Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged geology

  • A Mountain in Winter

    A Mountain in Winter

    One wends their way up to the Central Plateau, creeping up from the farmlands on a series of hairpins, onto the Highland Lakes Road. A truck plowed this high country highway, its scraping against the tarmac echoing between the mountains of the Great Western Tiers.

    Projection Bluff is one of the dolerite summits of this range, a ramp of rock littered with scree. A narrow track sneaks away from the roadside, through wet forest, up to the summit. On a winter’s day like this one, snow hangs from the branches. Myrtles and sassafras trees wear burls of the stuff. In the dolerite’s many clefts, daggers of ice hang. Even fungi wears frozen little crystals.

    A
    walker on this route will get damp boots, damp hair, damp everything. I wore shorts; I always wear shorts. My legs go pink from cold, but my torso is well-covered, waterproofed, and warm enough.

    There is snow around, but it is not snowing. It’s a mild day. In the lowlands, the snow is a rumour: hints of its presence come in the chill of the breeze. For the most part, people in Tasmania live at low altitudes, near the coast, and don’t see much snow. Although mountains are omnipresent on this island, and they frequently wear a white garnish. From the major towns, we often see the snow atop Ben Lomond, kunanyi and Black Bluff. They look like wedding cakes.

    I did little mountain adventuring in my younger years and I didn’t see much snow. Nowadays I see it often enough. Beneath my boots, it crunches, it squeaks. Sometimes it blows in hard. I find flakes in the stubble of my moustache. Sometimes it accentuates the dark chocolate hues of dolerite, the gallant greens of rainforest. Sometimes it erases the landscape.

    It is magic. Snow is magic. Working in Tassie’s high country, I am lucky to see all seasons within the span of a few hours, and summer brings its fair share of snow. It is not always comfortable; it can be dangerous. But snow’s textures and movement contribute much to the whole of Tasmania’s landscape.

    Once, on top of a neighbouring mountaintop – Ironstone Mountain – I, hungover, traipsed with heavy steps into soft piles of snow, pulling up handfuls and sucking on them to reduce my dehydration. The tiny footprints of a juvenile Tassie devil tracked off beyond the summit’s cairn. The appearance of such delicate grace embarrassed me.


    Winter: the furs of wallabies and wombats grow thick. In the crevices between rocks, water freezes, and pushes the columns of rock apart, forcing the slow inexorable decay of mountains. My mother piles the wood-heater high; golden timber turns to purplish smoke and hovers over the valley of my hometown.

    And the bushwalkers are heavy laden. They take all precautions, they pull out the four-season tents and the thickest down sleeping-bags. Hopefully they have a better car than I do for driving on the mountain roads. Wintry conditions require a little more attention, but attention is something we have much to give. It costs us nothing to notice the finery of snow-limned leaves, of droplets on a spider’s architecture of gossamer, of the flat light of winter on a landscape of tarns and stones.

    On this particular day, my mate and I got up to the top of Projection Bluff, and the plateau stretched out before us. The westerlies barrelled towards us, thrashed the teflon of our jackets, whipped around my skinny bare legs. Below, the farms were calm and yellow, the rows of blue hills rolled off into the distance; we crouched behind a boulder and it was winter and I was rather content.

  • Archaeology from the Anthropocene

    Archaeology from the Anthropocene

    If you stumble upon a strata of Permian mudstone in Tasmania, you’ll likely find some fossils in it. Don’t expect dinosaur bones: what we have are impressions of various flora and fauna from the sea, bivalves and brachiopods from the era that began roughly 300 million years, and ended with an apocalypse in 251 million years ago.

    Palaeontologists can recognise the Permian pretty easily, because nearly all of the creatures on the planet became extinct at this stage. At the time, Tasmania was covered with a shallow sea – much of the Earth’s landmasses were. The prevailing theory (although there are a few contenders) suggests that underwater volcanoes poisoned everything.

    Oh well. I stop at a cleft of mudstone somewhere, finger the pretty imprints of shells and the wavy lines of sea-fern fronds; then I get back in my car and drive to the next place, to an outcrop of Devonian conglomerate, perhaps, or the pub in the north-west town of Marrawah.

    I have spent comparatively little time at the helm of a motor car, preferring a life on hoof. Still, the power of the combustion engine gives me a great rush: what a phenomenological experience! I have a very fine vehicle, and its complicated mechanics and its ability to push me along at a great velocity. In fact, there may be no faster car in Tasmania than my 1992 Ford Laser.

    Sometimes whilst driving I see an echidna fumbling and fidgeting on the verge. “Such earth attunement!” shouts the poet Pete Hay. The most minute vibrations in the grass will attract their attention – they’re after ants.

    Given their poor eyesight I’m glad they’re not driving my car; I suspect they wouldn’t want to either, as I have seen them find an ants’ nest, and, positively covered in the insects, they appear (I’m afraid to say) like they are in the throes of an orgasm. They are in their glee and they wouldn’t trade it for anything. I think I would swap my phenomenological experience for theirs too.

    Half-way down the winding road from Marrawah to my campsite of choice, I see a plaque and swiftly pull over to observe it. A map of the area has been forged and stuck on a concrete plinth; we can thank the Marrawah Women’s Progress Association for this, who organised it in 1977, or so the plaque says.

    A van is in the corner of the headland where I want to camp. It belongs to two European backpackers; I decide to chat with them, mostly to see if they are leaving and if I can claim their spot. I have given them some bushwalking advice and we are having an amiable conversation about their travels until, a propos of nothing, they begin to insult Aboriginal people. My mind goes blank with anger and turning on my heels to leave them immediately, I say, stupid with rage, “Shut up.”

    Later, when they are gone, I sit and face the sea, and try and let my anger cool in the sea breeze and the distance. The Women’s Association plaque has told me that Cape Horn is 15,586 kilometres from me, almost due west. But closer by is Cape Grim, Tassie’s north-west tip: there, in 1827, an Aboriginal party was massacred by a group of shepherds. These shepherds were apparently retaliating to the murder of some sheep. But we know that sheep are not the true meaning of all this: they were fighting over land use, both fuelled with theories and superstitions about spirituality and economy – which is to say, most of what gave their lives meaning and their relationships purpose.

    There are more cows than sheep in the north-west today. They too are an economic symbol, with “Cape Grim Beef” one of those contemporary phrases which lacks poetry but is nevertheless loaded with significance. It’s delicious dairy country up here too. I am lucky enough to have spent some time working with cows, and I like to look at them. They’re really rather lovely, although to touch them is to lay hands on a strange biological sculpture. They have a weird figure, bones and cartilage in places you don’t expect them.

    It’s a memorable form, and one which must have seemed monstrous to Aboriginal observers when cows were first dropped onto the island two centuries ago. Cows are seriously harming the environment, but it’s not really their choice. The real monstrosities have been caused by humans.

    At a conference in the year 2000, a scientist jokingly described the current geological era as the Anthropocene Era. The joke has lost its humour. Dig, in a million years, and you will find the evidence of our roads and buildings, our landfills of plastic, our soil-degrading farms, of Permian-style mass extinction. I think it would be embarrassing to be there on that day. “What were you lot doing?” they’d ask. “What insanity was the era of the Anthropocene?”

    I’d like to think they will find this plaque in Marrawah though; I can see this in a future archaeological museum, with a naff little write-up next to it. It’d be nice if it could be exhibited with the current graffiti intact: someone has spraypainted a multi-coloured love-heart and scrawled the word ‘Land’ in the middle. It could prove to an insightful archaeologist that at least a few of us loved our landscapes. “They weren’t all bad,” they might say.

    I don’t suppose the paint will last, however.



    I've been thinking a lot about forms in the Tasmanian landscape: fences and fantails, for example, or otherwise bird tracks and moon shapes.

    And also on the topic of environmental destruction in the north-west, we went to Savage River...

  • Love Letter from the Pieman River

    Love Letter from the Pieman River

    To the same tangled forests, tenebrous rivers and towering mountains, two Sprents were sent, three decades apart.

    James Sprent was perhaps an unlikely candidate for bush exploration. The son of a Glaswegian publisher, he arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in 1830 with an exorbitant quantity of books, engravings and stationery. His first endeavours on the island were in education, and they were very ambitious: he opened schools and ran classes on everything from philosophy to astronomy. He wasn’t even 25 years old yet.

    But he was soon employed as a surveyor and began venturing into the rough Tasmanian terrain. A decade into his career, as one of only two permanent surveyors employed by the Colonial Office, he would be sent on a major project marking out roads in the north-west. Around the same time, in 1842, James Sprent would launch himself into another serious enterprise: love. He married a currency lass from mainland Australia named Susannah Hassall
    Oakes, the daughter of Parramatta’s chief constable.

    So this well-read, industrious man cut and burnt his way into the treacherous environs of north-western Tasmania. Aboriginal Tasmanians had inhabited that quarter, of course, but even they had little practical use for the dense wet sclerophyll, rainforests, and mountains, exposed to buffeting westerlies and fecund with harsh horizontal and bauera scrub.

    No doubt he often thought of Susannah, as he hacked his way into leagues of trackless country, his canvas clothes shredding in the constant press of spiky plants and coarse rocks. Even with a party of other explorers, this was lonely work. His betrothed, he worried, was left in the hands of “drunken ruffians” at Circular Head, near the north-western tip of Van Diemen’s Land. Broad dark rivers of doubt criss-crossed his mind as it did this land, so far from where he had been born.

    James Sprent would erect a trig point on the summit of nearby Mount Bischoff. He did not realise that within the jagged quartzite and dolomite beneath his feet, mineral dykes had lay waiting to be discovered.

    But his only surviving son, Charles Percy Sprent – born in 1849 – would become well aware of this. In 1871, two years after his father’s death, Charles became the District Surveyor of north-western Tasmania. In that same year, Mount Bischoff’s immense wealth of tin was revealed by the pick of a hardy prospector. For a time, it was said to be the world’s richest tin mine.

    Charles Sprent also went on pioneering exploratory journeys to western Tasmania. He too opened up unused tracts of land, with blaze and axe, devising maps that would be crucial for further prospecting and settling throughout the next decades.

    C
    harles Sprent also made himself familiar with that Tasmanian vegetation, which so vigorously resists human passage; and the boisterous weather, which threatens to billow into squalls and storms at every moment of the day, rising to violence after its long traverse of the ocean, all the way from Patagonia. Whatever his motivations, he accepted the conditions of hunger, exhaustion, dampness, soreness and solitude. Of wet boots and leeches.

    In 1878, Charles Sprent was on
    the banks of the Pieman River, this tremendous broad waterway which tours 100 kilometres of western forest, from pre-Cambrian high country to the Southern Ocean. From its mouth at Hardwicke Bay, on a January afternoon, he thought of his own fiancée. Her name was Elizabeth Jane Rudge. Charles looked upon the tumult as the dark river pushed its way into the churning grey surf, and in its background, the romantic beauty of the aeons-old forest had mountains folded sharply in their midst. Some had been the basis of his father’s calculations. Tasmania had been mapped by him, using them. Current maps bear the surname of these men on townships, roads, rivers and mountains.

    Th
    e scene at Pieman Heads impressed itself upon Charles Sprent. He was moved to write to Elizabeth:

    This is a wild, desolate looking coast; the sea has a hungry rattle about it as it roars on the beach. Savage rocks stick up in all directions and the surf goes flying over them. The vegetation is stunted and low. Coming down the river we had some lovely sights; trees down to the water’s edge every shade of green, and immense clusters of flowers.”

    He added of the Pieman, “It is a noble river.”


    I visited the banks of another noble river with an old friend.
    The fascinating Charles Gould was Tasmania's first geological surveyor.

  • The Highwayman

    The Highwayman

    They say this cave on Mount Wellington was once the hideout of John ‘Rocky’ Whelan, the bushranger highwayman.

    Sent to the colonies from England as a convict, Whelan – like so many others – absconded. Like all bushrangers in Tasmania, he targeted the many isolated homesteads for plunder; but he also roved the forests ambushing lone travellers, robbing and often killing them.

    He’d never been a likeable man. Nicknamed for his gnarled, pock-marked face, Rocky Whelan was transported in 1829; he spent time in Sydney, Norfolk Island and Hobart, each time making efforts to escape. Myths surfaced about his fondness for dimly-lit cells, or his supposed imperviousness to the lash or other forms of corporal punishment. His final disappearance came as he was assigned to a public works gangs in Hobart. It took only two days for him to abscond into the bush around Mount Wellington.

    Without doubt, Whelan was bold. During his winter on the mountain, he would visit a local magistrate, repose in front of a roaring fire, and read the newspaper. He stopped visiting the day he read his own profile as a wanted man.

    But most of his time was spent in this curvaceous edifice of honey-coloured, quartz-rich Triassic sandstone, alone, with but a small fire to keep himself warm against the damp southern weather.

    In the end, Whelan was caught, by chance, outside a boot-maker’s workshop. He was repairing the boots of a missing man. He admitted to five murders. He was hanged at the Imperial Gaol in 1855 with 112 offences against his name.

    There was an old man near Brown’s River, the youth Dunn on the Huon track, an elderly gentleman at Bagdad, a young fellow on the Westbury Road, and a hawker near Clevelend. A chequered career of murder, fatalities scattered across the island. At one stage he appears to have travelled around 100 miles in three days.

    “Dead men tell no tales” was the highwayman’s mantra. And yet, this cleft of sandstone in which the cold-hearted bushranger John Whelan took refuge during his days of terror in Tasmania bears his story even still. Nowadays, a small detour off a popular recreational walking route on the mountain points out his old hideaway. I was there last week with a friend, sheltering from the wind, eating from a small container of grapes.

  • 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.

  • A Geologist in the Cuvier Valley

    A Geologist in the Cuvier Valley

    Since everywhere else (Victoria, New South Wales, New Zealand) was having a gold rush, Tasmania wanted one. So in 1859, the government hired its first geological surveyor, a young British scientist with a famous naturalist father. He was Charles Gould.

    Charles Gould would spend a decade on the island looking for gold; he would fail. “It is difficult to understand how Gould,” a later writer would wonder, “leading a gold-seeking expedition, could have spent so long in a valley which later yielded so much gold from almost every creek, without finding a trace of the metal.”


    In the spring of 1859, a group of experienced bushmen, prospectors and surveyors was recruited, and in December they took off from Lake St. Clair. From there, they cut a narrow cart track up the Cuvier Valley, plodding through black mud and over golden tussocks, through spiky heath and mountain berry bushes. The mountains of Olympus, Byron and Hugel loomed over them.

    Gould was thrilled by what he saw, and his mind quickly spurred to theorise. He was one of the first to postulate that glaciation had created the incredible landscape he was witnessing. Standing at their improvised campsite in the Cuvier Valley, at the beginning of a decade of tough bush-bashing expeditions, the young geologist was driven to distraction imagining the great rumble of glaciers carving out valleys, tearing at mountains and spilling boulders for miles. He was only grumpy about the weight of expectations upon him. He wrote in his journal about the limited time he had to devote to “this very interesting question” because he was occupied with gold-seeking instead of indulging his geological curiosity.

    Gould’s scientific insight was brilliant: if he didn’t find gold during his decade as the chief geological surveyor of Tasmania, it was because he was thinking about something else. Gold was not nearly as exciting to him as other rocks. Much more precious was the dolerite sheet of the central highlands, and the fossiliferous Permian mudstone layer beneath it.

    Leaving the Cuvier Valley, Charles Gould entered the dense and dark forests of Tasmania’s west with a lot on his mind.

     

    Surveyor George Frankland gave many of Tasmania's natural features their names.