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


‘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/

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