STORY BY ELIZABETH CARROLL | ILLUSTRATIONS & PHOTOGRAPHS BY LOUISE THRUSH
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
We 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.
We 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.
By 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.
On 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.
‘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.
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.