Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged camping

  • Exploring the Neighbourhood

    Exploring the Neighbourhood

    At the time I was quite sure it was the most beautiful place I had ever been. Most of us were housemates, and we'd left our Launceston rental home on a January morning to go and set ourselves up at a scrubby, sandy retreat for a few days. To get to the beach we had to walk less than one minute, upon a soft pad through flowering pigface. We were at the coast.

    When we first arrived there was a reddish tinge to the shore. It was like algae, only it disappeared as we approached it. It was a plethora of soldier crabs, an absolute throng of them, corkscrewing away into the sand as we came towards them. We watched them closely, then caught them in our hands, and finally, after being out in the open sun for so long, we parted this red sea of crabs and dove into the blue sea of Great Oyster Bay.

    I also declared it the finest swim of my life. We threw a tennis ball, rough-housed each other and dived into wads of seaweed to catch it. The water was an electric blue, a blue I usually only find in my dreams. Something slashed my foot; the blood was bright red, another dream-like colour; the scar remains. In the evening I remember laughing into the closing sky. I remember the sun full on the horizon, the tide out. Someone was reading Thoreau by the fire. For dinner, sausages. Then hot chocolates. Stars multiplied into the southern constellations. We were full of sticky sugar, and well-rested, and somehow felt watched over.

    I remember saying: "I think I'm learning to see emptiness as space."

    In my dreams I saw swarms of crabs covering everything with hard scales of red, beaches and mountains and planets, rheumy images in my tired mind. When we awoke the tide was up and they were gone. We yanked up cockles for breakfast. Pelicans lounged on the sandbar.
    An adjacent range of mountains loomed silvery in the early light. A gannet went plummeting madly into the sea to catch its own brekky.

    Somehow in my memory it seems like the first time I'd ever looked into a rockpool and seen the vibrant colours of limpets and sea-snails and seaweed, the tiny glossy mussels and sea slugs, the wraisse or yellow-tail or whatever that fish was that I saw, I realised, simply by waiting, adjusting my focus, honing my attention. "It is a slow process, this learning to be patient," I wrote in my journal after that trip, "but I am being patient with it. I am going to see."

    This wasn't my first fish, my first rockpool, my first swim, or my first beach. But there hadn't been many. To go to the coast - and it is always 'the coast', by which we mean the east coast, although there a thousand different spots you might go: we were at Dolphin Sands, on a shack block
    that my housemate's parents were about to sell - is a typical rite of passage for any young Tasmanian. But there were a number of rites of passage that I missed somehow.

    For a long time I had a very small world. We didn't go on family holidays much. There was a patch of bush behind our house, and I am not being fatuous when I say that this was truly enough. Even this I don't think I knew very well - I had no names for anything in it except 'gum tree' - but I understood myself in that landscape at least. I learned my body, if nothing else: a thousand lacerations on a prickly currant bush will do that to you. Breaking off the branches of a black peppermint, running down a steep slope of she-oak needles because you think a ghost's chasing you: that's an education.

    These days the shadows on my maps are being peeled back. There are still a fair few roads left for me to go down in Tasmania, but probably more that I've visited. I look back on the notes from those days, the tatty journal I kept for that summer: we tore a tree down in the backyard that January, and I remarked on its pink, minty smell. In a grumpy mood I went erratically off into the bush, not very far, but into the realm of "wallabies and tangled plants", into "a damp, mossy part of the world". I watched some ants assault a caterpillar at Lilydale Falls; they shoved it right off a wooden handrail into the creek. On my balcony there was "a beautiful possum", nervously tightroping the powerline towards me. Were these my first nights under the stars?

    This was about a decade ago now and I do not often recognise myself in those old notebooks. I sleep so often under the stars, and see so many beautiful possums, that some of the events of those younger years strike me as utterly bizarre. What makes more sense is that exactly at the time of this trip to Dolphin Sands, I started reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by the American nature writer Annie Dillard. In it she was coaxing me "to explore the neighbourhood, view the landscape, to discover where it is that we have been so startlingly set down, if we can't learn why."

    Why - I had spent a lot of time, dwelling in a moody adolescent way, on why. At some point around that trip to the coast, I began to explore the neighbourhood instead, and found that I very much liked where I so inexplicably was.



    Later I would find things like this dead porcupine fish, prompting me to write of convict artist William Gould.

  • One Sunday Morning in Ranelagh

    One Sunday Morning in Ranelagh

    I. Riddell, 1819.

    The country along the Huon River had been known to Europeans for a couple of decades. The French had come up the river under Bruni d’Entrecasteaux. He had assigned the river’s name in honour of the commander of one of his vessels, Huon de Kermadec. That was 1792.

    Pre-eminent naturalist Robert Brown led a journey down the Huon in 1804, before declaring it unsuitable for settlement. But there was now knowledge of the country’s geography and the first scattered settlements appeared.

    In 1819, for example, I. Riddell came and scratched his name into a tree.

    In the 1820s, an absconded convict with the surname of Martin was found at a makeshift campsite at what is now the township of Franklin. As was so often the case with the bolters of colonial Van Diemen’s Land, this Martin had escaped into a location with a wealth of resources. The river, the wetlands, and the hinterland of eucalypt forest were full of life; here it was possible for an outcast to find shelter,
    find food, make fire and survive.

    However, as elsewhere in Tasmania, these colonial outposts required ingenuity and bravery. New settlers would live in bark huts and work long hours. Everything was home-made. Conflict with the original Tasmanian population was also prevalent in this period of history, and these remote settlements were exposed.

    After the development of a bridle track the following decade, the Huon Valley became one of the most fecund agricultural areas on the island. Even Lady Jane Franklin acquired a large block of land and put it to use.

    The Huon River came to have over 70 jetties; even with the bridle track, it made more sense to use the water as a road. Vessels without engines were replaced by steamers and soon enough, a Huon resident would be able to take an early-morning boat ride to Hobart.

    Like many others, George Lucas shipped timber upstream. He felled the trees on his property Ranelagh, today the name of a village of about 1000 people.

    It was here I woke up about this time last year. Not quite in the cemetery, amongst the tombstones of my predecessors, but in the adjacent park. Sometimes after midnight, I had arrived from the Huon Valley Midwinter Feast, the local wassailing festival. (It is genuinely one of my favourite festivals and I’m sorry to miss it this year). Giddy with cider and bock, I’d sort-of put up my tent and slept in it. When I woke up, the sun was melting the frost. The resonant voices of the Sunday morning flock rose from the Anglican church-house, joining the mist lifting from the Huon. Some children were hunting for Pokémon – now that’s history.

    What makes a person try and mark their time and place in the world so definitely, to scribble their name on a wall or scratch it into a tree? If ever I needed to fix myself somewhere, it may have been that morning in Ranelagh. I was completely untethered for the day – no car, no mobile phone,
    no plans, no companions. I went and found a wallaby pie for breakfast, and wandered off, unregistered, with the other old souls of the Huon Valley.

  • Drawing Closer

    Drawing Closer

    It was once said that the Aboriginal Tasmanians would come to the west coast, look out over the moiling sea, and imagine a country in that direction known as the “Land of Sweet Forget”.

    Whatever the veracity of this legend is, when I found myself on the west coast just before the turn of the year, I discovered not some longing for amnesia but rather a heightened sense of memory. I was, in fact, caught in a sticky morass of reminiscence, as I thought of all of those whose existence is part of the structure that had made my year, and in fact my life.

    Interestingly, after a year in which I almost entirely failed to leave Tasmania, I still find that my days are deeply affected by those elsewhere. It may seem incredible that Turkish bomb blasts should disturb me in Triabunna, or that Donald Trump’s election would ruffle my feathers at Lake St. Clair, but this is how it was.

    And likewise, out on the west coast, after I’d coaxed a fire out of damp tea-tree and eucalypt, I found old friends returning to me, incorporeal like smoke or sea-spray.

    I could list them all here: the Spaniard teaching maths in a Bristol classroom, the
    lovely young cynic I met a decade ago in northern California, the Brazilian lesbian labouring on a newspaper, the placeless Dutch lady with the fair eyelashes…But as a list they make for futile literature, whereas in my head they are able to interact, like figures with volition, same as those who populate a proper city. In my head, there is a world.

    After forays into this world, I retreat back to its margins. At least that’s how I presume it looks to those who come from the cultural and economic centres of the Earth: the nouveaux-riches in India or China, those who watch themselves on television in Los Angeles, the colonial capitals of London or Paris, or those from the middle of the world: the Mediterranean or the Middle East.

    What they will have trouble understanding is that for me, this is being smack-bang in the middle of things.

    At one point I found myself remonstrating with a fairy-wren, who I had accused of stealing a very significant item of mine. This was a petite teaspoon, which I pinched from the side of my café noisette in a Parisian bar one night. Yes, I found the teaspoon somewhere amongst my camping equipment – and duly apologised to the fairy-wren – but it goes to show how much value I place on memory.

    And how strangely, instead of being keenly aware of how remote I am from many whose lives I care about, I somehow feel as if they’re drawing closer.



    This time last year, I was on Tassie's east coast, exploring the meaning of fish.