‘The Steppes: No Such Thing as the Middle of Nowhere’ | March 2019

STORY BY ELIZABETH CARROLL | ILLUSTRATIONS & PHOTOGRAPHS BY LOUISE THRUSH

‘Come down from the mountain, you have been gone too long
The spring is upon us, follow my only song
Settle down with me by the fire of my yearning
You should come back home, back on your own now

The world is alive now, in and outside our home
You run through the forest, settle before the sun
Darling, I can barely remember you beside me
You should come back home, back on your own now’

The Ragged Wood, by Fleet Foxes

On a clear autumn day last year, we packed up our battered old car, kid, tent and gear for a trip up into the Highlands. It was a funny feeling heading up into an area we knew had been so scarred by fires, like probing someone else’s wound with your fingers, but exciting too. But the Steppes were still there after the fires – there was a feeling that we might as well go, because who knew what might happen next summer? We would meet Lou, find somewhere to camp overnight and visit the Steppes the next day.

‘We’ll see what it’s like,’ Lou said a little grimly. ‘It’s hunting season.’

In March every year hunters from all over Tasmania go deer-shooting. You will see utes driving down Davey St in the centre of Hobart with hooves and antlers of a stag carcass peeping out from under a tarp. Were we going to witness wild hooliganism and debauchery? Was it all going to get a bit ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ in the backwoods? Deep in the heart of many Tasmanians is the fear that the people from ‘over there’ are wilder, stranger, more savage than you – a friend recently asked me for travel recommendations with the proviso ‘nothing too remote – I don’t want any axe murderers.’ Axe murderers are pretty rare statistically in Tasmania, but  it seems a common feeling that somewhere out there dark deeds must be happening among the people who live wild in the hills, from the old story of ‘Black Bob’s Bog’ to the recent novel ‘The Bluffs’ by Kyle Perry, or even ‘The Kettering Incident’. Out there, in the middle of nowhere anything could happen.

We took a backroad between Bothwell to the Central Highlands highway. It’s a sneaky way – you don’t realise your ascent, unlike the switchback pass at Poatina. But sooner or later it creeps up on you. Glaciated boulders everywhere, the maze of highland lakes both natural and man-made. The ringing sound of mountain air. The sound of utes and four wheel drives up and down the highway, and fishing tinnies on the lakes. The Central Highlands in autumn are a busy, sociable place. The longer I travel in Tasmania, the more I realise there is no such thing as the middle of nowhere. Everywhere is somewhere to someone.

We find a campsite at Arthur’s Lake. We are greeted by the caretakers, who hail from St Helens half the year. We drive into a village of caravans and tents of retirees, about 50 strong. They mostly seem to know each other – their conversations ring out through the evening. I chat with a few – they come from all over to ‘get away from it all’ and go fishing on the lakes. They come back every year – it feels like a second home. Like pretty much every shack town or campsite we’ve visited, this one is lively– but ringing with the voices of genial retirees telling fishing stories or scandals from fifty years ago. Already it’s golden hour, when the angle of the lowering autumn sun pours this concentrated light over everything – trees, rocks, tents, people and the Hydro lake before us all take on a glamour. Golds are more intense – blues deeper.  Golden hour also means we need to get our tent up quickly, set up our campsite. Already the smoke from other people’s campfires is beginning to rise.

In front of our campsite is a row of gumtrees, then prickly scrub, and then the bare confronting shape of high tension powerlines marching across the landscape. We are reminded where we are, and who we owe this campsite to. The old Hydro-Electric Commission, or ‘the Hydro’, created it for their workers. Arthur’s Lake ahead of us, where so many are gathered to fish, is a Hydro lake. It’s introduced trout they are fly-fishing for, not native fish.

We walk uneasily beneath the powerlines – or I do at any rate. I always feel a buzz or a tingle near them in my head, and I never quite know if it’s psychosomatic or not. The line between the lake and the lake edge is… soft. Spongy under-foot as though the lake-water has soaked as high as it can. Unlike some Hydro lakes there is no clearly defined line of ‘lake-not-lake’, more a squashy wetness that grows and grows until your feet leave prints that fill with water, until the lake has you in its spongy swamp, and even if you know your mistake and step back it’s too late, your feet are soaked.

We head back to camp, make chilli-beans and rice with guacamole over the butane cooker. Lou brings out apricot pies, made with apricots from her parents’ trees. They are utterly delicious. We light a fire from our allocated wood and kindling. The sun sets and the stars come out and mingle with the golden sparks flying upwards until we’ve talked enough and the chill from the mountain night behind us makes us long for bed. I sleep that night sandwiched between husband and daughter on an inflatable mattress for two, too tired and happy to feel squished.

Our sleep is disturbed only by moonlight. Not an axe murderer in sight. Any dark deeds must have been happening somewhere else.

The next morning we drove to the Steppes.

The Steppes is a settlement of cottages and outbuildings carved out of the forest. It was also a gateway to the Highlands on the path for many graziers bringing sheep or cattle up to summer pastures. James Wilson was superintendent of police for the district from 1863, overseeing the flocks that moved through the droving route. He married Jessie Moyes from Bothwell and they had five children. Their youngest daughter Marjorie ‘Madge’ Wilson lived all her long life at The Steppes. Over one hundred years, the property became one of the hubs of the Highland community, hosting everyone from shepherds to the governor. The Wilsons ran the local post office, the school, the police service, and housed the local church until one was built. The younger Wilsons passionately loved their bush home, and campaigned for the land to be kept as a bird sanctuary. The Steppes was ‘rediscovered’ by travellers from Hobart and Launceston, like Jack Thwaites, in the 1970s. Over time the site became managed by the Tasmanian Parks & Wildlife Service, and the settlement of hand-built cottage and outhouses has been kept largely unchanged.

There were ‘wild men’ in the hills once – escaped convicts sometimes made lives alone, or preyed on travellers and settlements nearby, and sheep were common currency and easily stolen. The easiest pickings were on the highway, or raiding grazer’s properties in the Midlands. A number of bushrangers, like Mick Howe, fled to the Highlands. But those times that haunt our cultural memories, of the wild man with a gun or a club or axe, who might waylay unwary travellers, rob and kill them? Their hey-day was mostly about twenty or thirty years before James Wilson even began his job as police constable.

We park our cars, and one of the first things we notice is the noise. The Steppes might have once been the ‘last homely house’ before the summer pastures, but now it sits by a busy highway. The serenity bushwalkers like Jack Thwaites once loved is shattered by the constant sound of utes and four wheel drives (and our own cars) roaring back and forth, noisier than our own house in town by far. Hunting, fishing, timber-getting. Managing stock. This is a busy place.

The little house looks both fragile and indomitable. It is locked today, but you can peep in the windows. It’s a humble little house, built about the same time as our own, but in an older style. The ruin of the original 1860s cottage remains, held up by ivy and devoured by willow, with the stink of road-kill rising from the undergrowth.

Like most of the Highlands, the Steppes is on a decayed boulder field from ancient glaciers, so there are stones everywhere floating in the earth like icebergs.  I do wonder how they might have grown fruit and vegetables here. I suspect thieving possums, wallabies and rabbits might have featured in their diet, and their skins on their beds. There is a spring by the willows near the ruined house site, and thousands of mosquitoes rise to meet us as we sit down for a picnic lunch under an old gumtree.

Like many people of their generation, the Wilsons were great builders of outhouses. The kitchen was a separate building to reduce the risk of fire. Lou and I both step inside. We are both short women and we can walk in without bending our heads, but the door lintel is only half a foot above us. It seems the size almost marks it as a woman’s space. It has tiny windows and no ventilation apart from the door. It would have been toasty in winter, but stinking hot in summer cooking over that fire. It makes me smile to think of father or brothers lovingly building a kitchen that they couldn’t comfortably enter themselves.

The Wilson men also built Madge an art studio where she could paint her water-colours of native birds and bush plants. It seems such a kind gift to me, to help her have a ‘room of her own’, acknowledging the importance of her art practice to her. It is a tiny room with rusty brown wallpaper and an Art Deco frieze at the top, but with other layers visible beneath. The lino on the floor is also in patches and layers. There are two worn rugs on the floor. I can imagine her lighting her fire and a lamp and working through short winter days or the long summer days here.

The English artist Alan Lee recently said in interview with writer and editor Terri Windling:

To draw a tree, to pay such close attention to every aspect of a tree, is indeed an act of reverence — not only toward the tree, but toward our human connection to the tree, and to nature. It is one of the magical things about drawing: it gives us almost visionary moments of connectedness. Every element (hair, wind, rocks, water) is portrayed with one material (graphite, ink, paint) which binds it all together, bringing out the harmony that we know, and science confirms, exists in nature — created as it is, as we all are, by particles that have existed since the dawn of the universe.[i]

Madge had that gift of ‘close attention’ to offer the plants and birds she knew and loved. You can find her watercolours at the Bothwell Historical Society, and at the State Library in Hobart[ii].

By the 1960s, the rest of Madge’s family had either died or moved on from the Steppes, but she never came down from the mountains. I can imagine solitude and silence, as well as mountain community and the constant sounds of the wind in the trees, like living by the sea. I can imagine making art, of daily work to keep the property and self together until finally in advanced old age it might get beyond you and the circle of what you can accomplish in a day begins to shrink. The sound of visitors travelling by car was probably a comfort to her, especially if like Jack Thwaites they dropped by for a friendly visit.

It’s probably Jack Thwaites and the Hobart Walking Club to whom we owe the preservation of the Steppes. When they came venturing into the Highlands during the 1960s and 70s it would have felt wonderfully remote, and to this day the Highlands still feels like ‘somewhere else’, a distinct place to the Midlands below to the east, or the West Coast. They praised the Steppes for the serenity and companionship they found there.

Our daughter wants to explore further, so she and I walk together down a path between prickly pink mountain berry and stringy bark gums. It doesn’t take long to feel as though we have been swallowed up by the bush, and as in many places in Tasmania it feels as though the bushland here is biding its time, to swallow up the fragile buildings of the Steppes. But never once do we lose the sound of the highway and the traffic. Then in a clearing we find the late Stephen Walker’s bronze sculptures of local animals set in a circle of dolerite stones and ‘dedicated to those who share in the love and care of the Highlands, from the past to the future.’

There is something endearing about them. Like Madge’s watercolours earlier, Stephen Walker offered the animals and rock of the Highlands that ‘close attention’ and loving recognition that is like a prayer. The stone circle would make anyone of Anglo-Celtic blood think of sacred ground. These are sacred, his sculpture says to me, this ground is sacred; it is all sacred inside and outside the circle. Our daughter touches the wombat, the snake, the echidna, perfectly happy.

On the way back she is tired and needs a lot of reassurance that ‘No we are not lost; we just need to follow the path’. But although I couldn’t see the Steppes property through the trees and scrub, I was left in no doubt of where the road was. Just follow the sound of the traffic.

As we get ready to leave, we ask our daughter what she thinks. ‘I’d like to live here,’ she says, ‘I like the sad big trees’, and she gestures to the centuries old gum trees near the house.

I…. wouldn’t like to live there, not now. I’d love to follow the shepherd’s paths up into the mountains by foot or even on horseback. I’d love to camp under the stars and hear the bush at night. I’d love to feel the heat and glare of the Midlands in summer drop away. But if I lived at the Steppes now, I think the only time that little house would feel like it belonged to me was when the rattle and hum of the utes, the four-wheel drives, and our own cars were gone for the day, when night fell, and the bush was thick with stars and silence.


[i][i] https://www.terriwindling.com/blog/2020/09/the-mythic-art-of-alan-lee.html

[ii] https://archivesandheritageblog.libraries.tas.gov.au/life-at-the-steppes/

Watershed: The Pipeline and Kunanyi/Mount Wellington | January 2019

STORY BY ELIZABETH CARROLL | ILLUSTRATIONS & PHOTOGRAPHS BY LOUISE THRUSH

‘To live, for me Jane, is to stand on a crater-crust that may crack and spew fire any day.’ Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte.

I should start with the fires. It was a hot dry summer, and a week before I stood on top of a hill with friends and family, watching dry lightning striking over and over as far as I could see. Now, far to the south west, a fire is burning out of control at the Gell River. We can’t yet see or smell the smoke, but the awareness of it is like a burr that I keep fingering in my mind.

Lou and I have a Monday to walk, write and make art. ‘Let’s do some Stone and Tree’, we say. But where? The city is January-hot and glaringly bright and choked with tourists from two cruise ships.

Water is on our minds. Water, shade, coolness, quiet. I can see the streams of the Mountain in my mind’s eye, almost hear and smell them. We decide on the Pipeline Track, halfway up Mt Wellington/kunanyi.

The Old Huon Road wraps around the mountain’s middle like a girdle, tight bends curving around tall trees, houses on steep driveways, sudden gushes of water pouring down rocks. We get out of the car and breathe deeply in relief. It’s easy 5- 10 degrees cooler, and the air is perfumed with white bells of Tasmanian Christmas bush and the smells of leaf mould and gum trees.

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But even here at Fern Tree it’s crowded. Bus tours from the ships drop off bewildered-looking tourists for a toilet stop, or to cluster mournfully at the closed pub. We will not be escaping people today. Then perhaps I shouldn’t expect that with the Pipeline track anyway – it’s always a sociable place, with lots of dog walkers, joggers and cyclists. But for two women to rediscover their walking legs it’s a good choice. It’s been nearly a year since our last Stone and Tree adventure. I come here a lot, and so as with the Gorge, this place is layered with memories.

The Pipeline Track runs along a literal pipeline, transporting water from the creeks of Browns River and North West Bay River to reservoirs in Dynnyrne. When Hobart was first settled by white people, they chose the site because of what we now call Hobart Rivulet: a cool fresh, perennial source of water from the Mountain above. The governor set up rules to protect the stream, but by and large these were ignored and as the waste from new tanneries, abattoirs, wool mills and sewerage flowed it became dangerous to drink for the poorest people who lived nearby. The Pipeline was built to supply clean water for everyone, not just the wealthy.

Wellington_Park 2smallWe start out with the walk to Silver Falls. The Christmas bushes arch like an avenue overheard and drop their white bells on the path and everywhere. I pull them out of my hair and walk with them in my hand. I feel welcomed – maybe like a guest at a wedding stepping on scattered petals in the wake of the bride and groom. The smell of the Christmas bush flowers is sweet, somewhere between alyssum, honey and mint. When the forest blooms with them in December and January, and the wind blows from the right direction you can smell their blossoms from kilometres away.

The sounds of running water are everywhere, which is a relief in this dry, troubling summer. The path is broad and flat, with a row of sandstone blocks running down the centre. As far as I understand it, we’re walking along the top of the Pipeline – so I walk it like a tightrope, imagining the water flowing beneath my feet.

Wellington_Park 3SmallWe turn off up the steeper hill to Silver Falls, beloved picnic area of Edwardian-era families. Like the Gorge in Launceston, Fern Tree gave Hobart people relief from the heat in the era before air conditioning. I can imagine them clearly, on Sunday-school picnics and Christmas parties, walking up the path in the cool. Working men in their moustaches and bowler hats, the boys imitating their fathers in their best waistcoats, the girls with bows in their hair, the women in their best hats carrying picnic baskets. Or middle-class families walking from a nearby holiday ‘shack’, with the women and girls in white, because someone else will be doing their laundry afterwards. I day-dream about Strawberry Feasts, held at the local church as charity fundraisers with locally grown berries. Would you like your berries in a paper cone sprinkled with sugar? Or with cream and pancakes?

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We reach a cistern, with a pipe overhead like a bridge. Here is the sound of water again. Brown’s River is flowing past us – a baby creek here, half diverted into the Pipeline and half left to tumble down the belly, knees and feet of the Mountain and empty out at Kingston Beach. The creek is managed with cement and stone channels deep in moss and leaves, colonised by the forest.

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The track turns steeper and I am definitely feeling out of practice. Just enough effort and we are there. Silver Falls is a baby waterfall on a cliff face maybe four or five metres tall. It is a refreshing place in the heat of summer. Everything around us is covered in a soft fuzz of moss, now drying in the summer’s drought. To the right another track winds up the hill, and another cistern catches and diverts water away into the Pipeline. Look a little more closely; there is a basin below the falls, made of cut stone and cement. Both the track and the water are managed but also they are beginning to look as though they have always been there, 150 years on.

Looking east through the forest we see a low stone wall, almost hidden in moss and leaf litter. I step off the track and into the bush with a slight feeling of transgression.

‘It looks like an old tram track,’ I call to Lou, ‘maybe to bring equipment or materials into the site?’

Lou isn’t sure about leaving the path, but she comes and looks in the end. And that brings us to a conversation as we walk back down the path. About our worry about getting off the path, away from where we are supposed to be. We worry about damaging what we love. We worry perhaps about getting lost, although neither of us ever has been and here it would be impossible. Perhaps we feel at the heart of it that we shouldn’t be here, we conscientious white middle-class walkers.

How we miss out. A walking track is a curated experience – we see what we are intended to see. Here is a small, unexpected surprise – just a piece of rail lying atop a mossy stone wall.

Forests often make me feel oddly hopeful. I like the feeling of the leaf litter and moss and fern spores falling on manmade things just like they do the ‘natural’ things: boulders and fallen trees. It comforts me to know that fungi and moss don’t distinguish between artificial or natural, but convert whatever is suitable to their use until they slowly decay into smaller and smaller parts.

We walk down to the cross-path corner, and turn south towards Neika and the Wishing Well. We pass shelters for snow and storms, with chimneys where once people might have warmed themselves, now looking like they are quietly being devoured into leaf-mould and lichen. 

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We start to see gates from hidden houses leading onto the Pipeline track. Some are grandly marked with stone pillars and steps, and some are simple. Some lead into the bush and some into dense gardens with roses in cages to protect them from possums and wallabies. I wonder what it would be like to step out one of these gates and onto the path, to a friend’s place, or to the pub in Fern Tree perhaps on a winter’s night with a torch in falling snow.

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We catch our first views to forever opening out to Storm Bay and Iron Pot, to South Arm, the Peninsular and Bruny, all far below. I remember another walk with another friend, saying what she loved was the layers of peninsulas, islands, and then the open sea all the way to Antarctica. ‘More, and more and more, and then nothing,’ she said with delight.

I say to Lou that I always imagine the lives people live in a place like this must be just that bit more interesting – artists, academics, dreamers and fools, all seeking winter snow and summer cool, and the voices of the Mountain like a roar in your ears. Still, this is not a place for transcendent solitude. It always strikes me as intensely sociable. The houses are all within sight of each other. People know their neighbours here, and they stop to talk on the track with us.

I wonder if the Mountain works on you, makes you into something rich and strange, more a hybrid. Perhaps we are all under its influence; perhaps we are all slowly changing into something else? Something bigger than ourselves working on us.

The thought of the faraway fires nags and prickles. In past years I’ve seen smoke billowing over the Mountain, sucked up by a katabatic wind from forests in the south west. It looked like a volcano from the deep past, when the dolerite ranges of Tasmania were made. In many ways living near it is like living near a volcano. We never really know when the next big fire will be. Will we be there, staring up in horror and awe as the sky glares orange and cinders fly over our rooftops? How deeper the horror and awe for the people who live on the Mountain or just at its feet, because they don’t want to be anywhere else?

Wellington_Park_smallMy thoughts of fire cool at the Wishing Well, the end point of this part of our walk. The Wishing Well is a stone circular cistern that diverts water to the Pipeline, but also sends it down its proper path back into Fork Creek. The water pours in from several mouths into the central well. It sounds like a bath that never quite fills. There is a metal screen over the top to prevent anyone from falling in, and as you peer through the mesh you can see more ferns and moss, making it look like a cool, secret, living place. We follow the advice on the nearby sign and try walking around it three times and making a wish before heading back to Fern Tree.

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As we walk back we can see the Pinnacle and the Organ Pipes towering above us. Up there is where the water we have been hearing and smelling comes from, and the water much of inner Hobart still drinks every day. We decide to drive up to explore the watershed.

The Pinnacle is nearly always crowded these days. I love the view, and generally I love watching people having fun but today it’s just too much. Too many people posing with their cameras, laughing and shrieking. That huge space of sky and plateau seems to make some people want to fill it with noise. We walk away south from the trig point, the Lookout and the stinking toilets, down the track a-ways. We can still hear the shouting and laughter, but with distance it becomes almost soothing, a reminder of the space between us and them.

We are on a sloping plateau of rock and minute alpine scrub, dust-dry and tough as dolerite. The maps say this is where the water collects that filters through the rocks and forms the springs that then become part of Hobart’s oldest drinking supply. We sit on a rock as far from everyone else as we can manage, looking out over the estuary. The wind is at our backs, yes, but also the uplift from below meets us, touches our faces. We see small clouds forming below us and come wandering up the slope like sheep. They brush over the ground, over the rock we sit on, over us, engulfing us in that misty taste of water vapour, and then they are gone.

Now I can see how it works, even on this hot dry day. How the water collects – the warm, moist air from below upwelling and meeting the colder air from the mountain range. The maps show it as a marsh. One day I would like to see it filling with water.

Back at Fern Tree near the pub again, there is a pumping station by a path that leads down to the reservoirs where the water is collected. It sets the water pulsing through the Pipeline like blood in an artery. As we walk through the forest to the stone aqueducts we can hear the water rushing over our heads to a steady beat.

The reservoirs that saved Hobart’s people from thirst and typhoid look like two small lakes cupped in the flank of the mountain. It is late afternoon as we reach the lakes and look at the water gleaming from behind the fence-line. Dynnyrne is always chilly, and there is always something mysterious about lakes, whether made or natural. Is it just me, or do they always seem… inhabited? Certainly if a head broke the surface to look back at us I wouldn’t be too surprised.

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‘Look! Native cherry!’ says Lou. We wander over to the tree and begin to pick and eat these tiny little fruit – they taste a little like a waxy, resinous dry tomato. As always there’s a pleasure in tasting the place we’re in, as well as smelling, touching, listening and seeing. Lou puts some in her hat to take home.

Later that afternoon when we pick up my daughter, I give her some native cherries to eat as well and see the delight in her face as she tastes something new, and passes me back the little dark-green seeds that sit like caps on the fruit.

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After I wrote this, we spent weeks breathing smoke as fires bloomed across Southern Tasmania. When I visited the Pipeline again in a month’s time I could barely breathe for smoke, and helicopters buzzed overhead like something from the movie Apocalypse Now. The Mountain’s katabatic wind up its western slope sucked bushfire smoke from over 100 kilometres away and spewed it over Hobart and beyond. We all breathed the same smoke together, the same air as from the south west wilderness – the wilderness that the Mountain is connected to and part of.

For those weeks, that sense of connection tasted bitter.

Mt William National Park|January 2018

STORY BY ELIZABETH CARROLL | ILLUSTRATIONS & PHOTOGRAPHS BY LOUISE THRUSH

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World’s End

I am driving to the edge of the world as my daughter sleeps in the back seat. The car’s wheels drift sideways in deep gravel and judder over corrugations. I’ve left St Helens far behind and have been driving through dry pasture and scrub for what feels like hours. I am heading to the north-eastern tip of Tasmania, to a place I’ve never been: Mt William National Park. It is Australia Day and the middle of a heatwave. My daughter and I are participating in a great Tasmanian tradition: camping on a long weekend. If we can get there.

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Mount William National Park hugs the coast for miles and miles. Right now it feels as though the northern tip of Tasmania has been stretched to unimaginable lengths, like a piece of plasticine. You could hide all of manalargenna’s mob up here and still have room for the thirteenth tribe of Israel and a US base. No one would ever know.

Which is the right road to Stumpy’s Bay? In the dry bush there is a turn-off to Anson’s Bay, and I’m now so tired that I can’t remember how far it is from Anson’s Bay to Stumpy’s Bay, or that thing I usually always know how to do: visualise where I am, and the route I will take to get there. I’m as close to lost as I’ve been in seven years.

I take my best guess and head towards Anson’s Bay. My daughter wakes up and asks where we are, and why aren’t we camping yet? We drive into a village of holiday shacks among gumtrees facing a bay. Kids are riding their bikes along the road, and a group of women walk their dogs. I stop the car on the grass, and my phone chooses this moment to clap out – no further navigation will be had. The women look at me with one part curious appraisal and one part rueful sympathy as my daughter’s exasperated wails rise – just from their faces I can guess that they know my car isn’t ‘from here’. I am officially a lost tourist. So I get out and ask for help: ‘Can you tell me how to get to Stumpy’s Bay?’

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They look at each other… ‘No, sorry I’ve never heard of it.’

Perhaps it’s then that I realise just how big the North East really is.

‘Bob will know though. We’ll go ask him. Turn your car around, park up there,’ the woman gestures, ‘and come find us.’

Thankfully, I can let my daughter out and Bob comes to meet us. He is burned and tanned to a colour between darkest brown and burgundy from being out of doors all the time. One look and I know that he’ll know the answer. He listens and says ‘Oh yes, you came the wrong way. Go back to the intersection, and head towards Gladstone. Keep turning right, never left and you’ll get there.’ Then he looks at how tired and hot and frazzled we both are and says ‘Now do you have someone to meet when you get there?’ I answer that we’re meeting friends. ‘And how are you for petrol?’ I confess that I’m on the last quarter tank. ‘You should be right then, but you’ll need to fill up at Gladstone when you leave. Otherwise I’d get you some now.’

And just like that I am no longer lost. As he heads back to his shack with his dogs I think ‘Yep, that’s it: that’s Tasmania right there.’ A cool breeze blows up from the bay and makes the trees dance. I can hear the sounds of kids, of parents talking, dogs barking. This is a beautiful place.

We walk a bit, sharing the evening light, the breeze and the sounds of happy people. I imagine what it must be like to come here every holiday, so everyone gets to know you, kids playing together, fishing, swimming, hunting, or just pottering ‘at the shack’. Tasmania is full of towns or even suburbs like Taroona that started out just like this – a bit of cheap land, a few friends, a do-it-yourself house, and somewhere to come back to, for a generation or two. Long may this place stay just as it is – no more, no less. I’ve read that shacks are what poorer people built in the fifties and sixties because they couldn’t afford a ‘big holiday’. Now to me they are a token of belonging, of roots here in those words: ‘I’m off to the shack this weekend.’ I can never hear those words without a little tug in my heart of longing for somewhere handed down for a generation or two – even where it is can tell you so much about a family history. But if you can’t get that, you can always camp. So we are camping.

We get in the car and hit the road again, and finally arrive on a flat hinterland of wallaby-lawn, scrub, hard-bitten gums, banksia and dust-dry swamp-pans. The sun is setting over Mount Cameron in the distance. It feels like the North East coast of Tasmania might be the one cool spot in Australia right now, with a cool, sticky sea breeze blowing through the she-oak forest at the campsite. We can hear the breakers booming behind a low dune and the far-off roar of the sea along the coast. Lou and her friend are set up already and help us to unpack and set up before nightfall. Lou takes my daughter to the beach for her first look at it. Wallabies browse ostentatiously on dry she-oak needles off the forest floor by our tents as if to say: look at this stuff we have to eat, do you have anything nice? My daughter zooms around and around the she-oak forest, and meets a few of the kids. Lights come on in the little village of tents, vans and Utes. People sit outside their tents and talk, and cook dinner.

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Then a small-child catastrophe: I hear her crying in that terrible way that says she is hurt. Two little boys with sticks see my face and slink away. She’d been trying to play with them and one of them hit her – the stick hurt, but the confusion and betrayal hurt more. She tries to explain to me again and again: ‘I wanted to play!’ Cuddles and reassurance are all I have, and the hope that the other kids will be nicer.

In the dark we walk down to the beach together. The pale sand glimmers, with tangles of seaweed and kelp dark shadows underfoot. The waves come to shore with a vicious ‘crump’ and suck back in a fierce under-tow, like they want to eat the world. Over the next two days that sound punctuates each thought I have until I am in a dream-like state.

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Two figures stand with a little lantern and big surf-fishing rods: a man and a woman. My daughter wants to know what they are fishing for, so we wander over and ask. ‘Probably nothing,’ the man replies, ‘but shark if we’re lucky. Mind you it doesn’t matter, does it? It’s beautiful anyway.’

We fall asleep that night to the boom and the roar, and the breeze in the she-oaks.

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We wake covered in a film of sea-mist. My clothes, the tent, everything I brought with us drinks it like a sponge, and changes, softens – except my hair which springs up in curls that defy a comb.

My daughter is beside herself with excitement: ‘Can we go to the beach now?’

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I am full of things that need to be done, like making breakfast, talking to our friends, while she zooms around and around the she-oak forest, meeting all the kids on the site and most of the adults too. I get it, I do: but I live in two worlds, one where I can rush to meet that vastness I hear eating the beach, and one where I need coffee, want to eat, make sure her pants and hands are clean, I haven’t spoken to Lou in months, slow down, sorry we’ll go soon. I am frustrated by myself, but can’t quite seem to stop the hundred and one tasks that seem to need doing.

Finally, finally we are over the dune and onto the pale sand. The beach runs in a long, long curve to a headland to the west, and is broken by granite in the east where cormorants roost. Everything is smudged by the sea-mist that dampens our clothes and tangles my hair. The air is rich with the smell of kelp and decay, and scattered across the littoral is an array of kelp, mermaid’s purses, shells, cuttlefish bones, driftwood. Beyond the breakers, the sea is palest milky aquamarine by the shore and stormy grey beyond.

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This is a beach holiday, but I feel no desire to swim in this sea. It is too serious. That world devouring under-tow would have us halfway to Cape Barren in minutes. But we poke at the bounty left to rot on the shore by the tide, and talk about death – there are so many dead things washed up by the tide here, so many little animals that have left their eggs or their shells or their bodies behind – and life, because this sea is teeming, it must be for there to be so much dead on this shore. And all this tangled living, dying, death, decay, bones and shells left behind, the near-white sand glimmering, is so beautiful. My eyes find meaning and pattern as in the greatest open-air art installation ever known, maybe by the Aboriginal artists Julie Gough and Lola Greeno. And I wish I had a kelp-skin coat, and a kelp-skin dress, and could put off my old skin a while and walk into the sea with my daughter.

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I look up and the same two little boys from last night are following us, holding the biggest crayfish head I’ve ever seen, and more sticks. There is something intent about them, and when I look up they freeze with the blank looks of boys plotting mischief. So not ‘holding’, but ‘armed’ with sticks and a crayfish head.

Right.

‘Go away,’ I say, and we turn and walk on.

They follow silently.

‘No, that’s enough. You hurt my daughter yesterday and we don’t want to play with you today. Go away. We don’t want to play.’ The bigger boy gets it. He takes his little brother away.

We head down to a rocky reef near the shore and look at blood-red anemones and tiny sea snails in rock pools. Finally my daughter can have her ‘splash’ and paddle, sheltered from the surf. There is an enormous abalone shell shining in the water like a moon. The size of the crayfish head and abalone shell remind me again of the rich life on the rocky reefs, at odds with the dry, over-grazed wallaby lawns and dry swamp-pans on the hinterland. Is it just that there are less people to set their pots or dive for abalone here, that the reefs aren’t so endlessly picked over and over?

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As we fossick, I think of the old people, of women’s foods of shellfish and crays roasted in the fires. All that stuff I’ve brought on this camping trip, where once the first people just knew when to be here, what to eat. And presumably where to sit. This is some of the prickliest country I’ve visited, with every plant armed and under the she-oaks swarming with jack-jumpers and inch-men. Where would I sit without a chair, and without much of a covering for my backside?

Back at the campsite for lunch as we fend off the inch-men, I think of this again: I don’t hunt, I don’t fish, and I don’t know the plant foods to forage here either. Everything I need to keep myself and my daughter alive on a three day camping trip has come from somewhere else. We sleep on a plastic bed, in a plastic tent, no matter that it is soft and damp with sea-mist. Even Lou’s water-melon has been grown by a farmer in Scottsdale, some 80-odd kilometres away, the product of agriculture and a road-side stall.

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I feel a kind of shame in that, that I can’t walk away from my tent, my cooking pots and food supply and be okay. The land here is rich in life and potential food, but by the time I learned to harvest it we’d be in a bad way. At home my little garden is heavy with figs, plums, tomatoes – further up the mountain I know pandani, tree-ferns, native currants and native cherries, and I know where the pademelons like to camp out back of the Myrtle Forest. Then I realise: okay, I could club to death one of these wallabies that are clustering around the campsite waiting to be fed our bean casserole, and maybe I’d get by for a while, but it’s that I don’t know this country. Just as surely as I was lost when I first got here, this place is… just unfamiliar, as much as anything. Like everywhere else I know, it will take time to get to know it, for it to get to know me, for there to be any kind of relationship. At the moment it is enormous, prickly, baffling and strange.

Strange.

It’s like being lost all over again.

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The strangeness sinks into my heart with a little shiver, and I love it. I would come here again because it is strange to me and I don’t understand it. I don’t know where to sit, there are inch-men everywhere, and beyond my sight in water I don’t dare take my daughter into are abalone the size of bread-and-butter plates and crayfish with heads nearly as big as hers. There are soft globular birds-nests hidden in banksia and encroaching wallabies like nicotine addicts wanting to bott a cigarette at the station. Beyond these hills men will be hunting for deer or feral pigs, just as sure as they are setting pots for crays near Anson’s Bay, and there are families here who keep coming back year after year who understand it, and I don’t. And I love that. A whole world that I don’t understand.

Did white settlers get that feeling too, that fizz of excitement at the strangeness of the new country that is the sister to fear?

_DSC8428smallOver the next two days my daughter befriends just about every child and half the adults at Stumpy’s Bay. The sea remains too rough to swim in, but on the last day as people pack up, I ask one of the mums whether she’d like me to watch her kids and mine as they build sand castles, so she and her partner have time to pack. For the next little while we all build elaborate sandcastles with shells for windows and doorways, with moats and banners flying of stiff seaweed. We have one of those perfect holiday moments of mad invention: ‘That’s your castle, you swim in the moat – see that’s your bedroom window’. When the girls’ mum comes to collect them, two little boys come up behind her and I think they might have been the ones I scolded the day before. Ah well.

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My daughter and I go for one last windswept walk along the beach, and then Lou’s friend comes to baby-sit while I head back, ostensibly to pack. Instead I find Lou and we sit for a little while among the biggest art installation in the world and listen to the waves devouring the shore.

‘I want to take some of it with me,’ she says, ‘even though I know I shouldn’t.’

I look at the vast tangle of it all. ‘I don’t know. I reckon the old timers would say there’s plenty where that came from.’

I end up picking up flotsam from the shore, certain that this place will elude me, that I will need reminders of that feeling of strangeness and being a stranger.

Back home now, a frayed half circle of driftwood, a piece of kelp tougher than leather, a she-oak cone, an abalone shell glowing like the moon and two pipi shells sit on our doorstep, fragmented, bleaching, out of their context, reminding me.

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The Cataract Gorge February/November 2017

STORY BY ELIZABETH CARROLL | ILLUSTRATIONS & PHOTOGRAPHS BY LOUISE THRUSH

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The Sacred River

When my husband and I first went walking through the Gorge together, it was at night. We took the cliff-top walk from town by the river. The chasm roared with the sound of water below, and the lamps dotted a path to fairyland. Pademelons scampered through the under-growth and a late peacock called. We could see the lights of the Gorge restaurant gleaming through the trees like the lights of Rivendell.

We kissed each other, and I remember chanting the first verse of ‘Kubla Khan’:

‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure dome decree

Where Alph the sacred river ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.’

‘This,’ I said, a little dizzy from kissing, peacocks, chasms and Coleridge, ‘must be the most capital R Romantic place I’ve ever been. Somewhere out there a woman should be wailing for her demon lover.’

It was partially on the beauty of the Gorge that we moved to Launceston a few years later. We chose a house nearby, and I walked there at least once a week, so for me to write about the Gorge is to write about a place layered and layered with memories of all times of day and night, and all seasons.

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The chasm, silver in the light of the moon a hundred feet or more below my feet as I pass over the Zig Zag track in the middle of the night.

The pools in the First Basin hard as pavement under ice, or wriggling with tadpoles in spring.

The girls who sun themselves on the flat rocks beneath the bridge like water nymphs, making me wish I’d grown up and swum there too.

The hidden shelter shed that stank of beer and sex, and was black with scorch-marks and graffiti.

A honey-moon lunch in the restaurant, and hamburgers and chips eaten ravenous after returning from Cradle Mountain.

The locals flocking to watch the floodwaters in winter, like crowds to a football game.

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The tourists, the joggers, the locals playing with their kids. The she-oaks whispering. The smells of stone, river mud and bushland. The Gorge made me feel rich. I was never bored or lonely with it as my backyard.

‘Great! Parking’s free now!’ Lou says as we pull up in our car.

It’s late Saturday afternoon, and golden hour. Lou, my husband, my daughter and I pile out of the car and walk through the iron gates. The green wallaby-lawn runs down to the blue of the public pool and the dark waters of the lake beyond. Already I can hear the waters rushing, and the cool breath of the river canyon touches my face.

 

In winter I have seen the Gorge fill with fog, pouring out of the mouth where it meets the Tamar, like the breath of a dragon.

Lou points: a white bird briefly glows golden, soaring across the First Basin. ‘A pair of goshawks nests here,’ she says, pointing to where the sun seems to be teetering on the tip of the hill.

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‘I never knew that,’ I say, shaking my head. How did I not know that?

From the other side of the lake, among the pines the peacocks call.

I’ve seen them stake out nearby houses and honk like broken trombones, ‘demanding birdseed with menaces.’

My daughter is excited: ‘Peacocks, where are you?’ and we explain that we will find them soon, but first we will walk along the cliffs, across the bridge, see if we can find pademelons.

_DSC7202_webWe are walking along the hot, dry, north-facing side, and the rocky cliffs are giving back their trapped heat. I smell sweet river mud and a family barbecue. I always remember the sound of the South Esk flowing over the cataracts – I could hear that in the middle of the night from our house. But I’d forgotten the symphony of smells that rise when the air cools and the dew begins to fall. I smell the tangy, pungent gums, the sweet must of she-oaks. Cooling dolerite pillars also have a smell – a bit like petrichor. Someone has sprayed ‘psycho divine c*ntz’ on the immortal rock. I… don’t even know what that means.

A pademelon feeds in the bush below the track, and we point it out to our daughter, but she can’t quite see it. Beyond the tumble of scree and the hormonally-charged shelter shed, is a bay with a lip of broad flat rocks and a fringe of reeds. Kids swim from here in the summer out to the cataract below the swinging bridge. It’s late spring now and no one is swimming here right now – but that just means we’ve missed her.

The lady who swims across the First Basin every day, rain or shine. I’ve never met her yet.

 

Scum from the pounding of the water piles up in creamy folds around the bay, like the froth on an ageing cappuccino.

She-oak loves dolerite and dry dolerite soils. It has skin rough as orc’s hide and segmented needles that colour russet-red with tiny flowers in autumn. Long, weeping branches brush our faces – the breeze makes them sing, a sound like a child pretending to be the wind. Lou picks some and tells me local First Tasmanians used to nibble on the needles to freshen their breath. We try it. My second surprise for the day. Apart from a grass-green flavour they taste sour and refreshing, like yellow wood sorrel or ‘sour sops’ that I learned to chew as a child.

We meet man walking down from Duck Reach on the narrow path. He smiles a little shyly and says hullo. His skin is the deep tan of out-doors, and he has that complex reek of someone unwashed for weeks. He has a similar, purposeful stride to the joggers you so often see on this track. I wonder what his story is.

We walk over the swinging bridge, perhaps thirty metres above the chasm. Look back, and there’s the view of the Basin before the Gorge reforms and empties out into the Tamar. Look forward and there is the river roaring, the grey pillars and scoured platforms creamy pink with mineral salts and lichen, potholes worn by river stones; all constantly, slowly splitting, fracturing, tumbling into the river. White moths dance above the wattle, and a grey heron swoops over the bridge and down into the chaotic tumble of rock. The river mud smell and the electrifying tang of wet stone rise up.

The canyon funnels the breeze and brings the smell of the farmland and mountains beyond. It always smells like freedom to me, and I can’t stand here without a fizz of excitement, of ‘farther up and farther in’.

The flat platform rocks below beckon, too. I would love to be brave enough to pick my way out there one summer, and sit in that rollicking rush of water, like the teenaged girls do, and be a real daughter of the Esk. To stand at a height is to feel the urge to step off, and if I could, I would step off the bridge and take my place there.

My daughter looks down. ‘Climb up? Swim in the water?’ she asks. Ah, you too, I think.

‘Not yet,’ I say, resisting the urge to hold her close and away from the edge. ‘I think you will swim there one day.’

My husband and Lou taste she-oak needles on the other side, waiting for us. I nibble the ones I put in my pocket, and then try these – they are different, greener in flavour. My husband is unimpressed. I keep nibbling. I think this might be the first time that I’ve eaten something from here, and native foods always feel sacred.

IMG_5519webWe pass into the cooler, damper side of the Basin. The citizenry of Launceston planted pines and cool climate trees here for a pleasure garden, and it is full of whimsy and follies, like the faux bois shelter sculpted of cement to look like tree- trunks, the creek gully planted with daffodils, the rotunda that could be a miniature of Coleridge’s ‘pleasure dome’. The air changes, now cool and charged with pine. Native plantings are purple with bush mint and white stars of native clematis. The peacocks are calling ‘Key-orr! Key-orr!’

When he saw the entrance of the Gorge from the Tamar in 1804, mariner William Collins said it was one of the most beautiful places he’d seen – an oddly Romantic feeling amid the pragmatism of surveying land for settlement. The Gorge could yield no wealth. But from Collins on, Vandemonians seem to have been keenly aware of the Pastoral, Picturesque and the Sublime, perhaps because they lived out these philosophies in the new environment they found themselves in. Woolmers and Brickendon are the Pastoral dream of working and shaping the land and water to create plenty. The Gorge is the Picturesque, shading into the terror of the Sublime at midnight or in flood: a place where people can seek out something bigger than themselves or their immediate concerns and forget themselves a while in awe or wonder. The Romantics believed that was how they could come close to God. The iron gates and the cliff-walk from town were designed by the park planners to enhance that sense of arrival into another world.

IMG_6343webBy the 1890s, when the plans for the pleasure gardens and cliff walks were being made, it was the fashion in Australia to seek out cool, damp spots for picnics, and give them names like ‘Fairy Dell’ – I’ve seen other cool ferny spots similarly named in Tasmania. They gave respite in summer from the blazing sun. The constant breeze of the Gorge would lift your spirits in a time of no air conditioning. With music playing, ices at the kiosk and a swim, and you have a summer wonderland.

The rhododendron forest adds to the sense of fantasy, heavy with bumblebees and scenting the air. I’d not realised they were so fragrant, until Lou gives me a fallen bloom and I tuck it behind my ear. There is a boobook in the gully and we hear it now ‘boo-book, boo-book’ over and over while we explain to our daughter that that is an owl she hears. Pademelons bounce out of the sheltering rhododendrons and down to the water. Even in this fantasy garden the wild world is everywhere: just as in ‘Kubla Khan’, the human-made and natural mingle, to the point where I wonder if the Launceston City and Suburbs Improvement Association were working off the text for their inspiration.

‘And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills….’ Check

‘Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree…’ Check.

‘And here were forests ancient as the hills…’ Check.

‘Enfolding sunny spots of greenery….’ Check.

IMG_1608On the lawns by the kiosk a family of Chinese tourists are gathered around a peacock in full green and bronze display. They form a little circle, taking photographs, and one of the men comes close to him, murmuring encouragement. A peahen wanders off unattended through the trees. The peacocks are in full spring fever, and we see one with ten or more peahens in a circle around him, like the Chinese tourists but without cameras. He dances for them, rattling his feathers together with a soft metallic sound like a steel brush on a gong.

Every child in Launceston has probably had a pony ride on the Fairy Dell Express coach. Lou says one of the first photographs of her family shows them all on the little playground horses. Our daughter has her turn, although it disappoints her that the horses don’t move. The dell fills with twilight and a mosquito starts to bite.

An invisible bird sings a liquid, sweet song. ‘A thrush,’ says Lou, ‘I ought to know.’

Time to go.

Peacocks and peahens call to each other as they fly into the trees above our heads and settle for the night. We slip past the restaurant, which is lit golden and enticing for dinner through the trees, adding to the fantasy with its high slate roofs and finials. I wish for another evening, or a lazy afternoon here with my husband, laughing at the peacocks, who will try to steal your food.

Suddenly the klaxon call of a peacock sounds directly behind us. My daughter jumps and her arms jerk like she’s been electrocuted. The blighter is so close I can see his tongue as he shouts his ‘Key-orr! Key-orr!’ call again. He is taller than she is. Perhaps he thinks there should be birdseed? Or perhaps we left without offering him a Devonshire tea? Our daughter is hovering between delight and alarm as he keeps stepping forward. Time for firm measures, I think.

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‘That’s enough of that now,’ I say in my best motherly voice.

‘You are very noisy’ she adds.

We turn and walk away. He follows a little while further, but then lopes off in search of the tourists perhaps, to hold them up and demand treats.

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The sun has left the Gorge now but the tops of the surrounding hills are still golden. On the far side of the Basin I can see the tiny figure of the man we met, walking back along the path to Duck Reach. Down the hill, over the little bridge where the river pours out of the Basin and the Gorge reforms, water-weed flows long and green like the river daughters’ hair. The Basin is cool now and pademelons dot the lawns. Our daughter rock-hops, holding her Daddy’s hand.

I wish I’d be here to see the moon rise this time.

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