Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

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  • Melaleuca Backyard

    Melaleuca Backyard

    This was the backyard of Mary and Janet King when they grew up. Their father, Charles Denison King, moved to this part of the world in 1936. He was 27 years old, and following his father. Together they built a house and mined tin.

    Deny King, as he was better known, lived for 55 years in this wild land in the south-west of Tasmania; on the edge of the dangerous Port Davey, he named their rugged estate Melaleuca after the tea-tree growing there, and lived a life that was as astonishing for its variety as it was for the distance from normal society with which he did it.

    Deny became a naturalist and an ornithologist, as well as a painter, on top of his small-scale alluvial tin mining. He discovered an extinct banksia shrub, and became a leading expert on the severely endangered orange-bellied parrots who still come to Melaleuca every February.

    Serving in Papua New Guinea in World War II, Deny met a nurse named Margaret Cadell, whom he attempted to woo through a series of love letters after both had returned from service. It probably wasn't easy to convince her to embark on a life shared with him in one of the wildest places on Earth, but she eventually acquiesced; the Kings' household became famous for its self-sufficient hospitality. Bushwalkers from all around the world would stop in at Melaleuca en route to the south-west coast, the black waters of Port Davey opening up onto a stretch of ocean that expands uninhibited all the way to Patagonia. Even the famous mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary made a visit.

    And so their Deny and Margaret's two daughters, Mary and Janet, grew up in the buttongrass plains that surround Melaleuca, barraged by the wind of the Southern Ocean so thoroughly that the hills only bear trees on the sheltered eastern slopes. Along the dark harbour, reedy scrubs and banksias grow. What a world in which to be a child; with their parents' art, and the parades of strange and roguish and playful visitors coming through to drink tea and eat bread from a wood-fired oven. With wrens and wombats and snakes, and the ever-changing weather blowing in from South America or Antarctica or, occasionally, somewhere more mild.

    They say that a Tasmanian tiger was seen in this stand of trees in the 1950s, a couple of decades after the last known example died in captivity. But that, I'm afraid, is another story, for another time.