Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged south-west

  • Olegas and Instagram

    Olegas and Instagram

    It has recently come to my attention that (along with most Tasmanian things) a recent rise in the popularity of our bushwalking is linked to Instagram. There are more and more young adults venturing into our reserves, and taking pictures of a suitably impressive landscape seems to be part of their incentive to do so.

    I’m not the first to notice this; actually, I’m probably near to the last. Instagram is
    not a part of my life – I maintain an old Nokia telephone that doesn’t connect to the internet. I am somewhat circumspect and curmudgeonly about the whole affair with technology, but of course, it’s present everywhere and I am not yet such a crank that I’d make myself wilfully ignorant of it all.

    As with most things I’m ambivalent about it. Certainly if people go bushwalking, they’ll be more likely to fall in love with Tasmanian country, and that can only be a good thing.
    On the other hand, I don’t see much charm in going for a walk mostly to take a photo, with an audience in mind. I’ve had to do it once or twice on journalistic ventures; for me it wrecks the whole rhythmic experience of the walk.

    It’s also misleading: in Tassie’s high country, there are very many days in which it’s difficult to take photographs
    that will win the approval of peers on social media. Mountaintops are frequently misted over, giving a panorama of precisely nothing. I wonder if it’s not dangerous too – I’ve heard a few stories now of novice walkers going up to the mountains expecting the glistening sunshine of a brochure or digital photo album and instead getting belted by wild weather (which is rarely photographed or shared).

    I’m also suspicious that the aesthetics of Instagram have instilled a global and mostly mediocre standard of photography. This photograph of the Pedder dam, taken from a moving car on a blustery autumn afternoon, is not “instagram-worthy”. (This sort of language is another yucky bit of mediocrity – but I’m aware of sounding like some miserable Walden neo-primitivist when I mention these things.)

    But some of the most beautiful photographs I’ve ever seen were taken in Pedder country. Olegas Truchanas was born in Lithuania, displaced by World War II, and came to Tassie to
    took work with the Hydro-Electric Commission. In his leisure time, he became familiar with Tasmania’s remote districts, particularly in the south-west. Truchanas quickly came to love both the solitude and the experience of ecological communion that some of us find, sometimes, in the bush.

    And he took exquisite photographs. This was the 1960s: he didn’t publish them immediately. He couldn’t even see them until he was well and truly back in
    his studio in Hobart. You can feel Olegas’s slowness and attentiveness in these pictures. You can tell there is no audience in his mind. He is aware of texture and form, and plays with both affinities and juxtapositions of colour, in a way that is so much more impressive than almost all of the millions of photographs we see every day.

    Almost anyone can talk a half-decent photograph. Even I, who have produced this grim composition of a beautiful landscape, can be occasionally handy with a camera. But few people are able to discipline their way of seeing, draw imagination from within themselves and apply it to the visible elements before them, and create a whole new way of envisioning a place. That is what Olegas Truchanas did.

    What also comes through in Olegas’s photography was his awareness that these landscapes had a time limit. “This vanishing world is beautiful beyond our dreams,” he once said in a lecture, as Lake Pedder was being drowned under a hydro-electric impoundment. That we still have much of the beauty of the south-west landscapes protected is partly thanks to Olegas Truchanas. His photographs connected many people to a foreign corner of this island, most of whom would never see it in person.

    Perhaps the photographers of Instagram do the same and it is only the prematurely old crackpot writing these words who has missed the boat. But for me the art of Olegas Truchanas does something that fleeting smart-phone snaps do not. Through his images, I am touched with a hint of the ephemeral and ethereal
    force of being in a bush landscape – whatever that is. Sometimes it is almost like I am running my fingers along the frost crystals on the dead conifer trunk, or breathing in a heady brew of boronia and pepperberry, or enjoying a long twilight on a bright olive-coloured moorland. There is a slow release of warm joy in my chest.

    Most of all I want everyone to know how lucky they are to be in these places. I can’t quell my gratitude, to live here and now; perhaps Olegas Truchanas had the same feeling, perhaps multiplied by his experience as a migrant. The places in which we walk are deep maps of stories. If we photograph it, let us not do so frivolously. And beware: bushwalking offers few instantaneous rewards. But what we find when we make habitual passages into that vanishing world is something that is far more enduring. There, somehow, is meaning and belonging.

    Most importantly, we must not turn country into a commodity. It warps the whole experience, spins it against us.

  • The Tooth and The Blade

    The Tooth and The Blade

    Earlier this year, Andy Szollosi and I found ourselves suddenly spending a few days wandering here, amidst the compact Durmitor mountain ranges in northern Montenegro. We had planned the Balkan rendezvous only a couple of days earlier. Andy had taken a 17-hour bus ride (across several eastern European countries) to meet me.

    We scrambled up to several summits in those days. Although it was summer, patches of snow lay prone on the shady sides of limestone slopes. Our victuals included a large package of bacon, and a bottle of
    rakija. This strong beverage may have inspired a conversation one evening, looking up at the pyramid peak of a mountain known as Zopćy, ‘sharp tooth’: Andy suggested we should wake at 5a.m. to see if we could ascend it.

    Of course he did.
    This is the same bloke who co-ordinated an expedition to Federation Peak in July 2016, convincing a troupe of climbers and film-makers to set up camp for seventeen miserable days before climbing Blade Ridge. As Andy wrote in the weeks leading up to the Blade Ridge mission: “When an idea arrives at the right time, we have no choice but to pursue it, to see where it leads, no matter how terrifying, irrational or ludicrous it may seem.” This is quite a useful insight into Andy Szollosi’s mind.

    Blade Ridge seems a geological miracle. This unbelievably narrow slice of quartzite runs up the north-west face of ‘Fedders’, diabolical and dangerous, and yet striking and stunningly beautiful. Federation Peak was described by Edmund Hillary as “Australia’s only real mountain”; as far as we know, it was first summited only a few years before Everest. The first party made it up Blade Ridge in 1968.

    But mountaineering history in Tasmania is not widely known (not many Tasmanians even realise that Edmund Hillary visited Tassie, tackling a few bushwalks and praising its landscapes). Not many would even recognise the profile of Federation Peak, or the Eastern Arthur Range, in which it belongs: a series of jagged peaks, myriad ‘sharp teeth’, made of hard and mangled metamorphic rock.

    The film
    Winter on the Blade has been screened twice now, to packed rooms at the State Cinema in North Hobart. It’s excellent. Film-maker Simon Bischoff has struck the right tone, extracting humour from the tedium of being tent-bound for a fortnight. Mud slurps beneath the expeditioners’ boots, and the Vandemonian juxtaposition of harsh conditions and exquisite beauty – found in every change of weather, in the vegetation and in the rock – is unmissable.

    Now
    Winter on the Blade is off to Banff, for one of the world’s great outdoors-themed film festivals.

    Andy and I made no film of our early morning ascent of
    Zopćy. We didn’t even take a photograph. We startled a chamois on the horizon, scrambled up a gully of chossy limestone, perched ourselves on the pinnacle, and breakfasted on a handful of roasted almonds. Then we went back down.

    On our way out of the Durmitor mountains that day, we came across a party of walkers with their guide. We were in high spirits,
    jaunty, and chatty; upon telling the group that we were from Tassie, one of them replied that he’d been to our mountainous island so far from Europe. “Tasmanians are hard,” he said.

    Andy and I grinned. So, a reputation. But our European friend had no idea just how hard Tasmanians can sometimes be.



    There's more mountain-climbing in the south-west with mates: read all about 'the Abels'.

  • Dad in the Bush, or, King of the West Coast Explorers

    Dad in the Bush, or, King of the West Coast Explorers

    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.”


     
    Meet another Thomas from the same era: Thomas Hinton, a master of the photographic self-portrait.
    Enjoy some more royal bush hospitality with the Prince of Rasselas.

  • Myrtle Forests

    Myrtle Forests

    Myrtle trees seem to live in fables,” writes the poet Andrew Sant (born in 1950), and off he goes, growing a shadowy rainforest in damp green words. The trees “grope through mists that swirl” and the poet stands in “owlish and spidery dank encampments of gloom.” This poem, ‘Myrtle Forests’, is very good.

    The tree the poet praises is Nothofagus cunninghamii, which Tasmanians know as myrtle and Victorians more commonly call myrtle beech. It is distinctly unrelated to the Myrtus myrtles of the Earth’s north, which is named for a female athlete who gamely challenged the men, and won – and was punished for it by the goddess Athena by being turned into a shrub.

    Andrew Sant was born in London, but spent some years in Tasmania working as a teacher and as co-editor of The Tasmanian Review (which is now Island magazine). His poems roam the globe, and they describe a strange garden of arboreal species: apple trees, birch and spruce, pines and casuarinas all fill the landscape and filter the light. There is “dried wood” and “gathered timber”. An array of birds flit between the tousled canopies of vegetation.

    Sant sees Tasmania as a “skewed island, all that mountainous weather-burdened weight in west!” And it is true: don’t let the historic bickering between the towns in the north and south fool you: the division o
    f this island is vertical. There is the difficult transylvanian west, with its “straining forests”, facing towards the worst weather and absorbing it, reprieving the “sheltered east, with its vineyards and holidays”.

    But some life likes wild weather. Our humans and holidaymakers may like dry, flat, open expanses, but our myrtles will only grow in high-rainfall areas. They find gullies and valleys commodious. And if we look closely, we find whole townships of lichen, moss, fungi and fern that have adapted to grow in myrtle forests, countless species that life has chosen for this environment.

    Andrew Sant claims not find himself rooted to any place. “Language, I find, is home,” says Sant, so wherever he can use English to interpret scenes, he will be at rest. He burrows into the world in search of meaning. “So that is history here,” he suddenly says in the myrtle forest, boldly thrusting his language into shadow and wood like a drill bit aiming for a core sample – centuries-old shadow and centuries-old wood, with a lineage of millennia.

    One must be careful with language: after all, whoever first called this a myrtle got the words wrong.

    Consider the huon pine bowls and vases,” Sant writes elsewhere, “– one man has entered a two-thousand-year-old tunnel of cellulose with sharp tools and imagined them, he jokes, to be as perfectly preserved as sacred artefacts in an Egyptian tomb.”

    The woodworker has their own poetry. I read some on a webpage advertising timber products:

    “Myrtle is a striking wood with rich red, brown, and almost orange tones...It is believed the richness of colour comes from the quality of the soil it grows in. The deepest red myrtle comes from highly fertile soils on basalt.”

    On the same page, links are provided to brochures, where Japanese, Korean and Chinese connoisseurs can approach these fables in their own languages.




    Join Field Guide on a trip through the forests of the Overland Track.
    "Geography buffs will recognise that Melbourne, is not, in fact, Tasmania."

  • Bagging Abels

    Bagging Abels

    The Abels sit on the margins of Tasmanian geography; an Abel is a mountain summit over 1100 metres in height, of which there are 158 of these on the island. Tasmanian bushwalker Bill Wilkinson came up with the concept in the 1990s, modelling it on a similar idea in Scotland’s high country. He has since edited several volumes of guidebooks about climbing the Abels, replete with information on access to the trailhead, track conditions, campsite locations, vegetation types and history.

    The bushwalking guidebook is perhaps the quintessential Tasmanian literary genre, and Wilkinson’s
    The Abels series has all its features. Moments of candour and whimsy punctuate the text’s staid practicalities, which generally do a fine job of getting walkers to their destination successfully.

    Recreational bushwalking is an essentially purposeless quest, and countless back-country routes exist in Tasmania. For some, then, having a finite challenge gives direction to an otherwise formless activity.

    My friend Zane Robnik is attempting to climb all of the Abels within an 18-month period, before his 25
    th birthday, which would make it the quickest conquering of these mountains, by the youngest person to do so. But Zane is not a conquering type, and one gets the feeling that his project is a motivation – or an excuse – to keep him in the mountain districts on weekly outings.

    Of course, walking for leisure is a fairly recent invention, as far as human activities go. Even today, for much of the world’s population, walk is equated to work, or else to a natural nomadic rhythm, often associated with seasonal migration. Pushing through Tasmania’s stubborn, spiky, wiry scrub – and clambering up stepped rocks of quartz or dolerite with a heavy canvas rucksack clinging to the walker’s shoulders like a parasite – must seem a strange and masochistic hobby from the outside. Let’s not forget that less than two centuries ago, colonial surveyors deemed much of this mountainous country as TRANSYLVANIA: a dark, wet, impenetrable terrain, riddled with dangers and best avoided. It is likely that much of the high south-west regions were largely abandoned by Aboriginal groups as the last Ice Age diminished and lower land was accessible.

    Yet here we were by own our free will, when we could have been doing anything.

    I am not a mountaineer, but I like mountains. My eye is drawn to the Tasmanian panorama – the layers of light blue and mauve on the hills, the olive-green and sedge-straw of a heath landscape, the gradations of green in forests as seen from above – but I am as interested in the intricate detail of the mountainside ecosystem. Like Scottish writer Nan Shepherd, I can pick a path upon some range
    ‘merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend, with no intention but to be with him’.

    Equally, as with Roger Deakin, I believe going for a walk is an excuse to dress in costume and eat junk food.

    On top of Mount Wedge this past weekend, one of our party connected to his social media. We discovered that on that day Bill Wilkinson, originator of the Abels, was celebrating his birthday. A packet of Savoys was devoured rapidly, and we danced. Many things are acceptable on a mountain summit that would otherwise be inappropriate. Perhaps the Tasmanian peak-bagger is just trying to find the right context for their silliness.

  • The Baron in the Mountains

    The Baron in the Mountains

    Tasmanian national parks celebrate their 100th birthday this year. In 1916, two inaugural national parks were gazetted after promotion by pioneer supporters of tourism and conservation; a century later, national parks cover nearly a half of Tasmania’s land mass.

    Mount Field, 70 kilometres north-west of Hobart, was one of these first parks. In its early days, Mount Field was a hub for skiing and memorabilia still remains from the days when social Hobartians dragged the necessaries for a gala ball to a hut above Lake Dobson, and skated on the frozen lake.

    Snowfall is less common in Tasmania these days; the ski lift still operates occasionally during winters at Mount Field, and in the summer time, thousands of tourists flock to the park for short walks or multiple-day hikes, taking in the waterfalls, the giant swamp gums, the flowering heath, or the broad alpine vistas.

    An early tourist to Mount Field was Baron Ferdinand von Mueller.

    Guided by local trappers the Rayner brothers, Baron von Mueller arrived to investigate the unique botanical characteristics of the region. Born Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich Müller in 1825, the Baron relocated to Australia following the death of his eldest sister from tuberculosis. Now known as von Mueller, he and other family members joined a plethora of other German migrants in newly-settled Adelaide in 1847.

    Having been trained in botanising while working as a pharmacist’s apprentice in his native northern Germany, von Mueller gained  job at the pharmacy on Adelaide’s main street, and set about learning the local flora with journeys into the Mount Lofty Ranges, Mount Gambier, the Flinders Ranges and Lake Torrens.

    Shortly after, he received work in Victoria, and was the first curator of the Botanical Gardens in Melbourne.

    It was 1867 when Baron von Mueller went with the Rayners to Mount Field. Spending a week in the foothills of Mount Field East, he observed the unique species of the region, including making the first descriptions of a variety of cushion plant (Donatia novae-zelandiae) and several eucalypts – the snow peppermint, urn gum and cider gum, as well as taking in the glacial geology of the area.

    The Rayners’ memory of the journey came through a humorous observation: the Baron, the trapper noted, “persisted in wearing his two flannel scarves”, which von Mueller (it is said) would do whether he was in the town or the bush.

  • Fish in Tasmania

    Fish in Tasmania

    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.

  • The Complicated Life and Death Story of Thylacinus Cynocephalus

    The Complicated Life and Death Story of Thylacinus Cynocephalus

    The last thylacine to die in captivity came to its demise here, at this former zoo site in Hobart’s Domain park, in 1936. Its name was – possibly – Benjamin. It may have been a female and died of neglect; after a hot day, the animal was locked outside of its shelter overnight in suddenly freezing temperatures. Her body – known to be the last captive specimen in existence – was thrown in the rubbish.

    Colloquially known as the Tasmanian tiger for distinctive black striping along its spine, the thylacine looked more like a wolf, but was in fact a marsupial related to neither. It evolved on the Australian continent and in New Guinea to fill a niche fitted by dogs and wolves elsewhere, although was made largely extinct through the impact of humans and/or dingos about 2000 years ago. Its survival on the island of Tasmania, however, made it the largest carnivore there, and its apex predator.

    Aboriginal Tasmanians are believed to have called the thylacine ‘corinna’, among other names. It is believed that it was hunted and eaten by Aboriginal bands. Diplomat-missionary George Robinson recorded some mythology surrounding the thylacine – namely that dramatic weather events were ‘attributed to the circumstance of the carcase of the hyaena being left exposed’.

    Dutch sailor Abel Tasman reported seeing footprints like those of a tiger’s on the shore in 1642. Upon European settlement, the thylacine was treated as an enemy. Known also as a ‘hyena’ and exclusively carnivorous, thylacines did indeed attack sheep flocks and disturbed agricultural practices implanted by the migrants. A bounty was put upon the thylacine as early as 1830, and between agriculturalists and the Tasmanian Government, over 2000 bounties were claimed over a number of decades.

    Benjamin was caught in the Florentine Valley by Elias Churchill in 1933 and given to the Hobart Zoo. The manager of the zoo was Alison Reid, who said that the animal had no pet name; debate over the animal’s gender continues to simmer.

    Since, though, the thylacine – Thylacinus cynocephalus – has come to adorn the logos of cricket teams, beer bottles and local councils. It’s on the Tasmanian number plate. The tragic history of the thylacine has been depicted in books and films, and used as an example to promote the conservation of other rare and endangered animals.

    Was Benjamin truly the last thylacine on Earth? There are believers and sceptics on the topic. Conversations about the thylacine sound much like religious debate. The dramatic level of loss in Tasmania adds to the weight of the discussion: for there have been extinctions, as well as the erasure of huge amounts of indigenous knowledge and culture, all throughout the island since Europeans arrived.

    The outcome is a matter of eternity too. For after all, if there are no more tigers in the forests, they are gone forever.

    Or is it? Can scientific methods recreate Thylacinus cynocephalus? If we can, should we? Can we repopulate the forests with this poorly-understood and much-maligned creature? Or can we simply let go, own up to our sins, and let dead wolves lie?

    In Tasmania, it seems even life and death isn't clear-cut.

    There is, as well, the story of a man named Bert, who is said to have once upon a time snared a tiger in the forests of Tasmania’s north – but that’s a yarn for another time.


     
    The King family say they saw a thylacine in the south-west in the 1950s.
    Last week, we celebrated the great characters of Hobart Town.

  • The Prince of Rasselas

    The Prince of Rasselas

    “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.

  • A Geologist in the Cuvier Valley

    A Geologist in the Cuvier Valley

    Since everywhere else (Victoria, New South Wales, New Zealand) was having a gold rush, Tasmania wanted one. So in 1859, the government hired its first geological surveyor, a young British scientist with a famous naturalist father. He was Charles Gould.

    Charles Gould would spend a decade on the island looking for gold; he would fail. “It is difficult to understand how Gould,” a later writer would wonder, “leading a gold-seeking expedition, could have spent so long in a valley which later yielded so much gold from almost every creek, without finding a trace of the metal.”


    In the spring of 1859, a group of experienced bushmen, prospectors and surveyors was recruited, and in December they took off from Lake St. Clair. From there, they cut a narrow cart track up the Cuvier Valley, plodding through black mud and over golden tussocks, through spiky heath and mountain berry bushes. The mountains of Olympus, Byron and Hugel loomed over them.

    Gould was thrilled by what he saw, and his mind quickly spurred to theorise. He was one of the first to postulate that glaciation had created the incredible landscape he was witnessing. Standing at their improvised campsite in the Cuvier Valley, at the beginning of a decade of tough bush-bashing expeditions, the young geologist was driven to distraction imagining the great rumble of glaciers carving out valleys, tearing at mountains and spilling boulders for miles. He was only grumpy about the weight of expectations upon him. He wrote in his journal about the limited time he had to devote to “this very interesting question” because he was occupied with gold-seeking instead of indulging his geological curiosity.

    Gould’s scientific insight was brilliant: if he didn’t find gold during his decade as the chief geological surveyor of Tasmania, it was because he was thinking about something else. Gold was not nearly as exciting to him as other rocks. Much more precious was the dolerite sheet of the central highlands, and the fossiliferous Permian mudstone layer beneath it.

    Leaving the Cuvier Valley, Charles Gould entered the dense and dark forests of Tasmania’s west with a lot on his mind.

     

    Surveyor George Frankland gave many of Tasmania's natural features their names.

  • Naming Mathinna

    Naming Mathinna

    Mathinna never came here, to the town that bears her name.

    ‘The girl in the red dress’, as she was later painted by a convict artist, was born at the Aboriginal settlement on Flinders Island in 1835. Her parents were from the south-west of Tasmania; Towterer, her father, was a chief of the Lowreenne people. Towterer and his wife Wongerneep were convinced by the enterprising ‘conciliator’ G.A. Robinson, on his ‘friendly mission’, to go into exile when he kidnapped a daughter – Mathinna’s sister – on a west coast expedition.

    That daughter died anyway, her name unrecorded, at Sarah Island. Towterer and Wongerneep received new, grandiloquent names at Robinson’s behest: Romeo and Queen Evaline. They quickly passed away too, leaving Mathinna an orphan on Flinders Island.

    But Mathinna wasn’t the name she was born with anyway. She was Mary, like five other Aboriginal girls at the Flinders Island camp. It wasn’t until she was sent to Hobart that she became Mathinna.

    She had been adopted by the ruling powers of Van Diemen’s Land in that day: the Franklins. John Franklin, the Lieutenant-Governor of the island, had previously been a famous Arctic explorer; his wife Jane was an enthusiastic and active woman, who dreamed of making the colony a haven for art and culture. Part of her liberal agenda for Van Diemen’s Land was to prove that the Aboriginal population could be taught to embrace British values and customs. Mathinna was supposed to be the exemplar of this.

    So they gave her a red dress and had a portrait done; they gave her pen and paper, and taught her to write. She was raised alongside the Franklins’ daughter Eleanor.

    But then, less than two years later, John Franklin lost his job and was recalled to Britain. (He went off and froze to death in the Arctic.) Mathinna went to the appalling conditions of the Queens Orphan School in Hobart in 1843, where scarlet fever ran rampant. Finally, she was transferred to a new Aboriginal settlement at Oyster Cove, a station of derelict buildings where abject neglect created insurmountable poverty.

    Alcoholism and prostitution – largely with dodgy settlers who chose to live near to the Aboriginal camp for this reason – was rife. Mathinna got caught up in it, and the only report of her death declares that she drunkenly passed out in a creek and drowned. She was not yet 21.

    This gold mining town was first called Blackboy, then Reedy Marsh, and finally became Mathinna in 1882. Why was it named after this young woman of tragedy? What stories did the miners here tell over a beer, when it was the third-largest town in Tasmania, that made them want to call their town this way?

    Then again, where did the name Mathinna come from anyway? When she was born, she was called Mary; Mathinna an invention, something for the Franklins’ sake, because they wanted something exotic. Funny to be remembered in a town you never went to, with a name that wasn’t really yours.

     

    Later in Mathinna: a mystery surrounding the death of William Mullins.

  • Melaleuca Backyard

    Melaleuca Backyard

    This was the backyard of Mary and Janet King when they grew up. Their father, Charles Denison King, moved to this part of the world in 1936. He was 27 years old, and following his father. Together they built a house and mined tin.

    Deny King, as he was better known, lived for 55 years in this wild land in the south-west of Tasmania; on the edge of the dangerous Port Davey, he named their rugged estate Melaleuca after the tea-tree growing there, and lived a life that was as astonishing for its variety as it was for the distance from normal society with which he did it.

    Deny became a naturalist and an ornithologist, as well as a painter, on top of his small-scale alluvial tin mining. He discovered an extinct banksia shrub, and became a leading expert on the severely endangered orange-bellied parrots who still come to Melaleuca every February.

    Serving in Papua New Guinea in World War II, Deny met a nurse named Margaret Cadell, whom he attempted to woo through a series of love letters after both had returned from service. It probably wasn't easy to convince her to embark on a life shared with him in one of the wildest places on Earth, but she eventually acquiesced; the Kings' household became famous for its self-sufficient hospitality. Bushwalkers from all around the world would stop in at Melaleuca en route to the south-west coast, the black waters of Port Davey opening up onto a stretch of ocean that expands uninhibited all the way to Patagonia. Even the famous mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary made a visit.

    And so their Deny and Margaret's two daughters, Mary and Janet, grew up in the buttongrass plains that surround Melaleuca, barraged by the wind of the Southern Ocean so thoroughly that the hills only bear trees on the sheltered eastern slopes. Along the dark harbour, reedy scrubs and banksias grow. What a world in which to be a child; with their parents' art, and the parades of strange and roguish and playful visitors coming through to drink tea and eat bread from a wood-fired oven. With wrens and wombats and snakes, and the ever-changing weather blowing in from South America or Antarctica or, occasionally, somewhere more mild.

    They say that a Tasmanian tiger was seen in this stand of trees in the 1950s, a couple of decades after the last known example died in captivity. But that, I'm afraid, is another story, for another time.