Sunday, 29 May 2011

Melaleuca: Down the River of Time


That night we play cards in the ranger’s hut: a game of “Up and Down the River”. Despite my ignorance of the rules, I finish equal second, almost clinching a card-shark reputation.

On the walk back to my Nissen Hut a full moon sails clear of cloud. I take my camera down to Moth Creek to try and photograph her reflections. I always seem to think of the moon as feminine. The creek is wide and still, and the moon reflects perfectly from its molten, dark surface. But my photographs fail to capture her wonderful light and alluring face. Some faces just resist being well photographed. I suppose that’s what memory is for.


The molten surface of Moth Creek, Melaleuca, SW Tasmania 

Though I’m standing on a modern jetty, the moon reminds me that this area holds far older stories. It's highly plausible to view this whole south-west landscape as an artefact of Aboriginal burning over 30-40 000 years. Looking at the broad expanses of buttongrass, and the relatively small patches of forest, it makes sense.

Buttongrass thrives under a regime of regular, if small scale, firing. If its left unburned, scrub and then forest start to assert themselves over moorland. With rainfall as high as what is received here, you would, under other circumstances, expect to find much more rainforest. Indeed you do find it along rivers and in sheltered patches, but it’s not as expansive as it might be.

Why did Aboriginal Tasmanians burn this country? Two reasons stand out. Firstly fire in buttongrass moorland is followed by strong regrowth, and this “green-pick” attracts grazing animals. They are more easily seen, and more easily hunted, when concentrated in a small recently-burned patch. Secondly a burned landscape is easier to move through than a scrub-covered one. That’s good for a nomadic people, as any bushwalker could confirm!


A well-fed pademelon: one marsupial favoured by the selective burning of moorland 
The so-called “conciliator of Aborigines”, G.A. Robinson, walked through this area with his party in 1830. Whatever harm his attempts to round-up and resettle the original Tasmanians might have done, he seems to have been motivated by a genuine concern for them as human beings. This, remember, occurred during a time of martial law in an often lawless colony. Life was cheap, and the lives of natives, for some, ranked below that of livestock. The impact and worth of Robinson's missions may be vigorously debated, for sure. But on a purely physical level, his journeys through this country were extraordinary.

For over four months, Robinson and a party of up to 20, journeyed from Recherche Bay in the south-east to the far south-west and west coasts. They walked first along what are now the South Coast and Port Davey Tracks, at the time either untracked or Aboriginal routes. They then travelled to places as fearful - and exciting - to bushwalkers as the Western Arthur Range and the west coast between Window Pane Bay and Macquarie Harbour.


An aerial view of the rugged Western Arthur Range in fine weather! 

Robinson kept a detailed journal, at times accutely describing the ruggedness and beauty of the landscape; at others bemoaning the numerous illnesses, personnel difficulties and weather set-backs of the summer/autumn trip. An excerpt from 10 March 1830, gives a flavour.

Here nature appeared in all her pristine forms; perpendicular cliffs, immense chasms through which the water was heard to gush with frightful roar, mountain tops hid in the clouds, and anon the piercing wind gushing up the ravines rendered our situation truly uncomfortable.

I continued still very unwell. Yet there was no alternative; to decline was useless. No medical assistant, no friend near to soothe or to offer consolation. The night excessive cold.

While the party was occasionally re-supplied by boat, it was otherwise self-sufficient. I marvel at this mixed group of British and Aboriginal men making such a journey without all the 'survival' gear modern walkers count essential. But then Robinson and co. had both the assistance of the 'natives' (as they called them) and the psychological goad of not wanting to concede to 'weakness' in front of the same.

The dubious reputation of Robinson within the contemporary Tasmanian Aboriginal community is tempered for some by the detailed observations he made of Aboriginal life, beliefs and customs in the 1830s. While he may not always be trusted as accurate, there are precious few other contemporary accounts.

We've noted already that Robinson saw many Aboriginal huts around Melaleuca, and that the area appeared to be a “resort” for the Needwonee people. Apart from having a good supply of water, game and especially swan's eggs, the area between Melaleuca and Cox Bight also appears to have had a strong spiritual significance. 

Through conversation with his Aboriginal companions, Robinson learned that one of their central creation stories took place here. In that tale one of the ancestor spirits, Moinee, “was hurled from heaven and dwelt on the earth, and died and was turned into a stone and is at Coxes Bight.” This is probably at Point Eric, in the middle of the bight.

Visiting this broad, bleak and beautiful landscape, it is not difficult to see its special significance. The river of time has touched this place over a very long period, with little else to obliterate its work. Before the Moinee story, before Cox Bight even existed, sea levels were much lower than they are today. The Needwonee’s ancestors would have walked over land to what are now the De Witt and Maatsuyker Islands, but what would then have been hills.

The river flows back further still. Before humans, there were other animals. During our visit we see many birds, including wonderfully cryptic ground parrots, and some mammals, especially pademelons. We find evidence of many more: a ringtail possum dray in a tree; wombat droppings; echidna scratchings. All of these have lived here, and in landscapes that have now worn away, for millions rather than thousands of years.


Where's Wallicus? Can you find the ground parrot (Pezoporus wallicus) in this picture? 

But that too is an eye-blink in geological time. The quartzite that is the foundation of much of the south-west is Precambrian rock perhaps one billion years old. The moon is around four billion years old, the earth itself older still, and the river of time flows back beyond that.

That night, as I stare at the moon reflecting from the surface of Moth Creek, I ponder the whole nature of time and space, and what is behind it all. Some, like me, sense a mind … even a heart. Some sense nothing at all. But both are ready to be awed and humbled by that experience. Better that than never stopping to reflect at all.

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