumi, ‘resting place’, the buildings’ design absorbs the features of the landscapes and Aboriginal architectural history in a stunning way.
Mount William National Park was inscribed in the 1980s to look after the coastal heath ecosystems
and preserve the last stronghold for the forester kangaroo (Macropus giganteus) – while we have in Tasmania a lot of smaller macropods, like wallabies and pademelons, there are very few kangaroos. This is dry country, as thirsty for fire as it is rain. Along the gravel roads, bracken wears brown dust. Acacias, black peppermints, banksias and xanthorrhoeas stand out above the low shrubs. The beaches, meanwhile, glisten; the sea heaves itself onto the shore in dull crashes.
As Ben finished explaining his people’s heritage on the Bass Strait islands, I added some geological insight: the islands were formed by an event known as the Tabberabberan Orogeny, which involved an intrusion of igneous rock which stretches from what is now Wilsons Promontory in Victoria, through to the Hippolyte Rocks off the coast of the Tasman Peninsula.
Those islands were mountains when the first Tasmanians crossed Bass Strait; then, the strait was in fact a stretch of lowland plains, before the end of the last Ice Age flooded it and rendered them islanders. It was the longest isolation of any human culture in history: the cutting-off of that granite chain meant that the Tasmanians had 10,000 years to develop a completely unique way of being. Those were the ancestors of today’s palawa, three of whom were my colleagues for that weekend at wukulina and larapuna. They are also the descendants of white seafarers, who were part of wreaking the complex of rapid changes that mutilated so much of what the Tasmanian cultures would have been.
Much is lost, but contrary to what we may have been taught, not all. The purpose of the wukalina walk is to ensure that palawa culture is lived and shared. In many cases, it is a matter of relearning, and perhaps the most exciting facet of the trip was making three new palawa friends, each of whom is rediscovering what it means to be Aboriginal, in their own idiosyncratic ways.
And in my own idiosyncratic way, I am trying to work out how to be a Tasmanian without having any known Aboriginal heritage. I listened intently, then, to an elder telling a story from the old people, about the creation of first palawa man – how the spirits formed him, and, in the elder’s words, ensured that he “could enjoy the earth”. It had a poetic insight into human interactions with the Tasmanian landscape that I find very valuable. But I’m also reluctant to borrow the poetry from a people with a voice to which we listen too poorly, knowing that this can carry the same vibes as colonialism.
Yet my identity is tangled up with the landscapes of the island, and there is no understanding the bush here without understanding the 40,000 years of human history within it. I have read much of the ethnographic material on the Aboriginal Tasmanians – that is, the stuff that whitefellas wrote. We know it is flawed, but many times, these same sources are being used by the palawa community to reconstruct their identity.
It was a real treat, then, to work alongside three palawa who are learning the same craft as me. To sit on the edge of a shell midden, to watch Ben put his thumb into the worn groove of a stone cutting tool that his old fellas made. To listen to them stumble over the words of their euphonious language, palawa kani, the syllables of which seem to me to take in the rhythm of the land and sea and stars here. And to explore that curious space, of unknowing and relearning, of both our shared heritage and the vast differences in history – a space that swells the imagination, and from which I am sure a great deal of good is coming.
This week I’ll vote in the Tasmanian state election. I’ve missed most of the campaign, which is fine by me, although I occasionally come back from the bush to find placards in the paddocks. Mostly it fills me with dismay. The arena of politics is still something of a muddle, and I have black streaks of cynicism running through me. I suppose I have faith in all too few of the men and women who have put their heads on the brightly-coloured backgrounds in their party’s chosen hues.
Perhaps I was stained with this political melancholy in those early years of adulthood. Like most people I muddled into politics I guess. When I came of voting age, Tasmanian politics was in a fairly disgraceful state. Not for the first time, corruption cast an ugly shadow over everything. For a young man already bewildered by the broader themes of life, the intricacies of politics weren’t appealing.
Nevertheless I blundered into a way of seeing things through my own eyes. For example, when I was nineteen years old, I went to a rally over the proposed Tamar Valley pulp mill. My photographs from that day are now interesting memorials. I ran into a friend whose father I now know is a prominent greenie from the region. Another old mate posed with her middle fingers sticking up; her father was a logger. I didn’t yet understand the animosity that burned beneath every exchange of ideas, and I didn’t really have an opinion myself. But soon enough I would.
Politics wasn’t much discussed in my house: I remember my mother saying she might vote for that same Liberal politician because he had “a nice face”. (In fairness, I suppose I would equally avoid voting for another of his kind because he looks like a reptile.) I think even then she could have said what issues concerned her, but I doubt she’d have been able to attach a political party, and their policies, to those topics.
I don’t remember how I voted when it finally came time for me to enter the cardboard cubicle. The vague ideas that governed my decision back then have certainly mutated. Some have metamorphosed irrevocably, while others simply hardened into sincere beliefs about the world and how we live in it. It is good to keep track of one’s ideas. It’s good to know that we are changing, to figure out how we are doing so, to try and sus out why.
I can now readily imagine how I hope my homeland to be. This election threatens that vision – maybe they all do, but this one stings me particularly. There are ideas about what to do with special places and community spaces that are motivated by the greed of certain individuals and companies. A whole cohort of our candidates are proponents of shepherding through the ill-conceived projects of blustering developers, depriving the rest of us of the opportunity to object to them. They are happy to empty Tasmania of its meaning, as long as a few of them make a buck.
Nowadays I know that the inverse of my dreams is possible too. My hopes may yet be turned inside-out, and I could be left on an island that has left me behind. How often do I look at those in power and wonder: why do they hate the Tasmania that I love so much?
The arena of politics is still something of a muddle, and I have black streaks of cynicism running through me. But still I stubbornly hope to shape the ideas we have about this place, and I will vote for those whom I think will encourage my freedom to enjoy being Tasmanian.
I have occasionally wondered what my grandparents made of the environmental campaigns over Lake Pedder and the Franklin River. If they supported the construction of the hydroelectric infrastructure that would deform those tracts of country, they were almost certainly off the mark. A party putting forward a policy is suggesting that if we take a certain direction for our future, it will primarily bring us beneficial outcomes. They may be right, or they may be wrong. Policies change our freedoms, the possibilities with which we interact with the world around us. Decisions made at election times are not futile. They can be the difference between feeling at home, or becoming an exile in your own homeland.
Summer weather comes and I strip the walls from around me. Beginning with a blush of pink on blocks of dolerite, sunshine spans across the broad skies above, throughout all the broad hours. The creeks run weary and dry. The day disappears, colour disintegrating so gradually I barely notice, and then the old stars blink and whistle silently over the whole array of country, my office, my backyard.
I’m out on familiar tracks, mostly working as a guide. The labour works its way into the sinews of my legs. They feel hard and taut and strong. My mind falters, though, from paying attention to the people around me. I need hours in front of fires or falls. A rill of water will do: I take an afternoon off, stomp off track upon a crispy carpet of parched moss, and find a forest there upon the stones of a riverbed. There I discover a few enormously fat conifers. They’re the biggest pencil pines I’ve ever seen; they honestly may have sprouted when Christ first squawked to life in Palestine.
Between my six-day stints on the Overland Track for work, I take excursions into the same high country, and make the effort to notice everything I can. Every subtlety in the every scene works over my mind, muscling into my memory. The distant mountains are a nostalgic blue. The late light creates pyramid shadows of the trees. A crown of pale gold sits on the westerly summits at sunset. I have been here before.
There are red tones in the landscape – the seed pods of a shrub called mountain rocket, and the odd leaf of a eucalypt or tea-tree. I watch a native rosella for a while. At first he chirps as incessantly as a chihuahua barks, but when I stop and watch, it eases off. His eye-mask is a brilliant red; his belly is the yellow of dried-out sphagnum.
I have absorbed the whole palette. There are is an iridescence within me that corresponds to the colours of these places.
Back to work. The fifth afternoon: I race up and over DuCane Gap, bootsoles finding their places between the boulders. There are cream curls on the lomatia bushes. The deciduous beech has ripe green leaves: I know they’ll soon be orange-yellow, and then the branches will be bare, and another season will be snuffed out, flickering out like the flame of a metho stove.
These leatherwood flowers begin to throw themselves on the black tracks. I am sentimental about this too. It all reminds me of something. On day six, I am heading south. I admit that I can feel the tentacles of telephone reception as I head to the Narcissus River and out of the reserve, ever-strengthening rays of faint connection to the rest of the planet.
Those who aren’t used to remoteness call everything else ‘the real world’. We’re going back to the real world, they say, on repeat. I think that’s lazy talk. Dombrovskis famously said: “When you go out there you don't get away from it all, you get back to it all. You come home to what's important. You come home to yourself.”
But can’t it all be the real world? Isn’t this all the one life – my life? Yes, eventually the track runs into a road and I’m no longer exclusively on foot. I take a boat across the lake, then I take a bus. I drink a beer in a pub. All the rhythms change. Later, I turn on my telephone, and there is a text message that makes me happy. I read a book about another country. The ache in my muscles goes away. Summer’s finale now reaches out towards me, the tentacles of the future.
Those leatherwood flowers fade into the heavy soil. But the leatherwood’s whole year is in those flowers; and the growth of those flowers is just a crucial point in the tree’s annual cycle.
At the time I was quite sure it was the most beautiful place I had ever been. Most of us were housemates, and we'd left our Launceston rental home on a January morning to go and set ourselves up at a scrubby, sandy retreat for a few days. To get to the beach we had to walk less than one minute, upon a soft pad through flowering pigface. We were at the coast.
When we first arrived there was a reddish tinge to the shore. It was like algae, only it disappeared as we approached it. It was a plethora of soldier crabs, an absolute throng of them, corkscrewing away into the sand as we came towards them. We watched them closely, then caught them in our hands, and finally, after being out in the open sun for so long, we parted this red sea of crabs and dove into the blue sea of Great Oyster Bay.
I also declared it the finest swim of my life. We threw a tennis ball, rough-housed each other and dived into wads of seaweed to catch it. The water was an electric blue, a blue I usually only find in my dreams. Something slashed my foot; the blood was bright red, another dream-like colour; the scar remains. In the evening I remember laughing into the closing sky. I remember the sun full on the horizon, the tide out. Someone was reading Thoreau by the fire. For dinner, sausages. Then hot chocolates. Stars multiplied into the southern constellations. We were full of sticky sugar, and well-rested, and somehow felt watched over.
I remember saying: "I think I'm learning to see emptiness as space."
In my dreams I saw swarms of crabs covering everything with hard scales of red, beaches and mountains and planets, rheumy images in my tired mind. When we awoke the tide was up and they were gone. We yanked up cockles for breakfast. Pelicans lounged on the sandbar. An adjacent range of mountains loomed silvery in the early light. A gannet went plummeting madly into the sea to catch its own brekky.
Somehow in my memory it seems like the first time I'd ever looked into a rockpool and seen the vibrant colours of limpets and sea-snails and seaweed, the tiny glossy mussels and sea slugs, the wraisse or yellow-tail or whatever that fish was that I saw, I realised, simply by waiting, adjusting my focus, honing my attention. "It is a slow process, this learning to be patient," I wrote in my journal after that trip, "but I am being patient with it. I am going to see."
This wasn't my first fish, my first rockpool, my first swim, or my first beach. But there hadn't been many. To go to the coast - and it is always 'the coast', by which we mean the east coast, although there a thousand different spots you might go: we were at Dolphin Sands, on a shack block that my housemate's parents were about to sell - is a typical rite of passage for any young Tasmanian. But there were a number of rites of passage that I missed somehow.
For a long time I had a very small world. We didn't go on family holidays much. There was a patch of bush behind our house, and I am not being fatuous when I say that this was truly enough. Even this I don't think I knew very well - I had no names for anything in it except 'gum tree' - but I understood myself in that landscape at least. I learned my body, if nothing else: a thousand lacerations on a prickly currant bush will do that to you. Breaking off the branches of a black peppermint, running down a steep slope of she-oak needles because you think a ghost's chasing you: that's an education.
These days the shadows on my maps are being peeled back. There are still a fair few roads left for me to go down in Tasmania, but probably more that I've visited. I look back on the notes from those days, the tatty journal I kept for that summer: we tore a tree down in the backyard that January, and I remarked on its pink, minty smell. In a grumpy mood I went erratically off into the bush, not very far, but into the realm of "wallabies and tangled plants", into "a damp, mossy part of the world". I watched some ants assault a caterpillar at Lilydale Falls; they shoved it right off a wooden handrail into the creek. On my balcony there was "a beautiful possum", nervously tightroping the powerline towards me. Were these my first nights under the stars?
This was about a decade ago now and I do not often recognise myself in those old notebooks. I sleep so often under the stars, and see so many beautiful possums, that some of the events of those younger years strike me as utterly bizarre. What makes more sense is that exactly at the time of this trip to Dolphin Sands, I started reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by the American nature writer Annie Dillard. In it she was coaxing me "to explore the neighbourhood, view the landscape, to discover where it is that we have been so startlingly set down, if we can't learn why."
Why - I had spent a lot of time, dwelling in a moody adolescent way, on why. At some point around that trip to the coast, I began to explore the neighbourhood instead, and found that I very much liked where I so inexplicably was.
Later I would find things like this dead porcupine fish, prompting me to write of convict artist William Gould.
A couple of summers ago I went to the carols concert at Sidmouth, here on the lawns outside the ‘auld kirk’, a restored building that the locals are rightfully proud of. I’d gone with my housemate at the time, who was playing trombone for the occasion. There I sat solitary amongst the parishioners, murmuring along to a few of the songs. The elderly gentleman in front of me fumbled ahead in his songbook to see what songs were coming up next, like a cheating student; another fellow by my side was in costume. “I don’t know why I’m here, there’s no Roman centurion in the biblical story,” he quipped – then tried the joke again, correcting himself: “...in the nativity story.”
Stars, silence, sleep, and sheep: what fine themes to sing about. These are lovely old narratives. There are a few better yarns than that of the first noel being proclaimed to a cohort of dozing shepherds.
Funny, though, to sing of David’s royal city whilst the shadows were lengthening the paperbarks’ silhouettes along the Tamar River. The quiet placid waters of the Tamar took in the angular light of this end of the hemisphere, a sharp southern summer sunset. Tamar, of course, is a biblical reference, but if we let that river have a name with an older lineage, kanamaluka, then the stories of the Middle East settle awkwardly on this place.
Christmas is full of borrowed stories; many are naturalistic, but none of them are rooted in Tasmania. The birth of Christ is a kind of epic that has a broad human appeal, of course, but as the years pass I yearn for motifs that make sense in my surrounds, and connect me to the seasons. I want stories that make me consider country, and how I might care for it. What am I supposed to do with reindeer in the snow, or the King of Bohemia? What has Jerusalem to do with Hobart? What is a Roman centurion doing in Sidmouth?
So what are the marks of seasonal change at this time of year? An obvious one is the flowering of a certain Correa shrub, which has the common name ‘Christmas bells’. It pops out a nice flower – tubular, yellow and red – at about this time of year, joining the colourful scattering of summer blooms which brighten up our land.
But there’s also the cherry ballart, or native cherry, Exocarpos cupressiformis, which at this time spurts out its edible, slightly sweet, red oval berries amidst the tree’s shaggy light-green leaves. The appearance of this fruit is a happy time, and must have been well cherished by traditional Tasmanians making their summer travels around the island. It ought to be considered as delicious my grandmother’s cloying creamy desserts, which normally sit poorly on a stomach full with potato and beer, in the thirty-degree heat that is common for our Christmas afternoons (although I’m yet to turn them down).
The snow, of course, is a usually irrelevant Yuletide reference here. But in the mountains it might snow anyway. I recall taking German honeymooners for a hike one December; presuming summer weather, they’d not wanted to bring a beanie or gloves. We had a minor blizzard over the Cradle Mountain plateau. In the evening we made Glühwein in the hut, as if it was a Christmas market. So nowadays I can live with the occasional reference to snow at Christmastime.
Only once have I spent a Christmas abroad. I was in Maharashtra, India; I passed the day, I think, at a Catholic orphanage. Children danced, and sang on a stage, through loudspeakers that screeched in protest at frequent intervals. Santa Claus strode through the dusty yard, sweating his suit of red felt. The season’s greeting was strung up for the occasion. It read, “Happy Birthday Jesus, We Love You.”
So ideas flow between all lands now. The symbols are confusing, but most people don’t seem to mind. Perhaps I needn’t overthink it. Living at this latitude offers many gifts, and the long hours of twilight are not the least of these. I suspect I will enjoy a beer with old friends, with the maddest of my family members. This, now, is the tradition of these dates. At other times of the year, in the spirit of the age, I’ll make my own festivals that fit my private intentions to live well in the landscape: a pilgrimage to that old pencil pine on the Plateau, an annual expedition looking for a certain liverwort, the first swim of spring, an occasion of departure, a return.
And if at Christmas I find myself feeling like a centurion in the wrong time and place – in the wrong narrative altogether – I won’t be too put out. I will embrace the germ of the Christmas idea. In the words of Albert Camus (and to borrow from him is of course another incongruity), “All great ideas have ridiculous beginnings.”
The jarring symbols of cultural clash were even more obvious come Christmas Day, 1831, on the Ouse River.
When Peter Conrad was twenty years old, in 1986, he put his belongings in a burning incinerator in the backyard of his family home in the northern suburbs of Hobart. He had a Rhodes scholarship, and went off to Oxford. To all appearances he had grown out of the mould cast for him, against his will, by the island of his birth.
Conrad became a noted scholar. He didn't return to Tasmania for a decade. In 1987, he had Down Home published, a memoir of his later Tasmanian experiences. After a childhood in which he barely left Hobart's north, Conrad travelled widely around the island: to Queenstown, to Melaleuca, to Wineglass Bay, to Tiagarra, to the Pedder dam.
The book is not widely cherished here, mostly because the author refuses to bang on about how uniquely beautiful it is and we are. That is essentially what we want to read more than any real critique; we dearly crave outside acceptance. But frankly, Conrad didn't love Tasmania, although a creeping appreciation for his island of origin appears throughout the book.
Like any memoir, though, the book is more about Conrad than it is about its purported subject.
Re-reading Down Home recently, I began worrying that my work is uncomfortably analogous to that book, which precedes my writing by three decades. Like Conrad, I am writing a travel memoir about my own island. There are some differences, of course. I still live in Tasmania, for example, and I am at times rapturous about how thoroughly I love walking and working here. I also know the island more intimately than Conrad ever did (I admit that I relish finding those handful of mistakes in Down Home). But there is a similarity in form, in themes. It is a conundrum, or perhaps it is merely interesting.
I have chosen to live without a home for the summer. When asked, I explain that is a matter of practicality - I work away often, renting a room would be a waste of money - but implicit in the decision is the effort I am making to expand my home territory to the entire island. Home is here thanks to my childhood, and over the past years many aspects of Tasmania have become very familiar to me (dolerite, myrtle, wedge-tailed eagles), but I still feel like a foreigner in certain corners, certain conditions. I am only now starting to learn the winds and swells of the east coast. I must better understand kelp, abalone, orchids, chert. There is a fairly unattractive beach in the north-west, with an astounding geological diversity that I am can barely begin to pull apart.
It's a dangerous decision though. Whenever I finish up with one or another season of my life, I wonder if it's time to settle down, to roam less, to cultivate a patch for myself. I now see that I am getting further from that ideal. It seems that I will never own land. I came to an intersection of my life: whether to be less or more of a dirtbag, in the parlance of my bushwalking colleagues. I am more of a dirtbag than ever. I have a pile of books and a 1992 Ford Laser to my name.
That car recently broke down. It's fixed again, but now, more recently, my laptop has carked it. It suddenly blacked out and went quiet, never to make its breathy hum again. Someone is currently trying to pry the data out of its now-useless case. But I may have lost much work.
It has so happened that most of my identity has been derived from growing up here. That's what Peter Conrad was writing about too. I have perhaps accepted that more readily, and devoted myself to the task of understanding what it means to be Tasmanian: to live amongst these materials, in this climate. I am a state of constant travel - by vehicle and by foot - roaming around trying to sus out what it is that I belong to. But the thought has lately struck me: what if it doesn't turn out? What if being post-modern, middle-class, and non-Aboriginal are conditions that preclude me from truly connecting to country?
Peter Conrad wrote of being afraid when he was alone in Tasmania. For me, it's what I like best. The other night I was driving on the highway as a sunset sent all sorts of colours sprawling over the Western Tiers and Ben Lomond. I don't need to share that with a mob; it seems enough to share it with the land, with its ecosystems, with history. While Tasmania - as a concept - becomes popular in a way that poor Peter Conrad could never have guessed, I am more inclined to find areas that haven't yet been touched by branding or signage. I recognise that I am pushing myself out further into a sea of solitude. As the years progress, I suspect that this will become an estrangement, from which it will be harder to return.
I also think I will find it worthwhile, so long as the land doesn't turn against me. But it might. Recently I returned to a spot, a pile of rocks at the end of an east coast beach, where I once discussed how I might retreat from the world, distant, if it all got too ugly. The problem is that Tasmania is not in fact remote enough to be immune from the intense changes to the natural order of the world. Just out from those same rocks, oceanic surface temperatures have risen dramatically. What if, just as I started to feel like I had gotten in step with the swirling vortices of our ecosystems, they spun out of control?
Some weeks back I drove down to the Tasman Peninsula to catch up with my mate Old Dog. He’s working on the new track to Cape Raoul; that evening, he and I would sit on the dolerite tip of that cape, each with a longneck of Cascade stout, as the sun’s descent behind us pushed a bluff-shaped shadow onto the sea beneath.
But before that I strolled to Shipstern Bluff, to have lunch on a warm rock. The pigface was just starting to flower. A dead possum lay prostrate on the steps that have been recently fashioned, as if she had taken a big tumble on its way down to the shore. With reverence I stepped over her. Lunch was flatbread and babaghanoush.
This is a well-known surf spot, where blustery southerlies and a powerful swell bring the sullen ocean to smooth shapes of rideable waves. More comfortable travelling over rocks and roots, I feel like a foreigner at the ocean’s edge, but I marvel at the forms and texture, and I love the changing colours in the heart of the swell.
Most of all I hope to intuit the special life-giving meanings of the coast. Seeing bull kelp flail in the surf’s frenzy, I remember that this is one of the most significant species in the island’s ecosystems. Some of the finest Tasmanian crafts have been made of this stuff for millennia. Its value is ongoing, both practically and symbolically.
The ocean is not my realm. But another good mate, Danny Dick, will happily lay out on a fibreglass plank and turn himself to flotsam on the waves. Sometimes I’ve followed him out to the beach and sat in the back of his car, reading and writing, while he clads himself in a few millimetres of neoprene and plunges in.
This year, in fact, I followed him to Bali. Stationed there on that island for work, he spent his weekends by the famous waves of Uluwatu. Danny was writing a series of reflections for an online surf journal, exploring the introspective nature of surfing and of travel, about “the creeping sense of lost time” that backdrops island lives. I'd like to see what he'd have to write about, if he went to sit at Shipstern Bluff with a cheap lunch.
As for Old Dog, he and I met playing footy. We have since discovered a complicated network of other commonalities. He’s also a writer, a fine one, who is able to draw together his diverse interests and speak clearly on them - particularly when it comes to Aussie Rules football. I had read his observations long before I met him in person. They have much the same tone as Danny's writings, and the subject matter may only be different on the surface.
Old Dog and I had a beer and a yarn on Cape Raoul, then, we walked back to the carpark in the dark. He jumped in my car and we drove back to his place on an empty winding road, flushing out rabbits with the headlights on high beam. There was his partner Elena. She was from Venezuela, and her pregnant belly was like a full moon, containing a constellation of possibilities.
It turns out that Old Dog and Elena met through a publican in north-east Tassie, who is also the same man that once owned my car. He’d then sold it to Danny, who pretty much gave it to me. Invisible threads continue to run between these friends of mine, and even the old pile of carparts that I drive is burdened with our stories.
Let me introduce another mate: Johnny, whom I met in Iceland two years back. He was coming to Tassie with the worst possible timing – he arrived to the airport just as I was about to board an outward-bound flight. But at least I could lend my car to him and his girlfriend Sierra, and let them enjoy the Tasmanian landscape.
I'm sure they were grateful, until the starter motor shat itself at the Shipstern Bluff carpark.
In a flurry of phone calls and text messages from elsewhere in Australia, I managed to get Johnny and Sierra and Old Dog to meet each other at a pub on the Tasman Peninsula. From all reports they got along very well indeed. I believe a bottle of bourbon may have been involved. Johnny and Sierra managed to hitch-hike off the peninsula to meet me later in the week, but the car has been left behind. With Old Dog’s help I’ve at least managed to get it to a mechanic.
Maybe you have struggled to follow this unwieldy narrative. I have tried to simplify it all, but it’s even more complex than I’ve allowed here, and the plot is distractingly messy. But you don’t need to keep up with who’s who or how they’re all connected here. The point is that in the far-off south-east of Tasmania, where the land breaks off into the ocean, myriad threads of my life have come together, patterns repeat themselves and subtle affinities are revealed.
I am getting to know the Tasman Peninsula better and better, although it’s country that still holds its secrets. At every sunset, the tall cliffs of Cape Raoul throw a shadow over the sea. Bull kelp, with fierce tenacity, holds onto boulders as it’s battered into the surf. Old Dog and Elena have had a daughter: they have called her Cielo, a Spanish word meaning both ‘sky’ and ‘heaven’.
My car is now at a mechanic’s on the Peninsula. Perhaps I’ll be on the bus to Nubeena today, or perhaps I won’t be able to pick it up for some weeks. Given that I live out of my car, you might think I’d be a bit anxious to retrieve it quickly, but I won’t be too stressed if it doesn’t work out yet. Never mind. The ocean is not my realm, but some days, the land of Tasmania that it contains feels entirely like home – the whole lot of it. And the preponderance of mates here are my kin.
This weekend, this hut will be honoured, a centenary of its existence celebrated. It really is quite a feat that the old hut has lasted so long – fire, snow and neglect have combined to eradicate innumerable high country huts in that last hundred years. (Even in the immediate area: several incarnations of a New Pelion Hut have come and gone at a spot about a kilometre from Old Pelion Hut.)
Built of hand-split king billy timber, it was constructed in 1917 to serve a mining company, whose copper shaft is still accessible to walkers around Pelion Plains. The government acquired at the cessation of mining operations in 1921. Available for public use, it became advantageous for stockmen, trappers, and early bushwalking guides. Graffiti on the interior boards dates back to the 1920s, much of it verifiable to those years.
The button-grass and white-grass plains around Mount Oakleigh have long lured human activity into the area. Relatively accessible, these plains were certainly used by local bands of indigenous Tasmanians after the most recent Ice Age concluded – their fire regime is evident to archaeologists, and long-occupied shelter sites can be found in the vicinity (such as around the upper Forth River)
Various fur trappers made the Pelion Plains their favoured haunt – probably starting with the McCoy family – and in 1909, a farmer and prospector named George Sloane drove over 100 head of cattle to this “mostly poor land with a little open grazing country”. After some years of successful grazing, however, wild bulls roamed the plains: tall tales from the highlands speak of close shaves with charging animals. One of the more legendary mountain men, Bert Nichols, claimed to have grabbed a bull’s tail, pulled it around a tree, and looped it over his horn so that the bull was caught – “he went back later and found the bull had sawn down the tree.”
Today, Pelion Plains sits at the centre of the Overland Track, the most well-known hike in Tasmania. Walkers use the newest of the New Pelion huts, so salubrious an abode that it’s colloquially called ‘Pelion Palace’. Most walkers briefly visit Old Pelion, if they come at all. Much smaller and dingier, and a little more frail too, National Parks asks walkers to only use it in the case of an emergency.
I work as a guide on the Overland Track, and often take my punters down to Old Pelion. Here, over lunch, I’ll spin a few yarns of my own: the history of mining, perhaps, or something about the use of fire throughout Tasmania’s history. We may go for a swim in Douglas Creek, or pick leeches off ourselves in the grass. I have also been there when conditions are as they were one day in the 1930s, as reported by a graffito: “Snowing like hell!”
Other walkers have scribbled their names and dates in the walls, often obscuring the historical graffiti – although at what point does a name take on historic value? This is but one of the questions that Old Pelion Hut raises. What is it that makes us care about such places? And what is more meaningful to us: to maintain it but not let it be used, to use it and potentially destroy it, or to ignore it and let it fall into disrepair? (It is worth noting that Old Pelion has been given a spruce-up since this photo was taken in summer 2015.)
Another question: what is the meaning of the sign above the door, emblazoned with the word ‘Emhlangana’? It’s a question that was thankfully answered by high country historian Simon Cubit, who passed away this year. It’s a Zulu toponym, meaning, ‘meeting place’, and the carved sign was probably erected there in the 1940s by the migrant Wooton family.
For a while the narrative of National Parks in Tasmania failed to include buildings like Old Pelion Hut, as well non-Aboriginal practices (such as hunting, farming, or prospecting) in the area. At that stage, it seemed that the word ‘wilderness’ couldn’t cope with these more recent interventions. Although I would argue that we still don’t have a helpful definition for this word (and Pelion Plains falls within the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, so we’re forced to have a crack at one), we are now able to see that human recreation and industry is deeply woven into this landscape, alongside the activities of burrowing crayfish and broad-toothed rats and marchflies.
If we don’t understand what we have done in these places, we will be completely unable to honestly comprehend what we are still doing. Whatever it’s worth, we are part of the ecology of this country.
I have spent five years working here, and probably passed by Pelion Plains fifty-odd times. It’s not so much. Yet even I have more stories from here than I could tell in one night, if you were to sit me on the hard hut bunks and offer me a dram from a smuggled bottle. There will many present who have far longer memories than I.
Importantly, this weekend will demonstrate that although some restrictions have been put into place to preserve this hut, it’s not a museum relic. It remains a meeting place.
It has recently come to my attention that (along with most Tasmanian things) a recent rise in the popularity of our bushwalking is linked to Instagram. There are more and more young adults venturing into our reserves, and taking pictures of a suitably impressive landscape seems to be part of their incentive to do so.
I’m not the first to notice this; actually, I’m probably near to the last. Instagram is not a part of my life – I maintain an old Nokia telephone that doesn’t connect to the internet. I am somewhat circumspect and curmudgeonly about the whole affair with technology, but of course, it’s present everywhere and I am not yet such a crank that I’d make myself wilfully ignorant of it all.
As with most things I’m ambivalent about it. Certainly if people go bushwalking, they’ll be more likely to fall in love with Tasmanian country, and that can only be a good thing. On the other hand, I don’t see much charm in going for a walk mostly to take a photo, with an audience in mind. I’ve had to do it once or twice on journalistic ventures; for me it wrecks the whole rhythmic experience of the walk.
It’s also misleading: in Tassie’s high country, there are very many days in which it’s difficult to take photographs that will win the approval of peers on social media. Mountaintops are frequently misted over, giving a panorama of precisely nothing. I wonder if it’s not dangerous too – I’ve heard a few stories now of novice walkers going up to the mountains expecting the glistening sunshine of a brochure or digital photo album and instead getting belted by wild weather (which is rarely photographed or shared).
I’m also suspicious that the aesthetics of Instagram have instilled a global and mostly mediocre standard of photography. This photograph of the Pedder dam, taken from a moving car on a blustery autumn afternoon, is not “instagram-worthy”. (This sort of language is another yucky bit of mediocrity – but I’m aware of sounding like some miserable Walden neo-primitivist when I mention these things.)
But some of the most beautiful photographs I’ve ever seen were taken in Pedder country. Olegas Truchanas was born in Lithuania, displaced by World War II, and came to Tassie to took work with the Hydro-Electric Commission. In his leisure time, he became familiar with Tasmania’s remote districts, particularly in the south-west. Truchanas quickly came to love both the solitude and the experience of ecological communion that some of us find, sometimes, in the bush.
And he took exquisite photographs. This was the 1960s: he didn’t publish them immediately. He couldn’t even see them until he was well and truly back in his studio in Hobart. You can feel Olegas’s slowness and attentiveness in these pictures. You can tell there is no audience in his mind. He is aware of texture and form, and plays with both affinities and juxtapositions of colour, in a way that is so much more impressive than almost all of the millions of photographs we see every day.
Almost anyone can talk a half-decent photograph. Even I, who have produced this grim composition of a beautiful landscape, can be occasionally handy with a camera. But few people are able to discipline their way of seeing, draw imagination from within themselves and apply it to the visible elements before them, and create a whole new way of envisioning a place. That is what Olegas Truchanas did.
What also comes through in Olegas’s photography was his awareness that these landscapes had a time limit. “This vanishing world is beautiful beyond our dreams,” he once said in a lecture, as Lake Pedder was being drowned under a hydro-electric impoundment. That we still have much of the beauty of the south-west landscapes protected is partly thanks to Olegas Truchanas. His photographs connected many people to a foreign corner of this island, most of whom would never see it in person.
Perhaps the photographers of Instagram do the same and it is only the prematurely old crackpot writing these words who has missed the boat. But for me the art of Olegas Truchanas does something that fleeting smart-phone snaps do not. Through his images, I am touched with a hint of the ephemeral and ethereal force of being in a bush landscape – whatever that is. Sometimes it is almost like I am running my fingers along the frost crystals on the dead conifer trunk, or breathing in a heady brew of boronia and pepperberry, or enjoying a long twilight on a bright olive-coloured moorland. There is a slow release of warm joy in my chest.
Most of all I want everyone to know how lucky they are to be in these places. I can’t quell my gratitude, to live here and now; perhaps Olegas Truchanas had the same feeling, perhaps multiplied by his experience as a migrant. The places in which we walk are deep maps of stories. If we photograph it, let us not do so frivolously. And beware: bushwalking offers few instantaneous rewards. But what we find when we make habitual passages into that vanishing world is something that is far more enduring. There, somehow, is meaning and belonging.
Most importantly, we must not turn country into a commodity. It warps the whole experience, spins it against us.
I haven’t had my own room for more than six months.
Part of that time was spent travelling – sleeping on friends’ couches or in hostel dormitories, in places like Istanbul or Ljubljana or Berlin – but it’s now been many weeks since I came home to Tasmania, and still I haven’t found a place to call my own – to stack my books and regularly rest my head.
Where do I stay then? Friends and family offer their spare rooms, couches, or patches of carpet. The ranger in Strahan offers a bed; he and his girlfriend live in an old Federation-era customs building. Sometimes I end up sprawled with several other mates, snoozing heavily after a boozy night, wearied with laughter.
Other times I strike off alone. I sleep in my tent, a yellow coffin of plastic which, for example, can be wedged in a cleft beneath the Snowy Range, or pinned to the dark earth by the Liffey River. There are mountain huts, too, which I can pretend are my own for a night or two: secret grey huts camouflaged in the boulders and snow peppermints of kunanyi-Wellington, or shacks built with bulky beams of pencil pine in the northern escarpment of the Central Plateau.
The other night I slept in a repurposed water tank, which had previously been used as accommodation on Macquarie Island, for scientists working on a rabbit eradication program. (This was cosy.)
This week, I’m waking up on a yacht. It’s not mine (of course), but I do some work on it, and in return, I’m allowed to contort myself into a v-shaped berth at the bow of the boat, as it sways quietly in sheltered anchorages in the south-east of Tasmania. This is Canoe Bay: the iron wreckage of a scuttled ship, the William Pitt, sticks up above the greeny-blue water. The dolerite silhouette of Cape Hauy is in the distance. Behind me, on the shore itself, a damp green tangle of forest. Big eucalypts stand above a busy network of ferns and flowering plants.
In the canopy of one of these eucs, there is a nest. It is the nest of the white-bellied sea eagle, Haliaeetus leucogaster. The birds themselves are incredible, but so too are their homes. Continuously used, for raising one or two fledglings each year, they consistently grow in mass. Parent eagles will go hunting for fish, eels, birds, or small land creatures, and bring them back to the nest, feeding themselves and their young. With so much decomposing animal matter brought into their homes, the sea eagles will add fresh green foliage to the inside of the nest for hygienic purposes.
Growing to dimensions of up to 2.5 metres wide and 4.5 metres deep, they can weigh up to a ton.
It is, I suppose, somewhat enviable. The dream of a permanent abode is borrowed from a human instinct for shelter and stability. I drive around, looking at the various living places of friends, of strangers. The west coast shacks of corrugated iron, the flaking weatherboard homes in the river valleys, the sandstone mansions of old towns. All have their various reasons for appealing. Above everything, they have their own kitchens, and walls to line with bookshelves.
I am not the first Tasmanian, naturally, to live this lifestyle. There was a certain nomadic element to the lives of the Tasmanian Aboriginals, although perhaps not as much as we are often taught. Certainly, however, these people did not crave absolute permanency in a single place. They may have instead found their homes in the various passages and patches of the landscape which they frequented – in ‘country’, rather than a building.
Sometimes I think I have found that too: I am happy in the high country, in the low moorlands, in the farm towns, in Canoe Bay.
This mobility may suit me more than most. For plenty of others, it is not so amenable. There are some being forced into it. Suddenly, Hobart has become one of the toughest rental markets in the country. Mates are looking for a bedroom, and failing. (I’ve cast an eye on things myself and dismissed it as too difficult.) There are various reasons why this is the case, but partly it is because of Hobart’s popularity as a tourist destination: rooms are being rented to short-term visitors, rather than longer-term residents. A different type of nomad is being catered for.
I don’t know what to make of all this, although I sense it augurs a different future on this island. One friend asserts that what is being lost is the ability to feel “secure enough in your home that you can unpack your life and become part of your community, to contribute to making Tasmania all the things that the government sells us off as to the rest of the world.”
I personally drift through this days supposing that life will leave me behind. It seems that what I’d like from my days on this planet is different from most others. Occasionally, I realise I will probably never have a place of my own, somewhere to put my books. I sadly expect to find myself in a sort of exile, somehow.
The nest in Canoe Bay is about 80 years old, but it has now been abandoned. This has been a successful spot, so it’s likely that the local pair will establish their new nest nearby, in the canopy of another of these eucalypts. The family will remain their neighbourhood.
The yacht gently rocks in the bay. A sea eagle suddenly lifts out of the trees and soars above me, honking.
Earlier this year, Andy Szollosi and I found ourselves suddenly spending a few days wandering here, amidst the compact Durmitor mountain ranges in northern Montenegro. We had planned the Balkan rendezvous only a couple of days earlier. Andy had taken a 17-hour bus ride (across several eastern European countries) to meet me.
We scrambled up to several summits in those days. Although it was summer, patches of snow lay prone on the shady sides of limestone slopes. Our victuals included a large package of bacon, and a bottle of rakija. This strong beverage may have inspired a conversation one evening, looking up at the pyramid peak of a mountain known as Zopćy, ‘sharp tooth’: Andy suggested we should wake at 5a.m. to see if we could ascend it.
Of course he did. This is the same bloke who co-ordinated an expedition to Federation Peak in July 2016, convincing a troupe of climbers and film-makers to set up camp for seventeen miserable days before climbing Blade Ridge. As Andy wrote in the weeks leading up to the Blade Ridge mission: “When an idea arrives at the right time, we have no choice but to pursue it, to see where it leads, no matter how terrifying, irrational or ludicrous it may seem.” This is quite a useful insight into Andy Szollosi’s mind.
Blade Ridge seems a geological miracle. This unbelievably narrow slice of quartzite runs up the north-west face of ‘Fedders’, diabolical and dangerous, and yet striking and stunningly beautiful. Federation Peak was described by Edmund Hillary as “Australia’s only real mountain”; as far as we know, it was first summited only a few years before Everest. The first party made it up Blade Ridge in 1968.
But mountaineering history in Tasmania is not widely known (not many Tasmanians even realise that Edmund Hillary visited Tassie, tackling a few bushwalks and praising its landscapes). Not many would even recognise the profile of Federation Peak, or the Eastern Arthur Range, in which it belongs: a series of jagged peaks, myriad ‘sharp teeth’, made of hard and mangled metamorphic rock.
The film Winter on the Blade has been screened twice now, to packed rooms at the State Cinema in North Hobart. It’s excellent. Film-maker Simon Bischoff has struck the right tone, extracting humour from the tedium of being tent-bound for a fortnight. Mud slurps beneath the expeditioners’ boots, and the Vandemonian juxtaposition of harsh conditions and exquisite beauty – found in every change of weather, in the vegetation and in the rock – is unmissable.
Now Winter on the Blade is off to Banff, for one of the world’s great outdoors-themed film festivals.
Andy and I made no film of our early morning ascent of Zopćy. We didn’t even take a photograph. We startled a chamois on the horizon, scrambled up a gully of chossy limestone, perched ourselves on the pinnacle, and breakfasted on a handful of roasted almonds. Then we went back down.
On our way out of the Durmitor mountains that day, we came across a party of walkers with their guide. We were in high spirits, jaunty, and chatty; upon telling the group that we were from Tassie, one of them replied that he’d been to our mountainous island so far from Europe. “Tasmanians are hard,” he said.
Andy and I grinned. So, a reputation. But our European friend had no idea just how hard Tasmanians can sometimes be.
There's more mountain-climbing in the south-west with mates: read all about 'the Abels'.
This is the sassafras tree in flower. A native to wet forests in south-east Australia, especially in Tasmania, this sassafras is in no way related to the homonymous trees in North America.
(How many times in writing a natural history have I had to explain this! The northern hemisphere exiles, invaders, and migrants of the late 1700s and 1800s were so desperate to make sense of this antipodean foreignness that the first English names they received were those of trees from elsewhere, of which they were very roughly an equivalent. Our sassafras, for those keeping track, has the Latin binomial of Atherosperma moschatum – and to clear up these confusions is why the botanical names exist.)
These are my favourite flowers. They bring me a great deal of pleasure, both for their aesthetics and for what they offer my imagination. Generally speaking, it is more common to find the flowers on the ground, fallen; as they exist in the rainforest, often the flowers are at the top of the tree, receiving daylight. Sometimes you are lucky and find one in bud or in blossom, usually in a clearing, such as where a landslip has occurred. But to be honest, I’m just as happy seeing them star the dark forest floor.
White forest flowers mean a lot to me. In particular, I attribute great significance to three different species that give white flowers in the high country at different times of the year. September’s sassafras signals the incipient end of winter; in early summer, especially around the longest day of the year, smoky tea-tree flowers fill the landscape with grey-white clouds; leatherwood flowers are a sign of the end of summer, and despite their beauty and their exquisite aroma, their arrival around February or March brings me great sadness.
I feel lucky to be here for the sassafras bloom. I live my life in seasons, and it’s never quite clear what the next season will bring. I spent most of the winter away this year, but managed to get home in time for the seasonal change. You will hear Tasmanians whinge about the weather, but I can’t say a bad word against it.
The snows have fallen hard and low on the multitude of mountain ranges; I have been fortunate to crunch across the Cradle Plateau and the Western Tiers and Mount Wellington, to see the peaks of the Hartz Mountains and the massifs of Ben Lomond and Black Bluff bold and white on the horizon. I have woken to frost on my tent; my boots have frozen stiff; I have sheltered in mountain cottages and highland huts while rain comes pattering down.
Then again, as I noted with a mate at a wake the other day, winters can be long and Septembers seem to often bring tragedy. Sometimes the colourless days, the bitter cold of solitude, the shrunken hours of daylight are hard to bear.
Soon enough it will all be gone. Snow can fall in the mountains of Tasmania at any time of year, but the seasons are so distinctly different. Sassafras flowers will seem like a dream. Long sunsets will stretch out, filling the olive buttongrass tussocks with the blackest of shadows. Lakes will beckon swimmers’ bodies.
Everything is different as the seasons change. As I washed the dishes this morning, I watched fairy-wrens flirting. Elsewhere boobyalla brightens the coasts. Grey baby swans dot the estuary’s waters.
Yes, it’s cold again today, but the season is not defined by the temperature. The silver wattles were early this year; the blackwoods have their bommyknocker buds exposed too. I walk down to the creek and sassafras flowers are strewn everywhere, amidst the moss, beneath manfern fronds. Have hope: it is spring.
What was I ever taught about the first Tasmanians? Bugger all, as it happens. A lot of what I was taught wasn’t true. How is it that so few people find the humans of this landscape’s history as fascinating and important as I do?
Today’s indigenous Tasmanian communities are able to tell of their own histories and traditions. Much, however, has been lost. Of course, any mob in modernity has jettisoned past practices, but for the original Tasmanians, a lot of loss came about because of force. One can only be stunned by how swiftly and savagely any sense of normalcy was destroyed by colonists and visiting seamen in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Nevertheless, the Tasmanians survived.
(I don’t recall exactly what I was taught, but certainly phrases like ‘the last Tasmanian Aborigine’ were familiar to me when I first started my own lines of inquiry into what Aboriginal life here. Even when I went to primary school this was outdated, and yet I’m quite sure it was still taught.)
Scientists scratching through the layers of soil – through the bones and discarded shells of old campsites – are able to tell us more. A midden is a remnant of a significant part of original Tasmanian economy. These are some of the crucial materials of life on this island. The Tasmanians survived several periods of glaciation. They were, for thousands of years, the most southerly people on Earth.
The truth is that, like many around me, I probably didn’t much care about history. Not for a long time. Perhaps I’d never have really bothered, if I didn’t come to be so obsessed with the Tasmanian landscape. Suddenly I wanted to know the human history of the land.
I recognised that I had invested the world around me with meaning, and it became clear that Aboriginal communities would have done the same. Don’t we always blend practical matters with spiritual or social values? It made me think anew of the mystique of rock and fire, to wonder at the hidden meanings of native cherry and abalone and pigface. The curved emblems of Tasmanian rock carvings and body art provoked me to look for patterns in the world around me. Wallaby sinew and bull kelp took on new meanings for me. So too did the loop-di-loop of a grey fantail in flight. The whole bush became alive with inspiration, living presences and processes.
Chancing upon a midden, a scattered bed of the shells of mud oysters and abalone, can be poignant for me. I don’t believe that these people were my ancestors genetically, but they were my predecessors in this place; if ever I am going to have home country, it is here, and I can only have any sense of belonging on this island by trying to comprehend what the first Tasmanians have been like throughout history, and today.
The archaeological sites of the Tarkine area are among the most important in Australia. They tell us about the huts, traps and campsites of those who have lived here for millennia. Much of the Tassie they knew is irretrievable.
Some readers may have overheard the public conversation about the reopening of four-wheel-drive tracks on the Tarkine coast. Many representatives of Tasmanian Aboriginals, as well as ecologists, are deeply concerned what this means. The planned tracks are said to avoid shorebird nesting sites, and middens will be covered with some sort of protective mat. I hope I don’t seem cynical when I say this sounds, to me, like an afterthought.
I should say that not all Aboriginal groups are worried: the Circular Head Aboriginal Corporation, whose neighbourhood is the Tarkine coast, is in support of the tracks’ reopening. They suggest that inclusive access to these places will promote their value. The state government reckons that they can manage these places better with the tracks officially opened and licenses given out.
Perhaps I am wrong, but I don’t trust my fellow Tasmanians to look after our landscape and our cultural heritage. So few people seem to care that we live in the midst of a swirl of vibrant ecology; that we are ourselves are creatures bound to our ecosystems; and that the history of this landscape, and its peoples, readily inspires us to wonder.
Not enough Tasmanians love this place in all its complexity. If they did, they would love the old people, the ancestors, the ones who came before us, the first Tasmanians. If so, these middens, which are accessible on all stretches of coastline around the island, could be places of contemplation for us all.
We consider more Aboriginal folklore from western Tasmania in 'the Land of Sweet Forget'.
I grew up on a five-acre block in Beaconsfield, a parcel of inherited land that was inconveniently lumpy and swampy, but gave us plenty of space. There, my brother and I first began to take our lanky shapes. I have lately wondered if our bodies didn’t grow rangy to accommodate the landscape.
Dad was always going introduce his two sons to Aussie Rules, but that version of footy was the ideal game for our paddocks. Even when we moved to a house on the edge of suburbia, the first thing we did was test out the backyard for our one-on-one matches. It had a 45-degree slope; it was nevertheless perfectly adequate.
We played for the South Launceston Bulldogs. The ovals were suddenly flat and green, although given that we the opening bounce for our games occurred at 8:15a.m. on Sunday mornings, they were frequently silver with frost. And in fact, since it was winter, they were often brown with mud too.
Bright red was another important colour – have you ever had your little schnozz hit with a leather ball when the temperature’s zero degrees celsius? I had countless blood noses.
At one point during my teenage years I started to push footy away. It was at that stage of life when a young man starts pushing all sorts of things away. Footy came back to me, though, and now, when adulthood and its associated behaviour is supposed to have me in its vice-like grip, I am entirely enamoured with the game. I like the ball’s thud, its wobble and its spin, the way it bounces as if by its own volition. I like my body’s arrangements, the poise of my muscles, the silent measurement of my eye and its communication through the brain to my bent leg.
Anyone who has met me in the last year will know I played on a gravel oval in western Tasmania last year. I’ll have shown them the scars. Perhaps I prefer the odd surfaces. As a child I imagined a large-scale sport like footy that took place in eucalypt forest, in which players had to adapt to the landscape as much as competitors.
Some have argued that Aussie Rules was invented after whitefellas observed an Aboriginal sport of this kind. It’s a theory I tend to believe.
This sport occupies space. It favours the flexible, and the foreseers. It is a game for totems, won by devotion to the invisible.
That’s what I’ve taken from growing up with it anyway. I kicked the ball as high and hard as I could, and I saw the blossoming wattles shake, and my body felt as if it had full to the brim with magic. On some days, bushwalking gives me the exact same sense.
I spent most of this winter away but came home the other week and went to watch my cousin play a finals match at Invermay Park. It was twilight, and the colours on Ravenswood Hill were resplendent. They deepened into dark blue and finally winter’s night black. The ritual football was heaved around, and the crowd gasped and cheered and groaned. A bunch of blokes, whose lives normally pass before almost no-one, soared. It was a hard-fought game and the evening grew taut with drama. A player fell before us with a sickening knee injury. At my side, my auntie’s mood fluctuated severely. The boundary umpire fell to the ground with a strained muscle. With seconds to go, the timekeeper started hamming it up inexplicably. Auntie Karenne cursed him. Finally, he blew the whistle. My cousin’s team had won by five points.
I’m aware that others aren’t, but I am mesmerised by the milky sheen on spinning ball in the silvery afternoon light, by the players’ shadows warping and contorting as they gallop. I am deeply satisfied to see rosellas and galahs streaking in garish colours across the field. Most of all, though, I like to feel myself move, in the midst of a trivial but entirely meaningful activity, beneath the home ground of these southern skies.
And it’s another means of measuring seasons. Spring now looms. An openness beckons, verdant and wide as a football field.
"It was an idea not without its complications." Reflections upon returning home three years ago.
About two years ago, Danny and I returned to Tasmania after some months away. We’d been in different countries, remote from one another, and yet somehow came back to the island within twenty-four hours of one another. Soon enough we went for this bushwalk, to the top of Mount Arthur.
Stomping up through the vivid green of a damp forest, it struck us how ordinary this reunion was – not only our reunion with each other, but with the forms and textures of the Tasmanian bush. “We’ve been and come back too many times,” I said. It was still beautiful, but a certain sentimentality seemed to be gone.
The other day I made the last of six flights in the direction of home. I took a window seat and waited for the plane to descend through reams of thick cloud and fog. When I finally caught sight of home country, I struggled to find any landmark I recognised. The hills were all misted over, and the two-dimensional view of agricultural terrain offered me little obvious.
There was a river, which I correctly guessed was the South Esk. It was lined with paperbarks and bald willows, full as a googy egg, making wetlands of the fields. It led me to the airport.
I was quickly prompted to go for a drive in the countryside. I found myself drawn towards Mount Arthur again, on the backroads in its foothills. The wonky patchwork of farmland, garden, plantation and native forest was all well-known; the marsupial colour scheme of the vegetation as well; so too the rosellas in the branches, and the roadkill on the bitumen, sharp white bones sticking out from opened-up wallaby carcasses.
I have passed more than one-third of this year outside of Tasmania. But wherever I’ve been, I’ve spent much time writing and researching the island. Is that why it doesn’t feel at all strange to suddenly be back in the midst of this endemic existence?
Same as two years ago, I find myself whispering, like an incantation, the Latin binomials of pepperberry, waratah, myrtle beech. Fog hangs at the tops of stringybarks. Baubles of moisture hang from mossy trunks. There’s a white-out over Mount Arthur’s summit.
A few weeks ago I caught up with Danny; once again, he’s also elsewhere. We know our friends mock us. We are openly and desperately enamoured with Tasmania, and yet we have spent more time away from it than almost anyone we know. We are sickeningly sentimental while we are afar, but then, upon return, it is all so normal and natural to be on an island at the bottom of the world, to wake up to the sounds of cantankerous birds, to smell eucalyptus or sassafras on the air.
Yet of course the mystique persists. In 2015, on Mount Arthur, we had been wrapped up in fog for the duration of our bushwalk, when all of a sudden the scene opened up. We could see farmland and coastline, and the cluster of houses we lived in, clinging to the hillsides of a fertile river valley.
Likewise, I find myself in new scenes every day. The modest burrow of a crayfish sits by the Second River. Ben Lomond is lumpy with snow and silver with morning light. I have dropped down beneath the cloud and I can be lost in a landscape which I’ve spent years trying to understand.
The fog has suddenly cleared and the sky has taken the colour of a fairy-wren’s pate, the sun tilted south towards me, the westerlies stilled and restful.
Before too long, Danny will be back as well.
You read the headline. It speaks of the death of someone about your age, from a neighbourhood you know well. Your heart sinks. There’s a good chance it’s one of your extended mob. Someone you used to run into at the pub or at a gig every now and again – if not someone you know even more closely. This is the reality of growing up in a place like Launceston.
I’m still 4000 kilometres from home, and to find out that Theressa Roberts died on a back road in Longford, on a Monday night, in the dark, her body struck by a big machine...it brings a grim type of grief, one that is cold and empty and aloof. I am almost without feelings.
It’s like this. Today I am in a tropical place, warm and bright green and noisy with birds; I cannot conceive of the Tasmanian winter, I cannot picture damp and foggy Longford. There is a thick curtain between the season I’m in, and the one passing in Tasmania right now. Likewise, I am alive, and I can’t imagine any of my friends no longer in this same arena. But it is so: Theressa Roberts has died, and the barrier that is cast between the seasons of life and of death is a heavy one indeed. Theressa is irretrievable.
I went to high-school with Tress. When, as a teenager, I was taking unimaginative portraits of friends for my photography class, I asked her to lie down on a grassy knoll in South Launnie and scattered my mum’s cassette tapes around her head like a wonky halo.
I am embarrassed by how juvenile and unoriginal an artist I was, but perhaps it’s for the best. As C.S. Lewis wrote in an essay on grief, “A really good photograph might become in the end a snare, a horror, and an obstacle.” Photographs can serve as markers for our memories, but too many of them, or the act of making an icon of one image, can cause us to forget the intricate presence beyond the frame. A death reminds us that a photograph is awfully insufficient.
I knew a young woman who was bursting with music, and earnest spirituality. She was also a bit loopy, and I think she’d grin at the thought of me saying this. Her speech was quick and went in directions I did not expect. She was very candid with me, more so than I ever am with anyone. She was warmer than me. She worried about her body’s form, but I believe that she had a keener sense of the innate strength and beauty of women, including herself. She was proud to be Filipina.
I know that in many traditions, the names of the dead are ritually unspoken. In the anglo-antipodean culture, we grow to speak of those who’ve died in a mumble, a whisper, apologetically stammered. Follow whichever tradition you like, but for me, it is useful to speak about those who’ve wandered off beyond our reach. This way, their complex personalities continue to exist, and are kneaded into our lives.
The site of her death, the verge of that narrow country road, is probably already marked with bouquets of flowers. We can count this as traditional practice – it is recent, but nevertheless it is now a tradition and an event in the ritual of road deaths. But bouquets wither, and those who feel immediate searing pain of loss will notice it lengthen and change texture as the years go by. How do we absorb this grief? It is mysterious, but it is so, and it must be.
My bias is place, and my memory is geographical. In years from now, I will recall the points in which Theressa’s life intersected with my own: the canteen porch at Kings Meadows High School, a scratched table in the Gunners Arms, her home in Evandale, that lawn in South Launceston.
The tragic patch of Woolmers Lane in Longford will also become a point of reference for me too. I will drive through it from time to time, the smell of hay and animals on the air, clouds bunching up in the western mountains. It will remind me to sing, to invent, to consider the existence of the spirit, to be a bit loopy, to be proud, to be warm, to love. To use my car with caution. To be aware of the brevity of our days in these beautiful landscapes, to cherish every human body as awfully beautiful and vulnerable.
A few weeks ago, I was here, in southern Austria, in the vicinity of the Carinthian mountains. Gustav Weindorfer was born in the midst of these mountains, upon the river Drau. Later in life, he would become a pioneer of Tasmanian environmentalism; it was he and his Tasmanian wife who first campaigned for Cradle Mountain to be protected.
It was near this mountain that Gustav and Kate Weindorfer built a chalet of sorts, named Waldheim. Waldheim is a fascinating building: two different vernaculars meet in the one building, with the practical improvisations of Tassie bush architecture meeting the long-standing traditional style of Austrian alpine huts.
Within those cosy king billy confines, Gustav and Kate entertained a number of guests: once again, the Gastfreundschaft on offer was a melange of cultures, with (for example) Viennese-style coffee and desserts following wombat stew. He even managed to entice two Austrian skiiers as visitors, Franz and Julius Malcher, who regrettably showed up too early for snow.
These were not the first proponents of hospitality in Tasmania. I cannot speak much on the practices of the first Tasmanians, but welcoming guests quickly became a key skill in the life of colonial Van Diemen’s Land. Not too many laudab le qualities are credited to the Vandemonians, but “the traveller was sure to meet with a kind reception wherever he went”, recalled Dr. Ross. To provide food and drink to those passing through was “the custom of the colony”.
In Van Diemen’s Land, to be in a remote location was to be extremely vulnerable, to the predations of bushrangers or the retaliatory attacks of Aboriginal bands. Yet the reputation endured: the early east coast resident Louisa Meredith spoke of how readily a visitor was greeted with “a steaming tea-pot of gigantic capacity”, which no doubt was always gratefully received by those who navigated the hills and forests on horseback, on their arduous routes towards elsewhere.
Kate and Gustav Weindorfer had a different motivation for their hospitality. They wanted to have guests in their forest home near Cradle Mountain, in order to showcase the superlative values of the landscape. They trusted that those who had a firsthand experience of the area would be struck by its significance and smitten with its beauty, and thus assert the need for it to be left as it was. They were largely correct, and it largely has been. More than 200,000 people visit the Cradle Mountain region each year.
Around one hundred years later, the Ressmann family took me into their lakeside hotel in Carinthia. They fed me schnitzel and wheat beer, and during the day I was free to explore their mountains. Certainly, their kindness allowed me to enjoy the peaks of the area in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to. They are not campaigning for Carinthian conservation, but to see me returning from a day on a limestone summit and cheerfully praising the beauty of their area seemed to satisfy them. They asked for nothing more.
All these observations make me wonder – what is our hospitality in Tasmania like these days? I work in tourism hospitality, serving up lamb ragout and pouring pinot noir at the end of a day’s bushwalking, in the same vein as Gustav Weindorfer. As tourists appear in greater numbers, though, how do we learn to respect them individually? How do we need to shape our tourism industry so that Tasmanians and visitors can maintain a fully human relationship, rather than simply a commercial one? How do our tourist operators, and our Airbnb hosts, represent us?
What about our international students? Are there tea-pots unfailingly waiting for them? What do they see of Tasmania during the years they pass here, at the expense of thousands of dollars?
Tasmanians are an interesting lot. On some occasions we can be rather open, expressive, and charming; in other ways, we are awfully circumspect, suspicious, stingy, and solitary. I actually like that we have both aspects, but I still maintain we could be a little more welcoming, to be less inclined to suspect every stranger of intruding and doing harm.
So I look hopefully to venues like the Inveresk Tavern, which puts on a special menu every Sunday: the pub invites a different migrant community to run the kitchen and serve the punters throughout the afternoon. This is a double act of hospitality: with the tavern’s permission, migrants are allowed the chance to host those with whom they share a town. Sudanese or Bhutanese or Afghani, they certainly appear to relish the opportunity. For the rest of us, the blend of Tasmanian and migrant cultures continues to be appealing.
I. Riddell, 1819.
The country along the Huon River had been known to Europeans for a couple of decades. The French had come up the river under Bruni d’Entrecasteaux. He had assigned the river’s name in honour of the commander of one of his vessels, Huon de Kermadec. That was 1792.
Pre-eminent naturalist Robert Brown led a journey down the Huon in 1804, before declaring it unsuitable for settlement. But there was now knowledge of the country’s geography and the first scattered settlements appeared.
In 1819, for example, I. Riddell came and scratched his name into a tree.
In the 1820s, an absconded convict with the surname of Martin was found at a makeshift campsite at what is now the township of Franklin. As was so often the case with the bolters of colonial Van Diemen’s Land, this Martin had escaped into a location with a wealth of resources. The river, the wetlands, and the hinterland of eucalypt forest were full of life; here it was possible for an outcast to find shelter, find food, make fire and survive.
However, as elsewhere in Tasmania, these colonial outposts required ingenuity and bravery. New settlers would live in bark huts and work long hours. Everything was home-made. Conflict with the original Tasmanian population was also prevalent in this period of history, and these remote settlements were exposed.
After the development of a bridle track the following decade, the Huon Valley became one of the most fecund agricultural areas on the island. Even Lady Jane Franklin acquired a large block of land and put it to use.
The Huon River came to have over 70 jetties; even with the bridle track, it made more sense to use the water as a road. Vessels without engines were replaced by steamers and soon enough, a Huon resident would be able to take an early-morning boat ride to Hobart.
Like many others, George Lucas shipped timber upstream. He felled the trees on his property Ranelagh, today the name of a village of about 1000 people.
It was here I woke up about this time last year. Not quite in the cemetery, amongst the tombstones of my predecessors, but in the adjacent park. Sometimes after midnight, I had arrived from the Huon Valley Midwinter Feast, the local wassailing festival. (It is genuinely one of my favourite festivals and I’m sorry to miss it this year). Giddy with cider and bock, I’d sort-of put up my tent and slept in it. When I woke up, the sun was melting the frost. The resonant voices of the Sunday morning flock rose from the Anglican church-house, joining the mist lifting from the Huon. Some children were hunting for Pokémon – now that’s history.
What makes a person try and mark their time and place in the world so definitely, to scribble their name on a wall or scratch it into a tree? If ever I needed to fix myself somewhere, it may have been that morning in Ranelagh. I was completely untethered for the day – no car, no mobile phone, no plans, no companions. I went and found a wallaby pie for breakfast, and wandered off, unregistered, with the other old souls of the Huon Valley.
I recently wrote of Denmark: at last, I hinted, we may have held up our end of the bargain in an intercontinental exchange. In the 1820s a colourful Dansker came to Tasmania; in the year 2000, a love affair between a Tasmanian and the Crown Prince of Denmark began. Where we once received Jørgen Jørgensen, we gave away our Mary Donaldson.
But actually, Tasmanians are still one-up over the Danes. Because in 1891, another Danish migrant would arrive to Hobart and also make a significant mark on our island’s culture. This was the novelist Marie Bjelke Petersen.
She had been brought up in the outskirts of Copenhagen, but moved with her whole family when she was a teenager. They arrived in the spring. In her reminiscences at least, the scenery was instantly affecting: it was “a paradise of untouched beauty”, she said. “When I saw all these mountains in Tasmania, I embraced it on the spot.”
Certainly the mountains would have been impressive. She’d have seen a number of them whilst still at sea, and Mount Wellington must have have struck her as imposing. Denmark, after all, is rather flat; its highest point is 170 metres above sea level.
At first she tried to transmute her feeling for the Tasmanian landscape into painting, but she soon converted to writing. Her first three publications were religious works, but in 1917 she wrote The Captive Singer. The plot featured a guide who took tourists into the caves around Mole Creek, and sang well, and charmed a woman. It sold 150,000 copies in Australia – and 40,000 in a Danish translation.
It kicked off a steady stream of words, and sales. In Dusk she wrote of a love affair in the mining town of Queenstown; in Jewelled Nights she narrated a close friendship (which became a love affair) at a prospectors’ camp on the Savage River. In total Bjelke Petersen sold more than a quarter of a million books in English and many more in the six languages into which they were translated. For an Australian author of her era, this was an enormous success.
The novels don’t necessarily age well. Their plots are sometimes frivolous, and Bjelke Petersen’s religious didactism doesn’t read well today. Today, her prose comes across as overly romantic, breathless and out-of-control. But one thing is certain: Marie Bjelke Petersen’s writing about Tasmania (and mainland Australia, in which she set a couple of novels) showed an original view of the landscape. Where other authors painted Tasmania as “bleak and cheerless”, Bjelke Petersen raved about the “lawless loveliness of the landscape.”
Perhaps for Bjelke Petersen, excursions into the bush gave her liberty. She travelled far and wide into western Tasmania researching her plots. Her other career was as a teacher of physical education; she strongly believed in its virtues. She went places that few women of European background had been.
You may be familiar with her nephew, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who would later become a Queensland politician. His aunt was also religiously conservative, but Marie was nevertheless a forward thinker in society. I’m not sure if she ever thought of herself as a feminist, but she certainly wasn’t willing to be constrained by expectations of gender roles. The novelist refused to be married, and instead lived with her close friend Sylvia Mills. (Plenty of tongues have wagged about what their relationship might have been, but I have little gossip to contribute.)
Marie Bjelke Petersen was also an environmental conservationist. “It is really a matter that brings tears to my eyes to see the way our beautiful forests are being wantonly burnt off,” she declared in one public address. Her enthusiasm for the bush wasn’t confined to her literature. (“The jungle was a riotous confusion of strong growing things, which clung savagely together and almost strangled each other in their fierce passionate embraces!”)
This is a recurring theme in Tasmania: so many of the activists who have spoken in praise and in defence of our landscapes have originally come from places like Denmark, Austria, Germany, Romania, Lithuania and Latvia. Although today I think some Tasmanian-born individuals have at last begun to understand and respect their surrounds, for many years we relied on those who had come from the outside to point out just how special it all was.
Likewise, Marie Bjelke Petersen was a special character in Tasmanian cultural history – another Dane for whom we can be grateful. She died as an old lady in October 1969.
Another fascinating literary figure from Tasmania was the Glenorchy-born author Christopher Koch.
I met a Danish lass last week. It took me precisely 30 seconds to bring up the two things I always mention when I meet Danes. They are my favourite connection points between Denmark and Tasmania: Princess Mary and Jørgen Jørgensen.
I have spilt much ink about the latter, so let it suffice to say that my new friend Ulrikke had never heard of her countryman Jørgensen – as is the case with every Dane I’ve ever met. Also, she told me (not for the first time) how badly I was mispronouncing his name.
But Princess Mary? Oh yes, she was quite fond of Princess Mary.
Mary Donaldson was born in Hobart in February 1972, her parents both staff at the University of Tasmania. Her own schooling would lead her to UTas as well, via schools in Sandy Bay and Taroona; she studied a combined Bachelor of Commerce and Law.
After graduation, she would move to Melbourne; from what I can tell she didn’t live in Tasmania after that point. But she’s still our Mary.
In a story that has been retold countless times, Mary met Crown Prince Frederik at a bar in Sydney during the 2000 Olympics. (The bar was called the Slip Inn, surely one of the worst recorded names for a drinking establishment.) Apparently he didn’t use his royal title as a pick-up line, to his credit. They embarked a long-distance relationship; in 2001, the Danish weekly rag Billed Bladet – no doubt highly respected – revealed Mary as the prince’s girlfriend; in 2003 Queen Margrethe II gave the green light to their marriage. A very romantic story.
Once upon a time people said that it was every girl’s dream to become a princess. I really don’t know if that’s true, and I have strong doubts that a young lady growing up in Taroona would ever harbour serious hopes to become such a thing. Royalty generally isn’t sourced from Taroona, or any neighbouring suburbs.
Then again, Taroona’s pretty bloody lovely. There is fine swimming here at Hinsby Beach, for example. The D’Entrecasteaux Channel is making good progress towards the Southern Ocean; the eastern shore takes on a golden hue in summer. Eucalypts stand tall on the cliffs. Their branches abound with birds, the refreshing breeze heavy with the pullulating screech of rosellas and wattle-birds.
It’s a far cry from Copenhagen, where Mary now lives. Maybe it suits her better; not every Tasmanian loves its landscape as much as I do, I’ve discovered. Maybe she likes the flat, broad boulevards of the Danish capital. It certainly is a beautiful city. But I don’t envy her life. I would prefer to anonymously duck into the surf at Hinsby Beach (perhaps completely unclothed, with mates and wine, late at night) than to have to maintain palatial etiquette at a ceremony in Kongens Nytorv, for example. Then again, no princess has tried to woo me into being her Crown Prince; perhaps if the opportunity came knocking, I’d plunge in. Royal life might suit me better than I think.
Whatever the case, it is good that the Danes love our Mary. She is wonderful. And she dresses very elegantly.
I once met a bloke who claimed he snogged Mary before she was betrothed to Crown Prince Frederik. I suspect that there are quite a few blokes who say such things. I am content to say that I occasionally swim at the same beach that Mary presumably also visited – and to go on using Princess Mary as fodder for conversations with Danish ladies.
I do like to think that Mary Donaldson heard, at some point in her younger years, the story of Jørgen Jørgensen; perhaps, that famous night at the Slip Inn, when Frederik said that he was from Denmark, Mary mentioned Jørgensen, mispronouncing his name dreadfully. I know I would have.
Probably Frederik has never have heard of him either.
One wends their way up to the Central Plateau, creeping up from the farmlands on a series of hairpins, onto the Highland Lakes Road. A truck plowed this high country highway, its scraping against the tarmac echoing between the mountains of the Great Western Tiers.
Projection Bluff is one of the dolerite summits of this range, a ramp of rock littered with scree. A narrow track sneaks away from the roadside, through wet forest, up to the summit. On a winter’s day like this one, snow hangs from the branches. Myrtles and sassafras trees wear burls of the stuff. In the dolerite’s many clefts, daggers of ice hang. Even fungi wears frozen little crystals.
A walker on this route will get damp boots, damp hair, damp everything. I wore shorts; I always wear shorts. My legs go pink from cold, but my torso is well-covered, waterproofed, and warm enough.
There is snow around, but it is not snowing. It’s a mild day. In the lowlands, the snow is a rumour: hints of its presence come in the chill of the breeze. For the most part, people in Tasmania live at low altitudes, near the coast, and don’t see much snow. Although mountains are omnipresent on this island, and they frequently wear a white garnish. From the major towns, we often see the snow atop Ben Lomond, kunanyi and Black Bluff. They look like wedding cakes.
I did little mountain adventuring in my younger years and I didn’t see much snow. Nowadays I see it often enough. Beneath my boots, it crunches, it squeaks. Sometimes it blows in hard. I find flakes in the stubble of my moustache. Sometimes it accentuates the dark chocolate hues of dolerite, the gallant greens of rainforest. Sometimes it erases the landscape.
It is magic. Snow is magic. Working in Tassie’s high country, I am lucky to see all seasons within the span of a few hours, and summer brings its fair share of snow. It is not always comfortable; it can be dangerous. But snow’s textures and movement contribute much to the whole of Tasmania’s landscape.
Once, on top of a neighbouring mountaintop – Ironstone Mountain – I, hungover, traipsed with heavy steps into soft piles of snow, pulling up handfuls and sucking on them to reduce my dehydration. The tiny footprints of a juvenile Tassie devil tracked off beyond the summit’s cairn. The appearance of such delicate grace embarrassed me.
Winter: the furs of wallabies and wombats grow thick. In the crevices between rocks, water freezes, and pushes the columns of rock apart, forcing the slow inexorable decay of mountains. My mother piles the wood-heater high; golden timber turns to purplish smoke and hovers over the valley of my hometown.
And the bushwalkers are heavy laden. They take all precautions, they pull out the four-season tents and the thickest down sleeping-bags. Hopefully they have a better car than I do for driving on the mountain roads. Wintry conditions require a little more attention, but attention is something we have much to give. It costs us nothing to notice the finery of snow-limned leaves, of droplets on a spider’s architecture of gossamer, of the flat light of winter on a landscape of tarns and stones.
On this particular day, my mate and I got up to the top of Projection Bluff, and the plateau stretched out before us. The westerlies barrelled towards us, thrashed the teflon of our jackets, whipped around my skinny bare legs. Below, the farms were calm and yellow, the rows of blue hills rolled off into the distance; we crouched behind a boulder and it was winter and I was rather content.
If you stumble upon a strata of Permian mudstone in Tasmania, you’ll likely find some fossils in it. Don’t expect dinosaur bones: what we have are impressions of various flora and fauna from the sea, bivalves and brachiopods from the era that began roughly 300 million years, and ended with an apocalypse in 251 million years ago.
Palaeontologists can recognise the Permian pretty easily, because nearly all of the creatures on the planet became extinct at this stage. At the time, Tasmania was covered with a shallow sea – much of the Earth’s landmasses were. The prevailing theory (although there are a few contenders) suggests that underwater volcanoes poisoned everything.
Oh well. I stop at a cleft of mudstone somewhere, finger the pretty imprints of shells and the wavy lines of sea-fern fronds; then I get back in my car and drive to the next place, to an outcrop of Devonian conglomerate, perhaps, or the pub in the north-west town of Marrawah.
I have spent comparatively little time at the helm of a motor car, preferring a life on hoof. Still, the power of the combustion engine gives me a great rush: what a phenomenological experience! I have a very fine vehicle, and its complicated mechanics and its ability to push me along at a great velocity. In fact, there may be no faster car in Tasmania than my 1992 Ford Laser.
Sometimes whilst driving I see an echidna fumbling and fidgeting on the verge. “Such earth attunement!” shouts the poet Pete Hay. The most minute vibrations in the grass will attract their attention – they’re after ants.
Given their poor eyesight I’m glad they’re not driving my car; I suspect they wouldn’t want to either, as I have seen them find an ants’ nest, and, positively covered in the insects, they appear (I’m afraid to say) like they are in the throes of an orgasm. They are in their glee and they wouldn’t trade it for anything. I think I would swap my phenomenological experience for theirs too.
Half-way down the winding road from Marrawah to my campsite of choice, I see a plaque and swiftly pull over to observe it. A map of the area has been forged and stuck on a concrete plinth; we can thank the Marrawah Women’s Progress Association for this, who organised it in 1977, or so the plaque says.
A van is in the corner of the headland where I want to camp. It belongs to two European backpackers; I decide to chat with them, mostly to see if they are leaving and if I can claim their spot. I have given them some bushwalking advice and we are having an amiable conversation about their travels until, a propos of nothing, they begin to insult Aboriginal people. My mind goes blank with anger and turning on my heels to leave them immediately, I say, stupid with rage, “Shut up.”
Later, when they are gone, I sit and face the sea, and try and let my anger cool in the sea breeze and the distance. The Women’s Association plaque has told me that Cape Horn is 15,586 kilometres from me, almost due west. But closer by is Cape Grim, Tassie’s north-west tip: there, in 1827, an Aboriginal party was massacred by a group of shepherds. These shepherds were apparently retaliating to the murder of some sheep. But we know that sheep are not the true meaning of all this: they were fighting over land use, both fuelled with theories and superstitions about spirituality and economy – which is to say, most of what gave their lives meaning and their relationships purpose.
There are more cows than sheep in the north-west today. They too are an economic symbol, with “Cape Grim Beef” one of those contemporary phrases which lacks poetry but is nevertheless loaded with significance. It’s delicious dairy country up here too. I am lucky enough to have spent some time working with cows, and I like to look at them. They’re really rather lovely, although to touch them is to lay hands on a strange biological sculpture. They have a weird figure, bones and cartilage in places you don’t expect them.
It’s a memorable form, and one which must have seemed monstrous to Aboriginal observers when cows were first dropped onto the island two centuries ago. Cows are seriously harming the environment, but it’s not really their choice. The real monstrosities have been caused by humans.
At a conference in the year 2000, a scientist jokingly described the current geological era as the Anthropocene Era. The joke has lost its humour. Dig, in a million years, and you will find the evidence of our roads and buildings, our landfills of plastic, our soil-degrading farms, of Permian-style mass extinction. I think it would be embarrassing to be there on that day. “What were you lot doing?” they’d ask. “What insanity was the era of the Anthropocene?”
I’d like to think they will find this plaque in Marrawah though; I can see this in a future archaeological museum, with a naff little write-up next to it. It’d be nice if it could be exhibited with the current graffiti intact: someone has spraypainted a multi-coloured love-heart and scrawled the word ‘Land’ in the middle. It could prove to an insightful archaeologist that at least a few of us loved our landscapes. “They weren’t all bad,” they might say.
I don’t suppose the paint will last, however.
I've been thinking a lot about forms in the Tasmanian landscape: fences and fantails, for example, or otherwise bird tracks and moon shapes.
And also on the topic of environmental destruction in the north-west, we went to Savage River...
I find myself a spot on the point and watch. Gravity lifts mounds of water from the seemingly endless expanse. On a shaped plate of fibreglass, a surfer waits. He is in thick foam. He wants the waves to lift in a certain shape: his eyes are trained to see the first hints of this phenomenon. When he does, he’ll lay flat on the board, beleaguered as a turtle, kicking his legs in the surf before hoisting himself to his feet.
I’ve never surfed. The ocean is not my realm. I swim, of course, and I love swimming. But I don’t feel the confidence that my surfer friend does. Perhaps it’s because I was caught in a rip off King Island when I was a teenager (how to describe the shape of a rip?) and almost found myself wrecked on the rocks like so many ships have on that island’s coastline.
On land it is a different matter. I have great trust in my feet, my balance, in the strength of my legs. Often enough I possess an awareness of my legs; they seem to inhabit the entirety of my body sometimes. As a child, I had five acres to stretch them out into: no wonder they have grown so long and skinny.
In cities they feel cramped. I do not like running up against the confines of urban design. One can only imagine how much more this version of claustrophobia affected Aboriginal Tasmanians, who had lived in a semi-nomadic style until Europeans arrived and claimed large areas of land for themselves.
For the first time, fences came into the landscape. A surreal form, I suppose, to see strung along Tasmanian country, between bulky stringybarks and bendy wattles, with skinks and wrens breaching it. Even today, to see a grey fantail launch off a wire strand and make its circular forays in the air is one of the strangest collision of forms that I can think of.
Sometimes I find creative inspiration from these weird incoherences. Other times, they are ugly in the broadest sense of the word: not only are the forms themselves aesthetically bothersome, but the ideas behind them are dull-witted, ill-conceived, authoritarian, and motivated by nothing more interesting than shallow greed.
In this unappealing category I place the high-rise buildings proposed for Hobart’s waterfront. These are the designs of Singapore-based Fragrance Group. Unfortunately, they are awful designs, which fail to correspond to any of the landscape’s native figures. Anything in Hobart must match the beautiful forms and textures of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel and kunanyi/Mount Wellington: these do not. As Richard Flanagan has written recently, these forms are not contiguous to Hobart. They have no relevance to this island. “They do not come out of Tasmanian culture,” Flanagan writes. “Their immense height and bulk do not respect or complement a cityscape where the tallest building is 14 storeys.”
Skyscrapers dominate and bully the small island of Singapore; they ought not in Tasmania. This is not only a contest between economics and aesthetics: when cities are designed in discord with their use and history, locals are alienated from their own places.
Aboriginal Tasmanians would have worried more about the frontier conflict than the frontiers themselves, but, perhaps, with their nuanced understanding of the meaning of forms (as evinced by their artwork), they would have recognised that the straight lines of fences represented a barrier and a boundary in time.
These Tasmanians had their own architecture, from simple east coast shelters to semi-permanent shacks on the west coast. That we have no interest in designing like this shows the perpetuity of a colonial “perceptual faultline” that we need buildings which are tall and straight.
We turn to such buildings as a reflex, trying to prove to the world that we are relevant to them. Instead, we arbitrarily import irrelevant ugliness, when we could come up with something that imaginatively embraces the history and landscape of an island that is like no other on Earth.
Last week I looked at other forms, comparing a west coast mountain to a Cretaceous dinosaur.
I am increasingly compelled to pay attention to the figures and textures of Tasmania, and to wonder what impression they have made upon my brain and our society as we each pass our time within their midst.
For example, as the years go on, I become more familiar with such forms in the mountains where I work. It is not only the silhouettes of massifs and gendarmes that affect me. I recall last patches of light on the summits, the rock changing colour as the sun disappears behind a hill or forest. There is the coarseness of dolerite’s crystals against the soft pads of my hands, or the sharp contortions of quartzite under the thick leather of my boots’ soles, or the slippery grains of wet sandstone.
Artists have a keen eye for these things. I am not an artist, but I admire someone like Peter Dombrovskis, a photographer who spent incredible amounts of time and care during his forays into the bush. A cursory look through Dombrovskis’ catologue is enough to tell us that he knew these forms intimately: the curl of the pandani, the burled bark, convulsions of kelp, ice-encrusted flower petals.
But even those who are considerate and attentive will today arrive with the aesthetic prejudices of Europe. We must remember that straight lines are rarely found in the Tasmanian bush. Maybe there are rectilinear forms in geology, but very rarely are they truly straight. Even the horizon may have taken on a different meaning for the original Tasmanians: this line, I am told, is not the crux of much Aboriginal art, unlike what we have been handed down from the classic painters of Europe.
Tasmanian art, as far as we can know, was most often in the media of bodily scarification and petroglyphs. Here at preminghana or Mount Cameron West, in the island’s north-west, is said to have some of the mesmerising and memorable examples of art in the latter medium. (Today it is concealed and only accessible to some members of the Tasmanian Aboriginal community.)
Stylised circles, moon-shapes, dots, crosses and bird tracks were recorded by early European observers; similar motifs appear in the descriptions of the cicatrices cut into the flesh of Tasmanians. The “curved emblem” was also found at Aboriginal gravesites, and in their temporary huts. The full meanings of these figures are not shared, but commentators have remarked on the potential symbolism – “an awareness of a spiritual dimension within the land”, says Roslynn Haynes.
Probably, they had a range of possible meanings, a beautiful and complicated polysemy.
I grew up on a bush block in the Tamar Valley and there are countless forms that have unalterably changed me. Perhaps the open land we had is the most obvious: my gait, I think, corresponds to the yards in which I strode as a youth. But there are many more, most of which I do not yet comprehend. But I am spending a lot of time trying to unravel it all.
For example, when I came to look at preminghana, I found myself comparing it to a Pachycephalosaurus, in a certain unlikely posture. I was very fond of dinosaurs as a lad.
Tasmania’s west is notoriously difficult. Visitors today will still swoon over the tangle of greenery, the rivers running black and cold, and the tortured quartzite mountains that rise in irrepressible ranges throughout this quadrant of the island.
Two handsome highways sweep towards the west coast: the Murchison from the north, and the Lyell from the south. These roads are wonders, bending and careering, crossing major rivers, combating mountainsides and gorges, and squeezing between stands of those infamous rainforest species with their roots and branches ready to ensnare.
So these days, to go west from Launceston or from Hobart is to drive for a bit over three hours, on well-sealed and well-engineered roads. A traveller can stop in Tullah or Tarraleah for a coffee. They need only wonder, as I can find easily on the webpage of an online travel agency, “Strahan: Is it worth the drive and what to see…?”
She wasn’t always so easy. The west was hard to access for more than a century after the British made their permanent camps here, with journeys by sea the most common way to get there – upon a rough sea, naturally, along hazardous coastline. But there was timber there, and later, mineral colour. There were economic motivations to make access to the western regions easier.
Enter a man named Thomas Bather Moore, born in the village of New Norfolk, west of Hobart, in 1850. Whilst in his 20s, he began investigating mining possibilities in areas around Mount Bischoff, Mount Heemskirk, and the Linda Valley – in short, all the mineral hotspots of Tasmania in the late 1800s. He would explore the South Coast track and blazed the Linda Track, which the Lyell Highway essentially follows today. In fact, many locals were miffed that this highway never bore the name of Moore.
A bushman must be skilled in multiple fields, and to become known as King of the West Coast explorers, you’d probably have to be good at quite a lot. T.B. Moore was different to a lot of other bushmen in that he was educated, and at a British school no less. He observed the effects of glaciation on west coast ranges and obtained fossil samples for further study. He was also a skilled amateur botanist, collecting specimens of mosses, liverworts, ferns and other plants for foremost scientists. Two species are named in his honour: Actinotus moorei and Coprosma moorei.
Tom Moore was hardy. He humped a heavy pack, often for more than 30 kilometres in a day, whilst contending with rough terrain and tough conditions. Regularly he went hungry, and sometimes found himself in dire straits. Once, Moore had to crushed clay and smoke it as a placebo to alleviate his tobacco addiction. Although he travelled with his brother James for a while, he often went alone – although he always travelled with dogs. Three canine companions appear in his biography: Wanderer, Spero, and Spiro. Each of these has a river named after it in western Tasmania.
His relationships with others is harder to assess. To those who worked under him in on government track-cutting expeditions, T.B. Moore was a harsh authoritarian. It is said that his solitary manner adversely affected some members of his family, and, when his bushing days were over, that he resorted to hard drink. Moore kept a diary, in which he “rarely mentioned loneliness”, even when he went months at a time away from others; yet when he did stumble back into towns, such as when he shocked the proprietor of the Picnic Hotel in Huonville after five months in the bush, he was considered good company.
We must spare a thought for his wife, Mary (born Jane Mary Solly: there is a Solly River in the southwest too), for whom months passed without knowing her husband’s whereabouts or fate. In 1901, after having not heard from Tom for nearly six months, she wrote to his supervisor. “I am afraid you will think me a nuisance but I cannot help writing,” she signed off.
He was simply behind schedule. Meanwhile, Mary was in Strahan, hoping he had not perished like so many others in a dark corner of the contiguous forest.
The Moores had chosen to settle at this west coast port, shortly after its first stores and hotels had gone up. Tom would exchange postcards with his children whilst the work in the bush was progressing. “My dear dad How are you getting on in the bush,” wrote school-age son Cliffe, who would later be seriously wounded in the Great War. To his daughters Molly and Grace, Tom sent photographs of a hut and a river, “so you can picture Dad in the bush now that he is leaving all that is dear & delightful.”
T.B. Moore would wind up in Strahan for his final years, working in the mine office at nearby Queenstown. He was laid to rest here by the waters of Macquarie Harbour, as were his wishes. “His reward in money was scanty,” an obituary reads, “but in the deepest sense of life he was eminently successful.”
While winter’s slow creep gets little love in Tasmania, there is one benefit to the end of summer: selfie season is over.
I refer to “#selfieseason”, an inane tourism campaign which put, in prominent locations, stickers spruiking the possibility for tourists to photograph themselves in front of something beautiful.
I won’t harp on about it for too long, but my gut feeling is that pandering to consumeristic fads is not exactly playing to our strengths as an island. Many people come here to get away from that sort of superficiality.
Much has been said in public arenas about what might be the meaning of the cultural obsession with autoportraits. To really understand them in a Tasmanian context, though, we might want to venture into this building in New Norfolk – previously a ‘hospital for the insane’.
Here, in 1900, a man in his 40s named Thomas Hinton was admitted to the asylum. He had sent fifteen photographic self-portraits to a young woman, Miss Headlam, and consequently was diagnosed with “a mania for having his photograph taken in all sorts of dress and without dress”.
The tableaux for which Thomas Hinton was locked up seem to be part of a national competition to design a new flag, in the lead-up to Australia’s Federation. On one photograph, dated August 9, 1900, Hinton wrote to Miss Headlam. “I got four taken today. I am sure you will like ’em.”
She evidently did not; Hinton was sent to New Norfolk two weeks later.
Hinton suffered from episodes of mental illness, ending up in mental hospitals on multiple occasions, in different parts of Australia. His record from 1900 tell us that he had been working as an engineer or engine driver in the midlands of Tasmania. Returning to the asylum in Willow Court may have been traumatic: conditions were poor, with mental illnesses poorly understood, and mistreatment of inmates far from unheard of.
The Royal Derwent Hospital was closed in 2000; life in the hospital was often described as a nightmare, right up until its closure.
Thomas Hinton’s photographs are far more imaginative than anything I saw during ‘selfie season’. My favourite sees Hinton standing in profile before an artistic hanging with animal motifs, probably his own flag design: he wears nothing more than a homemade loincloth, fashioned from patterned material and tied around his waist, his arms folded over his bare chest.
The collection of Hinton’s photographs were acquired by the National Museum of Australia in 2013. They had been advertised at that time for $9,900.
Art curator Anthea Gunn has written a fascinating analysis of Thomas Hinton’s self-portraits on The Conversation website. The images, she says, “give a response refracted by mental illness to matters of national importance.” In response I am forced to wonder what meaning will be gleaned from the millions of selfies taken in Tasmanian locales, when they are looked back upon in a dozen decades’ time.
The day I was supposed to shuffle into Invermay, back in June, the rivers were in flood. Invermay was evacuated and it seemed likely that the suburb would be swept away.
We were lucky: despite the huge volumes of water in the rivers, they didn’t exceed the newly-built flood levees. I moved in along with my scarce few possessions. William, my housemate, had put the record player on the mantelpiece: the only concession he’d made to possibility of disaster.
Invermay remembers floods: in 1929, around 2000 of its homes were washed away and 22 lives were lost. But this has always been an area that is susceptible to the rivers’ influence. The suburb is built on reclaimed land, and an early colonial name was ‘Swampton’. It was not seen as attractive land, and settlements didn’t spread much in this direction until the first systematic draining works occurring after fifty years of Launceston’s settlement. The area had serious hygiene concerns for decades, with scarlet fever, typhoid, and respiratory illnesses all worryingly prevalent.
It quickly built itself into an industrious area – a lively neighbourhood, replete with buskers and brothels. It retains an eclectic local population. It also has eclectic architecture: cottages line narrow alleys between the main drags, and a number of beautiful art-deco buildings stand, including our lovely Post Office. We also have a high concentration of mechanics, and more takeaway stores than you can poke a stick at.
History persists and pervades, but changes are always wrought, and more are on their way. Our footy ground, York Park, is branded as the University of Tasmania Stadium; a plethora of government dollars have been pledged to transfer the entire uni to its Invermay campus. It will change everything here. Sorting out the traffic will be challenging; house prices will surge; businesses will open; demographics will change. The bain marie may be replaced by taps of craft beer.
I spent the winter here, my first Tasmanian winter in some years. Afternoons were crushed by darkness quickly, old boats’ silhouettes disappearing as river and darkness merged. The sirens at the nearby football stadium yowled, corresponding with the anguished mewing of our local cats. The Boags brewery gave up its malty belch. Smoke, fog and mist lowered themselves into the river valley. Pedestrians battled robust winds that are driven down the Tamar. The hostelries seem quiet, but there is always life at the hearths in the corners of the public bars.
Summer fled by, with its usual flurry of visitors and excursions. Bright red baubles appeared on the tomato vines in the backyard. Housemates passed like ships in the night.
Now evening darkness comes early again, and I'm off. Mick, my neighbour, caught me putting boxes of books in my car the other day. “You’re not moving out are ya?” he bellowed. I felt guilty telling him that I was.
I was never going to be here for long enough to become a true swampie: not like the bloke I met at the Bizzy Bee, on an electric skateboard, wearing the t-shirt of a local contemporary dance show. He had Invermay’s postcode, 7248, tattooed on his neck. We were both buying hot chips.
Mick and I kept talking. He’s a good neighbour: he’s a gruff character, but always happy to stop and chat when we run into him walking his two dogs, Bear and Nightmare, down the street. Somehow our rambling chat came to a familiar old topic. Mick threw his arms up to express its mystery: “Love.”
This is a place that invites the curious to keep paying attention. My notebooks are replete with Invermay observations. As I write this, Mick stops to chat with another neighbour and his pram-bound baby. Black swans and purple swamp-hens stomp the rushes along the North Esk: they are the true swampies, I suspect. The marsh beneath asphalted streets shakes beneath the tyres of trucks.
I am moving out of this ecosystem, Mick, and wandering off into another one. I may or may not be back in Swampton. You never really know.
Incredibly, I am writing this from a bushwalkers’ hut on the Tasman Peninsula. The Three Capes track has now been open for a bit over a year, after five years of track construction, and over a decade since it was conceived by the Parks and Wildlife Service of Tasmania.
The stonework and boardwalk of the track is not insignificant. In areas, it is beautiful. It is the result of hard labour, and a stunning amount of money. But it is perceived as an investment: walkers who wind up on this track and spend four days wandering this end of the Tasman Peninsula pay a fee that is not insubstantial. Recreational bushwalking is part of the mosaic of eco-tourism “products” that the Tasmanian economy is increasingly reliant upon. It is hard to believe that the Three Capes walk won’t be a roaring success.
The track wends its way through a sclerophyll forest, its species adapted to dolerite soils – this igneous rock provides the spectacular nature of the coastline, high columnar cliffs that tower over the sea. An array of eucalypts, hakias, banksias and casuarinas sprout from the dusty dirt, habitat and home to various marsupials, birds, bats and creepy-crawlies. This is the bush – one aspect of it at least – and it is beautiful.
Tracks facilitate human movement; they have existed in Tasmania for millennia. Presumably, the first humans who made a foot-pad through the landscape borrowed their ways of passage from the animals who had come before them. Wombats make obvious clearings through heath country; the native broad-toothed mouse chews runways through the moorlands. Colonial arrivals in the early 1800s found Aboriginal tracks in each quarter of the island, and often followed them. These later became the major vehicular roads of the island.
The cutting and laying of track, of course, inhibits the natural growth of vegetation. But tracks often go easily disappearing into scrub: the prospectors’ ways on the west coast are overgrown with rainforest. Other courses have gone in bushfires. Parts of at least one hill country route are submerged under a dam. The stone paths of the Three Capes won’t easily vanish, but should bushwalking go the way of (say) the construction of hydro dams or various mines, disuse would remove their smoothness. The sclerophyll would happily form a tangle over them. We would need old maps to follow them.
Some of my mates work as track-builders. Their work is strenuous, and they are usually stationed in remote environs. They often rough it. They love it. They are intimate with their materials: stone chafes the skin of hands, timber is known by grain and knot. In their work, they follow the track-cutters and builders of two centuries. Alexander McKay was well-known as the vanguard for many significant colonial expeditions. Jorgen Jorgenson went into the scrub wielding a cutlass.
You find tracks in urban areas as well. These are often unofficial by-ways, known to urban planners as ‘desire trails’. This alluring term simply signifies that the concreted footpaths in parks or edgelands aren’t the most efficient route for pedestrians: they trample a new path across grass, getting from one place to another.
Tracks, of course, are all about desire. Aboriginal tracks led to places that were significant to them, such as ochre quarries. Why do people freely choose to walk the Overland Track or the Three Capes? They are searching for beauty, or for a certain sensation that seems to come with being on hoof and independent. Economies are constructed around desires. With that come tracks that are, in fact, ruthlessly practical.
Which leads me to the metaphorical meaning of a track. It is not uncommon to perceive ourselves on a network of pathways through the amorphous nebula of all that life could be. We string together tracks, often mapless, assuming we are on the route we ought to take. Frequently these tracks are interrupted – let’s say, playfully, that they land us in some of Tasmania’s notorious horizontal scrub – but a track appears in its midst, leading us elsewhere. Sometimes it begins as a faint pad, but soon, we find it gets wider, that it firms up, and that it will bear us for a few kilometres, a few years, before some other way emerges.
Or perhaps a series of ways emerge, and you have to make a choice. I sit in a hut on the Three Capes Track, as a pademelon nibbles on the sedge outside the door. In two weeks, I am leaving this island. I am going somewhere far from the dolerite endemics of the Tasman Peninsula, far from the landscapes I know from the high country by Cradle Mountain, far from the wet west coast and its wealth of history, far from my home and my family and the rivers and cliffs to which my kin has belonged for 150 years now.
It is good luck to have myriad tracks before you. It will be great sorrow to someday look back and know that so many tracks have been left behind, that they are smothered with vegetation, and that they are no longer accessible. Now I am moving from metaphor to cliché, but so it is.
James Smith was known for his stolid, austere way of life, which in Tasmania was enough to earn him the splendid nickname ‘Philosopher’. “I cannot remember ever hearing him laugh,” his son recalled, “but occasionally he would smile at something amusing or pleasing.”
Spartan and Stoic in style, Philosopher Smith was actually a teetotalling Christian, with a strong faith that matched his sagacious beard. The son of convicts, Smith was an early settler in the lower reaches of the beautiful Forth River in north-western Tasmania, in the middle decades of the 1800s. After a stint on the Victorian gold fields as a younger man, he began prospecting in Tasmania.
This was no insignificant endeavour, as Tasmanians were desperately keen to uncover the colour of mineral wealth. With convict transportation recently halted, the island needed new economic stimuli; colonies elsewhere were gaining riches from gold, and the Tasmanian workforce was depleted by emigration to these fields. A forced amalgamation with the state of Victoria was not out of the question.
Philosopher Smith found small patches of minerals in the north-west, such as rutile, copper, iron and silver. But when he came upon a sample of tin-bearing cassiterite on the slopes of Mount Bischoff in 1871, the Tasmanian economy was to enter a period of optimism for the first time in many years. The following year, the prospecting Philosopher found a massive body of tin ore on the mountain: underground workings would go on to extract more than five million tonnes from Bischoff, and at a time it was the richest tin mine on the planet.
The man himself was hardy and undemanding, but some credit needs to be given to Philosopher Smith’s dog. On a previous venture, Smith had nearly been killed by a dog who, scrambling up the bank of a creek, dislodged a large stone which went “whizzing close past” his head. But the Philosopher continued to take dogs on his prospecting journey, and in 1871, he was with his “sort of Collie-Spaniel”, named Bravo.
It was towards the end of the expedition and Philosopher had run out of almost all of his supplies, when Bravo killed an echidna – provisions enough to keep the prospector out for another day to revisit the potential lode. The last of his tea-leaves went into the billy, and a morsel of bread (half-eaten by a native animal) went with the echidna meat. Philosopher Smith returned to the complex geological structure of Mount Bischoff and confirmed that there was tin in that hill.
“Good many blokes got their pockets well lined at that show,” says one character in a 1920s novel set in the area, as he nods back to Mount Bischoff. And so it was, but one man who did not make much from the mining of Bischoff was Philosopher Smith himself, who parted ways with the Mount Bischoff before the first dividend was paid. You get the feeling it didn’t bother him so much. He was still prospecting in the difficult country of north-western Tasmania a dozen years later.
He would eventually return to Launceston, where he had passed some time in his youth. Launceston was economically buoyant, largely thanks to Mount Bischoff – the wealth from its tin was being gleaned by Tasmania’s northern settlement as it was smelted and exported. Philosopher Smith found fortune of another kind: there, he married a widow named Mary Jane Love - “by all accounts a caring loving wife and quite attractive to boot,” according to folklore. He was approaching fifty years of age at this time.
Philosopher Smith would pass away two decades, and is buried in a cemetery in the township of Forth. Bravo’s fate, and the whereabouts of his remains, are unknown.
Every day on the calendar has its host of holidays and observances, and February 2 is no different. The fortieth day after Christmas, it holds a special place in the religious calendar – the Candlemas feast. This holiday has its roots in northern hemisphere agricultural rites, and is a happy occasion for believers in different countries, who eat pancakes or other sweets in celebration.
In addition, biologists and ecologists around the world mark the 2nd of February as World Wetlands Day. And while there’s every reason why this might be a fun day out, it has an element of concern attached to it.
Wetlands are important but fragile ecosystems. Lately, when I am in my hometown of Launceston, I have lately been enjoying walks along the rivers that define my town. These fringe places have been alive with birdsong and frogcalls, and the hum and buzz of cicadas and other insects.
But the reality is that as important as wetlands are, they are often unattractive to an eye trained by a tradition of aesthetic romanticism. Nor do they offer obvious practical advantages to human societies, and so we have, throughout the ages, drained and cleared wetlands, oblivious or careless about the disturbance it creates upon the habitat of so many of the creatures that pass in close proximity to us.
Take the hyperactive birdlife of Tamar Island, the location of my nearest World Wetlands Day celebrations. Here, in the middle of the eccentric tidal estuary of the Tamar, black swans teem and teeter; egrets and pelicans hover over the island; varieties of ducks or dotterels with quirky hairstyles bob along the gentle ripples of the water; grassbirds and fairy-wrens flit about the branches. Two of my favourite birds stomp around: the almost-but-not-quite elegant purple swamphen, and the utterly loveable ‘narky’ – the Tasmanian native hen – making its unmistakeable racket.
They are attracted to the rich resources of the river, as have all sorts of humans for millennia. Aboriginal societies, for thousands of years, recognised the busy estuary as significant and passed much time along its banks. Among other names, they knew at is as Ponrabbel or kanamaluka.
From the beginning of European settlement – from the first northern Tasmania colony in 1804 – sites along the Tamar were seen as important too. The earliest maps have Tamar Island charted upon them, although not by that name. Col. William Paterson made landfall on Tamar Island, in somewhat brief and unglorious circumstances, when his vessel got stuck in the mud around it – and Mud Island was thus its name for some time. So too was Pig Island.
The island was also used a base for the project of dredging the river and redirecting its flow in the 1890s; scuttled vessels from this era, such as the Platypus, are visible from the boardwalks.
Later used for agriculture, and the long-standing ecology of the place was jeopardised. But today the wetlands are open to visitors, with simple boardwalks connecting the mud flats and the island; the removal of a short-horned bull named Bruno was one of the last vestiges of introduced fauna, although there still remain scores of exotic trees. The wetlands continue to morph, adapting to the pressures of humans and climate.
World Wetlands Day is my kind of occasion. It is a moment to celebrate a complicated landscape, which is often very accessible and has a tangled history. It is an excuse to wonder, and to learn. By looking closer at an ordinary scene, by putting our hands in the mud or pushing through the reeds, we uncover more about the world we live in, and consequently find ourselves fixed more firmly in our place.
Go on: have a World Wetlands Day party. I’ll come dressed as a purple swamphen.
Diego Bernacchi was charming, persuasive, loquacious, and daring. Born in Lozza, Italy in 1853, he married a local lass in Brussels, and moved to English to work as a representative for silk merchants. Then, Diego and Barbe and their three young children moved to Tasmania. Diego Bernacchi was 30 years old.
They were quickly smitten with Maria Island, on Tassie’s east coast. Within a year of his arrival, he had convinced authorities to lease him the entire 115 square kilometres of the island for the peppercorn rent of just one shilling a year. With this land, he was to introduce sericulture and viticulture – silk and wine – to Tasmania, neither of which had been seriously attempted here. He had borrowed a significant amount of money for these ventures and invested it all into his dreams for Maria Island.
One can do little but admire the Bernacchi imagination. Upon what had been an old convict colony, the Bernacchi family saw a future of free enterprise. Penitentiary buildings were redeployed as workers’ accommodation. The colonial hop kiln was converted to a grape press. He built a coffee palace, and a hotel. Darlington was to become a city: it was renamed after Bernacchi’s patron saint, San Diego.
Indeed there seemed to something miraculous happening on this far-flung island. Politicians and investors were welcomed with no expense spared, but would depart utterly convinced by Bernacchis’ vision. 250 people lived in Darlington by 1888, from a variety of nationalities. Bernacchi became a councillor for the region.
Bernacchi loved the landscape of Maria Island, and knew it could produce what he needed. Beyond silk and wine, he imagined farms, fruit production, fisheries, limestone quarries and cement production. It was “a Tasmanian Eden,” “the Ceylon of Australasia”. And the entrepreneur himself was dubbed King Diego.
In 1892 the Maria Island Company went bust.
Nearly three decades later, Diego Bernacchi returned to the island that charmed him as much as he charmed its locals. He was the new director of the Portland Cement Co. and once again returned to old Darlington. But he became sick just as production began, and died shortly before his last venture failed once more.
This past week I was fortunate enough to go for a guided tour of Maria Island with a new tourism outfit called See Tasmania. This mob is actually just a couple of mates of mine who have started their own business. So Simmy and Brenton took a group of us walking to the cliffs on either side of the island, serving up their knowledge as well as local food and drink in between. The coffee palace has been converted into a museum, but we had a plunger full of the stuff on the beach; Simmy cooked up a pot of mussels in an Italian-style sauce, in a bit of a tip of the hat to their predecessors, the Bernacchis.
“Bernacchi had the temperament of a gambler and lived on his wits,” writes Margaret Weidenhofer in a biography of the entrepreneur. It’s almost the perfect summary for David Walsh, too, whose Museum of Old and New Art continues to be the centre of Hobart’s cultural life, even if its financial viability has occasionally been in question. But it’s always a gamble to start any business. There are so many variables, and so many calculations to make: so many risks that must be taken. An entrepreneur fixes their fortunes firmly upon the future – but who of us can say where the future is going? To invest your money, time and imagination like these gentlemen have is to make a statement of belief that there are good days ahead in eastern Tasmania.
Like Diego Bernacchi, the young fellas of See Tasmania are drawn to the resources of Maria Island. The Tyreddeme people were too, some thousands of years ago. Aboriginal economies centred around shellfish, game, shelter, certain types of stone; just like ours, they were subject to environmental conditions, to demographic pressures, and to changes in societal fashions.
At the end of an utterly perfect east coast day, taking a ride back to Triabunna, it’s hard to imagine See Tasmania could ever fail. But whether it is silk, wine, ochre, art, meat, cement or tourism, we cannot control many of the various forces that shape our communities’ decisions on how to spend their capital – only guess which way they’ll go.
Nevertheless, I am grateful for those Bernacchi types whose imaginations lead them to have a crack at their own ventures. They make me believe in the future.
"I don’t know why we pronounce Maria the way we do..." - learn the multicultural history of Maria Island.
Read two very different accounts of Marions Bay, on the east coast of Tasmania.
It was once said that the Aboriginal Tasmanians would come to the west coast, look out over the moiling sea, and imagine a country in that direction known as the “Land of Sweet Forget”.
Whatever the veracity of this legend is, when I found myself on the west coast just before the turn of the year, I discovered not some longing for amnesia but rather a heightened sense of memory. I was, in fact, caught in a sticky morass of reminiscence, as I thought of all of those whose existence is part of the structure that had made my year, and in fact my life.
Interestingly, after a year in which I almost entirely failed to leave Tasmania, I still find that my days are deeply affected by those elsewhere. It may seem incredible that Turkish bomb blasts should disturb me in Triabunna, or that Donald Trump’s election would ruffle my feathers at Lake St. Clair, but this is how it was.
And likewise, out on the west coast, after I’d coaxed a fire out of damp tea-tree and eucalypt, I found old friends returning to me, incorporeal like smoke or sea-spray.
I could list them all here: the Spaniard teaching maths in a Bristol classroom, the lovely young cynic I met a decade ago in northern California, the Brazilian lesbian labouring on a newspaper, the placeless Dutch lady with the fair eyelashes…But as a list they make for futile literature, whereas in my head they are able to interact, like figures with volition, same as those who populate a proper city. In my head, there is a world.
After forays into this world, I retreat back to its margins. At least that’s how I presume it looks to those who come from the cultural and economic centres of the Earth: the nouveaux-riches in India or China, those who watch themselves on television in Los Angeles, the colonial capitals of London or Paris, or those from the middle of the world: the Mediterranean or the Middle East.
What they will have trouble understanding is that for me, this is being smack-bang in the middle of things.
At one point I found myself remonstrating with a fairy-wren, who I had accused of stealing a very significant item of mine. This was a petite teaspoon, which I pinched from the side of my café noisette in a Parisian bar one night. Yes, I found the teaspoon somewhere amongst my camping equipment – and duly apologised to the fairy-wren – but it goes to show how much value I place on memory.
And how strangely, instead of being keenly aware of how remote I am from many whose lives I care about, I somehow feel as if they’re drawing closer.
This time last year, I was on Tassie's east coast, exploring the meaning of fish.
“In the west beyond the sunset lay the fabled Noia Poeena, which meant Land of Sweet Forget. No wars or troubles – a land of complete rest. It was said that a warrior could pick up his spear [there] and, as likely as not, immediately lay it down again, having forgotten why he had picked it up.”
So it says in 'the Cotton Papers', an enigmatic collection of stories of a family of free settlers on the east coast of Tasmania, and their interactions with Aboriginals from the area. These stories were handed down through the generations of an east coast family, and published only a few years ago.
The Cottons were sympathetic with the first Tasmanians. And although their biases on ideas of property, work and religion were a part of the system of supplanting the indigenous population, there is something quite heroic about these pacifists, and something pioneering about their way of recognising the Aboriginal as a fellow-traveller.
But how well they came to understand Aboriginal languages remains uncertain – and it’s extremely unlikely they were able to accurately interpret Aboriginal spirituality.
The Cottons were not the first whitefellas to take a stab at wrapping his head around a unique and complex worldview, which was doubtless disrupted when European boats came from afar to Tasmania.
Harry Govier Seeley would have us believe that Aboriginals were looking towards the source of their ancestral home when they stood on the western shoreline and gazed upon the thumping of the Southern Ocean. He argued that Tasmanians had originally hailed from Madagascar, and travelled to Borneo on a land-bridge that is now covered by ocean, before heading south. (Another anthropologist, Hyde Clarke, claimed that the language of the Nyam-Nyam in the Congo was “remarkably similar” to Tasmanian languages.)
Human communities have been shifting and migrating for a long time. The latest whitefella narrative about the arrival of people in Tasmania is that crossed a land-bridge over Bass Strait during the late Pleistocene – around 35,000 years ago – and ventured along the west coast of the Tasmanian peninsula, up its river systems and into caves.
Who knows what these families remembered of their previous homelands. What stories were passed down about what became mainland Australia, or their lives through the Ice Age? When the British and French foisted themselves onto the island in the late 1700s and early 1800s, they made amateurish efforts to comprehend the Tasmanians’ lives – but of what was doubtlessly rich a body of stories and cultural practices, little was known by the European interpreter.
This through naivete, prejudice and incompetence, as well as reluctance on the behalf of the Aboriginal storytellers to pass on everything.
At the end of the last century, J.A. Taylor worked on a Tasmanian Aboriginal etymology, particularly surrounding place-names. This is an astounding document, another one born from a respect for Aboriginal lives and regret at what is not known about this island. Yet again, while there is no doubt Taylor was a knowledgeable linguist, the text smacks of guess-work.
Taylor tells us that an Aboriginal name for Woolnorth Point, in the far north-west of the island, was MA-AN-DAI. “The meaning is obscure, but speculatively the name may have been derived from a cognate of manuta meaning a long way (time) away,” his entry reads.
There, up on Cape Grim, occurred one of the cruellest massacres the British colonists ever perpetrated against the original Tasmanians.
Beyond that site lies Noia Poeena: a white Quaker’s dream of peace, over the slate-grey Southern Ocean, vicious and seemingly endless, stretching all the way to South America.
There are few more significant names in Tasmania’s landscape photography history than J.W. Beattie and Stephen Spurling III. But these two artists had a different view on an iconic region of Tasmania’s high country at the beginning of the 1900s.
Born at the 57th parallel north, in the “Grey City” of Aberdeen, John Watt Beattie migrated to the Derwent Valley with his parents in his late teen years. Farming didn’t come instinctively to him, but he was drawn to the romantic aspects of Tasmanian landscape – the young Beattie was particularly influenced by landscape painter W.C. Piguenit, whose depictions of this island’s craggy peaks and lake districts, in oils, continues to shape the artistic temperament in Tassie.
Beattie’s photographic excursions took him to many remote regions of the island, including the nascent mine towns of the west coast. A supporter of the mining projects, he was nevertheless an early and outspoken environmentalist – arguing against forestry activities on the Gordon River, for example, recognising its scenic and scientific values.
Also an eager archivist, Beattie’s historical awareness, at the end of the 1800s, was quite a long way advanced; his work was moulded by his political and social opinions. His art was popular, and he was extremely well-liked as an individual.
J.W. Beattie’s journey to the mountainous country around the Cradle Plateau in 1901 left him unimpressed. It may have been the torrid weather his party endured, as they ascended Pelion Plains and headed north; as Beattie wrote in his paper for the Royal Society, day after day brought “furious wind and rain...to be succeeded by heavy snowfalls, and thunder and lightning, making every living and dead thing around in such condition that it was, to say at the least, misery to walk outside the hut...”
Beattie managed to muster up some positive memories of deep conversations, “yarns and songs” in front of the fireplaces of the high country huts – but generally felt that it was “somewhat of lunacy to come into this country in such weather”. His camera was playing up and the weather offered no respite. Few photographs were produced, although one significant romantic image was titled ‘A Peep at Barn Bluff from Lake Windermere’ (the latter landmark portrayed for this article, albeit taken by a lesser photographer).
But Stephen Spurling III, who was the self-described “pioneer photographer” of this area in March 1898, was miffed by Beattie’s deprecation of this landscape. He likely did create “the earliest extensive record of the Cradle Mountain and Western Tiers area,” according to the Companion to Tasmanian History.
A third generation photographer, whose would also include photographic forays around Ben Lomond and the Franklin and Gordon rivers, Spurling believed these landscapes “compare in scenic excellence with any part of Tasmania, and will amply repay the tourist for any hardships he may endure in getting there,” as he wrote in a letter to the Examiner responding to Beattie’s report.
Stephen Spurling III would certainly to this part of the world, taking images of the Western Tiers in heavy snow, and later producing motion pictures of the highlands of the upper Mersey. He photographed the magnificent Hartnett Falls days after it was first witnessed by a white visitor, and named Lake Lilla (near Cradle Mountain) after his sister.
And indeed most would say that Spurling was right in this debate with J.W. Beattie: the country that Beattie shrugged his shoulders over are part of the Overland Track, one of the world’s most famous multi-day bushwalks.
Though they bickered over this area, their work complemented each other, and the two pioneering artists (as Richard Flanagan has written) “jointly produc[ed] a vision of the Tasmanian wilderness that was definitive and which has endured more or less intact to the present day.”
So many years, so many eyes, so much terrain: the search for Tasmania’s mineral wealth was an odyssey that spanned much of the 1800s. In the latter decades of that century, ragtag crews of raggedy men were measuring and pegging claims, and scratching for riches in the surface of the earth.
When the wealth finally appeared on the island’s west coast, it wasn’t as expected.
Traces of gold appeared at an alluvial claim on a mountain above the Queen River, and optimism rose to unprecedented levels. “Everyone who saw the ironstone, matted with fine gold that glistened after showers of rain, was impressed with the mine,” notes historian Geoffrey Blainey. The government geologist Gustav Thureau – who was not always right – rattled off his theory on the mine, describing it as eroding volcanic mud at last shedding its gold and sharing it with men. “Begorrah!” the soon-to-be-famous Irish miner James Crotty is said to have exclaimed, “It’s all gold, I tell you!”
But it wasn’t. It was mostly something else, in fact, and the Mount Lyell mine became the richest copper mine in its day. The mine managers recruited an American metallurgist from the fields of Colorado and employed him to erect his innovative system of smelting to extract as much copper from Lyell to sell to the world.
Among the handful of towns which appeared in a cluster around the generous geology of Mount Lyell, none compared to Queenstown. “No Tasmanian town had grown so rapidly,” according to Blainey, who was later commissioned to write a history of Mount Lyell. There were pubs galore; vibrant displays of entertainment visited the area frequently; unforgettable characters spilled out onto the streets.
In Queenstown today, the brilliantly eccentric Galley Museum gives anecdotes on the experiences of those glory days. A snapshot of the neighbouring miners’ town of Gormanston in 1910 is accompanied by this caption: “Miners and their lovers were having a hell of a good time. Young married miners and their wife battling to get a home together and flat out producing babys.”
But the humour of this note hints at the tremendous tragedy that was just around the corner for the Lyell community in 1912, when an entire shift of miners was trapped in the depths of a shaft. While many escaped, 42 men perished. Beyond the fatalities, the community was distraught. While bodies were trapped in the shaft, so too were families stuck in a state of unknowing.
A photograph in the Galley shows a large crowd milling around the newsagency of A.A. Mylan, on Orr Street, trying to discover the latest news. “Women showed bravery,” a newspaper article reported during this distressing period, “but there were many sobbing...How long must we wait to know the worst was a pathetic question asked by many.”
It was eight whole months before the last bodies could be retrieved from the mine.
Most of these women would indeed discover their beloved was among the deceased. Louisa Scott, for example, would soon face the reality of having lost her young husband Leonard, the father of their six-week-old daughter Violet.
Eugene Felix McCasland, whose family was back in New South Wales, had become engaged to a young lass in the Linda Valley; for the funeral of her betrothed, she made a shroud of brown material, with a white cross over the chest.
Other men had only their mates to mourn them – like the Austrian-born Valentine Bianchini, who had time to write a will in his notebook before dying.
Henry Dawson was one of the survivors, but had been trapped for five days: he didn’t return to mining, but instead moved to Melbourne and married a city girl. Unfortunately only a couple of years later, he was killed on a Flanders battlefield.
Mount Lyell’s longevity is comparable to few other mines in Australia. Only a handful of years ago, two more young men died in a collapse there, however, once more leaving the local community shattered. The Mount Lyell mine is currently closed.
“Mining towns are ephemeral by nature – as elusive as the minerals they pursue,” writes Tasmanian novelist Brett Martin. “There is no continuity, no history, no real confidence in the future...Nothing is embedded, nothing is certain.”
But this impressive community has yet to give up its resolve; here in the wet and misty west, Queenstown remains where so many other towns have gone to ruin. Attached to a part of the world that is like no other, the people of Queenstown are adapting again to varying conditions, each of which is far from easy.
There are few towns in Tasmania with a reputation as notorious as Rossarden’s.
My mate’s uncle stumbled upon a secret den for hideaways up there once upon a time; this is where you used to go when you were on the run from the cops. Marijuana crops surely grow in the gullies. When a friend’s car threatened to break down up here, she panicked and nearly drove into a ditch.
Or so I’m told. That’s the thing about it all: once a place gains a reputation, stories proliferate and distort into rumours. Myth starts growing, whorling all around it.
I should know: I grew up in such a place, in a town whose name affords you no favours when you say you belonged to it in the first years of your life. A town associated with incest and ice.
Myth tends to have its basis somewhere in reality, and there is nothing fabulous about some of the police reports coming out of Rossarden. Not the least of these is the unsolved murder of Paul Byrne, who was last seen leaving the Rossarden Club at 2a.m. on September 20, 1996. Detectives believe he was “sexually tortured” before he was killed. It is generally believed that those responsible are well-known within the community.
What do we do with the threads of official history that run through a place so far from the centre of the world’s historical narrative? High in the foothills of Ben Lomond, in Tasmania’s remote north-east, Rossarden grew to become a rough cloister in the bush. Its life was centred upon a tin mine. Outsiders rarely visited – perhaps mine managers from elsewhere, or footy teams visiting from the Fingal Valley, or the Mouth Organ Band on tour – and it wasn’t too common for locals to head out either. (They say, though, that Frank Sellars broke record speeds when asked by the local nurse to get a heavily pregnant woman down the windy roads to the hospital in Campbell Town.)
They say that when a tin scratcher named Cheshire passed out after a night of drinking, he missed his chance on being a part of the first claim on the Aberfoyle Rivulet, which would sustain this place for decades. His colleagues, Shepherd and Haas, found the lode while Cheshire snored.
Countless stories spiral out of the nucleus of this hole in the ground. At the dance hall, the younger members of established families met. Illicit bottles of home-brew were shared in secret corners. Men and women fell in love.
“A cricket match was held in February 1937 between married and single men. The married men won by 23 runs. Afternoon tea was supplied by the ladies,” writes Narelle Blackaby in her history of the town.
The stalwart nurse of Rossarden, Sister Phyllis McShane, ended up marrying the storekeeper Mac Campbell.
Pop and Kees Dingjan had moved from Holland and ended up running a butchers store in the bush.
These stories make this town as much as murder and outlawry. But they don’t make as good print.
When I last passed through Rossarden, on a chilly spring day, stillness and chimney smoke hung off the structure of the landscape. And what a beautiful landscape: high up beneath Stacks Bluff, nestled amongst snow-tolerant gums and shrubs that come to flower late in the season.
If I didn’t know better, I’d say the locals perpetuate their own notoriety to stop outsiders from taking over – to keep the property prices low.
But in a few short years, I have watched Tasmania’s international reputation change. Even my own hometown is getting a makeover, with arts festivals and boutique booze distilleries starting to bring in a different crowd. One of these days, I’ll say where I’m from and it will mean something we’d never have guessed. The same may go for Rossarden. They say there’s only one crook left in town nowadays.
But the thing about these small towns, far from the major roads, beyond the tourist route, is that the stories trickle down and don’t often reach the rest of the island undistorted. To know what’s going on in a place like Rossarden, you need to go there yourself. You need to spend a while.
For about one hundred kilometres across northern central Tasmania, a protrusion of Jurassic rock emerges, overlooking the agricultural landscapes around townships like Deloraine, Westbury and Longford. These form the north-western boundary of the Central Plateau: they are the Great Western Tiers, or, in an Aboriginal term, kooparoona niara: ‘home of the mountain spirits’.
British transplants arriving in Tasmania in the early 1800s began spreading their claims of land ownership to the inland districts beneath the Western Tiers within several decades. By the middle of the nineteenth-century, landowners had pushed their way through to the forests at the foot of the mountains.
The earliest known track up onto the Tiers was cut in 1879, and is known as Higgs’ Track. Today it remains one of the most efficient, popular and enjoyable routes into Tasmania’s high country. Higgs’ Track was cut by the father and son team of Joshua and Sydney Higgs; the Higgs family had arrived from London’s West End in 1853, and their track led from the Western Creek sawmill to the plateau’s edge, where they had a grazing lease near Lake Lucy Long.
Subsequent tracks began braiding their way up the slopes, through a tangle of snow gum and sassafras, mountain pepper and kerosene bush: Parsons Track, Warners Track, Yeates Track, Mole Creek Track and Staggs Track form, among others, a network of routes that made journeys to the lakes and peaks of that region. When trout were released in the waterways of the Central Plateau in 1895, these tracks became more and more popular; fishing became a serious attraction for visitors to the region, and locals offered their services for hospitality and guiding.
The Higgs family house was built with American architectural influences, and each of the twelve children helped to raise their accommodation. Joshua Higgs would move to Launceston to become an early architect in the fledgling city. He was also a gifted artist: significant works that survive include a sketch of the early Kings Bridge tollhouse in Launceston, and a beautiful painting of the Western Creek sawmill from which Higgs’ Track led.
His son Sydney Higgs would travel around Australia and New Zealand as a young man, earning a reputation as “a noted shearer” according to his 1934 obituary in the Examiner. But Sydney would return to live at the foot of the Tiers, in Caveside, where he met and married Lydia Stone. Sydney had a wealth of experiences from which to draw stories and was consequently “widely known as a brilliant storyteller who could hold an enraptured audience for hours,” according to local historian John F. Pithouse.
Hoofing it up the track he cut to fish his favourite streams, Sydney Higgs would be found in a dinner jacket and bowler hat. A photograph exists of this gentlemanly figure on the rocky edges of a tarn with a fishing rod in hand.
Higgs’ history continues to live in the towns beneath kooparoona niara, and elsewhere: Sydney Higgs jnr. was also a renowned watercolour painter, and his own daughter, Avis Higgs, remains one of Wellington’s treasured textile designers and watercolour artists at nearly 100 years of age.
Dairy pastures follow the road until I turn off the tarmac; an old timber signs points towards the tracks, as well as a ‘Big Tree’, which, according to local knowledge, is now just a big stump. My old car grumbles as I pull in to park at the trailhead. The serrated leaves of sassafras shine with a young green, while the trunks of eucalypts seem antediluvian; ferns sprout from damp corners; rills of water sprint across the path and plunge into creeks; some recently- and beautifully-constructed walls of pitched stone push back the dark earth.
Lady Lake Hut sits perched on the plateau, a rebuilt version of what Sydney Higgs once erected here. Welcome swallows neurotically wave around their nest in the eaves. I am nearly a kilometre above the low mosaic of farms and towns, and here, as much as anywhere, the subtle colours of rugged country remain much the same as they did for thousands of years after the glaciers melted away from it. Soggy sphagnum, well-lit layers of distant dolerite, the springtime maroon on mountain rocket: these all offer a restful impression on my eye.
For a pioneer and bushman with artistic inclinations, there may be no more wonderful place.
That was all it took to change the course of Felix Myers’s life: a handful of spoons, perhaps silver, or perhaps merely of foreign provenance. Some table spoons and some tea spoons.
Felix Myers, also known as Carl Kernetzki, and also known as Peter Sinclair, was born in Prussia – who knows precisely where – but ended up in Leicester with a sweetheart he’d met at the charmingly-named landmark of Gallowtree Gate. This was in Leicester, where Myers worked as a surveyor, musician, and German teacher – but he was evidently interested in supplementing his income in the trade of goods stolen from his mistress’s abode.
A bunch of spoons.
He was sentenced, at a court session in the dog days of 1837, to seven years’ transportation. He would be exiled along with an accomplice, Joseph Brant. Myers was 27 and Brant was 21.
The Leicester Chronicle, which never failed to describe Myers as ‘a German Jew’, and reported the messy details of the case (although quickly forgot the fate of the mistress), also records a ‘pathetic appeal’ Felix Myers made to the jury, in which he described himself as ‘an unfortunate foreigner’. He would become even more foreign still, a German Jew shipped off to Van Diemen’s Land.
But his behaviour was generally good, and he was assigned as a ‘sub-overseer’ on the road gangs completing works in the Southern Midlands of the island. Occasionally he would make a transgression of the harsh rules of convict life: this would earn him a bit of time on the treadwheel, one of the classic devices of punishment that the penal regime had invented.
Felix Myers worked on building the highway through Bagdad and Green Ponds – now Kempton, and pictured here with the historic Wilmot Arms hotel on the left, erected some four years after Myers left the region.
Mary Hickson (or Hixon) had been born in Hobart in 1821, one of the first of a generation of colonial children – the currency lads and lasses – who grew up as Vandemonian kids. Probably the child of a convict, she was acquainted early with the fresh Southern Ocean air and the antipodean birdsong, which had been such an affront to many of the first generation of colonial settlers, prisoner or otherwise.
She was not yet 20 when she met Felix Myers, the bilingual Prussian who had previously charmed the young dame of Gallowstree Gate on the other side of the world. Mary too was sufficiently taken to be swayed into taking the spoon thief’s red hand in marriage.
It is regrettable that for so many lovers in our local history, we don’t know what it is that drew them to one another. Was Felix Myers dashing, with dark features and a glint in his eyes? Did Mary Hickson have a eucalypt twang in her voice, already freckly and confident on horseback? Was there some pragmatic reason that brought them together? Did Felix have a ready smile? Would Mary sing? Did they share some dream that hovered cloud-like above them in Van Diemen’s Land?
The records, muddled as they are, seem to suggest they had two children shortly after their Hobart wedding in 1840. It also looks like they moved to Launceston. The name ‘Myers’ – already probably fictitious – became morphed to ‘Meyer’ or ‘Meyers’.
Perhaps the tale of this family’s lives exists somewhere buried in some record I’ve not laid eyes on. Probably not the narrative of their love. There is no field guide for this. Unless it exists in unseen ripples, through the subtle realms of ancestors’ minds, woven through their interactions down the line, across history, around the island.
“Myrtle trees seem to live in fables,” writes the poet Andrew Sant (born in 1950), and off he goes, growing a shadowy rainforest in damp green words. The trees “grope through mists that swirl” and the poet stands in “owlish and spidery dank encampments of gloom.” This poem, ‘Myrtle Forests’, is very good.
The tree the poet praises is Nothofagus cunninghamii, which Tasmanians know as myrtle and Victorians more commonly call myrtle beech. It is distinctly unrelated to the Myrtus myrtles of the Earth’s north, which is named for a female athlete who gamely challenged the men, and won – and was punished for it by the goddess Athena by being turned into a shrub.
Andrew Sant was born in London, but spent some years in Tasmania working as a teacher and as co-editor of The Tasmanian Review (which is now Island magazine). His poems roam the globe, and they describe a strange garden of arboreal species: apple trees, birch and spruce, pines and casuarinas all fill the landscape and filter the light. There is “dried wood” and “gathered timber”. An array of birds flit between the tousled canopies of vegetation.
Sant sees Tasmania as a “skewed island, all that mountainous weather-burdened weight in west!” And it is true: don’t let the historic bickering between the towns in the north and south fool you: the division of this island is vertical. There is the difficult transylvanian west, with its “straining forests”, facing towards the worst weather and absorbing it, reprieving the “sheltered east, with its vineyards and holidays”.
But some life likes wild weather. Our humans and holidaymakers may like dry, flat, open expanses, but our myrtles will only grow in high-rainfall areas. They find gullies and valleys commodious. And if we look closely, we find whole townships of lichen, moss, fungi and fern that have adapted to grow in myrtle forests, countless species that life has chosen for this environment.
Andrew Sant claims not find himself rooted to any place. “Language, I find, is home,” says Sant, so wherever he can use English to interpret scenes, he will be at rest. He burrows into the world in search of meaning. “So that is history here,” he suddenly says in the myrtle forest, boldly thrusting his language into shadow and wood like a drill bit aiming for a core sample – centuries-old shadow and centuries-old wood, with a lineage of millennia.
One must be careful with language: after all, whoever first called this a myrtle got the words wrong.
“Consider the huon pine bowls and vases,” Sant writes elsewhere, “– one man has entered a two-thousand-year-old tunnel of cellulose with sharp tools and imagined them, he jokes, to be as perfectly preserved as sacred artefacts in an Egyptian tomb.”
The woodworker has their own poetry. I read some on a webpage advertising timber products:
“Myrtle is a striking wood with rich red, brown, and almost orange tones...It is believed the richness of colour comes from the quality of the soil it grows in. The deepest red myrtle comes from highly fertile soils on basalt.”
On the same page, links are provided to brochures, where Japanese, Korean and Chinese connoisseurs can approach these fables in their own languages.
Earlier this month, folk musicians John Flanagan and Daniel Townsend came to Launceston to listen to local stories and convert them into song. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, I listened to them perform, and was most delighted to hear their ditty in praise of these small cottages, long abandoned to weeds and graffiti on the North Esk River.
Wedged between Launceston’s Centrelink offices and the newly-reopened strip club, the Boland Street cottages were built in 1876 to the designs of prominent local architect Peter Mills. Twice during the 1990s they were gutted by fires, and so have sat for nearly two decades in a quiet state of disuse.
Yet ‘Centrelink Cottage’ (as the musicians called it) has been the centre of plenty of debate, even as it remains unused. Like the former C.H. Smith building on the intersection of Charles and Canal streets, the Boland Street cottages are heritage-listed, and therefore potential developers of these sites have been subject to great obstacles.
Tasmania has a very proactive Heritage Council, and with good reason: the island’s colonial architecture is preserved better than anywhere else in Australia, with a number of sites declared to be of high value when it comes to expressing vernacular styles and the community’s sense of place.
Both the cottages and the C.H. Smith buildings represent an important part of Launceston’s waterfront industrial tapestry. But as was argued by Michael Newton, who battled for two decades to have the Boland Street cottages released from heritage listing, “How do you maintain a burnt-out and derelict property?”
Ruined buildings like these are consistently dismissed as ‘eyesore’. But others argue that such sites have an alternative value. As British nature writer Roger Deakin wrote in his journals, “We need more ruins...more evidence of a past, a living past. Ruins have a special life of their own.”
The Boland Street cottages have been sold and a significant development is mooted for the site; work is being undertaken to allow the C.H. Smith to house 20 retailers and a carpark.
“Cities carry the past and they obliterate it,” writes literary critic Gillian Beer. Urban landmarks are always under more pressure to change, to be adapted. Our commercial tastes dictate this. If you were to read this town’s architectural history, you would be able to interpret what has been driving us. Today, our built spaces are being converted to whisky bars, tourism ventures, tattoo parlours – but each of these, in time, will be out of fashion and replaced by other interests, all of which will be explainable through the myriad economic and social forces around us and within us.
There are countless changes that have occurred in my two decades living in this town. Walk around Launceston and look up: you’ll find more, from the last two centuries. “Cities here are communicative: present and past coexist in a conversation that composes layers and striations of reference.”
As a budding adolescent photographer, oblivious to the existence of the romantic aesthetic but drawn to it nevertheless, I entered the ruins mentioned above. My eye was attracted to the exposed skeleton of the cottages and the wiry branches of buddleja; inside the C.H. Smith building, I found a shelter that seemed to have belonged to some homeless people, with cushions and stuffed toys. “The bosses here are fascists,” a note from some unknown time read. The images I took (and photoshopped to death) are of places that will belong only to the long distant past soon enough.
The Abels sit on the margins of Tasmanian geography; an Abel is a mountain summit over 1100 metres in height, of which there are 158 of these on the island. Tasmanian bushwalker Bill Wilkinson came up with the concept in the 1990s, modelling it on a similar idea in Scotland’s high country. He has since edited several volumes of guidebooks about climbing the Abels, replete with information on access to the trailhead, track conditions, campsite locations, vegetation types and history.
The bushwalking guidebook is perhaps the quintessential Tasmanian literary genre, and Wilkinson’s The Abels series has all its features. Moments of candour and whimsy punctuate the text’s staid practicalities, which generally do a fine job of getting walkers to their destination successfully.
Recreational bushwalking is an essentially purposeless quest, and countless back-country routes exist in Tasmania. For some, then, having a finite challenge gives direction to an otherwise formless activity.
My friend Zane Robnik is attempting to climb all of the Abels within an 18-month period, before his 25th birthday, which would make it the quickest conquering of these mountains, by the youngest person to do so. But Zane is not a conquering type, and one gets the feeling that his project is a motivation – or an excuse – to keep him in the mountain districts on weekly outings.
Of course, walking for leisure is a fairly recent invention, as far as human activities go. Even today, for much of the world’s population, walk is equated to work, or else to a natural nomadic rhythm, often associated with seasonal migration. Pushing through Tasmania’s stubborn, spiky, wiry scrub – and clambering up stepped rocks of quartz or dolerite with a heavy canvas rucksack clinging to the walker’s shoulders like a parasite – must seem a strange and masochistic hobby from the outside. Let’s not forget that less than two centuries ago, colonial surveyors deemed much of this mountainous country as TRANSYLVANIA: a dark, wet, impenetrable terrain, riddled with dangers and best avoided. It is likely that much of the high south-west regions were largely abandoned by Aboriginal groups as the last Ice Age diminished and lower land was accessible.
Yet here we were by own our free will, when we could have been doing anything.
I am not a mountaineer, but I like mountains. My eye is drawn to the Tasmanian panorama – the layers of light blue and mauve on the hills, the olive-green and sedge-straw of a heath landscape, the gradations of green in forests as seen from above – but I am as interested in the intricate detail of the mountainside ecosystem. Like Scottish writer Nan Shepherd, I can pick a path upon some range ‘merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend, with no intention but to be with him’.
Equally, as with Roger Deakin, I believe going for a walk is an excuse to dress in costume and eat junk food.
On top of Mount Wedge this past weekend, one of our party connected to his social media. We discovered that on that day Bill Wilkinson, originator of the Abels, was celebrating his birthday. A packet of Savoys was devoured rapidly, and we danced. Many things are acceptable on a mountain summit that would otherwise be inappropriate. Perhaps the Tasmanian peak-bagger is just trying to find the right context for their silliness.
David Burn jr. had followed his mother to Hobart Town; in May 1826 he arrived with his daughter Jemima. He had left his wife back in Edinburgh and his infant son had died. While his mother had received a land grant, Burn would not qualify; eventually, though, he would be able to buy his own property at New Norfolk.
Burn was a skilful writer, if we accept the flowery style of his day. He would write a sort of emigrant’s guide about Van Diemen’s Land, published in the Colonial Magazine of 1840-41. It compares interestingly to Thoreau’s Walden, as Burn’s Van Diemen’s Land has a similar style and mood. He describes the D’Entrecasteaux Channel as more favourable than Killarney, and the Huon River as an antipodean Loch Fyne. He does not exactly shy away from descriptions of the island’s ‘rude wilds’, the vicious cruelty of the transportation system, or the threatening behaviour of the original inhabitants, whose ‘sable hue has afforded a theme for naturalists and philosophers’. But it is clear that he writes from a moment in history in which the colonists, regardless of their professed humanitarianism (and many, like Burn, were professed humanitarians), could speak with some relief on the topic of the Aborigines at least.
For the Black War was in its final days, and the end result was becoming clear: British colonial policy had ensured that Aboriginal existence would not restrain the growth of its Vandemonian settlement.
So David Burn could enthuse prettily on a place like New Town, with its villas, its race-course, its vibrant gardens and the delicious jam that came from them. “New Town also boasts a pottery, and one or two breweries,” wrote Burn.
In the early days of British reconnaissance here, this area just north of Hobart’s centre was named Stainforth’s Cove for an East India Company man who would never see the island. The early migrant settlers were the Pitt family, who had come on the Ocean in 1803. Richard Pitt would be granted 100 acres on the New Town Rivulet; his daughter Salome is said to have been the first white woman to climb Mount Wellington, following the rivulet’s course upstream with an Aboriginal girl who is remembered in nostalgic history as ‘her companion Miss Story’. Salome Pitt would become a “kind-hearted and firm” schoolteacher who fed her students bread and honey but wasn’t beyond boxing them in the ears if they misbehaved.
There was a wattle-bark tannery here too, for a couple of years in the 1820s, until the deep colour it imparted to leather went out of fashion.
This was also the home of the King’s (and later, the Queen’s) Orphan Asylum, where hundreds of children of convicts or deceased settlers would be housed over fifty years until the orphanage was converted into a home for the elderly and infirm.
Perhaps the most significant figure to pass through the orphan school was Walter George Arthur, who had been given a British education on Flinders Island under the tutelage of George Augustus Robinson and others. Walter George Arthur and his wife Mary Anne identified themselves as Christians; they read and wrote well, and had a keenly developed political awareness. Walter George Arthur would petition the colonial and British governments to their highest office. There is perhaps no more interesting couple in recorded Tasmanian history.
And there is no one bigger in New Town’s history than Thomas Dewhurst Jennings, a Yorkshireman who took over the lease of the popular Harvest Home Inn on New Town Road in 1881. Jennings was reputed to have been the biggest man in Australia, tipping the scales at over 200 kilograms. His own report suggests that Jennings was far from gluttonous – despite owning a public hotel, he rarely drank, although he thought that it ‘reduces his bulk’ when he did.
The same newspaper report suggested that he was worried by neither his weight nor his age – he was then 60 years old – and intended to get married again. The reporter stated bluntly that this was “the only instance of a fat man who has preserved his health and his bulk together.” Jennings died in 1890.
What would a contemporary field guide to New Town boast about? The coffee roasters, I suppose; the New Town Greenstore, where you can buy organic teas and gluten free baked goods; the Jackman & McRoss bakery, with its well-known croissants; or the popular Hill Street grocers; or perhaps the Video City, soon to become a relic of history as well.
To the same tangled forests, tenebrous rivers and towering mountains, two Sprents were sent, three decades apart.
James Sprent was perhaps an unlikely candidate for bush exploration. The son of a Glaswegian publisher, he arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in 1830 with an exorbitant quantity of books, engravings and stationery. His first endeavours on the island were in education, and they were very ambitious: he opened schools and ran classes on everything from philosophy to astronomy. He wasn’t even 25 years old yet.
But he was soon employed as a surveyor and began venturing into the rough Tasmanian terrain. A decade into his career, as one of only two permanent surveyors employed by the Colonial Office, he would be sent on a major project marking out roads in the north-west. Around the same time, in 1842, James Sprent would launch himself into another serious enterprise: love. He married a currency lass from mainland Australia named Susannah Hassall Oakes, the daughter of Parramatta’s chief constable.
So this well-read, industrious man cut and burnt his way into the treacherous environs of north-western Tasmania. Aboriginal Tasmanians had inhabited that quarter, of course, but even they had little practical use for the dense wet sclerophyll, rainforests, and mountains, exposed to buffeting westerlies and fecund with harsh horizontal and bauera scrub.
No doubt he often thought of Susannah, as he hacked his way into leagues of trackless country, his canvas clothes shredding in the constant press of spiky plants and coarse rocks. Even with a party of other explorers, this was lonely work. His betrothed, he worried, was left in the hands of “drunken ruffians” at Circular Head, near the north-western tip of Van Diemen’s Land. Broad dark rivers of doubt criss-crossed his mind as it did this land, so far from where he had been born.
James Sprent would erect a trig point on the summit of nearby Mount Bischoff. He did not realise that within the jagged quartzite and dolomite beneath his feet, mineral dykes had lay waiting to be discovered.
But his only surviving son, Charles Percy Sprent – born in 1849 – would become well aware of this. In 1871, two years after his father’s death, Charles became the District Surveyor of north-western Tasmania. In that same year, Mount Bischoff’s immense wealth of tin was revealed by the pick of a hardy prospector. For a time, it was said to be the world’s richest tin mine.
Charles Sprent also went on pioneering exploratory journeys to western Tasmania. He too opened up unused tracts of land, with blaze and axe, devising maps that would be crucial for further prospecting and settling throughout the next decades.
Charles Sprent also made himself familiar with that Tasmanian vegetation, which so vigorously resists human passage; and the boisterous weather, which threatens to billow into squalls and storms at every moment of the day, rising to violence after its long traverse of the ocean, all the way from Patagonia. Whatever his motivations, he accepted the conditions of hunger, exhaustion, dampness, soreness and solitude. Of wet boots and leeches.
In 1878, Charles Sprent was on the banks of the Pieman River, this tremendous broad waterway which tours 100 kilometres of western forest, from pre-Cambrian high country to the Southern Ocean. From its mouth at Hardwicke Bay, on a January afternoon, he thought of his own fiancée. Her name was Elizabeth Jane Rudge. Charles looked upon the tumult as the dark river pushed its way into the churning grey surf, and in its background, the romantic beauty of the aeons-old forest had mountains folded sharply in their midst. Some had been the basis of his father’s calculations. Tasmania had been mapped by him, using them. Current maps bear the surname of these men on townships, roads, rivers and mountains.
The scene at Pieman Heads impressed itself upon Charles Sprent. He was moved to write to Elizabeth:
“This is a wild, desolate looking coast; the sea has a hungry rattle about it as it roars on the beach. Savage rocks stick up in all directions and the surf goes flying over them. The vegetation is stunted and low. Coming down the river we had some lovely sights; trees down to the water’s edge every shade of green, and immense clusters of flowers.”
He added of the Pieman, “It is a noble river.”
I visited the banks of another noble river with an old friend.
The fascinating Charles Gould was Tasmania's first geological surveyor.
On an October morning in 1800 Captain Nicolas Baudin led his expedition out of the port at Le Havre, aiming for the southern seas.
Their journey would be harrowing and arduous, and Baudin’s wish, expressed in a toast before setting out, that all his crew would return to France to someday be in the same room together again, would certainly not come true: even Baudin himself would die on the way home.
His reputation would be somewhat disgraced the expedition’s return, despite the fact that it was one of the most successful voyages in the history of European science. Knowledge of marsupials and eucalypts would arrive in France to be disseminated throughout the continent.
And here on Maria Island, Nicolas Baudin would ask his anthropologist to prepare a report on the Tyereddeme, the Tasmanians who seasonally lived on the island. This man was François Auguste Péron. He was the son of a tailor who had given up his plan to join the priesthood fighting during the Revolution. Péron applied for the Baudin expedition after the demise of an unhappy romantic liaison. For an succinct idea of his character, see a description of him as “ambitious and bumptious”.
Péron was actually employed as a junior zoologist, but had aspirations to be an anthropologist. And with the other savants and scientists perishing throughout their time in the southern hemisphere, Péron received a series of promotions. With the other naturalists, he collected 100,000 specimens, but he did so in between stints of anthropological observation on the Aboriginal people of Tasmania.
The burgeoning science of anthropology was gathering momentum back in France, and these interactions between Europeans and Tasmanians were significant occasions. Under Baudin’s commission, Péron had eight days to make his observations, at the end of that year’s summer, which he would then turn into a paper for the Société des Observateurs de l’Homme. Péron was among the first scientists to do some research
Back in eighteenth-century France, Jean-Jacques Rousseau – driven by cynicism about events in ‘civilisation’ (i.e., urban Europe) – had developed the theory that primitive societies were less corrupted, simpler and more egalitarian. Péron arrived in Australian waters with this view on the Aboriginal populace; this perspective would be metamorphosed throughout the journey, as across Europe, where the ‘noble savage’ would be “demystified” and become a scientific specimen itself.
The Frenchmen joined a dozen or so Tasmanians on the beach. Rapport was established, wrote Péron, by having two Frenchmen showing off their juggling. Péron began trying to construct a lexicon of the language spoken by the Tyereddeme. Given how little we know of this tongue, his comments are frustrating and tantalising. “It is impossible...to distinguish their pronunciation with any degree of precision: it is a sort of rolling sound, for which our European languages do not furnish any expression of comparison or analogy.”
Péron found the Tasmanians intelligent and good-natured. “Intermingled around the remains of their fire, we all seemed equally pleased with one another,” he reported.
The Tasmanians had often wanted to inspect the private parts of the Frenchmen, confused that they had no beards and seemingly no women with them. The youngest and most baby-faced of the sailors, one Citizen Michel, was persuaded to strip for the Tyereddeme. They were convinced. Michel “suddenly exhibited striking proof of his virility”.
In a poignant moment that may seem to us the only imaginable event of this incredible cross-cultural encounter, the ill-timed erection made everyone, black and white, fall to hysterical laughing there on that white-shored beach.
But Péron interpreted this with a hefty dose of ethnocentricism: he chose to believe that the Tyereddeme were impressed by the virility of the Frenchman, not in a condition to experience this as often as the French were. Likewise, based on his brief lexicographical survey, Péron reckoned the Tyereddeme had no words for kissing or caressing.
But everywhere in Tasmania the French had this bias, and one suspects the interest was not strictly scientific.
For example, Péron spent a spontaneous afternoon with a party of twenty female swimmers on Bruny Island. One young lady was particularly referenced in Péron’s journal: “Fifteen or sixteen years of age...pleasant features, with a round well formed bosom, though the nipples were rather too large and long.”
And the sailor Jacques Hamelin thought that two Tasmanian women he had met made “suggestive signs which in Paris would not be ambigious.”
But ambiguity was everywhere in these encounters, with both sides superstitious and bewildered by the other; thousands of years of cultural heritage separated Maria Island from Paris. Aboriginal flirtations surely looked somewhat different to those of the French. There was no field guide to any such interactions for either party. No wonder seemingly peaceful scenarios suddenly blew up into violence. There was no shared language or technology. All that these two cultures had in common was what they could see – but even these things, the ocean and the stars, wallabies and wattle trees, had different meanings.
We only European accounts of these early meetings between Tasmanian and European communities. Events were certainly perceived very differently. I truly hope, though, that the diarists are telling things accurately when they say that when a French sailor’s member stiffened in the sea breeze at Maria Island one February day in 1802, it provided a moment of unanimous intercultural comedy.
We can see clearly now that François Péron’s science was flawed by prejudice and ignorance. Two centuries from now, a future historian will likely look back on our views and scoff at how outdated we were. All we can do is to aim to be among the most curious and humble thinkers of our own age.
We were on our way across the nine nautical miles of Mercury Passage, to Maria Island.
I don’t know why we pronounce Maria the way we do – with the second syllable drawn out into a long i, like ‘eye’; it was named after Mrs. Van Diemen, the wife of the patron of Abel Tasman, who passed through here in 1642. On the other hand the Tyereddeme are said to have their name from a compound word meaning the ‘white cliff people’.
The Tyereddeme would have seen them. This band had arrived seasonally over the last millennia, building huts for shelter and enjoying the fresh water and seafood. Their dead are buried on the island and they have left their middens behind. They too covered the nine nautical miles often enough, on canoes made of rushes, across the calm waters of Mercury Passage.
In 1789, the Mercury came. John Henry Cox was its commander; a young Londoner, he had made a career for himself as a privateer, offering up his brig for services in North America, Scandinavia and Russia before making the long trek to Van Diemen’s Land. He charted the coastlines of both Maria Island and Oyster Bay, now both well-known and well-used, for shipping timber and woodchips, fishing, and transporting everyone from convicts to tourists throughout the two centuries of European occupation.
The French came here too, in 1802, for the purposes of science and possibly geopolitics – the latter is unconfirmed, but it seems likely that during the Napoleonic Wars they were looking at colonising Van Diemen’s Land themselves. Their captain was Nicolas Baudin, and he commissioned his voyage’s anthropologist, François Péron, to write a report on the Tyereddeme.
But also the French had to bury their own dead here: René Maugé de Cely, a zoologist, had taken ill with a tropical disease earlier on the journey and died upon the expedition’s arrival at Maria Island. He is remembered in nomenclature: here, in Point Maugé, but also in the scientific annals, in the names of a parakeet, a dove, and a carnivorous slug.
Later, boatloads of convicts would be brought here, with the station Darlington established from 1825 until 1832. Convicts were indentured to work as foresters, tanners and seamsters, with a water-powered textile factory as the island’s centrepiece. It was never an ideal convict station: behavioural problems persisted, supplies were often running short, and convicts would occasionally construct their own vessels for the purpose of escape across Mercury Passage.
Convicts returned in 1842, but again, the camp only lasted for a few years. William Smith O’Brien, the Irish political agitator, attempted escape from here. Five Maoris sentenced to transportation for life also arrived here, imprisoned for rebellion when they formed a resistance against violent colonialists in the frontiers of New Zealand. One of these was a whiskery labourer named Hohepa Te Umuroa. He was likely in his late 20s when he died of tuberculosis on Maria Island.
"At 4am visited the Maoris," wrote the prison chief. "Found Hohepa very nearly gone. At 5 am he breathed his last without a struggle."
He was buried on a hillside on the island until 1988, when his descendants returned to collect his body for reinterment in home soil by the Wanganui River.
Two Khoi convicts, from western South Africa, also made it to the island; and later, the Italian migrant Diego Bernacchi would try a variety of venturies on the island. This may seem an odd site for such a cosmopolitan history. It certainly did for the first Tasmanians. The resistance fighter Kickerterpoller told a journalist that he saw one of the early ships that came to Maria Island when he was a boy – perhaps the Baudin expedition. His clan members, terrified, fled from the coast. Kickerterpoller said that they were confused by the ship, which seemed to them like a small island. They could not “conceive how the white men came here first.”
Not the first, we came on a free boat, slept in the old penitentiary, and kicked the footy often. We also played cards with two young women: one, the daughter of an American astronomer; the other of Bulgarian and Macedonian descent. It’s all still a bit tricky to get your head around.
The French captain Nicolas Baudin came by here with a convict girl.
I used to skateboard with a young man who had been born in San Bernardino, California, and had since relocated with his mother to Ross. It seemed a long way, not only geographically, but notionally. San Bernardino sprawls in a hot, dry valley basin east of Los Angeles; it is the 100th most populous city in the U.S. Ross is a handsome village in the midlands of Tasmania, occupied by sandstone cottages and other convict-built edifices.
I never really found out how my mate had ended up in Ross, but I did take the bus down there to visit him a couple of times during my teenage years. And since I have returned many times, like plenty of Tasmanians, en route between Launceston and Hobart.
Sometimes I do this on the Redline bus (although not often, as it is a rather overpriced service, if I may add my two cents). I look up from my book whenever turns off the highway, at Tacky Creek or over the famous bridge at Macquarie River, depending on from which direction we’re coming. Chugging gently into the town, I would hear the bus driver say – although ‘say’ is perhaps too strong a word, as it was more as though he was clearing his throat or perhaps struggling with the effects of strong drink – the words, “Ross stop; this is Ross stop.”
And at this point, all too often, a lone Japanese woman would step out of the vehicle, and wander off, as if dazed, into Church Street. I marvelled that they could interpret the bus driver’s ‘announcement’, and wondered wonder what these poor individuals were doing, staggering off into the tidy main road, and where now they would go. It was often a bit early for a seat at a public table, so I would presume that these lonely wayfarers were going to the bakery, for a famous dish, such as a scallop pie or vanilla slice.
I later discovered that the Ross Village Bakery attracted tourists, and particularly those from Japan, for other reasons. The bakery is said to have been the model for the setting of Kiki’s Delivery Service, a popular 1989 anime film. As Chris Norris has shown in an enjoyable thesis titled A Japanese media pilgrimage to a Tasmanian bakery, a ‘cult geography’ has formed around the place, one to which most of us as we rumble through the village are oblivious.
But we each have own personal geographies. The bakery guestbook reads both “I never forget that I watched a movie in Kiki’s room” and “that was the best pie I’ve ever had”. Here in Ross, I got drunk for the first time, and Mitch kissed a girl I adored, the day she got her braces taken off. Many years later I rummaged through the antiques store and bought The Australian Ugliness and a percolator.
Countless times, I have gone to look at the sandstone bridge with its “hallucinatory composition of Celtic carved motifs and gargoyle-like human faces”, including one of a personality from history to whom I’ve devoted far too many hours of study.
More importantly, John Helder Wedge, a surveyor in Van Diemen’s Land in the days when it took some courage to traverse this island, and who came and went through this town many times over, noted in his diary in the 1830s that on one occasion, on his way here, that he “rode in a jaunting-cart, sitting opposite the lovely Miss Watts”.
Here is a personal geography of the Midlands Highway.
And here is the story of the Man O' Ross Hotel.
This is the bloke on the bridge, to whom I've devoted too much time.
“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.
As I returned home from a short trip to the mainland, the major river systems of northern Tasmania were in flood.
After heavy rainfall a few days earlier, rising waters destroyed homes and property, swept away livestock, and brought about the end of at least one life, with several more people missing.
Latrobe, on the Mersey River, looked almost entirely submerged in aerial photos; 19 houses have been rendered ‘uninhabitable’. I am about to move into the suburb of Invermay: it was evacuated as I returned to it. I tried not take this personally.
Flying across Bass Strait, the aftermath of flooding in the Emu, Forth, Mersey, Meander, Macquarie, North Esk and South Esk Rivers was evident. I couldn’t see much from the aisle seat, of course, but I joined the neck-stretching gawkers trying to see what had occurred while we were north, on the big island.
I went straight from the airport to the Cataract Gorge. Dozens of people were there, watching huge quantities of water barrel down beneath the suspension bridge, a turbulent, seething, brown-and-white mass. The flooding of the Gorge has long had this effect; it brings a crowd, at all hours, and suddenly we have something to talk about with our neighbours.
It also reminds us that this town at a confluence of three rivers; the water in the Cataract Gorge, spilling over the blunt concrete of its dam walls, is identifiable as a genuine river, the longest one in Tasmania no less, whose headwaters at the base of Ben Lomond require several days to journey to the second-most populous town on the island. As our lives move away from practical geographical knowledge, the Gorge is treated like an island, as if it is its own ecosystem, isolated: many Launcestonians I know could not tell you which river runs between those dolerite cliffs, and I suspect many do not even recognise it as part of a river system.
But we can understand it better, even if the way we talk about it is unscientific. “I’ve never seen it this high,” says everybody. “Do you reckon it’ll go over?” the residents of Invermay asked each other by the flood levy on Tuesday night, before the evacuation. “Nah, don’t reckon...”
On the aeroplane, a husband is pointing out what he thinks are various roads, submerged farms, bridges that must be washed away. She looks up from her electronic book, and spits, “Oh, what would you know!”
This flood follows a summer in which a lack of rainfall threatened us. Hydroelectric dams ran close to empty. Dry lightning struck dry vegetation, creating bushfires in the rainforest.
Gaston Bachelard has written a Psychoanalysis of Fire; who will treat a psychoanalysis of floods? We so blithely use the river as a metaphor for steady movement, progress, providence, time. A flood ignores these interpretations. The river is usually an uninterrupted flow of hours; the flood interrupts, makes time’s rhythm seem less benign. It reminds us that there is no guarantee that we have an allotted amount of days, or that the hours will trundle by coolly and calmly. Years may pass in peace, but the arrival of a single violent moment can end it all. We are alerted to the fact that the same hand which feeds us might yet throttle us.
And yet for modern witnesses, the spectacle of the sublime draws us to itself. Even as elsewhere lives and livelihoods are being washed away, we stand by the seething rivers, waves lifting out from the depths and pushing forcefully out to the mouth, into the sea, suddenly unnoticeable.
My new housemate takes the record player off the top shelf; we were not flooded out. The levy held the waters back. They say this was a more severe flood than the one in 1929, which was a genuine disaster. But our infrastructure has reprieved us of much worse. In a poorer country, the death toll would stand at thousands. In rural Tasmania, the consequences are devastating: socially, economically, emotionally. But for those in town, we once again allow ourselves to believe we have mastered the ancient processes of our ecosystems.
Two years ago I wrote 'A Short History of Shitty Weather', about the 1929 floods.
More recent is this piece on pirates in southern Tasmania.
A party of forty had been camped here for two weeks in August 1829. Their situation was desperate; they were marooned and starving. Three pocket-knives were the only tools they possessed. With these they built a tiny boat from wattle timber, and put two men in it. They sailed for help in this “crazy little craft”.
This was Recherche Bay in Tasmania’s far south – named after one the early French scientific vessels, it is still pronounced locally as ‘Research’ Bay. Ever since Europeans became aware of its existence, it had served as a useful harbour for voyages departing from Hobart Town to Macquarie Harbour on the west coast.
The two score stranded on this beach had been on the same route, on a brig named the Cyprus. The colonial government had, in 1826, purchased the vessel from John Briggs, a notorious sailor and sealer in Vandemonian waters during the early part of that century. It had been bought for £1700. The Cyprus was then used for these south coast journeys: usually bringing supplies and convicts to the penal station at Macquarie Harbour, and returning to the capital with Huon pine and other convict-manufactured goods.
So on August 6, 1829, under the charge of Lieutenant William Carew, the Cyprus left Hobart with 62 passengers. Exactly half of them were convicts, “a pretty bad lot all in double irons”. Lt. Carew was with his family; they would be moving to the Macquarie Harbour convict settlement.
They had reached Recherche Bay on a still night when mutiny suddenly broke out. Lieutenant Carew had been off on a small boat, fishing for provisions. The soldiers’ quarters on the boat were blocked by the tactical positioning of a hencoop. The captain was knocked out. A shot fired produced smoke and added to the confusion. The pirates took command of the brig, and took two sailors hostage; the rest were sent off to shore with minimal rations.
William Swallow, a former sailor and the alleged instigator of the mutiny, took command along with seventeen other convicts. The two sailors managed to escape and swim ashore. Regardless, the Cyprus then took an incredible voyage: through the South Seas, by the southern islands of Japan, and to China, arriving the significant trading post of Canton, now Guangzhou. Here, they destroyed their stolen brig, and came ashore pretending to be the shipwrecked sailors of a different ship, the Edward – somehow they had come into possession of property belonging to this ship, including a rowboat, her sextant, and logbooks.
After some investigation from the authorities, most were given freedom to leave. William Swallow and three others were given passage to London. The others joined a Danish vessel and went to Mexico.
For some reason, two of the pirates had arrived separately, on the coast away from China; Chinese authorities took them in as British subjects, and by the time they made it to Canton, news had arrived of the convicts’ mutiny. These last two were arrested; they made a confession; and they were taken to trial.
In the meantime, the handmade coracle had reached another vessel departing Hobart Town, and the stranded party were saved. A convict with the superb name of John Popjoy (or Pobjoy) had become a hero. He had been fishing when the mutiny occurred; he had rowed their boat, and led the efforts to be found. Eleven years old when he was convicted and transported to Van Diemen’s Land, he was given his liberty when the party returned to Hobart.
Popjoy’s descriptions of his fellow-convicts made it possible to identify William Swallow and the other pirates when they landed in London, just six days after an express voyage from Hobart. They were arrested. Those with him were executed; somehow, William Swallow managed to avoid responsibility for the mutiny, claiming he was ill and taken against his volition. He was returned to Hobart as a convict, and died at Port Arthur in 1834.
The Bruny Island man Mangana told that his wife had been kidnapped and taken on the Cyprus, never to be heard from again.
John Popjoy married in 1832, but continued his sailing career; in 1833 he drowned off the coast of France. Three months later his child, Elizabeth Sarah, was born.
The convict mutineers who boarded the Danish trading vessel for Mexico are lost to history, but we know at least that they were not punished for their crimes.
Convict poet Francis MacNamara recorded all of this in verse for posterity.
"The morn broke bright, the wind was fair, we headed for the sea
With one cheer more to those on shore and glorious liberty.
For navigating smartly Bill Swallow was the man,
Who laid a course out neatly to take us to Japan."
Last week we took a trip down the west coast's Savage River.
A maharajah arrived unexpectedly in the early days of Launceston.
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.
On board the Norfolk two friends from the Fenlands sailed along the northern coast of the island.
George Bass had thirty-three years tucked under his belt; Matthew Flinders was only twenty-four. They had become dear friends on their early journeys around Australia, beginning on their voyage out in 1794, and now the waterway that would become known as Bass Strait, with eight volunteers and no timepiece.
It was from a note in Flinders’s journal, on November 4, 1798, that Low Head, like so many features observable by boat, received the name it would bear on maps from then on.
Six years later an expedition of four ships would make their attempts into enter the Tamar River to settle at Port Dalrymple with Lieutenant-Governor Paterson in charge. These vessels were the Buffalo, the Lady Nelson, the Integrity and the Francis: but as the gale blew up at the mouth of the river, one ship – the Buffalo – was separated from the others, and Captain William Kent was forced to make landfall for a time on that eastern headland Low Head; shortly after, attempting again to enter the river, the ship was hammered by the weather and was washed aground.
At last they all reconvened at Outer Cove. Were there locals at hand to watch the flag-raising ceremony, the beastly watercrafts stalking down the river that was known as kanamaluka or Ponrabbel?
Some had no doubt seen Bass and Flinders “steering S. E. by S. up an inlet of more than a mile wide” one late spring afternoon in 1798, in that handsome colonial sloop. A giant white swan swooping onto the placid waters of the widening river.
The colonists quickly set about establishing their colony at Outer Cove, now George Town, with two prefabricated huts from Sydney. Bricks were laid and vegetables were planted. The destinies of the northern colonies were to unfold sporadically, progressing uncertainly, struggling against natural elements and without the wisdom of those peoples who had seen “Bass’s Strait” when it was indeed not filled with water at all.
But the purpose of Low Head was more clear. The broad river they called the Tamar, flowing out of the confluence of two further long rivers that tumbled down from the high dolerite slopes of Ben Lomond to create the significant hydrographical systems that had created life and meaning for the north of the island for so long, was difficult to navigate where it met the Strait. There were many hazards to contend with, and Low Head was a suitable place from which to address these.
So early on beacons were established there, beginning with a simple flagpole of Captain Kent's construction. A pilot’s station was manned from 1805, by one William House, but he absconded after two years - sent to Sydney in 1807 to seek assistance as the fledgling colony verged on starvation, he did not return.
The first lighthouse was built by a gentleman dubbed “Bolting Dick” or R.M. Warmsley. It was erected in 1832. The famous colonial architect John Lee Archer designed a more permanent fixture, built by convicts from stone and rubble and armed with a revolving light at considerable expense. It was finished in 1838.
This had to be replaced five decades later by the brick building that stands today. By this time, cottages for coxswains and crewmen had been constructed; school houses and workshops were added; the pretty Christ Church was holding services; farmhouses stretched along the river; cows and sheep grazed in paddocks; couples raised their children; and roadways to Launceston had been cleared.
Recently on the Field Guide, we remembered explorer Henry Hellyer.
Further along Bass Strait lived Tarenorerer, a freedom fighter, born around 1800.
We can imagine Henry Hellyer on the deck of the Cape Packet in March 1826, after six long months at sea, seeing Hobart Town come into view. Young, talented and courageous, but prone to melancholy, he was the chief surveyor and architect for the newly-established Van Diemen’s Land Company. Much of the future of Van Diemen’s Land hung on this company. His job would be one of the most challenging in the colony. It would kill him.
Company superintendent Edward Curr and his London backers were unimpressed with the tracts of land given them by colonial officials, so he sent out his surveyors and their convict servants into the forests and mountainous regions of north-western Van Diemen’s Land. Henry Hellyer was the leader of this band, which included other Cape Packet arrivals such as Joseph Fossey, Alexander Goldie and Clement Lorymer. The convict workers were more experienced bushmen, “intelligent active men used to the bush,” in Hellyer’s words, such as Isaac Cutts, Richard Frederick, Jorgen Jorgenson, and Alexander McKay.
Wet myrtle forests, spiky and stringy thickets of bauera and horizontal, rushing rivers, mosquitoes and hunger plagued their every day of exploration. They slept “like mummies, rolled up in blankets” after days of “violent bodily exercises” and such privations that “we were obliged to go on, or starve”.
Ah, but what joy when they emerged into a clearing, when the sun came out, or when they returned to the Van Diemen’s Land headquarters!
Hellyer was an optimistic and brave, and sensitive to natural beauty. He sketched vistas from the various mountains he ascended and named landmarks after European painters. If he had a fault in these early years of Vandemonian exploration, it was that he was too optimistic: all his geese, it was said, were swans.
Having seen an unmapped range of mountains in the distance from St. Valentine’s Peak, Hellyer and Fossey led a team towards the northern edge of Tasmania’s central highlands in November 1828. They each carried a fortnight of provisions, bearing twenty-five kilograms each. From Mt. Block, they looked into the fearful river gorges that sliced the ranges in every direction.
A week later, caught in a severe snowstorm on a plateau above the Fury River, Hellyer led his team into the “terrible gully” of its gorge to get shelter. “We saw we were in a worse predicament than ever,” Hellyer penned in his journal. “We made for the horrid ravine as our only refuge.”
They descended some 600 metres the river, camped in buttongrass by its side, roasted a wombat, and slept uneasily. In the morning they escaped onto the plateau by Cradle Mountain. Either Hellyer or Fossey was the first white person to summit this mountain.
But these physical hardships appeared to be nothing compared to the emotional turmoil occurring inside Henry Hellyer’s mind. Hellyer believed he had found good grazing land further north, around Surrey Hills. However, he was wrong: and the Van Diemen’s Land Company incurred great cost attempting to raise sheep and cattle there, and they perished in the winter. In 1832, after a very cold winter, Surrey Hills was “becoming the graves of all the sheep”. Hellyer tried to defend himself; he became oversensitive to criticism; he retreated into himself; and he let melancholy consume him.
There was also a malicious rumour of some kind spread by a convict servant by the name of Harley, who had worked under Hellyer’s supervision previously. Harley had allegedly been a poor worker and was not paid upon the completion of the job. The slander may have been that Hellyer was a homosexual, or that he had been caught masturbating.
In the early hours of September 2, 1832, Henry Hellyer committed suicide.
The Van Diemen’s Land Company was established in London in 1825, and that November an advance party headed for the island.
Their mission was to respond to demands by English manufacturers for better fine wool; raising sheep for wool was considered one of the best hopes for the economies of both New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land. Around Australia, “large blocks of territory in the colonies” were given to such private enterprises for this purpose.
Edward Curr was in favour of north-western Van Diemen’s Land, which the current Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur had offered “under certain conditions as to the expenditure of capital.” It was unlikely, Curr said, that the relatively unexplored north-west would have a total dearth of good pasture land. Born in Sheffield, England, Curr had travelled to Brazil and then Hobart, where he made acquaintances in high places. He returned to England with his father’s death, published An Account of the Colony of Van Diemen’s Land, Primarily Designed for the Use of Emigrants, and was appointed the chief of the Van Diemen’s Land Company. He was only 27 years of age.
After a difficult voyage, the Cape Packet – bearing the VDL Co. party – arrived in Hobart in March 1826. Aside from Curr, on board was Stephen Adey (superintendent of the land grant); Henry Hellyer (chief surveyor, and architect); Alexander Goldie (agriculturalist); and Joseph Fossey and Clement Lorymer (surveyors).
The land allotted by the Lieutenant-Governor had been limited due to his wish to maintain the freedom of further settlement for Vandemonian farmers. Curr was not satisfied with this (there was a run-in with a farmer named Smith, on the Rubicon River, who had settled on what Curr believed was VDL Co. land), but sent his surveyors off on numerous journeys into the hinterland of north-western Van Diemen’s Land. This included journeys along the north coast between Port Sorell and Cape Grim, down the west coast to the Pieman River, and into the mountainous area around Cradle Mountain.
The surveyors Hellyer, Lorymer and Fossey (and their convict companions) were the first Europeans to visit and name some of these places. Much of it was rainforest or wet sclerophyll forest, with dense undergrowth; the journeys were taken throughout the winter, in wet and cold, and in completely foreign conditions to these surveyors newly-arrived from England.
From a commercial perspective, the journeys were ultimately futile. The only land, more or less, suitable for grazing sheep was around Circular Head, now the town of Stanley.
Here Edward Curr laid the first stone of his house ‘Highfield’, designed by Henry Hellyer. Vivienne Rae-Ellis says that the Tasmanian woman Trugernanna was present, along with other Aboriginals from Van Diemen’s Land and New South Wales, with George Augustus Robinson, the missionary-diplomat whose ‘Friendly Mission’ had begun.
Another possible site for raising sheep was proposed at Cape Grim, rated as “good sheep land” by Joseph Fossey. Here, the Van Diemen’s Land Company (described as "the nation's largest dairy" nowadays) still has its headquarters – it is in the process of being taken over by a Chinese consortium, making national headlines.
Edward Curr of the Van Diemen’s Land Company was given the authority as the only official in the north-west. In the meantime, of course, there were others there: the Aboriginal bands of the north-west, who moved seasonally between the coastline and its offshore islands, into the hunting grounds of the Hampshire and Surrey Hills. They collected swan and duck eggs in the river mouths and lagoons in spring, and went in for mutton-birding and sealing in summer. This was their economy: it was in conflict with the VDL Co.’s economic strategy, which had the tacit support of the official British-controlled regime of the island.
And although the London-based directors of the Van Diemen’s Land Company exhorted the young manager Curr to avoid confrontation with the indigenous population, Curr was “[e]litist and arrogant” and used violence whenever it was convenient, both against the north-west Aboriginals and the company’s indentured convicts.
Within eight years, a population of up to 500 had been reduced to less than 100, according to Ian Macfarlane.
I’ve hardly read a book and barely written a word in the last weeks.
Instead, I’ve been working as a bushwalking guide. On an almost constant rotation, I am taking visitors on a six-day itinerary through Tasmania’s highlands, through a World Heritage Area, on the famous Overland Track.
This summer, we’ve had snow and we’ve had fire.
We’ve had gales blowing over Cradle Plateau, hours of swimming in Lake Windermere; we’ve clambered up Oakleigh and Ossa, and come down hundred of metres to the buttongrass plains in order to play impromptu cricket games. We’ve stuck their noses into leatherwood flowers – it was a bad season for waratahs, but there was myrtleheath flowering galore in January.
In a patch of remnant rainforest, wedged between the moors, I have gone with colleagues – dear friends – to drink booze drenched in the scents of sassafras and celery top, the plasticky scrape of pandani fronds, soft sphagnum and curly ferns absorbing our irreverent noise, clandestine.
It’s been about a hundred years now that tourists have come to the Tasmanian forests to be guided and receive hospitality from the idiosyncratic characters of these remote places. Paddy Hartnett, Bert Nicholls, Gustav Weindorfer and Bert Fergusson are among the oddballs who boiled the billy with the visitors and pointed out the features. They kneaded dough and told jokes and said a thing or two about the way forests work or how geological formations came to be. And they were part of the landscape, somehow embodying a mythos of the place.
We get to Frog Flats, above which are some mountains that the classically-minded George Frankland gave Greek names. Pelion, Achilles and Thetis sit next to Paddy’s Nut. It’s neither Greek nor classical, but an act of homage to the chummy, illiterate, alcoholic who worked as a trapper, prospector and guide before the drink did him in, to be survived by a wife and too many children with aching memories.
To fistiki tou Patrikiou, I translate into Greek, trying to bring the outside world into this thin ribbon of tracks cobbled together for sixty-seven kilometres from the Cradle Valley to Lake St. Clair. It gets a weak laugh.
I sleep beneath the stars, watching icy spears slice through the darkness and distance; aurora australis appears like a silent giant on the horizon, pale white bands shimmering, then disappearing.
I try to find time alone, squatting down to watch the jackjumpers, scooping up dark creek water in a bamboo cup, watching rosella green suddenly appear in the branches of a white gum.
I have a long black in the ranger’s hut, and he tells me Umberto Eco has died, and I walked on down the track to be picked up by the Idaclair and ferried to the bar at Cynthia Bay. When I get to Nicholson’s Bookstore in Launceston the next day, I buy Foucault’s Pendulum, but I’m back on the track in two days and I won’t be reading dense works of fiction in between damper and billy tea (or peppermint hot chocolates).
But the leatherwood petals have begun to scatter themselves across the rich dark soil of the rainforests, and it seems it won’t be long now until the summer is well and truly ended; I’ll be off the track, and I’ll have to choose whether to stay in the bush alone, or go off into the world and join companions somewhere else.
This is the slender-spined porcupine fish, or southern porcupine fish, or the globefish, Diodon nicthemerus, first described to European science by Cuvier in 1818. You’ll find it in the southern waters of Australia, from Geraldton to Port Jackson, but it’s most common in Port Phillip Bay or the coastal waters of Tasmania. (This specimen was found near Beaumaris, on the east coast.)
This is one of a number of fish illustrations done by William Buelow Gould during the Vandemonian convict era. The artist would later gain international fame after being fictionalised by Richard Flanagan in the well-reviewed Gould’s Book of Fish. His fish are made handsome in watercolour; the porcupine fish looks lonely and unloved, and it’s easy to sympathise with it. Perhaps Gould identified with it himself.
William Buelow Gould was a chosen name. It seems he was born as William Holland on November 8, 1803; his father was a boatman on the Thames. He was literate and as a young man moved to London where he took up an apprenticeship with lithographer Rudolph Ackermann. His artistic skills were being developed and he married.
But William fell in with a crowd of boozers and gamblers – always easy to stumble upon in London. In his twentieth year, one of his drinking mates was murdered, perhaps in shady circumstances; William fled to Staffordshire with his wife and their new child.
But before too long he departed from there too, this time abandoning wife and child. And he ditched the name with which he was born as well.
The name ‘Gould’ was a good association to make – John and Elizabeth Gould were gaining esteem as artists of natural history. So the runaway artist declared himself William Buelow Gould, “Portrait Painter and Drawing Master”, when he arrived in Northampton.
But although he had left so many things in his wake, William Buelow Gould was not prepared to dispose of his bad habits. Drinking, gambling, and stealing marred his new career with a painter and glazier by the name of Thomas Smith. Within weeks he was charged with stealing his employer’s materials and suffered three months in prison, as well as a public flogging. And in November 1826, he stole someone’s coat, hankie and gloves; he was found guilty, and sentenced to seven years’ transportation in Van Diemen’s Land.
On the Asia, the vessel that brought him to Van Diemen’s Land, he painted his first portrait of a ship’s officer. It was pretty ordinary, but Gould seemed to have been able to talk himself up. He was given convict employment as a potter – but was transferred to the chain gang for drunkenness. Then, he put his artistic ability to use in attempted to forge a banknote. He was to be sent to Macquarie Harbour, but after a storm forced the ship to pause en route, many of the convict passengers mutinied; Gould didn’t, and was rewarded for his good behaviour with an assignment to Dr James Scott. Here, he was put to work drawing specimens.
Coincidentally, the inspirations for his pseudonym arrived in Tasmania during this convict apprenticeship: John and Elizabeth Gould were friends of the Lieutenant-Governor John Franklin and his wife. One wonders whether they were shown the work of the convict Gould, and what they made of his impressive images, which would later be credited by UNESCO as valuable enough to enter their historical registers.
Gould’s work throughout the rest of his convict career would include still-life images of fruit, flowers, game and fish. Finally a free man, he was given a job painting coaches in Launceston, although he almost sabotaged that immediately; given tools and material to do his work, Gould absconded, only to return shortly enough afterwards to not lose his job.
“His last years were spent in some comfort,” writes a biographer, but no doubt his life was shortened by the years of hard living. He died in his home in December 1853, joining the great ocean of dead things that surrounds us all.
Yet he was later resurrected, and reimagined, by Flanagan; in it, he belongs to “a colony of fish masquerading as men”; and the surgeon to whom Gould is assigned turns into Diodon nicthemerus.
Previously on Field Guide, a German baron goes into the Tasmanian mountains.
On another east coast beach, a French captain takes a convict lover.
Tasmanian national parks celebrate their 100th birthday this year. In 1916, two inaugural national parks were gazetted after promotion by pioneer supporters of tourism and conservation; a century later, national parks cover nearly a half of Tasmania’s land mass.
Mount Field, 70 kilometres north-west of Hobart, was one of these first parks. In its early days, Mount Field was a hub for skiing and memorabilia still remains from the days when social Hobartians dragged the necessaries for a gala ball to a hut above Lake Dobson, and skated on the frozen lake.
Snowfall is less common in Tasmania these days; the ski lift still operates occasionally during winters at Mount Field, and in the summer time, thousands of tourists flock to the park for short walks or multiple-day hikes, taking in the waterfalls, the giant swamp gums, the flowering heath, or the broad alpine vistas.
An early tourist to Mount Field was Baron Ferdinand von Mueller.
Guided by local trappers the Rayner brothers, Baron von Mueller arrived to investigate the unique botanical characteristics of the region. Born Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich Müller in 1825, the Baron relocated to Australia following the death of his eldest sister from tuberculosis. Now known as von Mueller, he and other family members joined a plethora of other German migrants in newly-settled Adelaide in 1847.
Having been trained in botanising while working as a pharmacist’s apprentice in his native northern Germany, von Mueller gained job at the pharmacy on Adelaide’s main street, and set about learning the local flora with journeys into the Mount Lofty Ranges, Mount Gambier, the Flinders Ranges and Lake Torrens.
Shortly after, he received work in Victoria, and was the first curator of the Botanical Gardens in Melbourne.
It was 1867 when Baron von Mueller went with the Rayners to Mount Field. Spending a week in the foothills of Mount Field East, he observed the unique species of the region, including making the first descriptions of a variety of cushion plant (Donatia novae-zelandiae) and several eucalypts – the snow peppermint, urn gum and cider gum, as well as taking in the glacial geology of the area.
The Rayners’ memory of the journey came through a humorous observation: the Baron, the trapper noted, “persisted in wearing his two flannel scarves”, which von Mueller (it is said) would do whether he was in the town or the bush.
Beneath here is Nowhere Valley. There, the bushranger Lucas Wilson set up his utopia. “What I’ve done in establishing Nowhere Valley,” he said, “is to escape the world which is too much with us…Here in this beautiful place, we’re in a territory that’s never been spoiled: one that’s just as it was at the beginning of time.”
Fiction: from the last novel of Tasmanian author Christopher Koch, Lost Voices, published in 2012.
Nowhere Valley is Collinsvale, a hamlet hidden in the northern bumps and folds of Mount Wellington. By the mid-nineteenth century, when the invented scholastic woodsman and his followers had established their society in Koch’s novel, British settlements had begun to creep up the creeks from Glenorchy and New Norfolk into this valley. Sorell Creek was the region’s first name.
And then came the first immigrants from Germany and Denmark. These Lutherans were drawn by cheap land and good water supplies to start a township there, centred around agriculture, from 1870. They planted vines and potatoes, and worked as carpenters and blacksmiths and bakers. The relative isolation provided by the valley allowed the migrants to maintain their identities. Their names were Neilsen and Fehlberg, Tötenhofer and Appeldorff. In 1881, the town was gazetted with the name of Bismarck, after the Prussian statesman.
But a few decades later, with the Great War invoking anti-German sentiments around Tasmania, a letter-writing campaign sought to change this name. Collinsvale, after the first Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, David Collins, was proposed. “We are quite unanimous in believing that Collinsvale is a far more suitable name for a Tasmanian township than Bis-marck,” wrote one W.F. Andersen in December 1914. “The only ones who do not think so are Germans, and a couple who are probably under obligations to Germans.”
The latter’s oppositions included the claim that the brand name of Bismarck was associated with high quality produce. This was quashed: the town was renamed Collinsvale.
Names can change with extraordinary ease: mountains and hills less so. The utopia of Nowhere Valley failed. The bushranger Lucas Wilson perished. His final exhortation was, “Keep faith with the hills.” His author, Christopher Koch, who grew up in the town of Glenorchy beneath the mountain summits now known as Collins Cap and Collins Bonnet, narrates: “Though I’ve lived most of my life outside the island, my native hills have figured very often in my work. Back here again, perhaps to stay, I wander outside the town and study their rhyming outlines: olive green; deep green; blue. Familiar, unchanging and apparently static, they nevertheless have a look of illusory fluidity, and are constantly renewing themselves.”
And indeed they are. Lucas Wilson was wrong: this is not how these places have been since the beginning of time. “And the beauty that Lucas had so often spoken about was mere fancy – something he’d grafted onto this landscape.”
“I too know the magical power of a look at the right time and place,” she said. “I know how the heart burns in slow fires.”
Norina was reading from a novel, a passage about love. Dr. Malatesta had approached her. He had a crafty plan to fool Don Pasquale. He would use this woman; Don Pasquale would bend to her will. And so Norina, in response, sings: “I know the effect of lying tears, on a sudden languor; I know a thousand ways love can fraud.”
Amy Sherwin was playing Norina in her theatre début at Hobart’s Theatre Royal in 1878. And at the end of the show, the crowd stood up in rapturous applause. The career of the ‘Tasmanian nightingale’ was about to be launched.
From there, she would tour Melbourne, Ballarat and Sydney, her devotees multiplying with each performance. It was only the beginning. She toured not only Australia, but America, Europe, Asia and even South Africa. In San Francisco in 1879 she nailed Violetta in La Traviata despite having just recovered from pneumonia. A biographer says that Amy Sherwin was “the first Australian singer to make an overseas impact.”
Strange to think it all began here in Judbury, a hamlet on the Huon River in Tasmania’s south. In apple country.
Born in 1855 as Frances Amy Lillian Sherwin, it is said that Amy was discovered singing alone in a paddock near to where some visitors were picnicking by the Huon River. Those picnickers turned out to be members of the touring Pompei and Cagli Italian Opera Company, and they convinced her to audition.
Raised in a farming family who had suffered from droughts and fires, Amy had been educated at home, with piano lessons given by her grandfather.
Two decades later, returning to Hobart after her global success, her fans commandeered her carriage, unharnessing the horses and pulling her themselves through the streets. One can imagine her, in her early forties, radiantly beautiful and rejuvenated by the enthusiasm of her fellow Tasmanians.
But she didn’t stay. In London, she was regarded as witty, erudite, polished and hospitable. It was to there that she retired in 1907, after tours in Australia in 1902 and 1906. She had a disabled daughter and became a teacher in order to support her. But she was not a good financial manager and descended into poverty and illness.
However, music continued to uplift her. “Even when her voice was only a whisper she would sit at the piano and sing with an archness and vivacity peculiarly her own”.
Perhaps she recalled the words she’d sung as Norina: “The charms and arts are easy to fool the heart.”
She was not forgotten by her homeland. A fundraiser in Hobart sent her £200. A plaque was erected outside the building where she made her début. She died in London on 20 September 1935.
Settling new country was seen as a heroic act by the early Europeans in Australia, and there were few more heroic in that mould than James Fenton of the Forth.
He was brought out on the Othello by his father, James Fenton snr., who was following his cousin Michael to Van Diemen’s Land. The “Fighting Fentons” (as they charmingly called themselves) were Protestants from Ireland, their family of French ancestry. Michael had served in India and Burma before coming to Van Diemen’s Land in 1828, and reported very favourably of it. They left Liverpool in 1833; James snr. died at sea. James jnr. and his mother and brothers arrived in Hobart Town in February 1834.
Soon after, the eldest sister had married and taken up land on the north coast, west of the Tamar. Visiting, James took great interest in the country further west, which was still covered in heavy timber, an intricate ecosystem of wet sclerophyll. Anywhere with slightly less forest had been taken by the Van Diemen’s Land Company. Yet in 1840, James Fenton delved into the depths of this country, and bought a thousand cheap acres from the government on the Forth River. He was the only settler in the district; the nearest civilisation was about eighty kilometres away.
Fenton’s technique of land management was unique and innovative. In 1846, now in his mid-twenties, he married Helena Mary Monds, the sister of successful settler capitalist Thomas Monds. (Fenton and Monds would go into business in the 1850s, exporting palings to Victoria for accommodation on the burgeoning goldfields.) They were exposed to threats: for example, when the felonious personalities Dalton and Kelly appeared off the beach near the mouth of the Forth.
Gradually, other settlers entered the region. Fenton had helped and housed explorers such as Nathaniel Lipscombe Kentish as they tried to push back the unknown parts of the region. In the 1850s, settlements pushed further west than Fenton had, adopting his system of ring-barking old growth trees and burning the undergrowth. Fenton’s techniques became the model for the new pioneer community living on the north-west coast.
Removing the forests had revealed surprisingly rich, ruby-coloured basaltic soil, ideal for farming. Berry bushes and fruit trees were planted; Fenton later confessed to have introduced blackberries to that part of Tasmania. “I trust the gentle reader will not throw up the book when he discovers that the writer…was one of the miscreants who inflicted the blackberry plague on the district,” he worries in his Bush Life in Tasmania, which today remains a wonderful read on the European settlement of the Forth country.
Of course, we know that Fenton’s career in Forth country wrought irrevocable changes. He notes in his pioneering memoir that although a previous explorer had frequently seen emus, he never saw a single one. Henry Hellyer had been able to ‘rout’ emus, Fenton reflects, almost constantly. “It is a very singular fact that those emus have all disappeared from some unknown cause.” It seems almost wilful naiveté to us.
Fenton briefly left the Forth to try his hand at the Victorian goldfields in 1852, but returned quickly, and didn’t leave again until 1879, deeming himself too old for farming. He retired with his wife to Launceston and began to write. A drawing of James Fenton in this time of retirement – in his late sixties – shows him with thick features, kind eyes, and a mighty beard.
James Fenton and Helena Mary Monds had three daughter, and one son, Charles Monds, who opened a store at Forth in 1869: a sign of the times, of the development of the region and the growth in settler population there less than three decades after his father had adventurously decided to move there.
The Australian Dictionary of Biography says of James Fenton jnr. (1820-1901) that “the beautiful farm lands carved out of the north-coast forests are his best monument.” Looking out of the patchwork of poppies, potatoes and pyrethrum, the apples and cherries and carrots, all the cows and sheep, one can read the land in a variety of ways. Ultimately, they are the remembered and recorded map of this era of intense change of landscape management on the island.
Last week, we looked at the history of fish management in Tasmania.
Find out more about James Fenton's goldfields trip.
Some of my mates like fly-fishing; I commend them. This activity is a fine demonstration of a person’s positive qualities. People who spend their leisure time traipsing across the highlands, just to dangle a tiny sculpture of steel, threads, feathers and other bric-a-brac in front of a fish – only to have the fish generally display its species’ rather snobbish attitude towards contemporary art – deserve credit for their patience, devotion, and optimism (no matter how unwarranted).
Tasmania is well-known around the world as a famous fly-fishing destination. In rivers and lakes all across the island, you’ll find waters worthy of a line. Brown and rainbow trout wriggle away in the cold streams descending from the mountains. They are lovely creatures. It is nice to see fish rising in the Mersey or the South Esk. They seem wholesome.
But of course, these animals (i.e. Salmo trutta; Oncorhynchus mykiss) weren’t originally found in Tasmania. This island’s waterways carried on without trout until 1864, when the first brown and rainbow trout were raised in the southern hemisphere. There had been a number of failures: beginning in 1852, with 50,000 salmon and trout ova that arrived on the Columbus and failed to acclimatise, effort and money (as well as piscine offspring) went to waste almost annually on importing the fish.
But 1864 brought the successful introduction with both trout and salmon, here on the River Plenty. The cold, clear, mountain-sourced waters of the Plenty run out the sea, which made it perfect as a breeding ground for the salmon. Mr. Robert Read of ‘Redlands’ gave access to the river through his property. Enthusiasts led by the entrepreneurial Morton Allport watched over the development.
Soon, Tasmanian ova and fry were being exported around Australia and into New Zealand. Constable James Wilson stocked the Great Lake in 1870. Various other intrepid fishermen undertook expeditions into the central highlands to hasten the introduction of these foreign fish into the island’s river systems.
Nowadays, some 30,000 licensed anglers fish Tasmanian waters each year. It’s a niche tourist trade, and a font of innumerable good yarns. The Salmon Ponds, now a historic site, does a decent trade itself: visitors can see great numbers of handsome trout and salmon varieties moving languorously through the dark water to receive their pellets of feed. The day I was there, a platypus stole the show, scratching its noggin for about five minutes in full view.
But what of the native fish of Tasmania? Some experts the various species of galaxiids, a small freshwater fish family found only in the southern hemisphere, are under threat due to competition with trout, and even from direct predatory attacks. The poor Pedder galaxias (Galaxias pedderensis) is extinct in the wild, following the construction of an impoundment that flooded the river. Of many of the galaxiidae, little is known.
As always with the relationship between humans and other animals, it’s complicated.
Maybe when you come to Tasmania you will be lucky enough to find a guide like her as well.
Someone who will take you veering off the main drags, onto the back roads, over the quiet creeks. To the parts of this island where not many people go, and those who do usually have some serious reason for it.
And evading the blue-tongues and echidnas on the gravel roads that go further and further into the achingly dry forests – you can see them rising up the hills, a beige-and-brown cladding that may be foreign to you – she will begin to tell the stories that exist beyond the verge on either side.
Perhaps you know something of the history of Tasmania. There are some names you’ve seen written down. But these are the unofficial histories, the ones that exist only in the places where they happened. Histories like tiger snakes, that crave solitude, and will retreat into the shadows among the cutting grass at the first sudden movement.
She will be taking you to her secret swimming hole, but there are other secrets as well. Such as the reason why her grandmother was deposited in this isolated landscape when she arrived from Italy. Such as who is growing weed and where weaponry is stashed. Such as which of the neighbours is greedy, or for good-for-nothing; and which of them is loyal, kind-hearted, irreplaceable.
You will learn about someone like Chuckie. A man who died just a couple of months ago. A good man, who enjoyed the company of other folks, but needed to be alone as well. Whose children lost contact. Who was not a great cook. Who only really ate potatoes. Who spilled hot oil on himself while preparing dinner one night. Who should have gone to hospital. Who may have starved himself to death.
And she’s crook too, and has her own reasons for coming out there. There are reasons why she knows where the shotgun’s hidden and who’s got a good crop.
By the river she picks a sprig of bauera, starred with white flowers, and stands with her bare feet in the gum-leaf debris on the edge of the water.
Maybe this summer your guide will take you to their swimming-hole too, to the snakes’ places of this island. But you’ll have to be lucky.
Or rather, you’ll have to have earned their trust.
With a lot of us Vandemonians, this takes many years.
With others, though, it may only require a single chance occurrence.
Maybe when you come to Tasmania you will be lucky enough to find a guide like her as well.
Someone who will take you veering off the main drags, onto the back roads, over the quiet creeks. To the parts of this island where not many people go, and those who do usually have some serious reason for it.
And evading the blue-tongues and echidnas on the gravel roads that go further and further into the achingly dry forests – you can see them rising up the hills, a beige-and-brown cladding that may be foreign to you – she will begin to tell the stories that exist beyond the verge on either side.
Perhaps you know something of the history of Tasmania. There are some names you’ve seen written down. But these are the unofficial histories, the ones that exist only in the places where they happened. Histories like tiger snakes, that crave solitude, and will retreat into the shadows among the cutting grass at the first sudden movement.
She will be taking you to her secret swimming hole, but there are other secrets as well. Such as the reason why her grandmother was deposited in this isolated landscape when she arrived from Italy. Such as who is growing weed and where weaponry is stashed. Such as which of the neighbours is greedy, or for good-for-nothing; and which of them is loyal, kind-hearted, irreplaceable.
You will learn about someone like Chuckie. A man who died just a couple of months ago. A good man, who enjoyed the company of other folks but needed to be alone as well. Whose children lost contact. Who was not a great cook. Who only really ate potatoes. Who spilled hot oil on himself while preparing dinner one night. Who should have gone to hospital. Who may have starved himself to death.
And she’s crook too, and has her own reasons for coming out there. There are reasons why she knows where the shotgun’s hidden and who’s got a good crop.
By the river she picks a sprig of bauera, starred with white flowers, and stands with her bare feet in the gum-leaf debris on the edge of the water.
Maybe this summer your guide will take you to their swimming-hole too, to the snakes’ places of this island. But you’ll have to be lucky.
Or rather, you’ll have to have earned their trust.
With some of us Vandemonians, this takes many years.
With others, though, it may only require a single chance occurrence.
There were many afternoons during my teenage years in which I came upon this view. Not always were the mountains set against a blue sky; in winter, the grass and trees were greener, the yellow blossoms absent. In those days, there were fewer houses wedged into the landscape.
Usually I had taken the bus from school, although sometimes I was just returning from a mate’s house. Often I had a skateboard under my arm and I was ready to hurl myself down the hill. (Once or twice I toppled off.) Just where the slope levelled off, on the left, after the roundabout, I would tumble into my home.
After some time away, I return to this hill. These are quiet streets – the edges of an urban space, where a regional city meets its bucolic background – but for me the neighbourhood is pullulating, populous with ghosts. It is a cluttered scene, years layered on top of each other. I see the Vollmers’ and Masters’ houses. I wonder if Ben’s grandmother is still alive, where Matt has moved on to by now. The austere brick house that the Lucases lived in for a while reminds of the tethers of their stories, which we have heard mostly through the avenues of gossip. There is a certain house to which I snuck on cold nights, in my pyjamas, to rendezvous with Miss A., also in her pyjamas.
Where the road has its elbow at the bottom of the hill, my brother once threw off his left shoe in a fit, and appeared to be dancing. He ran back to the house cursing the wasp that had crawled into his Vans and stung him.
Coming back to my mother’s house (once, both parents shared it), I feel as though I’m making a similarly ludicrous return.
There are all sorts of relics here too. As I write this, I look up at a photograph of two young Spinkses with the larrikin footballer Billy Brownless. There are other images: the grandfather who died before I was born, my old dog who is buried in the yard, clippings from my occasional appearances in the local newspaper. In the bathroom: the pot plant a girlfriend gifted to Mum more than half a decade ago.
Venturing away from the house, I am equally ensnared. Somehow I can’t help but hear of the corruptions and collusions of local politics, business, and media. The local Member for Parliament refuses to address his constituents. A hideous giant supermarket is being erected near the centre of town. The flags of another town’s football team flap all around Launceston in the early afternoon winds. The letters to the newspaper make me cringe, wince, want to cry.
I fear that the people who live in my town secretly hate it. That beneath the odd gesture of civic pride there is a deep concave of shame in our guts. That we wish we were something else, somewhere else, with more cheap shopping and football games.
Perhaps this has something to do with our origins, with the way some of our ancestors stole the landscape from the first Tasmanians. These rolling hills I have come upon so many afternoons of my life were once the hunting grounds of the largely-forgotten tribes of the north of the island. Beneath that banner of blue sky (or silvery-black, on the gloomier days), there were spirits and stories in amongst the black wattles and bluegums, in with the echidnas and snakes and wallabies.
If there is a horror at this, I do not discourage it. But there is a sense in which this is simply an era, a landscape, an urban arrangement, an historical moment which we have inherited. Which I have inherited. And if I wander through the streets of this town and feel grumpy for knowing it is lined by the houses of too many greedy or ignorant or complacent fellow-citizens, and then trudge down this hill into a home where all the change across two decades of my life manifests itself, without trying to resist a sense of hopelessness or sentimentality, without putting a hard shoulder against it, then I have lost home altogether. And there can be nothing worse than that sort of exile.
A sailor's life leads many places.
I have spent part of this year visiting certain locations that bear the memory of a man named Jørgen Jørgensen (1780-1841). Jørgensen's frenetic behaviour and multiplicity of careers led Australian novelist Marcus Clarke to describe him as 'a human comet'.
It was a life that saw him visit Iceland twice, once as a merchant, and a second time as a would-be revolutionary, in 1809.
It would also have him wind up in Tasmania as a convict, where he lived his final days, trying his hand at everything from clerical work to police work, farming to exploring.
Jørgensen also spent considerable time in London, particularly at a certain pub named the Spread Eagle Inn, on Gracechurch Street.
As part of his nautical career, he had stopped in ports in the Baltic Sea, South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
He sailed the South Seas on a whaling vessel, and wrote a treatise on the work of missionaries in Tahiti.
He may have even worked as a pirate in the Americas.
Briefly, he went to Spain and Portugal to escape his gambling debts; and later was employed by the British Crown to operate as a spy in continental Europe, making a colourful journey on foot. He lost almost everything (including, literally, the shirt on his back) in Parisian casinos, and accidentally committed to a marriage in Frankfurt - a vow that he was never to fulfill.
But what of Jørgen Jørgensen's hometown? The son of the official watchmaker to the Danish Crown, Jørgensen grew up on the street in this photograph, Østergade, just by one of the city of Copenhagen's main squares.
It was from this vantage point that an adolescent Jørgen witnessed a great conflagration in the harbour city. King Christian VII, considered a madman, had to be removed from his burning palace. Unfit to rule, tension brewed between the Queen, the Prince, and the King's physician over the issue of power.
Jørgensen left Copenhagen to work on British ships from the age of 14, but returned when he was 27, in December 1807, to find 'my native city bombarded'. The Danes had sided with Napoleon Bonaparte against the British. It was a painful time for the returning sailor. In Jørgensen's words, 'a considerable portion of the best city in Europe was destroyed'. He was put in charge of a vessel, the Admiral Juul, which was captured in short time off the east coast of England.
He would never return.
His compatriots came to consider him a possible traitor. Jørgensen himself seemed to hint at this in some writings, but passionately denied it in others.
During his time in Iceland, his lack of a national identity was attacked. 'Avoid Denmark, there you won't find a grave,' one of the prefects from the south of the island wrote to him, abandoning mildness. 'Everywhere you will be cast away, hated, banished, cursed. In the end you will be suffocated in an ocean of hate.'
He would sporadically write letters to family members, and described an intense suffering at being far from them, especially his mother. His Danish fell into disuse. Roaming the wildernesses of Van Diemen's Land, where he did indeed find a grave (although in the cemetery of a religion he did not belong to; and these days a school as been built upon it) he must have felt as far as possible from where he was born.
One can only hope that as he married, and bounced between occupations, and came to know different parts of Van Diemen's Land better than most colonial settlers of his day, that he felt somewhat at home in that land where Aboriginals, convicts and bushrangers mingled beneath the forest canopies and mountain silhouettes.
But perhaps, at times, he felt regret: having left his family, their trade, his language, and that elegant city.
One can get sentimental about home, though, especially after having seen so many places in this world.
Recently, I wrote about an old bridge in the centre of Tasmania that portrays one of its residents as a caricature of a king. Jorgen Jorgenson, as he came to anglicise his name (after several changes throughout his life), was born in Copenhagen and died in Hobart and careered his way through the world in between.
It is in Iceland that he is most remembered today. There, he is cheerfully clept Jörundur Hundadagakonungur: ‘Jorgen, the Dog Days King’.
For it was in the days when Sirius (known as the ‘dog star’) was seen in northern night skies, during the summer of 1809, that Jorgen Jorgenson installed himself as the Protector of Iceland.
It had begun as a mercantile excursion. Jorgenson and some British businessmen went to Iceland in the dark and cold of December 1808 and tried to organise some trade with the local merchants there. It was thwarted; Iceland was a Danish colony, and Denmark refused to trade with the British, the two countries being pitted against each other in the Napoleonic War.
Jorgenson – the Dane caught up in British affairs against his own country, in theory employed only as a translator – was furious. He declared they would return to Iceland to make business, by force if necessary.
So it was that he returned in 1809 and did not come unarmed. He and his men stormed into the house of the Danish Governor of Iceland, Count Trampe, and kidnapped him. And suddenly, Jorgen Jorgenson was in charge.
The Dog-Days King instituted some quick changes. Prisoners were released. School facilities were upgraded. A new flag was designed: three split codfish on a lavender background. Jorgenson was ready to move Iceland into independence. And with five ‘life-guards’ (probably the prisoners he released), Jorgenson took off over the country, at what may have been record speed, to meet the merchants and administrators in the northern port towns, where he believed the peasants were being manipulated and oppressed by the wealthy factors.
In 1809, Iceland was one of the poorest countries in Europe. Settled by Vikings in the 800s, who invented a type of commonwealth and parliament to ensure peace and order on the island, they had lost their independence after a few centuries, first to the Norwegians and then to the Danes. Agriculture was difficult, and Icelanders were fishermen and sheep farmers, and little else. Harsh winters required much preparation and were often fatal, and volcanic eruptions could have a devastating effect on the life of the people; in fact, a volcano eruption in the decade of Jorgenson’s birth had caused a devastating famine.
As Jorgenson travelled the country, and saw this reality combined with colonial oppression, he was moved to try and change the circumstances of the Icelanders.
And yet when Jorgenson was deposed as autumn began, by a British naval captain (it turned out that Jorgenson was supposed to be a prisoner there), the people were as indifferent as they had been to the removal of Count Trampe.
Jorgen Jorgenson had crossed a land of blueberry heath and scattered lava stones, the country of Viking outlaws, edging between glacial mountains and towards the Arctic Sea. In a colony on the edge of the European consciousness, Jorgenson had tried to effect political change on behalf of farmers and fishermen who in fact had never asked for his help. In a time of political turbulence, Jorgenson marched into the middle of the powerful forces of Europe and hoped to stage a revolution.
Boldly, brazenly, and probably naively, he expected it.
Jorgenson went back into the British penal system, although he was not long after to be found in Germany and France, working as a spy for that same nation.
Iceland gained its independence through a homegrown hero a century later. Later in the 1900s, a musical was written about the Danish usurper. In it, Jorgenson taught a young woman how to sing, which probably didn’t happen in the real history. But the play was called Þið munið hann Jörund: ‘We Remember Jorgen Jorgenson’.
This bridge tells some stories.
Not only because it is the third-oldest functioning bridge in Australia; not only because of the colonial context in which it sits; nor because of the geographical milieu that made its existence necessary. Nor, even, just because of the convict labour that made it happen, the quarrying of rough stone, the arduous efforts of construction, the curious interaction of government supervision and forced labour.
But also because one of the convict stonemasons carved portraits into the rock.
And one of the carvings has a crown on his head.
It is not the noggin of Lieutenant-Governor Arthur that is crowned either. Instead, the decoration sits atop the chiselled scone of a man who was working for the local police at the time, in the constabulary around the town of Ross, in central Tasmania, where this lovely bridge still conveys traffic over the Macquarie River every day.
Jørgen Jørgensen was born in Denmark in 1780 and died in Van Diemen´s Land in January 1841. What happened in between spanned the whole globe, and a dazzling variety of careers. He sailed into ports in Brazil, South Africa, Australia. He whaled in the Pacific Islands. He was a spy in continental Europe. He wrote treatises about economics and religion, as well as fiction and plays. His friends were at times important historical figures, such as Sir Joseph Banks. He also frittered away his money at the casino and the inn.
He also was the so-called King of Iceland, for two months of 1809.
And he wound up a Vandemonian lag, a convict in that hellish island gaol. There, even with his freedoms heavily restricted, he embarked on a series of careers that not only would make good cinema, but are at the centre of a vortex of global forces, colonial expansions and political revolutions and economic reforms and scientific developments.
Into all of this, Jørgen Jørgensen charged like Don Quixote at a windmill.
For this, he has been mocked, as on the side of the Ross Bridge, his nose chipped off and washed away by the Macquarie. And it is true, his life was tragicomic. His vices were his undoing. He wrote too much, in a second language. He was naive and idealistic. Quixotic.
But could it be said to have been worth it, just to be known as the former King of Iceland? To have been, after all, remembered?
This is not the first time I have written about Jørgen Jørgensen. Nor will it be the last.
There once was a boy
whose silhouette surfed
over thick waves of thirst aqua,
while on the shore
he breathed short, sharp, shallow breaths
into the hollow of his chest
and his bones were like
those of birds -
thin like a whisper,
and aching with songs
that he had not yet learned
how to twist and tighten
his throat around.
So he hummed to the ocean on his own,
while his shadow shaped itself
like a sickle on the foam
on the curling reach of the waves,
searching for the beach-head
to land upon
and up against
the breast of the boy.
Who was dreaming himself alive,
the dark smudge of a lover
on the sweet, vast sea.
They are dead.
One of the first stories George Robinson recorded in his diary while working as a storekeeper on Bruny Island is that of the death of a wife of an Aboriginal known as Joe. This is, for us, her life story: that she was one of Joe's two wives, that she had been previously sick, and that she was now dead in April. And that her last words were: 'ROEGE A CORAGGREE LOGGEENER.'
Joe's other wife, Morley, died shortly after. Mangana had a story of his wife being abducted and his son dead. Joe and Mangana would die too. Mannalargenna died at the Flinders Island settlement that Robinson had co-ordinated, like many others.
Robinson records the names of five women who were kidnapped in one of the many raids by sealers: Troepowerhear, Niepeekar, Moondapder, Larpeennopuric, Reetarnithbar. Just names, and a traumatic event of their lives. Nothing more to be said.
While Robinson was bush-bashing his way through the Vandemonian forests, he received a letter from his wife, saying she was ill, and that their abode had become 'a house of morning' for their youngest child, Alfred, 'departed this life 21 February'.
Mrs. Robinson - born Maria Amelia Evans - also died, in September 1848, near Melbourne.
George Robinson died in England two decades later.
But even for George Augustus Robinson, we cannot say we know him, even though he wrote so freely and frequently about himself and left a narrative of his life for us. We can know that he did this or that, that he experienced much 'mizzling rain', that he was profoundly here at a profound time. But the vast majority of his thoughts and deeds are lost, and we must read between the lines to understand his various motivations. Needless to say, his life has been interpreted a hundred different ways, each reader or researcher coming up with their own evaluation.
Trugernanna outlived Robinson. She is even more enigmatic, suffers more gossip, elicits more various reactions.
For many more - for most people throughout most of history - we don't even have their names. Their sentences were not overheard and marked down. Their rituals went unobserved. Their body parts were not measured. Their languages murmured off into extinction, idiosyncratic expressions lost for all time.
In Tasmania these topics - names like Trugernanna and George Robinson, phrases like 'the friendly mission' or 'the black war' or 'genocide' - excite a lot of emotion. The study of the history of that island has become a matter of conflict. 'The History Wars'. As if we haven't had enough of that.
I am no historian. I am just a bloke who has his brow wrinkled, trying to remember. But it's not easy when I wasn't there and when every human being from the past seems as inscrutable as the phrase ROEGE A CORAGGREE LOGGEENER.
Maybe if we were a different mob, we would employ the ancient forests and mountains of Tasmania to bridge the historical abyss. Because they were there - dolerite and granite, pencil pine and huon pine. It would not be methodical history, but it would be a gauze of memory over the gaps, a patch of story. I am not trying to say that this would be better than the rationalism and empiricism of moderns, but that I suspect many different cultures would have done this. Yet when I go bush, and I try to hear the stories from the forests, the old stoics remain dumb. Or I remain unable to hear.
'To my mind,' W.G. Sebald once said, 'it seems clear that those who have no memory have the much greater chance to lead happy lives.' But I keep trying to remember.
This is the last piece in a series on George Robinson and Trugernanna, beginning with Trugernanna's death, looking at their curious relationship, and heading to the site of Robinson's final years.
At the end of a career and a life that surely warped beyond the bounds of whatever he could have imagined or hoped, George Augustus Robinson ended up here, on Widcombe Hill, above the city of Bath in England.
After the rediscovery of the ancient Roman bath there in 1780, the town flourished, becoming one of England’s most fashionable towns in quick time. When Robinson toured through there after returning from the Antipodes in the 1850s, it had several colleges, cultural and literature societies, and about 50,000 inhabitants.
Robinson chose a home here, overlooking the town as it sat on the banks of the Avon. He was with his second wife, Rosie, the daughter of an accountant, and their five children. The house was paid for with a pension Robinson had earned from his work in Australia. He named it ‘Prahran’, the name of his home on the Yarra River, in the Port Phillip protectorate where he worked for eleven years, overseeing the interactions of the area’s new colonial settlers and the indigenous population of Victoria.
This, a promotion after his work in Van Diemen’s Land. For a decade Robinson had worked tirelessly at a dream: to save the Aboriginal Tasmanians from extinction. The means: civilization, teaching them the British religion and custom. The method: arduous excursions into the bush, learning Aboriginal dialects, and forming diplomatic relationships with clan leaders.
He would have the remaining populations removed to a mission camp on Flinders Island. It was a miserable place, full of sad and slow deaths, mismanagement, seasons of cruelty and apathy.
Robinson had already been sent to the mainland by the time it was written off as an utter failure.
Back in 1822, as a young father trying to scrape by in London, George Robinson had signed up to migrate to the Poyais settlement in Nicaragua. Poyais, as it turned out, was a fraudulent invention of Scottish rogue, who lured investors into the false republic; Robinson’s gaze shifted to an even further-flung colony, which was not a fiction, despite its fantastical elements – the ancient trees which Robinson slept beneath, the swirl of the southern constellations, the song and dance of peoples who had millennia separating their beliefs from his own.
No, Robinson entered into a place that was all too real, all too true. Although at times he must have felt that he had stepped into a dreamscape, or that the reverie of dancing and playing the flute by the fire with these Tasmanians who had become his unlikely companions, so many miles away from London.
When he returned to his native city on the Medway in 1853, his first wife dead, his children grown up, his wallet swollen and his reputation cemented, perhaps this place seemed like the dream. But not for long. Because G.A. Robinson had come home three decades later exactly what he had wanted. Important. Memorable.
So when he looked from Widcombe Hill down into the spill of sand-coloured buildings in the valley, or passed his neighbours on Prospect Road as he went back to ‘Prahran’ and had them recognise him, he must have felt pretty chuffed.
But what did he tell those neighbours about Wooraddy, Mannalargenna, Trugernanna?
When he sat by the hearth of his Victorian fireplace, did he hear an echo of the songs about wombats and snakes come back to him?
When he fell asleep at night, did he sometimes squirm, recalling betrayals, murders, kidnappings, occasions of unspeakable cruelty?
Did George Augustus Robinson look through those journals he wrote - later to be the core of Tasmanian historicity - and feel his heart sink, reading between the lines (as we have since) that to ascend to his charming home on Widcombe Hill, he had trampled the people he reckoned he might save?
Could he foresee that although he would be remembered, he might not entirely be remembered well?
Trugernanna was afraid of what would happen when she died.
Last week, one side of Trugernanna and Robinson's relationship was wondered about.
As her old friends died around her – King Billy, Mary-Ann – the grief of Trugernanna was terrible. And with her bereavement came the fear of what would happen to her body when she was gone. One day, she asked the reverend to sew her up in a bag with a rock inside it and have it thrown into the deepest part of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel when she was gone. Just to make sure.
Mr. and Mrs. Dandridge had become friends with Trugernanna at Oyster Bay and when the Aboriginal settlement closed there, they took her in. The year was 1869. Trugernanna suffered from chronic bronchitis, although she still smoked about a solid amount of tobacco. The Dandridges served her two pounds of meat per day, along with bread and vegetables. She drank the occasional ale, particularly savouring hot ginger beer in the evenings before bed.
Trugernanna had some degree of celebrity thrust upon her in these days. She met the Governor of the day, Charles Du Cane, who described her as ‘a very quaint looking little old lady’ who was shorter than four feet high ‘and much the same measure in breadth’. Trugernanna had a laugh at the expense of Governor Du Cane’s girth too, though. One day she laughed gleefully at him and announced to anyone listening, “This fellow, he too much jacket!”
Folks later remembered her from these last days sitting on the steps of the Dandridges’ house, turning the pages of illustrated London newspapers, or simply smoking her pipe and watching the world go by. But what Trugernanna’s true pleasure was to make excursions across the channel to her country, the north of Bruny Island, where she grew up. The childhood gambols on the beach – occasionally interrupted by the auspicious occasions of white sails drifting across the water – must have seemed like a dream, perhaps in another life; but Trugernanna was transported back to those times as she walked in the sand, collecting shells and seaweed on the isthmus or around Adventure Bay, camping in the bush there.
The physical transportation was the responsibility of John Strange Dandridge, who learned how to row in order to get the little old lady to her country. Mr. Dandridge had been the empathetic superintendent of the mission – a rare breed. Rowing was not his usual vocation. He was the son of an Oxford minister, who had married Matilda Prout, the daughter of one of Tasmania’s most significant artists.
It was Mrs. Dandridge who was with Trugernanna when she died. On May 3 1876, Trugernanna told Mrs. Dandridge that her family had appeared to her in a dream and that this meant she would soon die. The old woman had been crook for a while; for a few days she slipped in and out of consciousness, but on the evening of May 8, she cried out, “Rowra catch me!” Rowra was one of the powerful spirits of Trugernanna’s country. The end was near.
But on that day, she regained consciousness again for an hour or two; and in that final conversation with Mrs. Dandridge and her doctor, Trugernanna made one more plea for her body to be treated respectfully once she had died. “Don’t let them cut me, but bury me behind the mountains,” she begged.
She was instead buried in Hobart, and her body was exhumed after two years and placed on display at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.
It was only a century after her death that her ashes were at last scattered in the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, which she had looked upon as a girl, too many years ago.
One writer remembers a night with Trugernanna by the river.
Last week we recounted 1982's famous World Ploughing Championships.
He was nothing more than a tradesman, really, when he showed up on the island. A man with an aquiline nose, a small pouty mouth, and wavy hair that was well-kept – maybe too well-kept. Another visitor from far away.
Another one, but not the same as all the rest.
The young lady on the island had seen boats coming up and down the channel all her life now. At first, they were tourists, arriving for a quick look and then moving on. But then the white folks started settling, clearing land, building hamlets, growing crops, and taking over. Loggers and whalers had started to settle on the island; they were often monstrously violent, and they brought strange sicknesses to the local population. Her sister died of some unknown disease. Her mother and her uncle were killed. Then, her husband-to-be was murdered too.
But later – much, much later, when the history of the Aboriginal Tasmanians had reached its tragic nadir – Trugernanna told a biographer that when she first laid eyes on the man who would call himself the Conciliator, she could see that he wasn’t like the other white men. “Mr. Robinson was a good man and could speak our language,” she said.
And even later still, when Trugernanna was long since dead, historians would slur her name, calling her a ‘moll’, ‘a white man’s doxy’, and the ‘betrayer of her own people’. Other historians say that she perhaps wasn’t this ‘mindless black bimbo’. They suggest that perhaps she was an insightful diplomat, a negotiator who believed that her race would come to its end if they didn’t get away from the invading European settlers and their muskets and diseases.
She joined Mr. Robinson and his campaign to end the frontier conflicts between white and black on Van Diemen’s Land. Her role as emissary was invaluable; without her and other Aboriginal negotiators, Robinson could not have succeeded. Instead, the Friendly Mission led the Tasmanians to their exile on an offshore island. It was not the end of the story, but it still brought suffering for Trugernanna and her people.
Were Trugernanna and George Augustus Robinson lovers? Did they, indeed, ‘share a blanket’? The historians may never agree, on this and on a number of matters. Incredible, really, how the lives of these two individuals have touched so many others – how they have aggravated and aggrieved and sparked academic stoushes and bar-counter blues, camp-fire confessions as well as wintry silences.
When all the ink is spilt and our teeth will gnash no more, we still cannot comprehend fully the eclectic and complex motivations of either Trugernanna or Robinson. Yet their story remains perhaps the most significant in all of Tasmania. For what happened through them changed the island for everyone.
Last week, we looked ahead to Trugernanna's last days.
Where were you on June 14 and 15, 1982?
If your answer is not the Christ Church on Illawarra Road, just outside of Longford, Tasmania, then I can assure you were wasting your time.
For on that winter weekend, the 29th Annual World Ploughing Championship was taking place there.
A lovely bluestone church surrounded by golden paddocks and poppy fields, the Christ Church is a site of pilgrimage for art aficionados. Australian painting innovator Tom Roberts is buried there next to his second wife, and some of the altar decorations were designed by contemporary artist Arthur Boyd.
Edward Dumaresq was born in Wales in 1802, and followed a standard upper-crust military educational trajectory, via the Royal Military College in Sandhurst and a cadetship with the East India Company. After serving on several continents, Dumaresq was relocated to the Antipodes, his sister having married the Governor of New South Wales.
In 1825 he was made the Surveyor-General of Van Diemen’s Land; after that, he worked as a revenue collector, and a police magistrate. He obtained property outside of the settlement of Longford in 1842, named Mt. Ireh, and on it he built the Christ Church, with thick walls and Baltic pine rafters.
Dumaresq moved to Kew, Victoria; travelled back to England; and had his wife, Frances, pass away. A Mrs. Charlotte Fogg was briefly the partner of what Dumaresq himself described as ‘the fatal act of a second marriage’. He returned to Longford and lived out the rest of his years – a quite substantial amount of time, his obituary declaring him dead ‘at the extraordinary age of 104’. He was claimed to be the oldest justice of the peace in the world.
Which is quite an achievement.
But the church remained standing. Architect Alexander North added the tower and the asp in 1910, four years after Dumaresq died. And of course, the farm went on to host farmers from twenty countries and they ‘steered their tractors straight and true up and down Mt. Ireh’s flat-as-a-pancake paddocks’. Longford joined the esteemed company of locales such as Peebles, Ohio and Wexford, Ireland and Kaunas, Lithuania as one of the hosts of the World Ploughing Championships.
For those keeping score, Ian Miller was the Conventional Champion of that year, the second New Zealander in a row to get up (Alan J. Wallace had triumphed in Wexford). A Kiwi took second place as well.
They reckon 40,000 people braved the wind and rain to watch the action that weekend. But were you there?
Tom Roberts, the great Australian painter, was buried here at Longford.
Last week, we wondered about the fate of the Tasmanian tiger.
The last thylacine to die in captivity came to its demise here, at this former zoo site in Hobart’s Domain park, in 1936. Its name was – possibly – Benjamin. It may have been a female and died of neglect; after a hot day, the animal was locked outside of its shelter overnight in suddenly freezing temperatures. Her body – known to be the last captive specimen in existence – was thrown in the rubbish.
Colloquially known as the Tasmanian tiger for distinctive black striping along its spine, the thylacine looked more like a wolf, but was in fact a marsupial related to neither. It evolved on the Australian continent and in New Guinea to fill a niche fitted by dogs and wolves elsewhere, although was made largely extinct through the impact of humans and/or dingos about 2000 years ago. Its survival on the island of Tasmania, however, made it the largest carnivore there, and its apex predator.
Aboriginal Tasmanians are believed to have called the thylacine ‘corinna’, among other names. It is believed that it was hunted and eaten by Aboriginal bands. Diplomat-missionary George Robinson recorded some mythology surrounding the thylacine – namely that dramatic weather events were ‘attributed to the circumstance of the carcase of the hyaena being left exposed’.
Dutch sailor Abel Tasman reported seeing footprints like those of a tiger’s on the shore in 1642. Upon European settlement, the thylacine was treated as an enemy. Known also as a ‘hyena’ and exclusively carnivorous, thylacines did indeed attack sheep flocks and disturbed agricultural practices implanted by the migrants. A bounty was put upon the thylacine as early as 1830, and between agriculturalists and the Tasmanian Government, over 2000 bounties were claimed over a number of decades.
Benjamin was caught in the Florentine Valley by Elias Churchill in 1933 and given to the Hobart Zoo. The manager of the zoo was Alison Reid, who said that the animal had no pet name; debate over the animal’s gender continues to simmer.
Since, though, the thylacine – Thylacinus cynocephalus – has come to adorn the logos of cricket teams, beer bottles and local councils. It’s on the Tasmanian number plate. The tragic history of the thylacine has been depicted in books and films, and used as an example to promote the conservation of other rare and endangered animals.
Was Benjamin truly the last thylacine on Earth? There are believers and sceptics on the topic. Conversations about the thylacine sound much like religious debate. The dramatic level of loss in Tasmania adds to the weight of the discussion: for there have been extinctions, as well as the erasure of huge amounts of indigenous knowledge and culture, all throughout the island since Europeans arrived.
The outcome is a matter of eternity too. For after all, if there are no more tigers in the forests, they are gone forever.
Or is it? Can scientific methods recreate Thylacinus cynocephalus? If we can, should we? Can we repopulate the forests with this poorly-understood and much-maligned creature? Or can we simply let go, own up to our sins, and let dead wolves lie?
In Tasmania, it seems even life and death isn't clear-cut.
There is, as well, the story of a man named Bert, who is said to have once upon a time snared a tiger in the forests of Tasmania’s north – but that’s a yarn for another time.
On the other side of the world, in a city founded more than two millennia ago, I turn to my usual news sources and read about Hobart.
Of course, Hobart’s winter solstice festival, Dark Mofo, has been and gone with its feasts, concerts and presentations, as well as a skinny-dip in the cold water of the Derwent estuary. It has, according to one reporter, lived up to the hype.
This festival, co-ordinated by those behind the Museum of Old and New Art, are creating new traditions. And it is interesting to watch traditions being born.
That Hobart has hype is also a new thing. For a long time, Hobart and the island of which it is the capital city have been somewhat maligned by the rest of the country. A small population, poor education outcomes, a struggling economy and a relatively cold climate made Tasmania a butt of jokes, with the most common of them describing Tasmanians as socially isolated, backwards, and inbred.
Not to mention a lingering stigma about the city’s sordid past. The second-oldest city in Australia was founded as a penal colony, and for the first part of the 1800s, that was its primary purpose. This, of course, also dispossessed the original Tasmanians, who had lived throughout the island for more than 40,000 years.
This was the town to which the refuse of the British Empire was sent, or to which the riff-raff fled trying to escape their pasts. Where men were hung up on triangles on the street corners and flogged, where prostitutes and drunks roamed. Pedlars stood at Poor Man’s Corner on Elizabeth Street, such as Coffee Tom selling matchticks, and Nobby Dixon offering cigars, and Patsy Maher selling fruit from his donkey cart.
It was the town of Fatty Appleton, a wharfie and a brawler, photographed by an unknown fin-du-siècle photographer with his meaty arms slung over a couple of barrels that look awfully similar to the subject himself. There is a cheeky glint in his eyes, deeply set into a nasty face.
But then, the curious art collector David Walsh, who made his wealth from gambling, built an art gallery. Coinciding with a rising interest in eco-tourism and boutique food and drink, suddenly Tasmania was on the map. Lonely Planet put Hobart in the Top 10 Cities to visit. It was all becoming rather sexy. There was hype.
And Hobart is living up to it, apparently.
From afar, I remember my days and nights in Hobart happily. Swigging ale from the bottle as I run down to the Shipwrights Arms to watch the footy, or cradling a lager waiting for a local poet to meet me at the Hope and Anchor (he didn’t show up). Drinking herbal tea with breakfast in Moonah, while Ramos looks up at the mountain, picturing the wall of rock he will climb that day. Rifling through the selection of cheap buys outside Kookaburra Books.
Herodotus, the ancient historian, mentioned in the preface to his Histories that he should account for both cities small and great, ‘for those which in old times were great have for the most part become small, while those that were in my own time great used in former times to be small’.
And indeed, in my own short lifetime I have seen the fate and reputation of cities like Hobart change.
But it’s still Fatty Appleton’s town to me. Fatty Appletown.
‘Human prosperity never continues steadfast,’ Herodotus continues. The hype will disappear, but who knows: there may still be mid-winter swims for decades to come. And there is definitely still a Fatty or two lurking around the streets late at night.
Another great Hobart character was the first chaplain, Bobby Knopwood.
Last week, we recounted the history of sailor James Kelly.
In the December 1815, James Kelly set off with four convicts from Hobart to complete a circumnavigation of Van Diemen’s Land.
Born in New South Wales, Kelly was apprenticed as a junior mariner at the age of 12, and had made several voyages out of Sydney by his adolescence. He was employed as a sealer, and then served on a trading vessel to Fiji. When was 18 and his apprenticeship was over, he sailed to India.
Kelly returned to sealing for a voyage to Macquarie Island in the Campbell Macquarie, which was wrecked; Kelly was rescued, and taken back to New South Wales. Shortly after he was married and became a master mariner, in 1812, commanding the sealing boat Brothers to the Bass Strait. He is said to have been the first white Australian-born master mariner.
His lasting connection to Van Diemen’s Land came through employment by Dr. Thomas Birch, who had him as master of the Henrietta Packet, a schooner which sailed between various colonial ports. Now, Kelly and his family relocated to a house on the Hobart Town Rivulet.
While Kelly’s nautical career continued, his circumnavigation of the island over the summer of 1815-16, in the whaleboat Elizabeth, is well-remembered for its accounts of contact with Aboriginal Tasmanians. The day after they set out, attempting to pull into Recherche Bay, they were met with ‘a tremendous volley of stones and spears’. Kelly’s narrative of the journey, published five years later, offered insights into the life of the first Tasmanians that could only have been witnessed by that small party journeying around the ragged coastline of Van Diemen’s Land in the early years of the young British colony.
Of course, anthropological concerns were not Kelly’s primary motive. His ‘official discovery’ of Port Davey and Macquarie Harbour on the west coast gained his employer a monopoly contract over the trade of the endemic huon pine. And Kelly’s own knowledge of sealing and whaling waters increased dramatically as he spent a year around the Vandemonian coast.
James Kelly would be known as the ‘father and founder’ of whaling in Van Diemen’s Land, with his official duties on the Derwent River including pilot and harbourmaster. He also inaugurated the Derwent Whaling Club, and developed agricultural interests on Bruny Island. His ‘Kelly Steps’, built to connect waterfront Salamanca Place with the houses of Battery Point, are a picturesque feature of the Hobart streetscape today.
But Kelly’s fate ended poorly - much like the industry he was involved with, and, for a time, its product. His wife died in 1831, his ship Australian was wrecked in 1834, his eldest son was killed by Maori in 1841, and the economic depression of the 1840s left him flat on his back. He died at age 68, suddenly. His funeral was well-attended.
Of course, there is no whaling or sealing industry in Tasmania today, and the numbers of these creatures in Tasmanian waters is thankfully growing. If you look closely, you will see seals - dozens of them - on the rocks of the Friars in this photograph. These are just south of Bruny Island in the Southern Ocean. An easy target for James Kelly and his band of sailors in the 1800s, today that threat is gone.
Daniel Cowper and his Hawaiian wife were also connected to the sealing trade.
After following a narrow, muddy track for some time through the rainforest, we emerge to an open field of straw-coloured tussocks. We have come upon 'the Paddocks'. Outside the canopy of tanglefoot and sassafras, the rain is heavy and quickly drenches us. But across the field is a wooden hut, of a modest size, and we are aiming for its verandah.
My friends didn't know that such a place existed. This hut, knocked together from native timber, disconnected from electricity, away from mobile phone signal, and hours on foot from the nearest road, is not a one-off: in Tasmania's isolated central highlands, such structures have been scattered along rivers, by lakes, and on mountainsides for more than a century.
But by the nature of their purposes, settings, and designs, they are rarely visited and not widely-known.
As we took off wet boots and put the william on the boil for cups of tea, the sound of the rain merged into the rushing of the Mersey River as it snaked around the base of a mountain range shrouded in mist. The Upper Mersey, archaeologists tell us, has at least 10,000 years of human history. The Paddocks, which have been managed by post-colonial stockmen for around a century, was probably fired by Aboriginal Tasmanians for at least a couple thousand years to aid their hunting practice.
In the 1880s, the Field family - eminently successful cattle barons - employed George Lee to drive cattle in this high country. It was a three-day trip from the township of Mole Creek to the Paddocks, and following his marriage to one Alice Applebee, George would also take his sons Lewis and Oxley to the area. Like many mountaineers in Tasmania, they also hunted for fur.
The sons inherited the land after George Lee's death. Oxley, who was illiterate and an alcoholic, sold his share of the Paddocks in the 1960s; Lewis Lee continued to visit the area several times a year, until his death in 1989. It was his hut that my friends and I would be sleeping in. Now belonging to other family members, it is generally accepted that bushwalkers may stay there, if they follow the correct etiquette.
The mountain huts of Tasmania are remnants of a fascinating and unique culture. As Simon Cubit, the foremost historian of high country stockmen, writes, they 'are a little known but nonetheless important part of Tasmania's cultural heritage.'
One wonders if part of their significance isn't derived from the fact that everything about the lifestyle these huts point to is remote, rarely-experienced, and not well known.
There are those who hate winter in Tasmania. It is, they say, too cold, or too wet, or too windy, or too dark. It is as bleak as Siberia. It is the most depressing place on Earth.
But there are others who cherish these days when the sky hangs low like a big-bellied whale over the towns, and some days the mountains rise like white-capped waves. It is good, they contend, to see the grass turn bright green, to don the thick woollen socks and down jackets, to feel frost crunch beneath your feet, to smell the spice of woodsmoke in the air and to sit by the fire yourself with a cosy over the teapot.
The change in weather is a chance to cultivate new habits. Some of them are idiosyncratic: one gentleman I know takes to boiling eggs on winter mornings and putting them in his pockets as he walks to his place of vocation so they warm his hands.
Other customs may seem familiar. For instance, one winter when I was short of money, I spent my spare hours scrounging around for good firewood. And on those crisp, starry nights when the weather has cleared but the air is still cold, I would feed sticks and logs into my pot-bellied stove and sit around it with an Irish coffee, sometimes with friends, watching the embers pulsate like melting caramel and tinkling like thin glass cracking in the changing temperature.
And we should not forget that for thousands of years, this is what people have done in Tasmania during the months of June, July and August, these lunar cycles when the night seems to have more strength than day, when it is cold and wet and windy and dark, and Rowra hovers in the silhouettes of the eucalypts just beyond the room of firelight.
Yes, for millennia, Tasmanians have had their rituals, their customs, their diets, their ideas, their politics and their dreams flex and change with the weather.
So as you wipe the hoar off your car window, get a soup going in the slow-cooker, pull out your stripy longjohns, or invite the girl you flirted with all summer over to watch a movie on your laptop beneath a patchy quilt, remember that these details are part of what it is to be a human being in your time and your place. And that though customs have changed dramatically, at times with violence and force, the little behaviours that you share with your contemporaries are significant, full of memory and therefore full of meaning.
Even the boiled egg hand-warmers. (They will end up in an Ethnographic Museum sometime, somewhere.)
Perhaps in these months you will look out your window and see the European trees that have dropped all their leaves, and it will makes you feel something of a sense of loss.
Perhaps you will stand over the Liffey or the Clyde in full flow, and know the trout are spawning, and feel hopeful for what is next, maybe even to the point of impatience.
Perhaps you will see snow on Mount Wellington or Ben Lomond and long to feel the mist clinging to your hair and your shoes fill up with slush.
Whatever it is you do and feel from now until the wattles are in blossom, this is the Tasmanian winter to which you belong.
A friend in Mexico City once took me to an eatery for what he said was a regional dish from his family’s home nearby called pastes. A pastry shell stuffed with meat and/or vegetables, it was delicious and hearty meal. It was also something I’d grown up eating. It was a pasty.
The pasty is said to have been popularised by tin miners from Cornwall, England, who held it by its thick crimped edge, so as not to contaminate it with dirty – or arsenic-tarnished – fingers.
So it was that Cornish miners in Hidalgo, Mexico, brought pastes to that country; and likewise, migrant workers from Cornwall brought their “regional dish” to Australia.
In 1843 a north-eastern farmhand followed his dog into the bush; the dog was chasing after wombats, and digging a hole into a bank, it revealed a seam of coal. Before long, a tent city had sprung up around the mine. Because of the number of Cornish migrants who had come to put use to their mining prowess, it became known as Cornwall.
In this second half of the 1800s, these men picked and shovelled their way into the Nicholas Range, using sticks of gelignite to open up their shafts. At the end of their days, workers returned to ramshackle-style houses with walls of split palings, hessian, and layers of newspaper, and dirt floors covered with chaff bags.
A railway built from the midlands to the east coast in 1886 livened the mine’s – and the town’s – prospects. By 1950, there were around one hundred houses, a post office, a butcher, shops, and daily bread delivery. A couple of churches and a school with attached recreational facilities serviced the town.
Only a few years later, however, the coal industry lost its momentum. Cheap oil gained a stronghold around the world, and the Cornwall Coal Co. lost its customers. In 1964, they closed the mine. The town shrivelled. Houses were sold for a pittance as workers moved away in search of other work. Public buildings and services, along with shops and churches, were closed, torn down, or burnt out.
In 1982, the mine reopened, with production up to 300,000 tonnes a year. But the town was still a shell of its former days; the mine only employs 70 people, with that number soon reducing by a third. Only forty houses still remain in the town.
Perhaps home-made pasties are still made there, as the fog rolls in down from the forested mountains. Made, and made well, no doubt. But there are none sitting in bain-maries waiting to be bought for those who make the eight kilometre detour off the A4, on their way to St. Marys.
Dr. Rhys Jones was the first professional archaeologist to work in Tasmania. Born in Wales and educated at Cardiff, he arrived in Australia to do his doctorate in Tasmanian archaeology.
His research began in the north-west of the island, particularly around Rocky Cape. Using radiocarbon dating techniques on various cave middens, Jones reported that Rocky Cape had been continuously occupied by Aboriginal Tasmanians for 8000 years or more.
This was the least contentious of Jones’ claims. He also entered into a long-running question about the Tasmanians: could they make fire? Much of this question was based on observations (or, perhaps, a single observation) made in the diary of George Augustus Robinson, who travelled with Aboriginal populations in the 1820s and 1830s. Fire, Jones suggested, was carried “in smouldering slow burning fire-sticks”, but if they went out, the Tasmanians had no way of relighting it.
The archaeologist also suggested that some 3000-4000 years before now, the Rocky Cape middens revealed that Aboriginal consumption of scale-fish completely stopped. He concluded that the Tasmanians had forgotten how to catch fish. Bone awls were also no longer being produced.
Rhys Jones concluded that with the relatively small population stranded and separated from Australian Aboriginals following the post-Ice Age flooding that created Bass Strait, the Tasmanians had been struggling to adapt. He described it as a “slow strangulation of the mind”.
Later archaeologists tend to disagree. They refer to other references, by both French and English observers, of pre-colonial Tasmanians using fire-making implements. These Tasmanians would have struck chert (a flint-like stone), sending its spark into dry bark, moss or grass, these archaeologists say. This stone – myrer, Robinson writes that the Bruny Islanders called it – was possibly considered special, and fire-making may have been the responsibility of leaders within a band or kinship group.
In fact, there may have been a variety of techniques for fire-making: in the early 1900s Quaker observer Ernest Westlake recorded conversations detailing the use of grass-trees, banksias, stringy-bark, tea-tree and fungi, in a variety of methods, for Aboriginal fire-making.
The change of diet to exclude fish is still mysterious, but recent research tends to suggest that a cooling of the climate occurred at a similar time. In fact, evidence from 3000-4000 BP presents a series of dramatic adaptations across Tasmanian populations. Settlements changed, artistic practices developed, and Tasmanians began to manage the land through seasonal burnings and honed their hunting techniques accordingly.
“These developments, and their concurrence with similar developments in south-east Australia, contradict the strangulation view,” writes Shayne Breen.
Tang Dim Mer is one of the names the original Tasmanians had for Rocky Cape; the more prosaic name comes from Matthew Flinders, who spied it from the strait as he circumnavigated Tasmania in 1798. At that time, there were Aboriginals living amongst the banksias and wildflowers, beneath the jagged cliffs, facing out on that notorious stretch of water.
We are still trying to work out what we lost when Europeans destroyed their lifestyles.
And although Rhys Maengwyn Jones may be most remembered for its controversies (he died in 2001), much of his work helped to support Aboriginal populations, especially in evidencing for their antiquity. Jones himself hoped to introduce to a wider audience the brutality with which Aboriginal populations around Australia were treated. In Tasmania, he said he saw a history of genocide.
George Robinson's tours with Aboriginal Tasmanians were hugely significant in Tasmanian history.
The gold mine in Beaconsfield reopened in the same year that I was bitten by my dog Sox, above the eye, on my birthday.
I grew up on a five-acre property just outside of that town, ‘up the river’, as my mother would always say. I remember it as a jackjumper-infested swamp, with a couple of flat grassy areas on which to play footy. A few big eucalypts stood tall above silver wattles and native cherries, and scrub. In Easter, my parents hid chocolate eggs wrapped in colourful foil in the fronds of manferns. We had a goat that needed putting down.
The gold mine, which had once been the richest in Tasmania, was not as it was in its heyday. In 2006, when a subterranean rockfall killed a miner and trapped two others, it was closed again. But the mine was not the town’s identity anymore. If anything, Beaconsfield, and the Tamar Valley, was apples, with some forestry on the outskirts, and a reasonable proximity to both Launceston and the industrial ports where the river met Bass Strait.
My family moved to town. Sox was put down too. My life’s shape changed. Shadows on the world’s map furled away. My knowledge increased. Suddenly, I was a young man, and on my way across the ocean. New places were impressing themselves upon me. New landscapes complicated my memory.
Even while we were living there, in the 1990s, there were folks planting grapevines in the Tamar Valley. These were people who could foresee a future for cool-climate wines in this area – or they were hobbyists, enthusiasts, optimists. Nowadays, all around Beaconsfield are trellises in rows, vines clinging to them. I drove through there the other week. This year’s fruit has been harvested, of course. The leaves have turned all sorts of burnished Old World colours.
An author has moved to Beaconsfield and has run a literary festival there. I hear rumours of other developments, boutique food and booze and accommodation, capitalising on tourists in search of a good pinot noir.
It will change.
I have changed too. But here is where I spent some formative years, getting stung by jackjumpers and bitten by dogs, tripping over the strips of shedding stringybark, collecting tadpoles from puddles on Lightwood Hill Road.
In whatever this town becomes, there will be the history of the gold rush – of the Dallys, of Hart and Grubb, of the Chinese migrant workers, of Todd Russell and Brant Webb and Larry Knight.
There, too, is the history of who came before them: the Letteremairrener people. Or of what came before that: the flora and fauna, the geology and geography of the Tamar Valley, which too is not as it once was.
Wherever I find myself in this world – peering into portraits in the Uffizi Gallery, for example, or listening to mariachi music at a restaurant in San Diego – I am still the extension of that memory too. I am not entirely who I once was, but I am still the boy who found chocolate eggs in the garden. I find myself scrounging around for stories with the same enthusiasm.
For people may change their places, but it is more true that places have changed us. That we belong to the places that we spend most of our time in – especially in childhood.
Last week, I wrote a short history of the town of Beaconsfield - once known as Brandy Creek.
In 1869, the Dally brothers started prospecting for gold around Brandy Creek, about fifty kilometres north of Launceston along the Tamar River. Systematically scouring the bush – tea-tree scrub full of snakes – William and David Dally found a payable gold reef on Cabbage Tree Hill in 1877. There was gold, said William, ‘like blackberries in the bush’. The gold rush was about to begin.
It became Tasmania’s most famous patch of colour. The Dallys sold their claim for a cool 15,000 pounds. A small hamlet of two shops, a drapery and a grocery soon became a bustling township, the third-most populous on the whole island. Not only shops and hotels appeared, but entertainment too: plays and circuses, bringing horses and elephants down the main street.
The Chinese came too. The Chinese, particularly Cantonese, migrant workers spread throughout the world’s diggings after the gold rushes of the mid-1800s. At Brandy Creek, as everywhere, they formed their own unique communities, transplanting their religion, culture and cuisine into the shanty towns on the goldfields. They were almost all single men; many married local women.
Ah Sing was one such man. Later known as ‘Tom’ – and his descendants would corrupt their surname to ‘Seen’ – Ah Sing not only picked on the fields, but was a market gardener and a courthouse interpreter.
As the town grew, so too did its ‘civic consciousness’ – Brandy Creek and Cabbage Tree Hill would not do for nomenclature. Dallys Town was mooted as a name; so too a name honouring the Governor of the day, F.A. Weld. But in the end, Beaconsfield was chosen, after the contemporary Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Lord Beaconsfield, Benjamin Disraeli.
The mine’s success hit its zenith around 1900, with over fifty companies working the reef; in 1914, it closed due to regular flooding of the shafts. Deep drilling resumed with new technologies in 1993, with limited success. And on Anzac Day 2006, an earth tremor caused rockfall in the mine. Fourteen miners escaped immediately; two were trapped for a fortnight before being their release was made possible by painstaking and dramatic rescue operations; and one, Larry Knight, was killed.
Beaconsfield, suddenly, was put on the map in a whole new way.
The Foo Fighters even wrote a song called ‘Ballad of the Beaconsfield Miners’.
The 'Field Guide' is in Issue 32 of Tasmanian Geographic.
It was William Shoobridge II who first brought hops – humulus lupulus, a crop used almost exclusively for adding flavour and aroma to beer – to Australia.
His son, Ebenezer Shoobridge, bought an estate between the Derwent and Styx Rivers in 1863. Bushy Park Estates is still Australia’s largest producer of hops, and is known worldwide for its successful hop production, as well as for unique Tasmanian varietals of the plant.
And although Ebenezer was producing an intoxicant that (it could be said) created negative social effects throughout his native island, he was a godly man. To offer his workers spiritual encouragement, the hop kiln was adorned with sandstone plaques bearing scriptural sayings. ‘Unexpectedly,’ said one employee of the hop farm later, ‘as you looked up from the work of emptying a bag of hop flower catkins ready for drying, your eye would catch a verse placed at eye level…’
One plaque extolled the unity of the Shoobridge family. And it was a family affair.
Ebenezer and his wife Charlotte (nee Giblin) had a task ahead of them to make the six-roomed homestead comfortable for living and raising children. Some years in, the roof collapsed under the weight of pigeon shit.
But it was a good life for the children. The ‘young ladies’ of Charlotte and Ebenezer’s clan would be the driving force for the annual Farm Tea and Strawberry Feast events. Along with their little cat Twissy, they would prepare and present a seemingly endless feast of sweet cakes, pies and tarts.
And son William Ebenezer Shoobridge, born in 1846, would go on to be one of Tasmania’s most innovative and prolific figures towards the end of that century. Engineering unique irrigation schemes at Bushy Park and other family properties (the water races at Bushy Park today are his designs, are heritage listed), he also invented a technique for pruning fruit trees, and came up with new designs for the hop kilns. His role in Tasmania’s burgeoning apple industry was equally important to what he was doing with hops. And he became involved in politics, representing in parliament and promoting agricultural policy including the government regular of water supplies.
For this, he became known as ‘Water Willie’.
Perhaps he was inspired by those verses chiselled in sandstone on the beautiful kiln house. The Shoobridges perhaps knew more keenly than anyone the truth of one biblical injunction, which you can still see there today:
‘THE EARTH IS THE LORD’S
AND THE FULLNESS THEREOF...”
It was a hellish journey. Within two months of leaving the port in Britain on the Denmark Hill, William Shoobridge buried four family members at sea: his 7-year-old son, 6-year-old daughter, and his wife and newborn child, who both died due complications during childbirth.
It is said that he went berserk. They would still be on that boat for many weeks.
Youngest surviving son Ebenezer Shoobridge was two years old when they arrived in Van Diemen’s Land. The remains of the Shoobridge family eked out a living in Hobart Town, mostly operating lime kilns. But William also introduced an exotic plant to Van Diemen’s Land, humulus lupulus, the hop, which they cultivated on their allotment at Providence Valley.
Another story told about William Shoobridge suggests he had a little luck on his side. Tending to his hop crop, the senior Shoobridge was shot at by a bushranger. The bullet deflected off a metal object in his pocket.
When the opportunity came to investigate the Derwent River valley for land, they took it. In winter 1833 William took Ebenezer, now an adolescent, up to New Norfolk and beyond. Farming had only recently begun in the Valley. Coming upon a cleared field, William scooped up a handful of nutrient-rich soil. Hops, he murmured, would grow there excellently.
They rode their horses to the top of a hill and surveyed the land between the Styx and the Derwent; it was then known as ‘Humphreyville’. Soon after, it would be known as Bushy Park. It would be bought by Ebenezer Shoobridge. And indeed, hops would be grown – right up to this day.
All was not perfect, though. Ebenezer and his brother Richard had come to disagreements and parted ways in 1842. And it had taken some decades for Ebenezer and his esteemed wife Charlotte to purchase Bushy Park, having rented land at Plenty and Richmond in the meantime.
But finally, in 1863, they moved into the homestead and constructed a series of brick kilns, as well as developing the orchard, the dairy, some grain and root crops.
Bushy Park Estates is regarded as the birthplace of Australia’s hops, and remains one of the world’s great hop cultivation grounds. Now owned by a German company, Bushy Park remains a town centred around rows of vines, climbing up simple scaffolding in yards separated by poplars. By this time of the year – when the poplars are turning yellow – the hops have all been harvested, some 35-40 tons per day. The yield of the harvest annually reaches to over 500 tons.
A friend of mine worked in the lab this year during the harvest. Rising with the sun, he would go to his lab, put on a blue coat, switch on some classical music, and begin analysing the hops for alpha and oil content. After he’d knocked off, we had a few beers by the duck pond; a platypus ducked about in it. It was a scene not quite from the early days of Bushy Park, but with the sense of it being an historical moment in itself.
It’s a picturesque place, rich in history. And it's a wonderful crop they're growing there.
Raise a toast to the Shoobridges with me this weekend at Saint John's Hop Harvest festival!
Some say the hot chips from a certain takeaway store in Triabunna are the best in Tassie. So I stopped in there the other weekend, joining a handful of locals in front of a greasy bain-marie, as chunks of potatoes were lowered into a vat of oil in the back room.
I was on my way to an art exhibition put together by the Tasmanian International Arts Festival, Reorder, which presented six site-specific sculptural installations inside the town’s decommissioned sawmill.
Truth be told, I was drawn to the exhibition as much for the location as for the artwork. Triabunna is one of the most contested places in a Tasmania divided by lines of class, occupation and political opinion. Operated by Gunns – the byword for forestry in Tasmania for decades – to chip and ship timber from the south of the island, it closed in 2011 after four decades, 70 per cent of the area’s forestry jobs going with it. In a stunning coup, the mill was purchased by entrepreneurs and environmentalists Jan Cameron and Graham Wood, who employed former Wilderness Society boss Alec Marr as site manager. Marr oversaw the dismantling of the sawmill’s equipment; “I’ve been waiting 27 fucking years for this,” he told The Monthly’s John van Tiggelen.
Triabunna was settled as a garrison town in the 1830s, with officers of the Maria Island penal colony and whalers also located in the region. Boat building and fishing have long occurred in the region, as well as farming; for some decades in the 20th century, a factory processed seaweed into alginic acid. Eucalyptus oil and wattle bark was harvested throughout the 1900s as well. But towards the end of the century, it was believed that something like 75% of the town’s economic activity relied on the forestry industry.
You get a decent amount of chips for $5. I was still pulling them from the packet as I left through the big gates, along a road made for log trucks, down to the beach. It was only at the last moment I noticed the recurring word, ‘chip’. The pun was not intended; it’s just one of those remarkable, flexible words in our language. But there was something about it that snagged my curiosity. How much this town had thrived on chips of whatever kind, pieces cut or hewn from the whole.
Going for a swim in Spring Bay later that afternoon, I had a profound sense that whatever happens to Triabunna in the coming years, it will mirror the fortunes of the entire island.
May the hot chips be available long after the woodchips are forgotten.
“Assuredly but dust and shade we are / Assuredly desire is blind and brief / Assuredly its hope but ends in death.”
So wrote fourteenth-century Tuscan humanist and poet Francesco Petrarca, who is commemorated at this western Tasmanian lake under his Latinised name, Petrarch.
It was the classically-inclined surveyor George Frankland who called Lake Petrarch so, although he generally preferred Greek nomenclature. He had seen the lake from the summit of Mount Olympus on February 12, 1829, and upon descent from the mountain, he and his party came to it. It was the first time in his life any of them had seen a certain conifer tree, athrotaxis cupressoides, “a remarkably handsome species of Fir” that he named “the pine of Olympus.” Nowadays it is commonly known as the pencil pine.
Another explorer, the geologist Charles Gould, came to camp upon the sandy beach of Lake Petrarch in January 1860. It was the beginning of a long expedition to the west, and Gould and his men looked at the silhouette of another literarily-named peak, Mount Byron, from across the still waters of the lake.
Landscape painter W.C. Piguenit, born in Hobart in 1836; his father was a convict, and his mother, a teacher of French, music and drawing. From 1874 he devoted himself to his craft, travelling on foot with surveyors to remote areas of Tasmania. Piguenit depicted Tasmania’s wildernesses in a Romantic light, as Ruskin was the European Alps contemporaneously. In 1887, he travelled with chief surveyor Sprent to the west coast. He took advantage of this expedition to make an excursion to Lake St. Clair, and further north through the Cuvier Valley, to Lake Petrarch, which he painted in hazy pastels. A grebe sits on a clump of dark rocks; Mount Byron overlooks the glistening water in a rosy twilit hue.
A century later, Peter Dombrovskis photographed Lake Petrarch. Born to Latvian parents in a World War II concentration camp in Germany, Dombrovskis was influenced by a fellow Baltic migrant, the unassuming yet influential Olegas Truchanas. Both became famous for involving their work in conservationist movements against the damming of wilderness rivers. Before his death by heart attack in the south-western mountains, Dombrovskis forged a reputation as one of the world’s great landscape photographers. In 1994, on a journey into the Cuvier Valley, Dombrovskis made a sensitive study of pencil pine boles near Lake Petrarch.
The Cuvier Valley is largely made up of golden buttongrass plains; it may have been managed as an Aboriginal hunting ground before Europeans arrived to the island known previously as Trowenna. How they perceived Lake Petrarch we do not know. Likewise, unknown numbers of personal expeditions in recent times go unrecorded.
In the Tasmanian Government’s current Draft Management Plan for the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, Lake Petrarch is rezoned so as to be permitted as a helicopter landing site – along with around a dozen other localities. “Men often despise what they despair of obtaining,” wrote Petrarch to a contemporary in the 1300s, and so they do today, still.
The Richmond bridge is the oldest bridge still in use in Australia. The foundation sandstone was laid in December 1823, and with the aid of convict labour, the bridge successfully arched over the Coal River by 1825.
Around this time, the Coal River became acquainted with Gilbert Robertson. Arriving in Van Diemen’s Land from Scotland, en route to Sydney, he wheedled his way into gaining 400 acres of land near Richmond, despite having no money. Still, Gilbert complained that he’d been gypped – not enough land, not enough servants.
Pretty soon he lost his land, thanks to debt. He also made plenty of enemies. Magistrates, business partners, and even Lieutenant-Governors all came to loathe the “impertinence and swaggering” with which Gilbert Robertson carried out his affairs. In the end, though, Lt.-Gov. Arthur gave him his land back – plus the 600 additional acres Gilbert had moaned about – in 1829. Not much changed: Gilbert’s house burnt down and he was sued for assault. But just when it looked like his debts were going to catch up with him, circumstances changed curiously, and Gilbert saw his spot.
It was the height of the Black War, and Lt.-Gov. Arthur had declared martial law. Gilbert Robertson applied for, and received, the position of chief constable of the Richmond district.
The next few years at ‘Woodburn’, as Gilbert had named his estate, were eventful to say the least. In November 1828, he had captured five Aboriginal rebels, including the notorious warrior chief Umarrah. Along with Kickerterpoller, Gilbert’s off-and-on Oyster Bay Aboriginal servant, and a young Big River Aboriginal named Cowerterminna, Umarrah was a regular visitor to Woodburn.
Gilbert and Kickerterpoller were particularly matey, and Gilbert tried to convince Lt.-Gov. Arthur that this was what Aboriginal and settler relations could be, given the right approach to conciliation. In fact, he had devised a whole model for conciliation, and suggested that he would be willing to put it into action - for the right price. The price, unfortunately, was too high. An idea similar to Gilbert’s was developed by missionary George Augustus Robinson, and Gilbert was high and dry again.
Gilbert Robertson was born into an important Scottish family (his great-grandfather was the high chief of a clan), but he was also something inescapable in as sensitive a place as Van Diemen’s Land – he was half-black. His father had owned a plantation in Trinidad, and almost certainly Gilbert’s mother had been a slave. In Scotland, money and lineage had meant more than race. There were other stories being woven in Van Diemen’s Land, though, and the question of race was something that Gilbert was involved in – in more ways than one.
“Here then in brief outline is a biography of someone who was almost pathologically inclined to get into trouble,” writes historian Cassandra Pybus. An assessment from Gilbert Robertson’s contemporary, Lady Jane Franklin, gave an equal description: he was “a perfect miscreant equally devoid of principle and feeling.”
But interestingly, having moved late in life over to Geelong, he made quite a respectable name for himself. Working in the papers again, he died in 1851, of a heart attack during a particularly intense political campaign.
Richmond is also home to Australia's oldest Catholic Church.
Since everywhere else (Victoria, New South Wales, New Zealand) was having a gold rush, Tasmania wanted one. So in 1859, the government hired its first geological surveyor, a young British scientist with a famous naturalist father. He was Charles Gould.
Charles Gould would spend a decade on the island looking for gold; he would fail. “It is difficult to understand how Gould,” a later writer would wonder, “leading a gold-seeking expedition, could have spent so long in a valley which later yielded so much gold from almost every creek, without finding a trace of the metal.”
In the spring of 1859, a group of experienced bushmen, prospectors and surveyors was recruited, and in December they took off from Lake St. Clair. From there, they cut a narrow cart track up the Cuvier Valley, plodding through black mud and over golden tussocks, through spiky heath and mountain berry bushes. The mountains of Olympus, Byron and Hugel loomed over them.
Gould was thrilled by what he saw, and his mind quickly spurred to theorise. He was one of the first to postulate that glaciation had created the incredible landscape he was witnessing. Standing at their improvised campsite in the Cuvier Valley, at the beginning of a decade of tough bush-bashing expeditions, the young geologist was driven to distraction imagining the great rumble of glaciers carving out valleys, tearing at mountains and spilling boulders for miles. He was only grumpy about the weight of expectations upon him. He wrote in his journal about the limited time he had to devote to “this very interesting question” because he was occupied with gold-seeking instead of indulging his geological curiosity.
Gould’s scientific insight was brilliant: if he didn’t find gold during his decade as the chief geological surveyor of Tasmania, it was because he was thinking about something else. Gold was not nearly as exciting to him as other rocks. Much more precious was the dolerite sheet of the central highlands, and the fossiliferous Permian mudstone layer beneath it.
Leaving the Cuvier Valley, Charles Gould entered the dense and dark forests of Tasmania’s west with a lot on his mind.
Surveyor George Frankland gave many of Tasmania's natural features their names.