Tasmania; the other Australia.
I’m walking amid mountains, between stunted, ancient snow gums with bark skinning off in long strips, pencil pines and pandanis with ludicrous heads and long leaves that clatter woodenly when you brush past them. Lower down the hill they cluster and tower; dinosaur-like, in sociable groves. My boots crunch through old snow. At one stage I enter a patch of nothofagus beech and my nostrils drink in the black, wet-wood smell of when I was a kid back in New Zealand with bare feet sinking into the leafy mat of the forest-floor. The track leads around tarns in prisons of dolerite, the rock tumbling and crumbling and shattering as if the Earth were exploding at geological pace.
At lower altitudes, the great swamp gums soar high and straight above me – the second tallest trees on the planet – racing for the clouds only to crash and topple and lie like sunken warships on the ocean floor. The battle over trees here has been long and bitter – the loggers and the activists have recently reached an uneasy truce – but Tasmania is far from the most affluent state in Australia and the tension between jobs and conservation still simmers palpably beneath the surface.
That was Mount Field, Tasmania’s first national park, on the day before the rain came. Yesterday it was still coming down but I wanted to keep moving, so I went out along the Tasman Peninsula and walked through the downpour to Cape Raoull. Here the dolerite maintains its spectacular organ-pipe structure along towering cliffs that plunge hundreds of feet to a twisting sea. The storm whips up the cliff-sides, bringing nonsensical backwards-rain and gusting blasts that rattle the heath bushes and tear at my jacket hood.
This is a peninsula of pain; of iron shackles and stone walls, of bulldogs on frantic chains. Of sheeting rain. There is only one narrow way off this thumb of land, that’s why the British authorities built their penal colony here; it’s the sandy thread of Eaglehawk neck, where the line of dogs were tied against escapees. It was to this peninsula that the armed population of colonial Tasmania sought to confine the Aboriginal population when in 1830 their “Black Line” swept the island from coast to coast in an attempt to clear the land for sheep and civilization. The indigenous people, who have lived here for 35,000 years or more, knew the nooks and crannies far too well for that – only two were captured. Still the sheer mass of the Line was enough to daunt them to an uncertain truce that over two centuries later has never really been resolved.
Driving through this area I see the swath of destruction left by the fires which this year swept out of the hottest and driest summer on record, devouring valleys and homes. Schools and churches burned to the ground as fire crews fought desperately to control the conflagration. With the return of rains the blackened gum trunks are already sprouting bunches of fresh, bushy foliage, a reminder that fire here holds no terror for the trees.
It’s intriguing and fascinating; this other, strange and beautiful Australia.