Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged north-east

  • To Enjoy the Earth

    To Enjoy the Earth


    At 216 metres it’s not the most impressive of mountains, but wukalina / Mount William affords a fine view of the north-eastern tip of Tasmania, and the islands of Bass Strait beyond it. “Them islands are very special to us,” Ben said as we crouched on a rounded lump of granite for lunch. Later – a little further south along the coast, yet with the islands still faintly blue on the horizon – he would tell me how his grandparents met there.

    I was working on the wukalina walk, an eco-tourism project run by the Aboriginal Land Council in that far corner of the island. They have built a most impressive shack on Cod Bay: called krakani lumi, ‘resting place’, the buildings’ design absorbs the features of the landscapes and Aboriginal architectural history in a stunning way.

    Mount William National Park was inscribed in the 1980s to look after the coastal heath ecosystems
    and preserve the last stronghold for the forester kangaroo (Macropus giganteus) – while we have in Tasmania a lot of smaller macropods, like wallabies and pademelons, there are very few kangaroos. This is dry country, as thirsty for fire as it is rain. Along the gravel roads, bracken wears brown dust. Acacias, black peppermints, banksias and xanthorrhoeas stand out above the low shrubs. The beaches, meanwhile, glisten; the sea heaves itself onto the shore in dull crashes.

    As Ben finished explaining his people’s heritage on the Bass Strait islands, I added some geological insight: the islands were formed by an event known as the Tabberabberan Orogeny, which involved an intrusion of igneous rock which stretches from what is now Wilsons Promontory in Victoria, through to the Hippolyte Rocks off the coast of the Tasman Peninsula.

    Those islands were mountains when the first Tasmanians crossed Bass Strait; then, the strait was in fact a stretch of lowland plains, before the end of the last Ice Age flooded it and rendered them islanders. It was the longest isolation of any human culture in history: the cutting-off of that granite chain meant that the Tasmanians had 10,000 years to develop a completely unique way of being. Those were the ancestors of today’s palawa, three of whom were my colleagues for that weekend at wukulina and larapuna. They are also the descendants of white seafarers, who were part of wreaking the complex of rapid changes that mutilated so much of what the Tasmanian cultures would have been.

    Much is lost, but contrary to what we may have been taught, not all. The purpose of the wukalina walk is to ensure that palawa culture is lived and shared. In many cases, it is a matter of relearning, and perhaps the most exciting facet of the trip was making three new palawa friends, each of whom is rediscovering what it means to be Aboriginal, in their own idiosyncratic ways.

    And in my own idiosyncratic way, I am trying to work out how to be a Tasmanian without having any known Aboriginal heritage. I listened intently, then, to an elder telling a story from the old people, about the creation of first palawa man – how the spirits formed him, and, in the elder’s words, ensured that he “could enjoy the earth”. It had a poetic insight into human interactions with the Tasmanian landscape that I find very valuable. But I’m also reluctant to borrow the poetry from a people with a voice to which we listen too poorly, knowing that this can carry the same vibes as colonialism.

    Yet my identity is tangled up with the landscapes of the island, and there is no understanding the bush here without understanding the 40,000 years of human history within it. I have read much of the ethnographic material on the Aboriginal Tasmanians – that is, the stuff that whitefellas wrote. We know it is flawed, but many times, these same sources are being used by the palawa community to reconstruct their identity.

    It was a real treat, then, to work alongside three palawa who are learning the same craft as me. To sit on the edge of a shell midden, to watch Ben put his thumb into the worn groove of a stone cutting tool that his old fellas made. To listen to them stumble over the words of their euphonious language, palawa kani, the syllables of which seem to me to take in the rhythm of the land and sea and stars here. And to explore that curious space, of unknowing and relearning, of both our shared heritage and the vast differences in history – a space that swells the imagination, and from which I am sure a great deal of good is coming.

  • Returning in Fog

    Returning in Fog

    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.

  • Notoriety

    Notoriety

    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.

  • Floods

    Floods

    As I returned home from a short trip to the mainland, the major river systems of northern Tasmania were in flood.

    After heavy rainfall a few days earlier, rising waters destroyed homes and property, swept away livestock, and
    brought about the end of at least one life, with several more people missing.

    Latrobe, on the Mersey River, looked almost entirely submerged in aerial photos; 19 houses have been rendered ‘uninhabitable’. I am about to move into the suburb of Invermay: it was evacuated as I returned to it. I tried not take this personally.

    Flying across Bass Strait, the aftermath of flooding in the Emu, Forth, Mersey, Meander, Macquarie, North Esk and South Esk Rivers was evident. I couldn’t see much from the aisle seat, of course, but I joined the neck-stretching gawkers trying to see what had occurred while we were north, on the big island.

    I went straight from the airport to the Cataract Gorge. Dozens of people were there, watching huge quantities of water barrel down beneath the suspension bridge, a turbulent, seething, brown-and-white mass. The flooding of the Gorge has long had this effect; it brings a crowd, at all hours, and suddenly we have something to talk about with our neighbours.

    It also reminds us that this town at a confluence of three rivers; the water in the Cataract Gorge, spilling over the blunt concrete of its dam walls, is identifiable as a genuine river, the longest one in Tasmania no less, whose headwaters at the base of Ben Lomond require several days to journey to the second-most populous town on the island. As our lives move away from practical geographical knowledge, the Gorge is treated like an island, as if it is its own ecosystem, isolated: many Launcestonians I know could not tell you which river runs between those dolerite cliffs, and I suspect many do not even recognise it as part of a river system.

    But we can understand it better, even if the way we talk about it is unscientific. “I’ve never seen it this high,” says everybody. “Do you reckon it’ll go over?” the residents of Invermay asked each other by the flood levy on Tuesday night, before the evacuation. “Nah, don’t reckon...”

    On the aeroplane, a husband is pointing out what he thinks are various roads, submerged farms, bridges that must be washed away. She looks up from her electronic book, and spits, “Oh, what would you know!”

    This flood follows a summer in which a lack of rainfall threatened us. Hydroelectric dams ran close to empty. Dry lightning struck dry vegetation, creating bushfires in the rainforest.

    Gaston Bachelard has written a
    Psychoanalysis of Fire; who will treat a psychoanalysis of floods? We so blithely use the river as a metaphor for steady movement, progress, providence, time. A flood ignores these interpretations. The river is usually an uninterrupted flow of hours; the flood interrupts, makes time’s rhythm seem less benign. It reminds us that there is no guarantee that we have an allotted amount of days, or that the hours will trundle by coolly and calmly. Years may pass in peace, but the arrival of a single violent moment can end it all. We are alerted to the fact that the same hand which feeds us might yet throttle us.

    And yet for modern witnesses, the spectacle of the sublime draws us to itself. Even as elsewhere lives and livelihoods are being washed away, we stand by the seething rivers, waves lifting out from the depths and pushing forcefully out to the mouth, into the sea, suddenly unnoticeable.

    My new housemate takes the record player off the top shelf; we were not flooded out. The levy held the waters back. They say this was a more severe flood than the one in 1929, which was a genuine disaster. But our infrastructure has reprieved us of much worse. In a poorer country, the death toll would stand at thousands. In rural Tasmania, the consequences are devastating: socially, economically, emotionally. But for those in town, we once again allow ourselves to believe we have mastered the ancient processes of our ecosystems.



    Two years ago I wrote 'A Short History of Shitty Weather', about the 1929 floods.
    More recent is this piece on pirates in southern Tasmania.

  • Cornish Pasties

    Cornish Pasties

    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.

     

  • An Inhospitable Mountain

    An Inhospitable Mountain

    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.

  • Naming Mathinna

    Naming Mathinna

    Mathinna never came here, to the town that bears her name.

    ‘The girl in the red dress’, as she was later painted by a convict artist, was born at the Aboriginal settlement on Flinders Island in 1835. Her parents were from the south-west of Tasmania; Towterer, her father, was a chief of the Lowreenne people. Towterer and his wife Wongerneep were convinced by the enterprising ‘conciliator’ G.A. Robinson, on his ‘friendly mission’, to go into exile when he kidnapped a daughter – Mathinna’s sister – on a west coast expedition.

    That daughter died anyway, her name unrecorded, at Sarah Island. Towterer and Wongerneep received new, grandiloquent names at Robinson’s behest: Romeo and Queen Evaline. They quickly passed away too, leaving Mathinna an orphan on Flinders Island.

    But Mathinna wasn’t the name she was born with anyway. She was Mary, like five other Aboriginal girls at the Flinders Island camp. It wasn’t until she was sent to Hobart that she became Mathinna.

    She had been adopted by the ruling powers of Van Diemen’s Land in that day: the Franklins. John Franklin, the Lieutenant-Governor of the island, had previously been a famous Arctic explorer; his wife Jane was an enthusiastic and active woman, who dreamed of making the colony a haven for art and culture. Part of her liberal agenda for Van Diemen’s Land was to prove that the Aboriginal population could be taught to embrace British values and customs. Mathinna was supposed to be the exemplar of this.

    So they gave her a red dress and had a portrait done; they gave her pen and paper, and taught her to write. She was raised alongside the Franklins’ daughter Eleanor.

    But then, less than two years later, John Franklin lost his job and was recalled to Britain. (He went off and froze to death in the Arctic.) Mathinna went to the appalling conditions of the Queens Orphan School in Hobart in 1843, where scarlet fever ran rampant. Finally, she was transferred to a new Aboriginal settlement at Oyster Cove, a station of derelict buildings where abject neglect created insurmountable poverty.

    Alcoholism and prostitution – largely with dodgy settlers who chose to live near to the Aboriginal camp for this reason – was rife. Mathinna got caught up in it, and the only report of her death declares that she drunkenly passed out in a creek and drowned. She was not yet 21.

    This gold mining town was first called Blackboy, then Reedy Marsh, and finally became Mathinna in 1882. Why was it named after this young woman of tragedy? What stories did the miners here tell over a beer, when it was the third-largest town in Tasmania, that made them want to call their town this way?

    Then again, where did the name Mathinna come from anyway? When she was born, she was called Mary; Mathinna an invention, something for the Franklins’ sake, because they wanted something exotic. Funny to be remembered in a town you never went to, with a name that wasn’t really yours.

     

    Later in Mathinna: a mystery surrounding the death of William Mullins.

  • The Mullins Murder

    The Mullins Murder

    On Thursday evening, June 19, 1913, a well-to-do farmer William Mullins went for a social drink at his friend Frank Whittle’s house. The next day, at about 11a.m., he left his home to check his possum traps. He was supposed to be gone for two hours, but he never came back.

    Two weeks later, his remains turned up in a gully two miles from where he lived. All that were left were some charred bones.

    Early criminological investigations suggested that an enormous pyre had been lit for Mullins’ body, prepared and attended to by at least two perpetrators, for at least six hours. The assailants had been so well-organised they removed the metal buttons from Mullins’ clothing. The story goes that they had even put the shoes on their horse backwards, so as to confuse the investigators.

    Mullins was about 50 years old and lived on a property called ‘Sunnyside’, by the Tyne River near Mathinna. His neighbour, Daniel Jones, was the prime suspect in the case. Mullins had been accused of burning down the Jones family’s wheatstack; there were stories of poisoned dogs and pigs. Someone in the town had warned Mullins to arm himself, but he figured his fists would be enough to defend himself.

    “Have you been out of your wife’s sight since June 20,” Jones was asked in court. “Not for long,” he replied. Jones seemed to be backed into a corner. He apparently told Mr. McKenzie that he had done away with Mullins, but the facts were hazy; his brother was rumoured to have said he would one day ‘pot [Mullins] like a bird’. The judge declared that everyone had satisfactory evidence apart from Dan Jones and his wife.

    But the locals seemed to be indifferent about the murder of Bill Mullins; or worse, they seemed to be trying to shield the identity of the murderers. Jones’ bail, set at £100, was paid.

    In the end, the Hobart Criminal Court found there was insufficient evidence to charge Daniel Jones over the murder of his neighbour.

    One of the legacies of the murder: in the Fingal Valley Football Association, the Mathinna club came to be known by the unsavoury name of the ‘Kill-and-Burns’.

     

    The author also profiled Tasmanian country football locations for ''
    Writing Footy'. The first instalment, about the old Mathinna ground, can be found here.

  • A Short History of Shitty Weather in Northern Tasmania

    A Short History of Shitty Weather in Northern Tasmania

    I heard folks say that the weather in the north of Tasmania last week was worst in living memory. Is there no-one left to remember the 1929 floods?

    The rain started on Wednesday, and went on for three days. In that time, Burnie and Ulverstone recorded 500mm of rainfall; in one day, Mathinna copped 337mm.

    On Friday, April 5, 1929, Launceston was abuzz. The Examiner’s printing presses were employed in publishing single-page evacuation instructions. Both ends of the Esk River were rushing at an alarming speed. Chooks, horses, and even pianos were seen floating around the city’s streets and parks. And then, as evening fell, the power station at Duck Reach was washed out, plunging the city into darkness.

    The evacuations began at 2a.m. The working-class suburb of Invermay was on the way to becoming an island; thousands of residents there had to be taken to higher grounds, sleeping in churches and schools in other parts of Launceston.

    Most of the casualties happened outside of Launceston, the biggest town in the north. A truck carrying eight passengers was swept off a bridge in Ulverstone. Fourteen people died when a newly-built dam in the north-east of the island collapsed.

    When they woke up, the people of northern Tasmania woke up to scenes of destruction. In every town, road and rail bridges had been knocked down thousands of tonnes of moving water. 5000 people were left homeless; the Launceston Bowls Club had lost their building; the Tamar Rowing Club lost most of its boats.

    It was the middle of a global recession; between 1928 and 1933, Launceston’s total trade decreased by 29%. Banks wouldn’t loan money to restore lost savings; it took more than a decade for the town to fully recover, and by that point, World War II had begun.

    But that morning, as the rain stopped, and the river-water lazily sat above the levels of its banks, slowly subsiding in the streets, there was – I suspect – an eerie sensation of peace.

    Down in St. Mary’s, a baby was crying. He’d been born overnight, in a truck. His parents would later tell him that he wasn’t born, but rather, he’d been swept in by the rushing rivers.

  • George and Mannalargenna

    George and Mannalargenna

    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.