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. 


redtiggy said...

What an amazing story!
So glad to have visited this place and my wondering about its history is now satisfied!
Love your descriptions of the currawongs and their part in 'reclaiming' this wild place.

Anonymous said...

We have just returned from Rhona (30/04/2012) and Ernie's old walnut tree still had a few stragglers to eat on it. Still plenty of rail and post fencing and collapsed buildings and other hidden gems. The bush is certainly taking over now.

What does the future hold as the block is currently under offer as part of the Polin estate sale?