Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged islands

  • People Who Live on Islands

    People Who Live on Islands

    It is is morning. I have been up for hours, although only now did I just serve myself my first cup of black coffee. I suspect a second isn’t far off. Now I have settled in to a morning of writing. I’ve been commissioned to write reference material for walking guides who will begin working on the Three Capes track in south-eastern Tasmania in spring. I have laid my hands on surveys, maps, and specialist reports. “The Tasman Peninsula has a coastline of around 323 km in length and an area of 473 km2,” I begin.

    The anomaly in the situation is that I’m sitting in a hiker’s shelter underneath the volcano Eyjafjallajökull, in Iceland. I woke up this morning on a pass between two glaciers. It was one of those ugly wet-tent pack-downs. I suspect it was about 4a.m., and I began to head north, off the mountainside and into a verdant valley populated by handsome birch trees. North: further away from Tasmania.

    I believe I’m about 17,000 kilometres from the Three Capes track, but that won’t stop my head from spinning with the Latin names of Tasman Peninsula flora (as per the ecological survey of Wapstra et alia). Mixing this in with the Icelandic vocabulary I’m trying to muster up, I’ve got a wild porridge here. But how pleasant all these words are. If you listen carefully (and with some imagination) you can hear some similarity between Eyjafjallajökull and the word ‘eucalypt’, I think.

    There is no familiarity in volcanoes and glaciers, in the young black rock that washes down murky rivers like soot. But there are numerous commonalities, in the size, the population, the sense of distance, the islandness. The ptarmigan in its dappled winter coat puts me in mind of a favourite bird back home, the Bassian thrush.

    Not the least commonality is how we both sit aloof from our continents, far north and far south, sparsely populated. It’s possible to find days of solitude. Icelanders and Tasmanians may both take the beauty of our home places for granted, and yet we both may identify with it and romanticise it too.

    Icelanders and Tasmanians, we live on islands. What was it that the poet Louis Macneice came up with? “There is only hope for people who live on islands.” Macneice had his reasons, but there seems to have been a truth to it when he said it. Overpopulation is perhaps the great threat of the planet’s future, and we seemed, for a time, to be immune for it. But people are now looking to disperse to the islands.

    In a fjord off northern Iceland there is a rock-island called Drangey, which is famous in Nordic literature. Here an outlaw named Grettir the Strong lived out his last days. It can’t be an easy swim out there, but in the saga written for him in the 14th century, we read that he managed to do it. It’s a story that relates to my research. Archaeological evidence of Aboriginal activity has been found on Tasman Island, off the southern tip of the peninsula where the Three Capes runs. A skull discovered there by early European scientists was disregarded as being that of some ‘accidental adventurer’ stranded there, somehow.

    Now, we’re rather more sure that the Pydairrerme ancestors did indeed visit the island often enough, swimming and boating out there. Only, unlike the exploits of Grettir, we don’t have any written stories of who these swimmers might have been. As is so frequently the case in Tasmania, we don’t know the heroes of our island’s history.

    In Iceland, writing about Tasmania. Maybe it isn’t so strange. Last night, eating polenta and mushrooms from the billy-pot, I took account of my appearance. The possum fur beanie was a gift. My woolly jumper was from a charity store in Zeehan. The shorts I wear most days of my life (even in the waist-deep snow of the Fimmvörðuháls track) are from an op-shop in Queenstown. My pink socks were given to me by an overly friendly lady in Tullah. My soggy hiking boots were from the Deloraine op-shop, $15. We drag our homeplaces with us.



    The connections between Tassie and Iceland also involve a 19th-century adventurer.

  • 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.

  • 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.