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.
Currently showing posts tagged rivers
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.
A couple of summers ago I went to the carols concert at Sidmouth, here on the lawns outside the ‘auld kirk’, a restored building that the locals are rightfully proud of. I’d gone with my housemate at the time, who was playing trombone for the occasion. There I sat solitary amongst the parishioners, murmuring along to a few of the songs. The elderly gentleman in front of me fumbled ahead in his songbook to see what songs were coming up next, like a cheating student; another fellow by my side was in costume. “I don’t know why I’m here, there’s no Roman centurion in the biblical story,” he quipped – then tried the joke again, correcting himself: “...in the nativity story.”
Stars, silence, sleep, and sheep: what fine themes to sing about. These are lovely old narratives. There are a few better yarns than that of the first noel being proclaimed to a cohort of dozing shepherds.
Funny, though, to sing of David’s royal city whilst the shadows were lengthening the paperbarks’ silhouettes along the Tamar River. The quiet placid waters of the Tamar took in the angular light of this end of the hemisphere, a sharp southern summer sunset. Tamar, of course, is a biblical reference, but if we let that river have a name with an older lineage, kanamaluka, then the stories of the Middle East settle awkwardly on this place.
Christmas is full of borrowed stories; many are naturalistic, but none of them are rooted in Tasmania. The birth of Christ is a kind of epic that has a broad human appeal, of course, but as the years pass I yearn for motifs that make sense in my surrounds, and connect me to the seasons. I want stories that make me consider country, and how I might care for it. What am I supposed to do with reindeer in the snow, or the King of Bohemia? What has Jerusalem to do with Hobart? What is a Roman centurion doing in Sidmouth?
So what are the marks of seasonal change at this time of year? An obvious one is the flowering of a certain Correa shrub, which has the common name ‘Christmas bells’. It pops out a nice flower – tubular, yellow and red – at about this time of year, joining the colourful scattering of summer blooms which brighten up our land.
But there’s also the cherry ballart, or native cherry, Exocarpos cupressiformis, which at this time spurts out its edible, slightly sweet, red oval berries amidst the tree’s shaggy light-green leaves. The appearance of this fruit is a happy time, and must have been well cherished by traditional Tasmanians making their summer travels around the island. It ought to be considered as delicious my grandmother’s cloying creamy desserts, which normally sit poorly on a stomach full with potato and beer, in the thirty-degree heat that is common for our Christmas afternoons (although I’m yet to turn them down).
The snow, of course, is a usually irrelevant Yuletide reference here. But in the mountains it might snow anyway. I recall taking German honeymooners for a hike one December; presuming summer weather, they’d not wanted to bring a beanie or gloves. We had a minor blizzard over the Cradle Mountain plateau. In the evening we made Glühwein in the hut, as if it was a Christmas market. So nowadays I can live with the occasional reference to snow at Christmastime.
Only once have I spent a Christmas abroad. I was in Maharashtra, India; I passed the day, I think, at a Catholic orphanage. Children danced, and sang on a stage, through loudspeakers that screeched in protest at frequent intervals. Santa Claus strode through the dusty yard, sweating his suit of red felt. The season’s greeting was strung up for the occasion. It read, “Happy Birthday Jesus, We Love You.”
So ideas flow between all lands now. The symbols are confusing, but most people don’t seem to mind. Perhaps I needn’t overthink it. Living at this latitude offers many gifts, and the long hours of twilight are not the least of these. I suspect I will enjoy a beer with old friends, with the maddest of my family members. This, now, is the tradition of these dates. At other times of the year, in the spirit of the age, I’ll make my own festivals that fit my private intentions to live well in the landscape: a pilgrimage to that old pencil pine on the Plateau, an annual expedition looking for a certain liverwort, the first swim of spring, an occasion of departure, a return.
And if at Christmas I find myself feeling like a centurion in the wrong time and place – in the wrong narrative altogether – I won’t be too put out. I will embrace the germ of the Christmas idea. In the words of Albert Camus (and to borrow from him is of course another incongruity), “All great ideas have ridiculous beginnings.”
The jarring symbols of cultural clash were even more obvious come Christmas Day, 1831, on the Ouse River.
This weekend, this hut will be honoured, a centenary of its existence celebrated. It really is quite a feat that the old hut has lasted so long – fire, snow and neglect have combined to eradicate innumerable high country huts in that last hundred years. (Even in the immediate area: several incarnations of a New Pelion Hut have come and gone at a spot about a kilometre from Old Pelion Hut.)
Built of hand-split king billy timber, it was constructed in 1917 to serve a mining company, whose copper shaft is still accessible to walkers around Pelion Plains. The government acquired at the cessation of mining operations in 1921. Available for public use, it became advantageous for stockmen, trappers, and early bushwalking guides. Graffiti on the interior boards dates back to the 1920s, much of it verifiable to those years.
The button-grass and white-grass plains around Mount Oakleigh have long lured human activity into the area. Relatively accessible, these plains were certainly used by local bands of indigenous Tasmanians after the most recent Ice Age concluded – their fire regime is evident to archaeologists, and long-occupied shelter sites can be found in the vicinity (such as around the upper Forth River)
Various fur trappers made the Pelion Plains their favoured haunt – probably starting with the McCoy family – and in 1909, a farmer and prospector named George Sloane drove over 100 head of cattle to this “mostly poor land with a little open grazing country”. After some years of successful grazing, however, wild bulls roamed the plains: tall tales from the highlands speak of close shaves with charging animals. One of the more legendary mountain men, Bert Nichols, claimed to have grabbed a bull’s tail, pulled it around a tree, and looped it over his horn so that the bull was caught – “he went back later and found the bull had sawn down the tree.”
Today, Pelion Plains sits at the centre of the Overland Track, the most well-known hike in Tasmania. Walkers use the newest of the New Pelion huts, so salubrious an abode that it’s colloquially called ‘Pelion Palace’. Most walkers briefly visit Old Pelion, if they come at all. Much smaller and dingier, and a little more frail too, National Parks asks walkers to only use it in the case of an emergency.
I work as a guide on the Overland Track, and often take my punters down to Old Pelion. Here, over lunch, I’ll spin a few yarns of my own: the history of mining, perhaps, or something about the use of fire throughout Tasmania’s history. We may go for a swim in Douglas Creek, or pick leeches off ourselves in the grass. I have also been there when conditions are as they were one day in the 1930s, as reported by a graffito: “Snowing like hell!”
Other walkers have scribbled their names and dates in the walls, often obscuring the historical graffiti – although at what point does a name take on historic value? This is but one of the questions that Old Pelion Hut raises. What is it that makes us care about such places? And what is more meaningful to us: to maintain it but not let it be used, to use it and potentially destroy it, or to ignore it and let it fall into disrepair? (It is worth noting that Old Pelion has been given a spruce-up since this photo was taken in summer 2015.)
Another question: what is the meaning of the sign above the door, emblazoned with the word ‘Emhlangana’? It’s a question that was thankfully answered by high country historian Simon Cubit, who passed away this year. It’s a Zulu toponym, meaning, ‘meeting place’, and the carved sign was probably erected there in the 1940s by the migrant Wooton family.
For a while the narrative of National Parks in Tasmania failed to include buildings like Old Pelion Hut, as well non-Aboriginal practices (such as hunting, farming, or prospecting) in the area. At that stage, it seemed that the word ‘wilderness’ couldn’t cope with these more recent interventions. Although I would argue that we still don’t have a helpful definition for this word (and Pelion Plains falls within the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, so we’re forced to have a crack at one), we are now able to see that human recreation and industry is deeply woven into this landscape, alongside the activities of burrowing crayfish and broad-toothed rats and marchflies.
If we don’t understand what we have done in these places, we will be completely unable to honestly comprehend what we are still doing. Whatever it’s worth, we are part of the ecology of this country.
I have spent five years working here, and probably passed by Pelion Plains fifty-odd times. It’s not so much. Yet even I have more stories from here than I could tell in one night, if you were to sit me on the hard hut bunks and offer me a dram from a smuggled bottle. There will many present who have far longer memories than I.
Importantly, this weekend will demonstrate that although some restrictions have been put into place to preserve this hut, it’s not a museum relic. It remains a meeting place.
I. Riddell, 1819.
The country along the Huon River had been known to Europeans for a couple of decades. The French had come up the river under Bruni d’Entrecasteaux. He had assigned the river’s name in honour of the commander of one of his vessels, Huon de Kermadec. That was 1792.
Pre-eminent naturalist Robert Brown led a journey down the Huon in 1804, before declaring it unsuitable for settlement. But there was now knowledge of the country’s geography and the first scattered settlements appeared.
In 1819, for example, I. Riddell came and scratched his name into a tree.
In the 1820s, an absconded convict with the surname of Martin was found at a makeshift campsite at what is now the township of Franklin. As was so often the case with the bolters of colonial Van Diemen’s Land, this Martin had escaped into a location with a wealth of resources. The river, the wetlands, and the hinterland of eucalypt forest were full of life; here it was possible for an outcast to find shelter, find food, make fire and survive.
However, as elsewhere in Tasmania, these colonial outposts required ingenuity and bravery. New settlers would live in bark huts and work long hours. Everything was home-made. Conflict with the original Tasmanian population was also prevalent in this period of history, and these remote settlements were exposed.
After the development of a bridle track the following decade, the Huon Valley became one of the most fecund agricultural areas on the island. Even Lady Jane Franklin acquired a large block of land and put it to use.
The Huon River came to have over 70 jetties; even with the bridle track, it made more sense to use the water as a road. Vessels without engines were replaced by steamers and soon enough, a Huon resident would be able to take an early-morning boat ride to Hobart.
Like many others, George Lucas shipped timber upstream. He felled the trees on his property Ranelagh, today the name of a village of about 1000 people.
It was here I woke up about this time last year. Not quite in the cemetery, amongst the tombstones of my predecessors, but in the adjacent park. Sometimes after midnight, I had arrived from the Huon Valley Midwinter Feast, the local wassailing festival. (It is genuinely one of my favourite festivals and I’m sorry to miss it this year). Giddy with cider and bock, I’d sort-of put up my tent and slept in it. When I woke up, the sun was melting the frost. The resonant voices of the Sunday morning flock rose from the Anglican church-house, joining the mist lifting from the Huon. Some children were hunting for Pokémon – now that’s history.
What makes a person try and mark their time and place in the world so definitely, to scribble their name on a wall or scratch it into a tree? If ever I needed to fix myself somewhere, it may have been that morning in Ranelagh. I was completely untethered for the day – no car, no mobile phone, no plans, no companions. I went and found a wallaby pie for breakfast, and wandered off, unregistered, with the other old souls of the Huon Valley.
Tasmania’s west is notoriously difficult. Visitors today will still swoon over the tangle of greenery, the rivers running black and cold, and the tortured quartzite mountains that rise in irrepressible ranges throughout this quadrant of the island.
Two handsome highways sweep towards the west coast: the Murchison from the north, and the Lyell from the south. These roads are wonders, bending and careering, crossing major rivers, combating mountainsides and gorges, and squeezing between stands of those infamous rainforest species with their roots and branches ready to ensnare.
So these days, to go west from Launceston or from Hobart is to drive for a bit over three hours, on well-sealed and well-engineered roads. A traveller can stop in Tullah or Tarraleah for a coffee. They need only wonder, as I can find easily on the webpage of an online travel agency, “Strahan: Is it worth the drive and what to see…?”
She wasn’t always so easy. The west was hard to access for more than a century after the British made their permanent camps here, with journeys by sea the most common way to get there – upon a rough sea, naturally, along hazardous coastline. But there was timber there, and later, mineral colour. There were economic motivations to make access to the western regions easier.
Enter a man named Thomas Bather Moore, born in the village of New Norfolk, west of Hobart, in 1850. Whilst in his 20s, he began investigating mining possibilities in areas around Mount Bischoff, Mount Heemskirk, and the Linda Valley – in short, all the mineral hotspots of Tasmania in the late 1800s. He would explore the South Coast track and blazed the Linda Track, which the Lyell Highway essentially follows today. In fact, many locals were miffed that this highway never bore the name of Moore.
A bushman must be skilled in multiple fields, and to become known as King of the West Coast explorers, you’d probably have to be good at quite a lot. T.B. Moore was different to a lot of other bushmen in that he was educated, and at a British school no less. He observed the effects of glaciation on west coast ranges and obtained fossil samples for further study. He was also a skilled amateur botanist, collecting specimens of mosses, liverworts, ferns and other plants for foremost scientists. Two species are named in his honour: Actinotus moorei and Coprosma moorei.
Tom Moore was hardy. He humped a heavy pack, often for more than 30 kilometres in a day, whilst contending with rough terrain and tough conditions. Regularly he went hungry, and sometimes found himself in dire straits. Once, Moore had to crushed clay and smoke it as a placebo to alleviate his tobacco addiction. Although he travelled with his brother James for a while, he often went alone – although he always travelled with dogs. Three canine companions appear in his biography: Wanderer, Spero, and Spiro. Each of these has a river named after it in western Tasmania.
His relationships with others is harder to assess. To those who worked under him in on government track-cutting expeditions, T.B. Moore was a harsh authoritarian. It is said that his solitary manner adversely affected some members of his family, and, when his bushing days were over, that he resorted to hard drink. Moore kept a diary, in which he “rarely mentioned loneliness”, even when he went months at a time away from others; yet when he did stumble back into towns, such as when he shocked the proprietor of the Picnic Hotel in Huonville after five months in the bush, he was considered good company.
We must spare a thought for his wife, Mary (born Jane Mary Solly: there is a Solly River in the southwest too), for whom months passed without knowing her husband’s whereabouts or fate. In 1901, after having not heard from Tom for nearly six months, she wrote to his supervisor. “I am afraid you will think me a nuisance but I cannot help writing,” she signed off.
He was simply behind schedule. Meanwhile, Mary was in Strahan, hoping he had not perished like so many others in a dark corner of the contiguous forest.
The Moores had chosen to settle at this west coast port, shortly after its first stores and hotels had gone up. Tom would exchange postcards with his children whilst the work in the bush was progressing. “My dear dad How are you getting on in the bush,” wrote school-age son Cliffe, who would later be seriously wounded in the Great War. To his daughters Molly and Grace, Tom sent photographs of a hut and a river, “so you can picture Dad in the bush now that he is leaving all that is dear & delightful.”
T.B. Moore would wind up in Strahan for his final years, working in the mine office at nearby Queenstown. He was laid to rest here by the waters of Macquarie Harbour, as were his wishes. “His reward in money was scanty,” an obituary reads, “but in the deepest sense of life he was eminently successful.”
Every day on the calendar has its host of holidays and observances, and February 2 is no different. The fortieth day after Christmas, it holds a special place in the religious calendar – the Candlemas feast. This holiday has its roots in northern hemisphere agricultural rites, and is a happy occasion for believers in different countries, who eat pancakes or other sweets in celebration.
In addition, biologists and ecologists around the world mark the 2nd of February as World Wetlands Day. And while there’s every reason why this might be a fun day out, it has an element of concern attached to it.
Wetlands are important but fragile ecosystems. Lately, when I am in my hometown of Launceston, I have lately been enjoying walks along the rivers that define my town. These fringe places have been alive with birdsong and frogcalls, and the hum and buzz of cicadas and other insects.
But the reality is that as important as wetlands are, they are often unattractive to an eye trained by a tradition of aesthetic romanticism. Nor do they offer obvious practical advantages to human societies, and so we have, throughout the ages, drained and cleared wetlands, oblivious or careless about the disturbance it creates upon the habitat of so many of the creatures that pass in close proximity to us.
Take the hyperactive birdlife of Tamar Island, the location of my nearest World Wetlands Day celebrations. Here, in the middle of the eccentric tidal estuary of the Tamar, black swans teem and teeter; egrets and pelicans hover over the island; varieties of ducks or dotterels with quirky hairstyles bob along the gentle ripples of the water; grassbirds and fairy-wrens flit about the branches. Two of my favourite birds stomp around: the almost-but-not-quite elegant purple swamphen, and the utterly loveable ‘narky’ – the Tasmanian native hen – making its unmistakeable racket.
They are attracted to the rich resources of the river, as have all sorts of humans for millennia. Aboriginal societies, for thousands of years, recognised the busy estuary as significant and passed much time along its banks. Among other names, they knew at is as Ponrabbel or kanamaluka.
From the beginning of European settlement – from the first northern Tasmania colony in 1804 – sites along the Tamar were seen as important too. The earliest maps have Tamar Island charted upon them, although not by that name. Col. William Paterson made landfall on Tamar Island, in somewhat brief and unglorious circumstances, when his vessel got stuck in the mud around it – and Mud Island was thus its name for some time. So too was Pig Island.
The island was also used a base for the project of dredging the river and redirecting its flow in the 1890s; scuttled vessels from this era, such as the Platypus, are visible from the boardwalks.
Later used for agriculture, and the long-standing ecology of the place was jeopardised. But today the wetlands are open to visitors, with simple boardwalks connecting the mud flats and the island; the removal of a short-horned bull named Bruno was one of the last vestiges of introduced fauna, although there still remain scores of exotic trees. The wetlands continue to morph, adapting to the pressures of humans and climate.
World Wetlands Day is my kind of occasion. It is a moment to celebrate a complicated landscape, which is often very accessible and has a tangled history. It is an excuse to wonder, and to learn. By looking closer at an ordinary scene, by putting our hands in the mud or pushing through the reeds, we uncover more about the world we live in, and consequently find ourselves fixed more firmly in our place.
Go on: have a World Wetlands Day party. I’ll come dressed as a purple swamphen.
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.
Charles 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.
The 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.
I used to skateboard with a young man who had been born in San Bernardino, California, and had since relocated with his mother to Ross. It seemed a long way, not only geographically, but notionally. San Bernardino sprawls in a hot, dry valley basin east of Los Angeles; it is the 100th most populous city in the U.S. Ross is a handsome village in the midlands of Tasmania, occupied by sandstone cottages and other convict-built edifices.
I never really found out how my mate had ended up in Ross, but I did take the bus down there to visit him a couple of times during my teenage years. And since I have returned many times, like plenty of Tasmanians, en route between Launceston and Hobart.
Sometimes I do this on the Redline bus (although not often, as it is a rather overpriced service, if I may add my two cents). I look up from my book whenever turns off the highway, at Tacky Creek or over the famous bridge at Macquarie River, depending on from which direction we’re coming. Chugging gently into the town, I would hear the bus driver say – although ‘say’ is perhaps too strong a word, as it was more as though he was clearing his throat or perhaps struggling with the effects of strong drink – the words, “Ross stop; this is Ross stop.”
And at this point, all too often, a lone Japanese woman would step out of the vehicle, and wander off, as if dazed, into Church Street. I marvelled that they could interpret the bus driver’s ‘announcement’, and wondered wonder what these poor individuals were doing, staggering off into the tidy main road, and where now they would go. It was often a bit early for a seat at a public table, so I would presume that these lonely wayfarers were going to the bakery, for a famous dish, such as a scallop pie or vanilla slice.
I later discovered that the Ross Village Bakery attracted tourists, and particularly those from Japan, for other reasons. The bakery is said to have been the model for the setting of Kiki’s Delivery Service, a popular 1989 anime film. As Chris Norris has shown in an enjoyable thesis titled A Japanese media pilgrimage to a Tasmanian bakery, a ‘cult geography’ has formed around the place, one to which most of us as we rumble through the village are oblivious.
But we each have own personal geographies. The bakery guestbook reads both “I never forget that I watched a movie in Kiki’s room” and “that was the best pie I’ve ever had”. Here in Ross, I got drunk for the first time, and Mitch kissed a girl I adored, the day she got her braces taken off. Many years later I rummaged through the antiques store and bought The Australian Ugliness and a percolator.
Countless times, I have gone to look at the sandstone bridge with its “hallucinatory composition of Celtic carved motifs and gargoyle-like human faces”, including one of a personality from history to whom I’ve devoted far too many hours of study.
More importantly, John Helder Wedge, a surveyor in Van Diemen’s Land in the days when it took some courage to traverse this island, and who came and went through this town many times over, noted in his diary in the 1830s that on one occasion, on his way here, that he “rode in a jaunting-cart, sitting opposite the lovely Miss Watts”.
Here is a personal geography of the Midlands Highway.
And here is the story of the Man O' Ross Hotel.
This is the bloke on the bridge, to whom I've devoted too much time.
As I returned home from a short trip to the mainland, the major river systems of northern Tasmania were in flood.
After heavy rainfall a few days earlier, rising waters destroyed homes and property, swept away livestock, and brought about the end of at least one life, with several more people missing.
Latrobe, on the Mersey River, looked almost entirely submerged in aerial photos; 19 houses have been rendered ‘uninhabitable’. I am about to move into the suburb of Invermay: it was evacuated as I returned to it. I tried not take this personally.
Flying across Bass Strait, the aftermath of flooding in the Emu, Forth, Mersey, Meander, Macquarie, North Esk and South Esk Rivers was evident. I couldn’t see much from the aisle seat, of course, but I joined the neck-stretching gawkers trying to see what had occurred while we were north, on the big island.
I went straight from the airport to the Cataract Gorge. Dozens of people were there, watching huge quantities of water barrel down beneath the suspension bridge, a turbulent, seething, brown-and-white mass. The flooding of the Gorge has long had this effect; it brings a crowd, at all hours, and suddenly we have something to talk about with our neighbours.
It also reminds us that this town at a confluence of three rivers; the water in the Cataract Gorge, spilling over the blunt concrete of its dam walls, is identifiable as a genuine river, the longest one in Tasmania no less, whose headwaters at the base of Ben Lomond require several days to journey to the second-most populous town on the island. As our lives move away from practical geographical knowledge, the Gorge is treated like an island, as if it is its own ecosystem, isolated: many Launcestonians I know could not tell you which river runs between those dolerite cliffs, and I suspect many do not even recognise it as part of a river system.
But we can understand it better, even if the way we talk about it is unscientific. “I’ve never seen it this high,” says everybody. “Do you reckon it’ll go over?” the residents of Invermay asked each other by the flood levy on Tuesday night, before the evacuation. “Nah, don’t reckon...”
On the aeroplane, a husband is pointing out what he thinks are various roads, submerged farms, bridges that must be washed away. She looks up from her electronic book, and spits, “Oh, what would you know!”
This flood follows a summer in which a lack of rainfall threatened us. Hydroelectric dams ran close to empty. Dry lightning struck dry vegetation, creating bushfires in the rainforest.
Gaston Bachelard has written a Psychoanalysis of Fire; who will treat a psychoanalysis of floods? We so blithely use the river as a metaphor for steady movement, progress, providence, time. A flood ignores these interpretations. The river is usually an uninterrupted flow of hours; the flood interrupts, makes time’s rhythm seem less benign. It reminds us that there is no guarantee that we have an allotted amount of days, or that the hours will trundle by coolly and calmly. Years may pass in peace, but the arrival of a single violent moment can end it all. We are alerted to the fact that the same hand which feeds us might yet throttle us.
And yet for modern witnesses, the spectacle of the sublime draws us to itself. Even as elsewhere lives and livelihoods are being washed away, we stand by the seething rivers, waves lifting out from the depths and pushing forcefully out to the mouth, into the sea, suddenly unnoticeable.
My new housemate takes the record player off the top shelf; we were not flooded out. The levy held the waters back. They say this was a more severe flood than the one in 1929, which was a genuine disaster. But our infrastructure has reprieved us of much worse. In a poorer country, the death toll would stand at thousands. In rural Tasmania, the consequences are devastating: socially, economically, emotionally. But for those in town, we once again allow ourselves to believe we have mastered the ancient processes of our ecosystems.
Two years ago I wrote 'A Short History of Shitty Weather', about the 1929 floods.
More recent is this piece on pirates in southern Tasmania.
Captain Abel Tasman had suspected there were mineral deposits in the mountains of western Tasmania; his compass acted up as the Zeehaen and Heemskirk approached the island in 1642.
In 1877 the work of intrepid government surveyor Charles Sprent confirmed the presence of various ores in that rugged country, including deposits of magnetite iron ore, on the Savage River, whose tenebrous waters flow down from beneath Mount Bertha through pristine rainforest into the Pieman River and the west coast.
But the ore was of lower quality (only 38% iron) and it took nearly a century for mineral investors to believe in the economic potential of a mine there. The town of Savage River came to be over the years 1965 to 1967 and the mine began its life. Today it is operated by Grange Resources, a Chinese-owned company which is the largest non-government employer in north-western Tasmania. An 80 kilometre pipeline brings the magnetite concentrate to a plant near the port town of Burnie.
In 1990 a young couple from New Zealand arrived to practice medicine in the town. A bushfire had just ripped through the Hazelwood River valley. Local stories varied as how the disaster had occurred: as one of these doctors recalled in a recent letter, it was either “campers who hadn’t doused their fire properly” or “the forestry boys who prior to the end of the financial year had $ to burn so would experiment with dropping fire bombs from helicopters.”
Meanwhile, the Savage River was being severely polluted by run-off from the mine. 30 kilometres of the river was poisoned by acid seepages and other contaminants. By 1995, the Environmental Protection Agency reports, parts of the river “were found to have lost 90% of its invertebrate biodiversity and 99% of its invertebrate abundance”. Even by the standards of other local environmental ravages, this was a terrible result.
In the 1990s, though, an environmental rehabilitation process was implemented.
For three years these Kiwi doctors worked at Savage River; their work had seen them attend to snakebites, jackjumper anaphylaxis and indeed mine fatalities. this year, they returned to Tasmania to tour the island in a campervan. I had met these doctors previously on a bushwalk; in a remarkable coincidence, we found ourselves camped on other sides of the Savage River on rainy west coast evening.
A letter had just been written to me, full of observations from their time revisiting the area. “May as well save on the postage,” we agreed.
As the road wound its way towards their old place of work, they were greeted with post-bushfire reforestation, and the mizzling rain that they had lived with most days of their three-year stint in western Tasmania. However, the sight of the Savage River township was “a savage shock.” The accumulation of waste rock, removal of temporary homes and buildings, boomgates installed over roads: twenty-six years of memory were undone in an instant. “The squash courts remain – as what?”
The doctors were taken aback by the visual impact of the mine, and suggested that what had seemed like a contained site in 1990 had now spread malignantly into the surrounding forest.
In the meantime, other sites in the area have moved away from such industries and are hoping to survive from tourism. This area is now widely known as the Tarkine or takayna, a broadly-defined region covering much temperate rainforest, mountainous terrain, and rarely-visited coastline. A recent publication, Tarkine Trails, invites recreational visitors to the area in order to promote its conservation value. On the other hand, some sixty-odd mineral exploration licenses are valid in the Tarkine region, which environmentalists worry will continue to “significantly disturb river environments”.
They are campaigning for a Tarkine National Park: a proposal which they accept will have no effect on the current lease of the Savage River Iron Ore Mine operated by Grange Resources. North of the mine, the Savage River National Park is Tasmania’s least accessible national park, and the river, untouched, drops down through forested gorges before it comes upon the mine.
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.
We can imagine Henry Hellyer on the deck of the Cape Packet in March 1826, after six long months at sea, seeing Hobart Town come into view. Young, talented and courageous, but prone to melancholy, he was the chief surveyor and architect for the newly-established Van Diemen’s Land Company. Much of the future of Van Diemen’s Land hung on this company. His job would be one of the most challenging in the colony. It would kill him.
Company superintendent Edward Curr and his London backers were unimpressed with the tracts of land given them by colonial officials, so he sent out his surveyors and their convict servants into the forests and mountainous regions of north-western Van Diemen’s Land. Henry Hellyer was the leader of this band, which included other Cape Packet arrivals such as Joseph Fossey, Alexander Goldie and Clement Lorymer. The convict workers were more experienced bushmen, “intelligent active men used to the bush,” in Hellyer’s words, such as Isaac Cutts, Richard Frederick, Jorgen Jorgenson, and Alexander McKay.
Wet myrtle forests, spiky and stringy thickets of bauera and horizontal, rushing rivers, mosquitoes and hunger plagued their every day of exploration. They slept “like mummies, rolled up in blankets” after days of “violent bodily exercises” and such privations that “we were obliged to go on, or starve”.
Ah, but what joy when they emerged into a clearing, when the sun came out, or when they returned to the Van Diemen’s Land headquarters!
Hellyer was an optimistic and brave, and sensitive to natural beauty. He sketched vistas from the various mountains he ascended and named landmarks after European painters. If he had a fault in these early years of Vandemonian exploration, it was that he was too optimistic: all his geese, it was said, were swans.
Having seen an unmapped range of mountains in the distance from St. Valentine’s Peak, Hellyer and Fossey led a team towards the northern edge of Tasmania’s central highlands in November 1828. They each carried a fortnight of provisions, bearing twenty-five kilograms each. From Mt. Block, they looked into the fearful river gorges that sliced the ranges in every direction.
A week later, caught in a severe snowstorm on a plateau above the Fury River, Hellyer led his team into the “terrible gully” of its gorge to get shelter. “We saw we were in a worse predicament than ever,” Hellyer penned in his journal. “We made for the horrid ravine as our only refuge.”
They descended some 600 metres the river, camped in buttongrass by its side, roasted a wombat, and slept uneasily. In the morning they escaped onto the plateau by Cradle Mountain. Either Hellyer or Fossey was the first white person to summit this mountain.
But these physical hardships appeared to be nothing compared to the emotional turmoil occurring inside Henry Hellyer’s mind. Hellyer believed he had found good grazing land further north, around Surrey Hills. However, he was wrong: and the Van Diemen’s Land Company incurred great cost attempting to raise sheep and cattle there, and they perished in the winter. In 1832, after a very cold winter, Surrey Hills was “becoming the graves of all the sheep”. Hellyer tried to defend himself; he became oversensitive to criticism; he retreated into himself; and he let melancholy consume him.
There was also a malicious rumour of some kind spread by a convict servant by the name of Harley, who had worked under Hellyer’s supervision previously. Harley had allegedly been a poor worker and was not paid upon the completion of the job. The slander may have been that Hellyer was a homosexual, or that he had been caught masturbating.
In the early hours of September 2, 1832, Henry Hellyer committed suicide.
“I too know the magical power of a look at the right time and place,” she said. “I know how the heart burns in slow fires.”
Norina was reading from a novel, a passage about love. Dr. Malatesta had approached her. He had a crafty plan to fool Don Pasquale. He would use this woman; Don Pasquale would bend to her will. And so Norina, in response, sings: “I know the effect of lying tears, on a sudden languor; I know a thousand ways love can fraud.”
Amy Sherwin was playing Norina in her theatre début at Hobart’s Theatre Royal in 1878. And at the end of the show, the crowd stood up in rapturous applause. The career of the ‘Tasmanian nightingale’ was about to be launched.
From there, she would tour Melbourne, Ballarat and Sydney, her devotees multiplying with each performance. It was only the beginning. She toured not only Australia, but America, Europe, Asia and even South Africa. In San Francisco in 1879 she nailed Violetta in La Traviata despite having just recovered from pneumonia. A biographer says that Amy Sherwin was “the first Australian singer to make an overseas impact.”
Strange to think it all began here in Judbury, a hamlet on the Huon River in Tasmania’s south. In apple country.
Born in 1855 as Frances Amy Lillian Sherwin, it is said that Amy was discovered singing alone in a paddock near to where some visitors were picnicking by the Huon River. Those picnickers turned out to be members of the touring Pompei and Cagli Italian Opera Company, and they convinced her to audition.
Raised in a farming family who had suffered from droughts and fires, Amy had been educated at home, with piano lessons given by her grandfather.
Two decades later, returning to Hobart after her global success, her fans commandeered her carriage, unharnessing the horses and pulling her themselves through the streets. One can imagine her, in her early forties, radiantly beautiful and rejuvenated by the enthusiasm of her fellow Tasmanians.
But she didn’t stay. In London, she was regarded as witty, erudite, polished and hospitable. It was to there that she retired in 1907, after tours in Australia in 1902 and 1906. She had a disabled daughter and became a teacher in order to support her. But she was not a good financial manager and descended into poverty and illness.
However, music continued to uplift her. “Even when her voice was only a whisper she would sit at the piano and sing with an archness and vivacity peculiarly her own”.
Perhaps she recalled the words she’d sung as Norina: “The charms and arts are easy to fool the heart.”
She was not forgotten by her homeland. A fundraiser in Hobart sent her £200. A plaque was erected outside the building where she made her début. She died in London on 20 September 1935.
Settling new country was seen as a heroic act by the early Europeans in Australia, and there were few more heroic in that mould than James Fenton of the Forth.
He was brought out on the Othello by his father, James Fenton snr., who was following his cousin Michael to Van Diemen’s Land. The “Fighting Fentons” (as they charmingly called themselves) were Protestants from Ireland, their family of French ancestry. Michael had served in India and Burma before coming to Van Diemen’s Land in 1828, and reported very favourably of it. They left Liverpool in 1833; James snr. died at sea. James jnr. and his mother and brothers arrived in Hobart Town in February 1834.
Soon after, the eldest sister had married and taken up land on the north coast, west of the Tamar. Visiting, James took great interest in the country further west, which was still covered in heavy timber, an intricate ecosystem of wet sclerophyll. Anywhere with slightly less forest had been taken by the Van Diemen’s Land Company. Yet in 1840, James Fenton delved into the depths of this country, and bought a thousand cheap acres from the government on the Forth River. He was the only settler in the district; the nearest civilisation was about eighty kilometres away.
Fenton’s technique of land management was unique and innovative. In 1846, now in his mid-twenties, he married Helena Mary Monds, the sister of successful settler capitalist Thomas Monds. (Fenton and Monds would go into business in the 1850s, exporting palings to Victoria for accommodation on the burgeoning goldfields.) They were exposed to threats: for example, when the felonious personalities Dalton and Kelly appeared off the beach near the mouth of the Forth.
Gradually, other settlers entered the region. Fenton had helped and housed explorers such as Nathaniel Lipscombe Kentish as they tried to push back the unknown parts of the region. In the 1850s, settlements pushed further west than Fenton had, adopting his system of ring-barking old growth trees and burning the undergrowth. Fenton’s techniques became the model for the new pioneer community living on the north-west coast.
Removing the forests had revealed surprisingly rich, ruby-coloured basaltic soil, ideal for farming. Berry bushes and fruit trees were planted; Fenton later confessed to have introduced blackberries to that part of Tasmania. “I trust the gentle reader will not throw up the book when he discovers that the writer…was one of the miscreants who inflicted the blackberry plague on the district,” he worries in his Bush Life in Tasmania, which today remains a wonderful read on the European settlement of the Forth country.
Of course, we know that Fenton’s career in Forth country wrought irrevocable changes. He notes in his pioneering memoir that although a previous explorer had frequently seen emus, he never saw a single one. Henry Hellyer had been able to ‘rout’ emus, Fenton reflects, almost constantly. “It is a very singular fact that those emus have all disappeared from some unknown cause.” It seems almost wilful naiveté to us.
Fenton briefly left the Forth to try his hand at the Victorian goldfields in 1852, but returned quickly, and didn’t leave again until 1879, deeming himself too old for farming. He retired with his wife to Launceston and began to write. A drawing of James Fenton in this time of retirement – in his late sixties – shows him with thick features, kind eyes, and a mighty beard.
James Fenton and Helena Mary Monds had three daughter, and one son, Charles Monds, who opened a store at Forth in 1869: a sign of the times, of the development of the region and the growth in settler population there less than three decades after his father had adventurously decided to move there.
The Australian Dictionary of Biography says of James Fenton jnr. (1820-1901) that “the beautiful farm lands carved out of the north-coast forests are his best monument.” Looking out of the patchwork of poppies, potatoes and pyrethrum, the apples and cherries and carrots, all the cows and sheep, one can read the land in a variety of ways. Ultimately, they are the remembered and recorded map of this era of intense change of landscape management on the island.
Last week, we looked at the history of fish management in Tasmania.
Find out more about James Fenton's goldfields trip.
Some of my mates like fly-fishing; I commend them. This activity is a fine demonstration of a person’s positive qualities. People who spend their leisure time traipsing across the highlands, just to dangle a tiny sculpture of steel, threads, feathers and other bric-a-brac in front of a fish – only to have the fish generally display its species’ rather snobbish attitude towards contemporary art – deserve credit for their patience, devotion, and optimism (no matter how unwarranted).
Tasmania is well-known around the world as a famous fly-fishing destination. In rivers and lakes all across the island, you’ll find waters worthy of a line. Brown and rainbow trout wriggle away in the cold streams descending from the mountains. They are lovely creatures. It is nice to see fish rising in the Mersey or the South Esk. They seem wholesome.
But of course, these animals (i.e. Salmo trutta; Oncorhynchus mykiss) weren’t originally found in Tasmania. This island’s waterways carried on without trout until 1864, when the first brown and rainbow trout were raised in the southern hemisphere. There had been a number of failures: beginning in 1852, with 50,000 salmon and trout ova that arrived on the Columbus and failed to acclimatise, effort and money (as well as piscine offspring) went to waste almost annually on importing the fish.
But 1864 brought the successful introduction with both trout and salmon, here on the River Plenty. The cold, clear, mountain-sourced waters of the Plenty run out the sea, which made it perfect as a breeding ground for the salmon. Mr. Robert Read of ‘Redlands’ gave access to the river through his property. Enthusiasts led by the entrepreneurial Morton Allport watched over the development.
Soon, Tasmanian ova and fry were being exported around Australia and into New Zealand. Constable James Wilson stocked the Great Lake in 1870. Various other intrepid fishermen undertook expeditions into the central highlands to hasten the introduction of these foreign fish into the island’s river systems.
Nowadays, some 30,000 licensed anglers fish Tasmanian waters each year. It’s a niche tourist trade, and a font of innumerable good yarns. The Salmon Ponds, now a historic site, does a decent trade itself: visitors can see great numbers of handsome trout and salmon varieties moving languorously through the dark water to receive their pellets of feed. The day I was there, a platypus stole the show, scratching its noggin for about five minutes in full view.
But what of the native fish of Tasmania? Some experts the various species of galaxiids, a small freshwater fish family found only in the southern hemisphere, are under threat due to competition with trout, and even from direct predatory attacks. The poor Pedder galaxias (Galaxias pedderensis) is extinct in the wild, following the construction of an impoundment that flooded the river. Of many of the galaxiidae, little is known.
As always with the relationship between humans and other animals, it’s complicated.
Maybe when you come to Tasmania you will be lucky enough to find a guide like her as well.
Someone who will take you veering off the main drags, onto the back roads, over the quiet creeks. To the parts of this island where not many people go, and those who do usually have some serious reason for it.
And evading the blue-tongues and echidnas on the gravel roads that go further and further into the achingly dry forests – you can see them rising up the hills, a beige-and-brown cladding that may be foreign to you – she will begin to tell the stories that exist beyond the verge on either side.
Perhaps you know something of the history of Tasmania. There are some names you’ve seen written down. But these are the unofficial histories, the ones that exist only in the places where they happened. Histories like tiger snakes, that crave solitude, and will retreat into the shadows among the cutting grass at the first sudden movement.
She will be taking you to her secret swimming hole, but there are other secrets as well. Such as the reason why her grandmother was deposited in this isolated landscape when she arrived from Italy. Such as who is growing weed and where weaponry is stashed. Such as which of the neighbours is greedy, or for good-for-nothing; and which of them is loyal, kind-hearted, irreplaceable.
You will learn about someone like Chuckie. A man who died just a couple of months ago. A good man, who enjoyed the company of other folks, but needed to be alone as well. Whose children lost contact. Who was not a great cook. Who only really ate potatoes. Who spilled hot oil on himself while preparing dinner one night. Who should have gone to hospital. Who may have starved himself to death.
And she’s crook too, and has her own reasons for coming out there. There are reasons why she knows where the shotgun’s hidden and who’s got a good crop.
By the river she picks a sprig of bauera, starred with white flowers, and stands with her bare feet in the gum-leaf debris on the edge of the water.
Maybe this summer your guide will take you to their swimming-hole too, to the snakes’ places of this island. But you’ll have to be lucky.
Or rather, you’ll have to have earned their trust.
With a lot of us Vandemonians, this takes many years.
With others, though, it may only require a single chance occurrence.
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...”
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.
“I was rapping on the door intent upon making the hermit’s acquaintance.”
So wrote one bushwalker having rambled into the Vale of Rasselas in Tasmania’s southern wilderness, where for fifteen years Ernie Bond made his camp.
But Ernie was not your typical bush hermit. Born in Hobart in 1891, he was the son of Frank Bond, a businessman, property developer and politician. Ernie lived in the island’s capital until 1927 when he moved to the suddenly-booming osmiridium fields at Adamsfield. For seven years, he worked his claim there. But in 1934, while prospecting with the infamous bushman Paddy Hartnett, Ernie found a rare patch of rich alluvial soil and changed careers.
Now, Ernie was the grower and supplier of fresh garden produce for the mining community. Aside from fruit and veg, the bush estate of ‘Gordonvale’ - there was 400 hectares of it – also housed grazing sheep and cattle.
Like most Tasmanian mining histories, work in the ossie fields came to a screeching halt. By the end of the 1930s, Gordonvale’s market had disappeared. But Ernie Bond enjoyed his self-sufficiency, and his proximity to the wilderness. So he remained. And for the next two decades, Ernie Bond became famous for showing hospitality to bushwalkers passing through the area en route to various lakes and mountains, along rugged paths, through the newly-empty expanse of wilderness.
Bushwalkers’ diaries recall his dinners of mutton and vegetables, desserts of strawberries and cream, and even his dodgy home brew. His “grey eyes twinkled” as he spun yarns about local characters, and he formed strong and lasting friendships with some of the pioneers of Tasmanian recreational walking. “The great buckled belt of his trousers could sit just as approximately above or below the immense circumference of his stomach,” wrote Jack Thwaites, “while little reading glasses somehow found a perch around the great head.”
Commercial logging encroached on Ernie Bond’s patch of the forest; finally, the bridge crossing the Gordon River near his abode was destroyed, and Ernie was effectively forced to return to Hobart.
Today, bushwalkers can find but a few remnants of the Prince of Rasselas’ old lodgings, in what has now become part of the Tasmanian World Heritage Wilderness Area.
Two convict escapees made a bold journey into the Vale of Rasselas in 1828.
George Augustus Robinson was a religious man, whose sympathy for the Tasmanian Aboriginal people was motivated by a belief that God had created all people equal. His ‘Friendly Mission’ – a diplomatic journey on foot throughout the entire island of Van Diemen’s Land – was driven by other political and personal forces as well, but the influence of Robinson’s working-class Calvinism is not to be underestimated.
By December 1831, the self-proclaimed Conciliator was in his third year of his expeditions. His journeys had truly taken to him all corners of the island. Now, he was tracking the Big River people – led by the enigmatic chief Montpeilliatter - in the southern highlands. With white settlements expanding, the violence of frontiersmen and stockkeepers increased and foreign diseases killed more and more of the native population. Robinson’s diplomatic project seemed more urgent than ever.
Come Christmas Day, Robinson woke up by the “Big River” – the Ouse. The weather was pleasant. He and his party were out of tea and sugar. His companions were mostly Aboriginal recruits to his mission. Among others these were the north-east chief Mannalargenna and his wife Sall; the irascible Kickerterpoller and his wife Pagerly; the revolutionaries Peevay and Umarrah; and, ever faithful to Robinson’s mission, Woorrady and Trugernanna. A handful of convict servants – who often did not get along with Robinson – were with them too.
There was no holiday from the mission. The party continued in the trail of the Big River tribe. Fording the river, some of the natives had a swim. They crossed the plains south-east, kangaroo bounding away at their approach. Peevay speared one to take for dinner. From a hilltop in the hot afternoon, they could see the peak of Mt. Wellington, which loomed over the township of Hobart. But they were far away from that.
“As I journeyed along various reflections crossed my mind connected with this day: the comfortless situation I was placed in compared with those in towns,” he wrote in his journal, perhaps sparing a thought for his wife and their many children. “The service I was engaged in, however, bore me up as it was that service which him whose memory is perpetuated on this day delighted in.”
Perhaps Robinson wanted to enter into that wondrous old story of the deity who chose to be born as a baby in a Palestinian stable in order to bring conciliation to the world. He was an English bricklayer expeditioning among an ancient and suffering race, learning their languages and customs, hoping to bring peace on the island at the bottom of the world. The results were all too human and ugly.
George Robinson and Mannalargenna were an unlikely duo.
Hundreds of Tasmanians up and left when gold was first struck in the Victorian goldfields in 1851 – men of every stripe and occupation, suddenly making an exodus from the island, crossing the strait to try their luck in looking for colour.
It was yet another economic setback for Tassie, although some on the north-west coast made good selling shingles and laths for the booming populations to shelter themselves in ramshackle accommodations all across the goldfields.
In February 1852 a pioneer farmer from the north-west named James Fenton left his family and took off for Melbourne on the Sea Witch. Some of his fellow-passengers, he noted, were successful diggers who had come back to Tasmania in order to make purchases or retrieve possessions, such as horses, to bring back to the goldfields. Fenton, a Congregationalist and teetotaller, frowned upon their roughness and the lack of class with which they were employing their newfound wealth. Their conversations were lubricated with rum, and they argued the merits or otherwise of prospective gold sites in Victoria. Tempers flared without warning. One ruffian started a fistfight with another fellow after taking offence to the style of his hat.
Some had come back to Tasmania to reunite with lovers and bring them to the diggings. Fenton recorded one such mistress, “one of the most hideous-looking women that ever escaped strangulation in those days of the hempen noose”. She had been draped in expensive fabrics and laden with jewellery. Her cheeks, too, glowed red with the influence of an intoxicant.
Good luck to that blessèd couple, perhaps. A more miserable story of ill-fated romance emerged from the Sea Witch, however. One digger had secreted his paramour in the hold of the ship; she was a convict, and not able to freely transport herself off the island, so her plucky lover was smuggling her in a crate. It was nailed shut, but the fellow had left enough holes in the box for her to breathe, as well as a supply of food and water to last the journey’s duration. Sadly, as further cargo was thrown onto the ship, the case that carried this young prisoner of the Crown was covered with a large quantity of hay. She suffocated, and her body was discovered dead when the ship arrived at Melbourne.
Of course, for every bastard that got lucky and was able to doll up their women and use £5 notes to light those biddies’ cigarettes, there were dozens that stood around up their ’nads in freezing water, sluicing and panning to no avail. A better career path was selling booze to the hordes, or exporting shingles across Bass Strait. James Fenton himself returned after a short while, and went back to the farm.
The story of how a Hawaiian woman ended up living on King Island, in Bass Strait.
I heard folks say that the weather in the north of Tasmania last week was worst in living memory. Is there no-one left to remember the 1929 floods?
The rain started on Wednesday, and went on for three days. In that time, Burnie and Ulverstone recorded 500mm of rainfall; in one day, Mathinna copped 337mm.
On Friday, April 5, 1929, Launceston was abuzz. The Examiner’s printing presses were employed in publishing single-page evacuation instructions. Both ends of the Esk River were rushing at an alarming speed. Chooks, horses, and even pianos were seen floating around the city’s streets and parks. And then, as evening fell, the power station at Duck Reach was washed out, plunging the city into darkness.
The evacuations began at 2a.m. The working-class suburb of Invermay was on the way to becoming an island; thousands of residents there had to be taken to higher grounds, sleeping in churches and schools in other parts of Launceston.
Most of the casualties happened outside of Launceston, the biggest town in the north. A truck carrying eight passengers was swept off a bridge in Ulverstone. Fourteen people died when a newly-built dam in the north-east of the island collapsed.
When they woke up, the people of northern Tasmania woke up to scenes of destruction. In every town, road and rail bridges had been knocked down thousands of tonnes of moving water. 5000 people were left homeless; the Launceston Bowls Club had lost their building; the Tamar Rowing Club lost most of its boats.
It was the middle of a global recession; between 1928 and 1933, Launceston’s total trade decreased by 29%. Banks wouldn’t loan money to restore lost savings; it took more than a decade for the town to fully recover, and by that point, World War II had begun.
But that morning, as the rain stopped, and the river-water lazily sat above the levels of its banks, slowly subsiding in the streets, there was – I suspect – an eerie sensation of peace.
Down in St. Mary’s, a baby was crying. He’d been born overnight, in a truck. His parents would later tell him that he wasn’t born, but rather, he’d been swept in by the rushing rivers.