Tassie#4: Greenies and loggers

IMG_0207This is a greenie. You can tell. It’s the cunning alignment of the tailfeathers as much as anything. You should have seen the flight.

And this, the Macquarie Harbour end of the Gordon, is the sort of thing they like.


What’s there? Nothing.

IMG_0146But we come to Corinna across the Pieman River via human interpolation, a ferry. Although we hadn’t been there before, Corinna (the Aboriginal word for a young Tasmanian tiger, now as far as anyone knows extinct) has been here for a while. In 1883, the largest nugget of gold ever discovered in Tasmania (7.5 kgs) was found at nearby Rocky River producing a flurry of mostly disappointed activity, although 30,000 ounces of gold were taken out.

The Government Surveyor’s Report on the area in 1884 commented that: ‘These creeks have yielded some gold, but as the scrub is so excessively dense and almost impossible to penetrate, the results of the prospectors’ labours have up to the present time remained an unsolved problem to a very considerable extent.’ My father notes in the pages he wrote so admiringly about the west coast forest, There are many miles along the majestic Gordon River where it is impossible to land without cutting a place with an axe, and where you cannot continue without further cutting. Later, the Pieman River became a hunting ground for the Huon pine which grew along its banks. It isn’t found north of here.

But now, and I quote from the brochure for the Wilderness Lodge where we stayed, ‘at Corinna, nature is the hero. The owners are committed to providing responsible access to the pristine wilderness and operating a sustainable and carbon neutral experience for visitors.’ That’s us. That’s what we like, and for a few days we plundered its considerable treasures.


We saw this rainbow kingfisher on the Whyte River walk, a chest stuffed full of gentle treats, one after the other, although I did hear another visitor say that it was hardly worth the bother. Just muddy really. IMG_0178But take my word for it. If you’ve got your eyes open and your heart in the right place and functioning you won’t do much better for an easy 90-minute walk.

We scampered over the ridge to Savage River through nothofagus forest which as I’ve said before is a delight. There is little more comforting to the feet than four inches of nothofagus leaf litter. This was another particularly nice walk.IMG_0167

The Savage River was on this day poorly named and it was hypnotic watching it bubble past.IMG_0170

IMG_0181Pademelons fed happily and confidently, sea eagles entertained and god was in the appropriate place.IMG_0296

But the next day the weather turned. It was clear, mild and sunny and we climbed Mt Donaldson, a genial 500 metre rump with a generously graded track. (And these are some of the people who made this generously graded track, and in that weather too. Thank you Tasmanian Walking Track Services.) OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It was windy on top but the view was simply glorious, revivifying: the Pieman winding its way west out to the Southern Ocean, the Norfolk mountain range to the north, the peaks of the Cradle Mountain area over to the east and … er … the Savage River mine in mid ground. Ah yes, the Savage River mine … from which magnetite is piped as slurry 85 k.s to Port Latta near Smithton on the north coast, a most substantial feat of engineering. I can admire that. But it has prompted the incidental thought that appears below.

I don’t appear to have a photo of the mine; in fact the bulk of them from here appear to be taken up with Keith’s attempts to fly. However there were two other intrepid travellers, and that is the Pieman glimpsed in the background.IMG_0218

The incidental thought. It’s all very well to talk about vast tracts of wilderness but in fact Tasmania does not have vast tracts of wilderness. The area of the entire island is only 68,000 square kilometres. Its north-west, midlands and south-east have been extensively cleared for agriculture and pasture. Where Myrna and Gill are standing is about 10 k.s from Corinna. Corinna is 48 k.s from Zeehan. Zeehan is 40 k.s from Strahan. This is highly accessible ‘wilderness’. The fact that so few people drive down the Maydena Road to Mt Anne and Lake Gordon doesn’t mean you can’t do so even after having spent the night in Hobart. You can see a lot of Tasmania in 10 days travelling by car. There are only three major north-south routes. The quickest will get you from Hobart to Launceston in about two hours. By contrast, the Big Sandy Desert, another sort of wilderness on the big island to the north, is by itself 285,000 square kilometres in area. Wilderness is not, cannot be, pockets of trees populated with eco-lodges. And that should make you think about context, scale and prospective fragility.


I’ve mentioned Huon pine. The table above, which I think was Myrna’s 40th birthday present, is made of Huon pine with some blackwood inlay. A day does not pass when I don’t admire it. (So many negatives. Sense: I really like it.)

I was hoping to find the photo we saw several times on the coast, once I think in Hamer’s Hotel at Strahan, of huon pine logs caught in a boom, thousands of them, but this is the best I can do. imagesImagine these logs stretching almost across to the other bank, perhaps 50, 100 times as many. This photo was a reminder of how many were taken, what a very high proportion of those that were there. The 120 boats built at Sara Island during its convict period (only 11 years), some of which were upwards of 40 metres long, were all built from Huon pine.

IMG_0227Although it can be found in the Huon, a delightful area (and river) south of Hobart, it is neither Huon nor pine. It is Lagarostrobus Franklinii, the sole species in the genus Lagarostrobos, and a podocarp, not a pine. Tightly grained and full of methyl eugenol which not only makes it smell wonderful but also makes it resistant to bugs and rotting, it was hunted along the waterways of the west coast for its ship building qualities.

Another of my father’s stories, this time about workmen erecting poles for a power line through Zeehan. In order to set up one pole they had to remove a King Billy pine. They found that its roots had curled around the trunk of a Huon pine entombed beneath it. The pine’s wood was still perfectly sound and still strongly fragrant. Examination showed that the King Billy pine was more than 300 years old. No one could tell how long the other had lain beneath it. More recently on the Teepookana plateau out of Strahan a vast stash of ancient Huon pines has been found under the forest floor, up to eight layers deep, with the top ones being more than 1000 years old. A living stand of the treesmtreadhuoncb has been found near Mt Read between Rosebery and Zeehan with the oddity that each of the trees is a genetically identical male that has reproduced vegetatively, that is asexually without seeds or spores. Although no single tree is that old, the stand itself has existed as a single organism for more than 10,500 years. To the right is  a picture of one of those trees.

IMG_0310The ‘pine cones’ containing seed are themselves tiny, a couple of millimetres long, the red bits in this photo (which on my computer is pretty close to actual size). The tight grain comes from growth which increases the total girth of a tree between half and two millimetres a year. Reread that. Girth. Circumference. All the way round the trunk. Grows between half and two millimetres (small) a year.

Some of trees were substantial as indicated by this photo taken around the 1930s. huon01The logs were dragged by a range of means to the rivers — never far, it was too difficult, and anyway the trees grow along waterways — marked and then floated down to log booms. When you put big logs into small waterways they are inclined to clog up into jams, and the last task of the piners before they left their camps to return to Strahan for the winter was to work down the rivers breaking the jams up. But as the pining industry declined in the 1950s and 60s there were fewer opportunities for the workers to access the rivers, and the log jams became legendary. In August 2007 a huge flood roared down the Gordon and all its tributaries. Thousands of Huon pine logs cut two generations before were dislodged. As many of these logs as possible were salvaged. Over the next three summers 650 tonnes of timber were retrieved. (Thank you: huonpine.com. A tree with its own website!)

Today its genius is more widely recognized. The ‘birds’ eye’ in our table would once, and not so long ago, have qualified it for firewood. images-1But the timber is now highly prized for high end woodcraft like the table and this rather glamorous carving.

If something is 1000 years old is it ipso facto valuable? I would say more likely than not. But beyond the fact of its age, valuable for what? It’s great that these wonderful uses have been found for the logs — and boles and branches, all grist to the craft mill — that have already been cut. There is a quarry full of them at Strahan. But what do you do about tree species that grow a millimetre in girth a year? How do you think about them? I think you’d have to say look after them very carefully, and I think there are few people in Tasmania who would argue.

Huon pine, like Darrel Baldock and Peter Hudson, has become a state icon. (What would you do if Christ came to Hawthorn? I think still leave Hudson at full-forward. Christ might be better value as a mobile target further up the ground. Forgive me. Non-Australian Rules fans will have to click on the link to understand. Even then it may be beyond comprehension.)

But what about the blackwood and the beech myrtle and the sassafras? Or for that matter the eucalyptus in the Styx and the Florentine? Or, dreaming even further, the rivers?

UnknownAfter the mineral flurry and the eruptions of unkempt mountains on the west coast, as you progress east you find series of long ranges broadly oriented north-south culminating in the Arthurs which in their own delightfully perverse and magnificent way run, insofar as they run anywhere, east-west. In the valleys of these ranges, as you’d expect given the rainfall, are some of the wildest rivers in the world. On a world scale, not big. Wild.

IMG_1756.JPGIt’s the Collingwood above. I’ve been here a few times and always imagine dinosaurs hiding away in the forest just about to run, or whatever it is dinosaurs do, leap, glide, perambulate, across the button grass in this lost world.

It’s the Collingwood just above its confluence with the Franklin, and the Franklin provides a marker in Tasmanian history.

  In IMG_03681978 it was proposed to dam the Franklin to generate further hydroelectricity. You can see the lakes on the map above. Many of these are artificial and at their walls are clusters of power stations that send power to industries such as the refinery on Hobart’s Derwent estuary, the largest such in the world, which refines zinc mined, among other places, from Rosebery near Zeehan. My brother John has an excellent view of it across the estuary from his house in Lindisfarne. When they bought it the estate agent suggested that a selling point was the glory of the refinery lighting up at night. It’s a pity that it left the estuary’s bed with a coating of heavy metals now being cleaned up.

Over the five years between the announcement of the dam proposal in 1978 and the axing of the plans in 1983, there was pungent and angry debate polarising the community and not just in Tasmania. Mainlanders bought in with a will, which would be one reason for the local support. On one side it was suggested that the construction of the dam would assist in bringing industry to Tasmania, on top of the jobs that it would create directly. The initial opinion polls showed around 70 percent support for the dam.

The protest movement, generated originally to fight the construction of the Lake Pedder dam and led by Bob BrownUnknown (at right, for many years the leader of the Australian Greens), thought otherwise. The photographs of Peter Dombrovskis and his colleague Olegas Truchanas, a good selection of which we had seen in the Launceston gallery, attracted significant public attention. In June 1980, 10,000 people marched through the streets of Hobart, demanding that the government not proceed with construction — the largest political rally in the state’s history.Franklin_River_Rally_Hobart_Tasmania-1982In December 1981 the state government held a referendum in an attempt to break the deadlock. The referendum gave voters two choices, one for a dam on the Gordon below Franklin, one for a dam on the Gordon above the Olga.

No_Dams_In_SW_Tasmania_World_Heritage_Triangle_StickerAnd here is an excellent opportunity to mount a small soap box. ‘Begging the question’ has come to mean ‘encouragement to ask a question’. When I was at school it meant including an assumption in a question that was yet to be proved, a very functional and handy notion. When did you stop beating your wife? was the conventional example. I don’t beat my wife. Which dam do you want? I don’t want either. Forty-five percent of the voters voted informally; more than 30 percent wrote ‘No Dams’ on their ballot paper.

franklin-blockadeIn late 1982, Bob Brown announced that a blockade of the dam site would begin at Warner’s Landing on the same day that the UNESCO was due to list the Tasmanian wild rivers as a World Heritage site. During January 1983 around fifty people arrived at the blockade each day adding to the 2000 already there. A total of 1,217 arrests were made, many simply for being present at the blockade. Protesters impeded machinery and occupied sites associated with the construction work. Nearly 500 people were imprisoned for breaking the terms of their bail. This caused an overflow of prisons in the region.

6a0105371785e7970b0148c8034d91970c-500wiOne of the people arriving was Keith Cumming (not in this photo, but it is rafters and it is the Franklin, to provide an idea of what it might be like). But while most of the protesters came upstream from Strahan, Keith had come downstream from Derwent Bridge after 21 days of rafting with, at one stage, the bottom of his raft split in two. While we’ve established he was and is a greenie, I’m not sure if he had any idea of what was happening at the other end, not anyway till a police boat hooked up and towed his raft away. That clarified things.

The federal Hawke government was elected a month or two later. Its platform included a pledge to save the Franklin. Dam building continued however and was only stopped finally by a High Court challenge which was won by a judgment of four votes to three.


That’s Keith revisiting the Franklin at Derwent Bridge.

At a surprisingly rowdy meeting for the 25th anniversary of these events in 2008, Hawkey said: ‘We are now faced with an unprecedented environmental challenge … As you listen to the arguments mounted today you see a complete replication of what was said back then in 1983. You can’t do this. It’ll cost jobs, cost economic growth. What’s the argument today? … What is the greatest obligation that politicians of any stripe have to families? It is that we take action to pass on to them a planet which is inhabitable, viable and enjoyable. Don’t play politics on this issue. It’s far too serious.’

I suppose I’m a greenie too. Mines fascinate me, I am full of admiration for farmers and I’ve used my share of timber, but my heart sinks when I hear about today’s ‘environmental initiatives’. There are so many of them just now: cattle back into the high country, awful and unnecessary, we’ve personally seen the impact and its dreadful; dredging near the Great Barrier Reef for a new coal port, crazy; commercial development of National Parks, a disaster; trying to reverse Tasmanian World Heritage listings, why? This is the environmental ‘direct action’ that is happening and that is real.

But my heart sinks even further when I read of things like plans to log the Tarkine, the area around and north of Corinna. These areas have already been logged. The lumber has gone. Fine timber — sassafras, beech, blackwood, even huon pine — is still there. But you could make a lot of jewellery boxes, and tables, from the specialty timber already felled and seasoned. My heart sinks not because of the fate of the forest so much, but because this is breaking something precious just to watch the expression on your opponent’s face. It’s brainless sociopathological behaviour. Nuts. Sick. Poisonous.

UnknownIt’s the Tasmania of Edmund Rouse who in 1989, as chairman of logging company Gunns (he was also, on Tasmanian scale, a media mogul), offered $110,000 to MP Jim Cox to cross the floor. The bribe was designed to thwart the Labor party from forming an alliance with the Tasmanian Greens. Justice was served. Rouse got three years and lost a lot of his grunt. Prior to this for some reason he was present at a Council of Australian Governments’ meeting held in Launceston. As Joan Kirner, then Premier of Victoria, rose to speak, he stood up and shouted at her, ‘Sit down girlie. We don’t want to hear from you.’ And kept shouting at her, without restraint. I wasn’t there, but at the time I was working for someone who was. Not in the same league as the bribe, but drink from the same bottle; and I fear just as Tasmanian as the decency of Bob Brown. You could think that courtesy, respect and generosity might be among the virtues espoused and realised by the conservative side of politics. But in practice you’d be wrong. OK … both sides of politics.

But Bob’s right. Don’t play politics on this issue. It’s far far too serious.

Finally, just for Keith. A pic of the Tasmanian waratahs that he enjoyed so much, IMG_0089

and the Franklin with Frenchman’s Cap in the background.IMG_0355

Tassie#3: Ministers and mines

IMG_04351929. A group of Methodist ordinands.

My father is in the front row second from the left looking remarkably like his grandson Simon.

After leaving school at Form Four he thought he wanted to work on the newly-electrified Victorian railways and went to the senior tech school in Echuca with a lot of servicemen returned from the Great War (‘not altogether for our good’ which could mean anything between smoking in the toilets to attempted murder). But the workshops burnt down (possibly, were) and he went back to the farm (14 acres, seven kids, NO money) deciding he wanted to be an ‘agriculturist missionary’ in the western Pacific. ‘But the church authorities stressed the value of doing theology as well, or instead.’

He wrote about the group of twelve above in luminous terms as ‘quality men’, his friends for life. ‘I don’t think I have ever known (apart from my own immediate family that is) anyone as loyal, self-giving, straight and ‘dinkum’ as George Douglas Brimacombe.’ That’s my father talking. I can hear him. ‘Twelve men, nine Presidents of Conference, two President-Generals, one (and only one ever — him) a Bishop, three College Principals.’

After they dispersed to their various appointments they formed a book club, each person buying a book in January. These were circulated on a roster system so that at the end of the year each had read the same 12 books which were discussed via an extensive correspondence. Those were the days.

IMG_0436During their two-year probationary periods (in his case spent at Nyah West on the Murray) they weren’t allowed to marry, so my parents conducted their six-year pre-nuptial courtship almost entirely by correspondence. After Beth died Dad found a box containing every letter she had ever received from him. (The fact that he didn’t know she had them is somewhat indicative of the way he lived his life, just an inch or two above the ground.)

April, 1932. After just one week of marriage my wife and I found ourselves disembarking at Burnie in the rain. The ship had been the old Oonah, noted for her sturdy sea-worthiness, her slow speed and her smell. It had not been a particularly smooth trip, and we were unused to ocean travel.

At 7 am our train duly left for Zeehan, an 88 mile trip which took six hours. … Through forests of eucalyptus, myrtle, blackwood and all kinds of lesser trees and scrub our train steamed on, forever changing direction with screaming wheels. A driver told us that on one section of this line there was not one straight rail for six miles — and it was easy to believe him. This was our introduction to the magnificent forests, turbulent rivers and wild mountain scenery of the West Coast. In those days there was no way into Zeehan other than rail, unless you walked along the railway track which I did a good deal of.

IMG_0121Zeehan in its heyday, 1926. Methodist church in the foreground, with the parsonage just behind it. This building burnt down in  1956 and was replaced by the building below, also burnt down. There was no reticulated water in Zeehan — so much fell so often from the sky. In case of fire you just put an axe through the next fellow’s tank and formed a bucket chain from the stream …  Obviously not always successful. Zeehan’s history seems to lurch from one razing to the next. During our second year at Zeehan we were awakened early one morning because of a fire in the house second from us. The neighbour’s house also caught, and it was feared that ours would go too. So about half of Zeehan trooped in to empty our house of all its contents. They pulled down the light fittings and pulled up the floor coverings — all of course in the spirit of helpfulness. They even dismantled and removed the iron chain on which one could swing a kettle over the open fire.

The man who really saved our place was Tom H. He was the only man game to go in between the buildings, prop sheets of iron against the windows and throw water where the paint was blistering. Tom reputedly also had the lightest fingers in town, and sure enough he was back there at the break of day scratching round through the cinders in case of a find.

They travelled between their two churches by train. In their second year another fire burnt out the rail bridge over the Little Henty River between the two towns. All the rolling stock was left on the northern side of the river, so for the three months it took to rebuild the bridge in order to get to Strahan they travelled to the river, got out and crossed it on a log, my mother heavily pregnant for most of the time, and climbed aboard an Abt engine running backwards for the rest of the trip. The Abt engine had virtually no tender so at every water course all male passengers got off and formed a bucket chain to top up the boiler. This took most of a day. There were times when he just walked.

IMG_0139I would like here to acknowledge my plunder from the West Coast Pioneers Museum in Zeehan’s main street partly housed in the old Gaiety Theatre where Nellie Melba once sang; still there, still lurching into life from time to time. Below in living colour is the site of the church today.IMG_0140

At that time Zeehan was in the depths of depression. Once a city of 10,000 it now had a population of 900. [In 2011, 728] Mining had long since ceased, and most things spoke of dereliction. Our great wooden gable church, stayed against the gales (but not enough to stop it moving when they blew) seated 600. Our congregations were more usually around 20.

I was responsible for Zeehan and Strahan, 26 miles south, the only connection being a narrow-gauge meandering railway. Later, we opened a week night service at timber-milling area in between.

 So my bride commenced her married life spending ten days each fortnight in a rather down-at-heel parsonage in Zeehan, three in an old and very cramped vestry at Strahan where she did her cooking over an open fire, and the fourteenth at a bush worker’s hut infested with rats at Koyule. And she loved it all.

img244(To the left is the bush worker’s hut where they lived once a fortnight.)

Maybe she did. Maybe she didn’t. I mostly remember her talking about how hard it was to get washing dry.

Their first child was born there and some parishioners were famously of the opinion that she should be named Zena. But she wasn’t. She was Dorothy and, when the time came, she was equally famously restored to the mainland in a fruit box.


This is a mine’s worth of workers from this area in the late ’20s, Zeehan’s ‘Oonah’ silver mine. Some of them could barely be into their teens, but apart from the variety in facial decoration you know all these faces. They are our familiars. More worn than the polished young men in the clerical collars above, but just as real.

IMG_0322Geoffrey Blainey made his name via The Peaks of Lyell, a history of mining on the west coast focused on Queenstown where most of the action was. The main street and the peaks themselves are above. As he notes in the preface written in 1954, copper worth more than £170 million (today’s equivalent, $5.38 billion) had been won from these mountains. The fifth edition of the book came out in 1994, the year the primary subject of the book, the Mt Lyell Mine and Railway Company, which had clung on for 101 years, closed. The mine is operating again today owned by a subsidiary of the Indian company Vedanta. (As of 2014 they had quit too.)

The Peaks of Lyell, the first half of which was Blainey’s Master’s thesis, is a terrific book, a very fine account of what mining is like, although perhaps more accurately what conducting a mining operation might be like. The museums of Zeehan and Queenstown teem with a different sort of information, not from the pulpit or the board room, more from the pub. Stories of mine pranks for example. Great hilarity over someone tipping over a mechanical loader into a chute. No wonder the list of work rules could basically be summarised as ‘do what you’re told’ and ‘don’t muck around’.

But there are many other snatches of loneliness and fatigue, what it was like, for example, driving home in driving rain after midnight from ‘The Blow’ a huge open cut about five k.s from Queenstown after a 12 hour shift navigating round the endless bends and readying yourself for a shift starting at six next morning. Letters from sweethearts who never visited or from those who left never to return. The museums are like the forests in their disorderly profusion and their tangled thickets of information, but collectively they build their own very human mountain of lives lived close to the bone.

IMG_0335But there was always the football!

Almost one quarter of the Queenstown museum is devoted to the football.IMG_0130The thumbnail at right provides evidence that East Zeehan won the premiership in 1923.

‘WTFA’ stands for Western Tasmania Football Association which over time had ten clubs each with several teams. But the distinctive aspect of the WTFA is that all games were/ are played on the Queenstown oval which has a gravel surface. We ran into an ex-Smelters football hero who may have played a season or two with Melbourne in the big time who described picking stones out of his elbows and knees after the game just like all the other players.IMG_0329

IMG_0336And in this account of men men men we even have a picture of women, the (Queenstown) Smelters’ football club’s ladies auxiliary in 1954.IMG_0348

IMG_0343Gormy’ is Gormanston pictured here today, now with its own heritage overlay. This town once supported four football teams. Double click for a better look.

Queenstown still has a bit of kick in it. Artists come and go. IMG_0332This rather elegant building houses a gallery as well as a home. What the folks are looking at is clever usage of what were formerly wooden pipeline staves of King Billy pine. IMG_0333Like this in fact.

There are dozens of reminders of past glories. I liked this one, a former home of the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes with its encouraging brick facade, now the workspace of Jim Young Electrical.IMG_0328

IMG_0124But Zeehan not so much. It once had a stock exchange, but now has rows of empty barrack-style accommodation.IMG_0108 You can get a room for $10 a night in the hotel below. Maybe the one with the broken window.IMG_0116

It looks a fair bit like this.IMG_0111

And there aren’t many bikes in the school’s bike shed. But this is a mining town, and that’s what happens with mining towns. They come; and they go.IMG_0109

We’ve been to Zeehan three times now and, despite the excellent feed at the Heemskerk Motel, Myrna thinks that’s enough. But I’d go back again just to see if there was something I’ve missed, to check on adventures which were still adventuring, to see how the women get their washing dry. Maybe for the rhododendrons.


Tassie#2: Launceston and mountains

DSC_0026Launceston is much underrated. There are 502,000 people living in Tassie, 210,000 of them in Hobart and that’s where visitors are inclined to go. But there are 80,000 in Launceston and, while the Tamar may not be the Derwent,  Launceston has great charms.

DSC_0077The food can be excellent and the streetscapes splendid.  And it’s often got a trick or two up its sleeve. IMG_0042Like the fact that the best location in town is given over to a swimming complex, or the quality and inventiveness of the home made food in the local art gallery, or DSC_0020the fact that the upper section of the post office tower is about five degrees off true, if true is the alignment of the building’s walls and the line of the streets it fronts.

We got off the plane there and spent half a day in the lately refurbished Queen Victoria gallery. We were drawn by the long-running exhibition of wilderness photography and a first class collection of Piguenits of whose work I am very fond.painting_webheaderBut they had also done something very smart and got Tasmanian artist David Keeling to respond in his own way to some of the key works in the standing collection. These fake windows with Launceston scenery are inserted between the brick ribs of the gallery wall, a lovely trompe l’oeil.IMG_0020

DSC_0089.JPGHowever one reason for beginning here is that I wanted an excuse to stick in a couple of favourite photos taken on Ben Lomond, Tasmania’s second highest mountain, not far south-east of Launceston and legitimated by the fact that we have climbed it with Keith and Gill even if it didn’t look quite like this that day.

I have mentioned the redoubtable plant scoparia. The bottom photo contains, among other things, rime on scoparia.DSC_0084.JPG

DSC_0092.JPGDSC_0101.JPGWe also wanted to revisit Mt Roland which features in late sun in the header to these blogs. We’ve made an effort to climb it four times, been rebuffed twice by late starts, daunting weather and bad knees, but were successful this time again. It disguised itself in cloud and constant drizzle, but in any weather it is a wonderful mountain. UnknownDSC_0040.JPG

It looked nothing like this on our most recent visit; but this is what it can look like. On a clear day  from its summit there is a remarkable 360 degree view which takes in Bass Strait (on the horizon below), Cradle Mountain and Barn Bluff, and the Western Tiers. Ben Lomond, most of 150 kilometres away, can also be visible.DSC_0045

IMG_0055The climb up Roland is an hour and a half or so along an old forest road (below), followed by a sharp climb up a creek gully coming out onto a button grass plateau. IMG_0062From there it’s about an hour and a half of rock-hopping with a boulder climb to the peak. The gully offers some arresting sights and moments.

This was more like it. Tassie weather. Like it or leave it.IMG_0067

IMG_0069We spent that night and the next day, both very wet, at Cradle Mountain. Nothing daunted, we did the simple walk around Dove Lake. IMG_0076The southern end of this walk takes you into pandanus country.

The northern end takes you back to shelter and good pub food and, this night, IMG_0082wombats and a little light drama.


Tassie#1: The West Coast

IMG_0252The locals are keen to tell you that if you head west from here you will go 8000 nautical miles, about 15,000 kilometres, before landfall on the shores of Argentina a bit south of Bahia Blanca (White Beach, ha ho) in the Golfo San Matias. And yes, you will travel well south of the Cape of Good Hope, a piddling 32 degrees south and even several hundred kilometres south of Cape Agulhas the actual southernmost point of Africa. And this is the Southern Ocean which on this day was unusually temperate. It frequently rejoices in a 20 metre swell which has been known to build much higher. South, it’s about 3,400 kilometres to Antarctica.

And the ocean water really is dark brown here, the product of tannin from vegetation coming down the Pieman River — we’re near its mouth. Immediately behind us is a button grass plateau consisting of very muddy peat. A little further back and we would be truly in west coast vegetation: up higher, scoparia which when you try to move it punches you back and much harder, and in most places ‘horizontal’  scrub which weaves a thick impenetrable web by falling over, shooting vertically from the stem, falling over, shooting vertically again, weft and warp, weft and warp, some of the densest forest in the world. IMG_0293We are at one version of the end of the world.

IMG_1734Especially if you live in England. ‘Bad’ convicts were sent to Australia; the worst were sent to Tasmania; the very worst were sent to Sara Island in Macquarie Harbour on its west coast. To get to Sara Island one passes through Hell’s Gates (at left). This is history with heft.

And even if you had been living in what is now called Tasmania 30,000 years earlier you wouldn’t choose this part of the island. It is suggested that in the early 1800s, the formative years of European settlement, there were nine language groups of palawa living there. Some may have worked their way down the west coast from time to time as far as Macquarie Harbour but there is little evidence that they lived inland from there. Even with possum blankets and capes it is a harsh environment.

The 3200mm average annual rainfall isohyet passes through Zeehan — that’s more than 10 feet of rain a year. One of my mother’s many stories about living in Zeehan was keeping shoes in the oven because otherwise the thread would rot and the upper would lift off the sole. I remember being in the vast paddock of boulders on Mt Field once when we saw a little muscle of storm cloud coming, quite isolated in the western sky. I was sure we could get to the K Col hut only a few hundred metres away for shelter but we failed comprehensively, and the horizontal sleet drove so hard that it hurt everywhere it hit.

‘Zeehan’ was the name of one of Abel Janszoon Tasman’s ships (the other was ‘Heemskerk’, names for the two mountains nearest to Zeehan) when he and his crew became the first Europeans to sight what he called Van Diemen’s Land (after the Governor of the Dutch East Indies) in 1642. After being blown out to sea from what is now known as Storm Bay, they eventually made landfall at Blackman’s Bay near Kingston. They didn’t try to come ashore until rounding South Cape leaving the west coast.

It is a place where one doesn’t necessarily live, but to which one clings. Just.

When my parents arrived in Zeehan in 1932, its population had been more than 10,000 but there were still no roads in or out, just train tracks. They arrived at their new home via three train rides. The Zeehan they found had a population of around 900. It had been a mining town, slowly gathering speed in stops and starts from the mid 1880s, but as elsewhere the Great Depression had broken the back of the mining industry. Gold had been hoped for initially but it was copper, silver and zinc that appeared in pay loads. The geological map of Tasmania consists of a patch of rainbows over this part of the world. There is an astonishing range of mineral deposits but not all in payable quantities.

At nearby Queenstown what it did produce was an ecological disaster which became a drawcard for tourists. Forests were cleared for mining props and to feed the mine’s 11 smelters which in turn produced acid rain and corrosive run off. This is turn killed off the remaining vegetation on the hills of Mt Lyell producing a moonscape. Some of this vegetation is now returning. Clinging. Just.IMG_0351


The Queen River which runs through the middle of town is still not quite pellucid. (Click on the photo to see just how much not pellucid.)

And yet, and yet, this is not why the tourists come to the west coast.

Wherever there are beech myrtle forests  — the wonderful nothofagus cunninghamii, you’ve seen them in ‘Lord of the Rings’, albeit in New Zealand — there is something absorbing and confounding.

I started by calling it beauty, but it’s more like profusion and also something more complicated and adult, older than beauty. The colours, especially and obviously the fluoro and neon greens of the mosses and cabbagey lichens, are too strong for simple beauty and anyway, with standard regard, you’re never quite sure what you’re looking at. Yes, it once was a tree but now its shape is outlined in moss creased by vines, and the dominant organism is actually a laurel using the beech’s ancient trunk as a host. It’s all wound together somehow. It’s the only forest anywhere that can still be traced directly to the forests of Gondwanaland, the ancient supercontinent from which all land masses south of the equator emerged.

This is not what goes on chocolate boxes, but you can’t help but stand back, absorbed.IMG_0151

Endless complex communities of plants and other creatures.IMG_0225

Right here is a very Tasmanian conundrum. World Heritage Areas cover about one-fifth of the island, 1.4 million hectares, with other substantial areas — if not the Tarkine where these pictures were taken — reserved from agriculture, forestry and mining. It is the original home of the Australian Greens and the only state government to have had Green Parliamentary Ministers. But we saw the utes with ‘Mine the Tarkine’, ‘Green is the new Red’ and ‘Save the planet. Plant a greenie’ stickers. The population is deeply split over conservation issues. 

Many of the big ideas that matter can be found in raw form on Tasmania’s west coast. Like the forest, wound strangely together in the same experience. Loggers will tell you they are conservationists and that they love and care for the forest more than the greenies do. On the cruise up the Gordon, Captain Gary provided a fine representation of the developers’ outlook with an especial fondness for history and the prospect of a beer and a cray. ‘We live well over here on the coast. … Even though it was a couple of hundred bucks worth of fuel, the ladies used to get up to Burnie for the latest fashions. Paris, London. They love to shop, the ladies. A little red-haired fire-cracker who still drinks in the front bar at Hamer’s, she was the leader of the pack. Lord knows, you’ve gotta love ’em.’ I applauded every shovelful of authentic west coast soil he lifted from the hole he was digging for himself.

The explanation and commentary on the reasons for the area’s World Heritage status of the area was left to a  woman — highly articulate, well-informed and very cheery.

And then there’s the Hydro …IMG_0097

the richest organisation in and de facto government of Tasmania for 30, 40, 50 years.

300px-Rock_island_bendOne of the reasons we were there this time was to accompany Keith, our most arboreal (actually living ‘with’ rather than ‘in’ trees) relative who, accompanied by a one-armed non-paddler, rafted down the Franklin River in 1983 arriving at the blockade two months before the election of the Hawke government which intervened to create the Wilderness World Heritage Area and, quite incidentally, saw the end to 50 years of the Hydro damming wild rivers in Tasmania’s south-west. A 30 year anniversary pilgrimage. (And no I didn’t take that photo. I haven’t got anything that iconic in my library.)

We first went to the west coast 20 years ago and one thing among very many that I remember was the vegetation meeting over the road a bit like this but more so.IMG_0102 There was considerably less tar on the road, no restraining posts, stretches of dirt only. The ‘Western Explorer’ otherwise known as the ‘Road to Nowhere’, in fact from Corinna to Marawah, wasn’t there. The Waratah and Corinna roads were dirt tracks. Strahan now has plenty of posh food. The cruise boats are 32 metre aluminium catamarans with giant but whispering diesel motors. Cradle Mountain is almost civilised. The busy tracks are duckboarded. The trail is more than thoroughly blazed.

However we had some tastes of the weather which is not subject to closeting. The Western Explorer and the West Coast Wilderness Train are both presently closed because of landslips. Frenchman’s Cap is still available only by backpack and tent. The roads still wind. And it’s still 15,000 k.s to Argentina.

Historian, miner, logger or green, there’s still so much to love. (And much more to come.)