Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged economy

  • Tasmania, the Brand

    Tasmania, the Brand

    I’m not sure when the word ‘branding’ became common parlance, but I do remember when I learned that the word ‘Tasmania’ had a certain appeal. I was on my first extended journey overseas, and it became clear to me that my native toponym warranted an excited response for people from, say, the U.S.A. or Italy or Germany.

    That has only increased as the years have passed, and now I realise that there’s now an official effort to elicit responses like this to ‘Tasmania’. That’s what branding is – a deliberate attempt to attach certain positive associations and assumptions with a name. Those euphonious syllables – Tasmania, Tasmania – have no meaning of their own.

    Now is not the first go at this: the renaming of Van Diemen’s Land in 1856 was intended to rid the colony of a certain stigma. Lately, we’ve become interested in the brand of Tasmania as tourism has become a big part of how we make a crust on our island. Tourism has begun to make a noticeable impact on our lives here, and we’re told it’s only going to continue to grow.

    I started working in tourism just as it had begun to rumble. It’s an interesting time to have accidentally wound up in this realm of work. I have to say that it’s given me plenty of opportunities. Yet I also have some grave reservations about it.

    I’m addicted to looking at marketing material. Usually I find it tacky and laughable, but I nevertheless look, wonder – often mystified – and critique. If you’re Tasmanian, I encourage you to pay close attention to the ideas within the ads around Tasmania. We must learn to read between the lines.

    Maybe I worry about how we advertise ourselves because I know what the marketing material doesn’t tell. Tasmanians don’t all drink fine wine or snack on goat’s cheese. Half of us are reportedly illiterate, and very many Tasmanians certainly can’t afford a gourmand’s diet.

    I’m not expecting tourism brochures to spruik the issues we have in health or education, but nevertheless, we must not let ourselves be distracted or deluded by the glossy images.

    All too frequently I am encountering news that reminds me of the shadow side of our advertised identity. For example, the government’s recent attempt to redefine areas of World Heritage country so that they can be adapted for high-end business. Or the unfair involvement of politicians in the proposal for a cable-car on kunanyi-Mount Wellington. Or the cost-cutting short-cuts that the Chinese owner of the Van Diemen’s Land Company farms is hoping to implement. Or the way individuals and families struggling to find housing are camping on the edges of Hobart while visitors are encouraged to come glamping on the edges of national parks.

    This is sadly a part of Tasmanian life: part of our history, and very much a part of our present.

    The troubles that are associated with tourism branding is to do with what we’re trying to sell ourselves as, and to whom. Inviting visitors to come and voraciously consume our offerings is dangerous, and in the long term, counter-productive. Tourism is a fragile industry. It seems to me that the more slowly it is developed, the more robust it becomes. We can’t rely on merely being trendy – trends veer off in wild trajectories sometimes.

    This is especially relevant in Tasmania, which, as an island, has an inherent ecological and social fragility. We emphasise quality over quantity, and among our major commodities are slowness and quietness. Not to mention the fact that most of our special landscapes can’t handle an inundation of humans galumphing through them. We have plenty of incentives to moving more cleverly and less brazenly into a future of tourism.

    There is nothing inherently wrong with tourism, nor with branding. I had a conversation this weekend with a well-known restaurateur who mentioned, with some passion, that he wanted to see Tasmania become world-renowned for our skills in service. Now this would be a worthy way to portray ourselves. Likewise, I would like to see us as an island of ideas, a locus for experimental education, for landscape studies, for science, for attentiveness.

    We can be bold with our brand.
    It seems to me that, in a sense, Tasmania is in a position to choose its tourists. For example: why shouldn’t the visitors centres in our national parks stop selling takeaway coffee? That would communicate a raft of fine messages about the identity of Tasmanians, our connection with place, and our commitment to conservation. Drink slowly, we are saying. Linger in beautiful places.  Don't wreck the joint. Those who want to consume rampantly can go elsewhere; those who will savour reflective moments – those who will truly taste what we are offering – will be more attracted to our place than ever.

    But of course, that couldn’t just be branding. A brand without substance is a brash lie. And in the end, I don’t want us to focus on improving the brand of Tasmania. I’d rather improve on the place, on how we live here. Goat’s cheese, chardonnay and lavender teddy bears aren’t truly the crucial materials of Tasmanian life. We have other, deeper resources that give this land its meaning.

  • Locked Up

    Locked Up

    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.

  • Dad in the Bush, or, King of the West Coast Explorers

    Dad in the Bush, or, King of the West Coast Explorers

    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.”


     
    Meet another Thomas from the same era: Thomas Hinton, a master of the photographic self-portrait.
    Enjoy some more royal bush hospitality with the Prince of Rasselas.

  • Track Work

    Track Work

    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.

  • The Dog That Saved the Tasmanian Economy

    The Dog That Saved the Tasmanian Economy

    James Smith was known for his stolid, austere way of life, which in Tasmania was enough to earn him the splendid nickname ‘Philosopher’. I cannot remember ever hearing him laugh,” his son recalled, “but occasionally he would smile at something amusing or pleasing.”

    Spartan and Stoic in style, Philosopher Smith was actually a teetotalling Christian, with a strong faith that matched his sagacious beard. The son of convicts, Smith was an early settler in the lower reaches of the beautiful Forth River in north-western Tasmania, in the middle decades of the 1800s. After a stint on the Victorian gold fields as a younger man, he began prospecting in Tasmania.

    This was no insignificant endeavour, as Tasmanians were desperately keen to uncover the colour of mineral wealth. With convict transportation recently halted, the island needed new economic stimuli; colonies elsewhere were gaining riches from gold, and the Tasmanian workforce was depleted by emigration to these fields.
    A forced amalgamation with the state of Victoria was not out of the question.

    Philosopher Smith found small patches of minerals in the north-west, such as rutile, copper, iron and silver. But when he came upon a sample of tin-
    bearing cassiterite on the slopes of Mount Bischoff in 1871, the Tasmanian economy was to enter a period of optimism for the first time in many years. The following year, the prospecting Philosopher found a massive body of tin ore on the mountain: underground workings would go on to extract more than five million tonnes from Bischoff, and at a time it was the richest tin mine on the planet.

    The man himself was hardy and undemanding, but some credit needs to be given to Philosopher Smith’s dog. On a previous venture, Smith had nearly been killed by a dog who, scrambling up the bank of a creek, dislodged a large stone which went “whizzing close past” his head. But the Philosopher continued to take dogs on his prospecting journey, and in 1871, he was with his “sort of Collie-Spaniel”, named Bravo.

    It was towards the end of the expedition and Philosopher had run out of almost all of his supplies, when Bravo killed an echidna – provisions enough to keep the prospector out for another day to
    revisit the potential lode. The last of his tea-leaves went into the billy, and a morsel of bread (half-eaten by a native animal) went with the echidna meat. Philosopher Smith returned to the complex geological structure of Mount Bischoff and confirmed that there was tin in that hill.

    Good many blokes got their pockets well lined at that show,” says one character in a 1920s novel set in the area, as he nods back to Mount Bischoff. And so it was, but one man who did not make much from the mining of Bischoff was Philosopher Smith himself, who parted ways with the Mount Bischoff before the first dividend was paid. You get the feeling it didn’t bother him so much. He was still prospecting in the difficult country of north-western Tasmania a dozen years later.

    He would eventually return to Launceston, where he had passed some time in his youth. Launceston was economically buoyant, largely thanks to Mount Bischoff – the wealth from its tin was being gleaned by Tasmania’s northern settlement as it was smelted and exported. Philosopher Smith found fortune of another kind: there, he married a widow named Mary Jane Love - “by all accounts a caring loving wife and quite attractive to boot,” according to folklore. He was approaching fifty years of age at this time.

    Philosopher Smith would pass away two decades, and is buried in a cemetery in the township of Forth. Bravo’s fate, and the whereabouts of his remains, are unknown.

  • Diego Bernacchi's Imagination

    Diego Bernacchi's Imagination

    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.

  • The Embedded Town

    The Embedded Town

    So many years, so many eyes, so much terrain: the search for Tasmania’s mineral wealth was an odyssey that spanned much of the 1800s. In the latter decades of that century, ragtag crews of raggedy men were measuring and pegging claims, and scratching for riches in the surface of the earth.

    When the wealth finally appeared on the island’s west coast, it wasn’t as expected.

    Traces of gold appeared at an alluvial claim on a mountain above the Queen River, and optimism rose to unprecedented levels. “Everyone who saw the ironstone, matted with fine gold that glistened after showers of rain, was impressed with the mine,” notes historian Geoffrey Blainey. The government geologist Gustav Thureau – who was not always right – rattled off his theory on the mine, describing it as eroding volcanic mud at last shedding its gold and sharing it with men. “Begorrah!” the soon-to-be-famous Irish miner James Crotty is said to have exclaimed, “It’s all gold, I tell you!”

    But it wasn’t. It was mostly something else, in fact, and the Mount Lyell mine became the richest copper mine in its day. The mine managers recruited an American metallurgist from the fields of Colorado and employed him to erect his innovative system of smelting to extract as much copper from Lyell to sell to the world.

    Among the handful of towns which appeared in a cluster around the generous geology of Mount Lyell, none compared to Queenstown. “No Tasmanian town had grown so rapidly,” according to Blainey, who was later commissioned to write a history of Mount Lyell. There were pubs galore; vibrant displays of entertainment visited the area frequently; unforgettable characters spilled out onto the streets.

    In Queenstown today, the brilliantly eccentric Galley Museum gives anecdotes on the experiences of those glory days. A snapshot of the neighbouring miners’ town of Gormanston in 1910 is accompanied by this caption: “Miners and their lovers were having a hell of a good time. Young married miners and their wife battling to get a home together and flat out producing babys.”

    But the humour of this note hints at the tremendous tragedy that was just around the corner for the Lyell community in 1912, when an entire shift of miners was trapped in the depths of a shaft. While many escaped, 42 men perished. Beyond the fatalities, the community was distraught. While bodies were trapped in the shaft, so too were families stuck in a state of unknowing.

    A photograph in the Galley shows a large crowd milling around the newsagency of A.A. Mylan, on Orr Street, trying to discover the latest news. “Women showed bravery,” a newspaper article reported during this distressing period, “but there were many sobbing...How long must we wait to know the worst was a pathetic question asked by many.”

    It was eight whole months before the last bodies could be retrieved from the mine.

    Most of these women would indeed discover their beloved was among the deceased. Louisa Scott, for example, would soon face the reality of having lost her young husband Leonard, the father of their six-week-old daughter Violet.

    Eugene Felix McCasland, whose family was back in New South Wales, had become engaged to a young lass in the Linda Valley; for the funeral of her betrothed, she made a shroud of brown material, with a white cross over the chest.

    Other men had only their mates to mourn them – like the Austrian-born Valentine Bianchini, who had time to write a will in his notebook before dying.

    Henry Dawson was one of the survivors, but had been trapped for five days: he didn’t return to mining, but instead moved to Melbourne and married a city girl. Unfortunately only a couple of years later, he was killed on a Flanders battlefield.

    Mount Lyell’s longevity is comparable to few other mines in Australia. Only a handful of years ago, two more young men died in a collapse there, however, once more leaving the local community shattered. The Mount Lyell mine is currently closed.

    “Mining towns are ephemeral by nature – as elusive as the minerals they pursue,” writes Tasmanian novelist Brett Martin. “There is no continuity, no history, no real confidence in the future...Nothing is embedded, nothing is certain.”

    But this impressive community has yet to give up its resolve; here in the wet and misty west, Queenstown remains where so many other towns have gone to ruin. Attached to a part of the world that is like no other, the people of Queenstown are adapting again to varying conditions, each of which is far from easy.

  • Heritage and Ruins

    Heritage and Ruins

    Earlier this month, folk musicians John Flanagan and Daniel Townsend came to Launceston to listen to local stories and convert them into song. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, I listened to them perform, and was most delighted to hear their ditty in praise of these small cottages, long abandoned to weeds and graffiti on the North Esk River.

    Wedged between Launceston’s Centrelink offices and the newly-reopened strip club, the Boland Street cottages were built in 1876 to the designs of prominent local architect Peter Mills. Twice during the 1990s they were gutted by fires, and so have sat for nearly two decades in a quiet state of disuse.

    Yet ‘Centrelink Cottage’ (as the musicians called it) has been the centre of plenty of debate, even as it remains unused. Like the former C.H. Smith building on the intersection of Charles and Canal streets, the Boland Street cottages are heritage-listed, and therefore potential developers of these sites have been subject to great obstacles.

    Tasmania has a very proactive Heritage Council, and with good reason: the island’s colonial architecture is preserved better than anywhere else in Australia, with a number of sites declared to be of high value when it comes to expressing vernacular styles and the community’s sense of place.

    Both the cottages and the C.H. Smith buildings represent an important part of Launceston’s waterfront industrial tapestry. But as was argued by Michael Newton, who battled for two decades to have the Boland Street cottages released from heritage listing, “How do you maintain a burnt-out and derelict property?”

    Ruined buildings like these are consistently dismissed as ‘eyesore’. But others argue that such sites have an alternative value. As British nature writer Roger Deakin wrote in his journals, “
    We need more ruins...more evidence of a past, a living past. Ruins have a special life of their own.”

    The Boland Street cottages have been sold and a significant development is mooted for the site; work is being undertaken to allow the C.H. Smith to house 20 retailers and a carpark.

    Cities carry the past and they obliterate it,” writes literary critic Gillian Beer. Urban landmarks are always under more pressure to change, to be adapted. Our commercial tastes dictate this. If you were to read this town’s architectural history, you would be able to interpret what has been driving us. Today, our built spaces are being converted to whisky bars, tourism ventures, tattoo parlours – but each of these, in time, will be out of fashion and replaced by other interests, all of which will be explainable through the myriad economic and social forces around us and within us.

    There are countless changes that have occurred in my two decades living in this town. Walk around Launceston and look up: you’ll find more, from the last two centuries. “Cities here are communicative: present and past coexist in a conversation that composes layers and striations of reference.”

    As a budding adolescent photographer, oblivious to the existence of the romantic aesthetic but drawn to it nevertheless, I entered the ruins mentioned above. My eye was attracted to the exposed skeleton of the cottages and the wiry branches of buddleja; inside the C.H. Smith building, I found a shelter that seemed to have belonged to some homeless people, with cushions and stuffed toys. “The bosses here are fascists,” a note from some unknown time read. The images I took (and photoshopped to death) are of places that will belong only to the long distant past soon enough.

  • Henry Hellyer of the Van Diemen's Land Company

    Henry Hellyer of the Van Diemen's Land Company

    We can imagine Henry Hellyer on the deck of the Cape Packet in March 1826, after six long months at sea, seeing Hobart Town come into view. Young, talented and courageous, but prone to melancholy, he was the chief surveyor and architect for the newly-established Van Diemen’s Land Company. Much of the future of Van Diemen’s Land hung on this company. His job would be one of the most challenging in the colony. It would kill him.

    Company superintendent Edward Curr and his London backers were unimpressed with the tracts of land given them by colonial officials, so he sent out his surveyors and their convict servants into the forests and mountainous regions of north-western Van Diemen’s Land. Henry Hellyer was the leader of this band, which included other Cape Packet arrivals such as Joseph Fossey, Alexander Goldie and Clement Lorymer. The convict workers were more experienced bushmen, “intelligent active men used to the bush,” in Hellyer’s words, such as Isaac Cutts, Richard Frederick, Jorgen Jorgenson, and Alexander McKay.

    Wet myrtle forests, spiky and stringy thickets of bauera and horizontal, rushing rivers, mosquitoes and hunger plagued their every day of exploration. They slept “like mummies, rolled up in blankets” after days of “violent bodily exercises” and such privations that “we were obliged to go on, or starve”.

    Ah, but what joy when they emerged into a clearing, when the sun came out, or when they returned to the Van Diemen’s Land headquarters!

    Hellyer was an optimistic and brave, and sensitive to natural beauty. He sketched vistas from the various mountains he ascended and named landmarks after European painters. If he had a fault in these early years of Vandemonian exploration, it was that he was too optimistic: all his geese, it was said, were swans.

    Having seen an unmapped range of mountains in the distance from St. Valentine’s Peak, Hellyer and Fossey led a team towards the northern edge of Tasmania’s central highlands in November 1828. They each carried a fortnight of provisions, bearing twenty-five kilograms each. From Mt. Block, they looked into the fearful river gorges that sliced the ranges in every direction.

    A week later, caught in a severe snowstorm on a plateau above the Fury River, Hellyer led his team into the “terrible gully” of its gorge to get shelter. “We saw we were in a worse predicament than ever,” Hellyer penned in his journal. “We made for the horrid ravine as our only refuge.”

    They descended some 600 metres the river, camped in buttongrass by its side, roasted a wombat, and slept uneasily. In the morning they escaped onto the plateau by Cradle Mountain. Either Hellyer or Fossey was the first white person to summit this mountain.

    But these physical hardships appeared to be nothing compared to the emotional turmoil occurring inside Henry Hellyer’s mind. Hellyer believed he had found good grazing land further north, around Surrey Hills. However, he was wrong: and the Van Diemen’s Land Company incurred great cost attempting to raise sheep and cattle there, and they perished in the winter. In 1832, after a very cold winter, Surrey Hills was “becoming the graves of all the sheep”. Hellyer tried to defend himself; he became oversensitive to criticism; he retreated into himself; and he let melancholy consume him.

    There was also a malicious rumour of some kind spread by a convict servant by the name of Harley, who had worked under Hellyer’s supervision previously. Harley had allegedly been a poor worker and was not paid upon the completion of the job. The slander may have been that Hellyer was a homosexual, or that he had been caught masturbating.

    In the early hours of September 2, 1832, Henry Hellyer committed suicide.


    Here is the story of the career of Edward Curr and its consequences.
    Jorgen Jorgenson was another Van Diemen's Land Company explorer.

  • Edward Curr of the Van Diemen's Land Company

    Edward Curr of the Van Diemen's Land Company

    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.



  • To Fool the Heart

    To Fool the Heart

    “I too know the magical power of a look at the right time and place,” she said. “I know how the heart burns in slow fires.”

    Norina was reading from a novel, a passage about love. Dr. Malatesta had approached her. He had a crafty plan to fool Don Pasquale. He would use this woman; Don Pasquale would bend to her will. And so Norina, in response, sings: “I know the effect of lying tears, on a sudden languor; I know a thousand ways love can fraud.”

    Amy Sherwin was playing Norina in her theatre début at Hobart’s Theatre Royal in 1878. And at the end of the show, the crowd stood up in rapturous applause. The career of the ‘Tasmanian nightingale’ was about to be launched.

    From there, she would tour Melbourne, Ballarat and Sydney, her devotees multiplying with each performance. It was only the beginning. She toured not only Australia, but America, Europe, Asia and even South Africa. In San Francisco in 1879 she nailed Violetta in La Traviata despite having just recovered from pneumonia. A biographer says that Amy Sherwin was “the first Australian singer to make an overseas impact.”

    Strange to think it all began here in Judbury, a hamlet on the Huon River in Tasmania’s south. In apple country.

    Born in 1855 as Frances Amy Lillian Sherwin, it is said that Amy was discovered singing alone in a paddock near to where some visitors were picnicking by the Huon River. Those picnickers turned out to be members of the touring Pompei and Cagli Italian Opera Company, and they convinced her to audition.

    Raised in a farming family who had suffered from droughts and fires, Amy had been educated at home, with piano lessons given by her grandfather.

    Two decades later, returning to Hobart after her global success, her fans commandeered her carriage, unharnessing the horses and pulling her themselves through the streets. One can imagine her, in her early forties, radiantly beautiful and rejuvenated by the enthusiasm of her fellow Tasmanians.

    But she didn’t stay. In London, she was regarded as witty, erudite, polished and hospitable. It was to there that she retired in 1907, after tours in Australia in 1902 and 1906. She had a disabled daughter and became a teacher in order to support her. But she was not a good financial manager and descended into poverty and illness.

    However, music continued to uplift her. “Even when her voice was only a whisper she would sit at the piano and sing with an archness and vivacity peculiarly her own”.

    Perhaps she recalled the words she’d sung as Norina: “The charms and arts are easy to fool the heart.”

    She was not forgotten by her homeland. A fundraiser in Hobart sent her £200. A plaque was erected outside the building where she made her début. She died in London on 20 September 1935.



  • Fatty Appleton's Town

    Fatty Appleton's Town

    On the other side of the world, in a city founded more than two millennia ago, I turn to my usual news sources and read about Hobart.

    Of course, Hobart’s winter solstice festival, Dark Mofo, has been and gone with its feasts, concerts and presentations, as well as a skinny-dip in the cold water of the Derwent estuary. It has, according to one reporter, lived up to the hype.

    This festival, co-ordinated by those behind the Museum of Old and New Art, are creating new traditions. And it is interesting to watch traditions being born.

    That Hobart has hype is also a new thing. For a long time, Hobart and the island of which it is the capital city have been somewhat maligned by the rest of the country. A small population, poor education outcomes, a struggling economy and a relatively cold climate made Tasmania a butt of jokes, with the most common of them describing Tasmanians as socially isolated, backwards, and inbred.

    Not to mention a lingering stigma about the city’s sordid past. The second-oldest city in Australia was founded as a penal colony, and for the first part of the 1800s, that was its primary purpose. This, of course, also dispossessed the original Tasmanians, who had lived throughout the island for more than 40,000 years.

    This was the town to which the refuse of the British Empire was sent, or to which the riff-raff fled trying to escape their pasts. Where men were hung up on triangles on the street corners and flogged, where prostitutes and drunks roamed. Pedlars stood at Poor Man’s Corner on Elizabeth Street, such as Coffee Tom selling matchticks, and Nobby Dixon offering cigars, and Patsy Maher selling fruit from his donkey cart.

    It was the town of Fatty Appleton, a wharfie and a brawler, photographed by an unknown fin-du-siècle photographer with his meaty arms slung over a couple of barrels that look awfully similar to the subject himself. There is a cheeky glint in his eyes, deeply set into a nasty face.

    But then, the curious art collector David Walsh, who made his wealth from gambling, built an art gallery. Coinciding with a rising interest in eco-tourism and boutique food and drink, suddenly Tasmania was on the map. Lonely Planet put Hobart in the Top 10 Cities to visit. It was all becoming rather sexy. There was hype.

    And Hobart is living up to it, apparently.

    From afar, I remember my days and nights in Hobart happily. Swigging ale from the bottle as I run down to the Shipwrights Arms to watch the footy, or cradling a lager waiting for a local poet to meet me at the Hope and Anchor (he didn’t show up). Drinking herbal tea with breakfast in Moonah, while Ramos looks up at the mountain, picturing the wall of rock he will climb that day. Rifling through the selection of cheap buys outside Kookaburra Books. 

    Herodotus, the ancient historian, mentioned in the preface to his Histories that he should account for both cities small and great, ‘for those which in old times were great have for the most part become small, while those that were in my own time great used in former times to be small’.

    And indeed, in my own short lifetime I have seen the fate and reputation of cities like Hobart change.

    But it’s still Fatty Appleton’s town to me. Fatty Appletown.

    ‘Human prosperity never continues steadfast,’ Herodotus continues. The hype will disappear, but who knows: there may still be mid-winter swims for decades to come. And there is definitely still a Fatty or two lurking around the streets late at night.

     

    Another great Hobart character was the first chaplain, Bobby Knopwood.
    Last week, we recounted the history of sailor James Kelly.

  • Sealing and Whaling

    Sealing and Whaling

    In the December 1815, James Kelly set off with four convicts from Hobart to complete a circumnavigation of Van Diemen’s Land.

    Born in New South Wales, Kelly was apprenticed as a junior mariner at the age of 12, and had made several voyages out of Sydney by his adolescence. He was employed as a sealer, and then served on a  trading vessel to Fiji. When was 18 and his apprenticeship was over, he sailed to India.

    Kelly returned to sealing for a voyage to Macquarie Island in the Campbell Macquarie, which was wrecked; Kelly was rescued, and taken back to New South Wales. Shortly after he was married and became a master mariner, in 1812, commanding the sealing boat Brothers to the Bass Strait. He is said to have been the first white Australian-born master mariner.

    His lasting connection to Van Diemen’s Land came through employment by Dr. Thomas Birch, who had him as master of the Henrietta Packet, a schooner which sailed between various colonial ports. Now, Kelly and his family relocated to a house on the Hobart Town Rivulet.

    While Kelly’s nautical career continued, his circumnavigation of the island over the summer of 1815-16, in the whaleboat Elizabeth, is well-remembered for its accounts of contact with Aboriginal Tasmanians. The day after they set out, attempting to pull into Recherche Bay, they were met with ‘a tremendous volley of stones and spears’. Kelly’s narrative of the journey, published five years later, offered insights into the life of the first Tasmanians that could only have been witnessed by that small party journeying around the ragged coastline of Van Diemen’s Land in the early years of the young British colony.

    Of course, anthropological concerns were not Kelly’s primary motive. His ‘official discovery’ of Port Davey and Macquarie Harbour on the west coast gained his employer a monopoly contract over the trade of the endemic huon pine. And Kelly’s own knowledge of sealing and whaling waters increased dramatically as he spent a year around the Vandemonian coast.

    James Kelly would be known as the ‘father and founder’ of whaling in Van Diemen’s Land, with his official duties on the Derwent River including pilot and harbourmaster. He also inaugurated the Derwent Whaling Club, and developed agricultural interests on Bruny Island. His ‘Kelly Steps’, built to connect waterfront Salamanca Place with the houses of Battery Point, are a picturesque feature of the Hobart streetscape today.

    But Kelly’s fate ended poorly - much like the industry he was involved with, and, for a time, its product. His wife died in 1831, his ship Australian was wrecked in 1834, his eldest son was killed by Maori in 1841, and the economic depression of the 1840s left him flat on his back. He died at age 68, suddenly. His funeral was well-attended.

    Of course, there is no whaling or sealing industry in Tasmania today, and the numbers of these creatures in Tasmanian waters is thankfully growing. If you look closely, you will see seals - dozens of them - on the rocks of the Friars in this photograph. These are just south of Bruny Island in the Southern Ocean. An easy target for James Kelly and his band of sailors in the 1800s, today that threat is gone.


    Daniel Cowper and his Hawaiian wife were also connected to the sealing trade.

  • The Paddocks

    The Paddocks

    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.

  • Cornish Pasties

    Cornish Pasties

    A friend in Mexico City once took me to an eatery for what he said was a regional dish from his family’s home nearby called pastes. A pastry shell stuffed with meat and/or vegetables, it was delicious and hearty meal. It was also something I’d grown up eating. It was a pasty.

    The pasty is said to have been popularised by tin miners from Cornwall, England, who held it by its thick crimped edge, so as not to contaminate it with dirty – or arsenic-tarnished – fingers.

    So it was that Cornish miners in Hidalgo, Mexico, brought pastes to that country; and likewise, migrant workers from Cornwall brought their “regional dish” to Australia.

    In 1843 a north-eastern farmhand followed his dog into the bush; the dog was chasing after wombats, and digging a hole into a bank, it revealed a seam of coal. Before long, a tent city had sprung up around the mine. Because of the number of Cornish migrants who had come to put use to their mining prowess, it became known as Cornwall.

    In this second half of the 1800s, these men picked and shovelled their way into the Nicholas Range, using sticks of gelignite to open up their shafts. At the end of their days, workers returned to ramshackle-style houses with walls of split palings, hessian, and layers of newspaper, and dirt floors covered with chaff bags.

    A railway built from the midlands to the east coast in 1886 livened the mine’s – and the town’s – prospects. By 1950, there were around one hundred houses, a post office, a butcher, shops, and daily bread delivery. A couple of churches and a school with attached recreational facilities serviced the town.

    Only a few years later, however, the coal industry lost its momentum. Cheap oil gained a stronghold around the world, and the Cornwall Coal Co. lost its customers. In 1964, they closed the mine. The town shrivelled. Houses were sold for a pittance as workers moved away in search of other work. Public buildings and services, along with shops and churches, were closed, torn down, or burnt out.

    In 1982, the mine reopened, with production up to 300,000 tonnes a year. But the town was still a shell of its former days; the mine only employs 70 people, with that number soon reducing by a third. Only forty houses still remain in the town.

    Perhaps home-made pasties are still made there, as the fog rolls in down from the forested mountains. Made, and made well, no doubt. But there are none sitting in bain-maries waiting to be bought for those who make the eight kilometre detour off the A4, on their way to St. Marys.

     

  • The Easter Egg Hunt

    The Easter Egg Hunt

    The gold mine in Beaconsfield reopened in the same year that I was bitten by my dog Sox, above the eye, on my birthday.

    I grew up on a five-acre property just outside of that town, ‘up the river’, as my mother would always say. I remember it as a jackjumper-infested swamp, with a couple of flat grassy areas on which to play footy. A few big eucalypts stood tall above silver wattles and native cherries, and scrub. In Easter, my parents hid chocolate eggs wrapped in colourful foil in the fronds of manferns. We had a goat that needed putting down.

    The gold mine, which had once been the richest in Tasmania, was not as it was in its heyday. In 2006, when a subterranean rockfall killed a miner and trapped two others, it was closed again. But the mine was not the town’s identity anymore. If anything, Beaconsfield, and the Tamar Valley, was apples, with some forestry on the outskirts, and a reasonable proximity to both Launceston and the industrial ports where the river met Bass Strait.

    My family moved to town. Sox was put down too. My life’s shape changed. Shadows on the world’s map furled away. My knowledge increased. Suddenly, I was a young man, and on my way across the ocean. New places were impressing themselves upon me. New landscapes complicated my memory.

    Even while we were living there, in the 1990s, there were folks planting grapevines in the Tamar Valley. These were people who could foresee a future for cool-climate wines in this area – or they were hobbyists, enthusiasts, optimists. Nowadays, all around Beaconsfield are trellises in rows, vines clinging to them. I drove through there the other week. This year’s fruit has been harvested, of course. The leaves have turned all sorts of burnished Old World colours.

    An author has moved to Beaconsfield and has run a literary festival there. I hear rumours of other developments, boutique food and booze and accommodation, capitalising on tourists in search of a good pinot noir.

    It will change.

    I have changed too. But here is where I spent some formative years, getting stung by jackjumpers and bitten by dogs, tripping over the strips of shedding stringybark, collecting tadpoles from puddles on Lightwood Hill Road.

    In whatever this town becomes, there will be the history of the gold rush – of the Dallys, of Hart and Grubb, of the Chinese migrant workers, of Todd Russell and Brant Webb and Larry Knight.

    There, too, is the history of who came before them: the Letteremairrener people. Or of what came before that: the flora and fauna, the geology and geography of the Tamar Valley, which too is not as it once was.

    Wherever I find myself in this world – peering into portraits in the Uffizi Gallery, for example, or listening to mariachi music at a restaurant in San Diego – I am still the extension of that memory too. I am not entirely who I once was, but I am still the boy who found chocolate eggs in the garden. I find myself scrounging around for stories with the same enthusiasm.

    For people may change their places, but it is more true that places have changed us. That we belong to the places that we spend most of our time in – especially in childhood.

     

    Last week, I wrote a short history of the town of Beaconsfield - once known as Brandy Creek.

  • Historical Account of the Beaconsfield Miners

    Historical Account of the Beaconsfield Miners

    In 1869, the Dally brothers started prospecting for gold around Brandy Creek, about fifty kilometres north of Launceston along the Tamar River. Systematically scouring the bush – tea-tree scrub full of snakes – William and David Dally found a payable gold reef on Cabbage Tree Hill in 1877. There was gold, said William, ‘like blackberries in the bush’. The gold rush was about to begin.

    It became Tasmania’s most famous patch of colour. The Dallys sold their claim for a cool 15,000 pounds. A small hamlet of two shops, a drapery and a grocery soon became a bustling township, the third-most populous on the whole island. Not only shops and hotels appeared, but entertainment too: plays and circuses, bringing horses and elephants down the main street.

    The Chinese came too. The Chinese, particularly Cantonese, migrant workers spread throughout the world’s diggings after the gold rushes of the mid-1800s. At Brandy Creek, as everywhere, they formed their own unique communities, transplanting their religion, culture and cuisine into the shanty towns on the goldfields. They were almost all single men; many married local women.

    Ah Sing was one such man. Later known as ‘Tom’ – and his descendants would corrupt their surname to ‘Seen’ – Ah Sing not only picked on the fields, but was a market gardener and a courthouse interpreter.

    As the town grew, so too did its ‘civic consciousness’ – Brandy Creek and Cabbage Tree Hill would not do for nomenclature. Dallys Town was mooted as a name; so too a name honouring the Governor of the day, F.A. Weld. But in the end, Beaconsfield was chosen, after the contemporary Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Lord Beaconsfield, Benjamin Disraeli.

    The mine’s success hit its zenith around 1900, with over fifty companies working the reef; in 1914, it closed due to regular flooding of the shafts. Deep drilling resumed with new technologies in 1993, with limited success. And on Anzac Day 2006, an earth tremor caused rockfall in the mine. Fourteen miners escaped immediately; two were trapped for a fortnight before being their release was made possible by painstaking and dramatic rescue operations; and one, Larry Knight, was killed.

    Beaconsfield, suddenly, was put on the map in a whole new way.

    The Foo Fighters even wrote a song called ‘Ballad of the Beaconsfield Miners’.


     
    The 'Field Guide' is in Issue 32 of Tasmanian Geographic.

  • The Text House

    The Text House

    It was William Shoobridge II who first brought hops – humulus lupulus, a crop used almost exclusively for adding flavour and aroma to beer – to Australia.

    His son, Ebenezer Shoobridge, bought an estate between the Derwent and Styx Rivers in 1863. Bushy Park Estates is still Australia’s largest producer of hops, and is known worldwide for its successful hop production, as well as for unique Tasmanian varietals of the plant.

    And although Ebenezer was producing an intoxicant that (it could be said) created negative social effects throughout his native island, he was a godly man. To offer his workers spiritual encouragement, the hop kiln was adorned with sandstone plaques bearing scriptural sayings. ‘Unexpectedly,’ said one employee of the hop farm later, ‘as you looked up from the work of emptying a bag of hop flower catkins ready for drying, your eye would catch a verse placed at eye level…’

    One plaque extolled the unity of the Shoobridge family. And it was a family affair.

    Ebenezer and his wife Charlotte (nee Giblin) had a task ahead of them to make the  six-roomed homestead comfortable for living and raising children.  Some years in, the roof collapsed under the weight of pigeon shit.

    But it was a good life for the children. The ‘young ladies’ of Charlotte and Ebenezer’s clan would be the driving force for the annual Farm Tea and Strawberry Feast events. Along with their little cat Twissy, they would prepare and present a seemingly endless feast of sweet cakes, pies and tarts.

    And son William Ebenezer Shoobridge, born in 1846, would go on to be one of Tasmania’s most innovative and prolific figures towards the end of that century. Engineering unique irrigation schemes at Bushy Park and other family properties (the water races at Bushy Park today are his designs, are heritage listed), he also invented a technique for pruning  fruit trees, and came up with new designs for the hop kilns. His role in Tasmania’s burgeoning apple industry was equally important to what he was doing with hops. And he became involved in politics, representing in parliament and promoting agricultural policy including the government regular of water supplies.

    For this, he became known as ‘Water Willie’.

    Perhaps he was inspired by those verses chiselled in sandstone on the beautiful kiln house. The Shoobridges perhaps knew more keenly than anyone the truth of one biblical injunction, which you can still see there today:

    ‘THE EARTH IS THE LORD’S
    AND THE FULLNESS THEREOF...”

  • The Chips Are Down in Triabunna

    The Chips Are Down in Triabunna

    Some say the hot chips from a certain takeaway store in Triabunna are the best in Tassie. So I stopped in there the other weekend, joining a handful of locals in front of a greasy bain-marie, as chunks of potatoes were lowered into a vat of oil in the back room.

    I was on my way to an art exhibition put together by the Tasmanian International Arts Festival, Reorder, which presented six site-specific sculptural installations inside the town’s decommissioned sawmill.

    Truth be told, I was drawn to the exhibition as much for the location as for the artwork. Triabunna is one of the most contested places in a Tasmania divided by lines of class, occupation and political opinion. Operated by Gunns – the byword for forestry in Tasmania for decades – to chip and ship timber from the south of the island, it closed in 2011 after four decades, 70 per cent of the area’s forestry jobs going with it. In a stunning coup, the mill was purchased by entrepreneurs and environmentalists Jan Cameron and Graham Wood, who employed former Wilderness Society boss Alec Marr as site manager. Marr oversaw the dismantling of the sawmill’s equipment; “I’ve been waiting 27 fucking years for this,” he told The Monthly’s John van Tiggelen.

    Triabunna was settled as a garrison town in the 1830s, with officers of the Maria Island penal colony and whalers also located in the region. Boat building and fishing have long occurred in the region, as well as farming; for some decades in the 20th century, a factory processed seaweed into alginic acid. Eucalyptus oil and wattle bark was harvested throughout the 1900s as well. But towards the end of the century, it was believed that something like 75% of the town’s economic activity relied on the forestry industry.

    You get a decent amount of chips for $5. I was still pulling them from the packet as I left through the big gates, along a road made for log trucks, down to the beach. It was only at the last moment I noticed the recurring word, ‘chip’. The pun was not intended; it’s just one of those remarkable, flexible words in our language. But there was something about it that snagged my curiosity. How much this town had thrived on chips of whatever kind, pieces cut or hewn from the whole.

    Going for a swim in Spring Bay later that afternoon, I had a profound sense that whatever happens to Triabunna in the coming years, it will mirror the fortunes of the entire island.

    May the hot chips be available long after the woodchips are forgotten.

  • Changes of the Cataract Gorge

    Changes of the Cataract Gorge

    Summer is suddenly over.

    Yet rock climbers still scramble up the basalt cliff walls, above the South Esk River as it veers out of town. Picnickers adopt the Fairy Dell; there is the occasional gentlemen in very small togs who looks as if he’s been tanned with wattle bark. This summer, a family of seals took up residence. A chairlift ferries tourists from one side to the other – Alphonse Bugler, German circus performer, balanced his way across it in 1987. Some choose the pool, others the deep blue, which we grew up believing had no measurable bottom. (It is 19 metres in depth.)

    Meanwhile, there are murmurs from the local council about making changes to the Gorge. There are “developments” in the works – a word that inspires tremulous fear in some Tasmanians, and unbounded optimism in others. Commerce has a troubled history on this island. Commercial interests can butt heads against community concerns; the present and the future can have differing needs. Business and government have had pockets close to one another.

    Why not change the Gorge? It has changed before, after all. It is not identical to the place that Aboriginal Tasmanians knew, nor that which surveyor William Collins thought bore a beauty that was ‘probably not surpass’d in the world’… In the early days of the colony, it was one family’s land. Once upon a time you had to pay a toll to enter. There are non-native plants there – the dark green of firs and redwoods, the pretty pastels of rhododendrons and hydrangeas – not to mention peacocks. In a rotunda, funded by some of Launceston's fin-de-siècle ladies, you could hear string quartets play. There’s a chairlift, a pool, two cafés, a suspension bridge, walking tracks, mountain bike trails, a hill covered in daffodils. So what would be wrong with some more change, to make it more accessible, more marketable, more commercially viable?

    In the end, the ratepayers of Launceston will be responsible for what happens to the Cataract Gorge. It is they who the council must listen to, above and beyond any developer. These constituents know which places hold the impressions of their memories, and whether those memories are more or less valuable than what might be gained in being disconnected from something that makes them tangible. It is their money being spent, and their place being tampered with.

    Summer is over, but there are still a few swims left; a couple of midnight skinny-dips; a bomb or two off Hogs Rock. And then, autumn kicks in, and the strange maples will rot like old mansions and collapse in shades of purple, chocolate, orange. The she-oaks will barely shake. Mist will gather on the surface of the water. Perhaps this year it will flood; perhaps not. The pool will be emptied, refilled. And before too long, it’ll be time again to dust off the togs and stand nervously on the precipice of that tenebrous basin, before bending the knees and leaping off, plunging into the cold depths.

    Beneath its surface, there’s more than algae and eels.

  • Fool's Gold

    Fool's Gold

    Hundreds of Tasmanians up and left when gold was first struck in the Victorian goldfields in 1851 – men of every stripe and occupation, suddenly making an exodus from the island, crossing the strait to try their luck in looking for colour.

    It was yet another economic setback for Tassie, although some on the north-west coast made good selling shingles and laths for the booming populations to shelter themselves in ramshackle accommodations all across the goldfields.

    In February 1852 a pioneer farmer from the north-west named James Fenton left his family and took off for Melbourne on the Sea Witch. Some of his fellow-passengers, he noted, were successful diggers who had come back to Tasmania in order to make purchases or retrieve possessions, such as horses, to bring back to the goldfields. Fenton, a Congregationalist and teetotaller, frowned upon their roughness and the lack of class with which they were employing their newfound wealth. Their conversations were lubricated with rum, and they argued the merits or otherwise of prospective gold sites in Victoria. Tempers flared without warning. One ruffian started a fistfight with another fellow after taking offence to the style of his hat.

    Some had come back to Tasmania to reunite with lovers and bring them to the diggings. Fenton recorded one such mistress, “one of the most hideous-looking women that ever escaped strangulation in those days of the hempen noose”. She had been draped in expensive fabrics and laden with jewellery. Her cheeks, too, glowed red with the influence of an intoxicant.

    Good luck to that blessèd couple, perhaps. A more miserable story of ill-fated romance emerged from the Sea Witch, however. One digger had secreted his paramour in the hold of the ship; she was a convict, and not able to freely transport herself off the island, so her plucky lover was smuggling her in a crate. It was nailed shut, but the fellow had left enough holes in the box for her to breathe, as well as a supply of food and water to last the journey’s duration. Sadly, as further cargo was thrown onto the ship, the case that carried this young prisoner of the Crown was covered with a large quantity of hay. She suffocated, and her body was discovered dead when the ship arrived at Melbourne.

    Of course, for every bastard that got lucky and was able to doll up their women and use £5 notes to light those biddies’ cigarettes, there were dozens that stood around up their ’nads in freezing water, sluicing and panning to no avail. A better career path was selling booze to the hordes, or exporting shingles across Bass Strait. James Fenton himself returned after a short while, and went back to the farm.

     
    The story of how a Hawaiian woman ended up living on King Island, in Bass Strait.

  • From Fingal to Pebble Beach

    From Fingal to Pebble Beach

    Over in Monterey, California, I was introduced to Mr. Seavey by his daughter Cat. “Tasmania, eh? You’re not from Fingal, are ya?”

    I’ve never before been asked if I hail from Fingal. With a population of 366 at the last census, and dwindling rapidly, Fingal is not exactly famous. There are probably plenty of Tasmanians who have never heard of it. I’ve never met anyone from Fingal.

    These days, things are looking pretty bleak there. According to local drug counselling organisations, it’s one of the hotspots for methamphetamine use in Tasmania, for example. Unemployment is high, real estate prices are low. There are plenty of closed shopfronts on the main drag; even the old hotel, which once claimed to have the biggest Scotch whisky collection in the southern hemisphere, is gone.

    The Fingal Valley was first surveyed in 1824, and in 1827, the town was settled as a convict station. In 1852 gold was found ten kilometres north. Towards the end of the 19th century, coal became the centre of the area’s economy; the town of Fingal was growing rapidly, and a young man named Francis McComas was born.

    This was Mr. Seavey’s connection with Fingal.

    Francis became one of the world’s great watercolourists, famous for his modernist landscapes. As a young man, he had been sent to Sydney for training under a master plein air landscape painter. Watercolour was not widely regarded in Australia, but young Francis adopted this as his medium of choice. He then went across the Pacific to the United States.

    Like many young Australian artists of the time, Francis had wanted to go to Europe to paint – to Paris, specifically – but got distracted, making friends in Monterey and having successful shows in San Francisco. He returned to Australia at least once, to Sydney, where he made scathing reviews of the Australian art scene. He probably never returned, and died in the luxurious Californian coastal town of Pebble Beach, where you can find one of the world’s richest golf courses.

    A new coal mine is in the works, and the old hotel is opening. Could there be another Frank McComas ready to burst out of Fingal?

  • The Proposed Pulp Mill

    The Proposed Pulp Mill

    For visitors coming to Tasmania in search of love, one topic that may be useful to have some understanding of is called the Proposed Pulp Mill. For more than a decade now, the Proposed Pulp Mill has been generating controversy and stirring up the emotions of the good people of Tassie.

    For the uninitiated, allow me to sketch the story for you – in brief. Tasmania has a lot of trees, and not that much else, and so it made sense that not so long ago, the timber industry played a major role in the state economy. It was perhaps a little more concerning that one company, named Gunns, dominated this industry. When they announced that they would like to produce paper in Tasmania, and do so by building a pulp mill at the top of the Tamar Valley in northern Tasmania, it was not surprising that politicians bent over backwards to try and let Gunns do what they wanted. Large numbers of the population, however, weren’t so keen on it, and protested, and litigated, and did what they could do stop the mill being built, citing health and environmental concerns, among others.

    Hindsight can reveal to us that many corrupt devices were used to put the Proposed Pulp Mill up during that cursèd decade. Politicians were sacked, executives went to gaol, and Gunns went out of business. Although not everyone was against the Proposed Pulp Mill, it seemed that Tasmanians breathed a general sigh of relief that the whole thing was over.

    Except it wasn’t over. In 2014, well over a decade on, it’s back on the table as Tasmania heads towards a state election. The economy isn’t good here, you see, and all sorts of idiots are making suggestions about how to fix it. I’m one of these idiots, of course. Tasmania’s economy is transitioning away from manufacturing and into tourism and food. (To impress you with a numerical figure: tourists contributed $1.464 billion to our economy between March 2012 and March 2013.) People are willing to invest in these fields because of Tasmania’s uniqueness geographically and environmentally. Ideas like the almighty Proposed Pulp Mill will only sabotage the growths we have in these areas.

    But that’s a conversation that the visitor to Tasmania might broach over the dinner table, with the parents of a new lover. If they dare.