Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged conservation

  • The Possibilities of Solitude

    The Possibilities of Solitude

    This past weekend, a group of concerned Tasmanians gathered in Launceston, under the unlikely and unpretty acronym of “Fawaha”: Fishers and Walkers Against Helicopter Access. Specifically, they were appealing against the construction of a private tourism operation on Halls Island in Lake Malbena, a remote and rarely-visited spot in the eastern part of the Walls of Jerusalem National Park.

    The self-styled author and fisherman Greg French gave a short speech, which highlighted the concerns of many interested Tasmanians. They range from issues of ecology to issues of governance, including a lack of transparency, the thwarting of usual National Parks processes, and a general arrogance on behalf of the tourism operators and the government departments involved.

    Lake Malbena, the latest of countless contested places in Tasmania, is within the boundaries of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, a large patch of country accepted by world experts as having value for all of humanity. That includes the many who will never get to visit it. Tourists and other visitors may see it, but the implication of such listings, I believe, is that we can only encounter these places on their own terms. To try and alter this wilderness, it would seem, undermines the reasons why it is considered valuable. It is not inscribed on the list because it is financially useful. It is a World Heritage site because of its precariousness, because we need it as it is in order to maintain the diversity of our existence.

    Wilderness is a wriggly word, and I understand why the Lake Malbena project may have some supporters in the Aboriginal community and also among the former graziers and old-timers of the high country. These parties have good arguments as to how the word ‘wilderness’ deprives them of their heritage. My opinion, however, is that the Lake Malbena project does precisely nothing to encourage our understanding of the human history of this special country.

    Part of the issue that faces us is around the idea of accessibility. Proponents will argue that these wilderness areas are without value if they are only available to the small percentage of the population who are able to walk in self-reliant manner to remote places.

    The frequent argument for operating tourism businesses in the World Heritage Area (and I actually work in one) is that by increasing the ease of access for visitors, we are promoting them for protection. At the best of times, this argument doesn’t entirely convince me – I have taken hundreds of visitors for bushwalks on the Overland Track, and my summation is that the conditions of buying a bushwalk usually preclude a real encounter with the kinds of things that make many of us desperate to keep Tassie landscapes in reserve. In the case of Lake Malbena, the argument cannot be made at all. That a handful of parties will be allowed to chopper into Halls Island, while the rest of us are banned, achieves precisely the opposite.

    The other side of that argument is that by expanding business operations in the World Heritage Area, we are decreasing a version of land use that is special to Tasmania. “Perhaps the most important thing about the preservation of wilderness is that it provides inspiration and solace,” Greg French said on Sunday. We risk diminishing the possibilities of solitude, and eroding the amount of non-commercial land we have. Such things are endangered in the world. There are so few hectares like this on the surface of our world. We are lucky to have a decent amount of it here, but few us recognise it as a defining characteristic of Tasmania. I think it is.

    Places like the Walls of Jerusalem are special because they are – for the moderately fit, well-prepared, and willing – actually quite easily accessible. A few hours by road, and a few hours on foot, and you have access to a huge area of landscape that has been recognised for its uniqueness and beauty. Without having to ascend high mountain peaks or use technical skill and equipment, you are in a rare place. Commercialising these spaces sabotages that potential.

    You have been told that Tasmania has, or is, a ‘brand’; I contest that we have a way of life, and I resent that our culture has been distilled into something saleable, by marketeers and politicians who care nothing for it. So much of what has made modern Tasmanian life is related to the vast spaces of rarely-visited, uncompromised land. These spaces are a presence behind our every action. For the colonists, and for the contemporary greedy of Tasmania, they represent the very worst of the world; but for those who have chosen to stay here or move here over the course of a couple hundred years, the choice has been made with some relationship to the grandeur of the Tasmanian landscape. We have breathing space here. We have slowness. We have solitude, or at least the option to pursue it.

    As a young man I would have left Tasmania had I not discovered these landscapes. Fortunately for me, I discovered a culture and identity in the bush. I found something that Greg French echoed on Sunday: “Wilderness is transcendental. Uplifting. There’s not much of it left. Anywhere in the world.” I realised that Tasmania is extraordinary. However, we may lose much of it if we let our landscapes go into the hands of those who wish we weren’t so special, who prefer a version of Tasmania that is entirely commercialised and therefore (I would argue) globalised and generalised.

    It is typical that this has been achieved by abusing the process we have laboriously put together over the years, the blueprint as to how we look after these spaces, which are, after all, on Unesco’s register of the world’s special places. Pathetically, there has been no tenable response from any of the proponents, including government, about the fact that they secretively changed the official management plan so that this project could fit with it. (This information was leaked.) The proponents – developers, tourism and government representatives – will wave their hands all around, trying to distract the public with caricatures of the conservationists involved, but they don’t have the guts to admit that they’ve steamrolled a legitimately-developed management plan to suit their own greedy whims.

    This is a pattern in Tasmanian industry, of course: forestry and hydro-electricity are not bad industries, but we gave their representatives such power that they became unbearable. I wrote an article for Crikey three years ago suggesting that tourism could easily become the same sort of monster. I believe we have reached that point in Tasmania, and I am both pissed off and distraught about it. Thankfully, this lot, for their latest attempt to do whatever the hell they want with our National Parks, is being taken to court.

  • Choosing The Future

    Choosing The Future

    This week I’ll vote in the Tasmanian state election. I’ve missed most of the campaign, which is fine by me, although I occasionally come back from the bush to find placards in the paddocks. Mostly it fills me with dismay. The arena of politics is still something of a muddle, and I have black streaks of cynicism running through me. I suppose I have faith in all too few of the men and women who have put their heads on the brightly-coloured backgrounds in their party’s chosen hues.

    Perhaps I was stained with this political melancholy in those early years of adulthood.
    Like most people I muddled into politics I guess. When I came of voting age, Tasmanian politics was in a fairly disgraceful state. Not for the first time, corruption cast an ugly shadow over everything. For a young man already bewildered by the broader themes of life, the intricacies of politics weren’t appealing.

    Nevertheless I blundered into a way of seeing things through my own eyes. For example, when I was nineteen years old, I went to a rally over the proposed Tamar Valley pulp mill. My photographs from that day are now interesting memorials. I ran into a friend whose father I now know is a prominent greenie from the region. Another old mate posed with her middle fingers sticking up; her father was a logger. I didn’t yet understand the animosity that burned beneath every exchange of ideas, and I didn’t really have an opinion myself. But soon enough I would.

    Politics wasn’t much discussed in my house: I remember my mother saying she might vote for that same Liberal politician because he had “a nice face”. (In fairness, I suppose I would equally avoid voting for another of his kind because he looks like a reptile.) I think even then she could have said what issues concerned her, but I doubt she’d have been able to attach a political party, and their policies, to those topics.

    I don’t remember how I voted when it finally came time for me to enter the cardboard cubicle. The vague ideas that governed my decision back then have certainly mutated. Some have metamorphosed irrevocably, while others simply hardened into sincere beliefs about the world and how we live in it. It is good to keep track of one’s ideas. It’s good to know that we are changing, to figure out how we are doing so, to try and sus out why.

    I can now readily imagine how I hope my homeland to be. This election threatens that vision – maybe they all do, but this one stings me particularly. There are ideas about what to do with special places and community spaces that are motivated by the greed of certain individuals and companies. A whole cohort of our candidates are proponents of shepherding through the ill-conceived projects of blustering developers, depriving the rest of us of the opportunity to object to them. They are happy to empty Tasmania of its meaning, as long as a few of them make a buck.

    Nowadays I know that the inverse of my dreams is possible too. My hopes may yet be turned inside-out, and I could be left on an island that has left me behind. How often do I look at those in power and wonder:
    why do they hate the Tasmania that I love so much?

    The arena of politics is still something of a muddle, and I have black streaks of cynicism running through me. But still I stubbornly hope to shape the ideas we have about this place, and I will vote for those whom I think will encourage my freedom to enjoy being Tasmanian.

    I have occasionally wondered what my grandparents made of the environmental campaigns over Lake Pedder and the Franklin River. If they supported the construction of the hydroelectric infrastructure that would deform those tracts of country, they were almost certainly off the mark. A party putting forward a policy is suggesting that if we take a certain direction for our future, it will primarily bring us beneficial outcomes. They may be right, or they may be wrong. Policies change our freedoms, the possibilities with which we interact with the world around us. Decisions made at election times are not futile. They can be the difference between feeling at home, or becoming an exile in your own homeland.

  • The Lawless Loveliness of the Landscape

    The Lawless Loveliness of the Landscape

    I recently wrote of Denmark: at last, I hinted, we may have held up our end of the bargain in an intercontinental exchange. In the 1820s a colourful Dansker came to Tasmania; in the year 2000, a love affair between a Tasmanian and the Crown Prince of Denmark began. Where we once received Jørgen Jørgensen, we gave away our Mary Donaldson.

    But actually, Tasmanians are still one-up over the Danes. Because in 1891, another Danish migrant would arrive to Hobart and also make a significant mark on our island’s culture. This was the novelist Marie Bjelke Petersen.

    She had been brought up in the outskirts of Copenhagen, but moved with her whole family when she was a teenager. They arrived in the spring. In her reminiscences at least, the scenery was instantly affecting: it was “a paradise of untouched beauty”, she said. “When I saw all these mountains in Tasmania, I embraced it on the spot.”

    Certainly the mountains would have been impressive. She’d have seen a number of them whilst still at sea, and Mount Wellington must have have struck her as imposing. Denmark, after all, is rather flat; its highest point is 170 metres above sea level.

    At first she tried to transmute her feeling for the Tasmanian landscape into painting, but she soon converted to writing. Her first three publications were religious works, but in 1917 she wrote
    The Captive Singer. The plot featured a guide who took tourists into the caves around Mole Creek, and sang well, and charmed a woman. It sold 150,000 copies in Australia – and 40,000 in a Danish translation.

    It kicked off a steady stream of words, and sales. In
    Dusk she wrote of a love affair in the mining town of Queenstown; in Jewelled Nights she narrated a close friendship (which became a love affair) at a prospectors’ camp on the Savage River. In total Bjelke Petersen sold more than a quarter of a million books in English and many more in the six languages into which they were translated. For an Australian author of her era, this was an enormous success.

    The novels don’t necessarily age well. Their
    plots are sometimes frivolous, and Bjelke Petersen’s religious didactism doesn’t read well today. Today, her prose comes across as overly romantic, breathless and out-of-control. But one thing is certain: Marie Bjelke Petersen’s writing about Tasmania (and mainland Australia, in which she set a couple of novels) showed an original view of the landscape. Where other authors painted Tasmania as “bleak and cheerless”, Bjelke Petersen raved about the “lawless loveliness of the landscape.”

    Perhaps for Bjelke Petersen, excursions into the bush gave her liberty. She travelled far and wide into western Tasmania researching her plots. Her other career was as a teacher of physical education; she strongly believed in its virtues. She went places that few women of European background had been.

    You may be familiar with her nephew, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who would later become a Queensland politician. His aunt was also religiously conservative, but Marie was nevertheless a forward thinker in society. I’m not sure if she ever thought of herself as a feminist, but she certainly wasn’t willing to be constrained by expectations of gender roles. The novelist refused to be married, and instead lived with her close friend Sylvia Mills. (Plenty of tongues have wagged about what their relationship might have been, but I have little gossip to contribute.)

    Marie Bjelke Petersen was also an environmental conservationist. “It is really a matter that brings tears to my eyes to see the way our beautiful forests are being wantonly burnt off,” she declared in one public address. Her enthusiasm for the bush wasn’t confined to her literature. (“The jungle was a riotous confusion of strong growing things, which clung savagely together and almost strangled each other in their fierce passionate embraces!”)

    This is a recurring theme in Tasmania: so many of the activists who have spoken in praise and in defence of our landscapes have originally come from places like Denmark, Austria, Germany, Romania, Lithuania and Latvia. Although today I think some Tasmanian-born individuals have at last begun to understand and respect their surrounds, for many years we relied on those who had come from the outside to point out just how special it all was.

    Likewise, Marie Bjelke Petersen was a special character in Tasmanian cultural history – another Dane for whom we can be grateful. She died as an old lady in October 1969.



    Another fascinating literary figure from Tasmania was the Glenorchy-born author Christopher Koch.

  • A Savage Shock

    A Savage Shock

    Captain Abel Tasman had suspected there were mineral deposits in the mountains of western Tasmania; his compass acted up as the Zeehaen and Heemskirk approached the island in 1642.

    In 1877 the work of intrepid government surveyor Charles Sprent confirmed the presence of various ores in that rugged country, including deposits of
    magnetite iron ore, on the Savage River, whose tenebrous waters flow down from beneath Mount Bertha through pristine rainforest into the Pieman River and the west coast.

    But the ore was of lower quality (only 38% iron) and it took nearly a century for mineral investors to believe in the economic potential of a mine there. The town of Savage River came to be over the years 1965 to 1967 and the mine began its life. Today it is operated by Grange Resources, a Chinese-owned company which is the largest non-government employer in north-western Tasmania. An 80 kilometre pipeline brings the magnetite concentrate to a plant near the port town of Burnie.

    In 1990 a young couple from New Zealand arrived to practice medicine in the town. A bushfire had just ripped through the Hazelwood River valley. Local stories varied as how the disaster had occurred: as one of these doctors recalled in a recent letter, it was either “campers who hadn’t doused their fire properly” or “the forestry boys who prior to the end of the financial year had $ to burn so would experiment with dropping fire bombs from helicopters.”

    Meanwhile, the Savage River was being severely polluted by run-off from the mine.
    30 kilometres of the river was poisoned by acid seepages and other contaminants. By 1995, the Environmental Protection Agency reports, parts of the river “were found to have lost 90% of its invertebrate biodiversity and 99% of its invertebrate abundance”. Even by the standards of other local environmental ravages, this was a terrible result.

    In the 1990s, though, an environmental rehabilitation process was implemented.

    For three years
    these Kiwi doctors worked at Savage River; their work had seen them attend to snakebites, jackjumper anaphylaxis and indeed mine fatalities. this year, they returned to Tasmania to tour the island in a campervan. I had met these doctors previously on a bushwalk; in a remarkable coincidence, we found ourselves camped on other sides of the Savage River on rainy west coast evening.

    A letter had just been written to me, full of observations from their time revisiting the area. “May as well save on the postage,” we agreed.

    As the road wound its way towards their old place of work, they were greeted with post-bushfire reforestation, and the mizzling rain that they had lived with most days of their three-year stint in western Tasmania. However, the sight of the Savage River township was “a savage shock.” The accumulation of waste rock, removal of temporary homes and buildings, boomgates installed over roads: twenty-six years of memory were undone in an instant. “The squash courts remain – as what?”

    The doctors were taken aback by the visual impact of the mine, and suggested that what had seemed like a contained site in 1990 had now spread malignantly into the surrounding forest.

    In the meantime, other sites in the area have moved away from such industries and are hoping to survive from tourism. This area is now widely known as the Tarkine or
    takayna, a broadly-defined region covering much temperate rainforest, mountainous terrain, and rarely-visited coastline. A recent publication, Tarkine Trails, invites recreational visitors to the area in order to promote its conservation value. On the other hand, some sixty-odd mineral exploration licenses are valid in the Tarkine region, which environmentalists worry will continue to “significantly disturb river environments”.

    They are campaigning for a Tarkine National Park: a proposal which they accept will have no effect on the current lease of the Savage River Iron Ore Mine operated by Grange Resources. North of the mine, the Savage River National Park is Tasmania’s least accessible national park, and the river, untouched, drops down through forested gorges before it comes upon the mine.