Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged huts

  • Locked Up

    Locked Up

    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.

  • Birthday Party for a Hut

    Birthday Party for a Hut

    This weekend, this hut will be honoured, a centenary of its existence celebrated. It really is quite a feat that the old hut has lasted so long – fire, snow and neglect have combined to eradicate innumerable high country huts in that last hundred years. (Even in the immediate area: several incarnations of a New Pelion Hut have come and gone at a spot about a kilometre from Old Pelion Hut.)

    Built of hand-split king billy timber, it was constructed in 1917 to serve a mining company, whose copper shaft is still accessible to walkers around Pelion Plains. The government acquired at the cessation of mining operations in 1921. Available for public use, it became advantageous for stockmen, trappers, and early bushwalking guides.
    Graffiti on the interior boards dates back to the 1920s, much of it verifiable to those years.

    The button-grass and white-grass plains around Mount Oakleigh have long lured human activity into the area. Relatively accessible, these plains were certainly used by local bands of indigenous Tasmanians after the most recent Ice Age concluded – their fire regime is evident to archaeologists, and long-occupied shelter sites can be found in the vicinity (such as around the upper Forth River)

    Various fur trappers made the Pelion Plains their favoured haunt – probably starting with the McCoy family – and in 1909, a farmer and prospector named George Sloane drove over 100 head of cattle to this “mostly poor land with a little open grazing country”. After some years of successful grazing, however, wild bulls roamed the plains: tall tales from the highlands speak of close shaves with charging animals. One of the more legendary mountain men, Bert Nichols, claimed to have grabbed a bull’s tail, pulled it around a tree, and looped it over his horn so that the bull was caught – “he went back later and found the bull had sawn down the tree.”

    Today,
    Pelion Plains sits at the centre of the Overland Track, the most well-known hike in Tasmania. Walkers use the newest of the New Pelion huts, so salubrious an abode that it’s colloquially called ‘Pelion Palace’. Most walkers briefly visit Old Pelion, if they come at all. Much smaller and dingier, and a little more frail too, National Parks asks walkers to only use it in the case of an emergency.

    I work as a guide on the Overland Track, and often take my punters down to Old Pelion. Here, over lunch, I’ll spin a few yarns of my own: the history of mining, perhaps, or something about the use of fire throughout Tasmania’s history. We may go for a swim in Douglas Creek, or pick leeches off ourselves in the grass. I have also been there when conditions are as they were one day in the 1930s, as reported by a graffito: “Snowing like hell!”

    Other walkers have scribbled their names and dates in the walls, often obscuring the historical graffiti – although at what point does
    a name take on historic value? This is but one of the questions that Old Pelion Hut raises. What is it that makes us care about such places? And what is more meaningful to us: to maintain it but not let it be used, to use it and potentially destroy it, or to ignore it and let it fall into disrepair? (It is worth noting that Old Pelion has been given a spruce-up since this photo was taken in summer 2015.)

    Another question: what is the meaning of the sign above the door, emblazoned with the word ‘Emhlangana’? It’s a question that was thankfully answered by high country historian Simon Cubit, who passed away this year. It’s a Zulu toponym,
    meaning, ‘meeting place’, and the carved sign was probably erected there in the 1940s by the migrant Wooton family.

    For a while the narrative of National Parks in Tasmania failed to include buildings like Old Pelion Hut, as well non-Aboriginal practices (such as hunting, farming, or prospecting) in the area. At that stage, it seemed that the word ‘wilderness’ couldn’t cope with these more recent interventions. Although I would argue that we still don’t have a helpful definition for this word (and Pelion Plains falls within the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, so we’re forced to have a crack at one), we are now able to see that human recreation and industry is deeply woven into this landscape, alongside the activities of burrowing crayfish and broad-toothed rats and marchflies.

    If we don’t understand what we have done in these places, we will be completely unable to honestly comprehend what we are still doing. Whatever it’s worth, we are part of the ecology of this country.

    I have spent five years working here, and probably passed by Pelion Plains fifty-odd times. It’s not so much. Yet even I have more stories from here than I could tell in one night, if you were to sit me on the hard hut bunks and offer me a dram from a smuggled bottle. There will many present who have far longer memories than I.

    Importantly, this weekend will demonstrate that although some restrictions have been put into place to preserve this hut, it’s not a museum relic. I
    t remains a meeting place.

  • Where You Wake Up

    Where You Wake Up

    I haven’t had my own room for more than six months.

    Part of that time was spent travelling – sleeping on friends’ couches or in hostel dormitories, in places like Istanbul or Ljubljana or
    Berlin – but it’s now been many weeks since I came home to Tasmania, and still I haven’t found a place to call my own – to stack my books and regularly rest my head.

    Where do I stay then? Friends and family offer their spare rooms, couches, or patches of carpet. The ranger in Strahan offers a bed; he and his girlfriend live in an old Federation-era customs building. Sometimes I end up sprawled with several other mates, snoozing heavily after a boozy night, wearied with laughter.

    Other times I strike off alone. I sleep in my tent, a yellow coffin of plastic which, for example, can be wedged in a cleft beneath the Snowy Range, or pinned to the dark earth by the Liffey River. There are mountain huts, too, which I can pretend are my own for a night or two: secret grey huts camouflaged in the boulders and snow peppermints of kunanyi-Wellington, or shacks built with bulky beams of pencil pine in the northern escarpment of the Central Plateau.

    The other night I slept in a repurposed water tank, which had previously been used as accommodation on Macquarie Island, for scientists working on a rabbit eradication program. (This was cosy.)

    This week, I’m waking up on a yacht. It’s not mine (of course), but I do some work on it, and in return, I’m allowed to contort myself into a v-shaped berth at the bow of the boat, as it sways quietly in sheltered anchorages in the south-east of Tasmania. This is Canoe Bay: the iron wreckage of a scuttled ship, the
    William Pitt, sticks up above the greeny-blue water. The dolerite silhouette of Cape Hauy is in the distance. Behind me, on the shore itself, a damp green tangle of forest. Big eucalypts stand above a busy network of ferns and flowering plants.

    In
    the canopy of one of these eucs, there is a nest. It is the nest of the white-bellied sea eagle, Haliaeetus leucogaster. The birds themselves are incredible, but so too are their homes. Continuously used, for raising one or two fledglings each year, they consistently grow in mass. Parent eagles will go hunting for fish, eels, birds, or small land creatures, and bring them back to the nest, feeding themselves and their young. With so much decomposing animal matter brought into their homes, the sea eagles will add fresh green foliage to the inside of the nest for hygienic purposes.

    Growing to dimensions of up to
    2.5 metres wide and 4.5 metres deep, they can weigh up to a ton.

    It is, I suppose, somewhat enviable. The dream of a permanent abode is borrowed from a human instinct for shelter and stability. I drive around, looking at the various living places of friends, of strangers. The west coast shacks of corrugated iron, the flaking weatherboard homes in the river valleys, the sandstone mansions of old towns. All have their various reasons for appealing. Above everything, they have their own kitchens, and walls to line with bookshelves.

    I am not the first Tasmanian, naturally, to live this lifestyle. There was a certain nomadic element to the lives of the Tasmanian Aboriginals, although perhaps not as much as we are often taught. Certainly, however, these people did not crave absolute permanency in a single place. They may have instead found their homes in the various passages and patches of the landscape which they frequented – in ‘country’, rather than a building.

    Sometimes I think I have found that too: I am happy in the high country, in the low moorlands, in the farm towns, in Canoe Bay.

    This mobility may suit me more than most. For plenty of others, it is not so amenable. There are some being forced into it. Suddenly, Hobart has become one of the toughest rental markets in the country. Mates are looking for a bedroom, and failing. (I’ve cast an eye on things myself and dismissed it as too difficult.) There are various reasons why this is the case, but partly it is because of Hobart’s popularity as a tourist destination: rooms are being rented to short-term visitors, rather than longer-term residents. A different type of nomad is being catered for.

    I don’t know what to make of all this, although I sense it augurs a different future
    on this island. One friend asserts that what is being lost is the ability to feel “secure enough in your home that you can unpack your life and become part of your community, to contribute to making Tasmania all the things that the government sells us off as to the rest of the world.”

    I personally drift through this days supposing that life will leave me behind. It seems that what I’d like from my days on this planet is different from most others. Occasionally, I realise I will probably never have a place of my own, somewhere to put my books. I sadly expect to find myself in a sort of exile, somehow.

    The nest in Canoe Bay is about 80 years old, but it has now been abandoned. This has been a successful spot, so it’s likely that the local pair will establish their new nest nearby, in the canopy of another of these eucalypts. The family will remain their neighbourhood.

    The yacht gently rocks in
    the bay. A sea eagle suddenly lifts out of the trees and soars above me, honking.

  • 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 Prince of Rasselas

    The Prince of Rasselas

    “I was rapping on the door intent upon making the hermit’s acquaintance.”

    So wrote one bushwalker having rambled into the Vale of Rasselas in Tasmania’s southern wilderness, where for fifteen years Ernie Bond made his camp.

    But Ernie was not your typical bush hermit. Born in Hobart in 1891, he was the son of Frank Bond, a businessman, property developer and politician. Ernie lived in the island’s capital until 1927 when he moved to the suddenly-booming osmiridium fields at Adamsfield. For seven years, he worked his claim there. But in 1934, while prospecting with the infamous bushman Paddy Hartnett, Ernie found a rare patch of rich alluvial soil and changed careers.

    Now, Ernie was the grower and supplier of fresh garden produce for the mining community. Aside from fruit and veg, the bush estate of ‘Gordonvale’ - there was 400 hectares of it – also housed grazing sheep and cattle.

    Like most Tasmanian mining histories, work in the ossie fields came to a screeching halt. By the end of the 1930s, Gordonvale’s market had disappeared. But Ernie Bond enjoyed his self-sufficiency, and his proximity to the wilderness. So he remained. And for the next two decades, Ernie Bond became famous for showing hospitality to bushwalkers passing through the area en route to various lakes and mountains, along rugged paths, through the newly-empty expanse of wilderness.

    Bushwalkers’ diaries recall his dinners of mutton and vegetables, desserts of strawberries and cream, and even his dodgy home brew. His “grey eyes twinkled” as he spun yarns about local characters, and he formed strong and lasting friendships with some of the pioneers of Tasmanian recreational walking. “The great buckled belt of his trousers could sit just as approximately above or below the immense circumference of his stomach,” wrote Jack Thwaites, “while little reading glasses somehow found a perch around the great head.”

    Commercial logging encroached on Ernie Bond’s patch of the forest; finally, the bridge crossing the Gordon River near his abode was destroyed, and Ernie was effectively forced to return to Hobart.

    Today, bushwalkers can find but a few remnants of the Prince of Rasselas’ old lodgings, in what has now become part of the Tasmanian World Heritage Wilderness Area.

     

     Two convict escapees made a bold journey into the Vale of Rasselas in 1828.

  • A Long Week at Waldheim

    A Long Week at Waldheim

    Born in Austria in February 1874, Gustav Weindorfer came to Australia in search of work. After stints with the Austro-Hungarian Consulate in Melbourne and the Field Naturalists’ Club of Victoria, it was love that brought him to Tasmania. Gustav had met botanist Kate Cowle, of the north-west of the island, and married her in a simple Methodist ceremony on February 1, 1906.

    Travelling to Cradle Mountain together in 1909, they were awed by the unique alpine environment. They began to promote it as a place worth visiting and protecting, and built a lodge from the native conifer known as king billy pine, Athrotaxis selaginoides. The lodge was called Waldheim, meaning ‘forest home’ in Gustav’s native tongue. It was opened at Christmas in 1912.

    Kate died in 1916, and Gustav’s heart was broken by the loss. However, he continued to offer hospitality at Waldheim. His wombat stew was famous, and following it was home-ground coffee and rum-laced puddings. Vienna waltz records played on the gramophone, and Gustav was wont to sing along. Gustav Weindorfer was no doubt seen as a romantic figure in the fastness of that wild place, and it is said with the widower at the helm of the chalet, eligible young women came to the mountains in search of romance.

    One such lass was a Rhodesian visitor Maude van der Reit. Climbing up to the nearby heights of Marions Lookout – surveying both Cradle Mountain and Dove Lake – she was overcome with dread and had to be physically restrained.

    But her unrestrained emotion wasn’t exhausted on the mountains; her journals reveal a florid stream of admiration for her host, known as ‘the Dorfer’. She described him as “like a young cedar tree, with a moustache turned skywards the colour Titian raved about in all his pictures; mountain air complexion, eyes, what eyes! They flashed like for lightning on pointed swords…”

    Perhaps her prose might have impressed him; her behaviour, however, did not. Maude and her girlfriends were snowed in at Waldheim; they drank all the whisky and let Gustav’s much-loved dogs loose.

    Gustav’s own journals reveal his feelings. Day by day, the Carpathian host felt his sentiment of Gastfreundschaft dwindling. He wrote: “Just the same – mad!”


     
    Gustav and Kate had their honeymoon on Mt. Roland.

  • Boy Miles

    Boy Miles

    There is no track between the Mersey River and the Middle East. On the sea, you cut a path across emptiness; the wilderness of waves covers over it immediately. Boy Miles was on a ship coming home in 1942 when the enemy intercepted. He was taken as a prisoner-of-war and forced to work on the Thai-Burma Railway. The Death Railway.

    It’s a long way from the jungles of south-east Asia to the Central Plateau. Further still, perhaps, from the shrill screech of human depravity to the silent warmth of friendship and family. In monsoon, Boy toiled with body bared, his hide riddled with ulcers and sores. Around him, fellow-slaves took on cholera, starved, went demented with illness, and died by the thousands.

    But maybe in moments of pause Boy Miles took himself back to the grazing plains beneath that mountain range, where, alongside his brother, he rode through the valleys, trapping possums and rabbits, sleeping out, swimming in the river. It may seem like a small life to some, especially compared to what they called ‘the grandeur of war’: but what a mighty stage.

    The war ended. The medics discharged Boy Miles just as the waratahs came into bloom in the summer of 1945, and coming home, the bright bush gleamed, the clean air shimmered and the broad country beckoned him. Things weren’t the same; any fright would send Boy to the floor, curled up in the foetal position. People were difficult creatures to be around. There were scars, things mangled inside him. So it was only in the mountains that any solace was to be found.

    In the years to come, Boy Miles felled pines and split shingles and built himself some huts to shelter him at night when he went out with a dog and a gun to Liena, Deception Plains, Lake Ball, Dublin Road. They were simple buildings: a fireplace, a bunk, somewhere to hang the skins. It was all he wanted from a home. To keep him safe and sound, and more importantly still, to keep him free to roam the bush.