Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged rainforest

  • Confluences

    Confluences

    At some point, when you take the Lyell Highway, you hit a sudden wall of water, a thick sheet of rain that comes belting against your windscreen. It happens every time. Last week, I met it shortly after the King William Range was behind me, as I entered the tenebrous green rainforest; I slithered down the hairpins throughout it, but the weather cleared up by the made it further west, and I could speed towards the bulk of the mineral mountains of the west coast, from which Queenstown is made.

    Later, from the windows of my quarters for the weekend, I saw a beautiful afternoon spread out before me. I had been given a room in the old nurses’ accommodation, which is currently being renovated into a hotel of sorts. It was a splendidly quirky establishment, with an equally genial and eccentric host, and perched on one of Queenie’s various hills, it gave a good perspective on the diverse moods that seize that town so suddenly.

    I was out there for a festival called the Unconformity. To those who do not know geology, the name may seem a bit artificial, somewhat forced; but aside from allusions to outsider behaviour, the word ‘unconformity’ refers to a situation in which two different strata of geology stand side-by-side, two eras of rock formation forced next to one another. The west coast is notoriously non-conformist, yes, but it is also made up of jarring elements of landscape, barren rock and thriving rainforest, industrial wealth and impoverished soils, booms and busts, fires and floods. 

    I was working at the festival; throughout it, my role allowed me to wander off-site several times, going with groups down to this spot, the confluence of the King and Queen rivers. This is a special spot, and I was happy to return to it. I would hover around listening to the interpretations of two experts in western Tasmanian natural history: they gave a concise explanation of the botany, the geology, and the hydrology of the region.

    The dark King River runs uncontaminated out of a high range of dolerite mountains further to the north; but here it picks up the poisoned Queen, a dead river, devastated by the run-off from the old copper mine, so laden with heavy metals that it may be a millennium before it’s healthy again. Yet around us, myrtles towered and huon pines hung with their foliage just above the water. More unconforming ecosystems – what could be more jarring than the near presence of both life and death?

    Later, of course, I played the footy match on Queenstown’s infamous field. Its surface is gravel; few participants emerge without shedding a bit of bark, as they say. As usual, I kicked waywardly, ran a lot, drank a beer during the match, smirked at opposition players and cursed the umpire – and as usual, my team lost.

    Mostly, during a footy match, you are in the moment; but every so often, you get a chance to contextualise yourself. You see the rough mountains around you. You identify your mates on the field with you, and you realise that these liquid events are already firming up into stone-like memory. That though much dissolves in your life, some trace elements will remain. 

    At one point or another, after the footy and in the final hours of the festival – while we were still all together, before taking off on our long road trips towards homes afterwards – it became clear that, however briefly, we had been a part of something irrevocable in the history of the area.

  • Love Letter from the Pieman River

    Love Letter from the Pieman River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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