Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged history

  • A Mania For Having Photographs Taken

    A Mania For Having Photographs Taken

    While winter’s slow creep gets little love in Tasmania, there is one benefit to the end of summer: selfie season is over.

    I refer to “#selfieseason”, an inane tourism campaign which put, in prominent locations, stickers spruiking the possibility for tourists to photograph themselves in front of something beautiful.

    I won’t harp on about it for too long, but my gut feeling is that pandering to consumeristic fads is not exactly playing to our strengths as an island. Many people come here to get away from that sort of superficiality.

    Much has been said in public arenas about what might be the meaning of the cultural obsession with autoportraits. To really understand them in a Tasmanian context, though, we might want to venture into this building in New Norfolk – previously a ‘hospital for the insane’.

    Here, in 1900, a man in his 40s named Thomas Hinton was admitted to the asylum. He had sent fifteen photographic self-portraits to a young woman, Miss Headlam, and consequently was diagnosed with “a mania for having his photograph taken in all sorts of dress and without dress”.

    The tableaux for which Thomas Hinton was locked up seem to be part of a national competition to design a new flag, in the lead-up to Australia’s Federation. On one photograph, dated August 9, 1900, Hinton wrote to Miss Headlam. “I got four taken today. I am sure you will like ’em.”

    She evidently did not; Hinton was sent to New Norfolk two weeks later.

    Hinton suffered from episodes of mental illness, ending up in mental hospitals on multiple occasions, in different parts of Australia. His record from 1900 tell us that he had been working as an engineer or engine driver in the midlands of Tasmania. Returning to the asylum in Willow Court may have been traumatic: conditions were poor, with mental illnesses poorly understood, and mistreatment of inmates far from unheard of.

    The Royal Derwent Hospital was closed in 2000; life in the hospital was often described as a nightmare, right up until its closure.

    Thomas Hinton’s photographs are far more imaginative than anything I saw during ‘selfie season’. My favourite sees Hinton standing in profile before an artistic hanging with animal motifs,
    probably his own flag design: he wears nothing more than a homemade loincloth, fashioned from patterned material and tied around his waist, his arms folded over his bare chest.

    The collection of Hinton’s photographs were acquired by the National Museum of Australia in 2013. They had been advertised at that time for $9,900.

    Art curator Anthea Gunn has written a fascinating analysis of Thomas Hinton’s self-portraits on The Conversation website. The images, she says, “give a response refracted by mental illness to matters of national importance.” In response I am forced to wonder what meaning will be gleaned from the millions of selfies taken in Tasmanian locales, when they are looked back upon in a dozen decades’ time.

  • The Swamp

    The Swamp

    The day I was supposed to shuffle into Invermay, back in June, the rivers were in flood. Invermay was evacuated and it seemed likely that the suburb would be swept away.

    We were lucky: despite the huge volumes of water in the rivers, they didn’t exceed the newly-built flood levees. I moved in along with my scarce few possessions. William, my housemate, had put the record player on the mantelpiece: the only concession he’d made to possibility of
    disaster.

    Invermay remembers floods: in 1929, around 2000 of its homes were washed away and 22 lives were lost. But this has always been an area that is susceptible to the rivers’ influence. The suburb is built on reclaimed land, and an early colonial name was ‘Swampton’. It was not seen as attractive land, and settlements didn’t spread much in this direction until the first systematic draining works occurring after fifty years of Launceston’s settlement. The area had serious hygiene concerns for decades, with scarlet fever, typhoid, and respiratory illnesses all worryingly prevalent.

    It quickly built itself into an industrious area – a lively neighbourhood, replete with buskers and brothels. It retains an eclectic local population. It also has eclectic architecture: cottages line narrow alleys between the main drags, and a number of beautiful art-deco buildings stand, including our lovely Post Office. We also have a high concentration of mechanics, and more takeaway stores than you can poke a stick at.

    History persists and pervades, but changes are always wrought, and more are on their way. Our footy ground, York Park, is branded as the University of Tasmania Stadium; a plethora of government dollars have been pledged to transfer the entire uni to its Invermay campus. It will change everything here. Sorting out the traffic will be challenging; house prices will surge; businesses will open; demographics will change. The bain marie may be replaced by taps of craft beer.

    I spent the winter here, my first Tasmanian winter in some years.
    Afternoons were crushed by darkness quickly, old boats’ silhouettes disappearing as river and darkness merged. The sirens at the nearby football stadium yowled, corresponding with the anguished mewing of our local cats. The Boags brewery gave up its malty belch. Smoke, fog and mist lowered themselves into the river valley. Pedestrians battled robust winds that are driven down the Tamar. The hostelries seem quiet, but there is always life at the hearths in the corners of the public bars.

    Summer fled by, with its usual flurry of visitors and excursions. Bright red baubles appeared on the tomato vines in the backyard. Housemates passed like ships in the night.

    Now evening darkness comes early again, and I'm off. Mick, my neighbour, caught me putting boxes of books in my car the other day. “You’re not moving out are ya?” he bellowed. I felt guilty telling him that I was.

    I was never going to be here for long enough to become a true swampie: not like the bloke I met at the Bizzy Bee, on an electric skateboard, wearing the t-shirt of a local contemporary dance show. He had Invermay’s postcode, 7248, tattooed on his neck. We were both buying hot chips.

    Mick and I kept talking. He’s a good neighbour: he’s a gruff character, but always happy to stop and chat when we run into him walking his two dogs, Bear and Nightmare, down the street. Somehow our rambling chat came to a familiar old topic. Mick threw his arms up to express its mystery: “Love.”

    This is a place that invites the curious to keep paying attention. My notebooks are replete with Invermay observations. As I write this, Mick stops to chat with another neighbour and his pram-bound baby. Black swans and purple swamp-hens stomp the rushes along the North Esk: they are the true swampies, I suspect. The marsh beneath asphalted streets shakes beneath the tyres of trucks.

    I am moving out of this ecosystem, Mick, and wandering off into another one. I may or may not be back in Swampton. You never really know.

  • 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.

  • World Wetlands Day

    World Wetlands Day

    Every day on the calendar has its host of holidays and observances, and February 2 is no different. The fortieth day after Christmas, it holds a special place in the religious calendar – the Candlemas feast. This holiday has its roots in northern hemisphere agricultural rites, and is a happy occasion for believers in different countries, who eat pancakes or other sweets in celebration.

    In addition, biologists and ecologists around the world mark the 2nd of February as World Wetlands Day. And while there’s every reason why this might be a fun day out, it has an element of concern attached to it.

    Wetlands are important but fragile ecosystems. Lately, when I am in my hometown of Launceston, I have lately been enjoying walks along the rivers that define my town. These fringe places have been alive with birdsong and frogcalls, and the hum and buzz of cicadas and other insects.

    But the reality is that as important as wetlands are, they are often unattractive to an eye trained by a tradition of aesthetic romanticism. Nor do they offer obvious practical advantages to human societies, and so we have, throughout the ages, drained and cleared wetlands, oblivious or careless about the disturbance it creates upon the habitat of so many of the creatures that pass in close proximity to us.

    Take the hyperactive birdlife of Tamar Island, the location of my nearest World Wetlands Day celebrations. Here, in the middle of the eccentric tidal estuary of the Tamar, black swans teem and teeter; egrets and pelicans hover over the island; varieties of ducks or dotterels with quirky hairstyles bob along the gentle ripples of the water; grassbirds and fairy-wrens flit about the branches. Two of my favourite birds stomp around: the almost-but-not-quite elegant purple swamphen, and the utterly loveable ‘narky’ – the Tasmanian native hen – making its unmistakeable racket.

    They are attracted to the rich resources of the river, as have all sorts of humans for millennia. Aboriginal societies, for thousands of years, recognised the busy estuary as significant and passed much time along its banks. Among other names, they knew at is as Ponrabbel or kanamaluka.

    From the beginning of European settlement – from the first northern Tasmania colony in 1804 – sites along the Tamar were seen as important too. The earliest maps have Tamar Island charted upon them, although not by that name. Col. William Paterson made landfall on Tamar Island, in somewhat brief and unglorious circumstances, when his vessel got stuck in the mud around it – and Mud Island was
    thus its name for some time. So too was Pig Island.

    The island was also used a base for the project of dredging the river and redirecting its flow in the 1890s; scuttled vessels from this era, such as the Platypus, are visible from the boardwalks.

    Later used for agriculture, and the long-standing ecology of the place was jeopardised. But today the wetlands are open to visitors, with simple boardwalks connecting the mud flats and the island; the removal of a short-horned bull named Bruno was one of the last vestiges of introduced fauna, although there still remain scores of exotic trees. The wetlands continue to morph, adapting to the pressures of humans and climate.

    World Wetlands Day is my kind of occasion. It is a moment to celebrate a complicated landscape, which is often very accessible and has a tangled history. It is an excuse to wonder, and to learn. By looking closer at an ordinary scene, by putting our hands in the mud or pushing through the reeds, we uncover more about the world we live in, and consequently find ourselves fixed more firmly in our place.

    Go on: have a World Wetlands Day party. I’ll come dressed as a purple swamphen.


  • 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.

  • Drawing Closer

    Drawing Closer

    It was once said that the Aboriginal Tasmanians would come to the west coast, look out over the moiling sea, and imagine a country in that direction known as the “Land of Sweet Forget”.

    Whatever the veracity of this legend is, when I found myself on the west coast just before the turn of the year, I discovered not some longing for amnesia but rather a heightened sense of memory. I was, in fact, caught in a sticky morass of reminiscence, as I thought of all of those whose existence is part of the structure that had made my year, and in fact my life.

    Interestingly, after a year in which I almost entirely failed to leave Tasmania, I still find that my days are deeply affected by those elsewhere. It may seem incredible that Turkish bomb blasts should disturb me in Triabunna, or that Donald Trump’s election would ruffle my feathers at Lake St. Clair, but this is how it was.

    And likewise, out on the west coast, after I’d coaxed a fire out of damp tea-tree and eucalypt, I found old friends returning to me, incorporeal like smoke or sea-spray.

    I could list them all here: the Spaniard teaching maths in a Bristol classroom, the
    lovely young cynic I met a decade ago in northern California, the Brazilian lesbian labouring on a newspaper, the placeless Dutch lady with the fair eyelashes…But as a list they make for futile literature, whereas in my head they are able to interact, like figures with volition, same as those who populate a proper city. In my head, there is a world.

    After forays into this world, I retreat back to its margins. At least that’s how I presume it looks to those who come from the cultural and economic centres of the Earth: the nouveaux-riches in India or China, those who watch themselves on television in Los Angeles, the colonial capitals of London or Paris, or those from the middle of the world: the Mediterranean or the Middle East.

    What they will have trouble understanding is that for me, this is being smack-bang in the middle of things.

    At one point I found myself remonstrating with a fairy-wren, who I had accused of stealing a very significant item of mine. This was a petite teaspoon, which I pinched from the side of my café noisette in a Parisian bar one night. Yes, I found the teaspoon somewhere amongst my camping equipment – and duly apologised to the fairy-wren – but it goes to show how much value I place on memory.

    And how strangely, instead of being keenly aware of how remote I am from many whose lives I care about, I somehow feel as if they’re drawing closer.



    This time last year, I was on Tassie's east coast, exploring the meaning of fish.

  • The Land of Sweet Forget

    The Land of Sweet Forget

    “In the west beyond the sunset lay the fabled Noia Poeena, which meant Land of Sweet Forget. No wars or troubles – a land of complete rest. It was said that a warrior could pick up his spear [there] and, as likely as not, immediately lay it down again, having forgotten why he had picked it up.”

    So it says in 'the Cotton Papers', an enigmatic collection of stories of a family of free settlers on the east coast of Tasmania, and their interactions with Aboriginals from the area. These stories were handed down through the generations of an east coast family, and published only a few years ago.

    The Cottons were sympathetic with the first Tasmanians. And although their biases on ideas of property, work and religion were a part of the system of supplanting the indigenous population, there is something quite heroic about these pacifists, and something pioneering about their way of recognising the Aboriginal as a fellow-traveller.

    But how well
    they came to understand Aboriginal languages remains uncertain – and it’s extremely unlikely they were able to accurately interpret Aboriginal spirituality.

    The Cottons were not the first whitefellas to take a stab at wrapping his head around a unique and complex worldview, which was doubtless disrupted when European boats came from afar to Tasmania.

    Harry Govier Seeley would have us believe that Aboriginals were looking towards the source of their ancestral home when they stood on the western shoreline and gazed upon the thumping of the Southern Ocean. He argued that Tasmanians had originally hailed from Madagascar, and travelled to Borneo on a land-bridge that is now covered by ocean, before heading south. (Another anthropologist, Hyde Clarke, claimed that the language of the Nyam-Nyam in the Congo was “remarkably similar” to Tasmanian languages.)

    Human communities have been shifting and migrating for a long time. The latest whitefella narrative about the arrival of people in Tasmania is that crossed a land-bridge over Bass Strait during the late Pleistocene – around 35,000 years ago – and ventured along the west coast of the Tasmanian peninsula, up its river systems and into caves.

    Who knows what these families remembered of their previous homelands.
    What stories were passed down about what became mainland Australia, or their lives through the Ice Age? When the British and French foisted themselves onto the island in the late 1700s and early 1800s, they made amateurish efforts to comprehend the Tasmanians’ lives – but of what was doubtlessly rich a body of stories and cultural practices, little was known by the European interpreter.

    This through naivete,
    prejudice and incompetence, as well as reluctance on the behalf of the Aboriginal storytellers to pass on everything.

    At the end of the last century, J.A. Taylor worked on a Tasmanian Aboriginal etymology, particularly surrounding place-names. This is an astounding document, an
    other one born from a respect for Aboriginal lives and regret at what is not known about this island. Yet again, while there is no doubt Taylor was a knowledgeable linguist, the text smacks of guess-work.

    Taylor tells us that an Aboriginal name for Woolnorth Point, in the far north-west of the island, was MA-AN-DAI. “The meaning is obscure, but speculatively the name may have been derived from a cognate of manuta meaning a long way (time) away,” his entry reads.

    There, up on Cape Grim, occurred one of the cruellest massacres the British colonists ever perpetrated against the original Tasmanians.

    Beyond that site lies Noia Poeena: a white Quaker’s dream of peace, over the slate-grey Southern Ocean, vicious and seemingly endless, stretching all the way to South America.

  • A Peep at the Wilderness

    A Peep at the Wilderness

    There are few more significant names in Tasmania’s landscape photography history than J.W. Beattie and Stephen Spurling III. But these two artists had a different view on an iconic region of Tasmania’s high country at the beginning of the 1900s.

    Born at the 57th parallel north, in the “Grey City” of Aberdeen, John Watt Beattie migrated to the Derwent Valley with his parents in his late teen years. Farming didn’t come instinctively to him, but he was drawn to the romantic aspects of Tasmanian landscape – the young Beattie was particularly influenced by landscape painter W.C. Piguenit, whose depictions of this island’s craggy peaks and lake districts, in oils, continues to shape the artistic temperament in Tassie.

    Beattie’s photographic excursions took him to many remote regions of the island, including the nascent mine towns of the west coast. A supporter of the mining projects, he was nevertheless an early and outspoken environmentalist – arguing against forestry activities on the Gordon River, for example, recognising its scenic and scientific values.

    Also an eager archivist, Beattie’s historical awareness, at the end of the 1800s, was quite a long way advanced; his work was moulded by his political and social opinions. His art was popular, and he was extremely well-liked as an individual.

    J.W. Beattie’s journey to the mountainous country around the Cradle Plateau in 1901 left him unimpressed. It may have been the torrid weather his party endured, as they ascended Pelion Plains and headed north; as Beattie wrote in his paper for the Royal Society, day after day brought “furious wind and rain...to be succeeded by heavy snowfalls, and thunder and lightning, making every living and dead thing around in such condition that it was, to say at the least, misery to walk outside the hut...”

    Beattie managed to muster up some positive memories of deep conversations, “yarns and songs” in front of the fireplaces of the high country huts – but generally felt that it was “somewhat of lunacy to come into this country in such weather”. His camera was playing up and the weather offered no respite. Few photographs were produced, although one significant romantic image was titled ‘A Peep at Barn Bluff from Lake Windermere’ (the latter landmark portrayed for this article, albeit taken by a lesser photographer).

    But Stephen Spurling III, who was the self-described “pioneer photographer” of this area in March 1898, was miffed by Beattie’s deprecation of this landscape. He likely did create “the earliest extensive record of the Cradle Mountain and Western Tiers area,” according to the Companion to Tasmanian History.

    A third generation photographer, whose would also include photographic forays around Ben Lomond and the Franklin and Gordon rivers, Spurling believed these landscapes “compare in scenic excellence with any part of Tasmania, and will amply repay the tourist for any hardships he may endure in getting there,” as he wrote in a letter to the 
    Examiner responding to Beattie’s report.

    Stephen Spurling III would certainly to this part of the world, taking images of the Western Tiers in heavy snow, and later producing motion pictures of the highlands of the upper Mersey. He photographed the magnificent Hartnett Falls days after it was first witnessed by a white visitor, and named Lake Lilla (near Cradle Mountain) after his sister. 

    And indeed most would say that Spurling was right in this debate with J.W. Beattie: the country that Beattie shrugged his shoulders over are part of the Overland Track, one of the world’s most famous multi-day bushwalks.

    Though they bickered over this area, their work complemented each other, and the two pioneering artists (as Richard Flanagan has written) “jointly produc[ed] a vision of the Tasmanian wilderness that was definitive and which has endured more or less intact to the present day.”

     

  • 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.

  • Notoriety

    Notoriety

    There are few towns in Tasmania with a reputation as notorious as Rossarden’s.

    My mate’s uncle stumbled upon a secret den for hideaways up there once upon a time; this is where you used to go when you were on the run from the cops. Marijuana crops surely grow in the gullies. When a friend’s car threatened to break down up here, she panicked and nearly drove into a ditch.

    Or so I’m told. That’s the thing about it all: once a place gains a reputation, stories proliferate and distort into rumours. Myth starts growing, whorling all around it.

    I should know: I grew up in such a place, in a town whose name affords you no favours when you say you belonged to it in the first years of your life. A town associated with incest and ice.

    Myth tends to have its basis somewhere in reality, and there is nothing fabulous about some of the police reports coming out of Rossarden. Not the least of these is the unsolved murder of Paul Byrne, who was last seen leaving the Rossarden Club at 2a.m. on September 20, 1996. Detectives believe he was “sexually tortured” before he was killed. It is generally believed that those responsible are well-known within the community.

    What do we do with the threads of official history that run through a place so far from the centre of the world’s historical narrative? High in the foothills of Ben Lomond, in Tasmania’s remote north-east, Rossarden grew to become a rough cloister in the bush. Its life was centred upon a tin mine. Outsiders rarely visited – perhaps mine managers from elsewhere, or footy teams visiting from the Fingal Valley, or the Mouth Organ Band on tour – and it wasn’t too common for locals to head out either. (They say, though, that Frank Sellars broke record speeds when asked by the local nurse to get a heavily pregnant woman down the windy roads to the hospital in Campbell Town.)

    They say that when a tin scratcher named Cheshire passed out after a night of drinking, he missed his chance on being a part of the first claim on the Aberfoyle Rivulet, which would sustain this place for decades. His colleagues, Shepherd and Haas, found the lode while Cheshire snored.

    Countless stories spiral out of the nucleus of this hole in the ground. At the dance hall, the younger members of established families met. Illicit bottles of home-brew were shared in secret corners. Men and women fell in love.

    “A cricket match was held in February 1937 between married and single men. The married men won by 23 runs. Afternoon tea was supplied by the ladies,” writes Narelle Blackaby in her history of the town.

    The stalwart nurse of Rossarden, Sister Phyllis McShane, ended up marrying the storekeeper Mac Campbell.

    Pop and Kees Dingjan had moved from Holland and ended up running a butchers store in the bush.

    These stories make this town as much as murder and outlawry. But they don’t make as good print.

    When I last passed through Rossarden, on a chilly spring day, stillness and chimney smoke hung off the structure of the landscape. And what a beautiful landscape: high up beneath Stacks Bluff, nestled amongst snow-tolerant gums and shrubs that come to flower late in the season.

    If I didn’t
    know better, I’d say the locals perpetuate their own notoriety to stop outsiders from taking over – to keep the property prices low.

    But in a few short years, I have watched Tasmania’s international reputation change. Even my own hometown is getting a makeover, with arts festivals and boutique booze distilleries starting to bring in a different crowd. One of these days, I’ll say where I’m from and it will mean something we’d never have guessed. The same may go for Rossarden. They say there’s only one crook left in town nowadays.

    But the thing about these small towns, far from the major roads, beyond the tourist route, is that the stories trickle down and don’t often reach the rest of the island undistorted. To know what’s going on in a place like Rossarden, you need to go there yourself. You need to spend a while.

  • The Subtle Colours of the Western Tiers

    The Subtle Colours of the Western Tiers

    For about one hundred kilometres across northern central Tasmania, a protrusion of Jurassic rock emerges, overlooking the agricultural landscapes around townships like Deloraine, Westbury and Longford. These form the north-western boundary of the Central Plateau: they are the Great Western Tiers, or, in an Aboriginal term, kooparoona niara: ‘home of the mountain spirits’.

    British transplants arriving in Tasmania in the early 1800s began spreading their claims of land ownership to the inland districts beneath the Western Tiers within several decades. By the middle of the nineteenth-century, landowners had pushed their way through to the forests at the foot of the mountains.

    The earliest known track up onto the Tiers was cut in 1879, and is known as Higgs’ Track. Today it remains one of the most efficient, popular and enjoyable routes into Tasmania’s high country. Higgs’ Track was cut by the father and son team of Joshua and Sydney Higgs; the Higgs family had arrived from London’s West End in 1853, and their track led from the Western Creek sawmill to the plateau’s edge,
    where they had a grazing lease near Lake Lucy Long.

    Subsequent tracks began braiding their way up the slopes, through a tangle of snow gum and sassafras, mountain pepper and kerosene bush: Parsons Track, Warners Track, Yeates Track, Mole Creek Track and Staggs Track form, among others, a network of routes that made journeys to the lakes and peaks of that region. When trout were released in the waterways of the Central Plateau in 1895, these tracks became more and more popular; fishing became a serious attraction for visitors to the region, and locals offered their services for hospitality and guiding.

    The Higgs family house was built with American architectural influences, and each of the twelve children helped to raise their accommodation. Joshua Higgs would move to Launceston to become an early architect in the fledgling city. He was also a gifted artist: significant works that survive include a sketch of the early Kings Bridge tollhouse in Launceston, and a beautiful painting of the Western Creek sawmill from which Higgs’ Track led.

    His son Sydney Higgs would travel around Australia and New Zealand as a young man, earning a reputation as “a noted shearer” according to his 1934 obituary in the Examiner. But Sydney would return to live at the foot of the Tiers, in Caveside, where he met and married Lydia Stone. Sydney had a wealth of experiences from which to draw stories and was consequently “widely known as a brilliant storyteller who could hold an enraptured audience for hours,” according to local historian John F. Pithouse.

    Hoofing it up the track he cut to fish his favourite streams, Sydney Higgs would be found in a dinner jacket and bowler hat. A photograph exists of this gentlemanly figure on the rocky edges of a tarn with a fishing rod in hand.

    Higgs’ history continues to live in the towns beneath kooparoona niara, and elsewhere: Sydney Higgs jnr. was also a renowned watercolour painter, and his own daughter, Avis Higgs, remains one of Wellington’s treasured textile designers and watercolour artists at nearly 100 years of age.

    Dairy pastures follow the road until I turn off the tarmac; an old timber signs points towards the tracks, as well as a ‘Big Tree’, which, according to local knowledge, is now just a big stump. My old car grumbles as I pull in to park at the trailhead. The serrated leaves of sassafras shine with a young green, while the trunks of eucalypts seem antediluvian; ferns sprout from damp corners; rills of water sprint across the path and plunge into creeks; some recently- and beautifully-constructed walls of pitched stone push back the dark earth.

    Lady Lake Hut sits perched on the plateau, a rebuilt version of what Sydney Higgs once erected here. Welcome swallows neurotically wave around their nest in the eaves. I am nearly a kilometre above the low mosaic of farms and towns, and here, as much as anywhere, the subtle colours of rugged country remain much the same as they did for thousands of years after the glaciers melted away from it. Soggy sphagnum, well-lit layers of distant dolerite, the springtime maroon on mountain rocket: these all offer a restful impression on my eye.

    For a pioneer and bushman with artistic inclinations, there may be no more wonderful place.

  • Stolen Spoons

    Stolen Spoons

    That was all it took to change the course of Felix Myers’s life: a handful of spoons, perhaps silver, or perhaps merely of foreign provenance. Some table spoons and some tea spoons.

    Felix Myers, also known as Carl Kernetzki, and also known as Peter Sinclair, was born in Prussia – who knows precisely where – but ended up in Leicester with a sweetheart he’d met at the charmingly-named landmark of Gallowtree Gate. This was in Leicester, where Myers worked as a
    surveyor, musician, and German teacher – but he was evidently interested in supplementing his income in the trade of goods stolen from his mistress’s abode.

    A bunch of spoons.

    He was sentenced, at a court session in the dog days of 1837, to seven years’ transportation. He would be exiled along with an accomplice, Joseph Brant. Myers was 27 and Brant was 21.

    The Leicester Chronicle, which never failed to describe Myers as ‘a German Jew’, and reported the messy details of the case (although quickly forgot the fate of the mistress), also records a ‘pathetic appeal’ Felix Myers made to the jury, in which he described himself as ‘an unfortunate foreigner’. He would become even more foreign still, a German Jew shipped off to Van Diemen’s Land.

    But his behaviour was generally good, and he was assigned as a ‘sub-overseer’ on the road gangs completing works in the Southern Midlands of the island. Occasionally he would make a transgression of the harsh rules of convict life: this would earn him a bit of time on the treadwheel, one of the classic devices of punishment that the penal regime had invented.

    Felix Myers worked on building the highway through Bagdad and Green Ponds – now Kempton, and pictured here with the historic Wilmot Arms hotel on the left, erected some four years after Myers left the region.

    Mary Hickson (or Hixon) had been born in Hobart in 1821, one of the first of a generation of colonial children – the currency lads and lasses – who grew up as Vandemonian kids. Probably the child of a convict, she was acquainted early with the fresh Southern Ocean air and the antipodean birdsong, which had been such an affront to many of the first generation of colonial settlers, prisoner or otherwise.

    She was not yet 20 when she met Felix Myers, the bilingual Prussian who had previously charmed the young dame of Gallowstree Gate on the other side of the world. Mary too was sufficiently taken to be swayed into taking the spoon thief’s red hand in marriage.

    It is regrettable that for so many lovers in our local history, we don’t know what it is that drew them to one another. Was Felix Myers dashing, with dark features and a glint in his eyes? Did Mary Hickson have a eucalypt twang in her voice, already freckly and confident on horseback? Was there some pragmatic reason that brought them together? Did Felix have a ready smile? Would Mary sing? Did they share some dream that hovered cloud-like above them in Van Diemen’s Land?

    The records, muddled as they are, seem to suggest they had two children shortly after their Hobart wedding in 1840. It also looks like they moved to Launceston. The name ‘Myers’ – already probably fictitious – became morphed to ‘Meyer’ or ‘Meyers’.

    Perhaps the tale of this family’s lives exists somewhere buried in some record I’ve not laid eyes on. Probably not the narrative of their love. There is no field guide for this. Unless it exists in unseen ripples, through the subtle realms of ancestors’ minds, woven through their interactions down the line, across history, around the island.

  • Myrtle Forests

    Myrtle Forests

    Myrtle trees seem to live in fables,” writes the poet Andrew Sant (born in 1950), and off he goes, growing a shadowy rainforest in damp green words. The trees “grope through mists that swirl” and the poet stands in “owlish and spidery dank encampments of gloom.” This poem, ‘Myrtle Forests’, is very good.

    The tree the poet praises is Nothofagus cunninghamii, which Tasmanians know as myrtle and Victorians more commonly call myrtle beech. It is distinctly unrelated to the Myrtus myrtles of the Earth’s north, which is named for a female athlete who gamely challenged the men, and won – and was punished for it by the goddess Athena by being turned into a shrub.

    Andrew Sant was born in London, but spent some years in Tasmania working as a teacher and as co-editor of The Tasmanian Review (which is now Island magazine). His poems roam the globe, and they describe a strange garden of arboreal species: apple trees, birch and spruce, pines and casuarinas all fill the landscape and filter the light. There is “dried wood” and “gathered timber”. An array of birds flit between the tousled canopies of vegetation.

    Sant sees Tasmania as a “skewed island, all that mountainous weather-burdened weight in west!” And it is true: don’t let the historic bickering between the towns in the north and south fool you: the division o
    f this island is vertical. There is the difficult transylvanian west, with its “straining forests”, facing towards the worst weather and absorbing it, reprieving the “sheltered east, with its vineyards and holidays”.

    But some life likes wild weather. Our humans and holidaymakers may like dry, flat, open expanses, but our myrtles will only grow in high-rainfall areas. They find gullies and valleys commodious. And if we look closely, we find whole townships of lichen, moss, fungi and fern that have adapted to grow in myrtle forests, countless species that life has chosen for this environment.

    Andrew Sant claims not find himself rooted to any place. “Language, I find, is home,” says Sant, so wherever he can use English to interpret scenes, he will be at rest. He burrows into the world in search of meaning. “So that is history here,” he suddenly says in the myrtle forest, boldly thrusting his language into shadow and wood like a drill bit aiming for a core sample – centuries-old shadow and centuries-old wood, with a lineage of millennia.

    One must be careful with language: after all, whoever first called this a myrtle got the words wrong.

    Consider the huon pine bowls and vases,” Sant writes elsewhere, “– one man has entered a two-thousand-year-old tunnel of cellulose with sharp tools and imagined them, he jokes, to be as perfectly preserved as sacred artefacts in an Egyptian tomb.”

    The woodworker has their own poetry. I read some on a webpage advertising timber products:

    “Myrtle is a striking wood with rich red, brown, and almost orange tones...It is believed the richness of colour comes from the quality of the soil it grows in. The deepest red myrtle comes from highly fertile soils on basalt.”

    On the same page, links are provided to brochures, where Japanese, Korean and Chinese connoisseurs can approach these fables in their own languages.




    Join Field Guide on a trip through the forests of the Overland Track.
    "Geography buffs will recognise that Melbourne, is not, in fact, Tasmania."

  • 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.

  • Bagging Abels

    Bagging Abels

    The Abels sit on the margins of Tasmanian geography; an Abel is a mountain summit over 1100 metres in height, of which there are 158 of these on the island. Tasmanian bushwalker Bill Wilkinson came up with the concept in the 1990s, modelling it on a similar idea in Scotland’s high country. He has since edited several volumes of guidebooks about climbing the Abels, replete with information on access to the trailhead, track conditions, campsite locations, vegetation types and history.

    The bushwalking guidebook is perhaps the quintessential Tasmanian literary genre, and Wilkinson’s
    The Abels series has all its features. Moments of candour and whimsy punctuate the text’s staid practicalities, which generally do a fine job of getting walkers to their destination successfully.

    Recreational bushwalking is an essentially purposeless quest, and countless back-country routes exist in Tasmania. For some, then, having a finite challenge gives direction to an otherwise formless activity.

    My friend Zane Robnik is attempting to climb all of the Abels within an 18-month period, before his 25
    th birthday, which would make it the quickest conquering of these mountains, by the youngest person to do so. But Zane is not a conquering type, and one gets the feeling that his project is a motivation – or an excuse – to keep him in the mountain districts on weekly outings.

    Of course, walking for leisure is a fairly recent invention, as far as human activities go. Even today, for much of the world’s population, walk is equated to work, or else to a natural nomadic rhythm, often associated with seasonal migration. Pushing through Tasmania’s stubborn, spiky, wiry scrub – and clambering up stepped rocks of quartz or dolerite with a heavy canvas rucksack clinging to the walker’s shoulders like a parasite – must seem a strange and masochistic hobby from the outside. Let’s not forget that less than two centuries ago, colonial surveyors deemed much of this mountainous country as TRANSYLVANIA: a dark, wet, impenetrable terrain, riddled with dangers and best avoided. It is likely that much of the high south-west regions were largely abandoned by Aboriginal groups as the last Ice Age diminished and lower land was accessible.

    Yet here we were by own our free will, when we could have been doing anything.

    I am not a mountaineer, but I like mountains. My eye is drawn to the Tasmanian panorama – the layers of light blue and mauve on the hills, the olive-green and sedge-straw of a heath landscape, the gradations of green in forests as seen from above – but I am as interested in the intricate detail of the mountainside ecosystem. Like Scottish writer Nan Shepherd, I can pick a path upon some range
    ‘merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend, with no intention but to be with him’.

    Equally, as with Roger Deakin, I believe going for a walk is an excuse to dress in costume and eat junk food.

    On top of Mount Wedge this past weekend, one of our party connected to his social media. We discovered that on that day Bill Wilkinson, originator of the Abels, was celebrating his birthday. A packet of Savoys was devoured rapidly, and we danced. Many things are acceptable on a mountain summit that would otherwise be inappropriate. Perhaps the Tasmanian peak-bagger is just trying to find the right context for their silliness.

  • A Compendium for New Town, Hobart

    A Compendium for New Town, Hobart

    David Burn jr. had followed his mother to Hobart Town; in May 1826 he arrived with his daughter Jemima. He had left his wife back in Edinburgh and his infant son had died. While his mother had received a land grant, Burn would not qualify; eventually, though, he would be able to buy his own property at New Norfolk.

    Burn was a skilful writer, if we accept the flowery style of his day. He would write a sort of emigrant’s guide about Van Diemen’s Land, published in the Colonial Magazine of 1840-41. It compares interestingly to Thoreau’s Walden, as Burn’s Van Diemen’s Land has a similar style and mood. He describes the D’Entrecasteaux Channel as more favourable than Killarney, and the Huon River as an antipodean Loch Fyne. He does not exactly shy away from descriptions of the island’s ‘rude wilds’, the vicious cruelty of the transportation system, or the threatening behaviour of the original inhabitants, whose ‘sable hue has afforded a theme for naturalists and philosophers’. But it is clear that he writes from a moment in history in which the colonists, regardless of their professed humanitarianism (and many, like Burn, were professed humanitarians), could speak with some relief on the topic of the Aborigines at least.

    For the Black War was in its final days, and the end result was becoming clear: British colonial policy had ensured that Aboriginal existence would not restrain the growth of its Vandemonian settlement.

    So David Burn could enthuse prettily on a place like New Town, with its villas, its race-course, its vibrant gardens and the delicious jam that came from them. “New Town also boasts a pottery, and one or two breweries,” wrote Burn.

    In the early days of British reconnaissance here, this area just north of Hobart’s centre was named Stainforth’s Cove for an East India Company man who would never see the island. The early migrant settlers were the Pitt family, who had come on the
    Ocean in 1803. Richard Pitt would be granted 100 acres on the New Town Rivulet; his daughter Salome is said to have been the first white woman to climb Mount Wellington, following the rivulet’s course upstream with an Aboriginal girl who is remembered in nostalgic history as ‘her companion Miss Story’. Salome Pitt would become a “kind-hearted and firm” schoolteacher who fed her students bread and honey but wasn’t beyond boxing them in the ears if they misbehaved.

    There was a wattle-bark tannery here too, for a couple of years in the 1820s, until the deep colour it imparted to leather went out of fashion.

    This was also the home of the King’s (and later, the Queen’s) Orphan Asylum, where hundreds of children of convicts or deceased settlers would be housed over fifty years until the orphanage was converted into a home for the elderly and infirm.

    Perhaps the most significant figure to pass through the orphan school was Walter George Arthur, who had been given a British education on Flinders Island under the tutelage of George Augustus Robinson and others. Walter George Arthur and his wife Mary Anne identified themselves as Christians; they read and wrote well, and had a keenly developed political awareness. Walter George Arthur would petition the colonial and British governments to their highest office.
    There is perhaps no more interesting couple in recorded Tasmanian history.

    And there is no one bigger in New Town’s history than Thomas Dewhurst Jennings, a Yorkshireman who took over the lease of the popular Harvest Home Inn on New Town Road in 1881. Jennings was reputed to have been the biggest man in Australia, tipping the scales at over 200 kilograms. His own report suggests that Jennings was far from gluttonous – despite owning a public hotel, he rarely drank, although he thought that it ‘reduces his bulk’ when he did.

    The same newspaper report suggested that he was worried by neither his weight nor his age – he was then 60 years old – and intended to get married again. The reporter stated bluntly that this was “the only instance of a fat man who has preserved his health and his bulk together.” Jennings died in 1890.

    What would a contemporary field guide to New Town boast about? The coffee roasters, I suppose; the New Town Greenstore, where you can buy organic teas and gluten free baked goods; the Jackman & McRoss bakery, with its well-known croissants; or the popular Hill Street grocers; or perhaps the Video City, soon to become a relic of history as well.


  • 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.

  • Comedy and Anthropology

    Comedy and Anthropology

    On an October morning in 1800 Captain Nicolas Baudin led his expedition out of the port at Le Havre, aiming for the southern seas.

    Their journey would be harrowing and arduous, and Baudin’s wish, expressed in a toast before setting out, that all his crew would return to France to someday be in the same room together again, would certainly not come true: even Baudin himself would die on the way home.

    His reputation would be somewhat disgraced the expedition’s return, despite the fact that it was one of the most successful voyages in the history of European science. Knowledge of marsupials and eucalypts would arrive in France to be disseminated throughout the continent.

    And here on Maria Island, Nicolas Baudin would
    ask his anthropologist to prepare a report on the Tyereddeme, the Tasmanians who seasonally lived on the island. This man was François Auguste Péron. He was the son of a tailor who had given up his plan to join the priesthood fighting during the Revolution. Péron applied for the Baudin expedition after the demise of an unhappy romantic liaison. For an succinct idea of his character, see a description of him as “ambitious and bumptious”.

    Péron was actually employed as a junior zoologist, but had aspirations to be an anthropologist. And with the other savants and scientists perishing throughout their time in the southern hemisphere, Péron received a series of promotions. With the other naturalists, he collected 100,000 specimens, but he did so in between stints of anthropological observation on the Aboriginal people of Tasmania.

    The burgeoning science of anthropology was gathering momentum back in France, and these interactions between Europeans and Tasmanians were significant occasions. Under Baudin’s commission, Péron had eight days to make his observations, at the end of that year’s summer, which he would then turn into a paper for the Société des Observateurs de l’Homme. Péron was among the first scientists to do some research

    Back in eighteenth-century France, Jean-Jacques Rousseau – driven by cynicism about events in ‘civilisation’ (i.e., urban Europe) – had developed the theory that primitive societies were less corrupted, simpler and more egalitarian. Péron arrived in Australian waters with this view on the Aboriginal populace; this perspective would be metamorphosed throughout the journey, as across Europe, where the ‘noble savage’ would be “demystified” and become a scientific specimen itself.

    The Frenchmen joined a dozen or so Tasmanians on the beach. Rapport was established, wrote Péron, by having two Frenchmen showing off their juggling. Péron began trying to construct a lexicon of the language spoken by the Tyereddeme. Given how little we know of this tongue, his comments are frustrating and tantalising. “I
    t is impossible...to distinguish their pronunciation with any degree of precision: it is a sort of rolling sound, for which our European languages do not furnish any expression of comparison or analogy.”

    Péron found the Tasmanians intelligent and good-natured. “Intermingled around the remains of their fire, we all seemed equally pleased with one another,” he reported.

    The Tasmanians had often wanted to inspect the private parts of the Frenchmen, confused that they had no beards and seemingly no women with them. The youngest and most baby-faced of the sailors, one Citizen Michel, was persuaded to strip for the Tyereddeme. They were convinced. Michel “suddenly exhibited striking proof of his virility”.

    In a poignant moment that may seem to us the only imaginable event of this incredible cross-cultural encounter, the ill-timed erection made everyone, black and white, fall to hysterical laughing there on that white-shored beach.

    But Péron interpreted this with a hefty dose of ethnocentricism: he chose to believe that the Tyereddeme were impressed by the virility of the Frenchman, not in a condition to experience this as often as the French were. Likewise, based on his brief lexicographical survey, Péron reckoned the Tyereddeme had no words for kissing or caressing.

    But everywhere in Tasmania the French had this bias, and one suspects the interest was not strictly scientific.

    For example, Péron spent a spontaneous afternoon with a party of twenty female swimmers on Bruny Island. One young lady was particularly referenced in Péron’s journal: “
    Fifteen or sixteen years of age...pleasant features, with a round well formed bosom, though the nipples were rather too large and long.”

    And the sailor Jacques Hamelin thought that two Tasmanian women he had met made “
    suggestive signs which in Paris would not be ambigious.”

    But ambiguity was everywhere in these encounters, with both sides superstitious and bewildered by the other; thousands of years of cultural heritage separated Maria Island from Paris. Aboriginal flirtations surely looked somewhat different to those of the French. There was no field guide to any such interactions for either party. No wonder seemingly peaceful scenarios suddenly blew up into violence. There was no shared language or technology. All that these two cultures had in common was what they could see – but even these things, the ocean and the stars, wallabies and wattle trees, had different meanings.

    We only European accounts of these early meetings between Tasmanian and European communities. Events were certainly perceived very differently. I truly hope, though, that the diarists are telling things accurately when they say that when a French sailor’s member stiffened in the sea breeze at Maria Island one February day in 1802, it provided a moment of unanimous intercultural comedy.

    We can see clearly now that François Péron’s science was flawed by prejudice and ignorance. Two centuries from now, a future historian will likely look back on our views and scoff at how outdated we were. All we can do is to aim to be among the most curious and humble thinkers of our own age.

  • Multicultural Maria Island

    Multicultural Maria Island

    We were on our way across the nine nautical miles of Mercury Passage, to Maria Island.

    I don’t know why we pronounce Maria the way we do – with the second syllable drawn out into a long i, like ‘eye’it was named after Mrs. Van Diemen, the wife of the patron of Abel Tasman, who passed through here in 1642. On the other hand the Tyereddeme are said to have their name from a compound word meaning the ‘white cliff people’.

    The Tyereddeme would have seen them. This band had arrived seasonally over the last millennia, building huts for shelter and enjoying the fresh water and seafood. Their dead are buried on the island and they have left their middens behind. They too covered the nine nautical miles often enough, on canoes made of rushes, across the calm waters of Mercury Passage.

    In 1789, the Mercury came. John Henry Cox was its commander; a young Londoner, he had made a career for himself as a privateer, offering up his brig for services in North America, Scandinavia and Russia before making the long trek to Van Diemen’s Land. He charted the coastlines of both Maria Island and Oyster Bay, now both well-known and well-used, for shipping timber and woodchips, fishing, and transporting everyone from convicts to tourists throughout the two centuries of European occupation.

    The French came here too, in 1802, for the purposes of science and possibly geopolitics – the latter is unconfirmed, but it seems likely that during the Napoleonic Wars they were looking at colonising Van Diemen’s Land themselves. Their captain was Nicolas Baudin, and he commissioned his voyage’s anthropologist, François Péron, to write a report on the Tyereddeme.

    But also the French had to bury their own dead here: René Maugé de Cely, a zoologist, had taken ill with a tropical disease earlier on the journey and died upon the expedition’s arrival at Maria Island. He is remembered in nomenclature: here, in Point Maugé, but also in the scientific annals, in the names of a parakeet, a dove, and a carnivorous slug.

    Later, boatloads of convicts would be brought here, with the station Darlington established from 1825 until 1832. Convicts were indentured to work as foresters, tanners and seamsters, with a water-powered textile factory as the island’s centrepiece. It was never an ideal convict station: behavioural problems persisted, supplies were often running short, and convicts would occasionally construct their own vessels for the purpose of escape across Mercury Passage.

    Convicts returned in 1842, but again, the camp only lasted for a few years. William Smith O’Brien, the Irish political agitator, attempted escape from here. Five Maoris sentenced to transportation for life also arrived here, imprisoned for rebellion when they formed a resistance against violent colonialists in the frontiers of New Zealand. One of these was a whiskery labourer named Hohepa Te Umuroa. He was likely in his late 20s when he died of tuberculosis on Maria Island.

    "At 4am visited the Maoris," wrote the prison chief. "Found Hohepa very nearly gone. At 5 am he breathed his last without a struggle."

    He was buried on a hillside on the island until 1988, when his descendants returned to collect his body for reinterment in home soil by the Wanganui River.

    Two Khoi convicts, from western South Africa, also made it to the island; and later, the Italian migrant Diego Bernacchi would try a variety of venturies on the island. This may seem an odd site for such a cosmopolitan history. It certainly did for the first Tasmanians. The resistance fighter Kickerterpoller told a journalist that he saw one of the early ships that came to Maria Island when he was a boy – perhaps the Baudin expedition. His clan members, terrified, fled from the coast. Kickerterpoller said that they were confused by the ship, which seemed to them like a small island. They could not “conceive how the white men came here first.”

    Not the first, we came on a free boat, slept in the old penitentiary, and kicked the footy often. We also played cards with two young women: one, the daughter of an American astronomer; the other of Bulgarian and Macedonian descent. It’s all still a bit tricky to get your head around.



    The French captain Nicolas Baudin came by here with a convict girl.

  • Ross Stop

    Ross Stop

    I used to skateboard with a young man who had been born in San Bernardino, California, and had since relocated with his mother to Ross. It seemed a long way, not only geographically, but notionally. San Bernardino sprawls in a hot, dry valley basin east of Los Angeles; it is the 100th most populous city in the U.S. Ross is a handsome village in the midlands of Tasmania, occupied by sandstone cottages and other convict-built edifices.

    I never really found out how my mate had ended up in Ross, but I did take the bus down there to visit him a couple of times during my teenage years. And since I have returned many times, like plenty of Tasmanians, en route between Launceston and Hobart.

    Sometimes I do this on the Redline bus (although not often, as it is a rather overpriced service, if I may add my two cents). I look up from my book whenever
    turns off the highway, at Tacky Creek or over the famous bridge at Macquarie River, depending on from which direction we’re coming. Chugging gently into the town, I would hear the bus driver say – although ‘say’ is perhaps too strong a word, as it was more as though he was clearing his throat or perhaps struggling with the effects of strong drink – the words, “Ross stop; this is Ross stop.”

    And at this point, all too often, a lone Japanese woman would step out of the vehicle, and wander off, as if dazed, into Church Street. I marvelled that they could interpret the bus driver’s ‘announcement’, and wondered wonder what these poor individuals were doing, staggering off into the tidy main road, and where now they would go. It was often a bit early for a seat at a public table, so I would presume that these lonely wayfarers were going to the bakery, for a famous dish, such as a scallop pie or vanilla slice.

    I later discovered that the Ross Village Bakery attracted tourists, and particularly those from Japan, for other reasons. The bakery is said to have been the model for the setting of Kiki’s Delivery Service, a popular 1989 anime film. As Chris Norris has shown in an enjoyable thesis titled A Japanese media pilgrimage to a Tasmanian bakery, a ‘cult geography’ has formed around the place, one to which most of us as we rumble through the village are oblivious.

    But we each have own personal geographies. The bakery guestbook reads both “I never forget that I watched a movie in Kiki’s room” and “that was the best pie I’ve ever had”. Here in Ross, I got drunk for the first time,
    and Mitch kissed a girl I adored, the day she got her braces taken off. Many years later I rummaged through the antiques store and bought The Australian Ugliness and a percolator.

    Countless times, I have gone to look at the sandstone bridge with its “hallucinatory composition of Celtic carved motifs and gargoyle-like human faces”, including one of a personality from history to whom I’ve devoted far too many hours of study.

    More importantly, John Helder Wedge, a surveyor in Van Diemen’s Land in the days when it took some courage to traverse this island, and who came and went through this town many times over, noted in his diary in the 1830s that on one occasion, on his way here, that he “rode in a jaunting-cart, sitting opposite the lovely Miss Watts”.


    Here is a personal geography of the Midlands Highway.
    And here is the story of the Man O' Ross Hotel.

    This is the bloke on the bridge, to whom I've devoted too much time.

  • History of a Highway

    History of a Highway

    A road is not like a railway, built mile by mile, inching along to an inevitable goal. No, a road begins with tracks, either of men or animals; it is improved haphazardly as occasion demands.”

    So wrote George Hawley Stancombe, in his self-published history of the Midlands Highway, History in Van Diemen’s Land (1968). Anyone making the journey between Tasmania’s two urban centres today would notice that the haphazard improvements continue. The earth along the highway’s sides scoured and graded, big boulders broken, lanes added, and (for the meantime) vehicles being slowed down to a grinding halt at certain sections.

    But we presume that in the end it will make the journey between Hobart and Launceston smoother, quicker, and safer. We chip away gladly at the amount of minutes spent on that road as it glides amidst the farmlands and villages of Tasmania’s eastern interior.

    In doing so we dismiss the efforts of Lieutenant Laycock, who on February 12th 1807, accompanied by four men and three weeks worth of provisions, staggered bedraggled into Hobart Town, having hoofed it from the Tamar to the Derwent.

    Their route was not identical to our highway’s, and the landscape is not the same. They spoke of thick forests – now all the land is cleared for agriculture – and they seem to have been in the vicinity of New Norfolk. Their adventure, along with those of several other parties that followed theirs, may have involved encounters with Aboriginals and bushrangers, and required that they overcome swollen rivers and tough terrain, not to mention the transport of their possessions.

    The first vehicular passages occurred in 1824, with two mail carriages relaying, meeting centrally at York Plains on Friday afternoons. Rendezvousing at the White Hart Inn, they quickly toasted one another, and then returned from whence they came with the other man’s cargo. (Mr. Presnell, proprietor of the inn, is said to have served “good mutton, indifferent wine and very poor bread.”)

    The name of York Plains, along with Ross, Epping Forest, and anything with his or his wife’s name in it came from Governor Lachlan Macquarie, who, with Elizabeth Macquarie and other dignitaries, traversed the island in the early days of the colony. But was Antill Ponds named after one of his men, one Major Antill, or a bushranger whose head was bashed in by one of his colleagues? And who is responsible for the naming of Jericho, Jordan and Bagdad – and were they really reading from the Bible or the Arabian Nights?

    Each traveller in Tasmania has their impressions from the road. Many have a story of accident, or more often, a near-accident. The weather has come and gone on us, hazing up Ben Lomond or the Western Tiers on either side; Mount Wellington, either ahead or behind, looks stern and foreboding, or glorious and inviting. On a recent trip down, there was snow down to about 500 metres in the midlands.

    We have had a good toasted sandwich in Kempton or a kick of the footy at Oatlands. Sometimes the two hours have passed too quickly, and sometimes, they’ve dragged on forever. Everyone has had a coffee at Campbell Town – but do you prefer Zep’s or Red Bridge?

    Poor old Brighton, bypassed a few years back: who knows what happens in Brighton now? These days, in and out of Hobart we pass the former Pontville Detention Centre. This was an army barracks, and then for a short while, housed asylum seekers. It is back in private hands now, and its history, shadowy, may just disappear as we familiarise ourselves with it as a benign, unregistered, fairly bland landmark along the highway.

    Just as we ignore the silhouettes in steel commissioned, I am told, to help drivers keep their attention as they head through the Southern Midlands. The gunpoint mugging of a gig, the surveyor’s strained efforts, the emus and thylacines, and the forlorn figure of the hangman at the turn-off to Stonor all blend into the hedgerows, the sloping fields, the solitary gums, the homesteads and so on, as we mostly move hastily between the urban centres.

    But I have missed too much out! History and anecdote crowd my attempts to write this brief account of the Midlands Highway. There are those who have lived along the highway, who have seen it snake towards and away from them, and those people and animals who formed its basic route before Europeans ever dragged their sheep to the fields or planted a radiata pine or poppy. There are truly funny stories to tell, and miraculous moments, and maybe I could even muster up something romantic. I am sure there will be many readers who feel the same.

    I won’t tell it all now. But someday I, like Lieutenant Laycock, will stroll from the Tamar to the Derwent – and then there will be time to unravel the stories. Even a highway journey ought be taken on foot sometime.

  • Floods

    Floods

    As I returned home from a short trip to the mainland, the major river systems of northern Tasmania were in flood.

    After heavy rainfall a few days earlier, rising waters destroyed homes and property, swept away livestock, and
    brought about the end of at least one life, with several more people missing.

    Latrobe, on the Mersey River, looked almost entirely submerged in aerial photos; 19 houses have been rendered ‘uninhabitable’. I am about to move into the suburb of Invermay: it was evacuated as I returned to it. I tried not take this personally.

    Flying across Bass Strait, the aftermath of flooding in the Emu, Forth, Mersey, Meander, Macquarie, North Esk and South Esk Rivers was evident. I couldn’t see much from the aisle seat, of course, but I joined the neck-stretching gawkers trying to see what had occurred while we were north, on the big island.

    I went straight from the airport to the Cataract Gorge. Dozens of people were there, watching huge quantities of water barrel down beneath the suspension bridge, a turbulent, seething, brown-and-white mass. The flooding of the Gorge has long had this effect; it brings a crowd, at all hours, and suddenly we have something to talk about with our neighbours.

    It also reminds us that this town at a confluence of three rivers; the water in the Cataract Gorge, spilling over the blunt concrete of its dam walls, is identifiable as a genuine river, the longest one in Tasmania no less, whose headwaters at the base of Ben Lomond require several days to journey to the second-most populous town on the island. As our lives move away from practical geographical knowledge, the Gorge is treated like an island, as if it is its own ecosystem, isolated: many Launcestonians I know could not tell you which river runs between those dolerite cliffs, and I suspect many do not even recognise it as part of a river system.

    But we can understand it better, even if the way we talk about it is unscientific. “I’ve never seen it this high,” says everybody. “Do you reckon it’ll go over?” the residents of Invermay asked each other by the flood levy on Tuesday night, before the evacuation. “Nah, don’t reckon...”

    On the aeroplane, a husband is pointing out what he thinks are various roads, submerged farms, bridges that must be washed away. She looks up from her electronic book, and spits, “Oh, what would you know!”

    This flood follows a summer in which a lack of rainfall threatened us. Hydroelectric dams ran close to empty. Dry lightning struck dry vegetation, creating bushfires in the rainforest.

    Gaston Bachelard has written a
    Psychoanalysis of Fire; who will treat a psychoanalysis of floods? We so blithely use the river as a metaphor for steady movement, progress, providence, time. A flood ignores these interpretations. The river is usually an uninterrupted flow of hours; the flood interrupts, makes time’s rhythm seem less benign. It reminds us that there is no guarantee that we have an allotted amount of days, or that the hours will trundle by coolly and calmly. Years may pass in peace, but the arrival of a single violent moment can end it all. We are alerted to the fact that the same hand which feeds us might yet throttle us.

    And yet for modern witnesses, the spectacle of the sublime draws us to itself. Even as elsewhere lives and livelihoods are being washed away, we stand by the seething rivers, waves lifting out from the depths and pushing forcefully out to the mouth, into the sea, suddenly unnoticeable.

    My new housemate takes the record player off the top shelf; we were not flooded out. The levy held the waters back. They say this was a more severe flood than the one in 1929, which was a genuine disaster. But our infrastructure has reprieved us of much worse. In a poorer country, the death toll would stand at thousands. In rural Tasmania, the consequences are devastating: socially, economically, emotionally. But for those in town, we once again allow ourselves to believe we have mastered the ancient processes of our ecosystems.



    Two years ago I wrote 'A Short History of Shitty Weather', about the 1929 floods.
    More recent is this piece on pirates in southern Tasmania.

  • On the Cyprus Brig Convey'd

    On the Cyprus Brig Convey'd

    A party of forty had been camped here for two weeks in August 1829. Their situation was desperate; they were marooned and starving. Three pocket-knives were the only tools they possessed. With these they built a tiny boat from wattle timber, and put two men in it. They sailed for help in this “crazy little craft”.

    This was Recherche Bay in Tasmania’s far south – named after one the early French scientific vessels, it is still pronounced locally as ‘Research’ Bay. Ever since Europeans became aware of its existence, it had served as a useful harbour for voyages departing from Hobart Town to Macquarie Harbour on the west coast.

    The two score stranded on this beach had been on the same route, on a brig named the
    Cyprus. The colonial government had, in 1826, purchased the vessel from John Briggs, a notorious sailor and sealer in Vandemonian waters during the early part of that century. It had been bought for £1700. The Cyprus was then used for these south coast journeys: usually bringing supplies and convicts to the penal station at Macquarie Harbour, and returning to the capital with Huon pine and other convict-manufactured goods.

    So on August 6, 1829, under the charge of Lieutenant William Carew, the
    Cyprus left Hobart with 62 passengers. Exactly half of them were convicts, “a pretty bad lot all in double irons”. Lt. Carew was with his family; they would be moving to the Macquarie Harbour convict settlement.

    They had reached Recherche Bay on a still night when mutiny suddenly broke out. Lieutenant Carew had been off on a small boat, fishing for provisions. The soldiers’ quarters on the boat were blocked by the tactical positioning of a hencoop. The captain was knocked out. A shot fired produced smoke and added to the confusion. The pirates took command of the brig, and took two sailors hostage; the rest were sent off to shore with minimal rations.

    William Swallow, a former sailor and the alleged instigator of the mutiny, took command along with seventeen other convicts. The two sailors managed to escape and swim ashore. Regardless, the
    Cyprus then took an incredible voyage: through the South Seas, by the southern islands of Japan, and to China, arriving the significant trading post of Canton, now Guangzhou. Here, they destroyed their stolen brig, and came ashore pretending to be the shipwrecked sailors of a different ship, the Edward – somehow they had come into possession of property belonging to this ship, including a rowboat, her sextant, and logbooks.

    After some investigation from the authorities, most were given freedom to leave. William Swallow and three others were given passage to London. The others joined a Danish vessel and went to Mexico.

    For some reason, two of the pirates had arrived separately, on the coast away from China; Chinese authorities took them in as British subjects, and by the time they made it to Canton, news had arrived of the convicts’ mutiny. These last two were arrested; they made a confession; and they were taken to trial.

    In the meantime, the handmade coracle had reached another vessel departing Hobart Town, and the stranded party were saved. A convict with the superb name of John Popjoy
    (or Pobjoy) had become a hero. He had been fishing when the mutiny occurred; he had rowed their boat, and led the efforts to be found. Eleven years old when he was convicted and transported to Van Diemen’s Land, he was given his liberty when the party returned to Hobart.

    Popjoy’s descriptions of his fellow-convicts made it possible to identify William Swallow and the other pirates when they landed in London, just six days after an express voyage from Hobart. They were arrested. Those with him were executed; somehow, William Swallow managed to avoid responsibility for the mutiny, claiming he was ill and taken against his volition. He was returned to Hobart as a convict, and died at Port Arthur in 1834.

    The Bruny Island man Mangana told that his wife had been kidnapped and taken on the Cyprus, never to be heard from again.

    John Popjoy married in 1832, but continued his sailing career; in 1833 he drowned off the coast of France. Three months later his child, Elizabeth Sarah, was born.

    The convict mutineers who boarded the Danish trading vessel for Mexico are lost to history, but we know at least that they were not punished for their crimes.

    Convict poet Francis MacNamara recorded all of this in verse for posterity.

    "The morn broke bright, the wind was fair, we headed for the sea
    With one cheer more to those on shore and glorious liberty.
    For navigating smartly Bill Swallow was the man,
    Who laid a course out neatly to take us to Japan."


      
    Last week we took a trip down the west coast's Savage River.
    A maharajah arrived unexpectedly in the early days of Launceston.

  • A Savage Shock

    A Savage Shock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Steering South by South-East

    Steering South by South-East

    On board the Norfolk two friends from the Fenlands sailed along the northern coast of the island.

    George Bass had thirty-three years tucked under his belt; Matthew Flinders was only twenty-four. They had become dear friends on their early journeys around Australia, beginning on their voyage out in 1794, and now the waterway that would become known as Bass Strait, with eight volunteers and no timepiece.

    It was from a note in Flinders’s journal, on November 4, 1798, that Low Head, like so many features observable by boat, received the name it would bear on maps from then on.

    Six years later an expedition of four ships would make their attempts into enter the Tamar River to settle at Port Dalrymple with Lieutenant-Governor Paterson in charge. These vessels were the Buffalo, the Lady Nelson, the Integrity and the Francis: but as the gale blew up at the mouth of the river, one ship – the Buffalo – was separated from the others, and Captain William Kent was forced to make landfall for a time on that eastern headland Low Head; shortly after, attempting again to enter the river, the ship was hammered by the weather and was washed aground.

    At last they all reconvened at Outer Cove. Were there locals at hand to watch the flag-raising ceremony, the beastly watercrafts stalking down the river that was known as kanamaluka or Ponrabbel?

    Some had no doubt seen Bass and Flinders “steering S. E. by S. up an inlet of more than a mile wide” one late spring afternoon in 1798, in that handsome colonial sloop. A giant white swan swooping onto the placid waters of the widening river.

    The colonists quickly set about establishing their colony at Outer Cove, now George Town, with two prefabricated huts from Sydney. Bricks were laid and vegetables were planted. The destinies of the northern colonies were to unfold sporadically, progressing uncertainly, struggling against natural elements and without the wisdom of those peoples who had seen “Bass’s Strait” when it was indeed not filled with water at all.

    But the purpose of Low Head was more clear. The broad river they called the Tamar, flowing out of the confluence of two further long rivers that tumbled down from the high dolerite slopes of Ben Lomond to create the significant hydrographical systems that had created life and meaning for the north of the island for so long, was difficult to navigate where it met the Strait. There were many hazards to contend with, and Low Head was a suitable place from which to address these.

    So early on beacons were established there, beginning with a simple flagpole of Captain Kent's construction. A pilot’s station was manned from 1805, by one William House, but he absconded after two years - sent to Sydney in 1807 to seek assistance as the fledgling colony verged on starvation, he did not return.

    The first lighthouse was built by a gentleman dubbed “Bolting Dick” or R.M. Warmsley. It was erected in 1832. The famous colonial architect John Lee Archer designed a more permanent fixture, built by convicts from stone and rubble and armed with a revolving light at considerable expense. It was finished in 1838.

    This had to be replaced five decades later by the brick building that stands today. By this time, cottages for coxswains and crewmen had been constructed; school houses and workshops were added; the pretty Christ Church was holding services; farmhouses stretched along the river; cows and sheep grazed in paddocks; couples raised their children; and roadways to Launceston had been cleared.


    Recently on the Field Guide, we remembered explorer Henry Hellyer.
    Further along Bass Strait lived Tarenorerer, a freedom fighter, born around 1800.

  • 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.



  • Confessions of a Bushwalking Guide

    Confessions of a Bushwalking Guide

    I’ve hardly read a book and barely written a word in the last weeks.

    Instead, I’ve been working as a bushwalking guide. On an almost constant rotation, I am taking visitors on a six-day itinerary through Tasmania’s highlands, through a World Heritage Area, on the famous Overland Track.

    This summer, we’ve had snow and we’ve had fire.

    We’ve had gales blowing over Cradle Plateau, hours of swimming in Lake Windermere; we’ve clambered up Oakleigh and Ossa, and come down hundred of metres to the buttongrass plains in order to play impromptu cricket games. We’ve stuck their noses into leatherwood flowers – it was a bad season for waratahs, but there was myrtleheath flowering galore in January.

    In a patch of remnant rainforest, wedged between the moors, I have gone with colleagues – dear friends – to drink booze drenched in the scents of sassafras and celery top, the plasticky scrape of pandani fronds, soft sphagnum and curly ferns absorbing our irreverent noise, clandestine.

    It’s been about a hundred years now that tourists have come to the Tasmanian forests to be guided and receive hospitality from the idiosyncratic characters of these remote places. Paddy Hartnett, Bert Nicholls, Gustav Weindorfer and Bert Fergusson are among the oddballs who boiled the billy with the visitors and pointed out the features. They kneaded dough and told jokes and said a thing or two about the way forests work or how geological formations came to be. And they were part of the landscape, somehow embodying a mythos of the place.

    We get to Frog Flats, above which are some mountains that the classically-minded George Frankland gave Greek names. Pelion, Achilles and Thetis sit next to Paddy’s Nut. It’s neither Greek nor classical, but an act of homage to the chummy, illiterate, alcoholic who worked as a trapper, prospector and guide before the drink did him in, to be survived by a wife and too many children with aching memories.

    To fistiki tou Patrikiou, I translate into Greek, trying to bring the outside world into this thin ribbon of tracks cobbled together for sixty-seven kilometres from the Cradle Valley to Lake St. Clair. It gets a weak laugh.

    I sleep beneath the stars, watching icy spears slice through the darkness and distance; aurora australis appears like a silent giant on the horizon, pale white bands shimmering, then disappearing.

    I try to find time alone, squatting down to watch the jackjumpers, scooping up dark creek water in a bamboo cup, watching rosella green suddenly appear in the branches of a white gum.

    I have a long black in the ranger’s hut, and he tells me Umberto Eco has died, and I walked on down the track to be picked up by the Idaclair and ferried to the bar at Cynthia Bay. When I get to Nicholson’s Bookstore in Launceston the next day, I buy Foucault’s Pendulum, but I’m back on the track in two days and I won’t be reading dense works of fiction in between damper and billy tea (or peppermint hot chocolates).

    But the leatherwood petals have begun to scatter themselves across the rich dark soil of the rainforests, and it seems it won’t be long now until the summer is well and truly ended; I’ll be off the track, and I’ll have to choose whether to stay in the bush alone, or go off into the world and join companions somewhere else.




    Previously, we imagined that Van Diemen's Land was a colony of fish.
    Elsewhere in the Overland Track's history, explorers came upon Barn Bluff.


  • A Colony of Fish

    A Colony of Fish

    This is the slender-spined porcupine fish, or southern porcupine fish, or the globefish, Diodon nicthemerus, first described to European science by Cuvier in 1818. You’ll find it in the southern waters of Australia, from Geraldton to Port Jackson, but it’s most common in Port Phillip Bay or the coastal waters of Tasmania. (This specimen was found near Beaumaris, on the east coast.)

    This is one of a number of fish illustrations done by William Buelow Gould during the Vandemonian convict era. The artist would later gain international fame after being fictionalised by Richard Flanagan in the well-reviewed Gould’s Book of Fish. His fish are made handsome in watercolour; the porcupine fish looks lonely and unloved, and it’s easy to sympathise with it. Perhaps Gould identified with it himself.

    William Buelow Gould was a chosen name. It seems he was born as William Holland on November 8, 1803; his father was a boatman on the Thames. He was literate and as a young man moved to London where he took up an apprenticeship with lithographer Rudolph Ackermann. His artistic skills were being developed and he married.

    But William fell in with a crowd of boozers and gamblers – always easy to stumble upon in London. In his twentieth year, one of his drinking mates was murdered, perhaps in shady circumstances; William fled to Staffordshire with his wife and their new child.

    But before too long he departed from there too, this time abandoning wife and child. And he ditched the name with which he was born as well.

    The name ‘Gould’ was a good association to make – John and Elizabeth Gould were gaining esteem as artists of natural history. So the runaway artist declared himself William Buelow Gould, “Portrait Painter and Drawing Master”, when he arrived in Northampton.

    But although he had left so many things in his wake, William Buelow Gould was not prepared to dispose of his bad habits. Drinking, gambling, and stealing marred his new career with a painter and glazier by the name of Thomas Smith. Within weeks he was charged with stealing his employer’s materials and suffered three months in prison, as well as a public flogging. And in November 1826, he stole someone’s coat, hankie and gloves; he was found guilty, and sentenced to seven years’ transportation in Van Diemen’s Land.

    On the Asia, the vessel that brought him to Van Diemen’s Land, he painted his first portrait of a ship’s officer. It was pretty ordinary, but Gould seemed to have been able to talk himself up. He was given convict employment as a potter – but was transferred to the chain gang for drunkenness. Then, he put his artistic ability to use in attempted to forge a banknote. He was to be sent to Macquarie Harbour, but after a storm forced the ship to pause en route, many of the convict passengers mutinied; Gould didn’t, and was rewarded for his good behaviour with an assignment to Dr James Scott. Here, he was put to work drawing specimens.

    Coincidentally, the inspirations for his pseudonym arrived in Tasmania during this convict apprenticeship: John and Elizabeth Gould were friends of the Lieutenant-Governor John Franklin and his wife. One wonders whether they were shown the work of the convict Gould, and what they made of his impressive images, which would later be credited by UNESCO as valuable enough to enter their historical registers.

    Gould’s work throughout the rest of his convict career would include still-life images of fruit, flowers, game and fish. Finally a free man, he was given a job painting coaches in Launceston, although he almost sabotaged that immediately; given tools and material to do his work, Gould absconded, only to return shortly enough afterwards to not lose his job.

    “His last years were spent in some comfort,” writes a biographer, but no doubt his life was shortened by the years of hard living. He died in his home in December 1853, joining the great ocean of dead things that surrounds us all.

    Yet he was later resurrected, and reimagined, by Flanagan; in it, he belongs to “a colony of fish masquerading as men”; and the surgeon to whom Gould is assigned turns into Diodon nicthemerus.

     

    Previously on Field Guide, a German baron goes into the Tasmanian mountains.
    On another east coast beach, a French captain takes a convict lover.

  • The Baron in the Mountains

    The Baron in the Mountains

    Tasmanian national parks celebrate their 100th birthday this year. In 1916, two inaugural national parks were gazetted after promotion by pioneer supporters of tourism and conservation; a century later, national parks cover nearly a half of Tasmania’s land mass.

    Mount Field, 70 kilometres north-west of Hobart, was one of these first parks. In its early days, Mount Field was a hub for skiing and memorabilia still remains from the days when social Hobartians dragged the necessaries for a gala ball to a hut above Lake Dobson, and skated on the frozen lake.

    Snowfall is less common in Tasmania these days; the ski lift still operates occasionally during winters at Mount Field, and in the summer time, thousands of tourists flock to the park for short walks or multiple-day hikes, taking in the waterfalls, the giant swamp gums, the flowering heath, or the broad alpine vistas.

    An early tourist to Mount Field was Baron Ferdinand von Mueller.

    Guided by local trappers the Rayner brothers, Baron von Mueller arrived to investigate the unique botanical characteristics of the region. Born Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich Müller in 1825, the Baron relocated to Australia following the death of his eldest sister from tuberculosis. Now known as von Mueller, he and other family members joined a plethora of other German migrants in newly-settled Adelaide in 1847.

    Having been trained in botanising while working as a pharmacist’s apprentice in his native northern Germany, von Mueller gained  job at the pharmacy on Adelaide’s main street, and set about learning the local flora with journeys into the Mount Lofty Ranges, Mount Gambier, the Flinders Ranges and Lake Torrens.

    Shortly after, he received work in Victoria, and was the first curator of the Botanical Gardens in Melbourne.

    It was 1867 when Baron von Mueller went with the Rayners to Mount Field. Spending a week in the foothills of Mount Field East, he observed the unique species of the region, including making the first descriptions of a variety of cushion plant (Donatia novae-zelandiae) and several eucalypts – the snow peppermint, urn gum and cider gum, as well as taking in the glacial geology of the area.

    The Rayners’ memory of the journey came through a humorous observation: the Baron, the trapper noted, “persisted in wearing his two flannel scarves”, which von Mueller (it is said) would do whether he was in the town or the bush.

  • Nowhere Valley

    Nowhere Valley

    Beneath here is Nowhere Valley. There, the bushranger Lucas Wilson set up his utopia. “What I’ve done in establishing Nowhere Valley,” he said, “is to escape the world which is too much with us…Here in this beautiful place, we’re in a territory that’s never been spoiled: one that’s just as it was at the beginning of time.”

    Fiction: from the last novel of Tasmanian author Christopher Koch, Lost Voices, published in 2012.

    Nowhere Valley is Collinsvale, a hamlet hidden in the northern bumps and folds of Mount Wellington. By the mid-nineteenth century, when the invented scholastic woodsman and his followers had established their society in Koch’s novel, British settlements had begun to creep up the creeks from Glenorchy and New Norfolk into this valley. Sorell Creek was the region’s first name.

    And then came the first immigrants from Germany and Denmark. These Lutherans were drawn by cheap land and good water supplies to start a township there, centred around agriculture, from 1870. They planted vines and potatoes, and worked as carpenters and blacksmiths and bakers. The relative isolation provided by the valley allowed the migrants to maintain their identities. Their names were Neilsen and Fehlberg, Tötenhofer and Appeldorff. In 1881, the town was gazetted with the name of Bismarck, after the Prussian statesman.

    But a few decades later, with the Great War invoking anti-German sentiments around Tasmania, a letter-writing campaign sought to change this name. Collinsvale, after the first Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, David Collins, was proposed. “We are quite unanimous in believing that Collinsvale is a far more suitable name for a Tasmanian township than Bis-marck,” wrote one W.F. Andersen in December 1914. “The only ones who do not think so are Germans, and a couple who are probably under obligations to Germans.”

    The latter’s oppositions included the claim that the brand name of Bismarck was associated with high quality produce. This was quashed: the town was renamed Collinsvale.

    Names can change with extraordinary ease: mountains and hills less so. The utopia of Nowhere Valley failed. The bushranger Lucas Wilson perished. His final exhortation was, “Keep faith with the hills.” His author, Christopher Koch, who grew up in the town of Glenorchy beneath the mountain summits now known as Collins Cap and Collins Bonnet, narrates: “Though I’ve lived most of my life outside the island, my native hills have figured very often in my work. Back here again, perhaps to stay, I wander outside the town and study their rhyming outlines: olive green; deep green; blue. Familiar, unchanging and apparently static, they nevertheless have a look of illusory fluidity, and are constantly renewing themselves.”

    And indeed they are. Lucas Wilson was wrong: this is not how these places have been since the beginning of time. “And the beauty that Lucas had so often spoken about was mere fancy – something he’d grafted onto this landscape.”

  • 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.



  • Fenton of Forth Country

    Fenton of Forth Country

    Settling new country was seen as a heroic act by the early Europeans in Australia, and there were few more heroic in that mould than James Fenton of the Forth.

    He was brought out on the Othello by his father, James Fenton snr., who was following his cousin Michael to Van Diemen’s Land. The “Fighting Fentons” (as they charmingly called themselves) were Protestants from Ireland, their family of French ancestry. Michael had served in India and Burma before coming to Van Diemen’s Land in 1828, and reported very favourably of it. They left Liverpool in 1833; James snr. died at sea. James jnr. and his mother and brothers arrived in Hobart Town in February 1834.

    Soon after, the eldest sister had married and taken up land on the north coast, west of the Tamar. Visiting, James took great interest in the country further west, which was still covered in heavy timber, an intricate ecosystem of wet sclerophyll. Anywhere with slightly less forest had been taken by the Van Diemen’s Land Company. Yet in 1840, James Fenton delved into the depths of this country, and bought a thousand cheap acres from the government on the Forth River. He was the only settler in the district; the nearest civilisation was about eighty kilometres away.

    Fenton’s technique of land management was unique and innovative. In 1846, now in his mid-twenties, he married  Helena Mary Monds, the sister of successful settler capitalist Thomas Monds. (Fenton and Monds would go into business in the 1850s, exporting palings to Victoria for accommodation on the burgeoning goldfields.) They were exposed to threats: for example, when the felonious personalities Dalton and Kelly appeared off the beach near the mouth of the Forth.

    Gradually, other settlers entered the region. Fenton had helped and housed explorers such as Nathaniel Lipscombe Kentish as they tried to push back the unknown parts of the region. In the 1850s, settlements pushed further west than Fenton had, adopting his system of ring-barking old growth trees and burning the undergrowth.  Fenton’s techniques became the model for the new pioneer community living on the north-west coast.

    Removing the forests had revealed surprisingly rich, ruby-coloured basaltic soil, ideal for farming. Berry bushes and fruit trees were planted; Fenton later confessed to have introduced blackberries to that part of Tasmania. “I trust the gentle reader will not throw up the book when he discovers that the writer…was one of the miscreants who inflicted the blackberry plague on the district,” he worries in his Bush Life in Tasmania, which today remains a wonderful read on the European settlement of the Forth country.

    Of course, we know that Fenton’s career in Forth country wrought irrevocable changes. He notes in his pioneering memoir that although a previous explorer had frequently seen emus, he never saw a single one. Henry Hellyer had been able to ‘rout’ emus, Fenton reflects, almost constantly. “It is a very singular fact that those emus have all disappeared from some unknown cause.” It seems almost wilful naiveté to us.

    Fenton briefly left the Forth to try his hand at the Victorian goldfields in 1852, but returned quickly, and didn’t leave again until 1879, deeming himself too old for farming. He retired with his wife to Launceston and began to write. A drawing of James Fenton in this time of retirement – in his late sixties – shows him with thick features, kind eyes, and a mighty beard.

    James Fenton and Helena Mary Monds had three daughter, and one son, Charles Monds, who opened a store at Forth in 1869: a sign of the times, of the development of the region and the growth in settler population there less than three decades after his father had adventurously decided to move there.

    The Australian Dictionary of Biography says of James Fenton jnr. (1820-1901) that “the beautiful farm lands carved out of the north-coast forests are his best monument.” Looking out of the patchwork of poppies, potatoes and pyrethrum, the apples and cherries and carrots, all the cows and sheep, one can read the land in a variety of ways. Ultimately, they are the remembered and recorded map of this era of intense change of landscape management on the island.

     
    Last week, we looked at the history of fish management in Tasmania.
    Find out more about James Fenton's goldfields trip.

  • Fish in Tasmania

    Fish in Tasmania

    Some of my mates like fly-fishing; I commend them. This activity is a fine demonstration of a person’s positive qualities. People who spend their leisure time traipsing across the highlands, just to dangle a tiny sculpture of steel, threads, feathers and other bric-a-brac in front of a fish – only to have the fish generally display its species’ rather snobbish attitude towards contemporary art – deserve credit for their patience, devotion, and optimism (no matter how unwarranted).

    Tasmania is well-known around the world as a famous fly-fishing destination. In rivers and lakes all across the island, you’ll find waters worthy of a line. Brown and rainbow trout wriggle away in the cold streams descending from the mountains. They are lovely creatures. It is nice to see fish rising in the Mersey or the South Esk. They seem wholesome.

    But of course, these animals (i.e. Salmo trutta; Oncorhynchus mykiss) weren’t originally found in Tasmania. This island’s waterways carried on without trout until 1864, when the first brown and rainbow trout were raised in the southern hemisphere. There had been a number of failures: beginning in 1852, with 50,000 salmon and trout ova that arrived on the Columbus and failed to acclimatise, effort and money (as well as piscine offspring) went to waste almost annually on importing the fish.

    But 1864 brought the successful introduction with both trout and salmon, here on the River Plenty. The cold, clear, mountain-sourced waters of the Plenty run out the sea, which made it perfect as a breeding ground for the salmon. Mr. Robert Read of ‘Redlands’ gave access to the river through his property. Enthusiasts led by the entrepreneurial Morton Allport watched over the development.

    Soon, Tasmanian ova and fry were being exported around Australia and into New Zealand. Constable James Wilson stocked the Great Lake in 1870. Various other intrepid fishermen undertook expeditions into the central highlands to hasten the introduction of these foreign fish into the island’s river systems.

    Nowadays, some 30,000 licensed anglers fish Tasmanian waters each year. It’s a niche tourist trade, and a font of innumerable good yarns. The Salmon Ponds, now a historic site, does a decent trade itself: visitors can see great numbers of handsome trout and salmon varieties moving languorously through the dark water to receive their pellets of feed. The day I was there, a platypus stole the show, scratching its noggin for about five minutes in full view.

    But what of the native fish of Tasmania? Some experts the various species of galaxiids, a small freshwater fish family found only in the southern hemisphere, are under threat due to competition with trout, and even from direct predatory attacks. The poor Pedder galaxias (Galaxias pedderensis) is extinct in the wild, following the construction of an impoundment that flooded the river. Of many of the galaxiidae, little is known.

    As always with the relationship between humans and other animals, it’s complicated.

  • Snakes' Places

    Snakes' Places

    Maybe when you come to Tasmania you will be lucky enough to find a guide like her as well.

    Someone who will take you veering off the main drags, onto the back roads, over the quiet creeks. To the parts of this island where not many people go, and those who do usually have some serious reason for it.

    And evading the blue-tongues and echidnas on the gravel roads that go further and further into the achingly dry forests – you can see them rising up the hills, a beige-and-brown cladding that may be foreign to you – she will begin to tell the stories that exist beyond the verge on either side.

    Perhaps you know something of the history of Tasmania. There are some names you’ve seen written down. But these are the unofficial histories, the ones that exist only in the places where they happened. Histories like tiger snakes, that crave solitude, and will retreat into the shadows among the cutting grass at the first sudden movement.

    She will be taking you to her secret swimming hole, but there are other secrets as well. Such as the reason why her grandmother was deposited in this isolated landscape when she arrived from Italy. Such as who is growing weed and where weaponry is stashed. Such as which of the neighbours is greedy, or for good-for-nothing; and which of them is loyal, kind-hearted, irreplaceable.

    You will learn about someone like Chuckie. A man who died just a couple of months ago. A good man, who enjoyed the company of other folks, but needed to be alone as well. Whose children lost contact. Who was not a great cook. Who only really ate potatoes. Who spilled hot oil on himself while preparing dinner one night. Who should have gone to hospital. Who may have starved himself to death.

    And she’s crook too, and has her own reasons for coming out there. There are reasons why she knows where the shotgun’s hidden and who’s got a good crop.

    By the river she picks a sprig of bauera, starred with white flowers, and stands with her bare feet in the gum-leaf debris on the edge of the water.

    Maybe this summer your guide will take you to their swimming-hole too, to the snakes’ places of this island. But you’ll have to be lucky.

    Or rather, you’ll have to have earned their trust.

    With a lot of us Vandemonians, this takes many years.

    With others, though, it may only require a single chance occurrence.


  • Snakes' Places

    Snakes' Places

    Maybe when you come to Tasmania you will be lucky enough to find a guide like her as well.

    Someone who will take you veering off the main drags, onto the back roads, over the quiet creeks. To the parts of this island where not many people go, and those who do usually have some serious reason for it.

    And evading the blue-tongues and echidnas on the gravel roads that go further and further into the achingly dry forests – you can see them rising up the hills, a beige-and-brown cladding that may be foreign to you – she will begin to tell the stories that exist beyond the verge on either side.

    Perhaps you know something of the history of Tasmania. There are some names you’ve seen written down. But these are the unofficial histories, the ones that exist only in the places where they happened. Histories like tiger snakes, that crave solitude, and will retreat into the shadows among the cutting grass at the first sudden movement.

    She will be taking you to her secret swimming hole, but there are other secrets as well. Such as the reason why her grandmother was deposited in this isolated landscape when she arrived from Italy. Such as who is growing weed and where weaponry is stashed. Such as which of the neighbours is greedy, or for good-for-nothing; and which of them is loyal, kind-hearted, irreplaceable.

    You will learn about someone like Chuckie. A man who died just a couple of months ago. A good man, who enjoyed the company of other folks but needed to be alone as well. Whose children lost contact. Who was not a great cook. Who only really ate potatoes. Who spilled hot oil on himself while preparing dinner one night. Who should have gone to hospital. Who may have starved himself to death.

    And she’s crook too, and has her own reasons for coming out there. There are reasons why she knows where the shotgun’s hidden and who’s got a good crop.

    By the river she picks a sprig of bauera, starred with white flowers, and stands with her bare feet in the gum-leaf debris on the edge of the water.

    Maybe this summer your guide will take you to their swimming-hole too, to the snakes’ places of this island. But you’ll have to be lucky.

    Or rather, you’ll have to have earned their trust.

    With some of us Vandemonians, this takes many years.

    With others, though, it may only require a single chance occurrence.


  • Poplar Parade

    Poplar Parade

    There were many afternoons during my teenage years in which I came upon this view. Not always were the mountains set against a blue sky; in winter, the grass and trees were greener, the yellow blossoms absent. In those days, there were fewer houses wedged into the landscape.

    Usually I had taken the bus from school, although sometimes I was just returning from a mate’s house. Often I had a skateboard under my arm and I was ready to hurl myself down the hill. (Once or twice I toppled off.) Just where the slope levelled off, on the left, after the roundabout, I would tumble into my home.

    After some time away, I return to this hill. These are quiet streets – the edges of an urban space, where a regional city meets its bucolic background – but for me the neighbourhood is pullulating, populous with ghosts. It is a cluttered scene, years layered on top of each other. I see the Vollmers’ and Masters’ houses. I wonder if Ben’s grandmother is still alive, where Matt has moved on to by now. The austere brick house that the Lucases lived in for a while reminds of the tethers of their stories, which we have heard mostly through the avenues of gossip. There is a certain house to which I snuck on cold nights, in my pyjamas, to rendezvous with Miss A., also in her pyjamas.

    Where the road has its elbow at the bottom of the hill, my brother once threw off his left shoe in a fit, and appeared to be dancing. He ran back to the house cursing the wasp that had crawled into his Vans and stung him.

    Coming back to my mother’s house (once, both parents shared it), I feel as though I’m making a similarly ludicrous return.

    There are all sorts of relics here too. As I write this, I look up at a photograph of two young Spinkses with the larrikin footballer Billy Brownless. There are other images: the grandfather who died before I was born, my old dog who is buried in the yard, clippings from my occasional appearances in the local newspaper. In the bathroom: the pot plant a girlfriend gifted to Mum more than half a decade ago.

    Venturing away from the house, I am equally ensnared. Somehow I can’t help but hear of the corruptions and collusions of local politics, business, and media. The local Member for Parliament refuses to address his constituents. A hideous giant supermarket is being erected near the centre of town. The flags of another town’s football team flap all around Launceston in the early afternoon winds. The letters to the newspaper make me cringe, wince, want to cry.

    I fear that the people who live in my town secretly hate it. That beneath the odd gesture of civic pride there is a deep concave of shame in our guts. That we wish we were something else, somewhere else, with more cheap shopping and football games.

    Perhaps this has something to do with our origins, with the way some of our ancestors stole the landscape from the first Tasmanians. These rolling hills I have come upon so many afternoons of my life were once the hunting grounds of the largely-forgotten tribes of the north of the island. Beneath that banner of blue sky (or silvery-black, on the gloomier days), there were spirits and stories in amongst the black wattles and bluegums, in with the echidnas and snakes and wallabies.

    If there is a horror at this, I do not discourage it. But there is a sense in which this is simply an era, a landscape, an urban arrangement, an historical moment which we have inherited. Which I have inherited. And if I wander through the streets of this town and feel grumpy for knowing it is lined by the houses of too many greedy or ignorant or complacent fellow-citizens, and then trudge down this hill into a home where all the change across two decades of my life manifests itself, without trying to resist a sense of hopelessness or sentimentality, without putting a hard shoulder against it, then I have lost home altogether. And there can be nothing worse than that sort of exile.

  • A Human Comet

    A Human Comet

    A sailor's life leads many places.

    I have spent part of this year visiting certain locations that bear the memory of a man named Jørgen Jørgensen (1780-1841). Jørgensen's frenetic behaviour and multiplicity of careers led Australian novelist Marcus Clarke to describe him as 'a human comet'.

    It was a life that saw him visit Iceland twice, once as a merchant, and a second time as a would-be revolutionary, in 1809.

    It would also have him wind up in Tasmania as a convict, where he lived his final days, trying his hand at everything from clerical work to police work, farming to exploring.

    Jørgensen also spent considerable time in London, particularly at a certain pub named the Spread Eagle Inn, on Gracechurch Street.

    As part of his nautical career, he had stopped in ports in the Baltic Sea, South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

    He sailed the South Seas on a whaling vessel, and wrote a treatise on the work of missionaries in Tahiti.

    He may have even worked as a pirate in the Americas.

    Briefly, he went to Spain and Portugal to escape his gambling debts; and later was employed by the British Crown to operate as a spy in continental Europe, making a colourful journey on foot. He lost almost everything (including, literally, the shirt on his back) in Parisian casinos, and accidentally committed to a marriage in Frankfurt - a vow that he was never to fulfill.

    But what of Jørgen Jørgensen's hometown? The son of the official watchmaker to the Danish Crown, Jørgensen grew up on the street in this photograph, Østergade, just by one of the city of Copenhagen's main squares.

    It was from this vantage point that an adolescent Jørgen witnessed a great conflagration in the harbour city. King Christian VII, considered a madman, had to be removed from his burning palace. Unfit to rule, tension brewed between the Queen, the Prince, and the King's physician over the issue of power.

    Jørgensen left Copenhagen to work on British ships from the age of 14, but returned when he was 27, in December 1807, to find 'my native city bombarded'. The Danes had sided with Napoleon Bonaparte against the British. It was a painful time for the returning sailor. In Jørgensen's words, 'a considerable portion of the best city in Europe was destroyed'. He was put in charge of a vessel, the Admiral Juul, which was captured in short time off the east coast of England.

    He would never return.

    His compatriots came to consider him a possible traitor. Jørgensen himself seemed to hint at this in some writings, but passionately denied it in others.

    During his time in Iceland, his lack of a national identity was attacked. 'Avoid Denmark, there you won't find a grave,' one of the prefects from the south of the island wrote to him, abandoning mildness. 'Every
    where you will be cast away, hated, banished, cursed. In the end you will be suffocated in an ocean of hate.'

    He would sporadically write letters to family members, and described an intense suffering at being far from them, especially his mother. His Danish fell into disuse. Roaming the wildernesses of Van Diemen's Land, where he did indeed find a grave (although in the cemetery of a religion he did not belong to; and these days a school as been built upon it) he must have felt as far as possible from where he was born.

    One can only hope that as he married, and bounced between occupations, and came to know different parts of Van Diemen's Land better than most colonial settlers of his day, that he felt somewhat at home in that land where Aboriginals, convicts and bushrangers mingled beneath the forest canopies and mountain silhouettes.

    But perhaps, at times, he felt regret: having left his family, their trade, his language, and that elegant city.

    One can get sentimental about home, though, especially after having seen so many places in this world.

  • We Remember Jorgen Jorgenson

    We Remember Jorgen Jorgenson

    Recently, I wrote about an old bridge in the centre of Tasmania that portrays one of its residents as a caricature of a king. Jorgen Jorgenson, as he came to anglicise his name (after several changes throughout his life), was born in Copenhagen and died in Hobart and careered his way through the world in between.

    It is in Iceland that he is most remembered today. There, he is cheerfully clept Jörundur Hundadagakonungur: ‘Jorgen, the Dog Days King’.

    For it was in the days when Sirius (known as the ‘dog star’) was seen in northern night skies, during the summer of 1809, that Jorgen Jorgenson installed himself as the Protector of Iceland.

    It had begun as a mercantile excursion. Jorgenson and some British businessmen went to Iceland in the dark and cold of December 1808 and tried to organise some trade with the local merchants there. It was thwarted; Iceland was a Danish colony, and Denmark refused to trade with the British, the two countries being pitted against each other in the Napoleonic War.

    Jorgenson – the Dane caught up in British affairs against his own country, in theory employed only as a translator – was furious. He declared they would return to Iceland to make business, by force if necessary.

    So it was that he returned in 1809 and did not come unarmed. He and his men stormed into the house of the Danish Governor of Iceland, Count Trampe, and kidnapped him. And suddenly, Jorgen Jorgenson was in charge.

    The Dog-Days King instituted some quick changes. Prisoners were released. School facilities were upgraded. A new flag was designed: three split codfish on a lavender background. Jorgenson was ready to move Iceland into independence. And with five ‘life-guards’ (probably the prisoners he released), Jorgenson took off over the country, at what may have been record speed, to meet the merchants and administrators in the northern port towns, where he believed the peasants were being manipulated and oppressed by the wealthy factors.

    In 1809, Iceland was one of the poorest countries in Europe. Settled by Vikings in the 800s, who invented a type of commonwealth and parliament to ensure peace and order on the island, they had lost their independence after a few centuries, first to the Norwegians and then to the Danes. Agriculture was difficult, and Icelanders were fishermen and sheep farmers, and little else. Harsh winters required much preparation and were often fatal, and volcanic eruptions could have a devastating effect on the life of the people; in fact, a volcano eruption in the decade of Jorgenson’s birth had caused a devastating famine.

    As Jorgenson travelled the country, and saw this reality combined with colonial oppression, he was moved to try and change the circumstances of the Icelanders.

    And yet when Jorgenson was deposed as autumn began, by a British naval captain (it turned out that Jorgenson was supposed to be a prisoner there), the people were as indifferent as they had been to the removal of Count Trampe.

    Jorgen Jorgenson had crossed a land of blueberry heath and scattered lava stones, the country of Viking outlaws, edging between glacial mountains and towards the Arctic Sea. In a colony on the edge of the European consciousness, Jorgenson had tried to effect political change on behalf of farmers and fishermen who in fact had never asked for his help. In a time of political turbulence, Jorgenson marched into the middle of the powerful forces of Europe and hoped to stage a revolution.

    Boldly, brazenly, and probably naively, he expected it.

    Jorgenson went back into the British penal system, although he was not long after to be found in Germany and France, working as a spy for that same nation.

    Iceland gained its independence through a homegrown hero a century later. Later in the 1900s, a musical was written about the Danish usurper. In it, Jorgenson taught a young woman how to sing, which probably didn’t happen in the real history. But the play was called Þið munið hann Jörund: ‘We Remember Jorgen Jorgenson’.

  • The Former King of Iceland

    The Former King of Iceland

    This bridge tells some stories.

    Not only because it is the third-oldest functioning bridge in Australia; not only because of the colonial context in which it sits; nor because of the geographical milieu that made its existence necessary. Nor, even, just because of the convict labour that made it happen, the quarrying of rough stone, the arduous efforts of construction, the curious interaction of government supervision and forced labour.

    But also because one of the convict stonemasons carved portraits into the rock.

    And one of the carvings has a crown on his head.

    It is not the noggin of Lieutenant-Governor Arthur that is crowned either. Instead, the decoration sits atop the chiselled scone of a man who was working for the local police at the time, in the constabulary around the town of Ross, in central Tasmania, where this lovely bridge still conveys traffic over the Macquarie River every day.

    Jørgen Jørgensen was born in Denmark in 1780 and died in Van Diemen´s Land in January 1841. What happened in between spanned the whole globe, and a dazzling variety of careers. He sailed into ports in Brazil, South Africa, Australia. He whaled in the Pacific Islands. He was a spy in continental Europe. He wrote treatises about economics and religion, as well as fiction and plays. His friends were at times important historical figures, such as Sir Joseph Banks. He also frittered away his money at the casino and the inn.

    He also was the so-called King of Iceland, for two months of 1809.

    And he wound up a Vandemonian lag, a convict in that hellish island gaol. There, even with his freedoms heavily restricted, he embarked on a series of careers that not only would make good cinema, but are at the centre of a vortex of global forces, colonial expansions and political revolutions and economic reforms and scientific developments.

    Into all of this, Jørgen Jørgensen charged like Don Quixote at a windmill.

    For this, he has been mocked, as on the side of the Ross Bridge, his nose chipped off and washed away by the Macquarie. And it is true, his life was tragicomic. His vices were his undoing. He wrote too much, in a second language. He was naive and idealistic. Quixotic.

    But could it be said to have been worth it, just to be known as the former King of Iceland? To have been, after all, remembered?

     

    This is not the first time I have written about Jørgen Jørgensen. Nor will it be the last.

  • Roege A Coraggree Loggeener

    Roege A Coraggree Loggeener

    They are dead.

    One of the first stories George Robinson recorded in his diary while working as a storekeeper on Bruny Island is that of the death of a wife of an Aboriginal known as Joe. This is, for us, her life story: that she was one of Joe's two wives, that she had been previously sick, and that she was now dead in April. And that her last words were: 'ROEGE A CORAGGREE LOGGEENER.'

    Joe's other wife, Morley, died shortly after. Mangana had a story of his wife being abducted and his son dead. Joe and Mangana would die too. Mannalargenna died at the Flinders Island settlement that Robinson had co-ordinated, like many others.

    Robinson records the names of five women who were kidnapped in one of the many raids by sealers: Troepowerhear, Niepeekar, Moondapder, Larpeennopuric, Reetarnithbar. Just names, and a traumatic event of their lives. Nothing more to be said.

    While Robinson was bush-bashing his way through the Vandemonian forests, he received a letter from his wife, saying she was ill, and that their abode had become 'a house of morning' for their youngest child, Alfred, 'departed this life 21 February'.

    Mrs. Robinson - born Maria Amelia Evans - also died, in September 1848, near Melbourne.

    George Robinson died in England two decades later.

    But even for George Augustus Robinson, we cannot say we know him, even though he wrote so freely and frequently about himself and left a narrative of his life for us. We can know that he did this or that, that he experienced much 'mizzling rain', that he was profoundly here at a profound time. But the vast majority of his thoughts and deeds are lost, and we must read between the lines to understand his various motivations. Needless to say, his life has been interpreted a hundred different ways, each reader or researcher coming up with their own evaluation.

    Trugernanna outlived Robinson. She is even more enigmatic, suffers more gossip, elicits more various reactions.

    For many more - for most people throughout most of history - we don't even have their names. Their sentences were not overheard and marked down. Their rituals went unobserved. Their body parts were not measured. Their languages murmured off into extinction, idiosyncratic expressions lost for all time.

    In Tasmania these topics - names like Trugernanna and George Robinson, phrases like 'the friendly mission' or 'the black war' or 'genocide' - excite a lot of emotion. The study of the history of that island has become a matter of conflict. 'The History Wars'. As if we haven't had enough of that.

    I am no historian. I am just a bloke who has his brow wrinkled, trying to remember. But it's not easy when I wasn't there and when every human being from the past seems as inscrutable as the phrase ROEGE A CORAGGREE LOGGEENER.

    Maybe if we were a different mob, we would employ the ancient forests and mountains of Tasmania to bridge the historical abyss. Because they were there - dolerite and granite, pencil pine and huon pine. It would not be methodical history, but it would be a gauze of memory over the gaps, a patch of story. I am not trying to say that this would be better than the rationalism and empiricism of moderns, but that I suspect many different cultures would have done this. Yet when I go bush, and I try to hear the stories from the forests, the old stoics remain dumb. Or I remain unable to hear.

    'To my mind,' W.G. Sebald once said, 'it seems clear that those who have no memory have the much greater chance to lead happy lives.' But I keep trying to remember.


     
    This is the last piece in a series on George Robinson and Trugernanna, beginning with Trugernanna's death, looking at their curious relationship, and heading to the site of Robinson's final years.

  • The View from Widcombe Hill

    The View from Widcombe Hill

    At the end of a career and a life that surely warped beyond the bounds of whatever he could have imagined or hoped, George Augustus Robinson ended up here, on Widcombe Hill, above the city of Bath in England.

    After the rediscovery of the ancient Roman bath there in 1780, the town flourished, becoming one of England’s most fashionable towns in quick time. When Robinson toured through there after returning from the Antipodes in the 1850s, it had several colleges, cultural and literature societies, and about 50,000 inhabitants.

    Robinson chose a home here, overlooking the town as it sat on the banks of the Avon. He was with his second wife, Rosie, the daughter of an accountant, and their five children. The house was paid for with a pension Robinson had earned from his work in Australia. He named it ‘Prahran’, the name of his home on the Yarra River, in the Port Phillip protectorate where he worked for eleven years, overseeing the interactions of the area’s new colonial settlers and the indigenous population of Victoria.

    This, a promotion after his work in Van Diemen’s Land. For a decade Robinson had worked tirelessly at a dream: to save the Aboriginal Tasmanians from extinction. The means: civilization, teaching them the British religion and custom. The method: arduous excursions into the bush, learning Aboriginal dialects, and forming diplomatic relationships with clan leaders.

    He would have the remaining populations removed to a mission camp on Flinders Island. It was a miserable place, full of sad and slow deaths, mismanagement, seasons of cruelty and apathy.

    Robinson had already been sent to the mainland by the time it was written off as an utter failure.

    Back in 1822, as a young father trying to scrape by in London, George Robinson had signed up to migrate to the Poyais settlement in Nicaragua. Poyais, as it turned out, was a fraudulent invention of Scottish rogue, who lured investors into the false republic; Robinson’s gaze shifted to an even further-flung colony, which was not a fiction, despite its fantastical elements – the ancient trees which Robinson slept beneath, the swirl of the southern constellations, the song and dance of peoples who had millennia separating their beliefs from his own.

    No, Robinson entered into a place that was all too real, all too true. Although at times he must have felt that he had stepped into a dreamscape, or that the reverie of dancing and playing the flute by the fire with these Tasmanians who had become his unlikely companions, so many miles away from London.

    When he returned to his native city on the Medway in 1853, his first wife dead, his children grown up, his wallet swollen and his reputation cemented, perhaps this place seemed like the dream. But not for long. Because G.A. Robinson had come home three decades later exactly what he had wanted. Important. Memorable.

    So when he looked from Widcombe Hill down into the spill of sand-coloured buildings in the valley, or passed his neighbours on Prospect Road as he went back to ‘Prahran’ and had them recognise him, he must have felt pretty chuffed.

    But what did he tell those neighbours about Wooraddy, Mannalargenna, Trugernanna?

    When he sat by the hearth of his Victorian fireplace, did he hear an echo of the songs about wombats and snakes come back to him?

    When he fell asleep at night, did he sometimes squirm, recalling betrayals, murders, kidnappings, occasions of unspeakable cruelty?

    Did George Augustus Robinson look through those journals he wrote - later to be the core of Tasmanian historicity - and feel his heart sink, reading between the lines (as we have since) that to ascend to his charming home on Widcombe Hill, he had trampled the people he reckoned he might save? 

    Could he foresee that although he would be remembered, he might not entirely be remembered well?


     
    Trugernanna was afraid of what would happen when she died.
    Last week, one side of Trugernanna and Robinson's relationship was wondered about.


  • The Last Days of the Old Woman

    The Last Days of the Old Woman

    As her old friends died around her – King Billy, Mary-Ann – the grief of Trugernanna was terrible. And with her bereavement came the fear of what would happen to her body when she was gone. One day, she asked the reverend to sew her up in a bag with a rock inside it and have it thrown into the deepest part of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel when she was gone. Just to make sure.

    Mr. and Mrs. Dandridge had become friends with Trugernanna at Oyster Bay and when the Aboriginal settlement closed there, they took her in. The year was 1869. Trugernanna suffered from chronic bronchitis, although she still smoked about a solid amount of tobacco. The Dandridges served her two pounds of meat per day, along with bread and vegetables. She drank the occasional ale, particularly savouring hot ginger beer in the evenings before bed.

    Trugernanna had some degree of celebrity thrust upon her in these days. She met the Governor of the day, Charles Du Cane, who described her as ‘a very quaint looking little old lady’ who was shorter than four feet high ‘and much the same measure in breadth’. Trugernanna had a laugh at the expense of Governor Du Cane’s girth too, though. One day she laughed gleefully at him and announced to anyone listening, “This fellow, he too much jacket!” 

    Folks later remembered her from these last days sitting on the steps of the Dandridges’ house, turning the pages of illustrated London newspapers, or simply smoking her pipe and watching the world go by. But what Trugernanna’s true pleasure was to make excursions across the channel to her country, the north of Bruny Island, where she grew up. The childhood gambols on the beach – occasionally interrupted by the auspicious occasions of white sails drifting across the water – must have seemed like a dream, perhaps in another life; but Trugernanna was transported back to those times as she walked in the sand, collecting shells and seaweed on the isthmus or around Adventure Bay, camping in the bush there. 

    The physical transportation was the responsibility of John Strange Dandridge, who learned how to row in order to get the little old lady to her country. Mr. Dandridge had been the empathetic superintendent of the mission – a rare breed. Rowing was not his usual vocation. He was the son of an Oxford minister, who had married Matilda Prout, the daughter of one of Tasmania’s most significant artists. 

    It was Mrs. Dandridge who was with Trugernanna when she died. On May 3 1876, Trugernanna told Mrs. Dandridge that her family had appeared to her in a dream and that this meant she would soon die. The old woman had been crook for a while; for a few days she slipped in and out of consciousness, but on the evening of May 8, she cried out, “Rowra catch me!” Rowra was one of the powerful spirits of Trugernanna’s country. The end was near.

    But on that day, she regained consciousness again for an hour or two; and in that final conversation with Mrs. Dandridge and her doctor, Trugernanna made one more plea for her body to be treated respectfully once she had died. “Don’t let them cut me, but bury me behind the mountains,” she begged.

    She was instead buried in Hobart, and her body was exhumed after two years and placed on display at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. 

    It was only a century after her death that her ashes were at last scattered in the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, which she had looked upon as a girl, too many years ago.


    One writer remembers a night with Trugernanna by the river.
    Last week we recounted 1982's famous World Ploughing Championships.

  • Their Story

    Their Story

    He was nothing more than a tradesman, really, when he showed up on the island. A man with an aquiline nose, a small pouty mouth, and wavy hair that was well-kept – maybe too well-kept. Another visitor from far away.

    Another one, but not the same as all the rest.

    The young lady on the island had seen boats coming up and down the channel all her life now. At first, they were tourists, arriving for a quick look and then moving on. But then the white folks started settling, clearing land, building hamlets, growing crops, and taking over. Loggers and whalers had started to settle on the island; they were often monstrously violent, and they brought strange sicknesses to the local population. Her sister died of some unknown disease. Her mother and her uncle were killed. Then, her husband-to-be was murdered too.

    But later – much, much later, when the history of the Aboriginal Tasmanians had reached its tragic nadir – Trugernanna told a biographer that when she first laid eyes on the man who would call himself the Conciliator, she could see that he wasn’t like the other white men. “Mr. Robinson was a good man and could speak our language,” she said.

    And even later still, when Trugernanna was long since dead, historians would slur her name, calling her a ‘moll’, ‘a white man’s doxy’, and the ‘betrayer of her own people’. Other historians say that she perhaps wasn’t this ‘mindless black bimbo’. They suggest that perhaps she was an insightful diplomat, a negotiator who believed that her race would come to its end if they didn’t get away from the invading European settlers and their muskets and diseases.
     
    She joined Mr. Robinson and his campaign to end the frontier conflicts between white and black on Van Diemen’s Land. Her role as emissary was invaluable; without her and other Aboriginal negotiators, Robinson could not have succeeded. Instead, the Friendly Mission led the Tasmanians to their exile on an offshore island. It was not the end of the story, but it still brought suffering for Trugernanna and her people.

    Were Trugernanna and George Augustus Robinson lovers? Did they, indeed, ‘share a blanket’? The historians may never agree, on this and on a number of matters. Incredible, really, how the lives of these two individuals have touched so many others – how they have aggravated and aggrieved and sparked academic stoushes and bar-counter blues, camp-fire confessions as well as wintry silences.

    When all the ink is spilt and our teeth will gnash no more, we still cannot comprehend fully the eclectic and complex motivations of either Trugernanna or Robinson. Yet their story remains perhaps the most significant in all of Tasmania. For what happened through them changed the island for everyone.



    Last week, we looked ahead to Trugernanna's last days.


  • The 29th Annual World Ploughing Championships

    The 29th Annual World Ploughing Championships

    Where were you on June 14 and 15, 1982?

    If your answer is not the Christ Church on Illawarra Road, just outside of Longford, Tasmania, then I can assure you were wasting your time.

    For on that winter weekend, the 29th Annual World Ploughing Championship was taking place there.

    A lovely bluestone church surrounded by golden paddocks and poppy fields, the Christ Church is a site of pilgrimage for art aficionados. Australian painting innovator Tom Roberts is buried there next to his second wife, and some of the altar decorations were designed by contemporary artist Arthur Boyd.

    Edward Dumaresq was born in Wales in 1802, and followed a standard upper-crust military educational trajectory, via the Royal Military College in Sandhurst and a cadetship with the East India Company. After serving on several continents, Dumaresq was relocated to the Antipodes, his sister having married the Governor of New South Wales.

    In 1825 he was made the Surveyor-General of Van Diemen’s Land; after that, he worked as a revenue collector, and a police magistrate. He obtained property outside of the settlement of Longford in 1842, named Mt. Ireh, and on it he built the Christ Church, with thick walls and Baltic pine rafters.

    Dumaresq moved to Kew, Victoria; travelled back to England; and had his wife, Frances, pass away. A Mrs. Charlotte Fogg was briefly the partner of what Dumaresq himself described as ‘the fatal act of a second marriage’. He returned to Longford and lived out the rest of his years – a quite substantial amount of time, his obituary declaring him dead ‘at the extraordinary age of 104’. He was claimed to be the oldest justice of the peace in the world.

    Which is quite an achievement.

    But the church remained standing. Architect Alexander North added the tower and the asp in 1910, four years after Dumaresq died. And of course, the farm went on to host farmers from twenty countries and they ‘steered their tractors straight and true up and down Mt. Ireh’s flat-as-a-pancake paddocks’. Longford joined the esteemed company of locales such as Peebles, Ohio and Wexford, Ireland and Kaunas, Lithuania as one of the hosts of the World Ploughing Championships.

    For those keeping score, Ian Miller was the Conventional Champion of that year, the second New Zealander in a row to get up (Alan J. Wallace had triumphed in Wexford). A Kiwi took second place as well.

    They reckon 40,000 people braved the wind and rain to watch the action that weekend. But were you there?

     

    Tom Roberts, the great Australian painter, was buried here at Longford.
    Last week, we wondered about the fate of the Tasmanian tiger.

  • The Complicated Life and Death Story of Thylacinus Cynocephalus

    The Complicated Life and Death Story of Thylacinus Cynocephalus

    The last thylacine to die in captivity came to its demise here, at this former zoo site in Hobart’s Domain park, in 1936. Its name was – possibly – Benjamin. It may have been a female and died of neglect; after a hot day, the animal was locked outside of its shelter overnight in suddenly freezing temperatures. Her body – known to be the last captive specimen in existence – was thrown in the rubbish.

    Colloquially known as the Tasmanian tiger for distinctive black striping along its spine, the thylacine looked more like a wolf, but was in fact a marsupial related to neither. It evolved on the Australian continent and in New Guinea to fill a niche fitted by dogs and wolves elsewhere, although was made largely extinct through the impact of humans and/or dingos about 2000 years ago. Its survival on the island of Tasmania, however, made it the largest carnivore there, and its apex predator.

    Aboriginal Tasmanians are believed to have called the thylacine ‘corinna’, among other names. It is believed that it was hunted and eaten by Aboriginal bands. Diplomat-missionary George Robinson recorded some mythology surrounding the thylacine – namely that dramatic weather events were ‘attributed to the circumstance of the carcase of the hyaena being left exposed’.

    Dutch sailor Abel Tasman reported seeing footprints like those of a tiger’s on the shore in 1642. Upon European settlement, the thylacine was treated as an enemy. Known also as a ‘hyena’ and exclusively carnivorous, thylacines did indeed attack sheep flocks and disturbed agricultural practices implanted by the migrants. A bounty was put upon the thylacine as early as 1830, and between agriculturalists and the Tasmanian Government, over 2000 bounties were claimed over a number of decades.

    Benjamin was caught in the Florentine Valley by Elias Churchill in 1933 and given to the Hobart Zoo. The manager of the zoo was Alison Reid, who said that the animal had no pet name; debate over the animal’s gender continues to simmer.

    Since, though, the thylacine – Thylacinus cynocephalus – has come to adorn the logos of cricket teams, beer bottles and local councils. It’s on the Tasmanian number plate. The tragic history of the thylacine has been depicted in books and films, and used as an example to promote the conservation of other rare and endangered animals.

    Was Benjamin truly the last thylacine on Earth? There are believers and sceptics on the topic. Conversations about the thylacine sound much like religious debate. The dramatic level of loss in Tasmania adds to the weight of the discussion: for there have been extinctions, as well as the erasure of huge amounts of indigenous knowledge and culture, all throughout the island since Europeans arrived.

    The outcome is a matter of eternity too. For after all, if there are no more tigers in the forests, they are gone forever.

    Or is it? Can scientific methods recreate Thylacinus cynocephalus? If we can, should we? Can we repopulate the forests with this poorly-understood and much-maligned creature? Or can we simply let go, own up to our sins, and let dead wolves lie?

    In Tasmania, it seems even life and death isn't clear-cut.

    There is, as well, the story of a man named Bert, who is said to have once upon a time snared a tiger in the forests of Tasmania’s north – but that’s a yarn for another time.


     
    The King family say they saw a thylacine in the south-west in the 1950s.
    Last week, we celebrated the great characters of Hobart Town.

  • 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.

  • Winter Customs

    Winter Customs

    There are those who hate winter in Tasmania. It is, they say, too cold, or too wet, or too windy, or too dark. It is as bleak as Siberia. It is the most depressing place on Earth.

    But there are others who cherish these days when the sky hangs low like a big-bellied whale over the towns, and some days the mountains rise like white-capped waves. It is good, they contend, to see the grass turn bright green, to don the thick woollen socks and down jackets, to feel frost crunch beneath your feet, to smell the spice of woodsmoke in the air and to sit by the fire yourself with a cosy over the teapot.

    The change in weather is a chance to cultivate new habits. Some of them are idiosyncratic: one gentleman I know takes to boiling eggs on winter mornings and putting them in his pockets as he walks to his place of vocation so they warm his hands.

    Other customs may seem familiar. For instance, one winter when I was short of money, I spent my spare hours scrounging around for good firewood. And on those crisp, starry nights when the weather has cleared but the air is still cold, I would feed sticks and logs into my pot-bellied stove and sit around it with an Irish coffee, sometimes with friends, watching the embers pulsate like melting caramel and tinkling like thin glass cracking in the changing temperature.

    And we should not forget that for thousands of years, this is what people have done in Tasmania during the months of June, July and August, these lunar cycles when the night seems to have more strength than day, when it is cold and wet and windy and dark, and Rowra hovers in the silhouettes of the eucalypts just beyond the room of firelight.

    Yes, for millennia, Tasmanians have had their rituals, their customs, their diets, their ideas, their politics and their dreams flex and change with the weather.

    So as you wipe the hoar off your car window, get a soup going in the slow-cooker, pull out your stripy longjohns, or invite the girl you flirted with all summer over to watch a movie on your laptop beneath a patchy quilt, remember that these details are part of what it is to be a human being in your time and your place. And that though customs have changed dramatically, at times with violence and force, the little behaviours that you share with your contemporaries are significant, full of memory and therefore full of meaning.

    Even the boiled egg hand-warmers. (They will end up in an Ethnographic Museum sometime, somewhere.)

    Perhaps in these months you will look out your window and see the European trees that have dropped all their leaves, and it will makes you feel something of a sense of loss.

    Perhaps you will stand over the Liffey or the Clyde in full flow, and know the trout are spawning, and feel hopeful for what is next, maybe even to the point of impatience.

    Perhaps you will see snow on Mount Wellington or Ben Lomond and long to feel the mist clinging to your hair and your shoes fill up with slush.

    Whatever it is you do and feel from now until the wattles are in blossom, this is the Tasmanian winter to which you belong.

  • 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.

     

  • What Lies in the Middens

    What Lies in the Middens

    Dr. Rhys Jones was the first professional archaeologist to work in Tasmania. Born in Wales and educated at Cardiff, he arrived in Australia to do his doctorate in Tasmanian archaeology.

    His research began in the north-west of the island, particularly around Rocky Cape. Using radiocarbon dating techniques on various cave middens, Jones reported that Rocky Cape had been continuously occupied by Aboriginal Tasmanians for 8000 years or more.

    This was the least contentious of Jones’ claims. He also entered into a long-running question about the Tasmanians: could they make fire? Much of this question was based on observations (or, perhaps, a single observation) made in the diary of George Augustus Robinson, who travelled with Aboriginal populations in the 1820s and 1830s. Fire, Jones suggested, was carried “in smouldering slow burning fire-sticks”, but if they went out, the Tasmanians had no way of relighting it.

    The archaeologist also suggested that some 3000-4000 years before now, the Rocky Cape middens revealed that Aboriginal consumption of scale-fish completely stopped. He concluded that the Tasmanians had forgotten how to catch fish. Bone awls were also no longer being produced.

    Rhys Jones concluded that with the relatively small population stranded and separated from Australian Aboriginals following the post-Ice Age flooding that created Bass Strait, the Tasmanians had been struggling to adapt. He described it as a “slow strangulation of the mind”.

    Later archaeologists tend to disagree. They refer to other references, by both French and English observers, of pre-colonial Tasmanians using fire-making implements. These Tasmanians would have struck chert (a flint-like stone), sending its spark into dry bark, moss or grass, these archaeologists say. This stone – myrer, Robinson writes that the Bruny Islanders called it – was possibly considered special, and fire-making may have been the responsibility of leaders within a band or kinship group.

    In fact, there may have been a variety of techniques for fire-making: in the early 1900s Quaker observer Ernest Westlake recorded conversations detailing the use of grass-trees, banksias, stringy-bark, tea-tree and fungi, in a variety of methods, for Aboriginal fire-making.

    The change of diet to exclude fish is still mysterious, but recent research tends to suggest that a cooling of the climate occurred at a similar time. In fact, evidence from 3000-4000 BP presents a series of dramatic adaptations across Tasmanian populations. Settlements changed, artistic practices developed, and Tasmanians began to manage the land through seasonal burnings and honed their hunting techniques accordingly.

    “These developments, and their concurrence with similar developments in south-east Australia, contradict the strangulation view,” writes Shayne Breen.

    Tang Dim Mer is one of the names the original Tasmanians had for Rocky Cape; the more prosaic name comes from Matthew Flinders, who spied it from the strait as he circumnavigated Tasmania in 1798. At that time, there were Aboriginals living amongst the banksias and wildflowers, beneath the jagged cliffs, facing out on that notorious stretch of water.

    We are still trying to work out what we lost when Europeans destroyed their lifestyles.

    And although Rhys Maengwyn Jones may be most remembered for its controversies (he died in 2001), much of his work helped to support Aboriginal populations, especially in evidencing for their antiquity. Jones himself hoped to introduce to a wider audience the brutality with which Aboriginal populations around Australia were treated. In Tasmania, he said he saw a history of genocide.


     
    George Robinson's tours with Aboriginal Tasmanians were hugely significant in Tasmanian history.

  • 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 Hop Harvest

    The Hop Harvest

    It was a hellish journey. Within two months of leaving the port in Britain on the Denmark Hill, William Shoobridge buried four family members at sea: his 7-year-old son, 6-year-old daughter, and his wife and newborn child, who both died due complications during childbirth.

    It is said that he went berserk. They would still be on that boat for many weeks.

    Youngest surviving son Ebenezer Shoobridge was two years old when they arrived in Van Diemen’s Land. The remains of the Shoobridge family eked out a living in Hobart Town, mostly operating lime kilns. But William also introduced an exotic plant to Van Diemen’s Land, humulus lupulus, the hop, which they cultivated on their allotment at Providence Valley.

    Another story told about William Shoobridge suggests he had a little luck on his side. Tending to his hop crop, the senior Shoobridge was shot at by a bushranger. The bullet deflected off a metal object in his pocket.

    When the opportunity came to investigate the Derwent River valley for land, they took it. In winter 1833 William took Ebenezer, now an adolescent, up to New Norfolk and beyond. Farming had only recently begun in the Valley. Coming upon a cleared field, William scooped up a handful of nutrient-rich soil. Hops, he murmured, would grow there excellently.

    They rode their horses to the top of a hill and surveyed the land between the Styx and the Derwent; it was then known as ‘Humphreyville’. Soon after, it would be known as Bushy Park. It would be bought by Ebenezer Shoobridge. And indeed, hops would be grown – right up to this day.

    All was not perfect, though. Ebenezer and his brother Richard had come to disagreements and parted ways in 1842. And it had taken some decades for Ebenezer and his esteemed wife Charlotte to purchase Bushy Park, having rented land at Plenty and Richmond in the meantime.

    But finally, in 1863, they moved into the homestead and constructed a series of brick kilns, as well as developing the orchard, the dairy, some grain and root crops.

    Bushy Park Estates is regarded as the birthplace of Australia’s hops, and remains one of the world’s great hop cultivation grounds. Now owned by a German company, Bushy Park remains a town centred around rows of vines, climbing up simple scaffolding in yards separated by poplars. By this time of the year – when the poplars are turning yellow – the hops have all been harvested, some 35-40 tons per day. The yield of the harvest annually reaches to over 500 tons.

    A friend of mine worked in the lab this year during the harvest. Rising with the sun, he would go to his lab, put on a blue coat, switch on some classical music, and begin analysing the hops for alpha and oil content. After he’d knocked off, we had a few beers by the duck pond; a platypus ducked about in it. It was a scene not quite from the early days of Bushy Park, but with the sense of it being an historical moment in itself.

    It’s a picturesque place, rich in history. And it's a wonderful crop they're growing there.

    Raise a toast to the Shoobridges with me this weekend at Saint John's Hop Harvest festival!

  • Petrarch's Poetry

    Petrarch's Poetry

    “Assuredly but dust and shade we are / Assuredly desire is blind and brief / Assuredly its hope but ends in death.”

    So wrote fourteenth-century Tuscan humanist and poet Francesco Petrarca, who is commemorated at this western Tasmanian lake under his Latinised name, Petrarch.

    It was the classically-inclined surveyor George Frankland who called Lake Petrarch so, although he generally preferred Greek nomenclature. He had seen the lake from the summit of Mount Olympus on February 12, 1829, and upon descent from the mountain, he and his party came to it. It was the first time in his life any of them had seen a certain conifer tree, athrotaxis cupressoides, “a remarkably handsome species of Fir” that he named “the pine of Olympus.” Nowadays it is commonly known as the pencil pine.

    Another explorer, the geologist Charles Gould, came to camp upon the sandy beach of Lake Petrarch in January 1860.  It was the beginning of a long expedition to the west, and Gould and his men looked at the silhouette of another literarily-named peak, Mount Byron, from across the still waters of the lake.

    Landscape painter W.C. Piguenit, born in Hobart in 1836; his father was a convict, and his mother, a teacher of French, music and drawing. From 1874 he devoted himself to his craft, travelling on foot with surveyors to remote areas of Tasmania. Piguenit depicted Tasmania’s wildernesses in a Romantic light, as Ruskin was the European Alps contemporaneously. In 1887, he travelled with chief surveyor Sprent to the west coast. He took advantage of this expedition to make an excursion to Lake St. Clair, and further north through the Cuvier Valley, to Lake Petrarch, which he painted in hazy pastels. A grebe sits on a clump of dark rocks; Mount Byron overlooks the glistening water in a rosy twilit hue.

    A century later, Peter Dombrovskis photographed Lake Petrarch. Born to Latvian parents in a World War II concentration camp in Germany, Dombrovskis was influenced by a fellow Baltic migrant, the unassuming yet influential Olegas Truchanas. Both became famous for involving their work in conservationist movements against the damming of wilderness rivers. Before his death by heart attack in the south-western mountains, Dombrovskis forged a reputation as one of the world’s great landscape photographers. In 1994, on a journey into the Cuvier Valley, Dombrovskis made a sensitive study of pencil pine boles near Lake Petrarch.

    The Cuvier Valley is largely made up of golden buttongrass plains; it may have been managed as an Aboriginal hunting ground before Europeans arrived to the island known previously as Trowenna. How they perceived Lake Petrarch we do not know. Likewise, unknown numbers of personal expeditions in recent times go unrecorded.

    In the Tasmanian Government’s current Draft Management Plan for the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, Lake Petrarch is rezoned so as to be permitted as a helicopter landing site – along with around a dozen other localities. “Men often despise what they despair of obtaining,” wrote Petrarch to a contemporary in the 1300s, and so they do today, still.

     

    Why was George Frankland so obsessed with Greek names?

  • 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.

  • On a Moonlight Night

    On a Moonlight Night

    “Memory takes me back to the scene of the Tamar in the hop grounds of Mr. Barnes of Trevallyn where on a moonlight night in 1829…”

    Upon arrival to Van Diemen’s Land, William Barnes was given a 30-acre block of land at the confluence of the Tamar and South Esk Rivers. It was the summer of 1824, and Barnes was 33 years old, unattached, and ambitious.

    On the Triton, which had brought him from his native Cheshire to Hobart Town, he had befriended a Scottish brewer who was also migrating to the colonies. Making his way overland to the north of Van Diemen’s Land, it suddenly dawned on Barnes that although the town had grown to a population of more than a thousand people, it had no brewery.

    Described as ‘a young man in a hurry’, it is little surprise that Barnes used another allotment of land to build his own brewery. It was not the first on the island – a Mr. Gatehouse had begun brewing in Hobart in 1823 – but it was certainly the original brewery in the north. He called it the Port Dalrymple Brewery.

    The allotment of land was on the corner of Margaret and Paterson Streets, between the barracks and the windmill. Today, a bottle shop stands there.

    Using water from the Tamar, and barley at four shillings a bushel, Barnes’ beer was well received. Convict labour helped with the brewer’s investment.

    For three years he was without a competitor. By the time John Fawns began the rival Cornwall Brewery – collecting water from the Cataract Gorge by punt – William Barnes was an exceedingly wealthy man.

    So much so that he managed to acquire further land along the Tamar and South Esk Rivers. What is now the Cataract Gorge, as well as the entire suburbs of Trevallyn and Riverside, belonged to William Barnes. With his passing in 1848, it became the property of his and his wife’s only child together, William Barnes jnr.

    Barnes jnr. and his wife donated the Cataract Gorge grounds to the city of Launceston.

    But what was it that the letter-writer to the newspaper remembered from that moonlit night in 1829? (Actually, it was 1830.) It was a scene where the author saw missionary George Robinson and his assembly of ‘sable friends’ camping out on Barnes’ land. While the correspondent spoke with Barnes, Trugernanna was cooking a possum over the coals.

    “I observed the conversation and saw the flashing eye of the black girl, then a few years older than myself,” he wrote to the newspaper, on the occasion of Trugernanna’s death, nearly five decades later.

    Memory takes us back to the scene indeed.

     
    What does it mean to propose to make changes to the Cataract Gorge?

  • History of a Perfect Miscreant

    History of a Perfect Miscreant

    The Richmond bridge is the oldest bridge still in use in Australia. The foundation sandstone was laid in December 1823, and with the aid of convict labour, the bridge successfully arched over the Coal River by 1825.

    Around this time, the Coal River became acquainted with Gilbert Robertson. Arriving in Van Diemen’s Land from Scotland, en route to Sydney, he wheedled his way into gaining 400 acres of land near Richmond, despite having no money. Still, Gilbert complained that he’d been gypped – not enough land, not enough servants.

    Pretty soon he lost his land, thanks to debt. He also made plenty of enemies. Magistrates, business partners, and even Lieutenant-Governors all came to loathe the “impertinence and swaggering” with which Gilbert Robertson carried out his affairs. In the end, though, Lt.-Gov. Arthur gave him his land back – plus the 600 additional acres Gilbert had moaned about – in 1829. Not much changed: Gilbert’s house burnt down and he was sued for assault. But just when it looked like his debts were going to catch up with him, circumstances changed curiously, and Gilbert saw his spot.

    It was the height of the Black War, and Lt.-Gov. Arthur had declared martial law. Gilbert Robertson applied for, and received, the position of chief constable of the Richmond district.

    The next few years at ‘Woodburn’, as Gilbert had named his estate, were eventful to say the least. In November 1828, he had captured five Aboriginal rebels, including the notorious warrior chief Umarrah. Along with Kickerterpoller, Gilbert’s off-and-on Oyster Bay Aboriginal servant, and a young Big River Aboriginal named Cowerterminna, Umarrah was a regular visitor to Woodburn.

    Gilbert and Kickerterpoller were particularly matey, and Gilbert tried to convince Lt.-Gov. Arthur that this was what Aboriginal and settler relations could be, given the right approach to conciliation. In fact, he had devised a whole model for conciliation, and suggested that he would be willing to put it into action - for the right price. The price, unfortunately, was too high. An idea similar to Gilbert’s was developed by missionary George Augustus Robinson, and Gilbert was high and dry again.

    Gilbert Robertson was born into an important Scottish family (his great-grandfather was the high chief of a clan), but he was also something inescapable in as sensitive a place as Van Diemen’s Land – he was half-black. His father had owned a plantation in Trinidad, and almost certainly Gilbert’s mother had been a slave. In Scotland, money and lineage had meant more than race. There were other stories being woven in Van Diemen’s Land, though, and the question of race was something that Gilbert was involved in – in more ways than one.

    “Here then in brief outline is a biography of someone who was almost pathologically inclined to get into trouble,” writes historian Cassandra Pybus. An assessment from Gilbert Robertson’s contemporary, Lady Jane Franklin, gave an equal description: he was “a perfect miscreant equally devoid of principle and feeling.”

    But interestingly, having moved late in life over to Geelong, he made quite a respectable name for himself. Working in the papers again, he died in 1851, of a heart attack during a particularly intense political campaign.

     

    Richmond is also home to Australia's oldest Catholic Church.

  • 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.

  • It Began Here with John and Jemima

    It Began Here with John and Jemima

    In Bodney, England, in 1828, William and Judith gave birth to their son John.

    In 1845 John himself got married, to a lovely lass named Jemima King. They were both still teenagers. He was a farm labourer.

    After John and Jemima had been married for a decade or so, they were approached by the Launceston Immigration Aid Society, and recruited to move to Tasmania. They arrived on the Southern Eagle in 1857, and relocated their lives to the coastal hamlet of Penguin. With them, they brought their infant daughter, Caroline. In 1860, they had a son, Charles.

    Upon arrival, John armed himself with an axe and a cross-cut saw, and with no capital, cleared the dense wet sclerophyll forest of scrub and trees. For the bigger trees, the method of ring-barking was used. As the land was cleared, he began to build a home. Floorboards were adzed; furniture was home-made; candles of tallow were made for artificial light, and they had a fishy reek when extinguished. It was hard work, and a life with few comforts.

    Flour shortages were common. It was delivered on occasion by sailing craft from north coast towns, but once as it was being put ashore, the boat overturned and spoiled the product. Normally a draught horse brought it in from Forth, through the labyrinthine forest. If the flour supplies ran short, what remained was shared among the whole community to the last pound. Housewives made the bread in camp ovens; bachelors made damper, cooked in ashes.

    The new settlers grew oats and potatoes. As soon as the cleared land had enough grass covering, a cow was purchased. Gradually berry bushes and fruit trees gave produce. Meat was mostly wallaby and parrots; those on the coast fished. When they needed something they couldn’t grow, and once the Leven River was bridged, the women would walk to a store at Forth, a few miles away.

    The daughter Caroline met a young man with the fine name of James Sushames, originally of Caston, England, who arrived to Tasmania on the Whirlwind. They got married and had a son.

    Charles fell in love too, with a girl named Rachel Ling. They had eight children and raised them in Penguin. Six were sons. As these children grew up, a flour mill was built at nearby Sulphur Creek. The first churches were built, and a teacher arrived, Miss Neligan. By the mid-1870s, there was a general store.

    The youngest of these eight children, Leslie, preferred to go by his middle name, which was Herbert. He was born in 1899. In his late teens, he got a job delivering bread and milk; he would go around town in a horse and dray. His son, Vivian, would remember being taken to school in this vehicle. Herbert played footy at the local club, for the Penguin Two-Blues. He was also a bass baritone singer and sung at the Methodist church sometimes.

    Herbert Spinks and family moved to Launceston for a job at a wool factory. Herbert’s son Vivian fought in World War II. Vivian’s son Martin matriculated and built a white collar career. Martin’s son is the author of this article. I went up to Penguin the other week. These days, there is little clearing left to be done; flour comes from the local supermarket, along with a variety of pre-prepared products made from it; the parrots are largely left uneaten, although they exist in much smaller quantities. Coffee drinkers can satisfy their urges at several cafeterias, and an afternoon beer is available at the Neptune Hotel.

    Once this was pretty coastal town was covered in dense bush. Now, there's a grubby backpackers' hostel on its main road. We do not well understand the hardships and labours of the people who came before us. “With a low standard of living, few amenities, and little security, to win a bare living they worked from daylight to dark,” wrote local historian A.O. Barker. “For little return they toiled and we are reaping – as future generations will reap – the profit of their toil.”

     
    There are more stories about Herbert Spinks and the Penguin Two-Blues here.

  • The Ancient Grief

    The Ancient Grief

    Mt. Olympus was the home of the Dodekatheon, the twelve gods – the principle deities, such as Zeus and Athena, lived there. At the foot of the mountain’s north sat the nine Muses, Zeus’ daughters with Mnemosyne and patrons of the Fine Arts.

    Olympus is the second highest mountain in Greece, standing between what are now Thessaly and Macedonia. At its peak, it is just less than 10,000 feet in elevation. But this isn’t Mt. Olympus in Greece. This is Mt. Olympus in central Tasmania, overlooking Lake St. Clair, Australia’s deepest natural lake.

    It was named so by George Frankland, who arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in 1827 as an assistant surveyor after some years in Pune, India. Within a year he became the Surveyor-General of the island.

    The Lieutenant-Governor assigned him to begin a ‘general trigonometrical survey’, but Frankland believed that an important aspect of his role was exploration. His boss wished he’d stay in the office more frequently. He was particularly bent on finding a lead mine somewhere, and over the coming years he would make significant journeys in the wildernesses around the upper Derwent, the upper Huon, and the central highlands of Lake St. Clair.

    Frankland was a proud man. He loftily believed the duty of his office was ‘to observe and record every remarkable fact connected with the Natural history of the island whose surface and native production have, in a manner, been placed so peculiarly in his custody.’ That being said, he was never very popular in the colony. It wasn’t only his squabbles with the Lieutenant-Governor over the time he took to do his work. Frankland seemed to have never felt quite at home in Van Diemen’s Land.

    He planned to leave, in 1835, and then again attempted to sell his Battery Point home in 1838. But it didn’t sell, and on the second-last day of that year, George Frankland died. He was survived by his wife Anne, two daughters, and a son.

    Frankland also named Mt. Ida, Mt. Pelion, and Mt. Rufus in his mythical mood; his precedent spawned a series of Greek names in the area. Today, around Cradle Mountain and Lake St. Clair, you’ll find dozens of names honouring the gods and heroes of Greek myth.

    Although it doesn’t seem that these areas were frequently inhabited by Aboriginal populations, there is no doubt that over the millennia these features – like everywhere in Tasmania – had other names. They were not the names of personae from the epics of a continent on the other side of the world, but we don’t now know what indigenous stories sprung from these mountains. Unlike our scholastic understanding of Greek literature, there is no philosophy that we can comprehend from our Mt. Olympus.

    Yet perhaps – as we burst through the sclerophyll and onto a buttongrass plain just metres from Lake St. Clair, with spiny Olympus now protruding into the sky – the name of this mountain can clue us into something common, something that unites Tasmania and Greece. In ancient Greece, they called it palaiòn pénthos, ‘ancient grief’, and it “persists undiminished across time and demands that men take some liberating action… For we live surrounded, in the invisible air, by wandering avengers who never forget…”1

    The strange spirits of memory.

    1  Calasso, Roberto, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, p315.

  • The Man Who Died on Goulburn Street

    The Man Who Died on Goulburn Street

    People like to tell the story of what happened to William Lanne after he died. He was, they say, only 34 years old when he passed away from cholera. With his body in the hospital morgue, the chief medical scientists of the day came and hacked off his body parts. Buried the next day, he was dug up again and dismembered further. He was, after all, a significant scientific novelty: William was the last captured Aboriginal man left on the island.

    In his early days, he was moved around like a pinball. Born in the north-west of Van Diemen's Land, he was first removed with his family to Flinders Island in 1842, when he was seven; then, his parents having died like so many other Aborigines at the Wybalenna camp, they sent William to Bruny Island. After that, he was enrolled at the orphan school in Hobart. He left the school at 16. Rootless, without a family, his race disintegrating around him, William got himself a job on a ship. He sailed out onto the Pacific Ocean as a 'whale spotter'. They say he had the best eyes on the whole ocean; if anyone could spot a whale, it was William Lanne. He spent a lot of long days looking on that water, out to the horizon.

    He came back to Hobart and lodged at the Dog & Partridge on Goulburn Street. By that point, the island was no longer called Van Diemen's Land; it had a new name, a more euphonious one (if that's possible), one that wasn't so inextricably linked to acts of grisly violence, like those that happened in the early days of the colony. Sickness had a grip on him already. He coughed and spluttered, but did not give up smoking his pipe. A burly man, dressed now in heavy jackets and ragged pants, William had the face of a rugby player, but the eyes of a marsupial. His shipmates, and the Hobart locals, called him King Billy. It is not recorded how he responded. From the photographs of him, you might guess he took it gently, stoically.

    Nowadays the Dog & Partridge has been turned into some kind of backpackers' hostel. The Church of Christ up the road still stands in all its sandstone glory, but it's become a private residence. There's an art gallery, a laundromat, and the Pigeon Hole cafe has good coffee. That's what it's like now: a tumult of change, jarring and jolting shifts that you either have to adapt to or be abandoned by.

    Sometimes life just gets pulled out from under you.

  • Jorgen Jorgenson and the Walls of Jerusalem

    Jorgen Jorgenson and the Walls of Jerusalem

    They say that Jorgen Jorgenson was the first European to lay eyes on the Walls of Jerusalem. Jorgenson, the Danish-born explorer, was employed by the Van Diemen’s Land Company to try and find a route through the centre of Tasmania. He found no easy passage. Now the island is fully mapped, we know that there is none; that all throughout the centre, the west, and the south, Tasmania is made up of protrusions of dolerite mountains, countless of them, now named after Greek mythologies or biblical toponyms, Pelion and Olympus, King David’s Peak and Solomon’s Throne, Jerusalem.

    To get to the Walls of Jerusalem, you scramble up a steep slope onto an altiplano. To the east and the west, mountains rise like walls around you, as a track passes through spiky scoparia bushes, beneath stands of pencil pines over a thousand years old. The landscape seems Jurassic. Strange grasshoppers skip erratically; skinks’ shadows melt between the boulders.

    Jorgenson managed to spend a lot of time in the bush, between his other employments of writing treatises and working for the police. He saw the harshest side of the wilderness: a rushing river swept away one of his colleagues before his eyes. One night in the Walls of Jerusalem, he watched a log burning in its middle with snow still fixed firmly at each end, so cold it was. But he was drawn to the bush. There was something magnetic about the brightness of the stars in the dark, the little movements of birds in the bushes, the exhaustion of climbing a mountain, the exhilaration of walking with complete freedom – without restraint.

    There are days when I feel like Jorgen Jorgenson and I could have had a good conversation, sitting outside our tents by what is now called Lake Adelaide, pausing with pen poised over a journal as mosquitoes buzzed around us. Perhaps we would talk about politics or religion; perhaps we would yarn about the adventures we’d been on, the places we’d seen. I suppose we would talk about women, at some point. Jorgen might remember the Scottish girl with whom he was almost married, or the Bavarian belle who embarrassed him at a ball. Who knows what bullshit I’d tell him.

    An explorer, a seaman and something of a revolutionary, Jorgen Jorgenson also turned out to be somewhat romantic. He fell in love with an Irish convict, a drunk prostitute named Norah, and they got married in a church in New Norfolk, southern Tasmania. It was almost the death of him. That’s another thing we might have discussed, had Jorgen and I somehow found ourselves on a bushwalk somewhere, some time ago.

  • The Twenty-Seventh Birthday Party of Charles Darwin

    How they loved a party in Hobart Town! As soon as he arrived, on February 5 1836, they told him of a fancy-dress ball that he'd just missed: 113 guests, all in costume. 

    "Well we may as well do something for my birthday," he said.
    "Don’t you worry Mr. Darwin," they informed the young scientist, "we already have something in mind."

    It was a funny place for Charles Darwin to spend such an anniversary and no doubt he remembered it in a strange light, many years on. Hobart was not quite as charming in its aspect as Sydney, Darwin felt, but the climate was damper, and the land was agreeably fertile. Agriculture flourished. The bright yellow of corn cobs and the dark green of potato leaves shone on the banks of the Derwent as Darwin approached. Fruit-trees leaned over the ramshackle houses. It almost resembled some parts of home, wrote Darwin in his notebook. Perhaps one could imagine someday wanting to emigrate there. This colony – all of Australia – shall be one of the jewels of the Empire, a grand centre of civilisation, he scrawled between scientific observations.

    Nevertheless there was disappointment when Darwin joined a party in climbing up Mount Wellington. After it almost defeated him, Darwin labelled it a squat, ugly mountain, and the view from the top was, to him, flat and tame. Cloud and rain besieged them. It wasn’t a wasted day, though. The slopes of the mountain were well-furnished with magnificent fern trees and eucalypts. Darwin made an excellent collection of local insect specimens: over 100. There was not a shortage of geological observations to be made there either: basalt (which surely once flowed as lava), unstratified greenstone deposits, fossiliferous strata, yellow limestone or travertine.

    The Aborigines there, believed Darwin, were a few degrees higher in civilisation than the natives of Tierra de Fuego - for example. Far from being the utterly degraded people they were sometimes described as, they are fine hunters, nimble, more astute than given credit for. But when two races of men meet, they do so like two different animal species – it is a deadly struggle, and contact between these varieties inevitably conclude with the stronger pinning down the weaker. Such would be the case, he predicted, in Van Diemen’s Land.

     But the party was wonderful! There were a number of distinguished guests, all impeccably attired; one could expect nothing more even in England. The finest classical music was played for entertainment. There were several quite beautiful women in the colony, and their dancing was something to behold - as it was with ladies in all of the Empire.

    'This voyage has been by far the most important event of my whole life,' wrote Charles Darwin on board the Beagle, as he was leaving two weeks later.

  • Two Accounts of Marion Bay

    Two Accounts of Marion Bay

    I.
    At the turn of the New Year, thousands of revellers can be found at Marion Bay, on Tasmania’s south-east coast, for a music-and-arts festival called Falls Festival. I haven’t been there for a few years. It was the end of the decade: in the lengthening evening, Grizzly Bear played, and a teenage girl from a Catholic school in Hobart, drunk on gin, put her head wearily on my shoulders. The bay gleamed beyond the stage, replete with small and bothersome jellyfish. As the last minutes of 2009 unravelled, lightning crackled over the water. A deluge of silver rain was unleashed, briefly. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs played in the new calendar.

    II.
    In 1772, the French explorer Marion Dufresne became the second French captain to bring his ships to Terres Australes. He landed in a bay in the south-east of Van Diemen’s Land. In an attempt to make a good impression on the natives, Dufresne made a strange mandate for his crew. He made them strip naked before going ashore. They were the first Europeans to meet the indigenous people of Van Diemen’s Land. A flurry of spears greeted them: but they survived nevertheless. However, the good captain was killed and eaten by the Maori of New Zealand shortly after.

  • French Explorers Observe A Family of Tasmanian Aborigines Having Dinner

    At the beginning of the 19th century, Captain Nicolas Baudin led two ships of scientists, sailors and
    explorers to
    Terres Australes. This crew included the impetuous zoologist François Péron, and the Freycinet brothers, Henri and Louis, who gave Baudin great trouble even unto his death by tuberculosis in the Indian Ocean, and later rewrote the account of his expedition with complete injustice.

    The French voyage returned with one of the most outstanding collections in the history of natural science. They also had made observations of the Australian Aborigines that were more detailed than what their enemies, the English, had compiled at the time. This including Péron's account of meeting an attractive young native woman (whom they believed was named Ouré-Ouré) on the shores of Bruny Island.


    FRENCH EXPLORERS OBSERVE A FAMILY OF TASMANIAN ABORIGINES HAVING DINNER
    We brave Frenchmen came upon the beach, Ouré-Ouré:
    Me, François, and he, Henri.
    A family was baking fish on an open flame, on the shore, Ouré-Ouré:
    They were native Diemenese.

    A young femme came and joined her clan, Ouré-Ouré:
    she was dark as coal.
    The shellfish swelled in the heat and smelled of salt, Ouré-Ouré:
    but we explorers watched the girl.

    She was as naked as a blackbird on a branch, Ouré-Ouré:
    and without a single care.
    Her nipples were long and shaped like cones, Ouré-Ouré:
    her backside shapely and bare.

    She peered and prodded and tried to start a conversation, Ouré-Ouré:
    In our manners, she was truly curious.
    It was clear to see that she was mystified, Ouré-Ouré:
    the girl had never seen people like us.

    Oh, they marked our faces with charcoal, Ouré-Ouré:
    to make us seem as them.
    To them our whiteness was a disfigurement, Ouré-Ouré:
    our clothes as well, a shame.

    For her body shone with grease and ochre, Ouré-Ouré:
    Smooth and limber and light.
    Young enough that she’d not yet been married off, Ouré-Ouré:
    But soon she’d be a bride.

    Oh, we’d yield the palm of beauty to you any day!, Ouré-Ouré:
    What more could we say?
    If only I could have been your lover, Ouré-Ouré:
    We’d have spawned a whole new race.

    And the fate of the natives would have been different, Ouré-Ouré:
    so too the future of the world.
    Long live the savages of Terre de van Diemen, we cried, Ouré-Ouré:
    long live the beautiful girls.