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Published: August 20th 2009
Slicing through gun tree forest...
It was a coin flip between Tasmania and Darwin, perhaps even Cairns. In place of parasols, sunscreen and holidaymakers poolside, I have opted for drizzly, pastoral, and off the radar screen. I have to congratulate myself for choosing so wisely. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but I’ve hit my stride in Tasmania. Those familiar ties are back to signal the winter stages of my brief Australian excursion. Every now and then a bitter, liquid film smothers my tongue, another reminder that the days are waning and this is my last stop. I question if I should have foregone the mainland entirely and dedicated more time poking about the perilously narrow country lanes that cut through sheep farms of the Midlands and the low but craggy peaks of the untamed Southwest. Tasmania is no less modern than its continental comrades, but within its constricted landmass there is much to investigate. Its finiteness is an advantage. It is difficult to get hopelessly lost when driving in Tasmania. Any road eventually comes to a dead end, loops around to a well-known town on the map, or simply hugs the coastline. At times, the sea is Tasmania’s way to tell motorists it’s
Great Oyster Bay
Even if on a cloudy day...
time to do a U-turn or head in another direction. Maybe over many hours, you’ll eventually get there; there’s no other choice.
Tasmania alone cannot intimidate, rather its extremes and impenetrable regions easily separate the casual traveler from the gung-ho outdoorsman. One day can be spent in cozy pubs, wineries, and shops. Only a few hours away, several climate conditions slice through sections of the island where three hundred sixty degree views reveal sweeping panoramas untouched by human existence. The swamp gum trees are more intriguing, curves on the roads more hazardous, and the rivers when in flood run more out of control.
August blankets Hobart in a soupy cocktail of rain and mist. It is home to half the island’s population, hard to believe when arriving downtown on a Sunday afternoon. The gridded streets are empty. Bundled patrons in cafés and restaurants make an effort not to project their voices. I wake up around seven thirty and lift the blinds of my suburban room in the direction of Mount Wellington and foolishly hope that I might one day get to see it. Rumor has it that in good weather it surveys the Tasmanian capital with magnificent views of
House of Assembly
Tasmania's lower house of parliament...
the harbor and the steep hilly residential neighborhoods. Every morning over tea and toast I quietly (but only temporarily) regret Tasmania and long for the blistering heat of tropical Darwin. I have no idea what I’d do there, but it would not have anything to do with electric blankets, woolen slippers, a ski cap for my head at night, and viewing my own breath in every other room of the house except the heated living room.
The island’s southeast coast is a fabled piece of real estate, both for its physical features and its history. My host has sent me to Port Arthur where he keeps a shack, a summer home as Tasmanian’s commonly refer to it. The first obstacle to overcome is the roads. For some reason, the paved thoroughfares south of the Midlands are rather curvy, narrower, and have ultra thin shoulders. The margin for error is extremely slim. Staring at the exotic gum trees while in motion will have to wait. Speed limits are more than just suggestions. Trying to grab a cell phone, map, or the remainder of a sandwich on the opposite seat could result very unfavorably; the passenger side mirrors from oncoming cars come
Tasmania's upper house of parliament...
within inches of slamming into mine on the driver’s side. Large freight trucks rip past leaving a powerful draft in their wake. I hold onto the steering wheel with both hands to ensure I do not swerve into a ditch.
The Tasman Peninsula stretches out from its starting point at Eaglehawk Neck, an isthmus a little over one hundred yards across at its thinnest point. From there on it is a bumpy extension of bays, inlets, and hills. One road encircles the quasi-island. There are few if any significant settlements. Once a beacon for convicts arriving from Great Britain, it is now primarily a tourist attraction for daytrippers from Hobart or a magnet for shacks, Bed and Breakfasts, and summertime leisure. These dark and drab days in mid August attract little more than a few campervans rented by tourists from Queensland and perhaps a tour bus or two. They come to immerse themselves in the history at Port Arthur or gawk at the violent eastern coast facing the Tasman Sea or the placid bays and yacht harbors of Storm Bay and Norfolk Bay on the western side.
The British gave birth to the concept of what is today Australia as
Warning - Animals Crossing
But it's not a squirrel...
a penal colony. It was the last stop for debtors, thieves, outcasts, and other criminals halfway around the planet. No place could be farther away from home. For some the sheer distance was punishment enough. Add to that a strange world of bizarre plants, thick prickly brush, and hopping creatures with the heads of their young sticking out of pouches. Prospectors skilled laborers with families in tow soon followed in search of a brand new lease on life. The early convicts at the end of the eighteenth century arrived at Botany Bay, now a shiny body of water over which the landing gear opens just before touchdown at Sydney’s Kingsford Smith Airport.
Less than ten percent of the convicts were locked up in the chains and leg irons most of us associate with the times. The least fortunate were sentenced to Van Diemen’s Land, renamed Tasmania in 1856. Of those a small fraction of serious offenders wound up on the Tasman Peninsula at Port Arthur for years of hard labor. The geography of the land extinguished plans of escape. Even if a team of men managed to free itself from the prison camp, the chances of escape were dangerously slim,
most often fatal.
The key to escape brings us back to that miniscule sliver of dandy soil at Eaglehawk Neck. Only through that narrow point could folks back then as today pass in order to access the rest of Tasmania. The British military built an Officers Quarters, which stands today as the oldest surviving wooden structure in Australia. Guards stood sentinel around the clock, forming an impenetrable barrier for those attempting to flee the peninsula. Swimming was often a lethal risk; some escapees did not disrobe and their clothing weighted them down in the swift currents and rip tides. In the event that prisoners did survive initial escape attempt, they had other distractions like the scavenger devils, a horrifying thought to ponder in the pitch black of night. The most daunting feature of the guard post at Eaglehawk Neck was the battery of ferocious dogs, tethered to form a chain of detection and intimidation towards anyone who dared approach them. They were bred and maltreated to be nasty and aggressive. They barked at any sudden motion, especially at night, rousing the sentry guards to attention. The names given to the vicious canines said more to the dash the dreams of
Near Tasmans Arch...
escape than direct information about the post by word of mouth. Ready to attack at a moment’s notice were cuddlesome, loveable things like Tear’em, Muzzle’em, Caesar, Ugly Mug, and Jowler. On a banner in the Officers Quarters written about the disposition of the dogs:
“There were the black, the white, the brindle, the grey and the grisly, the rough and the smooth, the crop-eared and the gaunt-eared, the gaunt and the grim. Every four-footed, black fanged individual among them would have taken first prize in his own class for ugliness and ferocity at any dog show.”
The harshness of the coastline around the Pirates Bay and the west of the Tasman Peninsula was reason enough to dissuade escape from Port Arthur. Angry winds whip waves into swells and punish the exposed cubed stones of tall and jagged sea cliffs. One gust along the trail to Devil’s Kitchen tore away the cap from my head. I found it lodged in a cluster of spiny shrubs thirty yards away. If it had not been pierced by a thorn, it would have been lost to the sea. Stunted trees permanently grow landward at a sharp angle, victim of
Stripped bark from a gum tree...
the violent wind. I make a small incursion on foot into the brush behind me for the better part of fifteen minutes. I fight the vegetation every step of the way. It is far more cumbersome, unlike the jungles of Central America or Southeast Asia where long swipes of a machete would do the trick. Here the branches are hardened and rocky and would quickly dull the sharpest of steel blades. I labor fifty yards in a handful of minutes. I come to what can only be called a clearing. It isn’t really; it is only where the dense bush has given way to a flat, spongy surface of moss. With some imagination, it would be a meadow if not for the serpentine entanglement of defoliated and blackened branches protruding from the soft, squishy floor. From tight angles dry odd-looking cones adorned with numerous oval openings project upwards. Their eyes stare back at me eerily. The scene is dreamlike. Away from the sea, the winds are refreshing and cool. The branches are twisted magical prison bars. My hatchback rental being within a stone’s throw, I await a wizard or some mystical creature born of a child’s fantasy.
Alien eyes looking back...
at the mundane and characterless façade through the bare trees at Sullivan’s Cove. That’s it? This is the best the entire state could produce as its political showpiece? How disappointing. Only later did I learn it was originally built as a customs house and I was standing on reclaimed land. During the colonial period, I would be at the bottom of the harbor. It takes a political junkie or aficionado of legislative civics to appreciate the inner functions of the Tasmanian Parliament in Hobart. The first thing that struck me is that it is a part-time legislature. The numbers of seats in both houses is reasonably proportional to the state’s meager population of 500,000. Twenty-five seats occupy the lower House of Assembly and only fifteen in the higher Legislative Council. Beyond the metal detectors of the main entrance and down a staircase into a dungeon-like chamber is a museum dedicated to the democratic history of the island. The portraits of past governors, speakers, and premiers cast blank stares at bricked vaulted columns. I stare back at their tight faces and Victorian smugness only to conclude that this is not the type that goes skydiving, bull riding at a rodeo, or
Impenetrable twisting branches...
tells a dirty joke. I pay little attention to the ornate language of framed proclamations to and from Queen Elizabeth II. Dusty and yellow-spined state statutes occupy bookshelves. Outside the former storage room for bonded goods are old steel file cabinets that impede the free flow of foot traffic. There is nowhere else to archive the travel expenses of elected members, physically or electronically.
The renovated House of Assembly was last in session on the second of July. The new odor of recently applied construction materials still lingers. I take a seat assigned to a Labour member from Devonport. Cameras capture all procedures and debates, immediately destined for broadcast online over the parliament’s website.
“Members meet only three days a week” announced the attendant. While the Assembly meets part time, the senior steward of the chamber welcomes guests and gives tours. Though he projects an air of formality, he is easygoing. “Are there any questions?”
None in the group of about ten raised their hand. I didn’t either, but had several and wanted to tap into his background of political procedure. The grey haired man of about seventy circled the room until he reached the padded green folding seat. I
Mount Field National Park
A special spot on this planet...
slapped my hand down on the chair to my right and he joined me. I leaned into him amicably and rested my forearm on the shoulder of his well tailored wool suit. “OK, so just how are the seats divided by party?” My free-and-easy approach gave away my nationality quicker than my accent.
“Well, sir, from where do you hail?”
“Ah, yes, Connecticut”, with an over enunciation on the second ‘c’ and first ‘t’. Something told me I didn’t have to say Boston or New York. He knew. Telling him I was American would have been an insult to his intelligence, status, and experience. “Of the twenty-five, it goes fourteen Labour, seven Liberal, and seven for the Greens.”
“And how often do they get together for the State’s business?”
“Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays are sitting days in Parliament. The mace”, an ornate shiny silver staff that must be on display when the House is in session, “comes out at ten in the morning and we all say the Lord’s Prayer.” The acknowledgment of God has not been kicked to the curb in Tasmania.
“I don’t see that being adopted anytime soon in Washington.”
“That’s too bad. We honor tradition.”
Is This For Real?
Visitors arrive totally unprepared...
Then a pause, “They finish about six. We are currently on winter holiday, so there are few members in town.” Everyone else in the group, aspiring journalists and feature article writers (Do they have any idea of the frustration and failures coming their way?) had buried themselves in stenographers pads, filling out the who’s where’s and why’s.
“So, between you, me, and this audio recorder, what’s your take on the upcoming elections next year? A lot of turnover?”
“Expect change” he retorted without elaborating. I let his words sink in. He sees the inner working of the members and is subject to much information and side conversations not meant for public consumption. A man in his position will not divulge any details or personal opinions; he attends to all members equally. He will, however, let me infer the outcome from what he doesn’t say.
I put my recorder away. “So, with the current composition of the House, Labour and Liberal will flip Leadership and Opposition positions. The Greens don’t have the numbers to do anything more than latch on to the majority party and form a government.” Time and wisdom have taught him not to react affirmatively to my comment.
He did not flinch. My interpretation: “Wow, Labour is about to get pummeled.”
“Time will tell.” His voice sounded like a non-threatening Vincent Price.
“Curiously, what happens in Parliament if a bill gets stuck in this house? Does it care if the upper house gets a bit grumpy?
“No! If there is no agreement after debate and committee, choice members of both houses gather behind closed doors.” I looked for a conference room that would place members of both bodies on common ground. They would most likely not meet on the House floor and the Legislative Council’s rules are overwhelmingly exclusive to lower commoners. How stuffy. How parliamentary. How Westminster.
“At Irish Murphy’s or Knopwoods?” That got him to chuckle. “We had a Speaker of our House, and Irish guy named O’Neill. He said ‘All politics is local’. There’s nothing more local than settling a dispute in a pub. Agreements are cut the same way, be it in Australian or the U.S.”
“Aye. It goes down the same way here sometimes.”
“You’ve seen it all?”
He dismissed us to his more youthful but no less refined counterpart. The others lagged behind as they organized their notes and gazed
A forty-five yard drop...
at portraits of Tasmanian politicians of yesteryear. I relished being the outsider in Parliament. I caught up to my new guide: “C’mon, we don’t need them anyway. Let’s get a move on.” I had more questions.
The first thing that stands out about the more compact but far more regal chamber is the color. Red is everywhere: the furniture, carpet, and trim. The Legislative Council’s rules are stricter and ostentatious, no different than the creaky and uncomfortable velour sofas and finely finished wooden chairs. Even the floorboards creak. Ceremony and tradition trump. The House of Assembly has embraced technology; change comes slowly to the upper house. Ethernet cable ports sprout from members’ desks. Just recently has the Legislative Council introduced desktop computers as part of its proceedings, and only begrudgingly so. It is still more common for support staff to dig through thick and voluminous encyclopedia-like reference books. By all accounts the chamber is a miniature House of Lords as was intended. British royalty can only appear here, not in the lower House. Good for them (the House of Assembly) I say. In order to approach a lectern a rigid dress code must be respected as described in several pages
Could be the set to a fantasy film...
of detail in the Standing Orders. Who can be approached, how, and in what order all matter. Next to whom each member sits denotes a rigid pecking order. One person has the floor at a time, but without a speaking limit. These archaic procedures identify The Legislative Council not just as an upper house, but as the upper class. The police have no authority to enforce the law within these walls. Bills that pass on the way to law for final signature are sealed in red wax to make it official, no different than correspondence between European leaders and subordinates three hundred years ago. Though one can draw analogies between our House of Representatives and Senate, we in the United States have long disassociated ourselves from such divisive class distinction. The dress code is as tight as Queen Victoria’s face in her inclined portrait that dominates one of the side walls. Big sister is always watching. A wonderful consolation is that members of both houses are directly elected. None are appointed. Black executive folders lean against the back of the members’ chairs. Each name is embossed in gold. The attendant here also foresaw a change in the Council’s composition after
next year’s elections. “It looks like I might have to put in a new order soon with our printer.” That comment sparked a sophomoric question from one of the university journalistic aspirants. “So, what do you think will happen?” The student pointed to the various empty red chairs.
Very wisely, the sharp looking attendant responded, “The walls have ears.” Good move. Just then, I looked up and my eyes met Victoria’s on the canvas. The pupils did not alternate back and forth like in a Scooby Doo episode. He walked over in my area of the room and held up a medium-sized timber box. “These are electorate boxes. Confidential papers go inside and then each member shuts the box. It goes underneath the seat when finished. That way no papers go awry or into the fingers of a possible adversary.” While party politics are not as virulent and do not infect the Legislative Council as severely, it is very bad form to open another’s box or even put a hand near it. Along with Victoria’s peering eyes, the clerks’ are watching as well.
My disdain for British royalty and discomfort with parliamentary government notwithstanding, the Tasmanian parliament commands well deserved
round of applause, even respect. In spite of their banishment to the forgotten island at a remote end of an absurdly distant colony, the English institutions that gave birth to modern liberal democracies are not just alive here, they are flourishing. By preserving an unquestioned loyalty to the crown, there are few better examples of a people who have exercised responsible government so far from its source. Political debate and discord bristles in Hobart, yet Tasmania’s faith in liberal democracy has resulted in vibrancy, stability, and prosperity. The next time Tasmania’s populace whinge over forestry laws or how the State wishes to take over water distribution to the municipalities, they should look at a globe and realize they’ve never had it so good.
He’s troubled and has been back to the days of early adolescence. It was kind of hard not to feel sorry for the guy. Having just finished my lesson on Tasmanian civics I popped into Irish Murphy’s on Salamanca Place, as could be expected by anyone who knows me. I was driving back to the northern suburbs of Hobart and was in for only one. Still before noon, Adam just started on a half-pint of Kilkenny.
Watch out for falling branches...
A newly pulled full pint was waiting for him above the taps. He was just getting started. He sat alone. I grabbed a seat two stools down from him and sought a way to make small talk. Sadly, it was the way he sat. He gave off an air of self-imposed isolation, begging for attention yet still wallowing in a series of personal setbacks.
“You have a friend coming for that pint?” I pointed out.
“No, it’s for me. I’ll have it when I’m done with this.” The twenty-two-year-old swiveled in my direction. He shifted his knees, now pointing at me. His body language screamed that he deep down begged for someone to pay him a bit of notice. Adam comes in regularly, but the bar staff does not converse with him and does no more than fill his commands for another beer. When he speaks they duck their heads down as of involved in filling out the paperwork over last night’s till, yet remain curiously engaged. They want to see how far Adam can fall into the pit of his own insecurities without going along for the ride or offering him a life preserver.
“Kind of early, no?” Like
Everywhere You Turn
It gets better and better...
everyone else, he caught from my accent that I was not a native Hobart maritime sailor.
“I’ll be here for a while. A mate of mine is on his way actually.” His fictitious friend never showed. “You might like to meet him. He’s American, from Cleveland. I think that is in”, he paused, “Ohio.”
“Right on, well done” I confirmed. I studied him more closely. The frames of his eyeglasses support heavy, thick lenses that make his eyes look as if they are bulging out of their sockets. His right pupil gravitates to the upper right corner of his socket.
“You know, you should meet him. He is African-American.”
“Really? He must stand out a bit around here.” But for a wave of Sudanese refuges that have settled in the city, Hobart’s overall complexion is rather pale. To come across folks of a Mediterranean background with olive skin would be a rarity.
“He and I, we hit it off. We have a lot in common.”
“Good for you.”
“He has told me about what it is like to be a minority, picked on all the time, like most black people in America.”
I paused and confronted him with a question
Is there a unicorn around the corner?
instead of facing him head on. “So you’ve been to the States, have you? You’ve seen this often?”
“No.” I subsequently learned that Adam has never applied for a passport. He has been as far as Melbourne. I didn’t know whether to give up on him or keep this flailing conversation going. It was barely afloat.
“He and I talk a lot. I can relate to him. When I was in school, it was hell.” He needed someone to dump on. The bartender came closer and pretended to wash a few glasses behind the taps. “I was picked on and ridiculed.” This I could imagine. I see it every day. Both socially awkward and with an ocular oddity, the more popular kids in high school must have feasted off him. By measuring his abysmally low self esteem, it seems apparent that neither he nor anyone else came to his rescue when he was a teenager. The damage was substantial. A few years later the aftermath has left him in a state of uncertainty about himself and his future. “It was horrible.” The bartender stayed put, not even going through the motions to pretend he was polishing cutlery. He discreetly
An overwhelming walk in the woods...
lent his ear to see how low Adam could sink.
“Those days are over. Maybe with you time you’ll forg-”
“Never. I just want to get out of here.” I offered him my extra sixteen years of experience as evidence that it will improve. However the hole out of which he must dig himself is extremely deep. “You know, I have always wanted to go to the States. I was thinking about Miami or Los Angeles.”
“No problem with that” I said plainly. Those would not be my first choices.
“There it is easy to pick up chicks.”
Whoa. Hold up Adam. One step at a time. He stood up and excused himself to go the toilets. In turning the corner he exhibited an exceedingly debilitating limp. His right leg almost dragged behind his left. My guess is that one leg has grown longer than the other. His imbalanced gait completed the scene of challenges he has to overcome. It is possible he may never come to terms with himself. I hope I’m wrong.
He came back not too much later and picked up where he left off. Out from left field, “I think I’d go to be an actor in Miami or Los Angeles.” Later on, I gave him a list of travel writers he could research when he asked me if he, too, could write. I wrote the names of six, one of whom was Australian, on the back of a beer mat. He folded it and stuffed it in the breast pocket of his dress shirt for when he wishes to mildly flirt with that career track only to abandon it before sunset.
“Yeah, but I want to get into the adult film industry.”
“Oh” I replied disapprovingly. Adam caught my tone. His self-conscious attitude tried to in some way compensate for fear of having offended me. He feared having lost the only one in the lounge willing to talk to him. I dropped my head involuntarily. How sad. The chances of him encountering success in a hot tub of surgically enhanced bare women were as likely as my completing, much less winning, the Ironman Triathlon blindfolded and with my legs bound in chains.
“It is something I said?”
“No, man. But maybe you need to take more care before any brash decisions. You can wind up doing whatever you want.”
He sulked, “I just don’t know what I want right now.” Adam isn’t stuck between a rock and a hard place; he’s just plain stuck in a rut without a clue how to free himself.
The bottom of my glass had been empty for several minutes. I sought a way to gracefully exit without dejecting him further even though I was powerless to control how he perceived the actions of others. I patted Adam on the back and shook his hand. He silently smiled at me and his face returned to the screen of his cell phone. The display was dark. “What’s wrong with it?”
“I don’t have any more credits, so I can’t use my phone.” I had nothing to counter this last setback. He commenced with the full pint of amber Kilkenny. I turned up the collar of my jacket to cover my neck and stepped into a cold thrashing afternoon rain.
Talk about saving the best for last.
If lucky, it comes around once. Sometimes it never takes place at all during the journey’s entire cycle. I am not talking about any moment, rather ‘the’ moment, better yet, ‘that’ moment. It is the unforeseen reason, no, not reason. It is the justification of why you got on that plane in the first place. It is the culmination of the hours spent online for a fare $50 lower or so not to spend fourteen hours on layover in a passenger terminal at Singapore Airport. “That” moment excuses the waits at dodgy bus stations among creepy characters, roasting in Volkswagen vans with seventeen of your newly discovered best friends, and hauling belongings up grueling flights of stairs in order to catch the next train that just pulled out of the station. Because of it, the sleepless night in a budget hotel room facing the spontaneous street party is now forgotten…all because of “that” moment.
I‘ve been through it before. It struck me in Tiradentes, a colonial gem of a town in Minas Gerais, Brazil. A year later, Angkor Wat took the same hold on me in Cambodia. Not so long ago, I recall untying myself out of the fetal position inside a crawling Jeep to take in the Kalash Valley in the northern reaches of Pakistan along the Afghan border. It stuns, it is awe-inspiring paralysis. Given I have concluded that in many ways Australia is an ordinary destination, I had given up on a run in with “that” moment this time around. Then I stepped out of the Visitors Centre at Mount Field National Park and into another place untouched by time.
The human hand has played no role in its features or development. Distinct from past “that” moments, Mount Field is a gift exclusively constructed by nature. When C.S. Lewis conceived various setting options for The Chronicles of Narnia, Mount Field must have been among the possibilities. Mount Filed is so unexpected there is no preparing for it. It does not allow for time in order to brace for the emotional and sensory impact. A rainforest beyond the imagination of any Hollywood set designer, it is a dense, vernal Eden erupting with life. Densely packed eucalyptus gum trees, many reaching more than three hundred feet in height, race skywards. The canopy shelters a lush floor of modest fern tress whose trunks rise ten feet or so before sprouting oversized ferns shoots, some four feet in length. Gurgling streams rush past in the distance, out of sight, but not out of earshot. Nature has claimed thousands of fallen trees now enveloped in a soft leafy moss along the forest floor. Each looks as if it gracefully landed in a particular spot on purpose only to be reclaimed by the forest over the course of many years; never has anything slowly decayed with such elegance and grace.
The air is chilled and moist, but never stagnant. Though odorless, Mount Field is rich in oxygen. I dance and skip up staircases and hillsides without the same type of panting I am accustomed to on other walks. White cockatoos honk and drown out all other sounds and call out to each other from the upper reaches in a floating mist among the gum trees. The wings flutter. Just to sit and listen without uttering a word to this rare and wondrous reserve should be a graduation requirement for every high school student in Tasmania.
I am alone. An opossum startles me and scampers into a hollow log upon sight of me. The whitewater surges downward at thundering Russell Falls. The cascades are at full throttle, since it has been raining consistently these past few days. The excess runoff drops the better part of one hundred twenty feet to the forest floor over a few bridged platforms. Some of the shelves are twenty yards wide on which thin trees and other leafy vegetation flourish. The showering mist from the base of the falls douses my glasses until I cannot see. A permanent wind from the collecting pool rattles all the nearby fern trees. It is arguably the most photographed falls on the island and for good reason.
Shelves of orange fungi extend perpendicularly from trunks whose bark has fallen in strips several yards long. I look ahead of me on the trail and then behind. There is not a single person anywhere but me. I have the falls, the showering mist, and the rest of the park virtually to myself. All I see is moss, ferns, and the mighty eucalyptus. If not for the signs on the trail or perhaps a compass, becoming hopelessly lost would be almost inevitable. The feel is subtropical and otherworldly.
I eventually find my way back to the modern confines of my Nissan hatchback and take to the road west in disbelief, unsure if what I just saw was real.
One of the advantages of the B61 highway is that it comes to a dead end; there is one way in, one way out. A wrong turn is highly unlikely since there are so few. Those spurs take you right back to the only paved incursion in this region of the island. The B61 was created and paved for the singular purpose of trucking materials for the construction of Tasmania’s impressive hydroelectric projects. It comes to an abrupt stop ninety kilometers west of Mount Field. Maydena is the last marginal community before an hour of hairpin twists and turns through old-growth wilderness until Strathgordon. The map gives the impression Strathgordon is a town, rather it is a grouping of vacation cottages, storage facilities for public works, and abandoned tennis courts. It may come alive in summer, but the days are very dark and lonely in August. Well before the end of the road, the impact that the hydroelectric dams has had on Tasmania’s Southwest is immediately apparent. Two massive lakes, Gordon and Peddy, have been born of the dams. To the north Lake Gordon is a reservoir of a river and blocked by the dam of the same name. On the other side of the road is Lake Peddy, far more visible. Their surfaces are free of any boats or human activity. Stern and bare mountains rise at the far side of Peddy, within sight but of out of reach for the casual daytripper.
I pull over and get out of the car at signposted turnoffs to take photographs of Lake Peddy, once a small body of water before the Serpentine Dam forced water to rise behind it. The sun fails to penetrate the low clouds. The results on my digital camera display are colorless; at least I have a few images. If able to seed light blue heather in the mountains, this very well could be Scotland. But for the rare logging truck, I share the road with no one. After Strathgordon to the Gordon Dam, I would not see another human being until doubling back for tens of kilometers towards Hobart.
The dam itself is wedged between two perilously steep hillsides. Over fifteen yards of concrete at the base hold back the force of the lake it barricades. In the shut observation tower would be a souvenir shop and information booth if there were any people around. Today it is just me and the whistling wind. Temporary breaks in the clouds allow sunlight to brighten up the open face of the dam. As I cautiously descend the steel staircases to reach the top and then walk across the lip, I am grateful for the railing. Before I go any farther, I confirm the guards are high enough to protect me from plummeting one hundred forty meters down to a cement meeting with my maker or plunge into the icy lake on the other side. Just then a gust rips my cap off my head. I catch it before it joins the water table in the gorge below. I fasten it as tightly as I can, but will not take it off; my bare crown is cold without it. I’ll take my chances. I descend each step heavily and deliberately. No need to be foolish. Each pace is accompanied by a hint of fear I try to subdue. My fingers firmly grasp the frigid steel rails and I make it to the crest of the dam.
There is nothing to truly stop anyone from leaping over either side. The curvature of the dam face permits the best views of below at the midway point. I lean over, though I bury my chest into the side of the rails first. Straight down I see a grassy, pebbled platform below which is a glossy pool of water leading to Lake Peddy. I drop a small pebble and it seems suspended in midair for several seconds before I lose sight of it. Ahead the trees tucked at the bottom of the gorge are small green bristles of a paintbrush when viewed from two hundred yards above. I am not necessarily fearful of heights, but I do not hold the position for very long. A cordoned off staircase at each end of the dam leads to the bottom. I do not let me eyes finish the zigzag journey down each flight when I imagine how laborious the climb would be to come back up. Behind is the tail end of Lake Gordon. Its dark blue waters reveal a hint of rusty tannins when waves lap against the exposed cliffs of white stone. In the inlets by the shoreline lifeless, ghostly white branches and tree trunks jut out from the surface in the hundreds, evidence of the forest that occupied the land before the basin was flooded. The remainder of the cadaverous forest stays out of sight, submerged in the foreboding waters.
The wind knocks me off balance and I trip into the retaining wall of the dam crest. Time to get back to the car.
No one who knows me would ever consider me an environmentalist. Though those with such leanings mistakenly believe I am in favor of felling every forest on the planet, ridding the oceans of the whales, dumping nuclear waste in the Yellowstone River, and turning our National Park System into a series of strip malls and twenty-four-hour drive thru Sonics. Not so, not at all. Yet I firmly and unapologetically believe we should responsibly harvest the resources available to us and if possible, replace what we sow. Some things, however, are irreplaceable.
I first noticed them on my way to the dam earlier in the day. They were camped out on the side of the road miles from any town or settlement. I got a glance of the improvised hut in the upper reaches of a free-standing swamp gum. Ropes and ladders made of newly chopped log led to the logging road below. Above it all read a banner: “STOP WOODCHIPPING OUR ANCIENT FORESTS”. I sighed and shook my head. Tree huggers. I ignored whatever their plight was and drove on to Strathgordon.
It so happened that I had time to kill on the way back to Hobart. Zipping along at seventy kilometers an hour, I coasted down the same over hill to the camp I climbed earlier in the day. Old model cars were parked just over the lip of the pavement. The gum trees push right up to the asphalt in places. There was a worn campervan and a settlement of shelters. Why not pop in and say hi? It can’t hurt. As soon as I slowed down and signaled that I was about to pull over a woman about ten years older than me stepped out into the road and guided me so I could park alongside the campervan.
“Hi there!” I called out when I opened the door.
“Cheerio! G’Day!” Her thick amber hair was done up in unmanageable braids and held together by an olive green bandana. Her greeting was awfully polite.
“I saw you folks when I passed through this morning. OK if I have a look?”
“Absolutely!” She latched onto me. I had a guide, an enthusiastic one. Whatever they were doing, she would take me through their entire operation. “So do you know what’s going on here?” Jessica, we will call her, led me over to a display. Since their actions are quasi-legal, she has asked me to change names and not take photos of anyone’s face in fear of reprisal or criminal prosecution.
“I gather you’re not too keen on logging in these parts.”
“It’s awful. It’s been an environmental disaster for the Southwest and every living creature in Tasmania.” I disregarded the emotional tug of superlatives that I knew was coming. Theirs was a rag-tag assembly up against Gunns, a massive timber firm. When it comes to logging, they are the biggest player in the state bar none. In their eyes, Gunns is the big evil monster out to plunder the fragile land and its ecosystem.
“So what are you up against?”
“Well, we’re standing here at the edge of the Tasmanian World Heritage Area...”
On the map, we were not exactly in a protected area. The land is owned by the state. But she put it more craftily. “This land belongs to the state…to us…the people, the electors.” She was going into her shtick. “A lot of the big river valleys were excluded from the World Heritage Area.” Her diction and enunciation was that of a university professor. I followed her fingers over a map, part of a display to help better understand their cause. The group’s main concern is the Florentine River. Not far is the River Styx, how spooky. “As it turns out this river valley has the biggest trees and they’re also the old-growth trees.” She went on to mention a few other species.
She went back to the map. “So there are the areas we believe should be included in the World Heritage boundary.” But it’s not. These folks are clearly occupying state land. “All these areas are vulnerable to logging and that logging is taking place right up to the World heritage boundary. “We already have enough plantation timber”, she went on. “It’s unnecessary to be logging the old growth and that is the biggest contention.” There was more. “In Tasmania we’ve got a lot of endangered species. It’s related to that. It related to the loss of resource because they just pretty much take out the big myrtles and the big gums.”
“When it’s processed, where does it go?”
“Ninety percent of it goes woodchip export.”
That for me was a turning point on how approached Jessica and her cause. Woodchip? She means to tell me these trees come down for measly scraps of chip? Really? And above all that for export? The goods don’t even stay in Tasmania, much less Australia. She added, “It doesn’t even get used for something useful like sawmills. We’ve actually seen that all of the local sawmills have closed down.”
As it turns out, Gunns knows how to play the game with local authorities. Jessica: “Gunns has mates in Parliament on both sides.” The Greens do not have enough numbers to influence forestry policy. “There has been legislation enacted over the years that has enabled them (Gunns) to be at this point where they are the main players in taking out these old-growth forests. We, the people, do not see any return. We in fact subsidize that industry to an incredible degree.” She did not elaborate on that point, but continued, “And also we do not know the terms and conditions of the leases through Freedom of Information.”
“There’s no public access…”
“If they have foreign investing partners, for example, for the pulp mill, how complicated is it getting then?
“That’s why you’ll see situations like this”, she pointed to a chart with photographs. “This is when the police took out the blockade” barriers that Jessica and her cohorts built to delay Gunns’ access to the forest. In no way naïve to their power and their right to the land by law, the group realizes that it is a matter of time before Gunns and its teams destroy the dwellings and move on with their agenda. At one point five hundred folks showed up to stop the machinery from working. It was enough to foster much press coverage throughout Tasmania and the rest of the country, one of their primary goals. They are also wise enough not to damage any private property or commit acts of violence. In the end they are obstructionists, quite an irritation. “Gunns declares a working coupe, an exclusion zone. So anyone in there is caught for trespass and arrested. Gunns and Forestry Tasmania get our police force to administer that.”
The police give the protesters twenty-four hours’ notice. Jessica lost me on her train of thought. “I’ve told them one time we cannot go because we have people in tree sits.” Huh? The order is still valid, lady. You’ve got to go. I suppose the men operating the machinery would have no problem knocking a few of the environmentally pious demonstrators down a few dozen feet. For the sake of public opinion, both sides tread lightly. Jessica has organized up to five individual tree sits.
She took me on a tour of what Gunns leaves behind when they go. Even I have to admit it is unsightly at best. The landscape is truly ripped to shreds, savagely scarred. Some of the low growth is burned to get at the higher trees. Stumps are sliced off at an angle. Deep muddy ditches collect a soupy black liquid. It is a smoky, charred wasteland of sawdust, mud, and unusable splintered logs. It looks awful.
Four volunteers were assembling a new hut for the lofty part of a gum tree. A new tree sit was being planned. They were all pleasant. I took a special liking to the guy who offered by a caramel covered chocolate. I carefully studied all of them. The problem is that they and the rest of the environmental movement need to broaden their scope of the people they reach. They need to appeal to the mainstream. What I saw was the same old same old: Young twenty-nothings with bucketloads of free time dedicating themselves to a beautiful cause in the face of evil and overwhelming odds. They were dressed in fashionably sloppy clothing, especially the torn jeans and knit winter caps. Various piercings and other pointy metallic shrapnel were lodged in lips, eyebrows, and nasal passages. It is likely none hold a full-time job. They must have transferred here after campaigning door to door for Howard Dean. While their commitment is admirable, a spiffier image is required. Otherwise, don’t expect the common family of four in Launceston to jump on board anytime soon.
Gunns has a lot to answer for. Their public image in Tasmania is rather tarnished. Why old growth? Is it cheaper than felling regenerated timber? What percentage of their tidy profits stays on the island? How many people benefit through well paying jobs? What do they have to fear by disclosing the terms of the contract with Forestry Tasmania? It is a distasteful affair, and state elections are coming next year. I wonder what change, if any, they will bring for common sense to reign.
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