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.