Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged place

  • The Most Beautiful Place

    The Most Beautiful Place

    I suppose it was six months ago that Jimmy and I decided swiftly to head out into the boisterous weather and see if we couldn’t reach that waterfall after all. It would be a most wonderful bushwalk, but we would come back to camp both knackered and hungry.

    It was the second-last night of the year, so in the last half hour, as we crossed plains in the dark, trying to redirect our attention away from our bellies, I asked Jimmy which was the most beautiful place he’d been that year.

    We both had plenty of the world to choose from. We’d wandered far and wide, made new friends and reunited with mates we knew from long ago. We had done much of it on hoof. There had been high mountain summits, pastures, pine forests, marketplaces, city streets.

    The question was only a way to hear a story, and Jimmy had a story. He painted a terrific scene of a landscape of exquisite beauty, and some of the most important relationships in his life tied to it. There they were – I saw them as he described it – tethered delicately high above the layers of mist, and the world.

    Of course he turned the question on me, and I weakly answered with an anecdote, when all I could think of was that the best place I had been all year was that waterfall – or rather, the route to it, through an extent of myrtle forest that seemed endless, and between the big stringybarks whose bulk made Jimmy gasp with glee. Those black creeks from which we drank like animals, where I tried to tell a ghost story. The slippery black rocks beneath the waterfall – which now chutes through my mind in a single silver strand. I am sure that even today it is roaring through central Tasmania. But inexplicably, in memory, it is silent.

    Half of this year is done. Where is the most beautiful place you’ve been? The questions raises two equal spirits in me. There is the sadness and satisfaction of the past, in which what we had is lost but they are at least complete; and there is the excited anxiety of the present, in which I feel that everything could be plucked from me at a moment’s notice.

    Perhaps I am the only one who feels this way, although I could believe it is a condition that Tasmanians might easily feel. Perhaps it’s familiar to all modern people, but it seems keenly Tasmanian, a facet of life in a land with peculiar meanings, where memory serves us in a series of ways that are unique outcomes of our human history, and with which we do not easily contend. Or maybe it’s just dear, dreary old me.



    Jimmy and I also went to this party for an old hut last year; in fact, Jimmy baked cakes for it.

  • Where You Wake Up

    Where You Wake Up

    I haven’t had my own room for more than six months.

    Part of that time was spent travelling – sleeping on friends’ couches or in hostel dormitories, in places like Istanbul or Ljubljana or
    Berlin – but it’s now been many weeks since I came home to Tasmania, and still I haven’t found a place to call my own – to stack my books and regularly rest my head.

    Where do I stay then? Friends and family offer their spare rooms, couches, or patches of carpet. The ranger in Strahan offers a bed; he and his girlfriend live in an old Federation-era customs building. Sometimes I end up sprawled with several other mates, snoozing heavily after a boozy night, wearied with laughter.

    Other times I strike off alone. I sleep in my tent, a yellow coffin of plastic which, for example, can be wedged in a cleft beneath the Snowy Range, or pinned to the dark earth by the Liffey River. There are mountain huts, too, which I can pretend are my own for a night or two: secret grey huts camouflaged in the boulders and snow peppermints of kunanyi-Wellington, or shacks built with bulky beams of pencil pine in the northern escarpment of the Central Plateau.

    The other night I slept in a repurposed water tank, which had previously been used as accommodation on Macquarie Island, for scientists working on a rabbit eradication program. (This was cosy.)

    This week, I’m waking up on a yacht. It’s not mine (of course), but I do some work on it, and in return, I’m allowed to contort myself into a v-shaped berth at the bow of the boat, as it sways quietly in sheltered anchorages in the south-east of Tasmania. This is Canoe Bay: the iron wreckage of a scuttled ship, the
    William Pitt, sticks up above the greeny-blue water. The dolerite silhouette of Cape Hauy is in the distance. Behind me, on the shore itself, a damp green tangle of forest. Big eucalypts stand above a busy network of ferns and flowering plants.

    In
    the canopy of one of these eucs, there is a nest. It is the nest of the white-bellied sea eagle, Haliaeetus leucogaster. The birds themselves are incredible, but so too are their homes. Continuously used, for raising one or two fledglings each year, they consistently grow in mass. Parent eagles will go hunting for fish, eels, birds, or small land creatures, and bring them back to the nest, feeding themselves and their young. With so much decomposing animal matter brought into their homes, the sea eagles will add fresh green foliage to the inside of the nest for hygienic purposes.

    Growing to dimensions of up to
    2.5 metres wide and 4.5 metres deep, they can weigh up to a ton.

    It is, I suppose, somewhat enviable. The dream of a permanent abode is borrowed from a human instinct for shelter and stability. I drive around, looking at the various living places of friends, of strangers. The west coast shacks of corrugated iron, the flaking weatherboard homes in the river valleys, the sandstone mansions of old towns. All have their various reasons for appealing. Above everything, they have their own kitchens, and walls to line with bookshelves.

    I am not the first Tasmanian, naturally, to live this lifestyle. There was a certain nomadic element to the lives of the Tasmanian Aboriginals, although perhaps not as much as we are often taught. Certainly, however, these people did not crave absolute permanency in a single place. They may have instead found their homes in the various passages and patches of the landscape which they frequented – in ‘country’, rather than a building.

    Sometimes I think I have found that too: I am happy in the high country, in the low moorlands, in the farm towns, in Canoe Bay.

    This mobility may suit me more than most. For plenty of others, it is not so amenable. There are some being forced into it. Suddenly, Hobart has become one of the toughest rental markets in the country. Mates are looking for a bedroom, and failing. (I’ve cast an eye on things myself and dismissed it as too difficult.) There are various reasons why this is the case, but partly it is because of Hobart’s popularity as a tourist destination: rooms are being rented to short-term visitors, rather than longer-term residents. A different type of nomad is being catered for.

    I don’t know what to make of all this, although I sense it augurs a different future
    on this island. One friend asserts that what is being lost is the ability to feel “secure enough in your home that you can unpack your life and become part of your community, to contribute to making Tasmania all the things that the government sells us off as to the rest of the world.”

    I personally drift through this days supposing that life will leave me behind. It seems that what I’d like from my days on this planet is different from most others. Occasionally, I realise I will probably never have a place of my own, somewhere to put my books. I sadly expect to find myself in a sort of exile, somehow.

    The nest in Canoe Bay is about 80 years old, but it has now been abandoned. This has been a successful spot, so it’s likely that the local pair will establish their new nest nearby, in the canopy of another of these eucalypts. The family will remain their neighbourhood.

    The yacht gently rocks in
    the bay. A sea eagle suddenly lifts out of the trees and soars above me, honking.

  • Snakes' Places

    Snakes' Places

    Maybe when you come to Tasmania you will be lucky enough to find a guide like her as well.

    Someone who will take you veering off the main drags, onto the back roads, over the quiet creeks. To the parts of this island where not many people go, and those who do usually have some serious reason for it.

    And evading the blue-tongues and echidnas on the gravel roads that go further and further into the achingly dry forests – you can see them rising up the hills, a beige-and-brown cladding that may be foreign to you – she will begin to tell the stories that exist beyond the verge on either side.

    Perhaps you know something of the history of Tasmania. There are some names you’ve seen written down. But these are the unofficial histories, the ones that exist only in the places where they happened. Histories like tiger snakes, that crave solitude, and will retreat into the shadows among the cutting grass at the first sudden movement.

    She will be taking you to her secret swimming hole, but there are other secrets as well. Such as the reason why her grandmother was deposited in this isolated landscape when she arrived from Italy. Such as who is growing weed and where weaponry is stashed. Such as which of the neighbours is greedy, or for good-for-nothing; and which of them is loyal, kind-hearted, irreplaceable.

    You will learn about someone like Chuckie. A man who died just a couple of months ago. A good man, who enjoyed the company of other folks, but needed to be alone as well. Whose children lost contact. Who was not a great cook. Who only really ate potatoes. Who spilled hot oil on himself while preparing dinner one night. Who should have gone to hospital. Who may have starved himself to death.

    And she’s crook too, and has her own reasons for coming out there. There are reasons why she knows where the shotgun’s hidden and who’s got a good crop.

    By the river she picks a sprig of bauera, starred with white flowers, and stands with her bare feet in the gum-leaf debris on the edge of the water.

    Maybe this summer your guide will take you to their swimming-hole too, to the snakes’ places of this island. But you’ll have to be lucky.

    Or rather, you’ll have to have earned their trust.

    With a lot of us Vandemonians, this takes many years.

    With others, though, it may only require a single chance occurrence.


  • Snakes' Places

    Snakes' Places

    Maybe when you come to Tasmania you will be lucky enough to find a guide like her as well.

    Someone who will take you veering off the main drags, onto the back roads, over the quiet creeks. To the parts of this island where not many people go, and those who do usually have some serious reason for it.

    And evading the blue-tongues and echidnas on the gravel roads that go further and further into the achingly dry forests – you can see them rising up the hills, a beige-and-brown cladding that may be foreign to you – she will begin to tell the stories that exist beyond the verge on either side.

    Perhaps you know something of the history of Tasmania. There are some names you’ve seen written down. But these are the unofficial histories, the ones that exist only in the places where they happened. Histories like tiger snakes, that crave solitude, and will retreat into the shadows among the cutting grass at the first sudden movement.

    She will be taking you to her secret swimming hole, but there are other secrets as well. Such as the reason why her grandmother was deposited in this isolated landscape when she arrived from Italy. Such as who is growing weed and where weaponry is stashed. Such as which of the neighbours is greedy, or for good-for-nothing; and which of them is loyal, kind-hearted, irreplaceable.

    You will learn about someone like Chuckie. A man who died just a couple of months ago. A good man, who enjoyed the company of other folks but needed to be alone as well. Whose children lost contact. Who was not a great cook. Who only really ate potatoes. Who spilled hot oil on himself while preparing dinner one night. Who should have gone to hospital. Who may have starved himself to death.

    And she’s crook too, and has her own reasons for coming out there. There are reasons why she knows where the shotgun’s hidden and who’s got a good crop.

    By the river she picks a sprig of bauera, starred with white flowers, and stands with her bare feet in the gum-leaf debris on the edge of the water.

    Maybe this summer your guide will take you to their swimming-hole too, to the snakes’ places of this island. But you’ll have to be lucky.

    Or rather, you’ll have to have earned their trust.

    With some of us Vandemonians, this takes many years.

    With others, though, it may only require a single chance occurrence.


  • Fatty Appleton's Town

    Fatty Appleton's Town

    On the other side of the world, in a city founded more than two millennia ago, I turn to my usual news sources and read about Hobart.

    Of course, Hobart’s winter solstice festival, Dark Mofo, has been and gone with its feasts, concerts and presentations, as well as a skinny-dip in the cold water of the Derwent estuary. It has, according to one reporter, lived up to the hype.

    This festival, co-ordinated by those behind the Museum of Old and New Art, are creating new traditions. And it is interesting to watch traditions being born.

    That Hobart has hype is also a new thing. For a long time, Hobart and the island of which it is the capital city have been somewhat maligned by the rest of the country. A small population, poor education outcomes, a struggling economy and a relatively cold climate made Tasmania a butt of jokes, with the most common of them describing Tasmanians as socially isolated, backwards, and inbred.

    Not to mention a lingering stigma about the city’s sordid past. The second-oldest city in Australia was founded as a penal colony, and for the first part of the 1800s, that was its primary purpose. This, of course, also dispossessed the original Tasmanians, who had lived throughout the island for more than 40,000 years.

    This was the town to which the refuse of the British Empire was sent, or to which the riff-raff fled trying to escape their pasts. Where men were hung up on triangles on the street corners and flogged, where prostitutes and drunks roamed. Pedlars stood at Poor Man’s Corner on Elizabeth Street, such as Coffee Tom selling matchticks, and Nobby Dixon offering cigars, and Patsy Maher selling fruit from his donkey cart.

    It was the town of Fatty Appleton, a wharfie and a brawler, photographed by an unknown fin-du-siècle photographer with his meaty arms slung over a couple of barrels that look awfully similar to the subject himself. There is a cheeky glint in his eyes, deeply set into a nasty face.

    But then, the curious art collector David Walsh, who made his wealth from gambling, built an art gallery. Coinciding with a rising interest in eco-tourism and boutique food and drink, suddenly Tasmania was on the map. Lonely Planet put Hobart in the Top 10 Cities to visit. It was all becoming rather sexy. There was hype.

    And Hobart is living up to it, apparently.

    From afar, I remember my days and nights in Hobart happily. Swigging ale from the bottle as I run down to the Shipwrights Arms to watch the footy, or cradling a lager waiting for a local poet to meet me at the Hope and Anchor (he didn’t show up). Drinking herbal tea with breakfast in Moonah, while Ramos looks up at the mountain, picturing the wall of rock he will climb that day. Rifling through the selection of cheap buys outside Kookaburra Books. 

    Herodotus, the ancient historian, mentioned in the preface to his Histories that he should account for both cities small and great, ‘for those which in old times were great have for the most part become small, while those that were in my own time great used in former times to be small’.

    And indeed, in my own short lifetime I have seen the fate and reputation of cities like Hobart change.

    But it’s still Fatty Appleton’s town to me. Fatty Appletown.

    ‘Human prosperity never continues steadfast,’ Herodotus continues. The hype will disappear, but who knows: there may still be mid-winter swims for decades to come. And there is definitely still a Fatty or two lurking around the streets late at night.

     

    Another great Hobart character was the first chaplain, Bobby Knopwood.
    Last week, we recounted the history of sailor James Kelly.

  • What Lies in the Middens

    What Lies in the Middens

    Dr. Rhys Jones was the first professional archaeologist to work in Tasmania. Born in Wales and educated at Cardiff, he arrived in Australia to do his doctorate in Tasmanian archaeology.

    His research began in the north-west of the island, particularly around Rocky Cape. Using radiocarbon dating techniques on various cave middens, Jones reported that Rocky Cape had been continuously occupied by Aboriginal Tasmanians for 8000 years or more.

    This was the least contentious of Jones’ claims. He also entered into a long-running question about the Tasmanians: could they make fire? Much of this question was based on observations (or, perhaps, a single observation) made in the diary of George Augustus Robinson, who travelled with Aboriginal populations in the 1820s and 1830s. Fire, Jones suggested, was carried “in smouldering slow burning fire-sticks”, but if they went out, the Tasmanians had no way of relighting it.

    The archaeologist also suggested that some 3000-4000 years before now, the Rocky Cape middens revealed that Aboriginal consumption of scale-fish completely stopped. He concluded that the Tasmanians had forgotten how to catch fish. Bone awls were also no longer being produced.

    Rhys Jones concluded that with the relatively small population stranded and separated from Australian Aboriginals following the post-Ice Age flooding that created Bass Strait, the Tasmanians had been struggling to adapt. He described it as a “slow strangulation of the mind”.

    Later archaeologists tend to disagree. They refer to other references, by both French and English observers, of pre-colonial Tasmanians using fire-making implements. These Tasmanians would have struck chert (a flint-like stone), sending its spark into dry bark, moss or grass, these archaeologists say. This stone – myrer, Robinson writes that the Bruny Islanders called it – was possibly considered special, and fire-making may have been the responsibility of leaders within a band or kinship group.

    In fact, there may have been a variety of techniques for fire-making: in the early 1900s Quaker observer Ernest Westlake recorded conversations detailing the use of grass-trees, banksias, stringy-bark, tea-tree and fungi, in a variety of methods, for Aboriginal fire-making.

    The change of diet to exclude fish is still mysterious, but recent research tends to suggest that a cooling of the climate occurred at a similar time. In fact, evidence from 3000-4000 BP presents a series of dramatic adaptations across Tasmanian populations. Settlements changed, artistic practices developed, and Tasmanians began to manage the land through seasonal burnings and honed their hunting techniques accordingly.

    “These developments, and their concurrence with similar developments in south-east Australia, contradict the strangulation view,” writes Shayne Breen.

    Tang Dim Mer is one of the names the original Tasmanians had for Rocky Cape; the more prosaic name comes from Matthew Flinders, who spied it from the strait as he circumnavigated Tasmania in 1798. At that time, there were Aboriginals living amongst the banksias and wildflowers, beneath the jagged cliffs, facing out on that notorious stretch of water.

    We are still trying to work out what we lost when Europeans destroyed their lifestyles.

    And although Rhys Maengwyn Jones may be most remembered for its controversies (he died in 2001), much of his work helped to support Aboriginal populations, especially in evidencing for their antiquity. Jones himself hoped to introduce to a wider audience the brutality with which Aboriginal populations around Australia were treated. In Tasmania, he said he saw a history of genocide.


     
    George Robinson's tours with Aboriginal Tasmanians were hugely significant in Tasmanian history.

  • Changes of the Cataract Gorge

    Changes of the Cataract Gorge

    Summer is suddenly over.

    Yet rock climbers still scramble up the basalt cliff walls, above the South Esk River as it veers out of town. Picnickers adopt the Fairy Dell; there is the occasional gentlemen in very small togs who looks as if he’s been tanned with wattle bark. This summer, a family of seals took up residence. A chairlift ferries tourists from one side to the other – Alphonse Bugler, German circus performer, balanced his way across it in 1987. Some choose the pool, others the deep blue, which we grew up believing had no measurable bottom. (It is 19 metres in depth.)

    Meanwhile, there are murmurs from the local council about making changes to the Gorge. There are “developments” in the works – a word that inspires tremulous fear in some Tasmanians, and unbounded optimism in others. Commerce has a troubled history on this island. Commercial interests can butt heads against community concerns; the present and the future can have differing needs. Business and government have had pockets close to one another.

    Why not change the Gorge? It has changed before, after all. It is not identical to the place that Aboriginal Tasmanians knew, nor that which surveyor William Collins thought bore a beauty that was ‘probably not surpass’d in the world’… In the early days of the colony, it was one family’s land. Once upon a time you had to pay a toll to enter. There are non-native plants there – the dark green of firs and redwoods, the pretty pastels of rhododendrons and hydrangeas – not to mention peacocks. In a rotunda, funded by some of Launceston's fin-de-siècle ladies, you could hear string quartets play. There’s a chairlift, a pool, two cafés, a suspension bridge, walking tracks, mountain bike trails, a hill covered in daffodils. So what would be wrong with some more change, to make it more accessible, more marketable, more commercially viable?

    In the end, the ratepayers of Launceston will be responsible for what happens to the Cataract Gorge. It is they who the council must listen to, above and beyond any developer. These constituents know which places hold the impressions of their memories, and whether those memories are more or less valuable than what might be gained in being disconnected from something that makes them tangible. It is their money being spent, and their place being tampered with.

    Summer is over, but there are still a few swims left; a couple of midnight skinny-dips; a bomb or two off Hogs Rock. And then, autumn kicks in, and the strange maples will rot like old mansions and collapse in shades of purple, chocolate, orange. The she-oaks will barely shake. Mist will gather on the surface of the water. Perhaps this year it will flood; perhaps not. The pool will be emptied, refilled. And before too long, it’ll be time again to dust off the togs and stand nervously on the precipice of that tenebrous basin, before bending the knees and leaping off, plunging into the cold depths.

    Beneath its surface, there’s more than algae and eels.

  • Toponyms

    Toponyms

    We were only a little bit too late; the lake already had a name.

    I had walked in with four mates: Pafi, Bug, Quacker and Gilly. We tramped across the buttongrass plains, swung through a patch of rainforest, and scaled the steep hill to find tremendous mountains overlooking a glistening blue lake, lined with a beach made of crushed quartzite. It was a spectacular view.

    We told Pafi, a Greek, that there were crocs in the lake, and then vowed to swim across it nevertheless. Later on, he was almost bitten by a tiger snake, and it excited him to no end. We pitched our tent, had a stout, and cooked up a sandy curry. Someone climbed a pencil pine; someone else wandered about with no clothes on.

    Climbing up Reed's Peak, we could see chains of mountains, for countless kilometres, in every direction.

    In my glee, I wanted to commemorate the occasion by naming the features for my friends. Quacker's Peak, Bug Flats, the Gilly River and Greek Lake might all have come up for the consideration of the Nomenclature Board, if everything hadn't already been named.

    We were only a little bit too late. Lake Rhona is named after Rhona Warren, a hardy Irish lass with a bulbous nose and determined eyes, a member of the Hobart Walking Club and a pioneer of female bushwalking in the early part of the 20th Century. The lake was named for her in 1935.

    Had we been there earlier, the bushwalking maps of Tasmania would hint at the story of our couple of days around Lake Rhona. But the names that people attach to features on the earth are written in pencil anyway; like all memories, they fade away, the features change, and the characters whose lives have centred around such places die and new people arrive.

    Still, the urge to commemorate my stories in these places remains. At the very least, I want to know where the names come from. Places, after all, bear the burden of our memories. It's good to know the stories that came before.

    So next time you cross the Gordon River and head towards the Denison River, take a dip in Greek Lake. Don't worry, there aren't too many crocs.