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.