Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged summer

  • A Roman Centurion at the Sidmouth Auld Kirk

    A Roman Centurion at the Sidmouth Auld Kirk

    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.

  • Confessions of a Bushwalking Guide

    Confessions of a Bushwalking Guide

    I’ve hardly read a book and barely written a word in the last weeks.

    Instead, I’ve been working as a bushwalking guide. On an almost constant rotation, I am taking visitors on a six-day itinerary through Tasmania’s highlands, through a World Heritage Area, on the famous Overland Track.

    This summer, we’ve had snow and we’ve had fire.

    We’ve had gales blowing over Cradle Plateau, hours of swimming in Lake Windermere; we’ve clambered up Oakleigh and Ossa, and come down hundred of metres to the buttongrass plains in order to play impromptu cricket games. We’ve stuck their noses into leatherwood flowers – it was a bad season for waratahs, but there was myrtleheath flowering galore in January.

    In a patch of remnant rainforest, wedged between the moors, I have gone with colleagues – dear friends – to drink booze drenched in the scents of sassafras and celery top, the plasticky scrape of pandani fronds, soft sphagnum and curly ferns absorbing our irreverent noise, clandestine.

    It’s been about a hundred years now that tourists have come to the Tasmanian forests to be guided and receive hospitality from the idiosyncratic characters of these remote places. Paddy Hartnett, Bert Nicholls, Gustav Weindorfer and Bert Fergusson are among the oddballs who boiled the billy with the visitors and pointed out the features. They kneaded dough and told jokes and said a thing or two about the way forests work or how geological formations came to be. And they were part of the landscape, somehow embodying a mythos of the place.

    We get to Frog Flats, above which are some mountains that the classically-minded George Frankland gave Greek names. Pelion, Achilles and Thetis sit next to Paddy’s Nut. It’s neither Greek nor classical, but an act of homage to the chummy, illiterate, alcoholic who worked as a trapper, prospector and guide before the drink did him in, to be survived by a wife and too many children with aching memories.

    To fistiki tou Patrikiou, I translate into Greek, trying to bring the outside world into this thin ribbon of tracks cobbled together for sixty-seven kilometres from the Cradle Valley to Lake St. Clair. It gets a weak laugh.

    I sleep beneath the stars, watching icy spears slice through the darkness and distance; aurora australis appears like a silent giant on the horizon, pale white bands shimmering, then disappearing.

    I try to find time alone, squatting down to watch the jackjumpers, scooping up dark creek water in a bamboo cup, watching rosella green suddenly appear in the branches of a white gum.

    I have a long black in the ranger’s hut, and he tells me Umberto Eco has died, and I walked on down the track to be picked up by the Idaclair and ferried to the bar at Cynthia Bay. When I get to Nicholson’s Bookstore in Launceston the next day, I buy Foucault’s Pendulum, but I’m back on the track in two days and I won’t be reading dense works of fiction in between damper and billy tea (or peppermint hot chocolates).

    But the leatherwood petals have begun to scatter themselves across the rich dark soil of the rainforests, and it seems it won’t be long now until the summer is well and truly ended; I’ll be off the track, and I’ll have to choose whether to stay in the bush alone, or go off into the world and join companions somewhere else.




    Previously, we imagined that Van Diemen's Land was a colony of fish.
    Elsewhere in the Overland Track's history, explorers came upon Barn Bluff.


  • Changes of the Cataract Gorge

    Changes of the Cataract Gorge

    Summer is suddenly over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Two Accounts of Marion Bay

    Two Accounts of Marion Bay

    I.
    At the turn of the New Year, thousands of revellers can be found at Marion Bay, on Tasmania’s south-east coast, for a music-and-arts festival called Falls Festival. I haven’t been there for a few years. It was the end of the decade: in the lengthening evening, Grizzly Bear played, and a teenage girl from a Catholic school in Hobart, drunk on gin, put her head wearily on my shoulders. The bay gleamed beyond the stage, replete with small and bothersome jellyfish. As the last minutes of 2009 unravelled, lightning crackled over the water. A deluge of silver rain was unleashed, briefly. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs played in the new calendar.

    II.
    In 1772, the French explorer Marion Dufresne became the second French captain to bring his ships to Terres Australes. He landed in a bay in the south-east of Van Diemen’s Land. In an attempt to make a good impression on the natives, Dufresne made a strange mandate for his crew. He made them strip naked before going ashore. They were the first Europeans to meet the indigenous people of Van Diemen’s Land. A flurry of spears greeted them: but they survived nevertheless. However, the good captain was killed and eaten by the Maori of New Zealand shortly after.