Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged weather

  • Septembers

    Septembers

    I could hear the snow, like the impossibly soft paws of mythical possums scuffling on the roof.

    It was September in southern Tasmania. I’d been sliding upon all sorts of roads, scraping my crappy car along gravel tracks. No wonder it died later that summer. But now I had left the car at the bend and taken a more reliable form of transport, my own two legs. I had taken a short walk along a marked track, and then veered off, through scrub, along a rough footpad of dirt and pineapple grass, following occasional cairns of short stature. 

    In my backpack I had only the bare necessities: a sleeping-bag, a sleeping mat, my billy, some bread and chocolate and cheese, a comic novel, and some warm clothes.

    I lowered myself down an outcrop and glimpsed the hut only moments before I came upon its door. In terms of colour, it is well-camouflaged – another shade in a palette of exquisite greys, from weathered dolerite to snow peppermint trunks. It is the foreign angle which makes it stand out, an a-frame of corrugated iron in amongst the bending trees and polymorphous boulders.

    I could see a fair wedge of Hobart, a panorama only occasionally obstructed by eucalypt branches. It’s a beautiful city, clinging mostly to the waters of the Derwent estuary, running up the gullies of forested foothills without uniformity. Southern Tasmania is mostly water; the land is largely made up of peninsula and isthmus, in often blonde tints offset against marine tones.

    The Derwent is a montigenous river that turns, somewhere, into the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, which later empties into the Southern Ocean. Several other rivers do the same, galloping down from the mountains north and west, riving the land, offering fertility to the valleys, hinting at the country’s wintry history. The surfeit of water before me in turn reminded me of the surplus of mountains at my back: from another secret spot nearby, I might have looked west, where the sky’s vastness would be reduced to a thin band of off-yellow, squashed by iron-coloured cloud.

    The mountain silhouettes would be bold in that gloom, black and bleak, and beckoning. For such spectacular geographies often bring out the more audacious aspects in us.

    Septembers always make me reminisce. It is from September that I take my measurements. Perhaps you’ll recognise the sort of things: who was I then, who am I now? In which ways am I diminished and what within me has grown? What matters to me today that wasn’t significant then? What metamorphosis is taking place today?

    Then I was wondering what I would do with my spring and summer. I was curious about where to live, how to earn my money. Such scrutiny is one part of life. But sometimes it is overcome by spontaneity, like a swift change of weather. That evening, when light turned so grey I couldn’t read any longer, I climbed up into the loft of the mountain hut, stretched out on the bunk, and listened to the eucalypts bend and reach in a southerly – as if they ached, they yearned.

    But then there was the snow, the quiet white flurry of possum-ideas. I took a deep breath and made a decision on the spot. When I woke, I broke the fresh white clumps all over the heath. A decision had been made.

    That was a year ago though, and the decisions of that season are due to be revised.

  • Winter Customs

    Winter Customs

    There are those who hate winter in Tasmania. It is, they say, too cold, or too wet, or too windy, or too dark. It is as bleak as Siberia. It is the most depressing place on Earth.

    But there are others who cherish these days when the sky hangs low like a big-bellied whale over the towns, and some days the mountains rise like white-capped waves. It is good, they contend, to see the grass turn bright green, to don the thick woollen socks and down jackets, to feel frost crunch beneath your feet, to smell the spice of woodsmoke in the air and to sit by the fire yourself with a cosy over the teapot.

    The change in weather is a chance to cultivate new habits. Some of them are idiosyncratic: one gentleman I know takes to boiling eggs on winter mornings and putting them in his pockets as he walks to his place of vocation so they warm his hands.

    Other customs may seem familiar. For instance, one winter when I was short of money, I spent my spare hours scrounging around for good firewood. And on those crisp, starry nights when the weather has cleared but the air is still cold, I would feed sticks and logs into my pot-bellied stove and sit around it with an Irish coffee, sometimes with friends, watching the embers pulsate like melting caramel and tinkling like thin glass cracking in the changing temperature.

    And we should not forget that for thousands of years, this is what people have done in Tasmania during the months of June, July and August, these lunar cycles when the night seems to have more strength than day, when it is cold and wet and windy and dark, and Rowra hovers in the silhouettes of the eucalypts just beyond the room of firelight.

    Yes, for millennia, Tasmanians have had their rituals, their customs, their diets, their ideas, their politics and their dreams flex and change with the weather.

    So as you wipe the hoar off your car window, get a soup going in the slow-cooker, pull out your stripy longjohns, or invite the girl you flirted with all summer over to watch a movie on your laptop beneath a patchy quilt, remember that these details are part of what it is to be a human being in your time and your place. And that though customs have changed dramatically, at times with violence and force, the little behaviours that you share with your contemporaries are significant, full of memory and therefore full of meaning.

    Even the boiled egg hand-warmers. (They will end up in an Ethnographic Museum sometime, somewhere.)

    Perhaps in these months you will look out your window and see the European trees that have dropped all their leaves, and it will makes you feel something of a sense of loss.

    Perhaps you will stand over the Liffey or the Clyde in full flow, and know the trout are spawning, and feel hopeful for what is next, maybe even to the point of impatience.

    Perhaps you will see snow on Mount Wellington or Ben Lomond and long to feel the mist clinging to your hair and your shoes fill up with slush.

    Whatever it is you do and feel from now until the wattles are in blossom, this is the Tasmanian winter to which you belong.

  • An Inhospitable Mountain

    An Inhospitable Mountain

    After World War I, recreational bushwalking experienced a boom in Tasmania, enhanced by those who kept walking journals during this era. From these pages comes a plethora of captivating local characters. One such man is Keith Ernest Lancaster.

    Born in Penguin in 1910, Keith moved to Launceston as a young man and using the northern city as a base, began a 65-year-long career on hoof in Tasmania’s wild places.

    Beginning his note-taking in 1932, Keith wrote a charming preface to his first journeys by describing his accounts of trips as containing “a full, comprehensive and accurate description of the adventures of myself whilst mountaineering in the Tasmanian highlands.” He lamented his lack of expertise in botany, geology or biology, but remained confident that companions would fill in a number of these gaps – especially his long-time cobber, Jeff Yates.

    The earlier mountaineering adventures accounted for take place mostly in the Great Western Tiers – upon peaks such as Drys Bluff, Quamby Bluff and Ironstone Mountain – or to the northern mountains of Mt Barrow or Ben Lomond.

    In fact, five reports from Ben Lomond come in the years between 1931 and 1937. The first was a successful ascent of Legges Tor, Tasmania’s second-highest summit at 1572m (5162ft in Lancaster’s measure), on a sultry November day. However, Stacks Bluff, at the southern end of the mountain’s massif, rebuffed Lancaster and Yates thrice before they finally made the ‘conquest’ in 1937.

    In those earlier expeditions, Stacks Bluff – originally known as the Butts by settlers, while the entire mountain was known by the local Aboriginal population as toorbunna – was described by Keith as ‘inhospitable’ and ‘uninviting’.

    Bicycling out from the suburb of Newstead on their first attempt in autumn 1932, Lancaster and Yates were drenched; they had hoped to spend their first night in a trappers’ hut at the rough settlement of Englishtown, at the base of the mountain, only to find it was burned down, with only a stone wall remaining. Overflowed creeks and tough conditions forced them to turn back after three days of approaching the peak.

    They returned in winter two years later. Once again, worsening weather brought their best efforts to a conclusion. “Our attire was somewhat dampened, our spirits even more so,” Keith’s journal reads.

    Alone, Keith had another go at the bluff in 1834, on September 25. Upon departure, the weather “seemed ideal for the project” – tranquil blue skies were above as they cycled out of town. He noted that he had made record time in arriving to Englishtown: two-and-a-half hours from Launceston. The weather remained fine for Day Two as he made a transmontane route across the massif – until the evening. Wild winds and consistent rain afforded Lancaster no sleep, and the young man awoke on his third day to discover that the river had risen. Once more, he had been forced to retreat.

    “Stacks Bluff at last” is the title of Keith Lancaster’s entry for their 1937-38 success on the mountain. They – “the usual company” – made a reconnaissance trip in December 1937, from which they discovered an access point other than Englishtown that would make their ascent easier. Returning on January 29, 1938, they had another stroke of luck: a shepherd and his family gave further intelligence on the area, and loaned blankets and chaff bags to the bushwalkers. At 10:50a.m. the next day, Keith wrote, “we were able to add this lofty eminence to our list of mountaineering achievements”.

    They spent nearly three hours taking in the immense vista. That evening, over a simple meal, Lancaster and Yates looked back “at the jagged contour of Stack’s Bluff”, as the setting sun changed the pillars’ colour from grey-blue to “a lurid red”.

    These days, Stacks Bluff is normally ascended from the south; a rough 4WD track leads from the ex-mining town of Storys Creek, soon becoming a marked and cairned path over dolerite scree. The summit can now be ascended in about three hours. But wise mountaineers will still take their time at the top, and savour the view, and the tremendous experience of freedom.

     
    Read here for reflections on bushwalking with mates around Lake Rhona.

  • Flirting With the Frosty-Faces

    Flirting With the Frosty-Faces

    Even prior to becoming the first chief of Tasmania’s tourist bureau, Evelyn Temple Emmett spent much time walking around the island, and occasionally headed interstate to give talks about it, or received international delegations to the state. He was a fine ballroom-dancer and skiier. In 1931, aged 60, Mr. Emmett was a leader of the inaugural party to ever complete the now-famous Overland Track. On his way there, he passed through the town of Deloraine – arriving in his favourite mode of transport, on hoof.

    Mr. Emmett was very fond of Deloraine. He thought it was high on the list of the prettiest towns he’d ever come upon, and marvelled at the Old World trees along the river and the church spires reaching into the sky, streets and roads stretching up hills and around bends. Above the town, the Great Western Tiers stood majestically. Mr. Emmett would later summit the nearby peak of Quambys Bluff.

    “The only criticism I can make of Deloraine is that it is cold in winter and knows what frosts are,” Mr. Emmett said, strolling into town early one morning and feeling the sting of the cold on his face. But even of that grim cloud he found a silver lining. For there, on the banks of the Meander River, was a sight perhaps even better than that of the quaint town or the view from the Tiers: three charming lasses.

    “Stop!” Mr. Emmett cried to the young women. “Please; for I want to pay Deloraine a compliment through you.” And so they came to him, and Mr. Emmett explained how wonderful their complexions were, no doubt thanks to the cool air of Deloraine; and how, somewhere like Sydney, young women would pay £5 per square inch of whatever stuff might give them such a fine appearance as these locals of the Meander Valley had.

    Mr. Emmett finished his flattering speech with a flourish and a broad smile; and finally, letting the lasses have their chance to respond, he found them giggling hysterically.

    “Thank-you sir,” one of them finally said, “but we only arrived yesterday to this hole of a place, from Sydney, and we bought our complexions with us.”

    “The Deloraine frosts have nothing on our George Street chemist!” another chimed in.

    Nevertheless, good humour was retained amongst the group. Mr. Emmett took the young women out for breakfast. And they all went out to the races together, for which purpose the girls had come down from Sydney. It was a splendid day out, and after the morning’s events, laughter was easy to come by.

    The girls went back to Sydney and Mr. Emmett never saw them again. But returning home from his Overland Track adventures, he found a package at his house, bearing a postmark from Sydney. It was a little packet of powder. “For your wife if you have one,” the typewritten message read. “From the Three Frosty-Faces.”


     

    Another great journeyman on foot was Henry Reading, who made an almighty stroll from Hobart to Launceston.

  • A Short History of Shitty Weather in Northern Tasmania

    A Short History of Shitty Weather in Northern Tasmania

    I heard folks say that the weather in the north of Tasmania last week was worst in living memory. Is there no-one left to remember the 1929 floods?

    The rain started on Wednesday, and went on for three days. In that time, Burnie and Ulverstone recorded 500mm of rainfall; in one day, Mathinna copped 337mm.

    On Friday, April 5, 1929, Launceston was abuzz. The Examiner’s printing presses were employed in publishing single-page evacuation instructions. Both ends of the Esk River were rushing at an alarming speed. Chooks, horses, and even pianos were seen floating around the city’s streets and parks. And then, as evening fell, the power station at Duck Reach was washed out, plunging the city into darkness.

    The evacuations began at 2a.m. The working-class suburb of Invermay was on the way to becoming an island; thousands of residents there had to be taken to higher grounds, sleeping in churches and schools in other parts of Launceston.

    Most of the casualties happened outside of Launceston, the biggest town in the north. A truck carrying eight passengers was swept off a bridge in Ulverstone. Fourteen people died when a newly-built dam in the north-east of the island collapsed.

    When they woke up, the people of northern Tasmania woke up to scenes of destruction. In every town, road and rail bridges had been knocked down thousands of tonnes of moving water. 5000 people were left homeless; the Launceston Bowls Club had lost their building; the Tamar Rowing Club lost most of its boats.

    It was the middle of a global recession; between 1928 and 1933, Launceston’s total trade decreased by 29%. Banks wouldn’t loan money to restore lost savings; it took more than a decade for the town to fully recover, and by that point, World War II had begun.

    But that morning, as the rain stopped, and the river-water lazily sat above the levels of its banks, slowly subsiding in the streets, there was – I suspect – an eerie sensation of peace.

    Down in St. Mary’s, a baby was crying. He’d been born overnight, in a truck. His parents would later tell him that he wasn’t born, but rather, he’d been swept in by the rushing rivers.