Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged work

  • Track Work

    Track Work

    Incredibly, I am writing this from a bushwalkers’ hut on the Tasman Peninsula. The Three Capes track has now been open for a bit over a year, after five years of track construction, and over a decade since it was conceived by the Parks and Wildlife Service of Tasmania.

    The stonework and boardwalk of the track is not insignificant. In areas, it is beautiful. It is the result of hard labour, and a stunning amount of money. But it is perceived as an investment: walkers who wind up on this track and spend four days wandering this end of the Tasman Peninsula pay a fee that is not insubstantial. Recreational bushwalking is part of the mosaic of eco-tourism “products” that the Tasmanian economy is increasingly reliant upon. It is hard to believe that the Three Capes walk won’t be a roaring success.

    The track wends its way through a sclerophyll forest, its species adapted to dolerite soils – this igneous rock provides the spectacular nature of the coastline, high columnar cliffs that tower over the sea. An array of eucalypts, hakias, banksias and casuarinas sprout from the dusty dirt, habitat and home to various marsupials, birds, bats and creepy-crawlies. This is the bush – one aspect of it at least – and it is beautiful.

    Tracks facilitate human movement; they have existed in Tasmania for millennia. Presumably, the first humans who made a foot-pad through the landscape borrowed their ways of passage from the animals who had come before them. Wombats make obvious clearings through heath country; the native broad-toothed mouse chews runways through the moorlands. Colonial arrivals in the early 1800s found Aboriginal tracks in each quarter of the island, and often followed them. These later became the major vehicular roads of the island.

    The cutting and laying of track, of course, inhibits the natural growth of vegetation. But tracks often go easily disappearing into scrub: the prospectors’ ways on the west coast are overgrown with rainforest. Other courses have gone in bushfires. Parts of at least one hill country route are submerged under a dam. The stone paths of the Three Capes won’t easily vanish, but should bushwalking go the way of (say) the construction of hydro dams or various mines, disuse would remove their smoothness. The sclerophyll would happily form a tangle over them. We would need old maps to follow them.

    Some of my mates work as track-builders. Their work is strenuous, and they are usually stationed in remote environs. They often rough it. They love it. They are intimate with their materials: stone chafes the skin of hands, timber is known by grain and knot. In their work, they follow the track-cutters and builders of two centuries. Alexander McKay was well-known as the vanguard for many significant colonial expeditions. Jorgen Jorgenson went into the scrub wielding a cutlass.

    You find tracks in urban areas as well. These are often unofficial by-ways, known to urban planners as ‘desire trails’. This alluring term simply signifies that the concreted footpaths in parks or edgelands aren’t the most efficient route for pedestrians: they trample a new path across grass, getting from one place to another.

    Tracks, of course, are all about desire. Aboriginal tracks led to places that were significant to them, such as ochre quarries. Why do people freely choose to walk the Overland Track or the Three Capes? They are searching for beauty, or for a certain sensation that seems to come with being on hoof and independent. Economies are constructed around desires. With that come tracks that are, in fact, ruthlessly practical.

    Which leads me to the metaphorical meaning of a track. It is not uncommon to perceive ourselves on a network of pathways through the amorphous nebula of all that life could be. We string together tracks, often mapless, assuming we are on the route we ought to take. Frequently these tracks are interrupted – let’s say, playfully, that they land us in some of Tasmania’s notorious horizontal scrub – but a track appears in its midst, leading us elsewhere. Sometimes it begins as a faint pad, but soon, we find it gets wider, that it firms up, and that it will bear us for a few kilometres, a few years, before some other way emerges.

    Or perhaps a series of ways emerge, and you have to make a choice. I sit in a hut on the Three Capes Track, as a pademelon nibbles on the sedge outside the door. In two weeks, I am leaving this island. I am going somewhere far from the dolerite endemics of the Tasman Peninsula, far from the landscapes I know from the high country by Cradle Mountain, far from the wet west coast and its wealth of history, far from my home and my family and the rivers and cliffs to which my kin has belonged for 150 years now.

    It is good luck to have myriad tracks before you. It will be great sorrow to someday look back and know that so many tracks have been left behind, that they are smothered with vegetation, and that they are no longer accessible. Now I am moving from metaphor to cliché, but so it is.

  • Confessions of a Bushwalking Guide

    Confessions of a Bushwalking Guide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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


  • It Began Here with John and Jemima

    It Began Here with John and Jemima

    In Bodney, England, in 1828, William and Judith gave birth to their son John.

    In 1845 John himself got married, to a lovely lass named Jemima King. They were both still teenagers. He was a farm labourer.

    After John and Jemima had been married for a decade or so, they were approached by the Launceston Immigration Aid Society, and recruited to move to Tasmania. They arrived on the Southern Eagle in 1857, and relocated their lives to the coastal hamlet of Penguin. With them, they brought their infant daughter, Caroline. In 1860, they had a son, Charles.

    Upon arrival, John armed himself with an axe and a cross-cut saw, and with no capital, cleared the dense wet sclerophyll forest of scrub and trees. For the bigger trees, the method of ring-barking was used. As the land was cleared, he began to build a home. Floorboards were adzed; furniture was home-made; candles of tallow were made for artificial light, and they had a fishy reek when extinguished. It was hard work, and a life with few comforts.

    Flour shortages were common. It was delivered on occasion by sailing craft from north coast towns, but once as it was being put ashore, the boat overturned and spoiled the product. Normally a draught horse brought it in from Forth, through the labyrinthine forest. If the flour supplies ran short, what remained was shared among the whole community to the last pound. Housewives made the bread in camp ovens; bachelors made damper, cooked in ashes.

    The new settlers grew oats and potatoes. As soon as the cleared land had enough grass covering, a cow was purchased. Gradually berry bushes and fruit trees gave produce. Meat was mostly wallaby and parrots; those on the coast fished. When they needed something they couldn’t grow, and once the Leven River was bridged, the women would walk to a store at Forth, a few miles away.

    The daughter Caroline met a young man with the fine name of James Sushames, originally of Caston, England, who arrived to Tasmania on the Whirlwind. They got married and had a son.

    Charles fell in love too, with a girl named Rachel Ling. They had eight children and raised them in Penguin. Six were sons. As these children grew up, a flour mill was built at nearby Sulphur Creek. The first churches were built, and a teacher arrived, Miss Neligan. By the mid-1870s, there was a general store.

    The youngest of these eight children, Leslie, preferred to go by his middle name, which was Herbert. He was born in 1899. In his late teens, he got a job delivering bread and milk; he would go around town in a horse and dray. His son, Vivian, would remember being taken to school in this vehicle. Herbert played footy at the local club, for the Penguin Two-Blues. He was also a bass baritone singer and sung at the Methodist church sometimes.

    Herbert Spinks and family moved to Launceston for a job at a wool factory. Herbert’s son Vivian fought in World War II. Vivian’s son Martin matriculated and built a white collar career. Martin’s son is the author of this article. I went up to Penguin the other week. These days, there is little clearing left to be done; flour comes from the local supermarket, along with a variety of pre-prepared products made from it; the parrots are largely left uneaten, although they exist in much smaller quantities. Coffee drinkers can satisfy their urges at several cafeterias, and an afternoon beer is available at the Neptune Hotel.

    Once this was pretty coastal town was covered in dense bush. Now, there's a grubby backpackers' hostel on its main road. We do not well understand the hardships and labours of the people who came before us. “With a low standard of living, few amenities, and little security, to win a bare living they worked from daylight to dark,” wrote local historian A.O. Barker. “For little return they toiled and we are reaping – as future generations will reap – the profit of their toil.”

     
    There are more stories about Herbert Spinks and the Penguin Two-Blues here.

  • Melbourne Vandemonians

    Melbourne Vandemonians

    This is Melbourne: the home of handsome hipsters, the world's best coffee, and the world's best sport. It was here that some of the most important labour laws, such as the 8-hour work day, were first passed. 

    Geography buffs will recognise that Melbourne is not, in fact, in Tasmania, the place that these histories are centred around. But what not so many people know is that Melbourne was founded by squatters and speculators from that island at the bottom of the world, which was then called Van Diemen's Land.

    The area was first attempted as a settlement in 1803, but it was abandoned for Van Diemen's Land within three months. For three decades, only one colonial rogue remained, the escapee William Buckley, lived among the Aborigines. However, in the 1830s, an enterprising spirit compelled a group of investors, bankers and graziers to scheme and settle the banks of the Yarra River, raising sheep for wool, and paying not a dime for their land grab.

    John Batman, their ringleader, made some sort of deal with the local clan, the Wurundjeri. He traded an assortment of tools and clothing for nearly 2500km2 of land. The legitimacy of the treaty is questionable, but nevertheless, Batmania had been founded. (I shit you not: that was its name.)

    Waves of settlers came from Van Diemen's Land. Many of them were ex-convicts on their tickets of leave. They came for work, and later for gold, but mostly to avoid the stigma of being an ex-convict. It often didn't work. They said you could tell the Vandemonians from their faces, from prison tattoos, from their lack of manners. They left Van Diemen's Land in the thousands. And in the end, they passed a law banning these migrant Vandemonians from crossing the Bass Strait; if Vandemonians were caught arriving in Melbourne, they were locked up.

    Some managed to make land, change their names, and make a new life for themselves. Hundreds of them died in institutions in Melbourne.