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 mountains
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.
One of my hobbies is loading an online map and exploring Tasmania. Of course I use the official Land Information Services version; it has a search function, but usually I don’t use it, since I’m often not really looking for anything in particular. I just hack at the island with double-clicks until it “zooms” into a spot that has caught my attention.
I spent a chunk of this year away from here, playing at these maps from afar. I’d hone in on a patch where blue lines went wandering down the greyish lumps that made up a mountain range; these cobalt-coloured incisions, the rivers, would cut across blood-red highways and spurt off somewhere to the south-west, beyond the bottom-left of my computer screen.
The landscape was always marked by an interesting set of radiating contours – a massive crack in the screen. And just when you thought the next road was going to lead to some town with a welcoming pub (let’s go with Queenstown), you’d find yourself following the scarlet asphalt towards an empty bowl that recently contained dinner.
Robert Macfarlane once wrote that “a map can never replicate the ground itself.” You can try and double-click your way nearer to the landmarks on an online map, but you will still be extremely far away from them.
Now I am on the ground itself. In a season of doubt, I cleave to tracks I know well. I follow a familiar route up the mountain. But even still there are surprises – not the least of these being the fact that the track has been ‘rerouted’ in my absence.
I forget the map; I try and forget my doubt. For a while I pretend the path is inevitable. Or timeless. I acquiesce to westerlies, put faith in a world ruled by wind. There is the eagle’s view, and the skink’s view. If a fantail drew a map, it would have to be made of liquid.
I find new maps to unfurl and unfold. “Every hundred feet the world changes,” Roberto Bolaño put it. I click fiercely at Nanda Devi, Sussex, Western Australia, drag the planet about with a clenched index finger. I click futilely at that enormous fantasy of soil and river and rock. With more purpose I go thirty metres up the track and find a new view, something that dislodges crusty old thoughts from my mind.
There is no need to click on the track beneath my feet. The vermilion cupolas of waratah flowers astound the forest. The melancholy little flowers of heartberry bushes droop dismally. Eight roos browse on the moorland. A currawong tells a short tale. A hundred feet away, attaining the plateau, I wrestle with gusts, with the beautiful wind, the spirit of the high country, the dominant vector in the landscape, a spontaneous unmappable force, an invisible cache of surprises.
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.
A couple years back, photographer Pen Tayler and I were approached to choose twelve Tasmanian towns and approach them through our chosen media. This week, Towns of Tasmania: a journey through time will be foisted into the public domain.
I’m yet to physically handle a copy and, naturally, I have had nothing to do with the editing or design of the book. The publishers always do a tidy job of their editions – I’d not have taken on their project if they didn’t – but nevertheless, as the book’s development reaches its conclusion, I have my quiet concerns that I won’t be satisfied with what I have written.
Mostly, I worry that I won’t have done justice to the dozen towns we selected for the title, that the people who belong to them will feel I have missed the point of how they live.
What is most interesting, to me, is that I didn’t have a hometown for almost the entire duration of the genesis of this book on Tassie towns. Much of it was written whilst I was scooting around the island in my ’92 Laser (may the poor old rustbucket rest in peace), or indeed while I was elsewhere in the world. I vividly recall writing about Ross while I was in a Sarajevo café, about Queenstown in an Istanbul apartment, and about Derby on a balcony from which I looked upon a Balinese temple.
It is entirely coincidental that this peripatetic period has concluded concurrently with the release of the book. After two years, I’m renting a room again. My books are piled precariously in the northern-eastern corner of a house in Meander; spinebills and fairy-wrens come tapping on the windows as I type. The other day I was cooking with the kitchen doors wide open and a score of currawongs swept into the trees only a few metres into the yard, and began a five-minute chorus of their cackling call.
Meander isn’t featured in the book; we chose Deloraine as a representative of all the townships of the Great Western Tiers. But even after a few weeks in Meander, I feel I could write a lengthy tome on the town. After all, I have been eavesdropping on a great deal of gossip lately. And either way, it’s a town that is both deeply interconnected and fractious, with a rich and rippling history, and a close proximity to landscape.
Yesterday the Meander Town Hall hosted a community concert, a memorial for a music teacher who died here last year – a young woman who had inspired many in the Meander area. Various locals cobbled together the gig, from performers to impromptu set designers. It was a manifestation of a special community spirit out here, a will to contribute, to cultivate and create a space for people to belong.
Over the years, there are several Tassie towns that I have considered home. One is featured in the book: Beaconsfield, where I spent my first years. There is also Penguin, where those who bore my surname first set themselves up in the 1850s. The edges of Launceston have looked after me too, and I have spent so much time in the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park that it may as well be home. I have no idea how long I will be able to stay in Meander, but I already know that it’s a place to which I will hopefully maintain a sense of belonging over the years.
When I arrived at the hall, Mother Cummings wore a scarf of rain; by the time we finished the bush dance, it was terrifically warm and the mountain was clear. There is nothing more important to Meander, I would dare assume to say, than this mountain peak. If there’s anything I hope to have said in the book that comes out this week, it’s that human communities are indebted to their landscapes, and that any township ought to have a strong relationship with its rocks and shrubs and rivers. If we all had deeper maps of the places where we lived, I’m quite convinced we would have healthier and happier communities.
For whatever reason, several years of frequent movement have developed in me a sense for uncovering the layers beneath a location. A more stationary season, especially in beautiful Meander, can only help me go deeper.
Towns of Tasmania will be launched in Hobart on Wednesday evening, and again in Launceston on Thursday night.
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.
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.
Earlier this year, Andy Szollosi and I found ourselves suddenly spending a few days wandering here, amidst the compact Durmitor mountain ranges in northern Montenegro. We had planned the Balkan rendezvous only a couple of days earlier. Andy had taken a 17-hour bus ride (across several eastern European countries) to meet me.
We scrambled up to several summits in those days. Although it was summer, patches of snow lay prone on the shady sides of limestone slopes. Our victuals included a large package of bacon, and a bottle of rakija. This strong beverage may have inspired a conversation one evening, looking up at the pyramid peak of a mountain known as Zopćy, ‘sharp tooth’: Andy suggested we should wake at 5a.m. to see if we could ascend it.
Of course he did. This is the same bloke who co-ordinated an expedition to Federation Peak in July 2016, convincing a troupe of climbers and film-makers to set up camp for seventeen miserable days before climbing Blade Ridge. As Andy wrote in the weeks leading up to the Blade Ridge mission: “When an idea arrives at the right time, we have no choice but to pursue it, to see where it leads, no matter how terrifying, irrational or ludicrous it may seem.” This is quite a useful insight into Andy Szollosi’s mind.
Blade Ridge seems a geological miracle. This unbelievably narrow slice of quartzite runs up the north-west face of ‘Fedders’, diabolical and dangerous, and yet striking and stunningly beautiful. Federation Peak was described by Edmund Hillary as “Australia’s only real mountain”; as far as we know, it was first summited only a few years before Everest. The first party made it up Blade Ridge in 1968.
But mountaineering history in Tasmania is not widely known (not many Tasmanians even realise that Edmund Hillary visited Tassie, tackling a few bushwalks and praising its landscapes). Not many would even recognise the profile of Federation Peak, or the Eastern Arthur Range, in which it belongs: a series of jagged peaks, myriad ‘sharp teeth’, made of hard and mangled metamorphic rock.
The film Winter on the Blade has been screened twice now, to packed rooms at the State Cinema in North Hobart. It’s excellent. Film-maker Simon Bischoff has struck the right tone, extracting humour from the tedium of being tent-bound for a fortnight. Mud slurps beneath the expeditioners’ boots, and the Vandemonian juxtaposition of harsh conditions and exquisite beauty – found in every change of weather, in the vegetation and in the rock – is unmissable.
Now Winter on the Blade is off to Banff, for one of the world’s great outdoors-themed film festivals.
Andy and I made no film of our early morning ascent of Zopćy. We didn’t even take a photograph. We startled a chamois on the horizon, scrambled up a gully of chossy limestone, perched ourselves on the pinnacle, and breakfasted on a handful of roasted almonds. Then we went back down.
On our way out of the Durmitor mountains that day, we came across a party of walkers with their guide. We were in high spirits, jaunty, and chatty; upon telling the group that we were from Tassie, one of them replied that he’d been to our mountainous island so far from Europe. “Tasmanians are hard,” he said.
Andy and I grinned. So, a reputation. But our European friend had no idea just how hard Tasmanians can sometimes be.
There's more mountain-climbing in the south-west with mates: read all about 'the Abels'.
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.
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.
Tasmania’s west is notoriously difficult. Visitors today will still swoon over the tangle of greenery, the rivers running black and cold, and the tortured quartzite mountains that rise in irrepressible ranges throughout this quadrant of the island.
Two handsome highways sweep towards the west coast: the Murchison from the north, and the Lyell from the south. These roads are wonders, bending and careering, crossing major rivers, combating mountainsides and gorges, and squeezing between stands of those infamous rainforest species with their roots and branches ready to ensnare.
So these days, to go west from Launceston or from Hobart is to drive for a bit over three hours, on well-sealed and well-engineered roads. A traveller can stop in Tullah or Tarraleah for a coffee. They need only wonder, as I can find easily on the webpage of an online travel agency, “Strahan: Is it worth the drive and what to see…?”
She wasn’t always so easy. The west was hard to access for more than a century after the British made their permanent camps here, with journeys by sea the most common way to get there – upon a rough sea, naturally, along hazardous coastline. But there was timber there, and later, mineral colour. There were economic motivations to make access to the western regions easier.
Enter a man named Thomas Bather Moore, born in the village of New Norfolk, west of Hobart, in 1850. Whilst in his 20s, he began investigating mining possibilities in areas around Mount Bischoff, Mount Heemskirk, and the Linda Valley – in short, all the mineral hotspots of Tasmania in the late 1800s. He would explore the South Coast track and blazed the Linda Track, which the Lyell Highway essentially follows today. In fact, many locals were miffed that this highway never bore the name of Moore.
A bushman must be skilled in multiple fields, and to become known as King of the West Coast explorers, you’d probably have to be good at quite a lot. T.B. Moore was different to a lot of other bushmen in that he was educated, and at a British school no less. He observed the effects of glaciation on west coast ranges and obtained fossil samples for further study. He was also a skilled amateur botanist, collecting specimens of mosses, liverworts, ferns and other plants for foremost scientists. Two species are named in his honour: Actinotus moorei and Coprosma moorei.
Tom Moore was hardy. He humped a heavy pack, often for more than 30 kilometres in a day, whilst contending with rough terrain and tough conditions. Regularly he went hungry, and sometimes found himself in dire straits. Once, Moore had to crushed clay and smoke it as a placebo to alleviate his tobacco addiction. Although he travelled with his brother James for a while, he often went alone – although he always travelled with dogs. Three canine companions appear in his biography: Wanderer, Spero, and Spiro. Each of these has a river named after it in western Tasmania.
His relationships with others is harder to assess. To those who worked under him in on government track-cutting expeditions, T.B. Moore was a harsh authoritarian. It is said that his solitary manner adversely affected some members of his family, and, when his bushing days were over, that he resorted to hard drink. Moore kept a diary, in which he “rarely mentioned loneliness”, even when he went months at a time away from others; yet when he did stumble back into towns, such as when he shocked the proprietor of the Picnic Hotel in Huonville after five months in the bush, he was considered good company.
We must spare a thought for his wife, Mary (born Jane Mary Solly: there is a Solly River in the southwest too), for whom months passed without knowing her husband’s whereabouts or fate. In 1901, after having not heard from Tom for nearly six months, she wrote to his supervisor. “I am afraid you will think me a nuisance but I cannot help writing,” she signed off.
He was simply behind schedule. Meanwhile, Mary was in Strahan, hoping he had not perished like so many others in a dark corner of the contiguous forest.
The Moores had chosen to settle at this west coast port, shortly after its first stores and hotels had gone up. Tom would exchange postcards with his children whilst the work in the bush was progressing. “My dear dad How are you getting on in the bush,” wrote school-age son Cliffe, who would later be seriously wounded in the Great War. To his daughters Molly and Grace, Tom sent photographs of a hut and a river, “so you can picture Dad in the bush now that he is leaving all that is dear & delightful.”
T.B. Moore would wind up in Strahan for his final years, working in the mine office at nearby Queenstown. He was laid to rest here by the waters of Macquarie Harbour, as were his wishes. “His reward in money was scanty,” an obituary reads, “but in the deepest sense of life he was eminently successful.”
James Smith was known for his stolid, austere way of life, which in Tasmania was enough to earn him the splendid nickname ‘Philosopher’. “I cannot remember ever hearing him laugh,” his son recalled, “but occasionally he would smile at something amusing or pleasing.”
Spartan and Stoic in style, Philosopher Smith was actually a teetotalling Christian, with a strong faith that matched his sagacious beard. The son of convicts, Smith was an early settler in the lower reaches of the beautiful Forth River in north-western Tasmania, in the middle decades of the 1800s. After a stint on the Victorian gold fields as a younger man, he began prospecting in Tasmania.
This was no insignificant endeavour, as Tasmanians were desperately keen to uncover the colour of mineral wealth. With convict transportation recently halted, the island needed new economic stimuli; colonies elsewhere were gaining riches from gold, and the Tasmanian workforce was depleted by emigration to these fields. A forced amalgamation with the state of Victoria was not out of the question.
Philosopher Smith found small patches of minerals in the north-west, such as rutile, copper, iron and silver. But when he came upon a sample of tin-bearing cassiterite on the slopes of Mount Bischoff in 1871, the Tasmanian economy was to enter a period of optimism for the first time in many years. The following year, the prospecting Philosopher found a massive body of tin ore on the mountain: underground workings would go on to extract more than five million tonnes from Bischoff, and at a time it was the richest tin mine on the planet.
The man himself was hardy and undemanding, but some credit needs to be given to Philosopher Smith’s dog. On a previous venture, Smith had nearly been killed by a dog who, scrambling up the bank of a creek, dislodged a large stone which went “whizzing close past” his head. But the Philosopher continued to take dogs on his prospecting journey, and in 1871, he was with his “sort of Collie-Spaniel”, named Bravo.
It was towards the end of the expedition and Philosopher had run out of almost all of his supplies, when Bravo killed an echidna – provisions enough to keep the prospector out for another day to revisit the potential lode. The last of his tea-leaves went into the billy, and a morsel of bread (half-eaten by a native animal) went with the echidna meat. Philosopher Smith returned to the complex geological structure of Mount Bischoff and confirmed that there was tin in that hill.
“Good many blokes got their pockets well lined at that show,” says one character in a 1920s novel set in the area, as he nods back to Mount Bischoff. And so it was, but one man who did not make much from the mining of Bischoff was Philosopher Smith himself, who parted ways with the Mount Bischoff before the first dividend was paid. You get the feeling it didn’t bother him so much. He was still prospecting in the difficult country of north-western Tasmania a dozen years later.
He would eventually return to Launceston, where he had passed some time in his youth. Launceston was economically buoyant, largely thanks to Mount Bischoff – the wealth from its tin was being gleaned by Tasmania’s northern settlement as it was smelted and exported. Philosopher Smith found fortune of another kind: there, he married a widow named Mary Jane Love - “by all accounts a caring loving wife and quite attractive to boot,” according to folklore. He was approaching fifty years of age at this time.
Philosopher Smith would pass away two decades, and is buried in a cemetery in the township of Forth. Bravo’s fate, and the whereabouts of his remains, are unknown.
There are few more significant names in Tasmania’s landscape photography history than J.W. Beattie and Stephen Spurling III. But these two artists had a different view on an iconic region of Tasmania’s high country at the beginning of the 1900s.
Born at the 57th parallel north, in the “Grey City” of Aberdeen, John Watt Beattie migrated to the Derwent Valley with his parents in his late teen years. Farming didn’t come instinctively to him, but he was drawn to the romantic aspects of Tasmanian landscape – the young Beattie was particularly influenced by landscape painter W.C. Piguenit, whose depictions of this island’s craggy peaks and lake districts, in oils, continues to shape the artistic temperament in Tassie.
Beattie’s photographic excursions took him to many remote regions of the island, including the nascent mine towns of the west coast. A supporter of the mining projects, he was nevertheless an early and outspoken environmentalist – arguing against forestry activities on the Gordon River, for example, recognising its scenic and scientific values.
Also an eager archivist, Beattie’s historical awareness, at the end of the 1800s, was quite a long way advanced; his work was moulded by his political and social opinions. His art was popular, and he was extremely well-liked as an individual.
J.W. Beattie’s journey to the mountainous country around the Cradle Plateau in 1901 left him unimpressed. It may have been the torrid weather his party endured, as they ascended Pelion Plains and headed north; as Beattie wrote in his paper for the Royal Society, day after day brought “furious wind and rain...to be succeeded by heavy snowfalls, and thunder and lightning, making every living and dead thing around in such condition that it was, to say at the least, misery to walk outside the hut...”
Beattie managed to muster up some positive memories of deep conversations, “yarns and songs” in front of the fireplaces of the high country huts – but generally felt that it was “somewhat of lunacy to come into this country in such weather”. His camera was playing up and the weather offered no respite. Few photographs were produced, although one significant romantic image was titled ‘A Peep at Barn Bluff from Lake Windermere’ (the latter landmark portrayed for this article, albeit taken by a lesser photographer).
But Stephen Spurling III, who was the self-described “pioneer photographer” of this area in March 1898, was miffed by Beattie’s deprecation of this landscape. He likely did create “the earliest extensive record of the Cradle Mountain and Western Tiers area,” according to the Companion to Tasmanian History.
A third generation photographer, whose would also include photographic forays around Ben Lomond and the Franklin and Gordon rivers, Spurling believed these landscapes “compare in scenic excellence with any part of Tasmania, and will amply repay the tourist for any hardships he may endure in getting there,” as he wrote in a letter to the Examiner responding to Beattie’s report.
Stephen Spurling III would certainly to this part of the world, taking images of the Western Tiers in heavy snow, and later producing motion pictures of the highlands of the upper Mersey. He photographed the magnificent Hartnett Falls days after it was first witnessed by a white visitor, and named Lake Lilla (near Cradle Mountain) after his sister.
And indeed most would say that Spurling was right in this debate with J.W. Beattie: the country that Beattie shrugged his shoulders over are part of the Overland Track, one of the world’s most famous multi-day bushwalks.
Though they bickered over this area, their work complemented each other, and the two pioneering artists (as Richard Flanagan has written) “jointly produc[ed] a vision of the Tasmanian wilderness that was definitive and which has endured more or less intact to the present day.”
So many years, so many eyes, so much terrain: the search for Tasmania’s mineral wealth was an odyssey that spanned much of the 1800s. In the latter decades of that century, ragtag crews of raggedy men were measuring and pegging claims, and scratching for riches in the surface of the earth.
When the wealth finally appeared on the island’s west coast, it wasn’t as expected.
Traces of gold appeared at an alluvial claim on a mountain above the Queen River, and optimism rose to unprecedented levels. “Everyone who saw the ironstone, matted with fine gold that glistened after showers of rain, was impressed with the mine,” notes historian Geoffrey Blainey. The government geologist Gustav Thureau – who was not always right – rattled off his theory on the mine, describing it as eroding volcanic mud at last shedding its gold and sharing it with men. “Begorrah!” the soon-to-be-famous Irish miner James Crotty is said to have exclaimed, “It’s all gold, I tell you!”
But it wasn’t. It was mostly something else, in fact, and the Mount Lyell mine became the richest copper mine in its day. The mine managers recruited an American metallurgist from the fields of Colorado and employed him to erect his innovative system of smelting to extract as much copper from Lyell to sell to the world.
Among the handful of towns which appeared in a cluster around the generous geology of Mount Lyell, none compared to Queenstown. “No Tasmanian town had grown so rapidly,” according to Blainey, who was later commissioned to write a history of Mount Lyell. There were pubs galore; vibrant displays of entertainment visited the area frequently; unforgettable characters spilled out onto the streets.
In Queenstown today, the brilliantly eccentric Galley Museum gives anecdotes on the experiences of those glory days. A snapshot of the neighbouring miners’ town of Gormanston in 1910 is accompanied by this caption: “Miners and their lovers were having a hell of a good time. Young married miners and their wife battling to get a home together and flat out producing babys.”
But the humour of this note hints at the tremendous tragedy that was just around the corner for the Lyell community in 1912, when an entire shift of miners was trapped in the depths of a shaft. While many escaped, 42 men perished. Beyond the fatalities, the community was distraught. While bodies were trapped in the shaft, so too were families stuck in a state of unknowing.
A photograph in the Galley shows a large crowd milling around the newsagency of A.A. Mylan, on Orr Street, trying to discover the latest news. “Women showed bravery,” a newspaper article reported during this distressing period, “but there were many sobbing...How long must we wait to know the worst was a pathetic question asked by many.”
It was eight whole months before the last bodies could be retrieved from the mine.
Most of these women would indeed discover their beloved was among the deceased. Louisa Scott, for example, would soon face the reality of having lost her young husband Leonard, the father of their six-week-old daughter Violet.
Eugene Felix McCasland, whose family was back in New South Wales, had become engaged to a young lass in the Linda Valley; for the funeral of her betrothed, she made a shroud of brown material, with a white cross over the chest.
Other men had only their mates to mourn them – like the Austrian-born Valentine Bianchini, who had time to write a will in his notebook before dying.
Henry Dawson was one of the survivors, but had been trapped for five days: he didn’t return to mining, but instead moved to Melbourne and married a city girl. Unfortunately only a couple of years later, he was killed on a Flanders battlefield.
Mount Lyell’s longevity is comparable to few other mines in Australia. Only a handful of years ago, two more young men died in a collapse there, however, once more leaving the local community shattered. The Mount Lyell mine is currently closed.
“Mining towns are ephemeral by nature – as elusive as the minerals they pursue,” writes Tasmanian novelist Brett Martin. “There is no continuity, no history, no real confidence in the future...Nothing is embedded, nothing is certain.”
But this impressive community has yet to give up its resolve; here in the wet and misty west, Queenstown remains where so many other towns have gone to ruin. Attached to a part of the world that is like no other, the people of Queenstown are adapting again to varying conditions, each of which is far from easy.
There are few towns in Tasmania with a reputation as notorious as Rossarden’s.
My mate’s uncle stumbled upon a secret den for hideaways up there once upon a time; this is where you used to go when you were on the run from the cops. Marijuana crops surely grow in the gullies. When a friend’s car threatened to break down up here, she panicked and nearly drove into a ditch.
Or so I’m told. That’s the thing about it all: once a place gains a reputation, stories proliferate and distort into rumours. Myth starts growing, whorling all around it.
I should know: I grew up in such a place, in a town whose name affords you no favours when you say you belonged to it in the first years of your life. A town associated with incest and ice.
Myth tends to have its basis somewhere in reality, and there is nothing fabulous about some of the police reports coming out of Rossarden. Not the least of these is the unsolved murder of Paul Byrne, who was last seen leaving the Rossarden Club at 2a.m. on September 20, 1996. Detectives believe he was “sexually tortured” before he was killed. It is generally believed that those responsible are well-known within the community.
What do we do with the threads of official history that run through a place so far from the centre of the world’s historical narrative? High in the foothills of Ben Lomond, in Tasmania’s remote north-east, Rossarden grew to become a rough cloister in the bush. Its life was centred upon a tin mine. Outsiders rarely visited – perhaps mine managers from elsewhere, or footy teams visiting from the Fingal Valley, or the Mouth Organ Band on tour – and it wasn’t too common for locals to head out either. (They say, though, that Frank Sellars broke record speeds when asked by the local nurse to get a heavily pregnant woman down the windy roads to the hospital in Campbell Town.)
They say that when a tin scratcher named Cheshire passed out after a night of drinking, he missed his chance on being a part of the first claim on the Aberfoyle Rivulet, which would sustain this place for decades. His colleagues, Shepherd and Haas, found the lode while Cheshire snored.
Countless stories spiral out of the nucleus of this hole in the ground. At the dance hall, the younger members of established families met. Illicit bottles of home-brew were shared in secret corners. Men and women fell in love.
“A cricket match was held in February 1937 between married and single men. The married men won by 23 runs. Afternoon tea was supplied by the ladies,” writes Narelle Blackaby in her history of the town.
The stalwart nurse of Rossarden, Sister Phyllis McShane, ended up marrying the storekeeper Mac Campbell.
Pop and Kees Dingjan had moved from Holland and ended up running a butchers store in the bush.
These stories make this town as much as murder and outlawry. But they don’t make as good print.
When I last passed through Rossarden, on a chilly spring day, stillness and chimney smoke hung off the structure of the landscape. And what a beautiful landscape: high up beneath Stacks Bluff, nestled amongst snow-tolerant gums and shrubs that come to flower late in the season.
If I didn’t know better, I’d say the locals perpetuate their own notoriety to stop outsiders from taking over – to keep the property prices low.
But in a few short years, I have watched Tasmania’s international reputation change. Even my own hometown is getting a makeover, with arts festivals and boutique booze distilleries starting to bring in a different crowd. One of these days, I’ll say where I’m from and it will mean something we’d never have guessed. The same may go for Rossarden. They say there’s only one crook left in town nowadays.
But the thing about these small towns, far from the major roads, beyond the tourist route, is that the stories trickle down and don’t often reach the rest of the island undistorted. To know what’s going on in a place like Rossarden, you need to go there yourself. You need to spend a while.
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.
The Abels sit on the margins of Tasmanian geography; an Abel is a mountain summit over 1100 metres in height, of which there are 158 of these on the island. Tasmanian bushwalker Bill Wilkinson came up with the concept in the 1990s, modelling it on a similar idea in Scotland’s high country. He has since edited several volumes of guidebooks about climbing the Abels, replete with information on access to the trailhead, track conditions, campsite locations, vegetation types and history.
The bushwalking guidebook is perhaps the quintessential Tasmanian literary genre, and Wilkinson’s The Abels series has all its features. Moments of candour and whimsy punctuate the text’s staid practicalities, which generally do a fine job of getting walkers to their destination successfully.
Recreational bushwalking is an essentially purposeless quest, and countless back-country routes exist in Tasmania. For some, then, having a finite challenge gives direction to an otherwise formless activity.
My friend Zane Robnik is attempting to climb all of the Abels within an 18-month period, before his 25th birthday, which would make it the quickest conquering of these mountains, by the youngest person to do so. But Zane is not a conquering type, and one gets the feeling that his project is a motivation – or an excuse – to keep him in the mountain districts on weekly outings.
Of course, walking for leisure is a fairly recent invention, as far as human activities go. Even today, for much of the world’s population, walk is equated to work, or else to a natural nomadic rhythm, often associated with seasonal migration. Pushing through Tasmania’s stubborn, spiky, wiry scrub – and clambering up stepped rocks of quartz or dolerite with a heavy canvas rucksack clinging to the walker’s shoulders like a parasite – must seem a strange and masochistic hobby from the outside. Let’s not forget that less than two centuries ago, colonial surveyors deemed much of this mountainous country as TRANSYLVANIA: a dark, wet, impenetrable terrain, riddled with dangers and best avoided. It is likely that much of the high south-west regions were largely abandoned by Aboriginal groups as the last Ice Age diminished and lower land was accessible.
Yet here we were by own our free will, when we could have been doing anything.
I am not a mountaineer, but I like mountains. My eye is drawn to the Tasmanian panorama – the layers of light blue and mauve on the hills, the olive-green and sedge-straw of a heath landscape, the gradations of green in forests as seen from above – but I am as interested in the intricate detail of the mountainside ecosystem. Like Scottish writer Nan Shepherd, I can pick a path upon some range ‘merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend, with no intention but to be with him’.
Equally, as with Roger Deakin, I believe going for a walk is an excuse to dress in costume and eat junk food.
On top of Mount Wedge this past weekend, one of our party connected to his social media. We discovered that on that day Bill Wilkinson, originator of the Abels, was celebrating his birthday. A packet of Savoys was devoured rapidly, and we danced. Many things are acceptable on a mountain summit that would otherwise be inappropriate. Perhaps the Tasmanian peak-bagger is just trying to find the right context for their silliness.
We can imagine Henry Hellyer on the deck of the Cape Packet in March 1826, after six long months at sea, seeing Hobart Town come into view. Young, talented and courageous, but prone to melancholy, he was the chief surveyor and architect for the newly-established Van Diemen’s Land Company. Much of the future of Van Diemen’s Land hung on this company. His job would be one of the most challenging in the colony. It would kill him.
Company superintendent Edward Curr and his London backers were unimpressed with the tracts of land given them by colonial officials, so he sent out his surveyors and their convict servants into the forests and mountainous regions of north-western Van Diemen’s Land. Henry Hellyer was the leader of this band, which included other Cape Packet arrivals such as Joseph Fossey, Alexander Goldie and Clement Lorymer. The convict workers were more experienced bushmen, “intelligent active men used to the bush,” in Hellyer’s words, such as Isaac Cutts, Richard Frederick, Jorgen Jorgenson, and Alexander McKay.
Wet myrtle forests, spiky and stringy thickets of bauera and horizontal, rushing rivers, mosquitoes and hunger plagued their every day of exploration. They slept “like mummies, rolled up in blankets” after days of “violent bodily exercises” and such privations that “we were obliged to go on, or starve”.
Ah, but what joy when they emerged into a clearing, when the sun came out, or when they returned to the Van Diemen’s Land headquarters!
Hellyer was an optimistic and brave, and sensitive to natural beauty. He sketched vistas from the various mountains he ascended and named landmarks after European painters. If he had a fault in these early years of Vandemonian exploration, it was that he was too optimistic: all his geese, it was said, were swans.
Having seen an unmapped range of mountains in the distance from St. Valentine’s Peak, Hellyer and Fossey led a team towards the northern edge of Tasmania’s central highlands in November 1828. They each carried a fortnight of provisions, bearing twenty-five kilograms each. From Mt. Block, they looked into the fearful river gorges that sliced the ranges in every direction.
A week later, caught in a severe snowstorm on a plateau above the Fury River, Hellyer led his team into the “terrible gully” of its gorge to get shelter. “We saw we were in a worse predicament than ever,” Hellyer penned in his journal. “We made for the horrid ravine as our only refuge.”
They descended some 600 metres the river, camped in buttongrass by its side, roasted a wombat, and slept uneasily. In the morning they escaped onto the plateau by Cradle Mountain. Either Hellyer or Fossey was the first white person to summit this mountain.
But these physical hardships appeared to be nothing compared to the emotional turmoil occurring inside Henry Hellyer’s mind. Hellyer believed he had found good grazing land further north, around Surrey Hills. However, he was wrong: and the Van Diemen’s Land Company incurred great cost attempting to raise sheep and cattle there, and they perished in the winter. In 1832, after a very cold winter, Surrey Hills was “becoming the graves of all the sheep”. Hellyer tried to defend himself; he became oversensitive to criticism; he retreated into himself; and he let melancholy consume him.
There was also a malicious rumour of some kind spread by a convict servant by the name of Harley, who had worked under Hellyer’s supervision previously. Harley had allegedly been a poor worker and was not paid upon the completion of the job. The slander may have been that Hellyer was a homosexual, or that he had been caught masturbating.
In the early hours of September 2, 1832, Henry Hellyer committed suicide.
The Van Diemen’s Land Company was established in London in 1825, and that November an advance party headed for the island.
Their mission was to respond to demands by English manufacturers for better fine wool; raising sheep for wool was considered one of the best hopes for the economies of both New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land. Around Australia, “large blocks of territory in the colonies” were given to such private enterprises for this purpose.
Edward Curr was in favour of north-western Van Diemen’s Land, which the current Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur had offered “under certain conditions as to the expenditure of capital.” It was unlikely, Curr said, that the relatively unexplored north-west would have a total dearth of good pasture land. Born in Sheffield, England, Curr had travelled to Brazil and then Hobart, where he made acquaintances in high places. He returned to England with his father’s death, published An Account of the Colony of Van Diemen’s Land, Primarily Designed for the Use of Emigrants, and was appointed the chief of the Van Diemen’s Land Company. He was only 27 years of age.
After a difficult voyage, the Cape Packet – bearing the VDL Co. party – arrived in Hobart in March 1826. Aside from Curr, on board was Stephen Adey (superintendent of the land grant); Henry Hellyer (chief surveyor, and architect); Alexander Goldie (agriculturalist); and Joseph Fossey and Clement Lorymer (surveyors).
The land allotted by the Lieutenant-Governor had been limited due to his wish to maintain the freedom of further settlement for Vandemonian farmers. Curr was not satisfied with this (there was a run-in with a farmer named Smith, on the Rubicon River, who had settled on what Curr believed was VDL Co. land), but sent his surveyors off on numerous journeys into the hinterland of north-western Van Diemen’s Land. This included journeys along the north coast between Port Sorell and Cape Grim, down the west coast to the Pieman River, and into the mountainous area around Cradle Mountain.
The surveyors Hellyer, Lorymer and Fossey (and their convict companions) were the first Europeans to visit and name some of these places. Much of it was rainforest or wet sclerophyll forest, with dense undergrowth; the journeys were taken throughout the winter, in wet and cold, and in completely foreign conditions to these surveyors newly-arrived from England.
From a commercial perspective, the journeys were ultimately futile. The only land, more or less, suitable for grazing sheep was around Circular Head, now the town of Stanley.
Here Edward Curr laid the first stone of his house ‘Highfield’, designed by Henry Hellyer. Vivienne Rae-Ellis says that the Tasmanian woman Trugernanna was present, along with other Aboriginals from Van Diemen’s Land and New South Wales, with George Augustus Robinson, the missionary-diplomat whose ‘Friendly Mission’ had begun.
Another possible site for raising sheep was proposed at Cape Grim, rated as “good sheep land” by Joseph Fossey. Here, the Van Diemen’s Land Company (described as "the nation's largest dairy" nowadays) still has its headquarters – it is in the process of being taken over by a Chinese consortium, making national headlines.
Edward Curr of the Van Diemen’s Land Company was given the authority as the only official in the north-west. In the meantime, of course, there were others there: the Aboriginal bands of the north-west, who moved seasonally between the coastline and its offshore islands, into the hunting grounds of the Hampshire and Surrey Hills. They collected swan and duck eggs in the river mouths and lagoons in spring, and went in for mutton-birding and sealing in summer. This was their economy: it was in conflict with the VDL Co.’s economic strategy, which had the tacit support of the official British-controlled regime of the island.
And although the London-based directors of the Van Diemen’s Land Company exhorted the young manager Curr to avoid confrontation with the indigenous population, Curr was “[e]litist and arrogant” and used violence whenever it was convenient, both against the north-west Aboriginals and the company’s indentured convicts.
Within eight years, a population of up to 500 had been reduced to less than 100, according to Ian Macfarlane.
I’ve hardly read a book and barely written a word in the last weeks.
Instead, I’ve been working as a bushwalking guide. On an almost constant rotation, I am taking visitors on a six-day itinerary through Tasmania’s highlands, through a World Heritage Area, on the famous Overland Track.
This summer, we’ve had snow and we’ve had fire.
We’ve had gales blowing over Cradle Plateau, hours of swimming in Lake Windermere; we’ve clambered up Oakleigh and Ossa, and come down hundred of metres to the buttongrass plains in order to play impromptu cricket games. We’ve stuck their noses into leatherwood flowers – it was a bad season for waratahs, but there was myrtleheath flowering galore in January.
In a patch of remnant rainforest, wedged between the moors, I have gone with colleagues – dear friends – to drink booze drenched in the scents of sassafras and celery top, the plasticky scrape of pandani fronds, soft sphagnum and curly ferns absorbing our irreverent noise, clandestine.
It’s been about a hundred years now that tourists have come to the Tasmanian forests to be guided and receive hospitality from the idiosyncratic characters of these remote places. Paddy Hartnett, Bert Nicholls, Gustav Weindorfer and Bert Fergusson are among the oddballs who boiled the billy with the visitors and pointed out the features. They kneaded dough and told jokes and said a thing or two about the way forests work or how geological formations came to be. And they were part of the landscape, somehow embodying a mythos of the place.
We get to Frog Flats, above which are some mountains that the classically-minded George Frankland gave Greek names. Pelion, Achilles and Thetis sit next to Paddy’s Nut. It’s neither Greek nor classical, but an act of homage to the chummy, illiterate, alcoholic who worked as a trapper, prospector and guide before the drink did him in, to be survived by a wife and too many children with aching memories.
To fistiki tou Patrikiou, I translate into Greek, trying to bring the outside world into this thin ribbon of tracks cobbled together for sixty-seven kilometres from the Cradle Valley to Lake St. Clair. It gets a weak laugh.
I sleep beneath the stars, watching icy spears slice through the darkness and distance; aurora australis appears like a silent giant on the horizon, pale white bands shimmering, then disappearing.
I try to find time alone, squatting down to watch the jackjumpers, scooping up dark creek water in a bamboo cup, watching rosella green suddenly appear in the branches of a white gum.
I have a long black in the ranger’s hut, and he tells me Umberto Eco has died, and I walked on down the track to be picked up by the Idaclair and ferried to the bar at Cynthia Bay. When I get to Nicholson’s Bookstore in Launceston the next day, I buy Foucault’s Pendulum, but I’m back on the track in two days and I won’t be reading dense works of fiction in between damper and billy tea (or peppermint hot chocolates).
But the leatherwood petals have begun to scatter themselves across the rich dark soil of the rainforests, and it seems it won’t be long now until the summer is well and truly ended; I’ll be off the track, and I’ll have to choose whether to stay in the bush alone, or go off into the world and join companions somewhere else.
Tasmanian national parks celebrate their 100th birthday this year. In 1916, two inaugural national parks were gazetted after promotion by pioneer supporters of tourism and conservation; a century later, national parks cover nearly a half of Tasmania’s land mass.
Mount Field, 70 kilometres north-west of Hobart, was one of these first parks. In its early days, Mount Field was a hub for skiing and memorabilia still remains from the days when social Hobartians dragged the necessaries for a gala ball to a hut above Lake Dobson, and skated on the frozen lake.
Snowfall is less common in Tasmania these days; the ski lift still operates occasionally during winters at Mount Field, and in the summer time, thousands of tourists flock to the park for short walks or multiple-day hikes, taking in the waterfalls, the giant swamp gums, the flowering heath, or the broad alpine vistas.
An early tourist to Mount Field was Baron Ferdinand von Mueller.
Guided by local trappers the Rayner brothers, Baron von Mueller arrived to investigate the unique botanical characteristics of the region. Born Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich Müller in 1825, the Baron relocated to Australia following the death of his eldest sister from tuberculosis. Now known as von Mueller, he and other family members joined a plethora of other German migrants in newly-settled Adelaide in 1847.
Having been trained in botanising while working as a pharmacist’s apprentice in his native northern Germany, von Mueller gained job at the pharmacy on Adelaide’s main street, and set about learning the local flora with journeys into the Mount Lofty Ranges, Mount Gambier, the Flinders Ranges and Lake Torrens.
Shortly after, he received work in Victoria, and was the first curator of the Botanical Gardens in Melbourne.
It was 1867 when Baron von Mueller went with the Rayners to Mount Field. Spending a week in the foothills of Mount Field East, he observed the unique species of the region, including making the first descriptions of a variety of cushion plant (Donatia novae-zelandiae) and several eucalypts – the snow peppermint, urn gum and cider gum, as well as taking in the glacial geology of the area.
The Rayners’ memory of the journey came through a humorous observation: the Baron, the trapper noted, “persisted in wearing his two flannel scarves”, which von Mueller (it is said) would do whether he was in the town or the bush.
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.”
They are dead.
One of the first stories George Robinson recorded in his diary while working as a storekeeper on Bruny Island is that of the death of a wife of an Aboriginal known as Joe. This is, for us, her life story: that she was one of Joe's two wives, that she had been previously sick, and that she was now dead in April. And that her last words were: 'ROEGE A CORAGGREE LOGGEENER.'
Joe's other wife, Morley, died shortly after. Mangana had a story of his wife being abducted and his son dead. Joe and Mangana would die too. Mannalargenna died at the Flinders Island settlement that Robinson had co-ordinated, like many others.
Robinson records the names of five women who were kidnapped in one of the many raids by sealers: Troepowerhear, Niepeekar, Moondapder, Larpeennopuric, Reetarnithbar. Just names, and a traumatic event of their lives. Nothing more to be said.
While Robinson was bush-bashing his way through the Vandemonian forests, he received a letter from his wife, saying she was ill, and that their abode had become 'a house of morning' for their youngest child, Alfred, 'departed this life 21 February'.
Mrs. Robinson - born Maria Amelia Evans - also died, in September 1848, near Melbourne.
George Robinson died in England two decades later.
But even for George Augustus Robinson, we cannot say we know him, even though he wrote so freely and frequently about himself and left a narrative of his life for us. We can know that he did this or that, that he experienced much 'mizzling rain', that he was profoundly here at a profound time. But the vast majority of his thoughts and deeds are lost, and we must read between the lines to understand his various motivations. Needless to say, his life has been interpreted a hundred different ways, each reader or researcher coming up with their own evaluation.
Trugernanna outlived Robinson. She is even more enigmatic, suffers more gossip, elicits more various reactions.
For many more - for most people throughout most of history - we don't even have their names. Their sentences were not overheard and marked down. Their rituals went unobserved. Their body parts were not measured. Their languages murmured off into extinction, idiosyncratic expressions lost for all time.
In Tasmania these topics - names like Trugernanna and George Robinson, phrases like 'the friendly mission' or 'the black war' or 'genocide' - excite a lot of emotion. The study of the history of that island has become a matter of conflict. 'The History Wars'. As if we haven't had enough of that.
I am no historian. I am just a bloke who has his brow wrinkled, trying to remember. But it's not easy when I wasn't there and when every human being from the past seems as inscrutable as the phrase ROEGE A CORAGGREE LOGGEENER.
Maybe if we were a different mob, we would employ the ancient forests and mountains of Tasmania to bridge the historical abyss. Because they were there - dolerite and granite, pencil pine and huon pine. It would not be methodical history, but it would be a gauze of memory over the gaps, a patch of story. I am not trying to say that this would be better than the rationalism and empiricism of moderns, but that I suspect many different cultures would have done this. Yet when I go bush, and I try to hear the stories from the forests, the old stoics remain dumb. Or I remain unable to hear.
'To my mind,' W.G. Sebald once said, 'it seems clear that those who have no memory have the much greater chance to lead happy lives.' But I keep trying to remember.
This is the last piece in a series on George Robinson and Trugernanna, beginning with Trugernanna's death, looking at their curious relationship, and heading to the site of Robinson's final years.
After following a narrow, muddy track for some time through the rainforest, we emerge to an open field of straw-coloured tussocks. We have come upon 'the Paddocks'. Outside the canopy of tanglefoot and sassafras, the rain is heavy and quickly drenches us. But across the field is a wooden hut, of a modest size, and we are aiming for its verandah.
My friends didn't know that such a place existed. This hut, knocked together from native timber, disconnected from electricity, away from mobile phone signal, and hours on foot from the nearest road, is not a one-off: in Tasmania's isolated central highlands, such structures have been scattered along rivers, by lakes, and on mountainsides for more than a century.
But by the nature of their purposes, settings, and designs, they are rarely visited and not widely-known.
As we took off wet boots and put the william on the boil for cups of tea, the sound of the rain merged into the rushing of the Mersey River as it snaked around the base of a mountain range shrouded in mist. The Upper Mersey, archaeologists tell us, has at least 10,000 years of human history. The Paddocks, which have been managed by post-colonial stockmen for around a century, was probably fired by Aboriginal Tasmanians for at least a couple thousand years to aid their hunting practice.
In the 1880s, the Field family - eminently successful cattle barons - employed George Lee to drive cattle in this high country. It was a three-day trip from the township of Mole Creek to the Paddocks, and following his marriage to one Alice Applebee, George would also take his sons Lewis and Oxley to the area. Like many mountaineers in Tasmania, they also hunted for fur.
The sons inherited the land after George Lee's death. Oxley, who was illiterate and an alcoholic, sold his share of the Paddocks in the 1960s; Lewis Lee continued to visit the area several times a year, until his death in 1989. It was his hut that my friends and I would be sleeping in. Now belonging to other family members, it is generally accepted that bushwalkers may stay there, if they follow the correct etiquette.
The mountain huts of Tasmania are remnants of a fascinating and unique culture. As Simon Cubit, the foremost historian of high country stockmen, writes, they 'are a little known but nonetheless important part of Tasmania's cultural heritage.'
One wonders if part of their significance isn't derived from the fact that everything about the lifestyle these huts point to is remote, rarely-experienced, and not well known.
There are those who hate winter in Tasmania. It is, they say, too cold, or too wet, or too windy, or too dark. It is as bleak as Siberia. It is the most depressing place on Earth.
But there are others who cherish these days when the sky hangs low like a big-bellied whale over the towns, and some days the mountains rise like white-capped waves. It is good, they contend, to see the grass turn bright green, to don the thick woollen socks and down jackets, to feel frost crunch beneath your feet, to smell the spice of woodsmoke in the air and to sit by the fire yourself with a cosy over the teapot.
The change in weather is a chance to cultivate new habits. Some of them are idiosyncratic: one gentleman I know takes to boiling eggs on winter mornings and putting them in his pockets as he walks to his place of vocation so they warm his hands.
Other customs may seem familiar. For instance, one winter when I was short of money, I spent my spare hours scrounging around for good firewood. And on those crisp, starry nights when the weather has cleared but the air is still cold, I would feed sticks and logs into my pot-bellied stove and sit around it with an Irish coffee, sometimes with friends, watching the embers pulsate like melting caramel and tinkling like thin glass cracking in the changing temperature.
And we should not forget that for thousands of years, this is what people have done in Tasmania during the months of June, July and August, these lunar cycles when the night seems to have more strength than day, when it is cold and wet and windy and dark, and Rowra hovers in the silhouettes of the eucalypts just beyond the room of firelight.
Yes, for millennia, Tasmanians have had their rituals, their customs, their diets, their ideas, their politics and their dreams flex and change with the weather.
So as you wipe the hoar off your car window, get a soup going in the slow-cooker, pull out your stripy longjohns, or invite the girl you flirted with all summer over to watch a movie on your laptop beneath a patchy quilt, remember that these details are part of what it is to be a human being in your time and your place. And that though customs have changed dramatically, at times with violence and force, the little behaviours that you share with your contemporaries are significant, full of memory and therefore full of meaning.
Even the boiled egg hand-warmers. (They will end up in an Ethnographic Museum sometime, somewhere.)
Perhaps in these months you will look out your window and see the European trees that have dropped all their leaves, and it will makes you feel something of a sense of loss.
Perhaps you will stand over the Liffey or the Clyde in full flow, and know the trout are spawning, and feel hopeful for what is next, maybe even to the point of impatience.
Perhaps you will see snow on Mount Wellington or Ben Lomond and long to feel the mist clinging to your hair and your shoes fill up with slush.
Whatever it is you do and feel from now until the wattles are in blossom, this is the Tasmanian winter to which you belong.
A friend in Mexico City once took me to an eatery for what he said was a regional dish from his family’s home nearby called pastes. A pastry shell stuffed with meat and/or vegetables, it was delicious and hearty meal. It was also something I’d grown up eating. It was a pasty.
The pasty is said to have been popularised by tin miners from Cornwall, England, who held it by its thick crimped edge, so as not to contaminate it with dirty – or arsenic-tarnished – fingers.
So it was that Cornish miners in Hidalgo, Mexico, brought pastes to that country; and likewise, migrant workers from Cornwall brought their “regional dish” to Australia.
In 1843 a north-eastern farmhand followed his dog into the bush; the dog was chasing after wombats, and digging a hole into a bank, it revealed a seam of coal. Before long, a tent city had sprung up around the mine. Because of the number of Cornish migrants who had come to put use to their mining prowess, it became known as Cornwall.
In this second half of the 1800s, these men picked and shovelled their way into the Nicholas Range, using sticks of gelignite to open up their shafts. At the end of their days, workers returned to ramshackle-style houses with walls of split palings, hessian, and layers of newspaper, and dirt floors covered with chaff bags.
A railway built from the midlands to the east coast in 1886 livened the mine’s – and the town’s – prospects. By 1950, there were around one hundred houses, a post office, a butcher, shops, and daily bread delivery. A couple of churches and a school with attached recreational facilities serviced the town.
Only a few years later, however, the coal industry lost its momentum. Cheap oil gained a stronghold around the world, and the Cornwall Coal Co. lost its customers. In 1964, they closed the mine. The town shrivelled. Houses were sold for a pittance as workers moved away in search of other work. Public buildings and services, along with shops and churches, were closed, torn down, or burnt out.
In 1982, the mine reopened, with production up to 300,000 tonnes a year. But the town was still a shell of its former days; the mine only employs 70 people, with that number soon reducing by a third. Only forty houses still remain in the town.
Perhaps home-made pasties are still made there, as the fog rolls in down from the forested mountains. Made, and made well, no doubt. But there are none sitting in bain-maries waiting to be bought for those who make the eight kilometre detour off the A4, on their way to St. Marys.
“Assuredly but dust and shade we are / Assuredly desire is blind and brief / Assuredly its hope but ends in death.”
So wrote fourteenth-century Tuscan humanist and poet Francesco Petrarca, who is commemorated at this western Tasmanian lake under his Latinised name, Petrarch.
It was the classically-inclined surveyor George Frankland who called Lake Petrarch so, although he generally preferred Greek nomenclature. He had seen the lake from the summit of Mount Olympus on February 12, 1829, and upon descent from the mountain, he and his party came to it. It was the first time in his life any of them had seen a certain conifer tree, athrotaxis cupressoides, “a remarkably handsome species of Fir” that he named “the pine of Olympus.” Nowadays it is commonly known as the pencil pine.
Another explorer, the geologist Charles Gould, came to camp upon the sandy beach of Lake Petrarch in January 1860. It was the beginning of a long expedition to the west, and Gould and his men looked at the silhouette of another literarily-named peak, Mount Byron, from across the still waters of the lake.
Landscape painter W.C. Piguenit, born in Hobart in 1836; his father was a convict, and his mother, a teacher of French, music and drawing. From 1874 he devoted himself to his craft, travelling on foot with surveyors to remote areas of Tasmania. Piguenit depicted Tasmania’s wildernesses in a Romantic light, as Ruskin was the European Alps contemporaneously. In 1887, he travelled with chief surveyor Sprent to the west coast. He took advantage of this expedition to make an excursion to Lake St. Clair, and further north through the Cuvier Valley, to Lake Petrarch, which he painted in hazy pastels. A grebe sits on a clump of dark rocks; Mount Byron overlooks the glistening water in a rosy twilit hue.
A century later, Peter Dombrovskis photographed Lake Petrarch. Born to Latvian parents in a World War II concentration camp in Germany, Dombrovskis was influenced by a fellow Baltic migrant, the unassuming yet influential Olegas Truchanas. Both became famous for involving their work in conservationist movements against the damming of wilderness rivers. Before his death by heart attack in the south-western mountains, Dombrovskis forged a reputation as one of the world’s great landscape photographers. In 1994, on a journey into the Cuvier Valley, Dombrovskis made a sensitive study of pencil pine boles near Lake Petrarch.
The Cuvier Valley is largely made up of golden buttongrass plains; it may have been managed as an Aboriginal hunting ground before Europeans arrived to the island known previously as Trowenna. How they perceived Lake Petrarch we do not know. Likewise, unknown numbers of personal expeditions in recent times go unrecorded.
In the Tasmanian Government’s current Draft Management Plan for the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, Lake Petrarch is rezoned so as to be permitted as a helicopter landing site – along with around a dozen other localities. “Men often despise what they despair of obtaining,” wrote Petrarch to a contemporary in the 1300s, and so they do today, still.
They say this cave on Mount Wellington was once the hideout of John ‘Rocky’ Whelan, the bushranger highwayman.
Sent to the colonies from England as a convict, Whelan – like so many others – absconded. Like all bushrangers in Tasmania, he targeted the many isolated homesteads for plunder; but he also roved the forests ambushing lone travellers, robbing and often killing them.
He’d never been a likeable man. Nicknamed for his gnarled, pock-marked face, Rocky Whelan was transported in 1829; he spent time in Sydney, Norfolk Island and Hobart, each time making efforts to escape. Myths surfaced about his fondness for dimly-lit cells, or his supposed imperviousness to the lash or other forms of corporal punishment. His final disappearance came as he was assigned to a public works gangs in Hobart. It took only two days for him to abscond into the bush around Mount Wellington.
Without doubt, Whelan was bold. During his winter on the mountain, he would visit a local magistrate, repose in front of a roaring fire, and read the newspaper. He stopped visiting the day he read his own profile as a wanted man.
But most of his time was spent in this curvaceous edifice of honey-coloured, quartz-rich Triassic sandstone, alone, with but a small fire to keep himself warm against the damp southern weather.
In the end, Whelan was caught, by chance, outside a boot-maker’s workshop. He was repairing the boots of a missing man. He admitted to five murders. He was hanged at the Imperial Gaol in 1855 with 112 offences against his name.
There was an old man near Brown’s River, the youth Dunn on the Huon track, an elderly gentleman at Bagdad, a young fellow on the Westbury Road, and a hawker near Clevelend. A chequered career of murder, fatalities scattered across the island. At one stage he appears to have travelled around 100 miles in three days.
“Dead men tell no tales” was the highwayman’s mantra. And yet, this cleft of sandstone in which the cold-hearted bushranger John Whelan took refuge during his days of terror in Tasmania bears his story even still. Nowadays, a small detour off a popular recreational walking route on the mountain points out his old hideaway. I was there last week with a friend, sheltering from the wind, eating from a small container of grapes.
William Archer’s father emigrated to Australia in 1811 and became a noted landowner and commissariat in Van Diemen’s Land. In 1820, he gave birth to his third (but second surviving) son, William.
After schooling in Campbell Town and Longford, William was sent to the old country to study architecture and engineering, and when he returned in 1842, he worked on a number of buildings that are today still standing and recognised as significant parts of Tasmania’s colonial heritage. Mona Vale, Woolmers, and Brickendon were all part of Archer’s portfolio. He also designed his two properties that remained in his family: ‘Fairfield’ at Cressy and ‘Cheshunt’ at Deloraine.
At the death of his father, William inherited the family’s extensive land holdings and was able to concentrate his attention on another hobby – botany.
Both of Archer’s properties had views of the imposing range to the west, the Great Western Tiers, and it was through here that he took most of his botanical excursions. Professionally, he worked closely with Ronald Campbell Gunn, one of the island’s foremost botanists. Politically, they were at odds; nevertheless, it didn’t at all get in the way of their study of local plants, and Gunn took most of Archer’s specimens back to Kew Gardens.
Archer also worked closely with Joseph Hooker, who produced the Flora Tasmaniae. Hooker gave much credit to Archer in his dedication of the book, crediting him for having ‘sedulously investigated the botany of the district surrounding his property.’
His work is memorialised in the nomenclature of several plants too, including the diselma archeri, known commonly as ‘cheshunt pine’ – a low-growing alpine conifer which, although it wouldn’t have grown around his property in Deloraine, is found in the Great Western Tiers.
“Sadly,” writes the botanical historian Wapstra, “and in contrast to his extensive contributions to society, Archer’s finances deteriorated,” partly through an unsuccessful political career, but also due to familial obligations. He was forced to give up the Cheshunt property and died at the age of just 54 years old. Twelve children, and his wife Ann, survived him.
“I was rapping on the door intent upon making the hermit’s acquaintance.”
So wrote one bushwalker having rambled into the Vale of Rasselas in Tasmania’s southern wilderness, where for fifteen years Ernie Bond made his camp.
But Ernie was not your typical bush hermit. Born in Hobart in 1891, he was the son of Frank Bond, a businessman, property developer and politician. Ernie lived in the island’s capital until 1927 when he moved to the suddenly-booming osmiridium fields at Adamsfield. For seven years, he worked his claim there. But in 1934, while prospecting with the infamous bushman Paddy Hartnett, Ernie found a rare patch of rich alluvial soil and changed careers.
Now, Ernie was the grower and supplier of fresh garden produce for the mining community. Aside from fruit and veg, the bush estate of ‘Gordonvale’ - there was 400 hectares of it – also housed grazing sheep and cattle.
Like most Tasmanian mining histories, work in the ossie fields came to a screeching halt. By the end of the 1930s, Gordonvale’s market had disappeared. But Ernie Bond enjoyed his self-sufficiency, and his proximity to the wilderness. So he remained. And for the next two decades, Ernie Bond became famous for showing hospitality to bushwalkers passing through the area en route to various lakes and mountains, along rugged paths, through the newly-empty expanse of wilderness.
Bushwalkers’ diaries recall his dinners of mutton and vegetables, desserts of strawberries and cream, and even his dodgy home brew. His “grey eyes twinkled” as he spun yarns about local characters, and he formed strong and lasting friendships with some of the pioneers of Tasmanian recreational walking. “The great buckled belt of his trousers could sit just as approximately above or below the immense circumference of his stomach,” wrote Jack Thwaites, “while little reading glasses somehow found a perch around the great head.”
Commercial logging encroached on Ernie Bond’s patch of the forest; finally, the bridge crossing the Gordon River near his abode was destroyed, and Ernie was effectively forced to return to Hobart.
Today, bushwalkers can find but a few remnants of the Prince of Rasselas’ old lodgings, in what has now become part of the Tasmanian World Heritage Wilderness Area.
Two convict escapees made a bold journey into the Vale of Rasselas in 1828.
After World War I, recreational bushwalking experienced a boom in Tasmania, enhanced by those who kept walking journals during this era. From these pages comes a plethora of captivating local characters. One such man is Keith Ernest Lancaster.
Born in Penguin in 1910, Keith moved to Launceston as a young man and using the northern city as a base, began a 65-year-long career on hoof in Tasmania’s wild places.
Beginning his note-taking in 1932, Keith wrote a charming preface to his first journeys by describing his accounts of trips as containing “a full, comprehensive and accurate description of the adventures of myself whilst mountaineering in the Tasmanian highlands.” He lamented his lack of expertise in botany, geology or biology, but remained confident that companions would fill in a number of these gaps – especially his long-time cobber, Jeff Yates.
The earlier mountaineering adventures accounted for take place mostly in the Great Western Tiers – upon peaks such as Drys Bluff, Quamby Bluff and Ironstone Mountain – or to the northern mountains of Mt Barrow or Ben Lomond.
In fact, five reports from Ben Lomond come in the years between 1931 and 1937. The first was a successful ascent of Legges Tor, Tasmania’s second-highest summit at 1572m (5162ft in Lancaster’s measure), on a sultry November day. However, Stacks Bluff, at the southern end of the mountain’s massif, rebuffed Lancaster and Yates thrice before they finally made the ‘conquest’ in 1937.
In those earlier expeditions, Stacks Bluff – originally known as the Butts by settlers, while the entire mountain was known by the local Aboriginal population as toorbunna – was described by Keith as ‘inhospitable’ and ‘uninviting’.
Bicycling out from the suburb of Newstead on their first attempt in autumn 1932, Lancaster and Yates were drenched; they had hoped to spend their first night in a trappers’ hut at the rough settlement of Englishtown, at the base of the mountain, only to find it was burned down, with only a stone wall remaining. Overflowed creeks and tough conditions forced them to turn back after three days of approaching the peak.
They returned in winter two years later. Once again, worsening weather brought their best efforts to a conclusion. “Our attire was somewhat dampened, our spirits even more so,” Keith’s journal reads.
Alone, Keith had another go at the bluff in 1834, on September 25. Upon departure, the weather “seemed ideal for the project” – tranquil blue skies were above as they cycled out of town. He noted that he had made record time in arriving to Englishtown: two-and-a-half hours from Launceston. The weather remained fine for Day Two as he made a transmontane route across the massif – until the evening. Wild winds and consistent rain afforded Lancaster no sleep, and the young man awoke on his third day to discover that the river had risen. Once more, he had been forced to retreat.
“Stacks Bluff at last” is the title of Keith Lancaster’s entry for their 1937-38 success on the mountain. They – “the usual company” – made a reconnaissance trip in December 1937, from which they discovered an access point other than Englishtown that would make their ascent easier. Returning on January 29, 1938, they had another stroke of luck: a shepherd and his family gave further intelligence on the area, and loaned blankets and chaff bags to the bushwalkers. At 10:50a.m. the next day, Keith wrote, “we were able to add this lofty eminence to our list of mountaineering achievements”.
They spent nearly three hours taking in the immense vista. That evening, over a simple meal, Lancaster and Yates looked back “at the jagged contour of Stack’s Bluff”, as the setting sun changed the pillars’ colour from grey-blue to “a lurid red”.
These days, Stacks Bluff is normally ascended from the south; a rough 4WD track leads from the ex-mining town of Storys Creek, soon becoming a marked and cairned path over dolerite scree. The summit can now be ascended in about three hours. But wise mountaineers will still take their time at the top, and savour the view, and the tremendous experience of freedom.
Read here for reflections on bushwalking with mates around Lake Rhona.
The Overland Track is one of the world’s great multi-day walks. A couple of hours into the first day of the walk, as you clamber up onto a plateau strewn with cushion plants and quartzite schist, Barn Bluff rises before you. This impressive edifice of dolerite is formed by glacial action and erosion with seams of bituminous coal, which were never able to be economically exploited. Its human value today is mostly immaterial. At 1559 metres above sea level, it is the fourth highest mountain in Tasmania. Local walkers playfully know it as 'Barnie'.
It was Joseph Fossey who first compared this mountain’s shape to that of a barn. The son of a maltster from Hertfordshire in England, he came out as one of the members of a party of six representing the Van Diemen’s Land Company. Their harrowing five-month journey ended in Hobart in March 1826.
The Company had been allotted large tracts of land in the island’s north-west for the purpose of raising sheep for high quality wool. However, the best land was reserved for farmers expanding their settlements. The Chief Agent of the Van Diemen’s Land Company butted heads with the Lieutenant-Governor over the issue, but the latter would not budge.
So began a tireless series of exploratory campaigns by the Company’s three surveyors in search of better land. Van Diemen’s Land had been settled by Europeans only 23 years earlier, and most of the mountainous south-west was unknown to the new arrivals. Contemporary maps leave the quarter almost entirely blank and marked with the title TRANSYLVANIA. The exploration of this area, by men such as Fossey, his colleague Clement Lorymer, and the lead surveyor Henry Hellyer. Over several years, their journeys brought them into torrid weather, through tormenting scrub, and over tumultuous terrain. Working with a retinue of convict servants, they carried meagre rations and had simple equipment.
It was on one of Fossey’s expeditions in autumn 1827, in search of a stock route, that he named Barn Bluff, seeing it first from a mountain peak to its north. He also named nearby Cradle Mountain at the same time, although it retained an alternative name – Ribbed Rock – for some time as well.
Fossey did not stay in his rôle as surveyor, explorer and road-builder for too many years. When his contract ended in 1832, he returned to England, but only very briefly. He returned to land in northern Tasmania and married Eliza Wood at St. John’s Church in Launceston. He was, at this time, aged 47. He then moved to Victoria, and he and his wife ran an inn on Lonsdale Street and a general store in St. Kilda.
His lot was better than that of his colleagues: both Lorymer and Hellyer died in separate tragic circumstances while employed by the Van Diemen’s Land Company.
Their Chief Agent gave a fascinating reference for Joseph Fossey. He described Fossey as ‘a compound of many discordant qualities’, a peculiar man preoccupied with details and not possessing much natural talent, but yet a ‘conscientious servant of the Company’. The explorations by the Company’s surveying parties yielded few results but provided new knowledge of Tasmania’s western mountains, an incredible and unique part of the world.
Another V.D.L. Co. explorer was the larger-than-life Danish convict, Jorgen Jorgenson.
Even prior to becoming the first chief of Tasmania’s tourist bureau, Evelyn Temple Emmett spent much time walking around the island, and occasionally headed interstate to give talks about it, or received international delegations to the state. He was a fine ballroom-dancer and skiier. In 1931, aged 60, Mr. Emmett was a leader of the inaugural party to ever complete the now-famous Overland Track. On his way there, he passed through the town of Deloraine – arriving in his favourite mode of transport, on hoof.
Mr. Emmett was very fond of Deloraine. He thought it was high on the list of the prettiest towns he’d ever come upon, and marvelled at the Old World trees along the river and the church spires reaching into the sky, streets and roads stretching up hills and around bends. Above the town, the Great Western Tiers stood majestically. Mr. Emmett would later summit the nearby peak of Quambys Bluff.
“The only criticism I can make of Deloraine is that it is cold in winter and knows what frosts are,” Mr. Emmett said, strolling into town early one morning and feeling the sting of the cold on his face. But even of that grim cloud he found a silver lining. For there, on the banks of the Meander River, was a sight perhaps even better than that of the quaint town or the view from the Tiers: three charming lasses.
“Stop!” Mr. Emmett cried to the young women. “Please; for I want to pay Deloraine a compliment through you.” And so they came to him, and Mr. Emmett explained how wonderful their complexions were, no doubt thanks to the cool air of Deloraine; and how, somewhere like Sydney, young women would pay £5 per square inch of whatever stuff might give them such a fine appearance as these locals of the Meander Valley had.
Mr. Emmett finished his flattering speech with a flourish and a broad smile; and finally, letting the lasses have their chance to respond, he found them giggling hysterically.
“Thank-you sir,” one of them finally said, “but we only arrived yesterday to this hole of a place, from Sydney, and we bought our complexions with us.”
“The Deloraine frosts have nothing on our George Street chemist!” another chimed in.
Nevertheless, good humour was retained amongst the group. Mr. Emmett took the young women out for breakfast. And they all went out to the races together, for which purpose the girls had come down from Sydney. It was a splendid day out, and after the morning’s events, laughter was easy to come by.
The girls went back to Sydney and Mr. Emmett never saw them again. But returning home from his Overland Track adventures, he found a package at his house, bearing a postmark from Sydney. It was a little packet of powder. “For your wife if you have one,” the typewritten message read. “From the Three Frosty-Faces.”
Another great journeyman on foot was Henry Reading, who made an almighty stroll from Hobart to Launceston.
Mt. Olympus was the home of the Dodekatheon, the twelve gods – the principle deities, such as Zeus and Athena, lived there. At the foot of the mountain’s north sat the nine Muses, Zeus’ daughters with Mnemosyne and patrons of the Fine Arts.
Olympus is the second highest mountain in Greece, standing between what are now Thessaly and Macedonia. At its peak, it is just less than 10,000 feet in elevation. But this isn’t Mt. Olympus in Greece. This is Mt. Olympus in central Tasmania, overlooking Lake St. Clair, Australia’s deepest natural lake.
It was named so by George Frankland, who arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in 1827 as an assistant surveyor after some years in Pune, India. Within a year he became the Surveyor-General of the island.
The Lieutenant-Governor assigned him to begin a ‘general trigonometrical survey’, but Frankland believed that an important aspect of his role was exploration. His boss wished he’d stay in the office more frequently. He was particularly bent on finding a lead mine somewhere, and over the coming years he would make significant journeys in the wildernesses around the upper Derwent, the upper Huon, and the central highlands of Lake St. Clair.
Frankland was a proud man. He loftily believed the duty of his office was ‘to observe and record every remarkable fact connected with the Natural history of the island whose surface and native production have, in a manner, been placed so peculiarly in his custody.’ That being said, he was never very popular in the colony. It wasn’t only his squabbles with the Lieutenant-Governor over the time he took to do his work. Frankland seemed to have never felt quite at home in Van Diemen’s Land.
He planned to leave, in 1835, and then again attempted to sell his Battery Point home in 1838. But it didn’t sell, and on the second-last day of that year, George Frankland died. He was survived by his wife Anne, two daughters, and a son.
Frankland also named Mt. Ida, Mt. Pelion, and Mt. Rufus in his mythical mood; his precedent spawned a series of Greek names in the area. Today, around Cradle Mountain and Lake St. Clair, you’ll find dozens of names honouring the gods and heroes of Greek myth.
Although it doesn’t seem that these areas were frequently inhabited by Aboriginal populations, there is no doubt that over the millennia these features – like everywhere in Tasmania – had other names. They were not the names of personae from the epics of a continent on the other side of the world, but we don’t now know what indigenous stories sprung from these mountains. Unlike our scholastic understanding of Greek literature, there is no philosophy that we can comprehend from our Mt. Olympus.
Yet perhaps – as we burst through the sclerophyll and onto a buttongrass plain just metres from Lake St. Clair, with spiny Olympus now protruding into the sky – the name of this mountain can clue us into something common, something that unites Tasmania and Greece. In ancient Greece, they called it palaiòn pénthos, ‘ancient grief’, and it “persists undiminished across time and demands that men take some liberating action… For we live surrounded, in the invisible air, by wandering avengers who never forget…”1
The strange spirits of memory.
1 Calasso, Roberto, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, p315.
There’s no way either could have imagined their meeting at the beginning of their lives.
George Augustus Robinson had come to Van Diemen’s Land as an ambitious labourer, and turned himself into the superstar of a desperate tour of the island, a missionary-conciliator trying to bring an end to the war between natives and settlers. Mannalargenna was the chief or ‘clever-man’ of one of the clans of the north-east, centred around what is now called Ben Lomond. He was a revered warrior, with thick dreadlocks smeared with ochre, a scarified body, and a matted beard.
He was capable of fearful courage, and violence. When a European landowner had four of his clan’s women and a child captive in his home, it was Mannalargenna who raided the house to restore them. But George Robinson had no desire to fight anyone. His task was to persuade the Aborigines that their best bet was to let themselves be removed from their traditional lands, and make their lives elsewhere. He had already convinced a number of chiefs. It was not without trepidation, though, that he approached Mannalargenna.
But Mannalargenna knew that the situation was dire anyway. The war had been going on for too long. There was too much misunderstanding. Never before had two peoples less alike ever met. The Aborigines were technologically and numerically outmatched.
It must have been quite a sight, to see them wandering through the bush together, a band of soldiers, convicts and blacks in tow. They had made a deal, although both would swerve the other on it. Mannalargenna was a fickle guide, and led Robinson on wild goose chases. And Robinson didn’t honour his end of the treaty: Mannalargenna never came back to his home.
Another commonality: both George and Mannalargenna had a wife and five kids.
But by the end of his life, everything Mannalargenna had ever cared for had been lost. Sealers had enslaved his sisters and three of his daughters. He saw one of these daughters, one last time, on Preservation Island, unexpectedly. Both father and daughter, Robinson said, were “suffused in tears.” Mannalargenna begged Robinson to get his daughter back for him. Robinson’s hands were tied.
It is said that Mannalargenna sat on the back of the boat as it headed for the Tasmanians’ place of exile, and cut his dreadlocks off. Ben Lomond – or whatever the mountain was known to his people as – disappeared in the thinning sky. He died within a month of reaching the settlement. George Robinson presided over his funeral. He couldn’t have spoken more highly of Mannalargenna.
Strange what can happen in a lifetime.
It was hard not to fall in love with him. To say that he had red hair and blue eyes doesn’t say enough about what a devilish face he had; and with that bowler’s hat on his head, Paddy was a handsome rogue.
So soon enough Lucy Hanson fell for him and became Lucy Hartnett. She had heard all the stories about him – how he and his brother had kept a Maori paramour in the mountains for a time – but she knew he was strong, literate, and hard-working, and that’s what was important to a girl from Waratah in those days. They were married with Catholic rites and then headed up to Pelion Plains. That’s where they would make their money, Paddy had said.
He knew what he was talking about: possum furs were suddenly selling big in Europe. The work was hellishly hard, though. They’d go up in winter, when the furs were thickest, and live in the huts Paddy pulled together from king billy. This one they called ‘Windsor Castle’. Skins would dry along the inner walls. If they’d left them outside, the ‘hyenas’ – thylacines, Tasmanian tigers – would come to get them.
Sometimes Paddy got lost in the snow; if so, he’d make a fire and sleep on the coals. He used his bowler hat – not the nice one he’d been wearing when he met Lucy in the town, but the battered old thing he wore in the bush – to scoop water out of the rivers from. Lucy and her son would make bread and boil potatoes and help beeswax his clothes for waterproofing.
Back in the town, Paddy would drink something shocking. Occasionally he’d barter a fur for a glass of cheap whiskey. Lucy didn’t put up with that for long; she set the boys down at the hotel straight, and started taking charge of the mercantile operations in the family. Paddy didn’t like it, but he couldn’t argue – he was a pisspot, and Lucy had her head on straight.
Seasons changed; trapping didn’t earn so much anymore. Paddy moved onto the osmiridium fields, and he took a daughter with him too, dressed up as a bloke. The booze had buggered him though. He lost an eye one drunken night; then he had a stroke. Finally, delirium tremens, and death.
Lucy, two sons, and five daughters survived him.
Another bloke who lived in highland huts was WWII veteran Boy Miles.
They say that Jorgen Jorgenson was the first European to lay eyes on the Walls of Jerusalem. Jorgenson, the Danish-born explorer, was employed by the Van Diemen’s Land Company to try and find a route through the centre of Tasmania. He found no easy passage. Now the island is fully mapped, we know that there is none; that all throughout the centre, the west, and the south, Tasmania is made up of protrusions of dolerite mountains, countless of them, now named after Greek mythologies or biblical toponyms, Pelion and Olympus, King David’s Peak and Solomon’s Throne, Jerusalem.
To get to the Walls of Jerusalem, you scramble up a steep slope onto an altiplano. To the east and the west, mountains rise like walls around you, as a track passes through spiky scoparia bushes, beneath stands of pencil pines over a thousand years old. The landscape seems Jurassic. Strange grasshoppers skip erratically; skinks’ shadows melt between the boulders.
Jorgenson managed to spend a lot of time in the bush, between his other employments of writing treatises and working for the police. He saw the harshest side of the wilderness: a rushing river swept away one of his colleagues before his eyes. One night in the Walls of Jerusalem, he watched a log burning in its middle with snow still fixed firmly at each end, so cold it was. But he was drawn to the bush. There was something magnetic about the brightness of the stars in the dark, the little movements of birds in the bushes, the exhaustion of climbing a mountain, the exhilaration of walking with complete freedom – without restraint.
There are days when I feel like Jorgen Jorgenson and I could have had a good conversation, sitting outside our tents by what is now called Lake Adelaide, pausing with pen poised over a journal as mosquitoes buzzed around us. Perhaps we would talk about politics or religion; perhaps we would yarn about the adventures we’d been on, the places we’d seen. I suppose we would talk about women, at some point. Jorgen might remember the Scottish girl with whom he was almost married, or the Bavarian belle who embarrassed him at a ball. Who knows what bullshit I’d tell him.
An explorer, a seaman and something of a revolutionary, Jorgen Jorgenson also turned out to be somewhat romantic. He fell in love with an Irish convict, a drunk prostitute named Norah, and they got married in a church in New Norfolk, southern Tasmania. It was almost the death of him. That’s another thing we might have discussed, had Jorgen and I somehow found ourselves on a bushwalk somewhere, some time ago.