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 bushwalking
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.
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.
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.
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.
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'.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“I was rapping on the door intent upon making the hermit’s acquaintance.”
So wrote one bushwalker having rambled into the Vale of Rasselas in Tasmania’s southern wilderness, where for fifteen years Ernie Bond made his camp.
But Ernie was not your typical bush hermit. Born in Hobart in 1891, he was the son of Frank Bond, a businessman, property developer and politician. Ernie lived in the island’s capital until 1927 when he moved to the suddenly-booming osmiridium fields at Adamsfield. For seven years, he worked his claim there. But in 1934, while prospecting with the infamous bushman Paddy Hartnett, Ernie found a rare patch of rich alluvial soil and changed careers.
Now, Ernie was the grower and supplier of fresh garden produce for the mining community. Aside from fruit and veg, the bush estate of ‘Gordonvale’ - there was 400 hectares of it – also housed grazing sheep and cattle.
Like most Tasmanian mining histories, work in the ossie fields came to a screeching halt. By the end of the 1930s, Gordonvale’s market had disappeared. But Ernie Bond enjoyed his self-sufficiency, and his proximity to the wilderness. So he remained. And for the next two decades, Ernie Bond became famous for showing hospitality to bushwalkers passing through the area en route to various lakes and mountains, along rugged paths, through the newly-empty expanse of wilderness.
Bushwalkers’ diaries recall his dinners of mutton and vegetables, desserts of strawberries and cream, and even his dodgy home brew. His “grey eyes twinkled” as he spun yarns about local characters, and he formed strong and lasting friendships with some of the pioneers of Tasmanian recreational walking. “The great buckled belt of his trousers could sit just as approximately above or below the immense circumference of his stomach,” wrote Jack Thwaites, “while little reading glasses somehow found a perch around the great head.”
Commercial logging encroached on Ernie Bond’s patch of the forest; finally, the bridge crossing the Gordon River near his abode was destroyed, and Ernie was effectively forced to return to Hobart.
Today, bushwalkers can find but a few remnants of the Prince of Rasselas’ old lodgings, in what has now become part of the Tasmanian World Heritage Wilderness Area.
Two convict escapees made a bold journey into the Vale of Rasselas in 1828.
Born in Austria in February 1874, Gustav Weindorfer came to Australia in search of work. After stints with the Austro-Hungarian Consulate in Melbourne and the Field Naturalists’ Club of Victoria, it was love that brought him to Tasmania. Gustav had met botanist Kate Cowle, of the north-west of the island, and married her in a simple Methodist ceremony on February 1, 1906.
Travelling to Cradle Mountain together in 1909, they were awed by the unique alpine environment. They began to promote it as a place worth visiting and protecting, and built a lodge from the native conifer known as king billy pine, Athrotaxis selaginoides. The lodge was called Waldheim, meaning ‘forest home’ in Gustav’s native tongue. It was opened at Christmas in 1912.
Kate died in 1916, and Gustav’s heart was broken by the loss. However, he continued to offer hospitality at Waldheim. His wombat stew was famous, and following it was home-ground coffee and rum-laced puddings. Vienna waltz records played on the gramophone, and Gustav was wont to sing along. Gustav Weindorfer was no doubt seen as a romantic figure in the fastness of that wild place, and it is said with the widower at the helm of the chalet, eligible young women came to the mountains in search of romance.
One such lass was a Rhodesian visitor Maude van der Reit. Climbing up to the nearby heights of Marions Lookout – surveying both Cradle Mountain and Dove Lake – she was overcome with dread and had to be physically restrained.
But her unrestrained emotion wasn’t exhausted on the mountains; her journals reveal a florid stream of admiration for her host, known as ‘the Dorfer’. She described him as “like a young cedar tree, with a moustache turned skywards the colour Titian raved about in all his pictures; mountain air complexion, eyes, what eyes! They flashed like for lightning on pointed swords…”
Perhaps her prose might have impressed him; her behaviour, however, did not. Maude and her girlfriends were snowed in at Waldheim; they drank all the whisky and let Gustav’s much-loved dogs loose.
Gustav’s own journals reveal his feelings. Day by day, the Carpathian host felt his sentiment of Gastfreundschaft dwindling. He wrote: “Just the same – mad!”
Gustav and Kate had their honeymoon on Mt. Roland.
After World War I, recreational bushwalking experienced a boom in Tasmania, enhanced by those who kept walking journals during this era. From these pages comes a plethora of captivating local characters. One such man is Keith Ernest Lancaster.
Born in Penguin in 1910, Keith moved to Launceston as a young man and using the northern city as a base, began a 65-year-long career on hoof in Tasmania’s wild places.
Beginning his note-taking in 1932, Keith wrote a charming preface to his first journeys by describing his accounts of trips as containing “a full, comprehensive and accurate description of the adventures of myself whilst mountaineering in the Tasmanian highlands.” He lamented his lack of expertise in botany, geology or biology, but remained confident that companions would fill in a number of these gaps – especially his long-time cobber, Jeff Yates.
The earlier mountaineering adventures accounted for take place mostly in the Great Western Tiers – upon peaks such as Drys Bluff, Quamby Bluff and Ironstone Mountain – or to the northern mountains of Mt Barrow or Ben Lomond.
In fact, five reports from Ben Lomond come in the years between 1931 and 1937. The first was a successful ascent of Legges Tor, Tasmania’s second-highest summit at 1572m (5162ft in Lancaster’s measure), on a sultry November day. However, Stacks Bluff, at the southern end of the mountain’s massif, rebuffed Lancaster and Yates thrice before they finally made the ‘conquest’ in 1937.
In those earlier expeditions, Stacks Bluff – originally known as the Butts by settlers, while the entire mountain was known by the local Aboriginal population as toorbunna – was described by Keith as ‘inhospitable’ and ‘uninviting’.
Bicycling out from the suburb of Newstead on their first attempt in autumn 1932, Lancaster and Yates were drenched; they had hoped to spend their first night in a trappers’ hut at the rough settlement of Englishtown, at the base of the mountain, only to find it was burned down, with only a stone wall remaining. Overflowed creeks and tough conditions forced them to turn back after three days of approaching the peak.
They returned in winter two years later. Once again, worsening weather brought their best efforts to a conclusion. “Our attire was somewhat dampened, our spirits even more so,” Keith’s journal reads.
Alone, Keith had another go at the bluff in 1834, on September 25. Upon departure, the weather “seemed ideal for the project” – tranquil blue skies were above as they cycled out of town. He noted that he had made record time in arriving to Englishtown: two-and-a-half hours from Launceston. The weather remained fine for Day Two as he made a transmontane route across the massif – until the evening. Wild winds and consistent rain afforded Lancaster no sleep, and the young man awoke on his third day to discover that the river had risen. Once more, he had been forced to retreat.
“Stacks Bluff at last” is the title of Keith Lancaster’s entry for their 1937-38 success on the mountain. They – “the usual company” – made a reconnaissance trip in December 1937, from which they discovered an access point other than Englishtown that would make their ascent easier. Returning on January 29, 1938, they had another stroke of luck: a shepherd and his family gave further intelligence on the area, and loaned blankets and chaff bags to the bushwalkers. At 10:50a.m. the next day, Keith wrote, “we were able to add this lofty eminence to our list of mountaineering achievements”.
They spent nearly three hours taking in the immense vista. That evening, over a simple meal, Lancaster and Yates looked back “at the jagged contour of Stack’s Bluff”, as the setting sun changed the pillars’ colour from grey-blue to “a lurid red”.
These days, Stacks Bluff is normally ascended from the south; a rough 4WD track leads from the ex-mining town of Storys Creek, soon becoming a marked and cairned path over dolerite scree. The summit can now be ascended in about three hours. But wise mountaineers will still take their time at the top, and savour the view, and the tremendous experience of freedom.
Read here for reflections on bushwalking with mates around Lake Rhona.
The Overland Track is one of the world’s great multi-day walks. A couple of hours into the first day of the walk, as you clamber up onto a plateau strewn with cushion plants and quartzite schist, Barn Bluff rises before you. This impressive edifice of dolerite is formed by glacial action and erosion with seams of bituminous coal, which were never able to be economically exploited. Its human value today is mostly immaterial. At 1559 metres above sea level, it is the fourth highest mountain in Tasmania. Local walkers playfully know it as 'Barnie'.
It was Joseph Fossey who first compared this mountain’s shape to that of a barn. The son of a maltster from Hertfordshire in England, he came out as one of the members of a party of six representing the Van Diemen’s Land Company. Their harrowing five-month journey ended in Hobart in March 1826.
The Company had been allotted large tracts of land in the island’s north-west for the purpose of raising sheep for high quality wool. However, the best land was reserved for farmers expanding their settlements. The Chief Agent of the Van Diemen’s Land Company butted heads with the Lieutenant-Governor over the issue, but the latter would not budge.
So began a tireless series of exploratory campaigns by the Company’s three surveyors in search of better land. Van Diemen’s Land had been settled by Europeans only 23 years earlier, and most of the mountainous south-west was unknown to the new arrivals. Contemporary maps leave the quarter almost entirely blank and marked with the title TRANSYLVANIA. The exploration of this area, by men such as Fossey, his colleague Clement Lorymer, and the lead surveyor Henry Hellyer. Over several years, their journeys brought them into torrid weather, through tormenting scrub, and over tumultuous terrain. Working with a retinue of convict servants, they carried meagre rations and had simple equipment.
It was on one of Fossey’s expeditions in autumn 1827, in search of a stock route, that he named Barn Bluff, seeing it first from a mountain peak to its north. He also named nearby Cradle Mountain at the same time, although it retained an alternative name – Ribbed Rock – for some time as well.
Fossey did not stay in his rôle as surveyor, explorer and road-builder for too many years. When his contract ended in 1832, he returned to England, but only very briefly. He returned to land in northern Tasmania and married Eliza Wood at St. John’s Church in Launceston. He was, at this time, aged 47. He then moved to Victoria, and he and his wife ran an inn on Lonsdale Street and a general store in St. Kilda.
His lot was better than that of his colleagues: both Lorymer and Hellyer died in separate tragic circumstances while employed by the Van Diemen’s Land Company.
Their Chief Agent gave a fascinating reference for Joseph Fossey. He described Fossey as ‘a compound of many discordant qualities’, a peculiar man preoccupied with details and not possessing much natural talent, but yet a ‘conscientious servant of the Company’. The explorations by the Company’s surveying parties yielded few results but provided new knowledge of Tasmania’s western mountains, an incredible and unique part of the world.
Another V.D.L. Co. explorer was the larger-than-life Danish convict, Jorgen Jorgenson.
Mt. Olympus was the home of the Dodekatheon, the twelve gods – the principle deities, such as Zeus and Athena, lived there. At the foot of the mountain’s north sat the nine Muses, Zeus’ daughters with Mnemosyne and patrons of the Fine Arts.
Olympus is the second highest mountain in Greece, standing between what are now Thessaly and Macedonia. At its peak, it is just less than 10,000 feet in elevation. But this isn’t Mt. Olympus in Greece. This is Mt. Olympus in central Tasmania, overlooking Lake St. Clair, Australia’s deepest natural lake.
It was named so by George Frankland, who arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in 1827 as an assistant surveyor after some years in Pune, India. Within a year he became the Surveyor-General of the island.
The Lieutenant-Governor assigned him to begin a ‘general trigonometrical survey’, but Frankland believed that an important aspect of his role was exploration. His boss wished he’d stay in the office more frequently. He was particularly bent on finding a lead mine somewhere, and over the coming years he would make significant journeys in the wildernesses around the upper Derwent, the upper Huon, and the central highlands of Lake St. Clair.
Frankland was a proud man. He loftily believed the duty of his office was ‘to observe and record every remarkable fact connected with the Natural history of the island whose surface and native production have, in a manner, been placed so peculiarly in his custody.’ That being said, he was never very popular in the colony. It wasn’t only his squabbles with the Lieutenant-Governor over the time he took to do his work. Frankland seemed to have never felt quite at home in Van Diemen’s Land.
He planned to leave, in 1835, and then again attempted to sell his Battery Point home in 1838. But it didn’t sell, and on the second-last day of that year, George Frankland died. He was survived by his wife Anne, two daughters, and a son.
Frankland also named Mt. Ida, Mt. Pelion, and Mt. Rufus in his mythical mood; his precedent spawned a series of Greek names in the area. Today, around Cradle Mountain and Lake St. Clair, you’ll find dozens of names honouring the gods and heroes of Greek myth.
Although it doesn’t seem that these areas were frequently inhabited by Aboriginal populations, there is no doubt that over the millennia these features – like everywhere in Tasmania – had other names. They were not the names of personae from the epics of a continent on the other side of the world, but we don’t now know what indigenous stories sprung from these mountains. Unlike our scholastic understanding of Greek literature, there is no philosophy that we can comprehend from our Mt. Olympus.
Yet perhaps – as we burst through the sclerophyll and onto a buttongrass plain just metres from Lake St. Clair, with spiny Olympus now protruding into the sky – the name of this mountain can clue us into something common, something that unites Tasmania and Greece. In ancient Greece, they called it palaiòn pénthos, ‘ancient grief’, and it “persists undiminished across time and demands that men take some liberating action… For we live surrounded, in the invisible air, by wandering avengers who never forget…”1
The strange spirits of memory.
1 Calasso, Roberto, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, p315.
This was the backyard of Mary and Janet King when they grew up. Their father, Charles Denison King, moved to this part of the world in 1936. He was 27 years old, and following his father. Together they built a house and mined tin.
Deny King, as he was better known, lived for 55 years in this wild land in the south-west of Tasmania; on the edge of the dangerous Port Davey, he named their rugged estate Melaleuca after the tea-tree growing there, and lived a life that was as astonishing for its variety as it was for the distance from normal society with which he did it.
Deny became a naturalist and an ornithologist, as well as a painter, on top of his small-scale alluvial tin mining. He discovered an extinct banksia shrub, and became a leading expert on the severely endangered orange-bellied parrots who still come to Melaleuca every February.
Serving in Papua New Guinea in World War II, Deny met a nurse named Margaret Cadell, whom he attempted to woo through a series of love letters after both had returned from service. It probably wasn't easy to convince her to embark on a life shared with him in one of the wildest places on Earth, but she eventually acquiesced; the Kings' household became famous for its self-sufficient hospitality. Bushwalkers from all around the world would stop in at Melaleuca en route to the south-west coast, the black waters of Port Davey opening up onto a stretch of ocean that expands uninhibited all the way to Patagonia. Even the famous mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary made a visit.
And so their Deny and Margaret's two daughters, Mary and Janet, grew up in the buttongrass plains that surround Melaleuca, barraged by the wind of the Southern Ocean so thoroughly that the hills only bear trees on the sheltered eastern slopes. Along the dark harbour, reedy scrubs and banksias grow. What a world in which to be a child; with their parents' art, and the parades of strange and roguish and playful visitors coming through to drink tea and eat bread from a wood-fired oven. With wrens and wombats and snakes, and the ever-changing weather blowing in from South America or Antarctica or, occasionally, somewhere more mild.
They say that a Tasmanian tiger was seen in this stand of trees in the 1950s, a couple of decades after the last known example died in captivity. But that, I'm afraid, is another story, for another time.
We were only a little bit too late; the lake already had a name.
I had walked in with four mates: Pafi, Bug, Quacker and Gilly. We tramped across the buttongrass plains, swung through a patch of rainforest, and scaled the steep hill to find tremendous mountains overlooking a glistening blue lake, lined with a beach made of crushed quartzite. It was a spectacular view.
We told Pafi, a Greek, that there were crocs in the lake, and then vowed to swim across it nevertheless. Later on, he was almost bitten by a tiger snake, and it excited him to no end. We pitched our tent, had a stout, and cooked up a sandy curry. Someone climbed a pencil pine; someone else wandered about with no clothes on.
Climbing up Reed's Peak, we could see chains of mountains, for countless kilometres, in every direction.
In my glee, I wanted to commemorate the occasion by naming the features for my friends. Quacker's Peak, Bug Flats, the Gilly River and Greek Lake might all have come up for the consideration of the Nomenclature Board, if everything hadn't already been named.
We were only a little bit too late. Lake Rhona is named after Rhona Warren, a hardy Irish lass with a bulbous nose and determined eyes, a member of the Hobart Walking Club and a pioneer of female bushwalking in the early part of the 20th Century. The lake was named for her in 1935.
Had we been there earlier, the bushwalking maps of Tasmania would hint at the story of our couple of days around Lake Rhona. But the names that people attach to features on the earth are written in pencil anyway; like all memories, they fade away, the features change, and the characters whose lives have centred around such places die and new people arrive.
Still, the urge to commemorate my stories in these places remains. At the very least, I want to know where the names come from. Places, after all, bear the burden of our memories. It's good to know the stories that came before.
So next time you cross the Gordon River and head towards the Denison River, take a dip in Greek Lake. Don't worry, there aren't too many crocs.
It was hard not to fall in love with him. To say that he had red hair and blue eyes doesn’t say enough about what a devilish face he had; and with that bowler’s hat on his head, Paddy was a handsome rogue.
So soon enough Lucy Hanson fell for him and became Lucy Hartnett. She had heard all the stories about him – how he and his brother had kept a Maori paramour in the mountains for a time – but she knew he was strong, literate, and hard-working, and that’s what was important to a girl from Waratah in those days. They were married with Catholic rites and then headed up to Pelion Plains. That’s where they would make their money, Paddy had said.
He knew what he was talking about: possum furs were suddenly selling big in Europe. The work was hellishly hard, though. They’d go up in winter, when the furs were thickest, and live in the huts Paddy pulled together from king billy. This one they called ‘Windsor Castle’. Skins would dry along the inner walls. If they’d left them outside, the ‘hyenas’ – thylacines, Tasmanian tigers – would come to get them.
Sometimes Paddy got lost in the snow; if so, he’d make a fire and sleep on the coals. He used his bowler hat – not the nice one he’d been wearing when he met Lucy in the town, but the battered old thing he wore in the bush – to scoop water out of the rivers from. Lucy and her son would make bread and boil potatoes and help beeswax his clothes for waterproofing.
Back in the town, Paddy would drink something shocking. Occasionally he’d barter a fur for a glass of cheap whiskey. Lucy didn’t put up with that for long; she set the boys down at the hotel straight, and started taking charge of the mercantile operations in the family. Paddy didn’t like it, but he couldn’t argue – he was a pisspot, and Lucy had her head on straight.
Seasons changed; trapping didn’t earn so much anymore. Paddy moved onto the osmiridium fields, and he took a daughter with him too, dressed up as a bloke. The booze had buggered him though. He lost an eye one drunken night; then he had a stroke. Finally, delirium tremens, and death.
Lucy, two sons, and five daughters survived him.
Another bloke who lived in highland huts was WWII veteran Boy Miles.
Sometimes, towards the end, he would look back on it all and laugh. As the years had gone by, Henry Reading had accumulated an immense wealth; he owned over 120 properties in the north of the island, and it was said that there wasn’t a street in Launceston that you couldn’t find a house of Henry’s.
He was the equivalent of a millionaire, but that hadn’t seemed like Henry Reading’s destiny from the beginning. Born to a young mother in one or another of London’s gin-soaked hovels, Reading was imprisoned for stealing beeswax, and sentenced to Van Diemen’s Land on the Claudine. When he arrived in 1821, he had just turned thirteen years old, and stood at a a miniscule 137 centimetres tall.
Henry was a well-behaved convict and earned his ticket-of-leave in due course. The urge to have a fresh start stirred within the young man. He decided to leave Hobart, and head for the northern settlement of Launceston. For a poor convict lad, there was no transportation available – other than his two feet. Henry Reading put his few possessions on a handcart and began lugging it the 190 kilometres from Hobart to Launceston.
It was April when he set out. Cold winds blew, rain came and went, and the odd storm assailed him. The transplanted trees on the homesteads were beginning to litter their leaves. Occasionally a servant, a cook, or even a master would take pity on the little man hiking across the island and give him soup, grog, or a bed to sleep in.
Oddly, when he was older and reminiscing on his walk, Henry Reading could remember little of the aching muscles, the wet clothes, the cold rivers he had to wade, the blisters, the nights of bad sleep, or the hunger. He knew that’s how it had been – a tough slog – but instead, he remembered the good moments: these instances of hospitality, or the sight of a blue sky over the Midlands plains. Or best of all, that final day of walking.
It had nearly been a month since he crossed the Derwent River coming out of Hobart Town. Now, departing Breadalbane on May 12th, Henry felt the load lighten a little, knowing he would soon be arriving to a new life, a clean slate, a blank page. And as he approached Launceston, he noted in his diary the immense heads of cattle that he was passing through. “Prosperity bodes well here,” he scrawled.
Yes, when Henry Reading thought about the naïve young man he had been when he wrote that prognostication, he had to laugh.
There is no track between the Mersey River and the Middle East. On the sea, you cut a path across emptiness; the wilderness of waves covers over it immediately. Boy Miles was on a ship coming home in 1942 when the enemy intercepted. He was taken as a prisoner-of-war and forced to work on the Thai-Burma Railway. The Death Railway.
It’s a long way from the jungles of south-east Asia to the Central Plateau. Further still, perhaps, from the shrill screech of human depravity to the silent warmth of friendship and family. In monsoon, Boy toiled with body bared, his hide riddled with ulcers and sores. Around him, fellow-slaves took on cholera, starved, went demented with illness, and died by the thousands.
But maybe in moments of pause Boy Miles took himself back to the grazing plains beneath that mountain range, where, alongside his brother, he rode through the valleys, trapping possums and rabbits, sleeping out, swimming in the river. It may seem like a small life to some, especially compared to what they called ‘the grandeur of war’: but what a mighty stage.
The war ended. The medics discharged Boy Miles just as the waratahs came into bloom in the summer of 1945, and coming home, the bright bush gleamed, the clean air shimmered and the broad country beckoned him. Things weren’t the same; any fright would send Boy to the floor, curled up in the foetal position. People were difficult creatures to be around. There were scars, things mangled inside him. So it was only in the mountains that any solace was to be found.
In the years to come, Boy Miles felled pines and split shingles and built himself some huts to shelter him at night when he went out with a dog and a gun to Liena, Deception Plains, Lake Ball, Dublin Road. They were simple buildings: a fireplace, a bunk, somewhere to hang the skins. It was all he wanted from a home. To keep him safe and sound, and more importantly still, to keep him free to roam the bush.
They say that Jorgen Jorgenson was the first European to lay eyes on the Walls of Jerusalem. Jorgenson, the Danish-born explorer, was employed by the Van Diemen’s Land Company to try and find a route through the centre of Tasmania. He found no easy passage. Now the island is fully mapped, we know that there is none; that all throughout the centre, the west, and the south, Tasmania is made up of protrusions of dolerite mountains, countless of them, now named after Greek mythologies or biblical toponyms, Pelion and Olympus, King David’s Peak and Solomon’s Throne, Jerusalem.
To get to the Walls of Jerusalem, you scramble up a steep slope onto an altiplano. To the east and the west, mountains rise like walls around you, as a track passes through spiky scoparia bushes, beneath stands of pencil pines over a thousand years old. The landscape seems Jurassic. Strange grasshoppers skip erratically; skinks’ shadows melt between the boulders.
Jorgenson managed to spend a lot of time in the bush, between his other employments of writing treatises and working for the police. He saw the harshest side of the wilderness: a rushing river swept away one of his colleagues before his eyes. One night in the Walls of Jerusalem, he watched a log burning in its middle with snow still fixed firmly at each end, so cold it was. But he was drawn to the bush. There was something magnetic about the brightness of the stars in the dark, the little movements of birds in the bushes, the exhaustion of climbing a mountain, the exhilaration of walking with complete freedom – without restraint.
There are days when I feel like Jorgen Jorgenson and I could have had a good conversation, sitting outside our tents by what is now called Lake Adelaide, pausing with pen poised over a journal as mosquitoes buzzed around us. Perhaps we would talk about politics or religion; perhaps we would yarn about the adventures we’d been on, the places we’d seen. I suppose we would talk about women, at some point. Jorgen might remember the Scottish girl with whom he was almost married, or the Bavarian belle who embarrassed him at a ball. Who knows what bullshit I’d tell him.
An explorer, a seaman and something of a revolutionary, Jorgen Jorgenson also turned out to be somewhat romantic. He fell in love with an Irish convict, a drunk prostitute named Norah, and they got married in a church in New Norfolk, southern Tasmania. It was almost the death of him. That’s another thing we might have discussed, had Jorgen and I somehow found ourselves on a bushwalk somewhere, some time ago.
A year ago, a flew down the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, over the shoulder of Precipitous Bluff, across the south-western forest, and onto a tiny gravel airstrip at a place called Melaleuca. It was the beginning of a one-hundred kilometre walk along the south coast of Tasmania.
Over the next ten days, ground parrots were expelled from the buttongrass at my approach. I drank from cold tea-stained creeks and strung up my clothes on coastal banksias. Further south, Maatsuyker Island rose from the sea, a big isosceles triangle shrouded in powdery pink light. Seaweed pasta, sassafras tea.
At the highest point of the track, atop the Ironbounds, I looked at the zigzag of mountain ranges, jagging countless kilometres into the distance. I thought of lost things, as I often do – of the lost heritage of the Aborigines, of the probable extinction of the thylacine, of the drowned pink beach of Lake Pedder. But I also remembered that, at one time, the decision to walk along the south coast of Tasmania was an idea and a dream, and it had since become a present reality. And rising up onto the top of that mountain, taking a nip of whisky to celebrate, I realised that I was seeing new mountains, new tracks, new ways of being, and that they were becoming a possible future for me as well.
The frenetic ocean churned at my south flank for ten days straight.
The pandani tree is the world’s largest heath plant; it can grow up to 12 metres tall. Richea pandanifolia was first described by the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker in 1844, occurring in “mountainous situations” in the south-west of Tasmania. Hooker was one of Charles Darwin’s best mates. He was 40 when he married Frances Harriet Henslow. They had seven children.
Pandani are common around Cradle Mountain and Mount Field (the latter pictured here), and although they have been found on the west coast in rainforest conditions close to sea-level, they much prefer higher altitudes. It is endemic to the island. Somewhat palm-like in appearance, the pandani has long, serrated leaves which are retained by the plant for insulation. These dead leaves can be used to light a fire in wet conditions, although only in an emergency situation, for the foliage of Richea pandanifolia is a habitat for some unique insects.
Richea pandanifolia bears beautiful pink flowers in the summer.
In 1828, Goodwin and Connolly escaped from the prison of Sarah Island. They followed the rivers east, into the Vale of Rasselas, a vast and beautiful plain, probably the result of Aboriginal fire-stick farming in the pre-European past. It had been a hellish journey for the two men: here, they caught small fish from the Gordon River, and ate possum.
Finally they made it to the Ouse River, after five weeks together. There, they parted ways. Shortly after, Goodwin - whose real name was Cox - was apprehended by police in the township of Lincoln. The crafty convict managed to persuade the authorities not to send him back to the tortuous prison settlement of Sarah Island, and in the end, received a pardon, becoming a guide for expeditioners into the south-western wilderness.
Connolly was never heard from again.
(Disclaimer: the subjects of this photograph are not Goodwin and Connolly.)