3/1 The year’s change happened on top of kunanyi with gusty westerlies...with a sense of the west behind us in mountainous jags and silhouettes. It was, as it turned out, a shit place to sleep, but our picnic dinner was delightful, the sunset blended generous arrays of colours, and the stars blinked and streaked.
5/1: Everything smelt combustible, gaseous – the heat got down your throat with each breath...We clambered up to a perch of ironstone, silver trees dancing over a surfeit of flowers, white flags and guineas and milliganias. Out west there were mauve clouds – a bushfire. But where? The heat had died off; wind picked up. We looked down on the maze of trees and tarns.
15/1: There had been thunder, idly travelling around us, for most of the day. Then it rolled right over us, rolled around the bowl of quartzite, the black rock faces now an unnerving amphitheatre. Rain fell in fat drops, making Lake Cygnus shine with colourless flashing highlights.
16/1: The skies to the north are muddied with mauve smoke. Who knows what burns?
17/1: Shortly after I wrote yesterday, nestled amongst the pandanis near Oberon’s shores, we were evacuated...I heard the helicopter coming over the ridge and instantly knew it was over.
23/1: Linton, Aurike and I wandered up the Meander yesterday, then skidded back down; and ate cheese and pickles and Savoys, with pink shoulders. Why can’t it all be so easy?
31/1: All month I have looked upon clouds I do not recognise, clouds I cannot understand, as if they re now just making it up as they go along. Often enough I have been confused – is that rain? Are they dark shags of wet cloud pouring through the light, or is it light filtering through a malignant grey haze? Is it cloud coming down, or smoke puffing upwards?
9/2: On the yacht, I felt mildly nauseous as we made our way to Ile des Phoques...I imagined it, with eyes closed, as land lifting and tilting, rolling, earth and moss in a flux, a swell.
12/2: There will likely be snow today or tomorrow, up on the plateau where the fires fiercely burned. It is an island of contrast and colours. Little wonder that idle dreams seize us even as the future looks futile and desperate.
6/3: There were exquisite clouds close to the horizon – the texture of spun wool, but the colour of processed metal. And the mountains of the Western Tiers were at one point a sort of mineral green, and later a light blue like a vapour. Well, Annie did once call them ‘the Rainbow Mountains’.
26/3: The rainforest started hissing. Hard snow rushing into the green milieu. A storm had howled and roared all night, a spear of lightning thrusting itself down near us, over by Ossa. Now snowflakes fell in helices, streamed towards invisibility, in union with the moss.
4/4: On my way over the plateau I stopped just north of Liawenee, which burnt over the summer. I stomped out over a patch of heath, where cushion plants spread out in dead brown clumps, and the charred skeletons of mallee-like tea-tree stuck up against the blue sky, a network of black sticks. I found bones so thoroughly burnt they were grey and crumbling, cremated. Big eucalyptus trunks had been hollowed out; some had snapped clean in half. But the effect was as much of beauty as it was destructions. Emeralds grew as new ground cover; the structure of the cushion plants supported herbs and grasses, these glimmers of green in a scorched-black landscape. Wreaths grew off the eucalypts.
20/4: Now wedge-tailed eagles made vortices in the pallid sky. Lake Galaxias was of a pale and calming blue-grey colour, and the sky too was of a smooth, soothing grey...A white goshawk launched off its perch in an elegant eucalypt on the western shore, and after crossing the lake, it came back and scooped something from the waters. (Big trout grow in Galaxias’s turbid waters.)
27/4: The wind blows; the westerlies shape this island anew; rock columns collapse; eucalyptus crowns come down under the weight of snow.
30/4: Driving over a bridge on the South Esk, I saw the biggest raptor yet: an aeroplane, hovering dark like a hunter above the paddocks.
8/5: My friends, a happy crowd oddballs whose summers were as particoloured as mine...They too move on, in whatever way, to something new. None of us returns the same. We can only hope to return at all, although as one scans the names of friends from the past, we know that they may not...Linton and I both go through a nostalgic mood. We dreamed of the winter we will not have. We know we are trading in something of worth. We know that the purpose of our travels us also worthwhile. One can only live a single life. Then we are gobbled up, like rainmoths by a tawny frogmouth.
20/5: I pack my belongings for the next three months so painfully slowly that I’m sure to have forgotten something significant...inshallah, I shall return to this exact position, to the quiet hum of fire and the din of rain, the variegated nonsense of frogs and birds. I am awfully relaxed, yet I trust that I shall be somewhat shaken by the passage of months, by the lunar rotations and seasonal jolts, queries of cultures and concepts of myself, the geographical leaps I have insisted on making.
21/5: I left a lot far below, unseen. I left all the landmarks of various intentions, unsaluted. There are still sites of unknowing scattered the country.
16/6: I have often joked how much better Tassie is than anywhere I go – and it is said in jest, but it also so evidently true for myself. Nowhere satisfies me like home. Why has it been so long since I paused for a long while, tarried in Tassie – to watch out a whole footy season, as it were?
Currently showing posts tagged landscape
3/1 The year’s change happened on top of kunanyi with gusty westerlies...with a sense of the west behind us in mountainous jags and silhouettes. It was, as it turned out, a shit place to sleep, but our picnic dinner was delightful, the sunset blended generous arrays of colours, and the stars blinked and streaked.
I do not know why this creature had come to fix its feet in the woodchips of a city garden. But there it was. A goshawk, glaring at me. I was twenty-one years old and I had no idea what it meant to look a raptor in the eyes.
There had been time, and a camera handy, to take this photograph before the goshawk flew off. I showed the photo to a girlfriend, who identified it. She lived above the park, and had an aviary of visitors – her birds. She fed cubes of steak to the local kookaburras. There was a grey fantail who often described its tricky loops amongst the leaves of her backyard.
I envied her closeness with these birds. A few months later, I came upon a cohort of about thirty green rosellas in the flowering gums, on the non-descript street in which I rented a room in the hills of Launceston. I felt suddenly that this was an emblematic animal; they appealed and squealed together, arrowing between the ornamental trees.
There were wattlebirds in my yard then. In a later home, on the other side of the forests of the Cataract Gorge, I watched these bellicose birds hassle and chase the others, including the larger kookaburras. The kookaburras sat forlornly on the powerlines, obsessing over the possibilities of food beneath their beaks. In the spring, black cockatoos frolicked in the hakea hedges, cracking woody seedpods like they were macadamia nuts. One morning we woke up to find a tawny frogmouth wedged on the rail of the rampway down to the backyard, squished up against the weatherboards of our house, in plain sight, undisguised.
Over the years, I suppose, I have been lucky enough to make most parts of this island a base, of one or another kind. In the mountains I have approached bassian thrush, black cockatoo, pink robin; on the coast I have been near to sea-eagles and gannets.
Where I am now living, spinebills cling to the windowframes and trill their choruses. Fantails knit their brows in frustration as the insects that congregate in my room remain secure from this predator’s snippy beak behind a thin pane of glass. Native hens run amok out of sight, down by a neighbour’s dam, their call “affirming the society of life”, as the poet says; indeed, I am at the very least brought a bit of good cheer from their rambunctiousness.
I have been fortunate to spend some months with these birds, on the property of a woman who has generously allowed me to rent a room from her. I am grateful to have been among friends that enjoy avian companions too, and it is not much of an exaggeration to say that almost the best thing of these past months has been interplay with birds: efforts to mimic, to meet them on their terms, to learn their patterns, and perpetually to be surprised by them.
(Some things cannot be personified. I found myself recently underneath the imperturbable flight path of a white goshawk. I imagined her coming from a haunt on the nearby mountain, emerging from her mysterious eyrie. But even with that imagination I did not sense that I had glimpsed anything of her secrets.)
I should say that I eventually did stare into the eyes of a raptor once more. I was hiking up a well-worn path to the plateau; emerging through an aperture where the creek began to fall into the forest, I found, maybe three paces from me, a wedge-tailed eagle. It looked imperiously at me, indignant, as if I had caught it in a moment that was supposed to be private. There was seemingly some reason for it to be sheepish, standing on a boulder slab in its hairy breeches, rather than soaring wildly above that stony country. It radiated intensity, for a brief moment that lasted a lifetime, and then launched upwards, in a spiralling vortex that may well be the shape of life, far beyond my comprehension.
I had smelled it whenever I’d been in the bush over the past few weeks: vaporous and gaseous, like something that was begging for a match to be put upon it.
Now I’d driven west, following rivers running up their fertile valleys, straw and stubble where the spouted spit of irrigators hadn’t reached. The rivers themselves had a hot glare about them. On the colourless road out to one of Pedder’s dams, spitting up a grey wash of dust, it seemed somehow like I was driving into a desert.
I was aiming for a particular mountain range, an array of queer quartzite peaks. Their summits are so often like antennae for heavy cloud and rain, in the wet south-west, where the winds of the roaring forties thrash oceanic gusts against whatever they meet. But the forecast was for days hotter than thirty degrees.
So it was that I found myself on a moraine, on a slab of quartzite and in the midst of a hot morning, sitting with an ecologist. He’d previously surveyed the golden sedgelands where we’d camped, which were now far below us. Those plains appeared clean and smooth, soothed by the fires that once rode through. Meanwhile, on odd slopes, wedged in gullies, there were myrtles and king billies. A palette of myriad greens of the south-west rainforest.
I was on a mountain range of planets and stars, Hesperus and Aldebaran and Sirius. Even in the bright day, the constellations were found in the black tarns, those indented into shelves of rock beneath barbarous bluffs.
At night, by Lake Cygnus, we were briefly walloped with stray weather. Tinny thunder rumbled around our quartzite bowl. Over the bony ridge, there were fast, fatal flashes of lightning.
From the heights we hiked the next morning, we could see a series of fires burning on Pedder’s shores, plumes of smoke up the Huon and behind several other mountain profiles. The skies were muddied with mauve haze. Apparently over a thousand strikes made landfall, in various swathes across the island. So we wear the scars of lightning without rain.
I had been on mountain heights when bushfires burnt the guts out of forests several summers ago, in 2016. I’d seen the forked lightning then too; watched a spiral of smoke coming from a landscape I loved. In the weeks that followed, my poet’s tongue contorted with furious, artless passion. It’s all fucked, I felt, and I felt it loudly. I savaged a lover because she didn’t understand.
These trees, I tried and failed to say. Their green is drawn from too far back for this. See this one? It is, itself, over a thousand years old. Yet the whole species may be extinct before I disappear.
But some land likes to burn too. Some of our commonest species are pyrophilic, as they say – ‘fire lovers’. Eucalyptus, buttongrass: fire has been healer. The old people cleaned up country with it, used it to turn ground. The torch can be an ecological tool. But other flora is tremendously sensitive to fire; these glean no hope from it. They simply die. Too much fire, and they will be gone altogether. We seem to be getting too much fire.
The fact that they sometimes live side-by-side – such different ecosystems, plants that respond so differently to fire – is one of this island’s usual mysteries.
At the end of the third day on the range, a helicopter arrived to evacuate us. We looked upon the tortured track we’d picked at, those twisted staircases of white stones between the bizarre grey boulders, the nipped ridges and narrow saddles we’d skipped upon, and those star-filled tarns, black in the broad day. It was a shame to leave it below. But everything before us was smudged in smoke, swirling upwards to the sanctuary of our summits.
Now I’m home. Silent at this distance, the fires are deafening in forests elsewhere. I know their roar, black and violent and quivering with rage. I know the hissing heat of those growing beasts, the sudden unflinching flux of leaves converted into flames. The whirling vortices of smokes are representations of our changed conditions.
We must learn the colours of bushfires, must learn fire’s moods. We must adapt to a fire-ravaged land. Perhaps we will. But there is much that simply cannot adjust itself so suddenly. I am proud of plenty of the plantlife that may not survive this overheated century; they are part of my identity as someone who belongs to this island. Perhaps we may hope that in secret pockets, those peculiar species will cling on. Yet in a sense that has less science – that an ecologist is not able to describe, clever though he may be – with each of these summer fires, another sacred stand of king billy pine is plainly razed, out of sight, in my heart.
This past weekend, a group of concerned Tasmanians gathered in Launceston, under the unlikely and unpretty acronym of “Fawaha”: Fishers and Walkers Against Helicopter Access. Specifically, they were appealing against the construction of a private tourism operation on Halls Island in Lake Malbena, a remote and rarely-visited spot in the eastern part of the Walls of Jerusalem National Park.
The self-styled author and fisherman Greg French gave a short speech, which highlighted the concerns of many interested Tasmanians. They range from issues of ecology to issues of governance, including a lack of transparency, the thwarting of usual National Parks processes, and a general arrogance on behalf of the tourism operators and the government departments involved.
Lake Malbena, the latest of countless contested places in Tasmania, is within the boundaries of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, a large patch of country accepted by world experts as having value for all of humanity. That includes the many who will never get to visit it. Tourists and other visitors may see it, but the implication of such listings, I believe, is that we can only encounter these places on their own terms. To try and alter this wilderness, it would seem, undermines the reasons why it is considered valuable. It is not inscribed on the list because it is financially useful. It is a World Heritage site because of its precariousness, because we need it as it is in order to maintain the diversity of our existence.
Wilderness is a wriggly word, and I understand why the Lake Malbena project may have some supporters in the Aboriginal community and also among the former graziers and old-timers of the high country. These parties have good arguments as to how the word ‘wilderness’ deprives them of their heritage. My opinion, however, is that the Lake Malbena project does precisely nothing to encourage our understanding of the human history of this special country.
Part of the issue that faces us is around the idea of accessibility. Proponents will argue that these wilderness areas are without value if they are only available to the small percentage of the population who are able to walk in self-reliant manner to remote places.
The frequent argument for operating tourism businesses in the World Heritage Area (and I actually work in one) is that by increasing the ease of access for visitors, we are promoting them for protection. At the best of times, this argument doesn’t entirely convince me – I have taken hundreds of visitors for bushwalks on the Overland Track, and my summation is that the conditions of buying a bushwalk usually preclude a real encounter with the kinds of things that make many of us desperate to keep Tassie landscapes in reserve. In the case of Lake Malbena, the argument cannot be made at all. That a handful of parties will be allowed to chopper into Halls Island, while the rest of us are banned, achieves precisely the opposite.
The other side of that argument is that by expanding business operations in the World Heritage Area, we are decreasing a version of land use that is special to Tasmania. “Perhaps the most important thing about the preservation of wilderness is that it provides inspiration and solace,” Greg French said on Sunday. We risk diminishing the possibilities of solitude, and eroding the amount of non-commercial land we have. Such things are endangered in the world. There are so few hectares like this on the surface of our world. We are lucky to have a decent amount of it here, but few us recognise it as a defining characteristic of Tasmania. I think it is.
Places like the Walls of Jerusalem are special because they are – for the moderately fit, well-prepared, and willing – actually quite easily accessible. A few hours by road, and a few hours on foot, and you have access to a huge area of landscape that has been recognised for its uniqueness and beauty. Without having to ascend high mountain peaks or use technical skill and equipment, you are in a rare place. Commercialising these spaces sabotages that potential.
You have been told that Tasmania has, or is, a ‘brand’; I contest that we have a way of life, and I resent that our culture has been distilled into something saleable, by marketeers and politicians who care nothing for it. So much of what has made modern Tasmanian life is related to the vast spaces of rarely-visited, uncompromised land. These spaces are a presence behind our every action. For the colonists, and for the contemporary greedy of Tasmania, they represent the very worst of the world; but for those who have chosen to stay here or move here over the course of a couple hundred years, the choice has been made with some relationship to the grandeur of the Tasmanian landscape. We have breathing space here. We have slowness. We have solitude, or at least the option to pursue it.
As a young man I would have left Tasmania had I not discovered these landscapes. Fortunately for me, I discovered a culture and identity in the bush. I found something that Greg French echoed on Sunday: “Wilderness is transcendental. Uplifting. There’s not much of it left. Anywhere in the world.” I realised that Tasmania is extraordinary. However, we may lose much of it if we let our landscapes go into the hands of those who wish we weren’t so special, who prefer a version of Tasmania that is entirely commercialised and therefore (I would argue) globalised and generalised.
It is typical that this has been achieved by abusing the process we have laboriously put together over the years, the blueprint as to how we look after these spaces, which are, after all, on Unesco’s register of the world’s special places. Pathetically, there has been no tenable response from any of the proponents, including government, about the fact that they secretively changed the official management plan so that this project could fit with it. (This information was leaked.) The proponents – developers, tourism and government representatives – will wave their hands all around, trying to distract the public with caricatures of the conservationists involved, but they don’t have the guts to admit that they’ve steamrolled a legitimately-developed management plan to suit their own greedy whims.
This is a pattern in Tasmanian industry, of course: forestry and hydro-electricity are not bad industries, but we gave their representatives such power that they became unbearable. I wrote an article for Crikey three years ago suggesting that tourism could easily become the same sort of monster. I believe we have reached that point in Tasmania, and I am both pissed off and distraught about it. Thankfully, this lot, for their latest attempt to do whatever the hell they want with our National Parks, is being taken to court.
I could hear the snow, like the impossibly soft paws of mythical possums scuffling on the roof.
It was September in southern Tasmania. I’d been sliding upon all sorts of roads, scraping my crappy car along gravel tracks. No wonder it died later that summer. But now I had left the car at the bend and taken a more reliable form of transport, my own two legs. I had taken a short walk along a marked track, and then veered off, through scrub, along a rough footpad of dirt and pineapple grass, following occasional cairns of short stature.
In my backpack I had only the bare necessities: a sleeping-bag, a sleeping mat, my billy, some bread and chocolate and cheese, a comic novel, and some warm clothes.
I lowered myself down an outcrop and glimpsed the hut only moments before I came upon its door. In terms of colour, it is well-camouflaged – another shade in a palette of exquisite greys, from weathered dolerite to snow peppermint trunks. It is the foreign angle which makes it stand out, an a-frame of corrugated iron in amongst the bending trees and polymorphous boulders.
I could see a fair wedge of Hobart, a panorama only occasionally obstructed by eucalypt branches. It’s a beautiful city, clinging mostly to the waters of the Derwent estuary, running up the gullies of forested foothills without uniformity. Southern Tasmania is mostly water; the land is largely made up of peninsula and isthmus, in often blonde tints offset against marine tones.
The Derwent is a montigenous river that turns, somewhere, into the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, which later empties into the Southern Ocean. Several other rivers do the same, galloping down from the mountains north and west, riving the land, offering fertility to the valleys, hinting at the country’s wintry history. The surfeit of water before me in turn reminded me of the surplus of mountains at my back: from another secret spot nearby, I might have looked west, where the sky’s vastness would be reduced to a thin band of off-yellow, squashed by iron-coloured cloud.
The mountain silhouettes would be bold in that gloom, black and bleak, and beckoning. For such spectacular geographies often bring out the more audacious aspects in us.
Septembers always make me reminisce. It is from September that I take my measurements. Perhaps you’ll recognise the sort of things: who was I then, who am I now? In which ways am I diminished and what within me has grown? What matters to me today that wasn’t significant then? What metamorphosis is taking place today?
Then I was wondering what I would do with my spring and summer. I was curious about where to live, how to earn my money. Such scrutiny is one part of life. But sometimes it is overcome by spontaneity, like a swift change of weather. That evening, when light turned so grey I couldn’t read any longer, I climbed up into the loft of the mountain hut, stretched out on the bunk, and listened to the eucalypts bend and reach in a southerly – as if they ached, they yearned.
But then there was the snow, the quiet white flurry of possum-ideas. I took a deep breath and made a decision on the spot. When I woke, I broke the fresh white clumps all over the heath. A decision had been made.
That was a year ago though, and the decisions of that season are due to be revised.
I ran into a Tasmanian mate in Transylvania. We marched around under the mountains waiting for the weather to clear, and then wandered up to the ridgeline for a few days. When we came back down we got drunk and sat in a hostel kitchen ranting and raving about the honey of R. Stephens of Mole Creek. I feel like I may have done an impersonation of the legendary bushman Bert Nichols.
My mate Jill is from Western Creek, underneath the Great Western Tiers. She’s from a farming family and like myself, she works as a bushwalking guide. I have no doubt that any other backpackers listening to the anecdotes of Jill’s life would have found it fascinating, even if they had to filter out the inebriated hubris of her travelling companion.
I have spent the last two months away from Tassie; as always, being elsewhere makes me think of home more often, perhaps more clearly, certainly more critically. In Transylvania there are rich cultural expressions at the surface of everyday life – in tripe soup, the română language, gypsy music, and so on. Naturally, I wonder what lies beneath the surface. And I wonder what we Tasmanians display of our lives back home, what a traveller notices, what we obscure from them – what we don’t even recognise in ourselves.
Because I think there’s plenty. I rarely hear people speak of ‘Tasmanian culture’. But perhaps that’s changing; perhaps Tasmanians are starting to realise that we are doing something different down home, and, quite apart from the attitude that I grew up alongside, we’re beginning to recognise it’s something we might enjoy.
It’s not just Dark Mofo and blunnies (although I’m very fond of the winter solstice skinny dip, and I recently explained to a woman in Budapest that she was wearing ‘traditional Tasmanian boots’). It’s our bushwalking and woodwork practices; it’s wallaby meat and rhubarb jam; it’s an arvo at the footy or at a protest to look after the bush. There’s much that we draw from the old ways, from migrant customs (including those of our convict forebears), and most of all, the Tasmanian climate and landscape.
Tasmania was truly one of the most unique places on Earth before colonists came. For 40,000 years a human population developed a way of being in this remote, southerly, curious location; a quarter of that time was spent in complete isolation. Much of this is lost, but not all. I am convinced that the more we are able to listen to today’s Aboriginal community, the more we will sense our own uniqueness, and love our island all the more.
The land itself gives us much of our culture. I have been yarning with Jill about the foibles of our workplace (a theme to which bushwalking guides return again and again), as well as discussing our own journeys up Mother Cummings or to Frenchmans Cap or into the Walls of Jerusalem. We are lucky: we have been granted opportunities to get to know the moods of the mountains, the feel and smell of our rocks and trees and rivers, more than most.
We also discuss farming (a topic about which Jill knows plenty), the arts (a topic that baffles me even as I try to exist as a writer and performer), and food (which we both love). In Tasmania, all of these have a unique bent. Although we might beat our chests and boast about them in hostel common rooms, there is also plenty – in these three topics as well as all others – about which we might be concerned.
Jill and I part ways on a drizzly afternoon beneath another citadel, another castle. She travels west, I go east. The shared delirium of being Tasmanian will be put on hold for now. But I have no doubt how much my being born amongst the blackwoods of the Tamar River has shaped me. Tassie is not the entirely remote island that it once was, but I believe I still grew up in special conditions.
Have you ever seen black-hearted sassafras? Sometimes the timber of this rainforest tree is infected with a fungus that stains the wood with beautiful streaks of black and brown. The way I move, talk, eat, dance, dress, think and write: like this, I am marked with streaks of culture.
Speaking of sassafras: the flowers of the sassafras tree are one of my favourite landscape markers.
It was such a bad night’s sleep that it was unrealistic, a cartoon version of a bad night’s sleep. There was heat, mosquitoes, and every kind of noise: traffic, laughter, techno music. I smothered myself with a pillow to muffle the sounds, mummified myself in the bedsheets to discourage the mozzies. I tossed and turned for hours, trying to assume a position in which sleep might grip me. But it didn’t come for many hours.
Often as I fall asleep I will enter into a narrative, one of several ready-made daydreams that usually succeed in drawing me into the depths of rest. The morning after this recent oppressive night, I explained this to a companion at an alfresco lunch table. As she asked for more information on these thought-narratives, I realised that they were each fairly childish, and I was far too embarrassed to describe them in any detail. All I would admit is that were well-worn, smoothed – that I had carried them with me for many years. They are journeys, adventures, and accomplishments that are borne from a younger self.
It is not only at night. They sometimes come upon when I’m hiking, particularly on long routes where even terrain allows for the body to move without too much attention to every footstep. Whilst walking, in fact, I further embellish the fictions, improvise on their outcomes. I have never thought this through either.
Of course, having revisited them so often, so unconsciously, over the years, they are now very deeply a part of myself. They tell much about me, and so I will not tell about them. But today I must accept that many of the disappointments I have relate to failing to meet the expectations set by these self-fictions that swirl about my brain at night.
My restless night was in a rented room in a country that is not my own. Another season of my life in Tasmania is concluded, and I have wandered off elsewhere, a pattern I have now followed for some years. I make the effort to mark the passage of time. It allows me to savour again any particularly sweet memories from the summer past, to let any dismay sink deeply into me, and to accept where luck and choice have taken me.
The first time I left Tasmania for so many months – some years ago now – I found myself shambling about wintry European streets, wind-bitten and lonely. There I made a new daydream, a daydream of home, and for the first time felt myself as a person made by my island. As each day drew me nearer to Tasmania, I knew I belonged to this scene: a black brook, fringed with ferns growing from dark earth, a spindly pepperberry clinging to its banks, its spicy leaves shining.
I have five nights in this rented room; this is the longest I have stayed in the same place for nearly a year. When I flew out of Launceston a week ago, I left it with some regret, discontent, and resentment. Here, the other night, I had a restless night’s sleep; for nine months I had a rather restless life. I chose that: although as the season passed, the choice seemed less my own, part of a collusion of forces, many of which I have succumbed to but some of which I resist.
I have tried very hard to learn to love in Tasmania. I don’t suppose it has amounted to much, at least when I contrast it with what seizes me in the moments before I sleep. When those night-thoughts fail me, new ideas appear, rattling on in errant trajectories – not soothing narratives, but splintered fragments of thought that I must learn to put together.
I suppose I leave home in order to revisit my daydreams, to return to the narratives I have let make me, to the dark thoughts put in my head by a lifetime on an island, half-wild, saddened, shadowed, and storied. Sleepless nights are little cost for this chance to imagine things anew.
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.
At 216 metres it’s not the most impressive of mountains, but wukalina / Mount William affords a fine view of the north-eastern tip of Tasmania, and the islands of Bass Strait beyond it. “Them islands are very special to us,” Ben said as we crouched on a rounded lump of granite for lunch. Later – a little further south along the coast, yet with the islands still faintly blue on the horizon – he would tell me how his grandparents met there.
I was working on the wukalina walk, an eco-tourism project run by the Aboriginal Land Council in that far corner of the island. They have built a most impressive shack on Cod Bay: called krakani lumi, ‘resting place’, the buildings’ design absorbs the features of the landscapes and Aboriginal architectural history in a stunning way.
Mount William National Park was inscribed in the 1980s to look after the coastal heath ecosystems
and preserve the last stronghold for the forester kangaroo (Macropus giganteus) – while we have in Tasmania a lot of smaller macropods, like wallabies and pademelons, there are very few kangaroos. This is dry country, as thirsty for fire as it is rain. Along the gravel roads, bracken wears brown dust. Acacias, black peppermints, banksias and xanthorrhoeas stand out above the low shrubs. The beaches, meanwhile, glisten; the sea heaves itself onto the shore in dull crashes.
As Ben finished explaining his people’s heritage on the Bass Strait islands, I added some geological insight: the islands were formed by an event known as the Tabberabberan Orogeny, which involved an intrusion of igneous rock which stretches from what is now Wilsons Promontory in Victoria, through to the Hippolyte Rocks off the coast of the Tasman Peninsula.
Those islands were mountains when the first Tasmanians crossed Bass Strait; then, the strait was in fact a stretch of lowland plains, before the end of the last Ice Age flooded it and rendered them islanders. It was the longest isolation of any human culture in history: the cutting-off of that granite chain meant that the Tasmanians had 10,000 years to develop a completely unique way of being. Those were the ancestors of today’s palawa, three of whom were my colleagues for that weekend at wukulina and larapuna. They are also the descendants of white seafarers, who were part of wreaking the complex of rapid changes that mutilated so much of what the Tasmanian cultures would have been.
Much is lost, but contrary to what we may have been taught, not all. The purpose of the wukalina walk is to ensure that palawa culture is lived and shared. In many cases, it is a matter of relearning, and perhaps the most exciting facet of the trip was making three new palawa friends, each of whom is rediscovering what it means to be Aboriginal, in their own idiosyncratic ways.
And in my own idiosyncratic way, I am trying to work out how to be a Tasmanian without having any known Aboriginal heritage. I listened intently, then, to an elder telling a story from the old people, about the creation of first palawa man – how the spirits formed him, and, in the elder’s words, ensured that he “could enjoy the earth”. It had a poetic insight into human interactions with the Tasmanian landscape that I find very valuable. But I’m also reluctant to borrow the poetry from a people with a voice to which we listen too poorly, knowing that this can carry the same vibes as colonialism.
Yet my identity is tangled up with the landscapes of the island, and there is no understanding the bush here without understanding the 40,000 years of human history within it. I have read much of the ethnographic material on the Aboriginal Tasmanians – that is, the stuff that whitefellas wrote. We know it is flawed, but many times, these same sources are being used by the palawa community to reconstruct their identity.
It was a real treat, then, to work alongside three palawa who are learning the same craft as me. To sit on the edge of a shell midden, to watch Ben put his thumb into the worn groove of a stone cutting tool that his old fellas made. To listen to them stumble over the words of their euphonious language, palawa kani, the syllables of which seem to me to take in the rhythm of the land and sea and stars here. And to explore that curious space, of unknowing and relearning, of both our shared heritage and the vast differences in history – a space that swells the imagination, and from which I am sure a great deal of good is coming.
This week I’ll vote in the Tasmanian state election. I’ve missed most of the campaign, which is fine by me, although I occasionally come back from the bush to find placards in the paddocks. Mostly it fills me with dismay. The arena of politics is still something of a muddle, and I have black streaks of cynicism running through me. I suppose I have faith in all too few of the men and women who have put their heads on the brightly-coloured backgrounds in their party’s chosen hues.
Perhaps I was stained with this political melancholy in those early years of adulthood. Like most people I muddled into politics I guess. When I came of voting age, Tasmanian politics was in a fairly disgraceful state. Not for the first time, corruption cast an ugly shadow over everything. For a young man already bewildered by the broader themes of life, the intricacies of politics weren’t appealing.
Nevertheless I blundered into a way of seeing things through my own eyes. For example, when I was nineteen years old, I went to a rally over the proposed Tamar Valley pulp mill. My photographs from that day are now interesting memorials. I ran into a friend whose father I now know is a prominent greenie from the region. Another old mate posed with her middle fingers sticking up; her father was a logger. I didn’t yet understand the animosity that burned beneath every exchange of ideas, and I didn’t really have an opinion myself. But soon enough I would.
Politics wasn’t much discussed in my house: I remember my mother saying she might vote for that same Liberal politician because he had “a nice face”. (In fairness, I suppose I would equally avoid voting for another of his kind because he looks like a reptile.) I think even then she could have said what issues concerned her, but I doubt she’d have been able to attach a political party, and their policies, to those topics.
I don’t remember how I voted when it finally came time for me to enter the cardboard cubicle. The vague ideas that governed my decision back then have certainly mutated. Some have metamorphosed irrevocably, while others simply hardened into sincere beliefs about the world and how we live in it. It is good to keep track of one’s ideas. It’s good to know that we are changing, to figure out how we are doing so, to try and sus out why.
I can now readily imagine how I hope my homeland to be. This election threatens that vision – maybe they all do, but this one stings me particularly. There are ideas about what to do with special places and community spaces that are motivated by the greed of certain individuals and companies. A whole cohort of our candidates are proponents of shepherding through the ill-conceived projects of blustering developers, depriving the rest of us of the opportunity to object to them. They are happy to empty Tasmania of its meaning, as long as a few of them make a buck.
Nowadays I know that the inverse of my dreams is possible too. My hopes may yet be turned inside-out, and I could be left on an island that has left me behind. How often do I look at those in power and wonder: why do they hate the Tasmania that I love so much?
The arena of politics is still something of a muddle, and I have black streaks of cynicism running through me. But still I stubbornly hope to shape the ideas we have about this place, and I will vote for those whom I think will encourage my freedom to enjoy being Tasmanian.
I have occasionally wondered what my grandparents made of the environmental campaigns over Lake Pedder and the Franklin River. If they supported the construction of the hydroelectric infrastructure that would deform those tracts of country, they were almost certainly off the mark. A party putting forward a policy is suggesting that if we take a certain direction for our future, it will primarily bring us beneficial outcomes. They may be right, or they may be wrong. Policies change our freedoms, the possibilities with which we interact with the world around us. Decisions made at election times are not futile. They can be the difference between feeling at home, or becoming an exile in your own homeland.
Summer weather comes and I strip the walls from around me. Beginning with a blush of pink on blocks of dolerite, sunshine spans across the broad skies above, throughout all the broad hours. The creeks run weary and dry. The day disappears, colour disintegrating so gradually I barely notice, and then the old stars blink and whistle silently over the whole array of country, my office, my backyard.
I’m out on familiar tracks, mostly working as a guide. The labour works its way into the sinews of my legs. They feel hard and taut and strong. My mind falters, though, from paying attention to the people around me. I need hours in front of fires or falls. A rill of water will do: I take an afternoon off, stomp off track upon a crispy carpet of parched moss, and find a forest there upon the stones of a riverbed. There I discover a few enormously fat conifers. They’re the biggest pencil pines I’ve ever seen; they honestly may have sprouted when Christ first squawked to life in Palestine.
Between my six-day stints on the Overland Track for work, I take excursions into the same high country, and make the effort to notice everything I can. Every subtlety in the every scene works over my mind, muscling into my memory. The distant mountains are a nostalgic blue. The late light creates pyramid shadows of the trees. A crown of pale gold sits on the westerly summits at sunset. I have been here before.
There are red tones in the landscape – the seed pods of a shrub called mountain rocket, and the odd leaf of a eucalypt or tea-tree. I watch a native rosella for a while. At first he chirps as incessantly as a chihuahua barks, but when I stop and watch, it eases off. His eye-mask is a brilliant red; his belly is the yellow of dried-out sphagnum.
I have absorbed the whole palette. There are is an iridescence within me that corresponds to the colours of these places.
Back to work. The fifth afternoon: I race up and over DuCane Gap, bootsoles finding their places between the boulders. There are cream curls on the lomatia bushes. The deciduous beech has ripe green leaves: I know they’ll soon be orange-yellow, and then the branches will be bare, and another season will be snuffed out, flickering out like the flame of a metho stove.
These leatherwood flowers begin to throw themselves on the black tracks. I am sentimental about this too. It all reminds me of something. On day six, I am heading south. I admit that I can feel the tentacles of telephone reception as I head to the Narcissus River and out of the reserve, ever-strengthening rays of faint connection to the rest of the planet.
Those who aren’t used to remoteness call everything else ‘the real world’. We’re going back to the real world, they say, on repeat. I think that’s lazy talk. Dombrovskis famously said: “When you go out there you don't get away from it all, you get back to it all. You come home to what's important. You come home to yourself.”
But can’t it all be the real world? Isn’t this all the one life – my life? Yes, eventually the track runs into a road and I’m no longer exclusively on foot. I take a boat across the lake, then I take a bus. I drink a beer in a pub. All the rhythms change. Later, I turn on my telephone, and there is a text message that makes me happy. I read a book about another country. The ache in my muscles goes away. Summer’s finale now reaches out towards me, the tentacles of the future.
Those leatherwood flowers fade into the heavy soil. But the leatherwood’s whole year is in those flowers; and the growth of those flowers is just a crucial point in the tree’s annual cycle.
At the time I was quite sure it was the most beautiful place I had ever been. Most of us were housemates, and we'd left our Launceston rental home on a January morning to go and set ourselves up at a scrubby, sandy retreat for a few days. To get to the beach we had to walk less than one minute, upon a soft pad through flowering pigface. We were at the coast.
When we first arrived there was a reddish tinge to the shore. It was like algae, only it disappeared as we approached it. It was a plethora of soldier crabs, an absolute throng of them, corkscrewing away into the sand as we came towards them. We watched them closely, then caught them in our hands, and finally, after being out in the open sun for so long, we parted this red sea of crabs and dove into the blue sea of Great Oyster Bay.
I also declared it the finest swim of my life. We threw a tennis ball, rough-housed each other and dived into wads of seaweed to catch it. The water was an electric blue, a blue I usually only find in my dreams. Something slashed my foot; the blood was bright red, another dream-like colour; the scar remains. In the evening I remember laughing into the closing sky. I remember the sun full on the horizon, the tide out. Someone was reading Thoreau by the fire. For dinner, sausages. Then hot chocolates. Stars multiplied into the southern constellations. We were full of sticky sugar, and well-rested, and somehow felt watched over.
I remember saying: "I think I'm learning to see emptiness as space."
In my dreams I saw swarms of crabs covering everything with hard scales of red, beaches and mountains and planets, rheumy images in my tired mind. When we awoke the tide was up and they were gone. We yanked up cockles for breakfast. Pelicans lounged on the sandbar. An adjacent range of mountains loomed silvery in the early light. A gannet went plummeting madly into the sea to catch its own brekky.
Somehow in my memory it seems like the first time I'd ever looked into a rockpool and seen the vibrant colours of limpets and sea-snails and seaweed, the tiny glossy mussels and sea slugs, the wraisse or yellow-tail or whatever that fish was that I saw, I realised, simply by waiting, adjusting my focus, honing my attention. "It is a slow process, this learning to be patient," I wrote in my journal after that trip, "but I am being patient with it. I am going to see."
This wasn't my first fish, my first rockpool, my first swim, or my first beach. But there hadn't been many. To go to the coast - and it is always 'the coast', by which we mean the east coast, although there a thousand different spots you might go: we were at Dolphin Sands, on a shack block that my housemate's parents were about to sell - is a typical rite of passage for any young Tasmanian. But there were a number of rites of passage that I missed somehow.
For a long time I had a very small world. We didn't go on family holidays much. There was a patch of bush behind our house, and I am not being fatuous when I say that this was truly enough. Even this I don't think I knew very well - I had no names for anything in it except 'gum tree' - but I understood myself in that landscape at least. I learned my body, if nothing else: a thousand lacerations on a prickly currant bush will do that to you. Breaking off the branches of a black peppermint, running down a steep slope of she-oak needles because you think a ghost's chasing you: that's an education.
These days the shadows on my maps are being peeled back. There are still a fair few roads left for me to go down in Tasmania, but probably more that I've visited. I look back on the notes from those days, the tatty journal I kept for that summer: we tore a tree down in the backyard that January, and I remarked on its pink, minty smell. In a grumpy mood I went erratically off into the bush, not very far, but into the realm of "wallabies and tangled plants", into "a damp, mossy part of the world". I watched some ants assault a caterpillar at Lilydale Falls; they shoved it right off a wooden handrail into the creek. On my balcony there was "a beautiful possum", nervously tightroping the powerline towards me. Were these my first nights under the stars?
This was about a decade ago now and I do not often recognise myself in those old notebooks. I sleep so often under the stars, and see so many beautiful possums, that some of the events of those younger years strike me as utterly bizarre. What makes more sense is that exactly at the time of this trip to Dolphin Sands, I started reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by the American nature writer Annie Dillard. In it she was coaxing me "to explore the neighbourhood, view the landscape, to discover where it is that we have been so startlingly set down, if we can't learn why."
Why - I had spent a lot of time, dwelling in a moody adolescent way, on why. At some point around that trip to the coast, I began to explore the neighbourhood instead, and found that I very much liked where I so inexplicably was.
Later I would find things like this dead porcupine fish, prompting me to write of convict artist William Gould.
A couple of summers ago I went to the carols concert at Sidmouth, here on the lawns outside the ‘auld kirk’, a restored building that the locals are rightfully proud of. I’d gone with my housemate at the time, who was playing trombone for the occasion. There I sat solitary amongst the parishioners, murmuring along to a few of the songs. The elderly gentleman in front of me fumbled ahead in his songbook to see what songs were coming up next, like a cheating student; another fellow by my side was in costume. “I don’t know why I’m here, there’s no Roman centurion in the biblical story,” he quipped – then tried the joke again, correcting himself: “...in the nativity story.”
Stars, silence, sleep, and sheep: what fine themes to sing about. These are lovely old narratives. There are a few better yarns than that of the first noel being proclaimed to a cohort of dozing shepherds.
Funny, though, to sing of David’s royal city whilst the shadows were lengthening the paperbarks’ silhouettes along the Tamar River. The quiet placid waters of the Tamar took in the angular light of this end of the hemisphere, a sharp southern summer sunset. Tamar, of course, is a biblical reference, but if we let that river have a name with an older lineage, kanamaluka, then the stories of the Middle East settle awkwardly on this place.
Christmas is full of borrowed stories; many are naturalistic, but none of them are rooted in Tasmania. The birth of Christ is a kind of epic that has a broad human appeal, of course, but as the years pass I yearn for motifs that make sense in my surrounds, and connect me to the seasons. I want stories that make me consider country, and how I might care for it. What am I supposed to do with reindeer in the snow, or the King of Bohemia? What has Jerusalem to do with Hobart? What is a Roman centurion doing in Sidmouth?
So what are the marks of seasonal change at this time of year? An obvious one is the flowering of a certain Correa shrub, which has the common name ‘Christmas bells’. It pops out a nice flower – tubular, yellow and red – at about this time of year, joining the colourful scattering of summer blooms which brighten up our land.
But there’s also the cherry ballart, or native cherry, Exocarpos cupressiformis, which at this time spurts out its edible, slightly sweet, red oval berries amidst the tree’s shaggy light-green leaves. The appearance of this fruit is a happy time, and must have been well cherished by traditional Tasmanians making their summer travels around the island. It ought to be considered as delicious my grandmother’s cloying creamy desserts, which normally sit poorly on a stomach full with potato and beer, in the thirty-degree heat that is common for our Christmas afternoons (although I’m yet to turn them down).
The snow, of course, is a usually irrelevant Yuletide reference here. But in the mountains it might snow anyway. I recall taking German honeymooners for a hike one December; presuming summer weather, they’d not wanted to bring a beanie or gloves. We had a minor blizzard over the Cradle Mountain plateau. In the evening we made Glühwein in the hut, as if it was a Christmas market. So nowadays I can live with the occasional reference to snow at Christmastime.
Only once have I spent a Christmas abroad. I was in Maharashtra, India; I passed the day, I think, at a Catholic orphanage. Children danced, and sang on a stage, through loudspeakers that screeched in protest at frequent intervals. Santa Claus strode through the dusty yard, sweating his suit of red felt. The season’s greeting was strung up for the occasion. It read, “Happy Birthday Jesus, We Love You.”
So ideas flow between all lands now. The symbols are confusing, but most people don’t seem to mind. Perhaps I needn’t overthink it. Living at this latitude offers many gifts, and the long hours of twilight are not the least of these. I suspect I will enjoy a beer with old friends, with the maddest of my family members. This, now, is the tradition of these dates. At other times of the year, in the spirit of the age, I’ll make my own festivals that fit my private intentions to live well in the landscape: a pilgrimage to that old pencil pine on the Plateau, an annual expedition looking for a certain liverwort, the first swim of spring, an occasion of departure, a return.
And if at Christmas I find myself feeling like a centurion in the wrong time and place – in the wrong narrative altogether – I won’t be too put out. I will embrace the germ of the Christmas idea. In the words of Albert Camus (and to borrow from him is of course another incongruity), “All great ideas have ridiculous beginnings.”
The jarring symbols of cultural clash were even more obvious come Christmas Day, 1831, on the Ouse River.
When Peter Conrad was twenty years old, in 1986, he put his belongings in a burning incinerator in the backyard of his family home in the northern suburbs of Hobart. He had a Rhodes scholarship, and went off to Oxford. To all appearances he had grown out of the mould cast for him, against his will, by the island of his birth.
Conrad became a noted scholar. He didn't return to Tasmania for a decade. In 1987, he had Down Home published, a memoir of his later Tasmanian experiences. After a childhood in which he barely left Hobart's north, Conrad travelled widely around the island: to Queenstown, to Melaleuca, to Wineglass Bay, to Tiagarra, to the Pedder dam.
The book is not widely cherished here, mostly because the author refuses to bang on about how uniquely beautiful it is and we are. That is essentially what we want to read more than any real critique; we dearly crave outside acceptance. But frankly, Conrad didn't love Tasmania, although a creeping appreciation for his island of origin appears throughout the book.
Like any memoir, though, the book is more about Conrad than it is about its purported subject.
Re-reading Down Home recently, I began worrying that my work is uncomfortably analogous to that book, which precedes my writing by three decades. Like Conrad, I am writing a travel memoir about my own island. There are some differences, of course. I still live in Tasmania, for example, and I am at times rapturous about how thoroughly I love walking and working here. I also know the island more intimately than Conrad ever did (I admit that I relish finding those handful of mistakes in Down Home). But there is a similarity in form, in themes. It is a conundrum, or perhaps it is merely interesting.
I have chosen to live without a home for the summer. When asked, I explain that is a matter of practicality - I work away often, renting a room would be a waste of money - but implicit in the decision is the effort I am making to expand my home territory to the entire island. Home is here thanks to my childhood, and over the past years many aspects of Tasmania have become very familiar to me (dolerite, myrtle, wedge-tailed eagles), but I still feel like a foreigner in certain corners, certain conditions. I am only now starting to learn the winds and swells of the east coast. I must better understand kelp, abalone, orchids, chert. There is a fairly unattractive beach in the north-west, with an astounding geological diversity that I am can barely begin to pull apart.
It's a dangerous decision though. Whenever I finish up with one or another season of my life, I wonder if it's time to settle down, to roam less, to cultivate a patch for myself. I now see that I am getting further from that ideal. It seems that I will never own land. I came to an intersection of my life: whether to be less or more of a dirtbag, in the parlance of my bushwalking colleagues. I am more of a dirtbag than ever. I have a pile of books and a 1992 Ford Laser to my name.
That car recently broke down. It's fixed again, but now, more recently, my laptop has carked it. It suddenly blacked out and went quiet, never to make its breathy hum again. Someone is currently trying to pry the data out of its now-useless case. But I may have lost much work.
It has so happened that most of my identity has been derived from growing up here. That's what Peter Conrad was writing about too. I have perhaps accepted that more readily, and devoted myself to the task of understanding what it means to be Tasmanian: to live amongst these materials, in this climate. I am a state of constant travel - by vehicle and by foot - roaming around trying to sus out what it is that I belong to. But the thought has lately struck me: what if it doesn't turn out? What if being post-modern, middle-class, and non-Aboriginal are conditions that preclude me from truly connecting to country?
Peter Conrad wrote of being afraid when he was alone in Tasmania. For me, it's what I like best. The other night I was driving on the highway as a sunset sent all sorts of colours sprawling over the Western Tiers and Ben Lomond. I don't need to share that with a mob; it seems enough to share it with the land, with its ecosystems, with history. While Tasmania - as a concept - becomes popular in a way that poor Peter Conrad could never have guessed, I am more inclined to find areas that haven't yet been touched by branding or signage. I recognise that I am pushing myself out further into a sea of solitude. As the years progress, I suspect that this will become an estrangement, from which it will be harder to return.
I also think I will find it worthwhile, so long as the land doesn't turn against me. But it might. Recently I returned to a spot, a pile of rocks at the end of an east coast beach, where I once discussed how I might retreat from the world, distant, if it all got too ugly. The problem is that Tasmania is not in fact remote enough to be immune from the intense changes to the natural order of the world. Just out from those same rocks, oceanic surface temperatures have risen dramatically. What if, just as I started to feel like I had gotten in step with the swirling vortices of our ecosystems, they spun out of control?
Some weeks back I drove down to the Tasman Peninsula to catch up with my mate Old Dog. He’s working on the new track to Cape Raoul; that evening, he and I would sit on the dolerite tip of that cape, each with a longneck of Cascade stout, as the sun’s descent behind us pushed a bluff-shaped shadow onto the sea beneath.
But before that I strolled to Shipstern Bluff, to have lunch on a warm rock. The pigface was just starting to flower. A dead possum lay prostrate on the steps that have been recently fashioned, as if she had taken a big tumble on its way down to the shore. With reverence I stepped over her. Lunch was flatbread and babaghanoush.
This is a well-known surf spot, where blustery southerlies and a powerful swell bring the sullen ocean to smooth shapes of rideable waves. More comfortable travelling over rocks and roots, I feel like a foreigner at the ocean’s edge, but I marvel at the forms and texture, and I love the changing colours in the heart of the swell.
Most of all I hope to intuit the special life-giving meanings of the coast. Seeing bull kelp flail in the surf’s frenzy, I remember that this is one of the most significant species in the island’s ecosystems. Some of the finest Tasmanian crafts have been made of this stuff for millennia. Its value is ongoing, both practically and symbolically.
The ocean is not my realm. But another good mate, Danny Dick, will happily lay out on a fibreglass plank and turn himself to flotsam on the waves. Sometimes I’ve followed him out to the beach and sat in the back of his car, reading and writing, while he clads himself in a few millimetres of neoprene and plunges in.
This year, in fact, I followed him to Bali. Stationed there on that island for work, he spent his weekends by the famous waves of Uluwatu. Danny was writing a series of reflections for an online surf journal, exploring the introspective nature of surfing and of travel, about “the creeping sense of lost time” that backdrops island lives. I'd like to see what he'd have to write about, if he went to sit at Shipstern Bluff with a cheap lunch.
As for Old Dog, he and I met playing footy. We have since discovered a complicated network of other commonalities. He’s also a writer, a fine one, who is able to draw together his diverse interests and speak clearly on them - particularly when it comes to Aussie Rules football. I had read his observations long before I met him in person. They have much the same tone as Danny's writings, and the subject matter may only be different on the surface.
Old Dog and I had a beer and a yarn on Cape Raoul, then, we walked back to the carpark in the dark. He jumped in my car and we drove back to his place on an empty winding road, flushing out rabbits with the headlights on high beam. There was his partner Elena. She was from Venezuela, and her pregnant belly was like a full moon, containing a constellation of possibilities.
It turns out that Old Dog and Elena met through a publican in north-east Tassie, who is also the same man that once owned my car. He’d then sold it to Danny, who pretty much gave it to me. Invisible threads continue to run between these friends of mine, and even the old pile of carparts that I drive is burdened with our stories.
Let me introduce another mate: Johnny, whom I met in Iceland two years back. He was coming to Tassie with the worst possible timing – he arrived to the airport just as I was about to board an outward-bound flight. But at least I could lend my car to him and his girlfriend Sierra, and let them enjoy the Tasmanian landscape.
I'm sure they were grateful, until the starter motor shat itself at the Shipstern Bluff carpark.
In a flurry of phone calls and text messages from elsewhere in Australia, I managed to get Johnny and Sierra and Old Dog to meet each other at a pub on the Tasman Peninsula. From all reports they got along very well indeed. I believe a bottle of bourbon may have been involved. Johnny and Sierra managed to hitch-hike off the peninsula to meet me later in the week, but the car has been left behind. With Old Dog’s help I’ve at least managed to get it to a mechanic.
Maybe you have struggled to follow this unwieldy narrative. I have tried to simplify it all, but it’s even more complex than I’ve allowed here, and the plot is distractingly messy. But you don’t need to keep up with who’s who or how they’re all connected here. The point is that in the far-off south-east of Tasmania, where the land breaks off into the ocean, myriad threads of my life have come together, patterns repeat themselves and subtle affinities are revealed.
I am getting to know the Tasman Peninsula better and better, although it’s country that still holds its secrets. At every sunset, the tall cliffs of Cape Raoul throw a shadow over the sea. Bull kelp, with fierce tenacity, holds onto boulders as it’s battered into the surf. Old Dog and Elena have had a daughter: they have called her Cielo, a Spanish word meaning both ‘sky’ and ‘heaven’.
My car is now at a mechanic’s on the Peninsula. Perhaps I’ll be on the bus to Nubeena today, or perhaps I won’t be able to pick it up for some weeks. Given that I live out of my car, you might think I’d be a bit anxious to retrieve it quickly, but I won’t be too stressed if it doesn’t work out yet. Never mind. The ocean is not my realm, but some days, the land of Tasmania that it contains feels entirely like home – the whole lot of it. And the preponderance of mates here are my kin.
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. It remains a meeting place.
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.
This is the sassafras tree in flower. A native to wet forests in south-east Australia, especially in Tasmania, this sassafras is in no way related to the homonymous trees in North America.
(How many times in writing a natural history have I had to explain this! The northern hemisphere exiles, invaders, and migrants of the late 1700s and 1800s were so desperate to make sense of this antipodean foreignness that the first English names they received were those of trees from elsewhere, of which they were very roughly an equivalent. Our sassafras, for those keeping track, has the Latin binomial of Atherosperma moschatum – and to clear up these confusions is why the botanical names exist.)
These are my favourite flowers. They bring me a great deal of pleasure, both for their aesthetics and for what they offer my imagination. Generally speaking, it is more common to find the flowers on the ground, fallen; as they exist in the rainforest, often the flowers are at the top of the tree, receiving daylight. Sometimes you are lucky and find one in bud or in blossom, usually in a clearing, such as where a landslip has occurred. But to be honest, I’m just as happy seeing them star the dark forest floor.
White forest flowers mean a lot to me. In particular, I attribute great significance to three different species that give white flowers in the high country at different times of the year. September’s sassafras signals the incipient end of winter; in early summer, especially around the longest day of the year, smoky tea-tree flowers fill the landscape with grey-white clouds; leatherwood flowers are a sign of the end of summer, and despite their beauty and their exquisite aroma, their arrival around February or March brings me great sadness.
I feel lucky to be here for the sassafras bloom. I live my life in seasons, and it’s never quite clear what the next season will bring. I spent most of the winter away this year, but managed to get home in time for the seasonal change. You will hear Tasmanians whinge about the weather, but I can’t say a bad word against it.
The snows have fallen hard and low on the multitude of mountain ranges; I have been fortunate to crunch across the Cradle Plateau and the Western Tiers and Mount Wellington, to see the peaks of the Hartz Mountains and the massifs of Ben Lomond and Black Bluff bold and white on the horizon. I have woken to frost on my tent; my boots have frozen stiff; I have sheltered in mountain cottages and highland huts while rain comes pattering down.
Then again, as I noted with a mate at a wake the other day, winters can be long and Septembers seem to often bring tragedy. Sometimes the colourless days, the bitter cold of solitude, the shrunken hours of daylight are hard to bear.
Soon enough it will all be gone. Snow can fall in the mountains of Tasmania at any time of year, but the seasons are so distinctly different. Sassafras flowers will seem like a dream. Long sunsets will stretch out, filling the olive buttongrass tussocks with the blackest of shadows. Lakes will beckon swimmers’ bodies.
Everything is different as the seasons change. As I washed the dishes this morning, I watched fairy-wrens flirting. Elsewhere boobyalla brightens the coasts. Grey baby swans dot the estuary’s waters.
Yes, it’s cold again today, but the season is not defined by the temperature. The silver wattles were early this year; the blackwoods have their bommyknocker buds exposed too. I walk down to the creek and sassafras flowers are strewn everywhere, amidst the moss, beneath manfern fronds. Have hope: it is spring.
I grew up on a five-acre block in Beaconsfield, a parcel of inherited land that was inconveniently lumpy and swampy, but gave us plenty of space. There, my brother and I first began to take our lanky shapes. I have lately wondered if our bodies didn’t grow rangy to accommodate the landscape.
Dad was always going introduce his two sons to Aussie Rules, but that version of footy was the ideal game for our paddocks. Even when we moved to a house on the edge of suburbia, the first thing we did was test out the backyard for our one-on-one matches. It had a 45-degree slope; it was nevertheless perfectly adequate.
We played for the South Launceston Bulldogs. The ovals were suddenly flat and green, although given that we the opening bounce for our games occurred at 8:15a.m. on Sunday mornings, they were frequently silver with frost. And in fact, since it was winter, they were often brown with mud too.
Bright red was another important colour – have you ever had your little schnozz hit with a leather ball when the temperature’s zero degrees celsius? I had countless blood noses.
At one point during my teenage years I started to push footy away. It was at that stage of life when a young man starts pushing all sorts of things away. Footy came back to me, though, and now, when adulthood and its associated behaviour is supposed to have me in its vice-like grip, I am entirely enamoured with the game. I like the ball’s thud, its wobble and its spin, the way it bounces as if by its own volition. I like my body’s arrangements, the poise of my muscles, the silent measurement of my eye and its communication through the brain to my bent leg.
Anyone who has met me in the last year will know I played on a gravel oval in western Tasmania last year. I’ll have shown them the scars. Perhaps I prefer the odd surfaces. As a child I imagined a large-scale sport like footy that took place in eucalypt forest, in which players had to adapt to the landscape as much as competitors.
Some have argued that Aussie Rules was invented after whitefellas observed an Aboriginal sport of this kind. It’s a theory I tend to believe.
This sport occupies space. It favours the flexible, and the foreseers. It is a game for totems, won by devotion to the invisible.
That’s what I’ve taken from growing up with it anyway. I kicked the ball as high and hard as I could, and I saw the blossoming wattles shake, and my body felt as if it had full to the brim with magic. On some days, bushwalking gives me the exact same sense.
I spent most of this winter away but came home the other week and went to watch my cousin play a finals match at Invermay Park. It was twilight, and the colours on Ravenswood Hill were resplendent. They deepened into dark blue and finally winter’s night black. The ritual football was heaved around, and the crowd gasped and cheered and groaned. A bunch of blokes, whose lives normally pass before almost no-one, soared. It was a hard-fought game and the evening grew taut with drama. A player fell before us with a sickening knee injury. At my side, my auntie’s mood fluctuated severely. The boundary umpire fell to the ground with a strained muscle. With seconds to go, the timekeeper started hamming it up inexplicably. Auntie Karenne cursed him. Finally, he blew the whistle. My cousin’s team had won by five points.
I’m aware that others aren’t, but I am mesmerised by the milky sheen on spinning ball in the silvery afternoon light, by the players’ shadows warping and contorting as they gallop. I am deeply satisfied to see rosellas and galahs streaking in garish colours across the field. Most of all, though, I like to feel myself move, in the midst of a trivial but entirely meaningful activity, beneath the home ground of these southern skies.
And it’s another means of measuring seasons. Spring now looms. An openness beckons, verdant and wide as a football field.
"It was an idea not without its complications." Reflections upon returning home three years ago.
About two years ago, Danny and I returned to Tasmania after some months away. We’d been in different countries, remote from one another, and yet somehow came back to the island within twenty-four hours of one another. Soon enough we went for this bushwalk, to the top of Mount Arthur.
Stomping up through the vivid green of a damp forest, it struck us how ordinary this reunion was – not only our reunion with each other, but with the forms and textures of the Tasmanian bush. “We’ve been and come back too many times,” I said. It was still beautiful, but a certain sentimentality seemed to be gone.
The other day I made the last of six flights in the direction of home. I took a window seat and waited for the plane to descend through reams of thick cloud and fog. When I finally caught sight of home country, I struggled to find any landmark I recognised. The hills were all misted over, and the two-dimensional view of agricultural terrain offered me little obvious.
There was a river, which I correctly guessed was the South Esk. It was lined with paperbarks and bald willows, full as a googy egg, making wetlands of the fields. It led me to the airport.
I was quickly prompted to go for a drive in the countryside. I found myself drawn towards Mount Arthur again, on the backroads in its foothills. The wonky patchwork of farmland, garden, plantation and native forest was all well-known; the marsupial colour scheme of the vegetation as well; so too the rosellas in the branches, and the roadkill on the bitumen, sharp white bones sticking out from opened-up wallaby carcasses.
I have passed more than one-third of this year outside of Tasmania. But wherever I’ve been, I’ve spent much time writing and researching the island. Is that why it doesn’t feel at all strange to suddenly be back in the midst of this endemic existence?
Same as two years ago, I find myself whispering, like an incantation, the Latin binomials of pepperberry, waratah, myrtle beech. Fog hangs at the tops of stringybarks. Baubles of moisture hang from mossy trunks. There’s a white-out over Mount Arthur’s summit.
A few weeks ago I caught up with Danny; once again, he’s also elsewhere. We know our friends mock us. We are openly and desperately enamoured with Tasmania, and yet we have spent more time away from it than almost anyone we know. We are sickeningly sentimental while we are afar, but then, upon return, it is all so normal and natural to be on an island at the bottom of the world, to wake up to the sounds of cantankerous birds, to smell eucalyptus or sassafras on the air.
Yet of course the mystique persists. In 2015, on Mount Arthur, we had been wrapped up in fog for the duration of our bushwalk, when all of a sudden the scene opened up. We could see farmland and coastline, and the cluster of houses we lived in, clinging to the hillsides of a fertile river valley.
Likewise, I find myself in new scenes every day. The modest burrow of a crayfish sits by the Second River. Ben Lomond is lumpy with snow and silver with morning light. I have dropped down beneath the cloud and I can be lost in a landscape which I’ve spent years trying to understand.
The fog has suddenly cleared and the sky has taken the colour of a fairy-wren’s pate, the sun tilted south towards me, the westerlies stilled and restful.
Before too long, Danny will be back as well.
One wends their way up to the Central Plateau, creeping up from the farmlands on a series of hairpins, onto the Highland Lakes Road. A truck plowed this high country highway, its scraping against the tarmac echoing between the mountains of the Great Western Tiers.
Projection Bluff is one of the dolerite summits of this range, a ramp of rock littered with scree. A narrow track sneaks away from the roadside, through wet forest, up to the summit. On a winter’s day like this one, snow hangs from the branches. Myrtles and sassafras trees wear burls of the stuff. In the dolerite’s many clefts, daggers of ice hang. Even fungi wears frozen little crystals.
A walker on this route will get damp boots, damp hair, damp everything. I wore shorts; I always wear shorts. My legs go pink from cold, but my torso is well-covered, waterproofed, and warm enough.
There is snow around, but it is not snowing. It’s a mild day. In the lowlands, the snow is a rumour: hints of its presence come in the chill of the breeze. For the most part, people in Tasmania live at low altitudes, near the coast, and don’t see much snow. Although mountains are omnipresent on this island, and they frequently wear a white garnish. From the major towns, we often see the snow atop Ben Lomond, kunanyi and Black Bluff. They look like wedding cakes.
I did little mountain adventuring in my younger years and I didn’t see much snow. Nowadays I see it often enough. Beneath my boots, it crunches, it squeaks. Sometimes it blows in hard. I find flakes in the stubble of my moustache. Sometimes it accentuates the dark chocolate hues of dolerite, the gallant greens of rainforest. Sometimes it erases the landscape.
It is magic. Snow is magic. Working in Tassie’s high country, I am lucky to see all seasons within the span of a few hours, and summer brings its fair share of snow. It is not always comfortable; it can be dangerous. But snow’s textures and movement contribute much to the whole of Tasmania’s landscape.
Once, on top of a neighbouring mountaintop – Ironstone Mountain – I, hungover, traipsed with heavy steps into soft piles of snow, pulling up handfuls and sucking on them to reduce my dehydration. The tiny footprints of a juvenile Tassie devil tracked off beyond the summit’s cairn. The appearance of such delicate grace embarrassed me.
Winter: the furs of wallabies and wombats grow thick. In the crevices between rocks, water freezes, and pushes the columns of rock apart, forcing the slow inexorable decay of mountains. My mother piles the wood-heater high; golden timber turns to purplish smoke and hovers over the valley of my hometown.
And the bushwalkers are heavy laden. They take all precautions, they pull out the four-season tents and the thickest down sleeping-bags. Hopefully they have a better car than I do for driving on the mountain roads. Wintry conditions require a little more attention, but attention is something we have much to give. It costs us nothing to notice the finery of snow-limned leaves, of droplets on a spider’s architecture of gossamer, of the flat light of winter on a landscape of tarns and stones.
On this particular day, my mate and I got up to the top of Projection Bluff, and the plateau stretched out before us. The westerlies barrelled towards us, thrashed the teflon of our jackets, whipped around my skinny bare legs. Below, the farms were calm and yellow, the rows of blue hills rolled off into the distance; we crouched behind a boulder and it was winter and I was rather content.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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’.
Many years ago, it was proposed to make a certain southern hemisphere island a prison colony for the wayward souls of gin-soaked London. It was an idea not without its complications. Ships would lug the new population over the waters of several oceans, before spilling out those grimy contents on the shores of the strange land. They would share the colony not only with horrible rambunctious birds and creatures with pockets in their bellies, but mobs of natives, who had inhabited the place for not a few years, had adapted a culture completely at-odds with those idealised by the Empire, and were not really satisfied about giving the land up to the visitors.
In short, everyone loathed the new arrangement, save for a few observant folks in London alleyways. But what to do but make a go of it? In the crucible of conflict of every variety, something unique was forged. Half-castes, bushrangers, drunks, piners, explorers, whores, loners, poets and painters, fisherfolk, gardeners, apiarists, brewers and distillers all popped up like mushrooms in black soil. Eclectic and idiosyncratic governments ruled. Much was lost, too much. An eerie peace settled like a gel on the island, limned with absence, heavy with the echoes of 40,000 years of human history. All of it created a new culture, a new topos with new ideas and legends and slang words and ways of falling in love.
I suppose that all happened a while ago, and these days it's easy to imagine it was always this way. But it wasn't. There was once a time when people arrived in Tasmania and didn't like the food, the songs, the romantic options, the scrubby trees, the ominous mountains, or the bloody fucking birds.
There are dangerous waters on every side of the south-dwelling island I am writing about, and for most of the people who came here those many years ago, it was a treacherous journey to something about which they had few nice things to say. What they hated, I couldn't love more. And when I think about certain mornings when I have crossed those waters to return home, and seen the coast rise like the crest of a green-and-tan wave, I am pleased to come to what for me is home.
When my ancestors saw it, their hearts sunk. Mine couldn't be more buoyant.