Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged travel

  • Birthday Party for a Hut

    Birthday Party for a Hut

    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. I
    t remains a meeting place.

  • Where You Wake Up

    Where You Wake Up

    I haven’t had my own room for more than six months.

    Part of that time was spent travelling – sleeping on friends’ couches or in hostel dormitories, in places like Istanbul or Ljubljana or
    Berlin – but it’s now been many weeks since I came home to Tasmania, and still I haven’t found a place to call my own – to stack my books and regularly rest my head.

    Where do I stay then? Friends and family offer their spare rooms, couches, or patches of carpet. The ranger in Strahan offers a bed; he and his girlfriend live in an old Federation-era customs building. Sometimes I end up sprawled with several other mates, snoozing heavily after a boozy night, wearied with laughter.

    Other times I strike off alone. I sleep in my tent, a yellow coffin of plastic which, for example, can be wedged in a cleft beneath the Snowy Range, or pinned to the dark earth by the Liffey River. There are mountain huts, too, which I can pretend are my own for a night or two: secret grey huts camouflaged in the boulders and snow peppermints of kunanyi-Wellington, or shacks built with bulky beams of pencil pine in the northern escarpment of the Central Plateau.

    The other night I slept in a repurposed water tank, which had previously been used as accommodation on Macquarie Island, for scientists working on a rabbit eradication program. (This was cosy.)

    This week, I’m waking up on a yacht. It’s not mine (of course), but I do some work on it, and in return, I’m allowed to contort myself into a v-shaped berth at the bow of the boat, as it sways quietly in sheltered anchorages in the south-east of Tasmania. This is Canoe Bay: the iron wreckage of a scuttled ship, the
    William Pitt, sticks up above the greeny-blue water. The dolerite silhouette of Cape Hauy is in the distance. Behind me, on the shore itself, a damp green tangle of forest. Big eucalypts stand above a busy network of ferns and flowering plants.

    In
    the canopy of one of these eucs, there is a nest. It is the nest of the white-bellied sea eagle, Haliaeetus leucogaster. The birds themselves are incredible, but so too are their homes. Continuously used, for raising one or two fledglings each year, they consistently grow in mass. Parent eagles will go hunting for fish, eels, birds, or small land creatures, and bring them back to the nest, feeding themselves and their young. With so much decomposing animal matter brought into their homes, the sea eagles will add fresh green foliage to the inside of the nest for hygienic purposes.

    Growing to dimensions of up to
    2.5 metres wide and 4.5 metres deep, they can weigh up to a ton.

    It is, I suppose, somewhat enviable. The dream of a permanent abode is borrowed from a human instinct for shelter and stability. I drive around, looking at the various living places of friends, of strangers. The west coast shacks of corrugated iron, the flaking weatherboard homes in the river valleys, the sandstone mansions of old towns. All have their various reasons for appealing. Above everything, they have their own kitchens, and walls to line with bookshelves.

    I am not the first Tasmanian, naturally, to live this lifestyle. There was a certain nomadic element to the lives of the Tasmanian Aboriginals, although perhaps not as much as we are often taught. Certainly, however, these people did not crave absolute permanency in a single place. They may have instead found their homes in the various passages and patches of the landscape which they frequented – in ‘country’, rather than a building.

    Sometimes I think I have found that too: I am happy in the high country, in the low moorlands, in the farm towns, in Canoe Bay.

    This mobility may suit me more than most. For plenty of others, it is not so amenable. There are some being forced into it. Suddenly, Hobart has become one of the toughest rental markets in the country. Mates are looking for a bedroom, and failing. (I’ve cast an eye on things myself and dismissed it as too difficult.) There are various reasons why this is the case, but partly it is because of Hobart’s popularity as a tourist destination: rooms are being rented to short-term visitors, rather than longer-term residents. A different type of nomad is being catered for.

    I don’t know what to make of all this, although I sense it augurs a different future
    on this island. One friend asserts that what is being lost is the ability to feel “secure enough in your home that you can unpack your life and become part of your community, to contribute to making Tasmania all the things that the government sells us off as to the rest of the world.”

    I personally drift through this days supposing that life will leave me behind. It seems that what I’d like from my days on this planet is different from most others. Occasionally, I realise I will probably never have a place of my own, somewhere to put my books. I sadly expect to find myself in a sort of exile, somehow.

    The nest in Canoe Bay is about 80 years old, but it has now been abandoned. This has been a successful spot, so it’s likely that the local pair will establish their new nest nearby, in the canopy of another of these eucalypts. The family will remain their neighbourhood.

    The yacht gently rocks in
    the bay. A sea eagle suddenly lifts out of the trees and soars above me, honking.

  • 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'.

  • Returning in Fog

    Returning in Fog

    About two years ago, Danny and I returned to Tasmania after some months away. We’d been in different countries, remote from one another, and yet somehow came back to the island within twenty-four hours of one another. Soon enough we went for this bushwalk, to the top of Mount Arthur.

    Stomping up through the vivid green of a damp forest, it struck us how ordinary
    this reunion was – not only our reunion with each other, but with the forms and textures of the Tasmanian bush. “We’ve been and come back too many times,” I said. It was still beautiful, but a certain sentimentality seemed to be gone.

    The other day I made the last of six flights in the direction of home. I took a window seat and waited for the plane to descend through reams of thick cloud and fog. When I finally caught sight of home country, I struggled to find any landmark I recognised. The hills were all misted over, and the two-dimensional view of agricultural terrain offered me little obvious.

    There was a river, which I correctly guessed was the South Esk. It was lined with paperbarks and bald willows, full as a googy egg, making wetlands of the fields. It led me to the airport.

    I was quickly prompted to go for a drive in the countryside. I found myself drawn towards Mount Arthur again, on the backroads in its foothills. The wonky patchwork of farmland, garden, plantation and native forest was all well-known; the marsupial colour scheme of the vegetation as well; so too the rosellas in the branches, and the roadkill on the bitumen, sharp white bones sticking out from opened-up wallaby carcasses.

    I have passed more than one-third of this year outside of Tasmania. But wherever I’ve been, I’ve spent much time writing and researching the island. Is that why it doesn’t feel at all strange to suddenly be back in the midst of this endemic existence?

    Same as two years ago, I find myself
    whispering, like an incantation, the Latin binomials of pepperberry, waratah, myrtle beech. Fog hangs at the tops of stringybarks. Baubles of moisture hang from mossy trunks. There’s a white-out over Mount Arthur’s summit.

    A few weeks ago I caught up with Danny; once again, he’s also
    elsewhere. We know our friends mock us. We are openly and desperately enamoured with Tasmania, and yet we have spent more time away from it than almost anyone we know. We are sickeningly sentimental while we are afar, but then, upon return, it is all so normal and natural to be on an island at the bottom of the world, to wake up to the sounds of cantankerous birds, to smell eucalyptus or sassafras on the air.

    Yet of course the mystique persists. In 2015, on Mount Arthur, we had been wrapped up in fog for the duration of our bushwalk, when all of a sudden the scene opened up. We could see farmland and coastline, and the cluster of houses we lived in, clinging to the hillsides of a fertile river valley.

    Likewise, I find myself in new scenes every day. The modest burrow of a crayfish sits by the Second River. Ben Lomond is lumpy with snow and silver with morning light. I have dropped down beneath the cloud and I can be lost in a landscape which I’ve spent years trying to understand.

    The fog has suddenly cleared and the sky has taken the colour of a fairy-wren’s pate, the sun tilted south towards me, the westerlies stilled and restful.

    Before too long, Danny will be back as well.

  • Steaming Tea-Pots of Gigantic Capacity

    Steaming Tea-Pots of Gigantic Capacity

    A few weeks ago, I was here, in southern Austria, in the vicinity of the Carinthian mountains. Gustav Weindorfer was born in the midst of these mountains, upon the river Drau. Later in life, he would become a pioneer of Tasmanian environmentalism; it was he and his Tasmanian wife who first campaigned for Cradle Mountain to be protected.

    It was near this mountain that Gustav and Kate Weindorfer built a chalet of sorts, named Waldheim. Waldheim is a fascinating building: two different vernaculars meet in the one building, with the practical improvisations of Tassie bush architecture meeting the long-standing traditional style of Austrian alpine huts.

    Within those cosy king billy confines, Gustav and Kate entertained a number of guests: once again, the
    Gastfreundschaft on offer was a melange of cultures, with (for example) Viennese-style coffee and desserts following wombat stew. He even managed to entice two Austrian skiiers as visitors, Franz and Julius Malcher, who regrettably showed up too early for snow.

    These were not the first proponents of hospitality in Tasmania. I cannot speak much on the practices of the first Tasmanians, but welcoming guests quickly became a key skill in the life of colonial Van Diemen’s Land. Not too many laudab le qualities are credited to the Vandemonians, but “the traveller was sure to meet with a kind reception wherever he went”, recalled Dr. Ross. To provide food and drink to those passing through was “the custom of the colony”.

    In Van Diemen’s Land, to be in a remote location was to be extremely vulnerable, to the predations of bushrangers or the retaliatory attacks of Aboriginal bands. Yet the reputation endured: the early east coast resident Louisa Meredith spoke of how readily a visitor was greeted with “a steaming tea-pot of gigantic capacity”, which no doubt was always gratefully received by those who navigated the hills and forests on horseback, on their arduous routes towards elsewhere.

    Kate and Gustav Weindorfer had a different motivation for their hospitality. They wanted to have guests in their forest home near Cradle Mountain, in order to showcase the superlative values of the landscape. They trusted that those who had a firsthand experience of the area would be struck by its significance and smitten with its beauty, and thus assert the need for it to be left as it was. They were largely correct, and it largely has been. More than 200,000 people visit the Cradle Mountain region each year.

    Around one hundred years later, the Ressmann family took me into their lakeside hotel in Carinthia. They fed me schnitzel and wheat beer, and during the day I was free to explore their mountains. Certainly, their kindness allowed me to enjoy the peaks of the area in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to. They are not campaigning for Carinthian conservation, but to see me returning from a day on a limestone summit and cheerfully praising the beauty of their area seemed to satisfy them. They asked for nothing more.

    All these observations make me wonder – what is our hospitality in Tasmania like these days? I work in tourism hospitality, serving up lamb ragout and pouring pinot noir at the end of a day’s bushwalking, in the same vein as Gustav Weindorfer. As tourists appear in greater numbers, though, how do we learn to respect them individually? How do we need to shape our tourism industry so that Tasmanians and visitors can maintain a fully human relationship, rather than simply a commercial one? How do our tourist operators, and our Airbnb hosts, represent us?

    What about our international students? Are there tea-pots unfailingly waiting for them? What do they see of Tasmania during the years they pass here, at the expense of thousands of dollars?

    Tasmanians are an interesting lot. On some occasions we can be rather open, expressive, and charming; in other ways, we are awfully circumspect, suspicious, stingy, and solitary. I actually like that we have both aspects, but I still maintain we could be a little more welcoming, to be less inclined to suspect every stranger of intruding and doing harm.

    So I look hopefully to venues like the Inveresk Tavern, which puts on a special menu every Sunday: the pub invites a different migrant community to run the kitchen and serve the punters throughout the afternoon. This is a double act of hospitality: with the tavern’s permission, migrants are allowed the chance to host those with whom they share a town. Sudanese or Bhutanese or Afghani, they certainly appear to relish the opportunity. For the rest of us, the blend of Tasmanian and migrant cultures continues to be appealing.

  • One Sunday Morning in Ranelagh

    One Sunday Morning in Ranelagh

    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.

  • The Lawless Loveliness of the Landscape

    The Lawless Loveliness of the Landscape

    I recently wrote of Denmark: at last, I hinted, we may have held up our end of the bargain in an intercontinental exchange. In the 1820s a colourful Dansker came to Tasmania; in the year 2000, a love affair between a Tasmanian and the Crown Prince of Denmark began. Where we once received Jørgen Jørgensen, we gave away our Mary Donaldson.

    But actually, Tasmanians are still one-up over the Danes. Because in 1891, another Danish migrant would arrive to Hobart and also make a significant mark on our island’s culture. This was the novelist Marie Bjelke Petersen.

    She had been brought up in the outskirts of Copenhagen, but moved with her whole family when she was a teenager. They arrived in the spring. In her reminiscences at least, the scenery was instantly affecting: it was “a paradise of untouched beauty”, she said. “When I saw all these mountains in Tasmania, I embraced it on the spot.”

    Certainly the mountains would have been impressive. She’d have seen a number of them whilst still at sea, and Mount Wellington must have have struck her as imposing. Denmark, after all, is rather flat; its highest point is 170 metres above sea level.

    At first she tried to transmute her feeling for the Tasmanian landscape into painting, but she soon converted to writing. Her first three publications were religious works, but in 1917 she wrote
    The Captive Singer. The plot featured a guide who took tourists into the caves around Mole Creek, and sang well, and charmed a woman. It sold 150,000 copies in Australia – and 40,000 in a Danish translation.

    It kicked off a steady stream of words, and sales. In
    Dusk she wrote of a love affair in the mining town of Queenstown; in Jewelled Nights she narrated a close friendship (which became a love affair) at a prospectors’ camp on the Savage River. In total Bjelke Petersen sold more than a quarter of a million books in English and many more in the six languages into which they were translated. For an Australian author of her era, this was an enormous success.

    The novels don’t necessarily age well. Their
    plots are sometimes frivolous, and Bjelke Petersen’s religious didactism doesn’t read well today. Today, her prose comes across as overly romantic, breathless and out-of-control. But one thing is certain: Marie Bjelke Petersen’s writing about Tasmania (and mainland Australia, in which she set a couple of novels) showed an original view of the landscape. Where other authors painted Tasmania as “bleak and cheerless”, Bjelke Petersen raved about the “lawless loveliness of the landscape.”

    Perhaps for Bjelke Petersen, excursions into the bush gave her liberty. She travelled far and wide into western Tasmania researching her plots. Her other career was as a teacher of physical education; she strongly believed in its virtues. She went places that few women of European background had been.

    You may be familiar with her nephew, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who would later become a Queensland politician. His aunt was also religiously conservative, but Marie was nevertheless a forward thinker in society. I’m not sure if she ever thought of herself as a feminist, but she certainly wasn’t willing to be constrained by expectations of gender roles. The novelist refused to be married, and instead lived with her close friend Sylvia Mills. (Plenty of tongues have wagged about what their relationship might have been, but I have little gossip to contribute.)

    Marie Bjelke Petersen was also an environmental conservationist. “It is really a matter that brings tears to my eyes to see the way our beautiful forests are being wantonly burnt off,” she declared in one public address. Her enthusiasm for the bush wasn’t confined to her literature. (“The jungle was a riotous confusion of strong growing things, which clung savagely together and almost strangled each other in their fierce passionate embraces!”)

    This is a recurring theme in Tasmania: so many of the activists who have spoken in praise and in defence of our landscapes have originally come from places like Denmark, Austria, Germany, Romania, Lithuania and Latvia. Although today I think some Tasmanian-born individuals have at last begun to understand and respect their surrounds, for many years we relied on those who had come from the outside to point out just how special it all was.

    Likewise, Marie Bjelke Petersen was a special character in Tasmanian cultural history – another Dane for whom we can be grateful. She died as an old lady in October 1969.



    Another fascinating literary figure from Tasmania was the Glenorchy-born author Christopher Koch.

  • Our Mary

    Our Mary

    I met a Danish lass last week. It took me precisely 30 seconds to bring up the two things I always mention when I meet Danes. They are my favourite connection points between Denmark and Tasmania: Princess Mary and Jørgen Jørgensen.

    I have spilt much ink about the latter, so let it suffice to say that my new friend Ulrikke had never heard of her countryman Jørgensen – as is the case with every Dane I’ve ever met. Also, she told me (not for the first time) how badly I was mispronouncing his name.

    But Princess Mary? Oh yes, she was quite fond of Princess Mary.

    Mary Donaldson was born in Hobart in February 1972, her parents both staff at the University of Tasmania. Her own schooling would lead her to UTas as well, via schools in Sandy Bay and Taroona; she studied a combined Bachelor of Commerce and Law.

    After graduation, she would move to Melbourne; from what I can tell she didn’t live in Tasmania after that point. But she’s still
    our Mary.

    In a story that has been retold countless times, Mary met Crown Prince Frederik at a bar in Sydney during the 2000 Olympics. (The bar was called the Slip Inn, surely one of the worst recorded names for a drinking establishment.) Apparently he didn’t use his royal title as a pick-up line, to his credit. They embarked a long-distance relationship; in 2001, the Danish weekly rag
    Billed Bladet – no doubt highly respected – revealed Mary as the prince’s girlfriend; in 2003 Queen Margrethe II gave the green light to their marriage. A very romantic story.

    Once upon a time people said that it was every girl’s dream to become a princess. I really don’t know if that’s true, and I have strong doubts that a young lady growing up in Taroona would ever harbour serious hopes to become such a thing. Royalty generally isn’t sourced from Taroona, or any neighbouring suburbs.

    Then again, Taroona’s pretty bloody lovely. There is fine swimming here at Hinsby Beach, for example. The D’Entrecasteaux Channel is making good progress towards the Southern Ocean; the eastern shore takes on a golden hue in summer. Eucalypts stand tall on the cliffs. Their branches abound with birds, the refreshing breeze heavy with the pullulating screech of rosellas and wattle-birds.

    It’s a far cry from Copenhagen, where Mary now lives. Maybe it suits her better; not every Tasmanian loves its landscape as much as I do, I’ve discovered. Maybe she likes the flat, broad boulevards of the Danish capital. It certainly is a beautiful city. But I don’t envy her life. I would prefer to anonymously duck into the surf at Hinsby Beach (perhaps completely unclothed, with mates and wine, late at night) than to have to maintain palatial etiquette at a ceremony in Kongens Nytorv, for example. Then again, no princess has tried to woo me into being her Crown Prince; perhaps if the opportunity came knocking, I’d plunge in. Royal life might suit me better than I think.

    Whatever the case, it is good that the Danes love our Mary. She is wonderful. And she dresses very elegantly.


    I once met a bloke who claimed he snogged Mary before she was betrothed to Crown Prince Frederik. I suspect that there are quite a few blokes who say such things. I am content to say that I occasionally swim at the same beach that Mary presumably also visited – and to go on using Princess Mary as fodder for conversations with Danish ladies.

    I
    do like to think that Mary Donaldson heard, at some point in her younger years, the story of Jørgen Jørgensen; perhaps, that famous night at the Slip Inn, when Frederik said that he was from Denmark, Mary mentioned Jørgensen, mispronouncing his name dreadfully. I know I would have.

    Probably Frederik has never have heard of him either.

  • Figures and Textures: Mountains, Yards, Moons, Dinosaurs

    Figures and Textures: Mountains, Yards, Moons, Dinosaurs

    I am increasingly compelled to pay attention to the figures and textures of Tasmania, and to wonder what impression they have made upon my brain and our society as we each pass our time within their midst.

    For example, as the years go on, I become more familiar with such forms in the mountains where I work. It is not only the silhouettes of massifs and gendarmes that affect me. I recall last patches of light on the summits, the rock changing colour as the sun disappears behind a hill or forest. There is the coarseness of dolerite’s crystals against the soft pads of my hands, or the sharp contortions of quartzite under the thick leather of my boots’ soles, or the slippery grains of wet sandstone.

    Artists have a keen eye for these things. I am not an artist, but I admire someone like Peter Dombrovskis, a photographer who spent incredible amounts of time and care during his forays into the bush. A cursory look through Dombrovskis’ catologue is enough to tell us that he knew these forms intimately: the curl of the pandani, the burled bark, convulsions of kelp, ice-encrusted flower petals.

    But even those who are considerate and attentive will today arrive with the aesthetic prejudices of Europe. We must remember that straight lines are rarely found in the Tasmanian bush. Maybe there are rectilinear forms in geology, but very rarely are they truly straight. Even the horizon may have taken on a different meaning for the original Tasmanians: this line, I am told, is not the crux of much Aboriginal art, unlike what we have been handed down from the classic painters of Europe.

    Tasmanian art, as far as we can know, was most often in the media of bodily scarification and petroglyphs. Here at preminghana or Mount Cameron West, in the island’s north-west, is said to have some of the mesmerising and memorable examples of art in the latter medium. (Today it is concealed and only accessible to some members of the Tasmanian Aboriginal community.)

    Stylised circles, moon-shapes, dots, crosses and bird tracks were recorded by early European observers; similar motifs appear in the descriptions of the cicatrices cut into the flesh of Tasmanians. The “curved emblem” was also found at Aboriginal gravesites, and in their temporary huts. The full meanings of these figures are not shared, but commentators have remarked on the potential symbolism – “an awareness of a spiritual dimension within the land”, says Roslynn Haynes.

    Probably, they had a range of possible meanings, a beautiful and complicated polysemy.

    I grew up on a bush block in the Tamar Valley and there are countless forms that have unalterably changed me. Perhaps the open land we had is the most obvious: my gait, I think, corresponds to the yards in which I strode as a youth. But there are many more,
    most of which I do not yet comprehend. But I am spending a lot of time trying to unravel it all.

    For example, when I came to look at preminghana, I found myself comparing it to a Pachycephalosaurus, in a certain unlikely posture. I was very fond of dinosaurs as a lad.


  • Snakes' Places

    Snakes' Places

    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.


  • Snakes' Places

    Snakes' Places

    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 some of us Vandemonians, this takes many years.

    With others, though, it may only require a single chance occurrence.


  • Poplar Parade

    Poplar Parade

    There were many afternoons during my teenage years in which I came upon this view. Not always were the mountains set against a blue sky; in winter, the grass and trees were greener, the yellow blossoms absent. In those days, there were fewer houses wedged into the landscape.

    Usually I had taken the bus from school, although sometimes I was just returning from a mate’s house. Often I had a skateboard under my arm and I was ready to hurl myself down the hill. (Once or twice I toppled off.) Just where the slope levelled off, on the left, after the roundabout, I would tumble into my home.

    After some time away, I return to this hill. These are quiet streets – the edges of an urban space, where a regional city meets its bucolic background – but for me the neighbourhood is pullulating, populous with ghosts. It is a cluttered scene, years layered on top of each other. I see the Vollmers’ and Masters’ houses. I wonder if Ben’s grandmother is still alive, where Matt has moved on to by now. The austere brick house that the Lucases lived in for a while reminds of the tethers of their stories, which we have heard mostly through the avenues of gossip. There is a certain house to which I snuck on cold nights, in my pyjamas, to rendezvous with Miss A., also in her pyjamas.

    Where the road has its elbow at the bottom of the hill, my brother once threw off his left shoe in a fit, and appeared to be dancing. He ran back to the house cursing the wasp that had crawled into his Vans and stung him.

    Coming back to my mother’s house (once, both parents shared it), I feel as though I’m making a similarly ludicrous return.

    There are all sorts of relics here too. As I write this, I look up at a photograph of two young Spinkses with the larrikin footballer Billy Brownless. There are other images: the grandfather who died before I was born, my old dog who is buried in the yard, clippings from my occasional appearances in the local newspaper. In the bathroom: the pot plant a girlfriend gifted to Mum more than half a decade ago.

    Venturing away from the house, I am equally ensnared. Somehow I can’t help but hear of the corruptions and collusions of local politics, business, and media. The local Member for Parliament refuses to address his constituents. A hideous giant supermarket is being erected near the centre of town. The flags of another town’s football team flap all around Launceston in the early afternoon winds. The letters to the newspaper make me cringe, wince, want to cry.

    I fear that the people who live in my town secretly hate it. That beneath the odd gesture of civic pride there is a deep concave of shame in our guts. That we wish we were something else, somewhere else, with more cheap shopping and football games.

    Perhaps this has something to do with our origins, with the way some of our ancestors stole the landscape from the first Tasmanians. These rolling hills I have come upon so many afternoons of my life were once the hunting grounds of the largely-forgotten tribes of the north of the island. Beneath that banner of blue sky (or silvery-black, on the gloomier days), there were spirits and stories in amongst the black wattles and bluegums, in with the echidnas and snakes and wallabies.

    If there is a horror at this, I do not discourage it. But there is a sense in which this is simply an era, a landscape, an urban arrangement, an historical moment which we have inherited. Which I have inherited. And if I wander through the streets of this town and feel grumpy for knowing it is lined by the houses of too many greedy or ignorant or complacent fellow-citizens, and then trudge down this hill into a home where all the change across two decades of my life manifests itself, without trying to resist a sense of hopelessness or sentimentality, without putting a hard shoulder against it, then I have lost home altogether. And there can be nothing worse than that sort of exile.

  • A Human Comet

    A Human Comet

    A sailor's life leads many places.

    I have spent part of this year visiting certain locations that bear the memory of a man named Jørgen Jørgensen (1780-1841). Jørgensen's frenetic behaviour and multiplicity of careers led Australian novelist Marcus Clarke to describe him as 'a human comet'.

    It was a life that saw him visit Iceland twice, once as a merchant, and a second time as a would-be revolutionary, in 1809.

    It would also have him wind up in Tasmania as a convict, where he lived his final days, trying his hand at everything from clerical work to police work, farming to exploring.

    Jørgensen also spent considerable time in London, particularly at a certain pub named the Spread Eagle Inn, on Gracechurch Street.

    As part of his nautical career, he had stopped in ports in the Baltic Sea, South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

    He sailed the South Seas on a whaling vessel, and wrote a treatise on the work of missionaries in Tahiti.

    He may have even worked as a pirate in the Americas.

    Briefly, he went to Spain and Portugal to escape his gambling debts; and later was employed by the British Crown to operate as a spy in continental Europe, making a colourful journey on foot. He lost almost everything (including, literally, the shirt on his back) in Parisian casinos, and accidentally committed to a marriage in Frankfurt - a vow that he was never to fulfill.

    But what of Jørgen Jørgensen's hometown? The son of the official watchmaker to the Danish Crown, Jørgensen grew up on the street in this photograph, Østergade, just by one of the city of Copenhagen's main squares.

    It was from this vantage point that an adolescent Jørgen witnessed a great conflagration in the harbour city. King Christian VII, considered a madman, had to be removed from his burning palace. Unfit to rule, tension brewed between the Queen, the Prince, and the King's physician over the issue of power.

    Jørgensen left Copenhagen to work on British ships from the age of 14, but returned when he was 27, in December 1807, to find 'my native city bombarded'. The Danes had sided with Napoleon Bonaparte against the British. It was a painful time for the returning sailor. In Jørgensen's words, 'a considerable portion of the best city in Europe was destroyed'. He was put in charge of a vessel, the Admiral Juul, which was captured in short time off the east coast of England.

    He would never return.

    His compatriots came to consider him a possible traitor. Jørgensen himself seemed to hint at this in some writings, but passionately denied it in others.

    During his time in Iceland, his lack of a national identity was attacked. 'Avoid Denmark, there you won't find a grave,' one of the prefects from the south of the island wrote to him, abandoning mildness. 'Every
    where you will be cast away, hated, banished, cursed. In the end you will be suffocated in an ocean of hate.'

    He would sporadically write letters to family members, and described an intense suffering at being far from them, especially his mother. His Danish fell into disuse. Roaming the wildernesses of Van Diemen's Land, where he did indeed find a grave (although in the cemetery of a religion he did not belong to; and these days a school as been built upon it) he must have felt as far as possible from where he was born.

    One can only hope that as he married, and bounced between occupations, and came to know different parts of Van Diemen's Land better than most colonial settlers of his day, that he felt somewhat at home in that land where Aboriginals, convicts and bushrangers mingled beneath the forest canopies and mountain silhouettes.

    But perhaps, at times, he felt regret: having left his family, their trade, his language, and that elegant city.

    One can get sentimental about home, though, especially after having seen so many places in this world.

  • We Remember Jorgen Jorgenson

    We Remember Jorgen Jorgenson

    Recently, I wrote about an old bridge in the centre of Tasmania that portrays one of its residents as a caricature of a king. Jorgen Jorgenson, as he came to anglicise his name (after several changes throughout his life), was born in Copenhagen and died in Hobart and careered his way through the world in between.

    It is in Iceland that he is most remembered today. There, he is cheerfully clept Jörundur Hundadagakonungur: ‘Jorgen, the Dog Days King’.

    For it was in the days when Sirius (known as the ‘dog star’) was seen in northern night skies, during the summer of 1809, that Jorgen Jorgenson installed himself as the Protector of Iceland.

    It had begun as a mercantile excursion. Jorgenson and some British businessmen went to Iceland in the dark and cold of December 1808 and tried to organise some trade with the local merchants there. It was thwarted; Iceland was a Danish colony, and Denmark refused to trade with the British, the two countries being pitted against each other in the Napoleonic War.

    Jorgenson – the Dane caught up in British affairs against his own country, in theory employed only as a translator – was furious. He declared they would return to Iceland to make business, by force if necessary.

    So it was that he returned in 1809 and did not come unarmed. He and his men stormed into the house of the Danish Governor of Iceland, Count Trampe, and kidnapped him. And suddenly, Jorgen Jorgenson was in charge.

    The Dog-Days King instituted some quick changes. Prisoners were released. School facilities were upgraded. A new flag was designed: three split codfish on a lavender background. Jorgenson was ready to move Iceland into independence. And with five ‘life-guards’ (probably the prisoners he released), Jorgenson took off over the country, at what may have been record speed, to meet the merchants and administrators in the northern port towns, where he believed the peasants were being manipulated and oppressed by the wealthy factors.

    In 1809, Iceland was one of the poorest countries in Europe. Settled by Vikings in the 800s, who invented a type of commonwealth and parliament to ensure peace and order on the island, they had lost their independence after a few centuries, first to the Norwegians and then to the Danes. Agriculture was difficult, and Icelanders were fishermen and sheep farmers, and little else. Harsh winters required much preparation and were often fatal, and volcanic eruptions could have a devastating effect on the life of the people; in fact, a volcano eruption in the decade of Jorgenson’s birth had caused a devastating famine.

    As Jorgenson travelled the country, and saw this reality combined with colonial oppression, he was moved to try and change the circumstances of the Icelanders.

    And yet when Jorgenson was deposed as autumn began, by a British naval captain (it turned out that Jorgenson was supposed to be a prisoner there), the people were as indifferent as they had been to the removal of Count Trampe.

    Jorgen Jorgenson had crossed a land of blueberry heath and scattered lava stones, the country of Viking outlaws, edging between glacial mountains and towards the Arctic Sea. In a colony on the edge of the European consciousness, Jorgenson had tried to effect political change on behalf of farmers and fishermen who in fact had never asked for his help. In a time of political turbulence, Jorgenson marched into the middle of the powerful forces of Europe and hoped to stage a revolution.

    Boldly, brazenly, and probably naively, he expected it.

    Jorgenson went back into the British penal system, although he was not long after to be found in Germany and France, working as a spy for that same nation.

    Iceland gained its independence through a homegrown hero a century later. Later in the 1900s, a musical was written about the Danish usurper. In it, Jorgenson taught a young woman how to sing, which probably didn’t happen in the real history. But the play was called Þið munið hann Jörund: ‘We Remember Jorgen Jorgenson’.

  • The Easter Egg Hunt

    The Easter Egg Hunt

    The gold mine in Beaconsfield reopened in the same year that I was bitten by my dog Sox, above the eye, on my birthday.

    I grew up on a five-acre property just outside of that town, ‘up the river’, as my mother would always say. I remember it as a jackjumper-infested swamp, with a couple of flat grassy areas on which to play footy. A few big eucalypts stood tall above silver wattles and native cherries, and scrub. In Easter, my parents hid chocolate eggs wrapped in colourful foil in the fronds of manferns. We had a goat that needed putting down.

    The gold mine, which had once been the richest in Tasmania, was not as it was in its heyday. In 2006, when a subterranean rockfall killed a miner and trapped two others, it was closed again. But the mine was not the town’s identity anymore. If anything, Beaconsfield, and the Tamar Valley, was apples, with some forestry on the outskirts, and a reasonable proximity to both Launceston and the industrial ports where the river met Bass Strait.

    My family moved to town. Sox was put down too. My life’s shape changed. Shadows on the world’s map furled away. My knowledge increased. Suddenly, I was a young man, and on my way across the ocean. New places were impressing themselves upon me. New landscapes complicated my memory.

    Even while we were living there, in the 1990s, there were folks planting grapevines in the Tamar Valley. These were people who could foresee a future for cool-climate wines in this area – or they were hobbyists, enthusiasts, optimists. Nowadays, all around Beaconsfield are trellises in rows, vines clinging to them. I drove through there the other week. This year’s fruit has been harvested, of course. The leaves have turned all sorts of burnished Old World colours.

    An author has moved to Beaconsfield and has run a literary festival there. I hear rumours of other developments, boutique food and booze and accommodation, capitalising on tourists in search of a good pinot noir.

    It will change.

    I have changed too. But here is where I spent some formative years, getting stung by jackjumpers and bitten by dogs, tripping over the strips of shedding stringybark, collecting tadpoles from puddles on Lightwood Hill Road.

    In whatever this town becomes, there will be the history of the gold rush – of the Dallys, of Hart and Grubb, of the Chinese migrant workers, of Todd Russell and Brant Webb and Larry Knight.

    There, too, is the history of who came before them: the Letteremairrener people. Or of what came before that: the flora and fauna, the geology and geography of the Tamar Valley, which too is not as it once was.

    Wherever I find myself in this world – peering into portraits in the Uffizi Gallery, for example, or listening to mariachi music at a restaurant in San Diego – I am still the extension of that memory too. I am not entirely who I once was, but I am still the boy who found chocolate eggs in the garden. I find myself scrounging around for stories with the same enthusiasm.

    For people may change their places, but it is more true that places have changed us. That we belong to the places that we spend most of our time in – especially in childhood.

     

    Last week, I wrote a short history of the town of Beaconsfield - once known as Brandy Creek.

  • A Long Week at Waldheim

    A Long Week at Waldheim

    Born in Austria in February 1874, Gustav Weindorfer came to Australia in search of work. After stints with the Austro-Hungarian Consulate in Melbourne and the Field Naturalists’ Club of Victoria, it was love that brought him to Tasmania. Gustav had met botanist Kate Cowle, of the north-west of the island, and married her in a simple Methodist ceremony on February 1, 1906.

    Travelling to Cradle Mountain together in 1909, they were awed by the unique alpine environment. They began to promote it as a place worth visiting and protecting, and built a lodge from the native conifer known as king billy pine, Athrotaxis selaginoides. The lodge was called Waldheim, meaning ‘forest home’ in Gustav’s native tongue. It was opened at Christmas in 1912.

    Kate died in 1916, and Gustav’s heart was broken by the loss. However, he continued to offer hospitality at Waldheim. His wombat stew was famous, and following it was home-ground coffee and rum-laced puddings. Vienna waltz records played on the gramophone, and Gustav was wont to sing along. Gustav Weindorfer was no doubt seen as a romantic figure in the fastness of that wild place, and it is said with the widower at the helm of the chalet, eligible young women came to the mountains in search of romance.

    One such lass was a Rhodesian visitor Maude van der Reit. Climbing up to the nearby heights of Marions Lookout – surveying both Cradle Mountain and Dove Lake – she was overcome with dread and had to be physically restrained.

    But her unrestrained emotion wasn’t exhausted on the mountains; her journals reveal a florid stream of admiration for her host, known as ‘the Dorfer’. She described him as “like a young cedar tree, with a moustache turned skywards the colour Titian raved about in all his pictures; mountain air complexion, eyes, what eyes! They flashed like for lightning on pointed swords…”

    Perhaps her prose might have impressed him; her behaviour, however, did not. Maude and her girlfriends were snowed in at Waldheim; they drank all the whisky and let Gustav’s much-loved dogs loose.

    Gustav’s own journals reveal his feelings. Day by day, the Carpathian host felt his sentiment of Gastfreundschaft dwindling. He wrote: “Just the same – mad!”


     
    Gustav and Kate had their honeymoon on Mt. Roland.

  • 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.

  • Al Qu'ran 17:37

    Al Qu'ran 17:37

    The first Muslims to come to Tasmania were an Indian seaman named Saib Sultan and his wife, whose name is not known to history. Sultan was shipwrecked in 1795 and ended up on Norfolk Island; in 1807, he transferred to Van Diemen’s Land and was awarded 27 acres of land at New Norfolk. He also ended up with the name Jacob.

    Zimran Youram (but one of the many spellings his name went through) was another Indian Muslim who came to Van Diemen’s Land, although through different circumstances. Born in Hyderabad, Zimran went to England for reasons unknown, got in trouble with the law, and was sentenced to transportation in the Third Fleet, arriving on the Atlantic. Like many convicts, though, after acquiring his ticket-of-leave in 1813, Zimran made a radically different life for himself. He acquired 40 acres of land in Norfolk Plains – around what is now Longford – and became a wealthy landowner, most likely growing wheat.

    But Zimran’s life ended violently and tragically. A conspiracy between convict labourers Patrick McDonough and John Jordan to clean Zimran out ended in what a newspaper journalist described as a “systematically planned and cold blooded murder”. Zimran Youram was believed to be in his 89th year of life when he was killed.

    It seems that Zimran ordered some new boots from the 22-year-old Jordan, a shoemaker by trade. Knowing that the old man had a fortune in his house, the thieves tried to drug him, slipping laudanum into his cider. The conspiracy failed. Several further attempts also didn’t come off. Six weeks later, however, on July 6 1848, McDonough belted Zimran Youram with a wrench. They found nearly £50 in total, in various hiding places around the house.

    Upwards of 100 people went to the funeral, and Zimran left everything to a child in Norfolk Plains, 12-year-old William Saltmarsh. It is supposed he did not have a family in Van Diemen’s Land.

    Muslims from Oman, Iraq, Mauritius and South Africa also came to Australia as convicts. Their names almost always disappear from the records. Perhaps they changed them as they assimilated into Australian society, or maybe they managed to return their homelands.

    These days, 900 Muslims are estimated to live in Tasmania – only 0.3% of Australia’s Muslim population.

     
    Trapper William Mullins was also brutally murdered in Mathinna in 1913.

  • The Nant Rebels: Part II

    The Nant Rebels: Part II

    Last week, this column followed the story of Irish rebel John Mitchel, who escaped from Bothwell in Van Diemen’s Land, with the assistance of a man nicknamed ‘Nicaragua’.

    Mitchel had lived at Nant Estate, alongside a fellow Irish political prisoner, John Martin. Today, the estate is the home of an exceptional whisky distillery. It was John Mitchel who noted in his Jail Journals that “Tasmanian honey is the best in the world”. This reporter agrees – but Mitchel would no doubt be shocked to discover that nowadays, Tasmanian whisky is highly-esteemed too, one single-malt batch earning the official epithet “World’s Best” in 2014.

    While Mitchel high-tailed it, he had left his own wife, Jane, and their children high and dry. In the end, they made it back to Ireland.

    Mitchel’s roomie at the Nant cottage, “Honest” John Martin, remained at the estate. No doubt the other Young Irelanders were under heavy suspicion after Mitchel’s brazen escape, but they did not make attempts at escape. And in 1854, they each received a conditional pardon – they were allowed to leave the island, and go wherever they wanted, so long as it wasn’t Ireland.

    John Martin went to Paris, albeit through an incredible overland journey, beginning in Ceylon. And two years later, along with the other Young Irelanders, the British Empire bestowed unconditional pardons upon the rebels. They were free to go back to their home.

    The roommates Martin and Mitchel reunited in Paris in 1859. It had been over six years since Mitchel’s sudden departure. Stories were no doubt bandied around, perhaps flowing more freely with the aid of some liquid lubrication. Reminiscences of their days together at Nant, with its “vast view of endless mountains, covered with wood” may have brought tears to the eyes. Martin would have borne news of the other revolutionaries, all of whom had made it back to the motherland; Mitchel was privy to the political turbulence of America, where he was still a political agitator. Mitchel would fight for the Confederates in the American Civil War, claiming that slavery was “good in itself” and that blacks were inherently inferior to whites.

    They kept in touch, but didn’t meet again until seven years later, in 1866. Perhaps by then, the stories had gotten grander. Their lives were becoming more settled. They were, after all, getting older. And perhaps, amid all the laughter and bluster and exaggeration of their reunion in ’66, there was a serious word, too. For shortly after that rendezvous, John Martin finally became engaged – to wed his old roommate’s sister, sweet Henrietta Mitchel.

    He was 56. The next year, John and Henrietta went to New York, for a magnificent Mitchel-Martin family reunion. Corks popped, and their captivity in beautiful Van Diemen’s Land must have seemed a million lifetimes ago.

    Oddly, the New York Irishman known as “Nicaragua” – journalist P.J. Smyth – had remained in V.D.L. too. In the most unlikely of circumstances, he had fallen in love. It was the New York Irish Directory who had sent him on the mission to free the Young Irelanders, under the guise of employment with the New York Tribune; Nicaragua never went back to New York, though. He met a lass in Hobart by the name of Jeannie Regan, and they got married in the lovely sandstone confines of St Josephs Church, on Macquarie Street.

    Nicaragua and Jeannie returned to Ireland to live out their days.

    And John Martin died aged 62. His honoured widow lived far longer; even longer lived a mysterious lady by the name of Miss Thompson, to whom “Honest John” wrote politically-themed letters over his lifetime. Perhaps the story of Miss Thompson is one even more fascinating – if we only knew it.

  • The Captain's Lover

    The Captain's Lover

    It was one of the most important voyages in history. When the Géographe and Naturaliste returned to France with their cargoes after four years at the bottom of the world, some of the most impressive specimens in natural science arrived in Europe for the first time.

    At the helm was Captain Baudin. He was a passionate man, driven by his desire to chart the Terres Australes before his rival, the English prodigy Matthew Flinders. They had only the one confused meeting at Encounter Bay. Flinders’ navigation had been superior. Whereas Baudin had gone back and forth, and tried to in natural sciences with exploration, the Flinders expedition had run smoothly.

    And aside from this, Baudin’s own men were against him. The roguish Freycinet brothers wryly tried to undermine the skipper’s authority; the petulant zoologist François Péron rewrote Baudin’s own diaries at the end of the expedition, and wrote the expedition’s account to paint Baudin in such unflattering light that Napoleon himself said: “Baudin did well to die; on his return I would have had him hanged.”

    He had died instead of tuberculosis in Mauritius, only a short few months before the voyage concluded in France.

    Péron’s own log takes note of the woman Baudin took as his companion for the latter part of the journey. She was a 17-year-old convict, believed to be a whore, named Mary Beckwith. What did she see of the world in those days? Sentenced to Sydney for simple theft, Mary’s life changed forever when she was surreptitiously spirited away by the French and taken for a ride across the seas. At first it was all adventure, around the coasts of Van Diemen's Land and South Australia; but after Baudin tried to dump her in Timor, she became renowned for drunkenness and for sleeping with numbers of the French sailors on the ship.

    None of this did wonders for Baudin’s reputation.

    Interestingly, it was Baudin’s chief rival who gives us our last piece of information on Mary Beckwith. Shortly after Baudin’s death, Flinders was imprisoned on Mauritius. One day, Baudin’s brother Augustin approached Flinders, apparently asking his advice “concerning the propriety of taking a young woman to India whom his brother had brought hither from Port Jackson”.

    We don’t hear of Mary ever again. It seems likely that she did follow Augustin Baudin to the Tamil lands of India. We can only hope things turned out better for her there.

    Tasmania has plenty of French nomenclature. Explorers Bruni d’Entrecasteaux, Huon de Kermadec and Marion Dufresne are honoured. Biologists (Labillardière), astronomers (Bernier) and mineralogists (Hauy) are remembered in rocky formations, alongside Freycinet and Péron. Baudin has a small (and belatedly-bestowed) mountain named after him.

    I would like to suggest that a memorial to Mary Beckwith would be fitting, should an opportunity present itself.

  • What They Hated

    What They Hated

    Many years ago, it was proposed to make a certain southern hemisphere island a prison colony for the wayward souls of gin-soaked London. It was an idea not without its complications. Ships would lug the new population over the waters of several oceans, before spilling out those grimy contents on the shores of the strange land. They would share the colony not only with horrible rambunctious birds and creatures with pockets in their bellies, but mobs of natives, who had inhabited the place for not a few years, had adapted a culture completely at-odds with those idealised by the Empire, and were not really satisfied about giving the land up to the visitors.

    In short, everyone loathed the new arrangement, save for a few observant folks in London alleyways. But what to do but make a go of it? In the crucible of conflict of every variety, something unique was forged. Half-castes, bushrangers, drunks, piners, explorers, whores, loners, poets and painters, fisherfolk, gardeners, apiarists, brewers and distillers all popped up like mushrooms in black soil. Eclectic and idiosyncratic governments ruled. Much was lost, too much. An eerie peace settled like a gel on the island, limned with absence, heavy with the echoes of 40,000 years of human history. All of it created a new culture, a new topos with new ideas and legends and slang words and ways of falling in love.

    I suppose that all happened a while ago, and these days it's easy to imagine it was always this way. But it wasn't. There was once a time when people arrived in Tasmania and didn't like the food, the songs, the romantic options, the scrubby trees, the ominous mountains, or the bloody fucking birds.

    There are dangerous waters on every side of the south-dwelling island I am writing about, and for most of the people who came here those many years ago, it was a treacherous journey to something about which they had few nice things to say. What they hated, I couldn't love more. And when I think about certain mornings when I have crossed those waters to return home, and seen the coast rise like the crest of a green-and-tan wave, I am pleased to come to what for me is home.

    When my ancestors saw it, their hearts sunk. Mine couldn't be more buoyant.

  • Fram

    Fram

    The triumphant Captain of the Antarctic exploration crew finally disembarked from his vessel, Fram - Norwegian for 'Forward' - and wandered into the obscurity of Hobart Town.

    He was the last one off the ship. The Captain signed his declarations and was obsequiously welcomed to town by the officials. His men all had found the grimy hotels attached to brothels, no doubt, and were probably enjoying themselves and renewing their religious sentiments as he took his first steps out of the port. The Captain would be alone whatever he did. He considered a meal, but had breakfasted late, and heartily. No, what he really wanted was a stiff drink.

    First of all, he booked into a hotel, the Orient Hotel, where he was treated as if he were a tramp, and shunted into a small back-room without windows. The Captain didn’t give himself time to be frustrated. He was thirsty for liquor. It was a little surprising to him just how quickly the urge to drink had come upon him. The Captain thought of one of his men, Johansen, who was a pest and a boozehound, the only one of the crew he couldn’t stand and had no respect for. No doubt he was already wallowing in drunkenness. The Captain figured he better find a better place to drink than one of those seamy wharf bars that sold moonshine and watery beer. He went back out into the street without bothering to bathe or change his clothes. The Captain walked with his head and shoulders lifted high, his spine erect. He seemed to sniff the air with curiosity.

    Just around the corner from the Orient Hotel, he found what he was after. It was a whisky bar: a squat brick building with dark windows wrapped around it. The Captain walked in and was surprised to see it so full at such an early hour. Many of them clearly came from the shipyard, but there were a number of other unlikely characters frequenting the bar. The place was so busy, and so heavily populated with rugged souls, that the Captain entered completely unnoticed, despite his improbable appearance. Unbelievably, there were a number of others in the bar who looked like they too could have been journeying through that frigid desert – youths and women included.

    Later in the day, reports would come from Hobart Town, Tasmania, that Roald Amundsen was the first person in the world to reach the South Pole.

     

    Another famous ship had docked in Hobart nearly a century earlier: the Beagle.

  • The Otago

    The Otago

    Joseph Conrad was an enigmatic man. Born in the landlocked far east of Poland as Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, he became a ship captain, and then one of the most famous names in English literature – even though he only learned the language when he was twenty.

    Joseph Conrad never came to Tasmania, but the first ship he captained did. The Otago was skippered by Conrad from Bangkok to Sydney, and later to Mauritius, then back to Adelaide. Afterwards, though, when Conrad had gone back to Europe, it was purchased as a coal-hauling barge on the Derwent River. Its twenty-six year career ended in demolition.

    Conrad was regarded as a moody skeptic, melancholy and wary of showing emotion, and his bachelorhood was confirmed by moral judgement. “This is not my marriage story,” writes Conrad in his book The Shadow-Line, its plot centred around his commissioning as captain of the Otago. “It wasn’t so bad as that for me.” And yet suddenly, in 1896, aged 38, Conrad went and married an Englishwoman. Jessie George was a young, plain, peasant girl. But they ended up having a sturdy, happy marriage until Conrad died in the 1920s. So go figure.

    The Otago wreck remains on the eastern shore of the Derwent, and is a site of pilgrimage for fans of the taciturn author, who visit the wreck on the date of Conrad’s death, August 3. Common events for Korzeniowski Day, as it is called, involve reciting Polish translations of his work. Nic tak nie nęci, nie rozczarowuje i nie zniewala, jak życie na morzu, they recite from Lord Jim. “There is nothing more enticing, disenchanting, and enslaving than the life at sea.”

  • The Twenty-Seventh Birthday Party of Charles Darwin

    How they loved a party in Hobart Town! As soon as he arrived, on February 5 1836, they told him of a fancy-dress ball that he'd just missed: 113 guests, all in costume. 

    "Well we may as well do something for my birthday," he said.
    "Don’t you worry Mr. Darwin," they informed the young scientist, "we already have something in mind."

    It was a funny place for Charles Darwin to spend such an anniversary and no doubt he remembered it in a strange light, many years on. Hobart was not quite as charming in its aspect as Sydney, Darwin felt, but the climate was damper, and the land was agreeably fertile. Agriculture flourished. The bright yellow of corn cobs and the dark green of potato leaves shone on the banks of the Derwent as Darwin approached. Fruit-trees leaned over the ramshackle houses. It almost resembled some parts of home, wrote Darwin in his notebook. Perhaps one could imagine someday wanting to emigrate there. This colony – all of Australia – shall be one of the jewels of the Empire, a grand centre of civilisation, he scrawled between scientific observations.

    Nevertheless there was disappointment when Darwin joined a party in climbing up Mount Wellington. After it almost defeated him, Darwin labelled it a squat, ugly mountain, and the view from the top was, to him, flat and tame. Cloud and rain besieged them. It wasn’t a wasted day, though. The slopes of the mountain were well-furnished with magnificent fern trees and eucalypts. Darwin made an excellent collection of local insect specimens: over 100. There was not a shortage of geological observations to be made there either: basalt (which surely once flowed as lava), unstratified greenstone deposits, fossiliferous strata, yellow limestone or travertine.

    The Aborigines there, believed Darwin, were a few degrees higher in civilisation than the natives of Tierra de Fuego - for example. Far from being the utterly degraded people they were sometimes described as, they are fine hunters, nimble, more astute than given credit for. But when two races of men meet, they do so like two different animal species – it is a deadly struggle, and contact between these varieties inevitably conclude with the stronger pinning down the weaker. Such would be the case, he predicted, in Van Diemen’s Land.

     But the party was wonderful! There were a number of distinguished guests, all impeccably attired; one could expect nothing more even in England. The finest classical music was played for entertainment. There were several quite beautiful women in the colony, and their dancing was something to behold - as it was with ladies in all of the Empire.

    'This voyage has been by far the most important event of my whole life,' wrote Charles Darwin on board the Beagle, as he was leaving two weeks later.