A couple of months ago I guided a party of walkers into the Frenchmans Cap area. We didn’t make it very far: into Vera Hut, a day’s walk in. We swam in Lake Vera, watching the sun reflect off the glorious, glaring white range above us. But then the weather turned, as had been forecast, and rain and hail belted us in the hut all day, where we mostly sat around and talked.
The two married couples that made up the party were on a reunion tour, of sorts. 50 years ago they had come to Frenchmans, shortly after both couples had become engaged. They were young, adventurous, and had little certainty about their futures. But as the years had progressed, they had each achieved quite a lot with their lives. And as careers and families grew around them, they had made the effort to return for anniversary trips to Frenchmans Cap along the way.
Dick Smith was one of the party. I wasn’t surprised to find that he said a lot that I agreed with, and a lot that I didn’t. (I suppose I wasn’t surprised that he said a lot in general.) Hut-bound, I had read his manifesto on curbing population growth in Australia. There was plenty of sense in it – and a few bits that made me cringe. Either way, it was good fodder for conversation.
There was another reason for Dick, his wife, and his mates to be up near Frenchmans Cap that week. Dick Smith has tipped a lot of money into building a new track towards the famous mountain summit. The track bypasses the Loddon Plains, buttongrass moorland that has degenerated into a mucilaginous sludge over the years. Dick was pleased with the results; although I reckon most bushwalkers are happy not to have to tackle the ‘Sodden Loddons’ these days, I also know plenty of knowledgeable folks who find the new trackwork nothing less than hideous, an artless, almost medieval monstrosity.
I was disappointed, but not surprised, to see photos of Dick standing next to Will Hodgman, the Premier of Tasmania, at a press conference about Tassie’s wilderness areas. The Premier was unveiling a new plan to ‘rezone’ part the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. They want to call it the ‘Self-Reliant Recreation Zone’.
“A lot of people have a keen interest in our wilderness areas,” the Premier said. “Some would see them locked up forever and not have enjoy them.”
This kind of flagrant fib makes me livid. National Parks in Tasmania are some of the least locked-up places in the world. Private property, business enterprises, mining leases – they are locked up. The bush – the considerable percentage of Tasmania that is reserved – is completely open, to anyone.
Yes, there are parts of the island that are hard to access. But that’s actually part of the point. National Parks don’t exist to attract tourists or create business, but because they encompass a landscape that is rich in life, and even human history, that needs protecting from our slash-and-burn approach to the world around us.
There is a great deal of pressure on these places. Mostly, they come from population growth, as Dick Smith rightly says. I hope that Dick put a hard word on the Premier about that topic. I also understand that Tasmanians are delighted to have thrown off a mantle of economic malaise for the first time in a long while. I can see why a government would like to make the most of the spontaneous increase in tourism, put their fingerprints on it – even though they had almost nothing to do with it in the first place. (Watching Will Hodgman talk about the bush, as if he ever had an interest in it before it became a useful commodity, is an ugly thing to witness.)
Soon you will need to book and pay to walk to Frenchmans Cap. From all reports, this is inevitable. It’s not an entirely dreadful thing – I reckon there are good reasons for and against it. But to my eyes, it is a step towards the ‘locking-up’ of the bush, as is the talk of a standing camp in a remote part of the Walls of Jerusalem.
In 2011 the French writer Sylvain Tesson wrote, “Cold, silence and solitude are conditions that tomorrow will become more valuable than gold.” We are already starting to see that in Tassie. However, the haste with which our government will sell the special conditions of our island life is deeply troubling. We can squander them in a matter of a couple of years, in a single term of government. We sabotage ourselves when we sell our sense of place for the short-term gain of a tourism industry that becomes full to overflowing. For one thing, we damage the reason why tourists want to come here. But more importantly, we wreck a place that is unique in the world, our place, a place to which we belong and for whose future we are responsible.