Sunday 27 March 2011

Returning to Rhona (2)

Part 2: Bonding with the Wilderness

Photographers and other poets call it the golden hour. It's that time of day, on and after sunset, when the light softens and dims almost imperceptibly, and the world begins to marinate in its receding gentleness.

"Golden hour" commencing above Kunanyi/Mt Wellington 

The bushwalker, tired from a day spent upright and bearing a load, aims to have all chores done by this time. Dinner downed, tent ready, reclining as comfortably as the campsite allows, the walker nurses his or her beverage of choice - and is content.

Such is the scene at Gordonvale on our first family trip to Lake Rhona more than a decade ago. Down to four following the marriage of our eldest, we have taken about four hours to get here. The normally shorter trip has been complicated by some "navigational issues", and a slow, cautious crossing of the Gordon River.

But we are content as the slow summer twilight dims, and the peace of the forest nudges us towards sleep. It's then that a large flock of currawongs gathers in the trees behind us, unseen in the rising dark, but soon memorably heard.

A currawong's call has been rendered as kar-week-eek-kar or similar. It's also been likened to a bugle or a claxon horn. As I listen to the startling and rich vocal interplay of this flock I think these descriptions about as nuanced as saying a dog goes woof woof! No - it's as though an orchestra that's been playing Strauss waltzes has kicked back, let down its collective hair, and gone into an extended jazz improvisation.

Long, expressive, descending notes are traded between players, one to another to a third, before some other player introduces a multi-noted warble, which is gently countered by a tunefully muted squawk. This is no Darwinian struggle; no "look at me" grab-for-attention. This is relaxed, deep, expressive communication. Their conversation continues well after dark, filling Gordonvales already enchanting forest with a heart-lifting aural beauty.

Gordonvale is a story passed down through generations of bushwalkers. On my first trip here in the early 80s, I was told about the "friend of bushwalkers", the Prince of Rasselas, who once lived and worked here. As we approached Gordonvale that first time, I was struck by the incongruity of finding old fence posts, some with wire still attached, out here in the 'wilderness'. The main buildings that once stood here collapsed in the 1970s, but in the 80s an old out-building, some rooflines and many structural timbers were still evident in the slowly encroaching bush.

Then and Now: Walkers visit Gordonvale in the 1970s (left) and in 2011. Photo on left (M. Higgins, from "The South-West Book" eds. Gee and Fenton) shows the main house still standing.

The man behind the Gordonvale story was Ernie Bond. Between 1934 and the early 1950s he lived and occasionally thrived here on a 400 hectare property excised from this wild and remote country. Hed started Gordonvale as a joint venture with three other bushies, including Paddy Hartnett. The idea was to farm sheep and cattle, and grow other fresh produce to sell to the nearby Adamsfield mine. When the mine declined in the late 1930s, only Ernie stayed on, entranced by life in this beautiful setting.

An old out-building, still standing at Gordonvale in the 1980s 

Veteran bushwalker and Launceston Walking Club stalwart, Keith Lancaster, visited Gordonvale in its heyday.

It occupied portion of a fertile rise from which a forest had been cleared. The forest still existed on its western fringe and a fine stream, which rises between Mt. Wright and the Denisons at the rear of the forest, flows past the home. The house is a three roomed comfortable cottage with several attendant shacks scattered around. The garden includes a few fruit trees, raspberry canes, strawberries and vegetables. (Keith Lancasters Mountaineering Diaries, 1947)

Far from being the hermit some thought him, Bond was the well-educated son of a Tasmanian politician and business man, Frank Bond. Ernie was a big man in every way, 6 foot 4 inches in height, with a girth to match his enormous appetite. But it was his generous hospitality that consistently amazed visitors, be they snarers, miners or bushwalkers. Keith Lancaster records it this way.

The hospitality of this grey eyed, bearded giant has to be sampled to be believed! What he has done for the walking fraternity of this State is never likely to be surpassed by any other living person. He adopts the "give and go without yourself policy and his door is always open to any visiting hiker.

It seems that no walker got past his door without being offered at least a cuppa, if not some wallaby stew and fresh bread. In season there might also be fresh strawberries and cream - the kind of food bushwalkers could only dream of - and there was always a large warming fire and enough stories to last well into the night.

The reign of "the Prince" lasted for close to two decades. But eventually failing health and his sense that forestry incursions into the nearby Florentine were changing the area forever, convinced Ernie Bond to leave his beloved Gordonvale in 1953. Before his death in Hobart, in 1962, he arranged to hand Gordonvale over to the Hobart and Launceston Walking Clubs for the ongoing use of bushwalkers. But the isolation and difficult access that were the appeal of the place also made its upkeep too difficult.

It continued to fall into disrepair, and today Gordonvale has all but disappeared. Walkers will probably notice a few rusting farm implements and old concrete foundations. The observant may even find the rhododendron and walnut trees that survive from Ernie's once vast garden.

A rusting plough and the encroaching forest at Gordonvale, March 2011 

But inexorably the forest and its creatures are reclaiming the land after its brief time in human hands. Perhaps that's part of what the currawongs tell each other every night from Gordonvales treetops. 

Saturday 19 March 2011

Returning to Rhona (1)

Part 1: The Vale of Happiness

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus propounded the doctrine that change was central to the universe. He encapsulated it neatly in his saying: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.”

Returning for the fifth time to Lake Rhona in Tasmania’s south-west wilderness, reinforced the old Greek’s idea. Much has changed in the quarter century or so since I first visited this jewel of a place. But one of those changes actually meant we didn’t have to step in the river at all.

The walk to Lake Rhona used to involve crossing the Florentine and Gordon Rivers via the Timbs Track, before a two day slog up the invariably boggy Vale of Rasselas. The spectacular crag-enclosed, sand-fringed lake could only then be attained via a final steep trudge up a long morrainal ridge.

Lake Rhona: a jewel-like lake nestled beneath the Denison Range in south-west Tasmania

By the early 1980s the safe crossings, first a bridge, then a flying fox, had been swept away by floods. An alternative route via forestry roads through the Florentine Valley lead to a crossing of the Gordon that was somewhat less risky than the downstream crossing. Nonetheless in the 1980s I once crossed it in flood, with the waters chest deep. I’ll now plead youthful folly, as it’s not something I would care to repeat.

By contrast last week’s crossing of the Gordon was a simple dry-boot affair. A wind storm has brought down a massive eucalypt, which now spans the river very close to where we once waded it. Fifth time lucky, if only for the first hour of the walk. Because once you join the old track up the Vale of Rasselas, you are transported back in time to the boggy slog of yesteryear.

Negotiating yet another boggy section on the Rasselas Track

The odd name for this wild plain derives from Samuel Johnson’s 18th century book The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. It is a tale of a man’s search for the root of happiness. With liberal use of rose-coloured glasses, some colonial has dubbed this waterlogged plain a vale of happiness.

In the 1820s this was the sort of dragon’s lair that kept the early settlers in the east of Van Dieman’s Land safely separated from the convict settlement of Sarah Island in the west. The mountainous wilderness and treacherous bogs were supposed to create that reassuring buffer.

But in 1828 one pair of convicts, James Goodwin and Thomas Connolly, escaped from a pining party on the lower Gordon River. Goodwin's own account of their travels suggests that they crossed the Prince of Wales Range and entered the Vale of Rasselas near the Denison Range. They then went on via Wylds Craig to the settled areas of the east.

If this is true, it is a feat of “bushwalking” that would thrill the most hardened of today’s peak baggers. We walked through a fraction of that same territory at the same time of year as the two convicts. We had tents, sleeping mats, sleeping bags, food, torches and all the modern equipment that walkers consider essential. They had only the clothes they stood up in.

Goodwin was eventually pardoned, and went on to use his bush skills in assisting government surveyor John Darke to explore the very same area.

The “happy valley” may have been just that for the Tasmanian Aboriginal people. A valley mixing buttongrass plains with patches of forest, unfailing water supplies and nearby mountains, would have provided plenty of food and shelter, if you knew what you were doing. Goodwin claimed he and Connolly saw many natives in the area during their escape. And John Darke recorded bark huts in the Vale of Rasselas in his 1833 survey.

Later that century, railway became the favoured means for opening up country for exploration, mining and other uses. Extraordinarily, in 1898 the Great Western Railway Company proposed a route through the Vale of Rasselas and on to the west coast, using electric trains. A great deal of money was spent, but the proposal never went ahead, even if it did help establish the (now defunct) osmiridium mine at nearby Adamsfield.

As we sweated our way up the Rasselas Track on a warm autumn day, I found it hard to conceive of electric trains clacking by. But then the Tasmanian wilderness has always attracted more than its share of strange ideas and colourful characters. 

Saturday 5 March 2011

More Than Skin Deep

Antonio Vivaldi: prolific Italian composer famous for The Four Seasons 

If Antonio Vivaldi had been a wine grower, I wonder if we’d have ended up with a very different Four Seasons. Might we have had musical evocations of leaf-fall, bud-burst and harvest, for instance, rather than spring, summer, autumn and winter?

Or if he'd been a Yolngu man in north-east Arnhem Land, might we have had The Six Seasons? For Yolngu, concepts like spring and winter make no sense. Instead they have built a six season calendar around local weather, food, and seasonal activities.
For instance early March is Waltjarnmirri. It’s the wet season proper, when flooding restricts travel, and people are concentrated around their camps. They will look forward to late March, when it will be Mirdawarr. By then hunting and fishing outings can begin, and bush vegetables will become plentiful again.
Wherever we live there are regular natural patterns that signal changes in the year. Some of these seasonal changes may be obvious, but others are more subtle, requiring a long and attentive familiarity with a home range.
After a mere 25 years in this place, I’m still a new-comer. But I am starting to notice some very particular seasonal patterns.
Take our local silver peppermint (Eucalyptus tenuiramis) for instance. Visit at most times of the year and you’ll find a prudish tree, grey-trunked, slim, blotchy and easy to overlook. Visit in late summer/early autumn and you’ll happen upon a different creature altogether. Much of the dowdy bark is gone, piled around its feet like clothes discarded in passion. 

A Eucalyptus tenuiramis with recently-shed bark, South Hobart, Tasmania 
Instead this Clark Kent of trees now stands proud and glowing in the fickle forest sun, trunk and boughs alluringly smooth and creamy gold. En masse tenuiramis trunks can light the forest like candlesticks.
During today’s walk I notice that the bark shedding is incomplete on some trees. Giving in to a child-like impulse I pull on one of the skeins dangling from a youthful tree. The grey, dead bark peels up the tree with a small but satisfying crackle. I tear free a ribbon of bark perhaps 3 metres long and examine this source of the tree’s once dowdy looks.
Free of its coat, the trunk is a luminous wonder. It will hold these golden good looks perhaps until the Yolngu are beginning to burn Arnhem Land’s dried grasses and woodlands: around May in our calendar.

Eucalyptus tenuiramis
 woodland during early autumn, South Hobart, Tasmania
Regardless I will keep visiting these Tenuiramis woodlands, and will keep finding their beauty, even when the cold winds force them to again don dull protective coats. Beauty is never out of season. And nor is it skin deep.