EXPLORING TASMANIA’S WILD WEST
by Tim Bowden and Ros Bowden
Tim and Ros Bowden reflect on a camping journey on the West Coast of Tasmania that features in their third book in the ‘Penelope’ camping and travelling series: The Devil in Tim – Penelope’s Travels in Tasmania.
Island people consider themselves special – for better or worse, that’s how it is. Even at my advanced age, approaching the north coast of Tasmania in the Melbourne-Devonport ferry, Spirit of Tasmania, still gives me the surge of excitement that returning Taswegians get when they catch the first glimpse of their homeland – as my old friend, novelist Christopher Koch put it:
‘causes a leap of the heart, like the sudden appearance of a loved face’.
In my youth and early working life as a journalist I travelled widely in Tasmania, bushwalking and covering stories for ABC radio and television (and earlier as a reporter for the Hobart Mercury), but I had never travelled in my native island as a tourist. I wanted to do a Penelope book on Tasmania, but as I was planning to write an autobiography (Spooling Through – An Irreverent Memoir) I was nervous about using personal experiences that might double up with Spooling Through – which was eventually published first in 2004.
That cleared the decks, really, for Penelope and The Manor, Ros and I, to voyage to Tasmania to explore my home state for the first time as a visitor. I was able to visit places not seen for 30 or more years, like Cradle Mountain which I first saw in 1948 when, as a 10-year-old my parents and some of their friends rather bravely took me through the Lake St Clair-Cradle Mountain Reserve, an 80-kilometre, six-day trek which was perhaps more of a challenge for the adults who had to cajole me along, than it was for me.
But it was an experience that stayed with me and triggered a great love of walking in the Tasmanian bush, even though I nearly died in 1956 when, with two companions, we took a short cut when walking out of Lake Pedder (then still in its pristine state) into the Arve Valley near Geeveston. We missed the track, but unwisely kept going and three days later emerged cold and starving from a tangled rainforest maze, filled with horizontal scrub that fills up the valleys like malevolent barbed wire without the spikes. We were very lucky to get out of an area where other bushwalkers have perished. I have been a great believer in sticking to known walking tracks ever since!
The two vehicular ferries, the Spirits of Tasmania (SPOT 1 & 2) had just started their nightly Melbourne to Devonport return voyages when we booked Penelope, our Series 80 LandCruiser, and The Manor, our much travelled Jayco Flight camper for a day voyage, only available in high season. I figured that early autumn is a good time to travel almost anywhere, but particularly in Tasmania, where its notoriously fickle weather steadies down a bit.
We drove along the North-East Coast from Devonport through Burnie to Stanley near the famous Circular Head, camping there to see the heritage homestead of Highfield House, built in 1832 and once the home of Edward Curr, the manager of Woolnorth, a huge property that occupied most of the north-east tip of Tasmania. This was actually established by Royal Charter which made it (in Curr’s view) not subject to the control of Tasmania’s then Governor, George Arthur, much to Arthur’s fury. This heritage residence is beautifully restored and well worth a visit.
Early next morning I climbed to the top of The Nut (no one calls it Circular Head): a fantastic volcanic plug with steep cliffs all around and a flat, undulating grass-covered top. It has great views over the surrounding coast, including Highfield House and the wharf area of Stanley.
There is a chair lift that wasn’t running at 8am, but it is not a hard nut to crack and therein lies a tale. In 1892, when the locals wanted some rock fill for a new breakwater, they drilled 5000lb of gunpowder into the sheer dolerite rock face, conveniently near where they needed the rock and let it off.
There was a spectacular explosion, but absolutely nothing happened – until 12 years later when 200,000 tons of rock unexpectedly came crashing down! Fortunately no one was killed.
We also booked a tour of the Woolnorth homestead, first occupied as early as 1826, that has some of the oldest continually occupied buildings in Tasmania.
Woolnorth’s wild coastline was also the scene of a dreadful massacre of Aboriginal people in 1828, at the aptly named Cape Grim, where four shepherds were alleged to have been murdered.
In the early years sheep farming was hazardous, with Aboriginal people liking such easily hunted meat, as did the Tasmanian Tigers (thylacines) and renegade whites.
A more modern development has been the use of Woolnorth land for an extensive wind farm (included in the tour) with tall towers and great white blades soughing productively, thanks to the continuously windy climate.
From Marawah (the northernmost town on the West Coast) we turned south to the Arthur River where planned to meet Brian Mansell, then manager of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Land Council in Hobart.
With my new-found enthusiasm for Aboriginal rock art after a recent trip to the Kimberley, I was aware that the Tasmanian Aborigines had some sites on the West Coast and when I contacted Brian Mansell I didn’t expect a personal tour, but that is what we got when he drove from Hobart to meet us south of the Arthur River.
Getting to know Brian, who has had a remarkable life, was one of the highlights of our Tasmanian wanderings and seeing the rock engravings at a site called Sundown Point and later at Preminghana, further north, near Mount Cameron West and the town of Marrawah.
Although rising sea levels have obliterated some of the petroglyphs previously photographed in the early 20th century, Brian was able to show us one remarkable example of concentric circles engraved on a slab of sandstone that had been washed up on the beach at Preminghana in 2002!
The person who found it had contacted Brian, then stayed with the stone in case it was stolen. Brian has since hidden the stone at Preminghana and asked us to wait on the beach while he produced it and allowed us to photograph it.
I had a personal interest in the next leg of our journey which was over a controversial road through the Tarkine wilderness.
This construction was bitterly opposed by environmentalists and forced through by the then Lennon Labor Government during 1995 and 1996. It was built by my youngest brother Philip, whose company had won the tender for the job.
He handled the situation with great diplomacy, sometimes giving protesters lifts out of the work area (but not into it!) and after the road was finished, his company won a national environmental award for sensitive construction in a wilderness area.
The road was unsealed, but the steeper grades had a single bitumen strip. On the southern end the road descended steeply through hairpin bends down to the Savage River.
I misjudged how steep it was and was caught in second gear, with the added weight of our camper behind us, when I should have been in first. I wasn’t game to shift a cog in case I lost control, but I could smell our brake pads smoking and braking power fading as we just managed to get down safely. I had beads of sweat on my upper lip and cared not confess to my wife Ros how hairy it had been. Surely my brother should have warned me!
The West Coast has always fascinated me, with its wild terrain, heavy rainfall and history of gold and copper mining, as well as harvesting of the incomparable, slow-growing Huon Pine. This wood was ideal for boat building, being easily worked and completely impervious to the Teredo worm, the bane of wooden ships from time immemorial.
Huon Pine was first logged by the unfortunate ‘hard case’ convicts sent to Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour in 1822, to isolate them from the east coast of Tasmania, where the large and secure penitentiary at Port Arthur had not yet been built. With convicts outnumbering free settlers in those days, a convict-led insurrection was seen by the authorities as a distinct possibility.
With other tourists Ros and I were able to take that wonderful boat journey up the Gordon River, from Strahan, with its incomparable reflections. The included tour of Sarah Island, where many convict ruins remain, featured great logs of Huon Pine used for the slipway to launch boats built by the convicts – still with sweet, fragrant-smelling wood only a few millimetres below a seemingly rotting surface.
In recent times the historic Abt Railway has been rebuilt, using the original steam engines, with their ingenious system of axle pinions and rack in the middle of the track, to haul the ore from the Mt Lyell Company’s mines over otherwise impossibly steep gradients from Queenstown, to ships waiting in Macquarie Harbour.
It is surely now one of the great railway journeys of the world. I got to ride in the engine-driver’s cab too, as we engaged the Abt system. It was a bit nail-biting on this trip, as the little engine was ailing, and only just made it to the top of the hill.
It was quite enchanting to re-discover my home state, with its cool temperate climate and rich, sometimes dark history, now emerging as one of the premier gourmet destinations, thanks to Tasmania’s home-grown or fish-farmed produce, of which Macquarie Harbour has some of the biggest and best.
In the 1950s you were lucky to find a restaurant that was able to offer anything other than grilled steak or chops, mashed potatoes and two (overcooked) servings of vegetables. No more.
We went on to circumnavigate the island before heading back to the north-west coast to Devonport to catch the Spirit of Tasmania to Melbourne.
There was just time to revisit Cradle Mountain and walk around Dove Lake, in that lovely high mountain country thatseems to have been designed by Tolkien.
Climbing out of the Meander Valley heading to Devonport and the end of our Tasmanian wanderings, I saw a wondrous road sign. It said simply:
C137, with a big arrow pointing to the right: PARADISE JCN 400m
Where else but in Tasmania could you have access to what you might say was the ultimate destination?
Check out Tim’s website http://timbowden.com.au for details of his books.
« Go Back