22/8: And you could write a book about the long and hideous terminal, always without enough seating, in which we wait for the cheap flight back home...Through the portholes on either side I caught glimpses of the island: the arc of pale sand on a Bass Strait bay, the sugar-filled green of watered paddocks, blue-brown rivers slowly travelling to their destination, familiar mountains capped with cloud or snow.
23/8: Moss grew in the most vivid shade I may have ever seen. A big beige fungus at the base of a tree-stump looked to be liquefying. The pinkberries were almost all without fruit, but some had pleasant white flowers sprouting from them; there was common heath in flower too, the blossoming all pink and shaggy, seeming artificial. Optimistic wattles have produced their seasonal neon baubles.
27/8: A currawong and a cow both let out their respective sounds simultaneously, evoking an unexpected harmony.
21/9: Last week out here I watched a brown bandicoot sticking his nose into the dirt at the orchard gate. It was so intent on that business that I could watch it for a quarter of an hour, taking a pace closer whenever it buried its head. This is an arena in which such stories might cross, my being with other beings. There are the eccentric butcher birds, the prolific kookaburras; tonight it is a human family with their chorus in the living-room, and the frogs outside. And a solitary plover sniping at something in the dark.
15/10: We took off up to Lake Mackenzie and started strolling through burnt country, some pencil pines still surviving in damp indentations in the landscape, the white skeletons of heath bushes like claws in the ground, or some sort of strangely-devised animal trap. We quickly decided to go off-track...A bush-bash commenced. Full bushes jostled us. Rocks wobbled indecisively. Sticks caught in our socks, branches went up shorts. We were covered in benign pink scratches; bright claret dripped down to my boots...Later Rob abruptly slipped and planted his boot in the river; he looked up promptly at me, hoping he’d not been seen. “That fucken sheepish look,” I said and threw my head back to laugh.
24/10: On Monday night I happened to be online just as the verdict came out on Lake Malbena...I went quickly into a pique of work, calling several members of the guides’ association mob...An hour or two later, I was at Kenna’s place, as the bluffs outside his windows turned a charmed shade of pink. We were trying to put together a media release; a baby quoll ran around on the table and shat next to my shitty laptop...We both observed that we were ill-fit for such a task, but well-positioned.
26/10: That evening we had whisky by the water. A fair breeze shot through the strait where we’d crossed to the island, but our position was protected and the lake was calm, still, and pale blue. Colour slowly deepened into darkness. We toasted the old hut, the old timers, the old ways. And we lamented the punters who’d probably be there soon, enjoying the same hour, the same serenity, excluding us from it – it was an odd effect, knowing that we would possibly not have the chance to come back here, that the door was closing so distinctly.
18/11: Outside the eucalypts grow tall and thin, sprouting a nest of branches only near their summits. They sway in the afternoon breeze as if trying to reach each other, to rub against one another and produce friction. To light that spark. It is a forest that yearns for fire. There are little wet gullies nearby, a chain of ponds where the spring runs down, but it is mostly eucalyptus, coprosma, exocarpos, bush peas, cutting grass...Embers in here will be the end of all my possessions, all my work. If a bushfire came there would be nothing to do but flee and know that a long shadow would fix itself in our wake. And hope that something would grow again.
22/11: Last night, awake and absorbing the feeling of failure, I thought, if this next project goes nowhere, I might as well up and leave. With no time in mind, like I did years ago, starting in India then continuing west. Uzbekistan, Crete, Alexandria, Ethiopia; Athens, Sarajevo, Lapland, Japan. It would achieve very little I suppose. I would not be surmounting anything. But would it count for much to retreat in this train, mouldering away for a winter, rotting in the stench of wilted dreams?
28/11: There was a line I read a little while back, in a history of the Himalayas that I didn’t otherwise love – “Man is a track animal.” Inevitably, I am; inexorably I have become so. I’ve just done another six days on the Overland. On “the track”. Another “trip”. Not so many can say that they live through the paradigms of journeys more than bushwalking guides. It’s part of the appeal of the job. Perhaps there’s an element of addiction.
5/12: I came home, cracked a beer, and ate ham sandwiches for lunch. I had a nap. I made another coffee. Emma dropped by. I finished The Savage Detectives. I made a tasty dinner, vegies in coconut cream with rice noodles. I poured stout into my nonagonal glass. It must not be forgotten that this is in almost every single way precisely the life I dreamed of. Down to the stout, to Bolaño.
19/12: The other night I dreamed of Lake Malbena – it was built up, like a modern island-city, but there were dolphins in the waterways.
25/12: I looked up and Danny and Flo were on the rocks, near where we jump in. “Do you reckon our ghosts will just sit here throughout summer?” Danny asked. Don glided up to us with a cheeky smile, a grinning grey fish...Danny and I swam over to Hogs Rock and took the plunge. Someone had written the word ‘eternity’ on that big dolerite column, and a recommendation for a certain biblical verse, in colourful chalk. Can I really think about eternity at the Gorge? As Danny suggested, there is an unshakeable characteristic of summer here, which seems to be all we know. Yet it’s also where we see that the years are passing. That it was not one or two summers ago that we did certain things, but seven or ten. That many lives have passed through ours here, some now irretrievable.
Currently showing posts tagged politics
22/8: And you could write a book about the long and hideous terminal, always without enough seating, in which we wait for the cheap flight back home...Through the portholes on either side I caught glimpses of the island: the arc of pale sand on a Bass Strait bay, the sugar-filled green of watered paddocks, blue-brown rivers slowly travelling to their destination, familiar mountains capped with cloud or snow.
Heat has seized the day; I go to a tea-house to pass the time. It is a site of splendid lethargy. Backgammon is played and prayer beads are fiddled. Several men sleep. A television babbles news at us.
I crouch over a glass of tea, and idly take notes as footage flickers away in front of me. I don’t understand how the program is sourced; headlines come in either French or English before being quickly obscured with the script of the local language. I am not watching carefully, but I happen to see a headline of interest in the moment before it is covered with in a translation. It reads: “Press Freedom Fears in Australia.”
I am watching this news is a repressive country. It is so heavily censored that I am reluctant to name it, in case I am rejected a visa later. It is so restricted that I am using a virtual network to publish this, and indeed to access the news from home. There is something horrific about seeing my own country’s freedoms diminishing as I travel through here.
Australians can be fairly oblivious about the importance of these sorts of things. Maybe have been too lucky for too long. But let me make this perfectly clear: there is no good reason why police raids should be happening around the stories in question this week.
If our country’s armed forces have murdered innocent people in Afghanistan – as ABC’s ‘Afghan Files’ story, for which they’re being investigated, have alleged – is there any legitimate reason why we should not know about it? If our government’s surveillance agency is trying to broaden their powers to spy on its own citizens, should we not have some awareness? The same should be said for what our country is perpetrating in the detention camps we have set up for asylum seekers on neighbouring islands, journalism on which has been suppressed considerably. These are public issues; they are happening in our name. Can anyone really tell me that these are things that should not be known by every Australian? That Australians do not have the right to discuss these matters?
If you think such things should be kept secret, and that reporters indeed ought to be silenced, I urge you to visit to a country in which journalists have truly lost their rights, and see what you make of it. When can be no criticism for government or military, citizens are not safe. I can assure you that the government of the country where I am right now uses “national security” as an excuse for much of its system of oppression – including sending a huge number of critical thinkers and writers to gaol.
The people I am meeting here do not understand how I am able to travel so freely and frequently. Their question is difficult to answer. Much of the reality it is that I have been very fortunate. My passport, my currency, and my country’s labour laws are all significantly responsible. I have long since believed that this luck will run out. The history of nations shows that all will come and go. Much of what I have loved about Australia is already starting to decay. The humiliating fact is that as citizens, we have made so few demands on our leaders to show any accountability. The raids this week are an extension of that. We must come out snarling, and demanding better from our institutions. We deserve much more information – not less. We cannot be fobbed off with lazy excuses about national security.
Let me make it clear again: there is no justification for these federal police raids on journalists, and there is plenty of evidence that this is how authoritarianism – of the kind to which we have always believed we were – begins. We’d better pipe up about this before it’s too late.
This past weekend, a group of concerned Tasmanians gathered in Launceston, under the unlikely and unpretty acronym of “Fawaha”: Fishers and Walkers Against Helicopter Access. Specifically, they were appealing against the construction of a private tourism operation on Halls Island in Lake Malbena, a remote and rarely-visited spot in the eastern part of the Walls of Jerusalem National Park.
The self-styled author and fisherman Greg French gave a short speech, which highlighted the concerns of many interested Tasmanians. They range from issues of ecology to issues of governance, including a lack of transparency, the thwarting of usual National Parks processes, and a general arrogance on behalf of the tourism operators and the government departments involved.
Lake Malbena, the latest of countless contested places in Tasmania, is within the boundaries of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, a large patch of country accepted by world experts as having value for all of humanity. That includes the many who will never get to visit it. Tourists and other visitors may see it, but the implication of such listings, I believe, is that we can only encounter these places on their own terms. To try and alter this wilderness, it would seem, undermines the reasons why it is considered valuable. It is not inscribed on the list because it is financially useful. It is a World Heritage site because of its precariousness, because we need it as it is in order to maintain the diversity of our existence.
Wilderness is a wriggly word, and I understand why the Lake Malbena project may have some supporters in the Aboriginal community and also among the former graziers and old-timers of the high country. These parties have good arguments as to how the word ‘wilderness’ deprives them of their heritage. My opinion, however, is that the Lake Malbena project does precisely nothing to encourage our understanding of the human history of this special country.
Part of the issue that faces us is around the idea of accessibility. Proponents will argue that these wilderness areas are without value if they are only available to the small percentage of the population who are able to walk in self-reliant manner to remote places.
The frequent argument for operating tourism businesses in the World Heritage Area (and I actually work in one) is that by increasing the ease of access for visitors, we are promoting them for protection. At the best of times, this argument doesn’t entirely convince me – I have taken hundreds of visitors for bushwalks on the Overland Track, and my summation is that the conditions of buying a bushwalk usually preclude a real encounter with the kinds of things that make many of us desperate to keep Tassie landscapes in reserve. In the case of Lake Malbena, the argument cannot be made at all. That a handful of parties will be allowed to chopper into Halls Island, while the rest of us are banned, achieves precisely the opposite.
The other side of that argument is that by expanding business operations in the World Heritage Area, we are decreasing a version of land use that is special to Tasmania. “Perhaps the most important thing about the preservation of wilderness is that it provides inspiration and solace,” Greg French said on Sunday. We risk diminishing the possibilities of solitude, and eroding the amount of non-commercial land we have. Such things are endangered in the world. There are so few hectares like this on the surface of our world. We are lucky to have a decent amount of it here, but few us recognise it as a defining characteristic of Tasmania. I think it is.
Places like the Walls of Jerusalem are special because they are – for the moderately fit, well-prepared, and willing – actually quite easily accessible. A few hours by road, and a few hours on foot, and you have access to a huge area of landscape that has been recognised for its uniqueness and beauty. Without having to ascend high mountain peaks or use technical skill and equipment, you are in a rare place. Commercialising these spaces sabotages that potential.
You have been told that Tasmania has, or is, a ‘brand’; I contest that we have a way of life, and I resent that our culture has been distilled into something saleable, by marketeers and politicians who care nothing for it. So much of what has made modern Tasmanian life is related to the vast spaces of rarely-visited, uncompromised land. These spaces are a presence behind our every action. For the colonists, and for the contemporary greedy of Tasmania, they represent the very worst of the world; but for those who have chosen to stay here or move here over the course of a couple hundred years, the choice has been made with some relationship to the grandeur of the Tasmanian landscape. We have breathing space here. We have slowness. We have solitude, or at least the option to pursue it.
As a young man I would have left Tasmania had I not discovered these landscapes. Fortunately for me, I discovered a culture and identity in the bush. I found something that Greg French echoed on Sunday: “Wilderness is transcendental. Uplifting. There’s not much of it left. Anywhere in the world.” I realised that Tasmania is extraordinary. However, we may lose much of it if we let our landscapes go into the hands of those who wish we weren’t so special, who prefer a version of Tasmania that is entirely commercialised and therefore (I would argue) globalised and generalised.
It is typical that this has been achieved by abusing the process we have laboriously put together over the years, the blueprint as to how we look after these spaces, which are, after all, on Unesco’s register of the world’s special places. Pathetically, there has been no tenable response from any of the proponents, including government, about the fact that they secretively changed the official management plan so that this project could fit with it. (This information was leaked.) The proponents – developers, tourism and government representatives – will wave their hands all around, trying to distract the public with caricatures of the conservationists involved, but they don’t have the guts to admit that they’ve steamrolled a legitimately-developed management plan to suit their own greedy whims.
This is a pattern in Tasmanian industry, of course: forestry and hydro-electricity are not bad industries, but we gave their representatives such power that they became unbearable. I wrote an article for Crikey three years ago suggesting that tourism could easily become the same sort of monster. I believe we have reached that point in Tasmania, and I am both pissed off and distraught about it. Thankfully, this lot, for their latest attempt to do whatever the hell they want with our National Parks, is being taken to court.
I come home on a quiet Sunday evening to find dozens of faces staring at me in the streets.
There’s no-one walking the streets, of course. It’s Sunday night. Lengthy shadows ran down the South Esk as my aeroplane landed. The fields were golden, but cold. The mountains were grey and indistinct from the sky.
The faces are those of council candidates, contenders for the position of alderman. A lot of them are familiar. Some are good friends, admirable people. Some, I have reason to believe, are not. (The athlete Usain Bolt is also edited onto a panorama of Launceston, for an Optus ad.)
A town like mine writhes with competing motives, and I see these in the eyes of those on the posters (although what Bolt is doing I don’t know). While I criticise some council wanna-bes, I know my own wishes seem to be weird and wormy, outdated and obsolete. Very few people want what I want: solitude, diversity, the intermingling of simplicity and complexity.
A few years ago, outside Town Hall, I had an alderman tell me off for calling Launnie a town. “City! It’s a city!” But it feels like a big ol’ town to me. The sun comes out and every day I see a dozen people I know. Nina’s in the park, Luke’s in the street, Barnesy’s in Civic Square, Sinead’s in Service Tas, Wombat’s in Saint John, Stacky’s at the Oak. I like to see the old cobbers, but I am also ready to be alone.
The mall has been rejuvenated; so too has the square outside the library. I find them clean, open, uninspiring spaces. Their motifs seem meaningless: a honeycomb design, some skinny thylacines, x-rays of human skeletons. Northern Tasmania has a million pertinent symbols, but these are sourced from nowhere, from nothing. They are for everyone and so they are for no-one.
I try and found comfort in the grounds of the Cataract Gorge, but there, the lawns are being torn up and a pile of playground equipment is being installed. The trucks’ blaring signal cuts through the excavator’s dull roar. The quiet peep of the fantail is impossible to hear.
I have been away for some months, and I know that much of my dissatisfaction in what I see comes from inside of me. I’m restless; I’m ready to finish up travelling for a while, but still I find myself crashing in a different spare bed every night, living out of my backpack. I test-drive cars around Kings Meadows, up the Tamar, Waverley. It’s nice to get behind the wheel, to muster up a bit of speed, to have movement on my native island. But one car runs too hot, another seems to have oil in the radiator. I get on an empty bus. I walk up hills and through parks.
What, then, do I take comfort in? The sight of raptors above Tamar Island. The slouching wattles, prudent plovers, and boofy casuarinas. The first flowers of native mint, its sticky sour smell, and the reminder it offers of a woman I met last year who described it in novel terms. The greys of dolerite, the greens of ferns, the blues and browns and blacks of river-water.
I take comfort in the plethora of fine editions in second-hand bookstores and charities, and the hours I spend in the library.
I take comfort in the council candidate, my friend Tim, who pointed out the racist remark of a prominent Launceston businessman online. (I try and smother the misery I feel that this git probably won’t be held to account because he’s contributing to the local economy.)
Mostly, I take comfort in the map. My eye is drawn to the central section. In this representation of the island, it’s empty. But I know it’s the most interesting place of all. I will head up the steepest track and I will keep going on. I will hop over creeks, circumnavigate lakes, camp on peaks, suck up snow, chew on bitter berries. Who knows what will be waiting there for me. The travelling, then, will be finally over – for a time – and I will be properly home.
I’m not sure when the word ‘branding’ became common parlance, but I do remember when I learned that the word ‘Tasmania’ had a certain appeal. I was on my first extended journey overseas, and it became clear to me that my native toponym warranted an excited response for people from, say, the U.S.A. or Italy or Germany.
That has only increased as the years have passed, and now I realise that there’s now an official effort to elicit responses like this to ‘Tasmania’. That’s what branding is – a deliberate attempt to attach certain positive associations and assumptions with a name. Those euphonious syllables – Tasmania, Tasmania – have no meaning of their own.
Now is not the first go at this: the renaming of Van Diemen’s Land in 1856 was intended to rid the colony of a certain stigma. Lately, we’ve become interested in the brand of Tasmania as tourism has become a big part of how we make a crust on our island. Tourism has begun to make a noticeable impact on our lives here, and we’re told it’s only going to continue to grow.
I started working in tourism just as it had begun to rumble. It’s an interesting time to have accidentally wound up in this realm of work. I have to say that it’s given me plenty of opportunities. Yet I also have some grave reservations about it.
I’m addicted to looking at marketing material. Usually I find it tacky and laughable, but I nevertheless look, wonder – often mystified – and critique. If you’re Tasmanian, I encourage you to pay close attention to the ideas within the ads around Tasmania. We must learn to read between the lines.
Maybe I worry about how we advertise ourselves because I know what the marketing material doesn’t tell. Tasmanians don’t all drink fine wine or snack on goat’s cheese. Half of us are reportedly illiterate, and very many Tasmanians certainly can’t afford a gourmand’s diet.
I’m not expecting tourism brochures to spruik the issues we have in health or education, but nevertheless, we must not let ourselves be distracted or deluded by the glossy images.
All too frequently I am encountering news that reminds me of the shadow side of our advertised identity. For example, the government’s recent attempt to redefine areas of World Heritage country so that they can be adapted for high-end business. Or the unfair involvement of politicians in the proposal for a cable-car on kunanyi-Mount Wellington. Or the cost-cutting short-cuts that the Chinese owner of the Van Diemen’s Land Company farms is hoping to implement. Or the way individuals and families struggling to find housing are camping on the edges of Hobart while visitors are encouraged to come glamping on the edges of national parks.
This is sadly a part of Tasmanian life: part of our history, and very much a part of our present.
The troubles that are associated with tourism branding is to do with what we’re trying to sell ourselves as, and to whom. Inviting visitors to come and voraciously consume our offerings is dangerous, and in the long term, counter-productive. Tourism is a fragile industry. It seems to me that the more slowly it is developed, the more robust it becomes. We can’t rely on merely being trendy – trends veer off in wild trajectories sometimes.
This is especially relevant in Tasmania, which, as an island, has an inherent ecological and social fragility. We emphasise quality over quantity, and among our major commodities are slowness and quietness. Not to mention the fact that most of our special landscapes can’t handle an inundation of humans galumphing through them. We have plenty of incentives to moving more cleverly and less brazenly into a future of tourism.
There is nothing inherently wrong with tourism, nor with branding. I had a conversation this weekend with a well-known restaurateur who mentioned, with some passion, that he wanted to see Tasmania become world-renowned for our skills in service. Now this would be a worthy way to portray ourselves. Likewise, I would like to see us as an island of ideas, a locus for experimental education, for landscape studies, for science, for attentiveness.
We can be bold with our brand. It seems to me that, in a sense, Tasmania is in a position to choose its tourists. For example: why shouldn’t the visitors centres in our national parks stop selling takeaway coffee? That would communicate a raft of fine messages about the identity of Tasmanians, our connection with place, and our commitment to conservation. Drink slowly, we are saying. Linger in beautiful places. Don't wreck the joint. Those who want to consume rampantly can go elsewhere; those who will savour reflective moments – those who will truly taste what we are offering – will be more attracted to our place than ever.
But of course, that couldn’t just be branding. A brand without substance is a brash lie. And in the end, I don’t want us to focus on improving the brand of Tasmania. I’d rather improve on the place, on how we live here. Goat’s cheese, chardonnay and lavender teddy bears aren’t truly the crucial materials of Tasmanian life. We have other, deeper resources that give this land its meaning.
A couple of months ago I guided a party of walkers into the Frenchmans Cap area. We didn’t make it very far: into Vera Hut, a day’s walk in. We swam in Lake Vera, watching the sun reflect off the glorious, glaring white range above us. But then the weather turned, as had been forecast, and rain and hail belted us in the hut all day, where we mostly sat around and talked.
The two married couples that made up the party were on a reunion tour, of sorts. 50 years ago they had come to Frenchmans, shortly after both couples had become engaged. They were young, adventurous, and had little certainty about their futures. But as the years had progressed, they had each achieved quite a lot with their lives. And as careers and families grew around them, they had made the effort to return for anniversary trips to Frenchmans Cap along the way.
Dick Smith was one of the party. I wasn’t surprised to find that he said a lot that I agreed with, and a lot that I didn’t. (I suppose I wasn’t surprised that he said a lot in general.) Hut-bound, I had read his manifesto on curbing population growth in Australia. There was plenty of sense in it – and a few bits that made me cringe. Either way, it was good fodder for conversation.
There was another reason for Dick, his wife, and his mates to be up near Frenchmans Cap that week. Dick Smith has tipped a lot of money into building a new track towards the famous mountain summit. The track bypasses the Loddon Plains, buttongrass moorland that has degenerated into a mucilaginous sludge over the years. Dick was pleased with the results; although I reckon most bushwalkers are happy not to have to tackle the ‘Sodden Loddons’ these days, I also know plenty of knowledgeable folks who find the new trackwork nothing less than hideous, an artless, almost medieval monstrosity.
I was disappointed, but not surprised, to see photos of Dick standing next to Will Hodgman, the Premier of Tasmania, at a press conference about Tassie’s wilderness areas. The Premier was unveiling a new plan to ‘rezone’ part the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. They want to call it the ‘Self-Reliant Recreation Zone’.
“A lot of people have a keen interest in our wilderness areas,” the Premier said. “Some would see them locked up forever and not have enjoy them.”
This kind of flagrant fib makes me livid. National Parks in Tasmania are some of the least locked-up places in the world. Private property, business enterprises, mining leases – they are locked up. The bush – the considerable percentage of Tasmania that is reserved – is completely open, to anyone.
Yes, there are parts of the island that are hard to access. But that’s actually part of the point. National Parks don’t exist to attract tourists or create business, but because they encompass a landscape that is rich in life, and even human history, that needs protecting from our slash-and-burn approach to the world around us.
There is a great deal of pressure on these places. Mostly, they come from population growth, as Dick Smith rightly says. I hope that Dick put a hard word on the Premier about that topic. I also understand that Tasmanians are delighted to have thrown off a mantle of economic malaise for the first time in a long while. I can see why a government would like to make the most of the spontaneous increase in tourism, put their fingerprints on it – even though they had almost nothing to do with it in the first place. (Watching Will Hodgman talk about the bush, as if he ever had an interest in it before it became a useful commodity, is an ugly thing to witness.)
Soon you will need to book and pay to walk to Frenchmans Cap. From all reports, this is inevitable. It’s not an entirely dreadful thing – I reckon there are good reasons for and against it. But to my eyes, it is a step towards the ‘locking-up’ of the bush, as is the talk of a standing camp in a remote part of the Walls of Jerusalem.
In 2011 the French writer Sylvain Tesson wrote, “Cold, silence and solitude are conditions that tomorrow will become more valuable than gold.” We are already starting to see that in Tassie. However, the haste with which our government will sell the special conditions of our island life is deeply troubling. We can squander them in a matter of a couple of years, in a single term of government. We sabotage ourselves when we sell our sense of place for the short-term gain of a tourism industry that becomes full to overflowing. For one thing, we damage the reason why tourists want to come here. But more importantly, we wreck a place that is unique in the world, our place, a place to which we belong and for whose future we are responsible.
This week I’ll vote in the Tasmanian state election. I’ve missed most of the campaign, which is fine by me, although I occasionally come back from the bush to find placards in the paddocks. Mostly it fills me with dismay. The arena of politics is still something of a muddle, and I have black streaks of cynicism running through me. I suppose I have faith in all too few of the men and women who have put their heads on the brightly-coloured backgrounds in their party’s chosen hues.
Perhaps I was stained with this political melancholy in those early years of adulthood. Like most people I muddled into politics I guess. When I came of voting age, Tasmanian politics was in a fairly disgraceful state. Not for the first time, corruption cast an ugly shadow over everything. For a young man already bewildered by the broader themes of life, the intricacies of politics weren’t appealing.
Nevertheless I blundered into a way of seeing things through my own eyes. For example, when I was nineteen years old, I went to a rally over the proposed Tamar Valley pulp mill. My photographs from that day are now interesting memorials. I ran into a friend whose father I now know is a prominent greenie from the region. Another old mate posed with her middle fingers sticking up; her father was a logger. I didn’t yet understand the animosity that burned beneath every exchange of ideas, and I didn’t really have an opinion myself. But soon enough I would.
Politics wasn’t much discussed in my house: I remember my mother saying she might vote for that same Liberal politician because he had “a nice face”. (In fairness, I suppose I would equally avoid voting for another of his kind because he looks like a reptile.) I think even then she could have said what issues concerned her, but I doubt she’d have been able to attach a political party, and their policies, to those topics.
I don’t remember how I voted when it finally came time for me to enter the cardboard cubicle. The vague ideas that governed my decision back then have certainly mutated. Some have metamorphosed irrevocably, while others simply hardened into sincere beliefs about the world and how we live in it. It is good to keep track of one’s ideas. It’s good to know that we are changing, to figure out how we are doing so, to try and sus out why.
I can now readily imagine how I hope my homeland to be. This election threatens that vision – maybe they all do, but this one stings me particularly. There are ideas about what to do with special places and community spaces that are motivated by the greed of certain individuals and companies. A whole cohort of our candidates are proponents of shepherding through the ill-conceived projects of blustering developers, depriving the rest of us of the opportunity to object to them. They are happy to empty Tasmania of its meaning, as long as a few of them make a buck.
Nowadays I know that the inverse of my dreams is possible too. My hopes may yet be turned inside-out, and I could be left on an island that has left me behind. How often do I look at those in power and wonder: why do they hate the Tasmania that I love so much?
The arena of politics is still something of a muddle, and I have black streaks of cynicism running through me. But still I stubbornly hope to shape the ideas we have about this place, and I will vote for those whom I think will encourage my freedom to enjoy being Tasmanian.
I have occasionally wondered what my grandparents made of the environmental campaigns over Lake Pedder and the Franklin River. If they supported the construction of the hydroelectric infrastructure that would deform those tracts of country, they were almost certainly off the mark. A party putting forward a policy is suggesting that if we take a certain direction for our future, it will primarily bring us beneficial outcomes. They may be right, or they may be wrong. Policies change our freedoms, the possibilities with which we interact with the world around us. Decisions made at election times are not futile. They can be the difference between feeling at home, or becoming an exile in your own homeland.
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.
What was I ever taught about the first Tasmanians? Bugger all, as it happens. A lot of what I was taught wasn’t true. How is it that so few people find the humans of this landscape’s history as fascinating and important as I do?
Today’s indigenous Tasmanian communities are able to tell of their own histories and traditions. Much, however, has been lost. Of course, any mob in modernity has jettisoned past practices, but for the original Tasmanians, a lot of loss came about because of force. One can only be stunned by how swiftly and savagely any sense of normalcy was destroyed by colonists and visiting seamen in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Nevertheless, the Tasmanians survived.
(I don’t recall exactly what I was taught, but certainly phrases like ‘the last Tasmanian Aborigine’ were familiar to me when I first started my own lines of inquiry into what Aboriginal life here. Even when I went to primary school this was outdated, and yet I’m quite sure it was still taught.)
Scientists scratching through the layers of soil – through the bones and discarded shells of old campsites – are able to tell us more. A midden is a remnant of a significant part of original Tasmanian economy. These are some of the crucial materials of life on this island. The Tasmanians survived several periods of glaciation. They were, for thousands of years, the most southerly people on Earth.
The truth is that, like many around me, I probably didn’t much care about history. Not for a long time. Perhaps I’d never have really bothered, if I didn’t come to be so obsessed with the Tasmanian landscape. Suddenly I wanted to know the human history of the land.
I recognised that I had invested the world around me with meaning, and it became clear that Aboriginal communities would have done the same. Don’t we always blend practical matters with spiritual or social values? It made me think anew of the mystique of rock and fire, to wonder at the hidden meanings of native cherry and abalone and pigface. The curved emblems of Tasmanian rock carvings and body art provoked me to look for patterns in the world around me. Wallaby sinew and bull kelp took on new meanings for me. So too did the loop-di-loop of a grey fantail in flight. The whole bush became alive with inspiration, living presences and processes.
Chancing upon a midden, a scattered bed of the shells of mud oysters and abalone, can be poignant for me. I don’t believe that these people were my ancestors genetically, but they were my predecessors in this place; if ever I am going to have home country, it is here, and I can only have any sense of belonging on this island by trying to comprehend what the first Tasmanians have been like throughout history, and today.
The archaeological sites of the Tarkine area are among the most important in Australia. They tell us about the huts, traps and campsites of those who have lived here for millennia. Much of the Tassie they knew is irretrievable.
Some readers may have overheard the public conversation about the reopening of four-wheel-drive tracks on the Tarkine coast. Many representatives of Tasmanian Aboriginals, as well as ecologists, are deeply concerned what this means. The planned tracks are said to avoid shorebird nesting sites, and middens will be covered with some sort of protective mat. I hope I don’t seem cynical when I say this sounds, to me, like an afterthought.
I should say that not all Aboriginal groups are worried: the Circular Head Aboriginal Corporation, whose neighbourhood is the Tarkine coast, is in support of the tracks’ reopening. They suggest that inclusive access to these places will promote their value. The state government reckons that they can manage these places better with the tracks officially opened and licenses given out.
Perhaps I am wrong, but I don’t trust my fellow Tasmanians to look after our landscape and our cultural heritage. So few people seem to care that we live in the midst of a swirl of vibrant ecology; that we are ourselves are creatures bound to our ecosystems; and that the history of this landscape, and its peoples, readily inspires us to wonder.
Not enough Tasmanians love this place in all its complexity. If they did, they would love the old people, the ancestors, the ones who came before us, the first Tasmanians. If so, these middens, which are accessible on all stretches of coastline around the island, could be places of contemplation for us all.
We consider more Aboriginal folklore from western Tasmania in 'the Land of Sweet Forget'.
I recently wrote of Denmark: at last, I hinted, we may have held up our end of the bargain in an intercontinental exchange. In the 1820s a colourful Dansker came to Tasmania; in the year 2000, a love affair between a Tasmanian and the Crown Prince of Denmark began. Where we once received Jørgen Jørgensen, we gave away our Mary Donaldson.
But actually, Tasmanians are still one-up over the Danes. Because in 1891, another Danish migrant would arrive to Hobart and also make a significant mark on our island’s culture. This was the novelist Marie Bjelke Petersen.
She had been brought up in the outskirts of Copenhagen, but moved with her whole family when she was a teenager. They arrived in the spring. In her reminiscences at least, the scenery was instantly affecting: it was “a paradise of untouched beauty”, she said. “When I saw all these mountains in Tasmania, I embraced it on the spot.”
Certainly the mountains would have been impressive. She’d have seen a number of them whilst still at sea, and Mount Wellington must have have struck her as imposing. Denmark, after all, is rather flat; its highest point is 170 metres above sea level.
At first she tried to transmute her feeling for the Tasmanian landscape into painting, but she soon converted to writing. Her first three publications were religious works, but in 1917 she wrote The Captive Singer. The plot featured a guide who took tourists into the caves around Mole Creek, and sang well, and charmed a woman. It sold 150,000 copies in Australia – and 40,000 in a Danish translation.
It kicked off a steady stream of words, and sales. In Dusk she wrote of a love affair in the mining town of Queenstown; in Jewelled Nights she narrated a close friendship (which became a love affair) at a prospectors’ camp on the Savage River. In total Bjelke Petersen sold more than a quarter of a million books in English and many more in the six languages into which they were translated. For an Australian author of her era, this was an enormous success.
The novels don’t necessarily age well. Their plots are sometimes frivolous, and Bjelke Petersen’s religious didactism doesn’t read well today. Today, her prose comes across as overly romantic, breathless and out-of-control. But one thing is certain: Marie Bjelke Petersen’s writing about Tasmania (and mainland Australia, in which she set a couple of novels) showed an original view of the landscape. Where other authors painted Tasmania as “bleak and cheerless”, Bjelke Petersen raved about the “lawless loveliness of the landscape.”
Perhaps for Bjelke Petersen, excursions into the bush gave her liberty. She travelled far and wide into western Tasmania researching her plots. Her other career was as a teacher of physical education; she strongly believed in its virtues. She went places that few women of European background had been.
You may be familiar with her nephew, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who would later become a Queensland politician. His aunt was also religiously conservative, but Marie was nevertheless a forward thinker in society. I’m not sure if she ever thought of herself as a feminist, but she certainly wasn’t willing to be constrained by expectations of gender roles. The novelist refused to be married, and instead lived with her close friend Sylvia Mills. (Plenty of tongues have wagged about what their relationship might have been, but I have little gossip to contribute.)
Marie Bjelke Petersen was also an environmental conservationist. “It is really a matter that brings tears to my eyes to see the way our beautiful forests are being wantonly burnt off,” she declared in one public address. Her enthusiasm for the bush wasn’t confined to her literature. (“The jungle was a riotous confusion of strong growing things, which clung savagely together and almost strangled each other in their fierce passionate embraces!”)
This is a recurring theme in Tasmania: so many of the activists who have spoken in praise and in defence of our landscapes have originally come from places like Denmark, Austria, Germany, Romania, Lithuania and Latvia. Although today I think some Tasmanian-born individuals have at last begun to understand and respect their surrounds, for many years we relied on those who had come from the outside to point out just how special it all was.
Likewise, Marie Bjelke Petersen was a special character in Tasmanian cultural history – another Dane for whom we can be grateful. She died as an old lady in October 1969.
Another fascinating literary figure from Tasmania was the Glenorchy-born author Christopher Koch.
It was once said that the Aboriginal Tasmanians would come to the west coast, look out over the moiling sea, and imagine a country in that direction known as the “Land of Sweet Forget”.
Whatever the veracity of this legend is, when I found myself on the west coast just before the turn of the year, I discovered not some longing for amnesia but rather a heightened sense of memory. I was, in fact, caught in a sticky morass of reminiscence, as I thought of all of those whose existence is part of the structure that had made my year, and in fact my life.
Interestingly, after a year in which I almost entirely failed to leave Tasmania, I still find that my days are deeply affected by those elsewhere. It may seem incredible that Turkish bomb blasts should disturb me in Triabunna, or that Donald Trump’s election would ruffle my feathers at Lake St. Clair, but this is how it was.
And likewise, out on the west coast, after I’d coaxed a fire out of damp tea-tree and eucalypt, I found old friends returning to me, incorporeal like smoke or sea-spray.
I could list them all here: the Spaniard teaching maths in a Bristol classroom, the lovely young cynic I met a decade ago in northern California, the Brazilian lesbian labouring on a newspaper, the placeless Dutch lady with the fair eyelashes…But as a list they make for futile literature, whereas in my head they are able to interact, like figures with volition, same as those who populate a proper city. In my head, there is a world.
After forays into this world, I retreat back to its margins. At least that’s how I presume it looks to those who come from the cultural and economic centres of the Earth: the nouveaux-riches in India or China, those who watch themselves on television in Los Angeles, the colonial capitals of London or Paris, or those from the middle of the world: the Mediterranean or the Middle East.
What they will have trouble understanding is that for me, this is being smack-bang in the middle of things.
At one point I found myself remonstrating with a fairy-wren, who I had accused of stealing a very significant item of mine. This was a petite teaspoon, which I pinched from the side of my café noisette in a Parisian bar one night. Yes, I found the teaspoon somewhere amongst my camping equipment – and duly apologised to the fairy-wren – but it goes to show how much value I place on memory.
And how strangely, instead of being keenly aware of how remote I am from many whose lives I care about, I somehow feel as if they’re drawing closer.
This time last year, I was on Tassie's east coast, exploring the meaning of fish.
David Burn jr. had followed his mother to Hobart Town; in May 1826 he arrived with his daughter Jemima. He had left his wife back in Edinburgh and his infant son had died. While his mother had received a land grant, Burn would not qualify; eventually, though, he would be able to buy his own property at New Norfolk.
Burn was a skilful writer, if we accept the flowery style of his day. He would write a sort of emigrant’s guide about Van Diemen’s Land, published in the Colonial Magazine of 1840-41. It compares interestingly to Thoreau’s Walden, as Burn’s Van Diemen’s Land has a similar style and mood. He describes the D’Entrecasteaux Channel as more favourable than Killarney, and the Huon River as an antipodean Loch Fyne. He does not exactly shy away from descriptions of the island’s ‘rude wilds’, the vicious cruelty of the transportation system, or the threatening behaviour of the original inhabitants, whose ‘sable hue has afforded a theme for naturalists and philosophers’. But it is clear that he writes from a moment in history in which the colonists, regardless of their professed humanitarianism (and many, like Burn, were professed humanitarians), could speak with some relief on the topic of the Aborigines at least.
For the Black War was in its final days, and the end result was becoming clear: British colonial policy had ensured that Aboriginal existence would not restrain the growth of its Vandemonian settlement.
So David Burn could enthuse prettily on a place like New Town, with its villas, its race-course, its vibrant gardens and the delicious jam that came from them. “New Town also boasts a pottery, and one or two breweries,” wrote Burn.
In the early days of British reconnaissance here, this area just north of Hobart’s centre was named Stainforth’s Cove for an East India Company man who would never see the island. The early migrant settlers were the Pitt family, who had come on the Ocean in 1803. Richard Pitt would be granted 100 acres on the New Town Rivulet; his daughter Salome is said to have been the first white woman to climb Mount Wellington, following the rivulet’s course upstream with an Aboriginal girl who is remembered in nostalgic history as ‘her companion Miss Story’. Salome Pitt would become a “kind-hearted and firm” schoolteacher who fed her students bread and honey but wasn’t beyond boxing them in the ears if they misbehaved.
There was a wattle-bark tannery here too, for a couple of years in the 1820s, until the deep colour it imparted to leather went out of fashion.
This was also the home of the King’s (and later, the Queen’s) Orphan Asylum, where hundreds of children of convicts or deceased settlers would be housed over fifty years until the orphanage was converted into a home for the elderly and infirm.
Perhaps the most significant figure to pass through the orphan school was Walter George Arthur, who had been given a British education on Flinders Island under the tutelage of George Augustus Robinson and others. Walter George Arthur and his wife Mary Anne identified themselves as Christians; they read and wrote well, and had a keenly developed political awareness. Walter George Arthur would petition the colonial and British governments to their highest office. There is perhaps no more interesting couple in recorded Tasmanian history.
And there is no one bigger in New Town’s history than Thomas Dewhurst Jennings, a Yorkshireman who took over the lease of the popular Harvest Home Inn on New Town Road in 1881. Jennings was reputed to have been the biggest man in Australia, tipping the scales at over 200 kilograms. His own report suggests that Jennings was far from gluttonous – despite owning a public hotel, he rarely drank, although he thought that it ‘reduces his bulk’ when he did.
The same newspaper report suggested that he was worried by neither his weight nor his age – he was then 60 years old – and intended to get married again. The reporter stated bluntly that this was “the only instance of a fat man who has preserved his health and his bulk together.” Jennings died in 1890.
What would a contemporary field guide to New Town boast about? The coffee roasters, I suppose; the New Town Greenstore, where you can buy organic teas and gluten free baked goods; the Jackman & McRoss bakery, with its well-known croissants; or the popular Hill Street grocers; or perhaps the Video City, soon to become a relic of history as well.
On board the Norfolk two friends from the Fenlands sailed along the northern coast of the island.
George Bass had thirty-three years tucked under his belt; Matthew Flinders was only twenty-four. They had become dear friends on their early journeys around Australia, beginning on their voyage out in 1794, and now the waterway that would become known as Bass Strait, with eight volunteers and no timepiece.
It was from a note in Flinders’s journal, on November 4, 1798, that Low Head, like so many features observable by boat, received the name it would bear on maps from then on.
Six years later an expedition of four ships would make their attempts into enter the Tamar River to settle at Port Dalrymple with Lieutenant-Governor Paterson in charge. These vessels were the Buffalo, the Lady Nelson, the Integrity and the Francis: but as the gale blew up at the mouth of the river, one ship – the Buffalo – was separated from the others, and Captain William Kent was forced to make landfall for a time on that eastern headland Low Head; shortly after, attempting again to enter the river, the ship was hammered by the weather and was washed aground.
At last they all reconvened at Outer Cove. Were there locals at hand to watch the flag-raising ceremony, the beastly watercrafts stalking down the river that was known as kanamaluka or Ponrabbel?
Some had no doubt seen Bass and Flinders “steering S. E. by S. up an inlet of more than a mile wide” one late spring afternoon in 1798, in that handsome colonial sloop. A giant white swan swooping onto the placid waters of the widening river.
The colonists quickly set about establishing their colony at Outer Cove, now George Town, with two prefabricated huts from Sydney. Bricks were laid and vegetables were planted. The destinies of the northern colonies were to unfold sporadically, progressing uncertainly, struggling against natural elements and without the wisdom of those peoples who had seen “Bass’s Strait” when it was indeed not filled with water at all.
But the purpose of Low Head was more clear. The broad river they called the Tamar, flowing out of the confluence of two further long rivers that tumbled down from the high dolerite slopes of Ben Lomond to create the significant hydrographical systems that had created life and meaning for the north of the island for so long, was difficult to navigate where it met the Strait. There were many hazards to contend with, and Low Head was a suitable place from which to address these.
So early on beacons were established there, beginning with a simple flagpole of Captain Kent's construction. A pilot’s station was manned from 1805, by one William House, but he absconded after two years - sent to Sydney in 1807 to seek assistance as the fledgling colony verged on starvation, he did not return.
The first lighthouse was built by a gentleman dubbed “Bolting Dick” or R.M. Warmsley. It was erected in 1832. The famous colonial architect John Lee Archer designed a more permanent fixture, built by convicts from stone and rubble and armed with a revolving light at considerable expense. It was finished in 1838.
This had to be replaced five decades later by the brick building that stands today. By this time, cottages for coxswains and crewmen had been constructed; school houses and workshops were added; the pretty Christ Church was holding services; farmhouses stretched along the river; cows and sheep grazed in paddocks; couples raised their children; and roadways to Launceston had been cleared.
Recently on the Field Guide, we remembered explorer Henry Hellyer.
Further along Bass Strait lived Tarenorerer, a freedom fighter, born around 1800.
There were many afternoons during my teenage years in which I came upon this view. Not always were the mountains set against a blue sky; in winter, the grass and trees were greener, the yellow blossoms absent. In those days, there were fewer houses wedged into the landscape.
Usually I had taken the bus from school, although sometimes I was just returning from a mate’s house. Often I had a skateboard under my arm and I was ready to hurl myself down the hill. (Once or twice I toppled off.) Just where the slope levelled off, on the left, after the roundabout, I would tumble into my home.
After some time away, I return to this hill. These are quiet streets – the edges of an urban space, where a regional city meets its bucolic background – but for me the neighbourhood is pullulating, populous with ghosts. It is a cluttered scene, years layered on top of each other. I see the Vollmers’ and Masters’ houses. I wonder if Ben’s grandmother is still alive, where Matt has moved on to by now. The austere brick house that the Lucases lived in for a while reminds of the tethers of their stories, which we have heard mostly through the avenues of gossip. There is a certain house to which I snuck on cold nights, in my pyjamas, to rendezvous with Miss A., also in her pyjamas.
Where the road has its elbow at the bottom of the hill, my brother once threw off his left shoe in a fit, and appeared to be dancing. He ran back to the house cursing the wasp that had crawled into his Vans and stung him.
Coming back to my mother’s house (once, both parents shared it), I feel as though I’m making a similarly ludicrous return.
There are all sorts of relics here too. As I write this, I look up at a photograph of two young Spinkses with the larrikin footballer Billy Brownless. There are other images: the grandfather who died before I was born, my old dog who is buried in the yard, clippings from my occasional appearances in the local newspaper. In the bathroom: the pot plant a girlfriend gifted to Mum more than half a decade ago.
Venturing away from the house, I am equally ensnared. Somehow I can’t help but hear of the corruptions and collusions of local politics, business, and media. The local Member for Parliament refuses to address his constituents. A hideous giant supermarket is being erected near the centre of town. The flags of another town’s football team flap all around Launceston in the early afternoon winds. The letters to the newspaper make me cringe, wince, want to cry.
I fear that the people who live in my town secretly hate it. That beneath the odd gesture of civic pride there is a deep concave of shame in our guts. That we wish we were something else, somewhere else, with more cheap shopping and football games.
Perhaps this has something to do with our origins, with the way some of our ancestors stole the landscape from the first Tasmanians. These rolling hills I have come upon so many afternoons of my life were once the hunting grounds of the largely-forgotten tribes of the north of the island. Beneath that banner of blue sky (or silvery-black, on the gloomier days), there were spirits and stories in amongst the black wattles and bluegums, in with the echidnas and snakes and wallabies.
If there is a horror at this, I do not discourage it. But there is a sense in which this is simply an era, a landscape, an urban arrangement, an historical moment which we have inherited. Which I have inherited. And if I wander through the streets of this town and feel grumpy for knowing it is lined by the houses of too many greedy or ignorant or complacent fellow-citizens, and then trudge down this hill into a home where all the change across two decades of my life manifests itself, without trying to resist a sense of hopelessness or sentimentality, without putting a hard shoulder against it, then I have lost home altogether. And there can be nothing worse than that sort of exile.
A sailor's life leads many places.
I have spent part of this year visiting certain locations that bear the memory of a man named Jørgen Jørgensen (1780-1841). Jørgensen's frenetic behaviour and multiplicity of careers led Australian novelist Marcus Clarke to describe him as 'a human comet'.
It was a life that saw him visit Iceland twice, once as a merchant, and a second time as a would-be revolutionary, in 1809.
It would also have him wind up in Tasmania as a convict, where he lived his final days, trying his hand at everything from clerical work to police work, farming to exploring.
Jørgensen also spent considerable time in London, particularly at a certain pub named the Spread Eagle Inn, on Gracechurch Street.
As part of his nautical career, he had stopped in ports in the Baltic Sea, South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
He sailed the South Seas on a whaling vessel, and wrote a treatise on the work of missionaries in Tahiti.
He may have even worked as a pirate in the Americas.
Briefly, he went to Spain and Portugal to escape his gambling debts; and later was employed by the British Crown to operate as a spy in continental Europe, making a colourful journey on foot. He lost almost everything (including, literally, the shirt on his back) in Parisian casinos, and accidentally committed to a marriage in Frankfurt - a vow that he was never to fulfill.
But what of Jørgen Jørgensen's hometown? The son of the official watchmaker to the Danish Crown, Jørgensen grew up on the street in this photograph, Østergade, just by one of the city of Copenhagen's main squares.
It was from this vantage point that an adolescent Jørgen witnessed a great conflagration in the harbour city. King Christian VII, considered a madman, had to be removed from his burning palace. Unfit to rule, tension brewed between the Queen, the Prince, and the King's physician over the issue of power.
Jørgensen left Copenhagen to work on British ships from the age of 14, but returned when he was 27, in December 1807, to find 'my native city bombarded'. The Danes had sided with Napoleon Bonaparte against the British. It was a painful time for the returning sailor. In Jørgensen's words, 'a considerable portion of the best city in Europe was destroyed'. He was put in charge of a vessel, the Admiral Juul, which was captured in short time off the east coast of England.
He would never return.
His compatriots came to consider him a possible traitor. Jørgensen himself seemed to hint at this in some writings, but passionately denied it in others.
During his time in Iceland, his lack of a national identity was attacked. 'Avoid Denmark, there you won't find a grave,' one of the prefects from the south of the island wrote to him, abandoning mildness. 'Everywhere you will be cast away, hated, banished, cursed. In the end you will be suffocated in an ocean of hate.'
He would sporadically write letters to family members, and described an intense suffering at being far from them, especially his mother. His Danish fell into disuse. Roaming the wildernesses of Van Diemen's Land, where he did indeed find a grave (although in the cemetery of a religion he did not belong to; and these days a school as been built upon it) he must have felt as far as possible from where he was born.
One can only hope that as he married, and bounced between occupations, and came to know different parts of Van Diemen's Land better than most colonial settlers of his day, that he felt somewhat at home in that land where Aboriginals, convicts and bushrangers mingled beneath the forest canopies and mountain silhouettes.
But perhaps, at times, he felt regret: having left his family, their trade, his language, and that elegant city.
One can get sentimental about home, though, especially after having seen so many places in this world.
Recently, I wrote about an old bridge in the centre of Tasmania that portrays one of its residents as a caricature of a king. Jorgen Jorgenson, as he came to anglicise his name (after several changes throughout his life), was born in Copenhagen and died in Hobart and careered his way through the world in between.
It is in Iceland that he is most remembered today. There, he is cheerfully clept Jörundur Hundadagakonungur: ‘Jorgen, the Dog Days King’.
For it was in the days when Sirius (known as the ‘dog star’) was seen in northern night skies, during the summer of 1809, that Jorgen Jorgenson installed himself as the Protector of Iceland.
It had begun as a mercantile excursion. Jorgenson and some British businessmen went to Iceland in the dark and cold of December 1808 and tried to organise some trade with the local merchants there. It was thwarted; Iceland was a Danish colony, and Denmark refused to trade with the British, the two countries being pitted against each other in the Napoleonic War.
Jorgenson – the Dane caught up in British affairs against his own country, in theory employed only as a translator – was furious. He declared they would return to Iceland to make business, by force if necessary.
So it was that he returned in 1809 and did not come unarmed. He and his men stormed into the house of the Danish Governor of Iceland, Count Trampe, and kidnapped him. And suddenly, Jorgen Jorgenson was in charge.
The Dog-Days King instituted some quick changes. Prisoners were released. School facilities were upgraded. A new flag was designed: three split codfish on a lavender background. Jorgenson was ready to move Iceland into independence. And with five ‘life-guards’ (probably the prisoners he released), Jorgenson took off over the country, at what may have been record speed, to meet the merchants and administrators in the northern port towns, where he believed the peasants were being manipulated and oppressed by the wealthy factors.
In 1809, Iceland was one of the poorest countries in Europe. Settled by Vikings in the 800s, who invented a type of commonwealth and parliament to ensure peace and order on the island, they had lost their independence after a few centuries, first to the Norwegians and then to the Danes. Agriculture was difficult, and Icelanders were fishermen and sheep farmers, and little else. Harsh winters required much preparation and were often fatal, and volcanic eruptions could have a devastating effect on the life of the people; in fact, a volcano eruption in the decade of Jorgenson’s birth had caused a devastating famine.
As Jorgenson travelled the country, and saw this reality combined with colonial oppression, he was moved to try and change the circumstances of the Icelanders.
And yet when Jorgenson was deposed as autumn began, by a British naval captain (it turned out that Jorgenson was supposed to be a prisoner there), the people were as indifferent as they had been to the removal of Count Trampe.
Jorgen Jorgenson had crossed a land of blueberry heath and scattered lava stones, the country of Viking outlaws, edging between glacial mountains and towards the Arctic Sea. In a colony on the edge of the European consciousness, Jorgenson had tried to effect political change on behalf of farmers and fishermen who in fact had never asked for his help. In a time of political turbulence, Jorgenson marched into the middle of the powerful forces of Europe and hoped to stage a revolution.
Boldly, brazenly, and probably naively, he expected it.
Jorgenson went back into the British penal system, although he was not long after to be found in Germany and France, working as a spy for that same nation.
Iceland gained its independence through a homegrown hero a century later. Later in the 1900s, a musical was written about the Danish usurper. In it, Jorgenson taught a young woman how to sing, which probably didn’t happen in the real history. But the play was called Þið munið hann Jörund: ‘We Remember Jorgen Jorgenson’.
This bridge tells some stories.
Not only because it is the third-oldest functioning bridge in Australia; not only because of the colonial context in which it sits; nor because of the geographical milieu that made its existence necessary. Nor, even, just because of the convict labour that made it happen, the quarrying of rough stone, the arduous efforts of construction, the curious interaction of government supervision and forced labour.
But also because one of the convict stonemasons carved portraits into the rock.
And one of the carvings has a crown on his head.
It is not the noggin of Lieutenant-Governor Arthur that is crowned either. Instead, the decoration sits atop the chiselled scone of a man who was working for the local police at the time, in the constabulary around the town of Ross, in central Tasmania, where this lovely bridge still conveys traffic over the Macquarie River every day.
Jørgen Jørgensen was born in Denmark in 1780 and died in Van Diemen´s Land in January 1841. What happened in between spanned the whole globe, and a dazzling variety of careers. He sailed into ports in Brazil, South Africa, Australia. He whaled in the Pacific Islands. He was a spy in continental Europe. He wrote treatises about economics and religion, as well as fiction and plays. His friends were at times important historical figures, such as Sir Joseph Banks. He also frittered away his money at the casino and the inn.
He also was the so-called King of Iceland, for two months of 1809.
And he wound up a Vandemonian lag, a convict in that hellish island gaol. There, even with his freedoms heavily restricted, he embarked on a series of careers that not only would make good cinema, but are at the centre of a vortex of global forces, colonial expansions and political revolutions and economic reforms and scientific developments.
Into all of this, Jørgen Jørgensen charged like Don Quixote at a windmill.
For this, he has been mocked, as on the side of the Ross Bridge, his nose chipped off and washed away by the Macquarie. And it is true, his life was tragicomic. His vices were his undoing. He wrote too much, in a second language. He was naive and idealistic. Quixotic.
But could it be said to have been worth it, just to be known as the former King of Iceland? To have been, after all, remembered?
This is not the first time I have written about Jørgen Jørgensen. Nor will it be the last.
He was nothing more than a tradesman, really, when he showed up on the island. A man with an aquiline nose, a small pouty mouth, and wavy hair that was well-kept – maybe too well-kept. Another visitor from far away.
Another one, but not the same as all the rest.
The young lady on the island had seen boats coming up and down the channel all her life now. At first, they were tourists, arriving for a quick look and then moving on. But then the white folks started settling, clearing land, building hamlets, growing crops, and taking over. Loggers and whalers had started to settle on the island; they were often monstrously violent, and they brought strange sicknesses to the local population. Her sister died of some unknown disease. Her mother and her uncle were killed. Then, her husband-to-be was murdered too.
But later – much, much later, when the history of the Aboriginal Tasmanians had reached its tragic nadir – Trugernanna told a biographer that when she first laid eyes on the man who would call himself the Conciliator, she could see that he wasn’t like the other white men. “Mr. Robinson was a good man and could speak our language,” she said.
And even later still, when Trugernanna was long since dead, historians would slur her name, calling her a ‘moll’, ‘a white man’s doxy’, and the ‘betrayer of her own people’. Other historians say that she perhaps wasn’t this ‘mindless black bimbo’. They suggest that perhaps she was an insightful diplomat, a negotiator who believed that her race would come to its end if they didn’t get away from the invading European settlers and their muskets and diseases.
She joined Mr. Robinson and his campaign to end the frontier conflicts between white and black on Van Diemen’s Land. Her role as emissary was invaluable; without her and other Aboriginal negotiators, Robinson could not have succeeded. Instead, the Friendly Mission led the Tasmanians to their exile on an offshore island. It was not the end of the story, but it still brought suffering for Trugernanna and her people.
Were Trugernanna and George Augustus Robinson lovers? Did they, indeed, ‘share a blanket’? The historians may never agree, on this and on a number of matters. Incredible, really, how the lives of these two individuals have touched so many others – how they have aggravated and aggrieved and sparked academic stoushes and bar-counter blues, camp-fire confessions as well as wintry silences.
When all the ink is spilt and our teeth will gnash no more, we still cannot comprehend fully the eclectic and complex motivations of either Trugernanna or Robinson. Yet their story remains perhaps the most significant in all of Tasmania. For what happened through them changed the island for everyone.
Last week, we looked ahead to Trugernanna's last days.
It was William Shoobridge II who first brought hops – humulus lupulus, a crop used almost exclusively for adding flavour and aroma to beer – to Australia.
His son, Ebenezer Shoobridge, bought an estate between the Derwent and Styx Rivers in 1863. Bushy Park Estates is still Australia’s largest producer of hops, and is known worldwide for its successful hop production, as well as for unique Tasmanian varietals of the plant.
And although Ebenezer was producing an intoxicant that (it could be said) created negative social effects throughout his native island, he was a godly man. To offer his workers spiritual encouragement, the hop kiln was adorned with sandstone plaques bearing scriptural sayings. ‘Unexpectedly,’ said one employee of the hop farm later, ‘as you looked up from the work of emptying a bag of hop flower catkins ready for drying, your eye would catch a verse placed at eye level…’
One plaque extolled the unity of the Shoobridge family. And it was a family affair.
Ebenezer and his wife Charlotte (nee Giblin) had a task ahead of them to make the six-roomed homestead comfortable for living and raising children. Some years in, the roof collapsed under the weight of pigeon shit.
But it was a good life for the children. The ‘young ladies’ of Charlotte and Ebenezer’s clan would be the driving force for the annual Farm Tea and Strawberry Feast events. Along with their little cat Twissy, they would prepare and present a seemingly endless feast of sweet cakes, pies and tarts.
And son William Ebenezer Shoobridge, born in 1846, would go on to be one of Tasmania’s most innovative and prolific figures towards the end of that century. Engineering unique irrigation schemes at Bushy Park and other family properties (the water races at Bushy Park today are his designs, are heritage listed), he also invented a technique for pruning fruit trees, and came up with new designs for the hop kilns. His role in Tasmania’s burgeoning apple industry was equally important to what he was doing with hops. And he became involved in politics, representing in parliament and promoting agricultural policy including the government regular of water supplies.
For this, he became known as ‘Water Willie’.
Perhaps he was inspired by those verses chiselled in sandstone on the beautiful kiln house. The Shoobridges perhaps knew more keenly than anyone the truth of one biblical injunction, which you can still see there today:
‘THE EARTH IS THE LORD’S
AND THE FULLNESS THEREOF...”
Some say the hot chips from a certain takeaway store in Triabunna are the best in Tassie. So I stopped in there the other weekend, joining a handful of locals in front of a greasy bain-marie, as chunks of potatoes were lowered into a vat of oil in the back room.
I was on my way to an art exhibition put together by the Tasmanian International Arts Festival, Reorder, which presented six site-specific sculptural installations inside the town’s decommissioned sawmill.
Truth be told, I was drawn to the exhibition as much for the location as for the artwork. Triabunna is one of the most contested places in a Tasmania divided by lines of class, occupation and political opinion. Operated by Gunns – the byword for forestry in Tasmania for decades – to chip and ship timber from the south of the island, it closed in 2011 after four decades, 70 per cent of the area’s forestry jobs going with it. In a stunning coup, the mill was purchased by entrepreneurs and environmentalists Jan Cameron and Graham Wood, who employed former Wilderness Society boss Alec Marr as site manager. Marr oversaw the dismantling of the sawmill’s equipment; “I’ve been waiting 27 fucking years for this,” he told The Monthly’s John van Tiggelen.
Triabunna was settled as a garrison town in the 1830s, with officers of the Maria Island penal colony and whalers also located in the region. Boat building and fishing have long occurred in the region, as well as farming; for some decades in the 20th century, a factory processed seaweed into alginic acid. Eucalyptus oil and wattle bark was harvested throughout the 1900s as well. But towards the end of the century, it was believed that something like 75% of the town’s economic activity relied on the forestry industry.
You get a decent amount of chips for $5. I was still pulling them from the packet as I left through the big gates, along a road made for log trucks, down to the beach. It was only at the last moment I noticed the recurring word, ‘chip’. The pun was not intended; it’s just one of those remarkable, flexible words in our language. But there was something about it that snagged my curiosity. How much this town had thrived on chips of whatever kind, pieces cut or hewn from the whole.
Going for a swim in Spring Bay later that afternoon, I had a profound sense that whatever happens to Triabunna in the coming years, it will mirror the fortunes of the entire island.
May the hot chips be available long after the woodchips are forgotten.
“Assuredly but dust and shade we are / Assuredly desire is blind and brief / Assuredly its hope but ends in death.”
So wrote fourteenth-century Tuscan humanist and poet Francesco Petrarca, who is commemorated at this western Tasmanian lake under his Latinised name, Petrarch.
It was the classically-inclined surveyor George Frankland who called Lake Petrarch so, although he generally preferred Greek nomenclature. He had seen the lake from the summit of Mount Olympus on February 12, 1829, and upon descent from the mountain, he and his party came to it. It was the first time in his life any of them had seen a certain conifer tree, athrotaxis cupressoides, “a remarkably handsome species of Fir” that he named “the pine of Olympus.” Nowadays it is commonly known as the pencil pine.
Another explorer, the geologist Charles Gould, came to camp upon the sandy beach of Lake Petrarch in January 1860. It was the beginning of a long expedition to the west, and Gould and his men looked at the silhouette of another literarily-named peak, Mount Byron, from across the still waters of the lake.
Landscape painter W.C. Piguenit, born in Hobart in 1836; his father was a convict, and his mother, a teacher of French, music and drawing. From 1874 he devoted himself to his craft, travelling on foot with surveyors to remote areas of Tasmania. Piguenit depicted Tasmania’s wildernesses in a Romantic light, as Ruskin was the European Alps contemporaneously. In 1887, he travelled with chief surveyor Sprent to the west coast. He took advantage of this expedition to make an excursion to Lake St. Clair, and further north through the Cuvier Valley, to Lake Petrarch, which he painted in hazy pastels. A grebe sits on a clump of dark rocks; Mount Byron overlooks the glistening water in a rosy twilit hue.
A century later, Peter Dombrovskis photographed Lake Petrarch. Born to Latvian parents in a World War II concentration camp in Germany, Dombrovskis was influenced by a fellow Baltic migrant, the unassuming yet influential Olegas Truchanas. Both became famous for involving their work in conservationist movements against the damming of wilderness rivers. Before his death by heart attack in the south-western mountains, Dombrovskis forged a reputation as one of the world’s great landscape photographers. In 1994, on a journey into the Cuvier Valley, Dombrovskis made a sensitive study of pencil pine boles near Lake Petrarch.
The Cuvier Valley is largely made up of golden buttongrass plains; it may have been managed as an Aboriginal hunting ground before Europeans arrived to the island known previously as Trowenna. How they perceived Lake Petrarch we do not know. Likewise, unknown numbers of personal expeditions in recent times go unrecorded.
In the Tasmanian Government’s current Draft Management Plan for the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, Lake Petrarch is rezoned so as to be permitted as a helicopter landing site – along with around a dozen other localities. “Men often despise what they despair of obtaining,” wrote Petrarch to a contemporary in the 1300s, and so they do today, still.
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.
The Richmond bridge is the oldest bridge still in use in Australia. The foundation sandstone was laid in December 1823, and with the aid of convict labour, the bridge successfully arched over the Coal River by 1825.
Around this time, the Coal River became acquainted with Gilbert Robertson. Arriving in Van Diemen’s Land from Scotland, en route to Sydney, he wheedled his way into gaining 400 acres of land near Richmond, despite having no money. Still, Gilbert complained that he’d been gypped – not enough land, not enough servants.
Pretty soon he lost his land, thanks to debt. He also made plenty of enemies. Magistrates, business partners, and even Lieutenant-Governors all came to loathe the “impertinence and swaggering” with which Gilbert Robertson carried out his affairs. In the end, though, Lt.-Gov. Arthur gave him his land back – plus the 600 additional acres Gilbert had moaned about – in 1829. Not much changed: Gilbert’s house burnt down and he was sued for assault. But just when it looked like his debts were going to catch up with him, circumstances changed curiously, and Gilbert saw his spot.
It was the height of the Black War, and Lt.-Gov. Arthur had declared martial law. Gilbert Robertson applied for, and received, the position of chief constable of the Richmond district.
The next few years at ‘Woodburn’, as Gilbert had named his estate, were eventful to say the least. In November 1828, he had captured five Aboriginal rebels, including the notorious warrior chief Umarrah. Along with Kickerterpoller, Gilbert’s off-and-on Oyster Bay Aboriginal servant, and a young Big River Aboriginal named Cowerterminna, Umarrah was a regular visitor to Woodburn.
Gilbert and Kickerterpoller were particularly matey, and Gilbert tried to convince Lt.-Gov. Arthur that this was what Aboriginal and settler relations could be, given the right approach to conciliation. In fact, he had devised a whole model for conciliation, and suggested that he would be willing to put it into action - for the right price. The price, unfortunately, was too high. An idea similar to Gilbert’s was developed by missionary George Augustus Robinson, and Gilbert was high and dry again.
Gilbert Robertson was born into an important Scottish family (his great-grandfather was the high chief of a clan), but he was also something inescapable in as sensitive a place as Van Diemen’s Land – he was half-black. His father had owned a plantation in Trinidad, and almost certainly Gilbert’s mother had been a slave. In Scotland, money and lineage had meant more than race. There were other stories being woven in Van Diemen’s Land, though, and the question of race was something that Gilbert was involved in – in more ways than one.
“Here then in brief outline is a biography of someone who was almost pathologically inclined to get into trouble,” writes historian Cassandra Pybus. An assessment from Gilbert Robertson’s contemporary, Lady Jane Franklin, gave an equal description: he was “a perfect miscreant equally devoid of principle and feeling.”
But interestingly, having moved late in life over to Geelong, he made quite a respectable name for himself. Working in the papers again, he died in 1851, of a heart attack during a particularly intense political campaign.
Richmond is also home to Australia's oldest Catholic Church.
Even prior to becoming the first chief of Tasmania’s tourist bureau, Evelyn Temple Emmett spent much time walking around the island, and occasionally headed interstate to give talks about it, or received international delegations to the state. He was a fine ballroom-dancer and skiier. In 1931, aged 60, Mr. Emmett was a leader of the inaugural party to ever complete the now-famous Overland Track. On his way there, he passed through the town of Deloraine – arriving in his favourite mode of transport, on hoof.
Mr. Emmett was very fond of Deloraine. He thought it was high on the list of the prettiest towns he’d ever come upon, and marvelled at the Old World trees along the river and the church spires reaching into the sky, streets and roads stretching up hills and around bends. Above the town, the Great Western Tiers stood majestically. Mr. Emmett would later summit the nearby peak of Quambys Bluff.
“The only criticism I can make of Deloraine is that it is cold in winter and knows what frosts are,” Mr. Emmett said, strolling into town early one morning and feeling the sting of the cold on his face. But even of that grim cloud he found a silver lining. For there, on the banks of the Meander River, was a sight perhaps even better than that of the quaint town or the view from the Tiers: three charming lasses.
“Stop!” Mr. Emmett cried to the young women. “Please; for I want to pay Deloraine a compliment through you.” And so they came to him, and Mr. Emmett explained how wonderful their complexions were, no doubt thanks to the cool air of Deloraine; and how, somewhere like Sydney, young women would pay £5 per square inch of whatever stuff might give them such a fine appearance as these locals of the Meander Valley had.
Mr. Emmett finished his flattering speech with a flourish and a broad smile; and finally, letting the lasses have their chance to respond, he found them giggling hysterically.
“Thank-you sir,” one of them finally said, “but we only arrived yesterday to this hole of a place, from Sydney, and we bought our complexions with us.”
“The Deloraine frosts have nothing on our George Street chemist!” another chimed in.
Nevertheless, good humour was retained amongst the group. Mr. Emmett took the young women out for breakfast. And they all went out to the races together, for which purpose the girls had come down from Sydney. It was a splendid day out, and after the morning’s events, laughter was easy to come by.
The girls went back to Sydney and Mr. Emmett never saw them again. But returning home from his Overland Track adventures, he found a package at his house, bearing a postmark from Sydney. It was a little packet of powder. “For your wife if you have one,” the typewritten message read. “From the Three Frosty-Faces.”
Another great journeyman on foot was Henry Reading, who made an almighty stroll from Hobart to Launceston.
Last week, this column followed the story of Irish rebel John Mitchel, who escaped from Bothwell in Van Diemen’s Land, with the assistance of a man nicknamed ‘Nicaragua’.
Mitchel had lived at Nant Estate, alongside a fellow Irish political prisoner, John Martin. Today, the estate is the home of an exceptional whisky distillery. It was John Mitchel who noted in his Jail Journals that “Tasmanian honey is the best in the world”. This reporter agrees – but Mitchel would no doubt be shocked to discover that nowadays, Tasmanian whisky is highly-esteemed too, one single-malt batch earning the official epithet “World’s Best” in 2014.
While Mitchel high-tailed it, he had left his own wife, Jane, and their children high and dry. In the end, they made it back to Ireland.
Mitchel’s roomie at the Nant cottage, “Honest” John Martin, remained at the estate. No doubt the other Young Irelanders were under heavy suspicion after Mitchel’s brazen escape, but they did not make attempts at escape. And in 1854, they each received a conditional pardon – they were allowed to leave the island, and go wherever they wanted, so long as it wasn’t Ireland.
John Martin went to Paris, albeit through an incredible overland journey, beginning in Ceylon. And two years later, along with the other Young Irelanders, the British Empire bestowed unconditional pardons upon the rebels. They were free to go back to their home.
The roommates Martin and Mitchel reunited in Paris in 1859. It had been over six years since Mitchel’s sudden departure. Stories were no doubt bandied around, perhaps flowing more freely with the aid of some liquid lubrication. Reminiscences of their days together at Nant, with its “vast view of endless mountains, covered with wood” may have brought tears to the eyes. Martin would have borne news of the other revolutionaries, all of whom had made it back to the motherland; Mitchel was privy to the political turbulence of America, where he was still a political agitator. Mitchel would fight for the Confederates in the American Civil War, claiming that slavery was “good in itself” and that blacks were inherently inferior to whites.
They kept in touch, but didn’t meet again until seven years later, in 1866. Perhaps by then, the stories had gotten grander. Their lives were becoming more settled. They were, after all, getting older. And perhaps, amid all the laughter and bluster and exaggeration of their reunion in ’66, there was a serious word, too. For shortly after that rendezvous, John Martin finally became engaged – to wed his old roommate’s sister, sweet Henrietta Mitchel.
He was 56. The next year, John and Henrietta went to New York, for a magnificent Mitchel-Martin family reunion. Corks popped, and their captivity in beautiful Van Diemen’s Land must have seemed a million lifetimes ago.
Oddly, the New York Irishman known as “Nicaragua” – journalist P.J. Smyth – had remained in V.D.L. too. In the most unlikely of circumstances, he had fallen in love. It was the New York Irish Directory who had sent him on the mission to free the Young Irelanders, under the guise of employment with the New York Tribune; Nicaragua never went back to New York, though. He met a lass in Hobart by the name of Jeannie Regan, and they got married in the lovely sandstone confines of St Josephs Church, on Macquarie Street.
Nicaragua and Jeannie returned to Ireland to live out their days.
And John Martin died aged 62. His honoured widow lived far longer; even longer lived a mysterious lady by the name of Miss Thompson, to whom “Honest John” wrote politically-themed letters over his lifetime. Perhaps the story of Miss Thompson is one even more fascinating – if we only knew it.
Nant Estate, in Bothwell, in Tasmania’s southern highlands, was settled by Welsh agriculturists in 1821. Today it is famous for its whisky. World-renowned, Nant whisky is Australia’s only highland single malt distiller of the beverage known as the ‘water of life’. At one stage in history, it housed Irish revolutionaries.
A man known as ‘Nicaragua’ had arrived in Van Diemen’s Land with a mission: gaolbreak. Of the six Young Irelanders sent to V.D.L. for treason, William Smith O’Brien was the only one holed up on an island goal. The oldest and most respected of the Irish convicts (having just turned 46 when he arrived), he had refused a better deal on a matter of principle. The others hadn’t. They had accepted a ticket-of-leave, which gave them a good – if restricted – life.
John Mitchel was the first Young Irelander to be sentenced, if the last to arrive after a short stay in Bermuda. He’d been a solicitor, but threw it in to start his own newspaper, the United Irishman, which supported a forced dissolution of the union with England. For his work, he copped a fourteen year sentence of transportation.
While Smith O’Brien suffered, though, Mitchel and the others rather enjoyed their exile. Their only rule was to not to leave their police district. However, John Mitchel was allowed to share a cottage on the Nant estate at Bothwell with another rebel, John Martin; and they managed to arrange meetings at Lake Sorell with two more, O’Doherty and Meagher, where two more districts fortuitously met.
In June 1851, John Mitchel’s wife Jane and their children arrived at Bothwell. Mitchel moved out of the Nant cottage. Martin remained. William Smith O’Brien was still in gaol.
Enter Nicaragua – real name, P.J. Smyth – an Irishman in the U.S.A., working as a New York Tribune correspondent. A body of Irish sympathisers arranged for him to come to Van Diemen’s Land with the idea of retrieving one or more of the Young Irelanders captive there. John Mitchel’s eyes went wide as saucers when he saw Nicaragua.
John Mitchel kept a diary that he called the Jail Journals. His phrases are full of Romantic ornamentation, poetic in their praise of the island’s beauty. And why not? He was free to ride his horse, exploring and hunting throughout the Bothwell region's sublime landscapes. Thus it was Smith O’Brien, not Mitchel, for whom the gaolbreak plan existed. He was the one with the raw deal. But the plan to get him out of the island prison failed; he was double-crossed by the captain of a schooner who’d been employed for the purpose.
And so it was Mitchel who was freed. Boldly, he went with his gun into the Bothwell police station, and gave up his ticket-of-leave. Nicaragua had arranged everything: Mitchel escaped on horseback, got on a vessel at Hobart, and went – via Sydney, Batavia, and San Francisco – to New York, arriving at last in November 1853, to a hero’s welcome.
William Smith O’Brien was eventually pardoned, reuniting with his wife and seven children in Brussels in 1854. He returned to Ireland two years later.
Another Irish convict was Thomas Meagher. Thomas, his wife, and his child all died on separate continents.
Over in Monterey, California, I was introduced to Mr. Seavey by his daughter Cat. “Tasmania, eh? You’re not from Fingal, are ya?”
I’ve never before been asked if I hail from Fingal. With a population of 366 at the last census, and dwindling rapidly, Fingal is not exactly famous. There are probably plenty of Tasmanians who have never heard of it. I’ve never met anyone from Fingal.
These days, things are looking pretty bleak there. According to local drug counselling organisations, it’s one of the hotspots for methamphetamine use in Tasmania, for example. Unemployment is high, real estate prices are low. There are plenty of closed shopfronts on the main drag; even the old hotel, which once claimed to have the biggest Scotch whisky collection in the southern hemisphere, is gone.
The Fingal Valley was first surveyed in 1824, and in 1827, the town was settled as a convict station. In 1852 gold was found ten kilometres north. Towards the end of the 19th century, coal became the centre of the area’s economy; the town of Fingal was growing rapidly, and a young man named Francis McComas was born.
This was Mr. Seavey’s connection with Fingal.
Francis became one of the world’s great watercolourists, famous for his modernist landscapes. As a young man, he had been sent to Sydney for training under a master plein air landscape painter. Watercolour was not widely regarded in Australia, but young Francis adopted this as his medium of choice. He then went across the Pacific to the United States.
Like many young Australian artists of the time, Francis had wanted to go to Europe to paint – to Paris, specifically – but got distracted, making friends in Monterey and having successful shows in San Francisco. He returned to Australia at least once, to Sydney, where he made scathing reviews of the Australian art scene. He probably never returned, and died in the luxurious Californian coastal town of Pebble Beach, where you can find one of the world’s richest golf courses.
A new coal mine is in the works, and the old hotel is opening. Could there be another Frank McComas ready to burst out of Fingal?
In 1811, Major George Gordon was in charge of the fledgling colony at the mouth of Tamar River. When summer came at the end of the year, Major Gordon suffered from sunstroke so badly, it is said, that he went a little bit out of his mind. At about the same time, a curious character named Jonothan Burke McHugo sailed down the river and stepped into Launceston.
Calling himself a Maharajah and declaring himself of noble descent, McHugo stated that he had been ordered to Launceston by the British Government of India to investigate the numerous grievances of the colony. Major Gordon felt he had little choice but to hand over the reins of the colony to this visitor of great esteem.
For a week, McHugo was the boss. The military gave their allegiance entirely to him. He gave out tea, rice, sugar and spirits, lending them at long credit, and set up a court of enquiry to hear the concerns of the settlers. At the conclusion of his inquiry, he declared that Major Gordon ought to be hanged.
So poor George Gordon (still suffering from sunstroke, I suppose) was set to be strung up, and no doubt he would have been, if not for the timely return of a young lieutenant named Lyttleton, who was surprised to find that while on his short holiday, Launceston had regressed to a state of anarchy. He quickly exercised his authority to put a pause on the execution, and then did some investigations of him own regarding the identity of the Maharajah, General Count Jonothan Burke McHugo.
Who, it turned out, to be of no noble standing at all, but instead the son of an Irish tobacco seller.
McHugo was sent back to his ship, and told to bugger off. Not much is known about the rest of his life. Major Gordon was returned to his health, but not to his post; he fired as a punishment for his gullibility. Lyttleton, on the other hand, got a promotion.
Another ship, and another enigmatic visitor: Roald Amundsen arrives on the Fram.
Thomas O’Meagher (born as simply Thomas Meagher) was an Irish rebel. He was the leader of the Young Irelanders during the infamous Rebellion of 1848. He had been to France as a student of revolutionary movements, and returned with the new flag of Ireland – the tricolour of green, white and orange. At the Battle of Ballingarry, he and his cohorts were captured by the English. Public outcry saved the necks of a few of them. They received clemency, and were sentenced to transportation. Off to Van Diemen’s Land.
As political prisoners, they had a strange deal. For convicts, the Irish rebels were comparatively free, but were forbidden from meeting. They also had to give their word that they would not attempt to escape without first informing the authorities. O’Meagher was sent to Campbell Town, then Ross, in the Midlands of the island; it was decent farming land, but O’Meagher was not impressed. He did, however, fall in love. On February 22, 1851, the Irish revolutionary married the daughter of a highwayman, Katherine ‘Bennie’ Bennett.
The other Irishmen disapproved. They had been secretly meeting on occasion, at a special lakeside retreat. Almost immediately after their wedding, Katherine fell ill. Before a year of their marriage was completed, Thomas O’Meagher sent a letter to the authorities, informing them that within twenty-four hours, he would consider himself a free man. Katherine was pregnant. O’Meagher escaped to New York City.
The infant son was buried here at St. John’s Catholic Church in Richmond. It is the oldest Catholic Church in Australia.
In the U.S., Thomas O’Meagher became a citizen, studied law and journalism, and joined the U.S. Army during the Civil War. Incredibly, Katherine was able to reunite with them – albeit only briefly. She returned to Ireland pregnant with another child, a son who would bear his father’s name. It was a name that was to become famous, but Thomas jnr. would never meet his father. O’Meagher became the Governor of Montana, and married a Protestant girl. At the age of 43, he died, falling into the Missouri River and being swept away, his body never recovered.
For visitors coming to Tasmania in search of love, one topic that may be useful to have some understanding of is called the Proposed Pulp Mill. For more than a decade now, the Proposed Pulp Mill has been generating controversy and stirring up the emotions of the good people of Tassie.
For the uninitiated, allow me to sketch the story for you – in brief. Tasmania has a lot of trees, and not that much else, and so it made sense that not so long ago, the timber industry played a major role in the state economy. It was perhaps a little more concerning that one company, named Gunns, dominated this industry. When they announced that they would like to produce paper in Tasmania, and do so by building a pulp mill at the top of the Tamar Valley in northern Tasmania, it was not surprising that politicians bent over backwards to try and let Gunns do what they wanted. Large numbers of the population, however, weren’t so keen on it, and protested, and litigated, and did what they could do stop the mill being built, citing health and environmental concerns, among others.
Hindsight can reveal to us that many corrupt devices were used to put the Proposed Pulp Mill up during that cursèd decade. Politicians were sacked, executives went to gaol, and Gunns went out of business. Although not everyone was against the Proposed Pulp Mill, it seemed that Tasmanians breathed a general sigh of relief that the whole thing was over.
Except it wasn’t over. In 2014, well over a decade on, it’s back on the table as Tasmania heads towards a state election. The economy isn’t good here, you see, and all sorts of idiots are making suggestions about how to fix it. I’m one of these idiots, of course. Tasmania’s economy is transitioning away from manufacturing and into tourism and food. (To impress you with a numerical figure: tourists contributed $1.464 billion to our economy between March 2012 and March 2013.) People are willing to invest in these fields because of Tasmania’s uniqueness geographically and environmentally. Ideas like the almighty Proposed Pulp Mill will only sabotage the growths we have in these areas.
But that’s a conversation that the visitor to Tasmania might broach over the dinner table, with the parents of a new lover. If they dare.