Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged north-west

  • A Mountain in Winter

    A Mountain in Winter

    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.

  • Archaeology from the Anthropocene

    Archaeology from the Anthropocene

    If you stumble upon a strata of Permian mudstone in Tasmania, you’ll likely find some fossils in it. Don’t expect dinosaur bones: what we have are impressions of various flora and fauna from the sea, bivalves and brachiopods from the era that began roughly 300 million years, and ended with an apocalypse in 251 million years ago.

    Palaeontologists can recognise the Permian pretty easily, because nearly all of the creatures on the planet became extinct at this stage. At the time, Tasmania was covered with a shallow sea – much of the Earth’s landmasses were. The prevailing theory (although there are a few contenders) suggests that underwater volcanoes poisoned everything.

    Oh well. I stop at a cleft of mudstone somewhere, finger the pretty imprints of shells and the wavy lines of sea-fern fronds; then I get back in my car and drive to the next place, to an outcrop of Devonian conglomerate, perhaps, or the pub in the north-west town of Marrawah.

    I have spent comparatively little time at the helm of a motor car, preferring a life on hoof. Still, the power of the combustion engine gives me a great rush: what a phenomenological experience! I have a very fine vehicle, and its complicated mechanics and its ability to push me along at a great velocity. In fact, there may be no faster car in Tasmania than my 1992 Ford Laser.

    Sometimes whilst driving I see an echidna fumbling and fidgeting on the verge. “Such earth attunement!” shouts the poet Pete Hay. The most minute vibrations in the grass will attract their attention – they’re after ants.

    Given their poor eyesight I’m glad they’re not driving my car; I suspect they wouldn’t want to either, as I have seen them find an ants’ nest, and, positively covered in the insects, they appear (I’m afraid to say) like they are in the throes of an orgasm. They are in their glee and they wouldn’t trade it for anything. I think I would swap my phenomenological experience for theirs too.

    Half-way down the winding road from Marrawah to my campsite of choice, I see a plaque and swiftly pull over to observe it. A map of the area has been forged and stuck on a concrete plinth; we can thank the Marrawah Women’s Progress Association for this, who organised it in 1977, or so the plaque says.

    A van is in the corner of the headland where I want to camp. It belongs to two European backpackers; I decide to chat with them, mostly to see if they are leaving and if I can claim their spot. I have given them some bushwalking advice and we are having an amiable conversation about their travels until, a propos of nothing, they begin to insult Aboriginal people. My mind goes blank with anger and turning on my heels to leave them immediately, I say, stupid with rage, “Shut up.”

    Later, when they are gone, I sit and face the sea, and try and let my anger cool in the sea breeze and the distance. The Women’s Association plaque has told me that Cape Horn is 15,586 kilometres from me, almost due west. But closer by is Cape Grim, Tassie’s north-west tip: there, in 1827, an Aboriginal party was massacred by a group of shepherds. These shepherds were apparently retaliating to the murder of some sheep. But we know that sheep are not the true meaning of all this: they were fighting over land use, both fuelled with theories and superstitions about spirituality and economy – which is to say, most of what gave their lives meaning and their relationships purpose.

    There are more cows than sheep in the north-west today. They too are an economic symbol, with “Cape Grim Beef” one of those contemporary phrases which lacks poetry but is nevertheless loaded with significance. It’s delicious dairy country up here too. I am lucky enough to have spent some time working with cows, and I like to look at them. They’re really rather lovely, although to touch them is to lay hands on a strange biological sculpture. They have a weird figure, bones and cartilage in places you don’t expect them.

    It’s a memorable form, and one which must have seemed monstrous to Aboriginal observers when cows were first dropped onto the island two centuries ago. Cows are seriously harming the environment, but it’s not really their choice. The real monstrosities have been caused by humans.

    At a conference in the year 2000, a scientist jokingly described the current geological era as the Anthropocene Era. The joke has lost its humour. Dig, in a million years, and you will find the evidence of our roads and buildings, our landfills of plastic, our soil-degrading farms, of Permian-style mass extinction. I think it would be embarrassing to be there on that day. “What were you lot doing?” they’d ask. “What insanity was the era of the Anthropocene?”

    I’d like to think they will find this plaque in Marrawah though; I can see this in a future archaeological museum, with a naff little write-up next to it. It’d be nice if it could be exhibited with the current graffiti intact: someone has spraypainted a multi-coloured love-heart and scrawled the word ‘Land’ in the middle. It could prove to an insightful archaeologist that at least a few of us loved our landscapes. “They weren’t all bad,” they might say.

    I don’t suppose the paint will last, however.



    I've been thinking a lot about forms in the Tasmanian landscape: fences and fantails, for example, or otherwise bird tracks and moon shapes.

    And also on the topic of environmental destruction in the north-west, we went to Savage River...

  • Figures and Textures: Mountains, Yards, Moons, Dinosaurs

    Figures and Textures: Mountains, Yards, Moons, Dinosaurs

    I am increasingly compelled to pay attention to the figures and textures of Tasmania, and to wonder what impression they have made upon my brain and our society as we each pass our time within their midst.

    For example, as the years go on, I become more familiar with such forms in the mountains where I work. It is not only the silhouettes of massifs and gendarmes that affect me. I recall last patches of light on the summits, the rock changing colour as the sun disappears behind a hill or forest. There is the coarseness of dolerite’s crystals against the soft pads of my hands, or the sharp contortions of quartzite under the thick leather of my boots’ soles, or the slippery grains of wet sandstone.

    Artists have a keen eye for these things. I am not an artist, but I admire someone like Peter Dombrovskis, a photographer who spent incredible amounts of time and care during his forays into the bush. A cursory look through Dombrovskis’ catologue is enough to tell us that he knew these forms intimately: the curl of the pandani, the burled bark, convulsions of kelp, ice-encrusted flower petals.

    But even those who are considerate and attentive will today arrive with the aesthetic prejudices of Europe. We must remember that straight lines are rarely found in the Tasmanian bush. Maybe there are rectilinear forms in geology, but very rarely are they truly straight. Even the horizon may have taken on a different meaning for the original Tasmanians: this line, I am told, is not the crux of much Aboriginal art, unlike what we have been handed down from the classic painters of Europe.

    Tasmanian art, as far as we can know, was most often in the media of bodily scarification and petroglyphs. Here at preminghana or Mount Cameron West, in the island’s north-west, is said to have some of the mesmerising and memorable examples of art in the latter medium. (Today it is concealed and only accessible to some members of the Tasmanian Aboriginal community.)

    Stylised circles, moon-shapes, dots, crosses and bird tracks were recorded by early European observers; similar motifs appear in the descriptions of the cicatrices cut into the flesh of Tasmanians. The “curved emblem” was also found at Aboriginal gravesites, and in their temporary huts. The full meanings of these figures are not shared, but commentators have remarked on the potential symbolism – “an awareness of a spiritual dimension within the land”, says Roslynn Haynes.

    Probably, they had a range of possible meanings, a beautiful and complicated polysemy.

    I grew up on a bush block in the Tamar Valley and there are countless forms that have unalterably changed me. Perhaps the open land we had is the most obvious: my gait, I think, corresponds to the yards in which I strode as a youth. But there are many more,
    most of which I do not yet comprehend. But I am spending a lot of time trying to unravel it all.

    For example, when I came to look at preminghana, I found myself comparing it to a Pachycephalosaurus, in a certain unlikely posture. I was very fond of dinosaurs as a lad.


  • The Dog That Saved the Tasmanian Economy

    The Dog That Saved the Tasmanian Economy

    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.

  • The Subtle Colours of the Western Tiers

    The Subtle Colours of the Western Tiers

    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.

  • Love Letter from the Pieman River

    Love Letter from the Pieman River

    To the same tangled forests, tenebrous rivers and towering mountains, two Sprents were sent, three decades apart.

    James Sprent was perhaps an unlikely candidate for bush exploration. The son of a Glaswegian publisher, he arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in 1830 with an exorbitant quantity of books, engravings and stationery. His first endeavours on the island were in education, and they were very ambitious: he opened schools and ran classes on everything from philosophy to astronomy. He wasn’t even 25 years old yet.

    But he was soon employed as a surveyor and began venturing into the rough Tasmanian terrain. A decade into his career, as one of only two permanent surveyors employed by the Colonial Office, he would be sent on a major project marking out roads in the north-west. Around the same time, in 1842, James Sprent would launch himself into another serious enterprise: love. He married a currency lass from mainland Australia named Susannah Hassall
    Oakes, the daughter of Parramatta’s chief constable.

    So this well-read, industrious man cut and burnt his way into the treacherous environs of north-western Tasmania. Aboriginal Tasmanians had inhabited that quarter, of course, but even they had little practical use for the dense wet sclerophyll, rainforests, and mountains, exposed to buffeting westerlies and fecund with harsh horizontal and bauera scrub.

    No doubt he often thought of Susannah, as he hacked his way into leagues of trackless country, his canvas clothes shredding in the constant press of spiky plants and coarse rocks. Even with a party of other explorers, this was lonely work. His betrothed, he worried, was left in the hands of “drunken ruffians” at Circular Head, near the north-western tip of Van Diemen’s Land. Broad dark rivers of doubt criss-crossed his mind as it did this land, so far from where he had been born.

    James Sprent would erect a trig point on the summit of nearby Mount Bischoff. He did not realise that within the jagged quartzite and dolomite beneath his feet, mineral dykes had lay waiting to be discovered.

    But his only surviving son, Charles Percy Sprent – born in 1849 – would become well aware of this. In 1871, two years after his father’s death, Charles became the District Surveyor of north-western Tasmania. In that same year, Mount Bischoff’s immense wealth of tin was revealed by the pick of a hardy prospector. For a time, it was said to be the world’s richest tin mine.

    Charles Sprent also went on pioneering exploratory journeys to western Tasmania. He too opened up unused tracts of land, with blaze and axe, devising maps that would be crucial for further prospecting and settling throughout the next decades.

    C
    harles Sprent also made himself familiar with that Tasmanian vegetation, which so vigorously resists human passage; and the boisterous weather, which threatens to billow into squalls and storms at every moment of the day, rising to violence after its long traverse of the ocean, all the way from Patagonia. Whatever his motivations, he accepted the conditions of hunger, exhaustion, dampness, soreness and solitude. Of wet boots and leeches.

    In 1878, Charles Sprent was on
    the banks of the Pieman River, this tremendous broad waterway which tours 100 kilometres of western forest, from pre-Cambrian high country to the Southern Ocean. From its mouth at Hardwicke Bay, on a January afternoon, he thought of his own fiancée. Her name was Elizabeth Jane Rudge. Charles looked upon the tumult as the dark river pushed its way into the churning grey surf, and in its background, the romantic beauty of the aeons-old forest had mountains folded sharply in their midst. Some had been the basis of his father’s calculations. Tasmania had been mapped by him, using them. Current maps bear the surname of these men on townships, roads, rivers and mountains.

    Th
    e scene at Pieman Heads impressed itself upon Charles Sprent. He was moved to write to Elizabeth:

    This is a wild, desolate looking coast; the sea has a hungry rattle about it as it roars on the beach. Savage rocks stick up in all directions and the surf goes flying over them. The vegetation is stunted and low. Coming down the river we had some lovely sights; trees down to the water’s edge every shade of green, and immense clusters of flowers.”

    He added of the Pieman, “It is a noble river.”


    I visited the banks of another noble river with an old friend.
    The fascinating Charles Gould was Tasmania's first geological surveyor.

  • 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.

  • A Savage Shock

    A Savage Shock

    Captain Abel Tasman had suspected there were mineral deposits in the mountains of western Tasmania; his compass acted up as the Zeehaen and Heemskirk approached the island in 1642.

    In 1877 the work of intrepid government surveyor Charles Sprent confirmed the presence of various ores in that rugged country, including deposits of
    magnetite iron ore, on the Savage River, whose tenebrous waters flow down from beneath Mount Bertha through pristine rainforest into the Pieman River and the west coast.

    But the ore was of lower quality (only 38% iron) and it took nearly a century for mineral investors to believe in the economic potential of a mine there. The town of Savage River came to be over the years 1965 to 1967 and the mine began its life. Today it is operated by Grange Resources, a Chinese-owned company which is the largest non-government employer in north-western Tasmania. An 80 kilometre pipeline brings the magnetite concentrate to a plant near the port town of Burnie.

    In 1990 a young couple from New Zealand arrived to practice medicine in the town. A bushfire had just ripped through the Hazelwood River valley. Local stories varied as how the disaster had occurred: as one of these doctors recalled in a recent letter, it was either “campers who hadn’t doused their fire properly” or “the forestry boys who prior to the end of the financial year had $ to burn so would experiment with dropping fire bombs from helicopters.”

    Meanwhile, the Savage River was being severely polluted by run-off from the mine.
    30 kilometres of the river was poisoned by acid seepages and other contaminants. By 1995, the Environmental Protection Agency reports, parts of the river “were found to have lost 90% of its invertebrate biodiversity and 99% of its invertebrate abundance”. Even by the standards of other local environmental ravages, this was a terrible result.

    In the 1990s, though, an environmental rehabilitation process was implemented.

    For three years
    these Kiwi doctors worked at Savage River; their work had seen them attend to snakebites, jackjumper anaphylaxis and indeed mine fatalities. this year, they returned to Tasmania to tour the island in a campervan. I had met these doctors previously on a bushwalk; in a remarkable coincidence, we found ourselves camped on other sides of the Savage River on rainy west coast evening.

    A letter had just been written to me, full of observations from their time revisiting the area. “May as well save on the postage,” we agreed.

    As the road wound its way towards their old place of work, they were greeted with post-bushfire reforestation, and the mizzling rain that they had lived with most days of their three-year stint in western Tasmania. However, the sight of the Savage River township was “a savage shock.” The accumulation of waste rock, removal of temporary homes and buildings, boomgates installed over roads: twenty-six years of memory were undone in an instant. “The squash courts remain – as what?”

    The doctors were taken aback by the visual impact of the mine, and suggested that what had seemed like a contained site in 1990 had now spread malignantly into the surrounding forest.

    In the meantime, other sites in the area have moved away from such industries and are hoping to survive from tourism. This area is now widely known as the Tarkine or
    takayna, a broadly-defined region covering much temperate rainforest, mountainous terrain, and rarely-visited coastline. A recent publication, Tarkine Trails, invites recreational visitors to the area in order to promote its conservation value. On the other hand, some sixty-odd mineral exploration licenses are valid in the Tarkine region, which environmentalists worry will continue to “significantly disturb river environments”.

    They are campaigning for a Tarkine National Park: a proposal which they accept will have no effect on the current lease of the Savage River Iron Ore Mine operated by Grange Resources. North of the mine, the Savage River National Park is Tasmania’s least accessible national park, and the river, untouched, drops down through forested gorges before it comes upon the mine.

  • Henry Hellyer of the Van Diemen's Land Company

    Henry Hellyer of the Van Diemen's Land Company

    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.


    Here is the story of the career of Edward Curr and its consequences.
    Jorgen Jorgenson was another Van Diemen's Land Company explorer.

  • Edward Curr of the Van Diemen's Land Company

    Edward Curr of the Van Diemen's Land Company

    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.



  • Fenton of Forth Country

    Fenton of Forth Country

    Settling new country was seen as a heroic act by the early Europeans in Australia, and there were few more heroic in that mould than James Fenton of the Forth.

    He was brought out on the Othello by his father, James Fenton snr., who was following his cousin Michael to Van Diemen’s Land. The “Fighting Fentons” (as they charmingly called themselves) were Protestants from Ireland, their family of French ancestry. Michael had served in India and Burma before coming to Van Diemen’s Land in 1828, and reported very favourably of it. They left Liverpool in 1833; James snr. died at sea. James jnr. and his mother and brothers arrived in Hobart Town in February 1834.

    Soon after, the eldest sister had married and taken up land on the north coast, west of the Tamar. Visiting, James took great interest in the country further west, which was still covered in heavy timber, an intricate ecosystem of wet sclerophyll. Anywhere with slightly less forest had been taken by the Van Diemen’s Land Company. Yet in 1840, James Fenton delved into the depths of this country, and bought a thousand cheap acres from the government on the Forth River. He was the only settler in the district; the nearest civilisation was about eighty kilometres away.

    Fenton’s technique of land management was unique and innovative. In 1846, now in his mid-twenties, he married  Helena Mary Monds, the sister of successful settler capitalist Thomas Monds. (Fenton and Monds would go into business in the 1850s, exporting palings to Victoria for accommodation on the burgeoning goldfields.) They were exposed to threats: for example, when the felonious personalities Dalton and Kelly appeared off the beach near the mouth of the Forth.

    Gradually, other settlers entered the region. Fenton had helped and housed explorers such as Nathaniel Lipscombe Kentish as they tried to push back the unknown parts of the region. In the 1850s, settlements pushed further west than Fenton had, adopting his system of ring-barking old growth trees and burning the undergrowth.  Fenton’s techniques became the model for the new pioneer community living on the north-west coast.

    Removing the forests had revealed surprisingly rich, ruby-coloured basaltic soil, ideal for farming. Berry bushes and fruit trees were planted; Fenton later confessed to have introduced blackberries to that part of Tasmania. “I trust the gentle reader will not throw up the book when he discovers that the writer…was one of the miscreants who inflicted the blackberry plague on the district,” he worries in his Bush Life in Tasmania, which today remains a wonderful read on the European settlement of the Forth country.

    Of course, we know that Fenton’s career in Forth country wrought irrevocable changes. He notes in his pioneering memoir that although a previous explorer had frequently seen emus, he never saw a single one. Henry Hellyer had been able to ‘rout’ emus, Fenton reflects, almost constantly. “It is a very singular fact that those emus have all disappeared from some unknown cause.” It seems almost wilful naiveté to us.

    Fenton briefly left the Forth to try his hand at the Victorian goldfields in 1852, but returned quickly, and didn’t leave again until 1879, deeming himself too old for farming. He retired with his wife to Launceston and began to write. A drawing of James Fenton in this time of retirement – in his late sixties – shows him with thick features, kind eyes, and a mighty beard.

    James Fenton and Helena Mary Monds had three daughter, and one son, Charles Monds, who opened a store at Forth in 1869: a sign of the times, of the development of the region and the growth in settler population there less than three decades after his father had adventurously decided to move there.

    The Australian Dictionary of Biography says of James Fenton jnr. (1820-1901) that “the beautiful farm lands carved out of the north-coast forests are his best monument.” Looking out of the patchwork of poppies, potatoes and pyrethrum, the apples and cherries and carrots, all the cows and sheep, one can read the land in a variety of ways. Ultimately, they are the remembered and recorded map of this era of intense change of landscape management on the island.

     
    Last week, we looked at the history of fish management in Tasmania.
    Find out more about James Fenton's goldfields trip.

  • A Long Week at Waldheim

    A Long Week at Waldheim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


     
    Gustav and Kate had their honeymoon on Mt. Roland.

  • Tarenorerer the Warrior

    Tarenorerer the Warrior

    Tarenorerer was born around 1800 and belonged to the region near Table Cape on Tasmania’s north-west coast, from a people known as either the Tommeginne or Plair-Leke-Liller-Plue. As a teenager, she was abducted by a neighbouring bands and sold to sealers in Bass Strait. They named her Walyer.

    The sealers of the Bass Strait islands were rough and crude men for the most part, and it was not uncommon for Aboriginal women to be taken as unwilling wives. Tarenorerer lived through this a decade before returning to the Tasmanian mainland. When she came back in 1828, she spoke English, and knew how to use a gun. These two skills – plus an overwhelming urge to achieve revenge – made her a force to be reckoned with.

    Two centuries’ distance – and the agendas of those writing the accounts of her life – may have distorted the record of Tarenorer’s life, but it seems that her enemies were both black and white. Tarenorerer renewed conflicts against old Aboriginal enemies, but also said that she hated the white Europeans as much as she did black snakes. Assembling a misfit guerrilla army of Aboriginals from a number of areas (including her two brothers and two sisters), Tarenorerer proved to be a wily general. Her attacks on both settlers and their livestock represented some of the most intelligent tactics in the Black War.

    Missionary-diplomat George Augustus Robinson saw Walyer as a threat to his relocation program for the Aboriginal Tasmanians. He described her as an ‘Amazon’ and bemoaned her ‘wanton and barbarous aggression’. Robinson had no love for the Bass Strait sealers, but may have colluded with them for the capture of the rebellious warrior. Tarenorerer returned to the sealers in 1830; whether by choice or force is uncertain, and historians have strong views on either side.

    Whatever the case, she was captured by a sealer that year, and handed over to Robinson. She was sent to a prison on Swan Island, in solitary confinement to counter her leadership, lest she inspire further revolt. Moved to Gun Carriage Island shortly after, she died of influenza in 1831, still a young woman.

     

  • Fool's Gold

    Fool's Gold

    Hundreds of Tasmanians up and left when gold was first struck in the Victorian goldfields in 1851 – men of every stripe and occupation, suddenly making an exodus from the island, crossing the strait to try their luck in looking for colour.

    It was yet another economic setback for Tassie, although some on the north-west coast made good selling shingles and laths for the booming populations to shelter themselves in ramshackle accommodations all across the goldfields.

    In February 1852 a pioneer farmer from the north-west named James Fenton left his family and took off for Melbourne on the Sea Witch. Some of his fellow-passengers, he noted, were successful diggers who had come back to Tasmania in order to make purchases or retrieve possessions, such as horses, to bring back to the goldfields. Fenton, a Congregationalist and teetotaller, frowned upon their roughness and the lack of class with which they were employing their newfound wealth. Their conversations were lubricated with rum, and they argued the merits or otherwise of prospective gold sites in Victoria. Tempers flared without warning. One ruffian started a fistfight with another fellow after taking offence to the style of his hat.

    Some had come back to Tasmania to reunite with lovers and bring them to the diggings. Fenton recorded one such mistress, “one of the most hideous-looking women that ever escaped strangulation in those days of the hempen noose”. She had been draped in expensive fabrics and laden with jewellery. Her cheeks, too, glowed red with the influence of an intoxicant.

    Good luck to that blessèd couple, perhaps. A more miserable story of ill-fated romance emerged from the Sea Witch, however. One digger had secreted his paramour in the hold of the ship; she was a convict, and not able to freely transport herself off the island, so her plucky lover was smuggling her in a crate. It was nailed shut, but the fellow had left enough holes in the box for her to breathe, as well as a supply of food and water to last the journey’s duration. Sadly, as further cargo was thrown onto the ship, the case that carried this young prisoner of the Crown was covered with a large quantity of hay. She suffocated, and her body was discovered dead when the ship arrived at Melbourne.

    Of course, for every bastard that got lucky and was able to doll up their women and use £5 notes to light those biddies’ cigarettes, there were dozens that stood around up their ’nads in freezing water, sluicing and panning to no avail. A better career path was selling booze to the hordes, or exporting shingles across Bass Strait. James Fenton himself returned after a short while, and went back to the farm.

     
    The story of how a Hawaiian woman ended up living on King Island, in Bass Strait.

  • Come and Enjoy the Tasmanian Honeymoon Experience!

    Come and Enjoy the Tasmanian Honeymoon Experience!

    I’m no expert on honeymoons, but Tasmania is probably a pretty good place one. There are beautiful beaches, good wine, and, if you arrived this week, plenty of sunshine. Perhaps you could stay for a week in a chalet at Cradle Mountain, or have some time at an eco-resort by Wineglass Bay.

    Or you could spend five weeks on Mount Roland collecting plant specimens.

    That’s what the Weindorfers did. Born in Spittel an der Drau, Austria, Gustav, also known as Dorfer, came to Australia looking for work, but with his dashing moustache and expertise with the Viennese waltz, it is little wonder he found love more easily. He met Kate, a botanist ten years his senior, in rural Victoria in 1902, and she brought him back to her home in the north-west of Tasmania to marry. They erected a leaky tent at the summit and brought all sorts of mosses, lichens and flowers under their microscopes for five weeks. It was here that Gustav mastered one of his famous culinary dishes: kangaroo-tail soup.

    For a reasonable rate, I am willing to offer my services as a guide for such a honeymoon experience. For a much less reasonable rate, I would even consider finding the partner for you.

    How did it end for the Weindorfers? The couple later became enamoured with Cradle Mountain and made their home there part-time, in a hut called 'Waldheim'. But duringt the World War I years, Dorfer suffered from anti-German sentiments, and then, Kate died from illness. Dorfer moved to Waldheim alone after that, and championed the idea of Cradle Mountain National Park. He invited guests to his home to share the beauty of the Cradle Valley with them. His hospitality was renowned.

    As well as roo-tail soup, he made a hell of a wombat stew.