Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged west coast

  • Confluences

    Confluences

    At some point, when you take the Lyell Highway, you hit a sudden wall of water, a thick sheet of rain that comes belting against your windscreen. It happens every time. Last week, I met it shortly after the King William Range was behind me, as I entered the tenebrous green rainforest; I slithered down the hairpins throughout it, but the weather cleared up by the made it further west, and I could speed towards the bulk of the mineral mountains of the west coast, from which Queenstown is made.

    Later, from the windows of my quarters for the weekend, I saw a beautiful afternoon spread out before me. I had been given a room in the old nurses’ accommodation, which is currently being renovated into a hotel of sorts. It was a splendidly quirky establishment, with an equally genial and eccentric host, and perched on one of Queenie’s various hills, it gave a good perspective on the diverse moods that seize that town so suddenly.

    I was out there for a festival called the Unconformity. To those who do not know geology, the name may seem a bit artificial, somewhat forced; but aside from allusions to outsider behaviour, the word ‘unconformity’ refers to a situation in which two different strata of geology stand side-by-side, two eras of rock formation forced next to one another. The west coast is notoriously non-conformist, yes, but it is also made up of jarring elements of landscape, barren rock and thriving rainforest, industrial wealth and impoverished soils, booms and busts, fires and floods. 

    I was working at the festival; throughout it, my role allowed me to wander off-site several times, going with groups down to this spot, the confluence of the King and Queen rivers. This is a special spot, and I was happy to return to it. I would hover around listening to the interpretations of two experts in western Tasmanian natural history: they gave a concise explanation of the botany, the geology, and the hydrology of the region.

    The dark King River runs uncontaminated out of a high range of dolerite mountains further to the north; but here it picks up the poisoned Queen, a dead river, devastated by the run-off from the old copper mine, so laden with heavy metals that it may be a millennium before it’s healthy again. Yet around us, myrtles towered and huon pines hung with their foliage just above the water. More unconforming ecosystems – what could be more jarring than the near presence of both life and death?

    Later, of course, I played the footy match on Queenstown’s infamous field. Its surface is gravel; few participants emerge without shedding a bit of bark, as they say. As usual, I kicked waywardly, ran a lot, drank a beer during the match, smirked at opposition players and cursed the umpire – and as usual, my team lost.

    Mostly, during a footy match, you are in the moment; but every so often, you get a chance to contextualise yourself. You see the rough mountains around you. You identify your mates on the field with you, and you realise that these liquid events are already firming up into stone-like memory. That though much dissolves in your life, some trace elements will remain. 

    At one point or another, after the footy and in the final hours of the festival – while we were still all together, before taking off on our long road trips towards homes afterwards – it became clear that, however briefly, we had been a part of something irrevocable in the history of the area.

  • 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.

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

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

    Tasmania’s west is notoriously difficult. Visitors today will still swoon over the tangle of greenery, the rivers running black and cold, and the tortured quartzite mountains that rise in irrepressible ranges throughout this quadrant of the island.

    Two handsome highways sweep towards the west coast: the Murchison from the north, and the Lyell from the south. These roads are wonders, bending and careering, crossing major rivers, combating mountainsides and gorges, and squeezing between stands of those infamous rainforest species with their roots and branches ready to ensnare.

    So these days, to go west from Launceston or from Hobart is to drive for a bit over three hours, on well-sealed and well-engineered roads. A traveller can stop in Tullah or Tarraleah for a coffee. They need only wonder, as I can find easily on the webpage of an online travel agency, “Strahan: Is it worth the drive and what to see…?”

    She wasn’t always so easy. The west was hard to access for more than a century after the British made their permanent camps here, with journeys by sea the most common way to get there – upon a rough sea, naturally, along hazardous coastline. But there was timber there, and later, mineral colour. There were economic motivations to make access to the western regions easier.

    Enter a man named Thomas Bather Moore, born in the village of New Norfolk, west of Hobart, in 1850. Whilst in his 20s, he began investigating mining possibilities in areas around Mount Bischoff, Mount Heemskirk, and the Linda Valley – in short, all the mineral hotspots of Tasmania in the late 1800s. He would explore the South Coast track and blazed the Linda Track, which the Lyell Highway essentially follows today. In fact, many locals were miffed that this highway never bore the name of Moore.

    A bushman must be skilled in multiple fields, and to become known as King of the West Coast explorers, you’d probably have to be good at quite a lot. T.B. Moore was different to a lot of other bushmen in that he was educated, and at a British school no less. He observed the effects of glaciation on west coast ranges and obtained fossil samples for further study. He was also a skilled amateur botanist, collecting specimens of mosses, liverworts, ferns and other plants for foremost scientists. Two species are named in his honour: Actinotus moorei and Coprosma moorei.

    Tom Moore was hardy. He humped a heavy pack, often for more than 30 kilometres in a day, whilst contending with rough terrain and tough conditions. Regularly he went hungry, and sometimes found himself in dire straits. Once, Moore had to crushed clay and smoke it as a placebo to alleviate his tobacco addiction. Although he travelled with his brother James for a while, he often went alone – although he always travelled with dogs. Three canine companions appear in his biography: Wanderer, Spero, and Spiro. Each of these has a river named after it in western Tasmania.

    His relationships with others is harder to assess. To those who worked under him in on government track-cutting expeditions, T.B. Moore was a harsh authoritarian. It is said that his solitary manner adversely affected some members of his family, and, when his bushing days were over, that he resorted to hard drink. Moore kept a diary, in which he “rarely mentioned loneliness”, even when he went months at a time away from others; yet when he did stumble back into towns, such as when he shocked the proprietor of the Picnic Hotel in Huonville after five months in the bush, he was considered good company.

    We must spare a thought for his wife, Mary (born Jane Mary Solly: there is a Solly River in the southwest too), for whom months passed without knowing her husband’s whereabouts or fate. In 1901, after having not heard from Tom for nearly six months, she wrote to his supervisor. “I am afraid you will think me a nuisance but I cannot help writing,” she signed off.

    He was simply behind schedule. Meanwhile, Mary was in Strahan, hoping he had not perished like so many others in a dark corner of the contiguous forest.

    The Moores had chosen to settle at this west coast port, shortly after its first stores and hotels had gone up. Tom would exchange postcards with his children whilst the work in the bush was progressing. “My dear dad How are you getting on in the bush,” wrote school-age son Cliffe, who would later be seriously wounded in the Great War. To his daughters Molly and Grace, Tom sent photographs of a hut and a river, “so you can picture Dad in the bush now that he is leaving all that is dear & delightful.”

    T.B. Moore would wind up in Strahan for his final years, working in the mine office at nearby Queenstown. He was laid to rest here by the waters of Macquarie Harbour, as were his wishes. “His reward in money was scanty,” an obituary reads, “but in the deepest sense of life he was eminently successful.”


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

  • Drawing Closer

    Drawing Closer

    It was once said that the Aboriginal Tasmanians would come to the west coast, look out over the moiling sea, and imagine a country in that direction known as the “Land of Sweet Forget”.

    Whatever the veracity of this legend is, when I found myself on the west coast just before the turn of the year, I discovered not some longing for amnesia but rather a heightened sense of memory. I was, in fact, caught in a sticky morass of reminiscence, as I thought of all of those whose existence is part of the structure that had made my year, and in fact my life.

    Interestingly, after a year in which I almost entirely failed to leave Tasmania, I still find that my days are deeply affected by those elsewhere. It may seem incredible that Turkish bomb blasts should disturb me in Triabunna, or that Donald Trump’s election would ruffle my feathers at Lake St. Clair, but this is how it was.

    And likewise, out on the west coast, after I’d coaxed a fire out of damp tea-tree and eucalypt, I found old friends returning to me, incorporeal like smoke or sea-spray.

    I could list them all here: the Spaniard teaching maths in a Bristol classroom, the
    lovely young cynic I met a decade ago in northern California, the Brazilian lesbian labouring on a newspaper, the placeless Dutch lady with the fair eyelashes…But as a list they make for futile literature, whereas in my head they are able to interact, like figures with volition, same as those who populate a proper city. In my head, there is a world.

    After forays into this world, I retreat back to its margins. At least that’s how I presume it looks to those who come from the cultural and economic centres of the Earth: the nouveaux-riches in India or China, those who watch themselves on television in Los Angeles, the colonial capitals of London or Paris, or those from the middle of the world: the Mediterranean or the Middle East.

    What they will have trouble understanding is that for me, this is being smack-bang in the middle of things.

    At one point I found myself remonstrating with a fairy-wren, who I had accused of stealing a very significant item of mine. This was a petite teaspoon, which I pinched from the side of my café noisette in a Parisian bar one night. Yes, I found the teaspoon somewhere amongst my camping equipment – and duly apologised to the fairy-wren – but it goes to show how much value I place on memory.

    And how strangely, instead of being keenly aware of how remote I am from many whose lives I care about, I somehow feel as if they’re drawing closer.



    This time last year, I was on Tassie's east coast, exploring the meaning of fish.

  • The Embedded Town

    The Embedded Town

    So many years, so many eyes, so much terrain: the search for Tasmania’s mineral wealth was an odyssey that spanned much of the 1800s. In the latter decades of that century, ragtag crews of raggedy men were measuring and pegging claims, and scratching for riches in the surface of the earth.

    When the wealth finally appeared on the island’s west coast, it wasn’t as expected.

    Traces of gold appeared at an alluvial claim on a mountain above the Queen River, and optimism rose to unprecedented levels. “Everyone who saw the ironstone, matted with fine gold that glistened after showers of rain, was impressed with the mine,” notes historian Geoffrey Blainey. The government geologist Gustav Thureau – who was not always right – rattled off his theory on the mine, describing it as eroding volcanic mud at last shedding its gold and sharing it with men. “Begorrah!” the soon-to-be-famous Irish miner James Crotty is said to have exclaimed, “It’s all gold, I tell you!”

    But it wasn’t. It was mostly something else, in fact, and the Mount Lyell mine became the richest copper mine in its day. The mine managers recruited an American metallurgist from the fields of Colorado and employed him to erect his innovative system of smelting to extract as much copper from Lyell to sell to the world.

    Among the handful of towns which appeared in a cluster around the generous geology of Mount Lyell, none compared to Queenstown. “No Tasmanian town had grown so rapidly,” according to Blainey, who was later commissioned to write a history of Mount Lyell. There were pubs galore; vibrant displays of entertainment visited the area frequently; unforgettable characters spilled out onto the streets.

    In Queenstown today, the brilliantly eccentric Galley Museum gives anecdotes on the experiences of those glory days. A snapshot of the neighbouring miners’ town of Gormanston in 1910 is accompanied by this caption: “Miners and their lovers were having a hell of a good time. Young married miners and their wife battling to get a home together and flat out producing babys.”

    But the humour of this note hints at the tremendous tragedy that was just around the corner for the Lyell community in 1912, when an entire shift of miners was trapped in the depths of a shaft. While many escaped, 42 men perished. Beyond the fatalities, the community was distraught. While bodies were trapped in the shaft, so too were families stuck in a state of unknowing.

    A photograph in the Galley shows a large crowd milling around the newsagency of A.A. Mylan, on Orr Street, trying to discover the latest news. “Women showed bravery,” a newspaper article reported during this distressing period, “but there were many sobbing...How long must we wait to know the worst was a pathetic question asked by many.”

    It was eight whole months before the last bodies could be retrieved from the mine.

    Most of these women would indeed discover their beloved was among the deceased. Louisa Scott, for example, would soon face the reality of having lost her young husband Leonard, the father of their six-week-old daughter Violet.

    Eugene Felix McCasland, whose family was back in New South Wales, had become engaged to a young lass in the Linda Valley; for the funeral of her betrothed, she made a shroud of brown material, with a white cross over the chest.

    Other men had only their mates to mourn them – like the Austrian-born Valentine Bianchini, who had time to write a will in his notebook before dying.

    Henry Dawson was one of the survivors, but had been trapped for five days: he didn’t return to mining, but instead moved to Melbourne and married a city girl. Unfortunately only a couple of years later, he was killed on a Flanders battlefield.

    Mount Lyell’s longevity is comparable to few other mines in Australia. Only a handful of years ago, two more young men died in a collapse there, however, once more leaving the local community shattered. The Mount Lyell mine is currently closed.

    “Mining towns are ephemeral by nature – as elusive as the minerals they pursue,” writes Tasmanian novelist Brett Martin. “There is no continuity, no history, no real confidence in the future...Nothing is embedded, nothing is certain.”

    But this impressive community has yet to give up its resolve; here in the wet and misty west, Queenstown remains where so many other towns have gone to ruin. Attached to a part of the world that is like no other, the people of Queenstown are adapting again to varying conditions, each of which is far from easy.