STORY BY ELIZABETH CARROLL | ILLUSTRATIONS & PHOTOGRAPHS BY LOUISE THRUSH
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.
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?’
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.
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.
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.
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?’
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.
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.
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.
‘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?
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.
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.
It’s like being lost all over again.
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?
Over 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.
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.