Sunday 22 May 2011

Melaleuca: A Resort for Kings

Resort (noun): a place to which people go for recreation, rest, etc.

An aerial view of Bathurst Harbour, the wild waterway just north of Melaleuca, SW Tasmania 

Melaleuca is not the place to live if you’re used to popping in on the neighbours for a cup of sugar. To call it isolated is an understatement. Surrounded by half a million hectares of Tasmania’s south-west wilderness, it’s either an hour long flight, or a multi-day foot or boat trip, from any population centre. 

It’s also Tasmania’s weather frontier. The day we flew in was the first flight to reach the rough gravel airstrip in six days. Torrential rain, low cloud and high winds had kept planes from getting here. As we unloaded, a desperately relieved German bushwalker almost hugged the pilot. He’d been waiting five days for a flight out of the wilderness after a wet and wild walk along the South Coast Track.

A subtle wildness: on the track from the airstrip to the public huts, Melaleuca
But isolation and wildness notwithstanding, wilderness is a moot word in these parts. Even flying in over the tweeded hills, with water reflecting back at us from almost every surface, we make out the clear signs of the small-scale mining that has been carried out here. A series of unnaturally straight channels in the flattish landscape show where strips of over-burden had been removed in the search for tin.

Mining has finished now, and the excavated strips that are visible from the air are disguised and overgrown at ground level. But the buildings and some of the machinery used by the miners: first Charles King, then his son Deny King, and also the Willson family, can still be seen.

Charles Denison (Deny) King, the second generation of Kings to live and work here, is the best-known of the people who called Melaleuca home. Not only did he mine the area for decades, he was also a naturalist, artist, and advocate for Tasmania’s wildlife and wild places. He became host and friend to many bushwalkers, artists and others who visited the remote “kingdom”.

A century before the coming of the Kings, the so-called “conciliator of Aborigines”, G.A. Robinson, walked through this area with his party in 1830. He noted many Aboriginal huts, and thought it “a resort for the natives”.

Deny King must have had a similar feeling for the country. He moved here as a young man in 1936, and stayed until his death in 1991. Although twenty years have passed since then, his legacy at Melaleuca continues to be cared for by family and friends.

One of the Nissen huts used by visitors to Melaleuca 

Part of that endowment is the buildings that are still in use today. They include the distinctive Nissen huts that became home not only for the King family, but also for visitors to the area. Today two are open for public use, including the Charles King Memorial Hut, while the original is still occasional home for Deny’s descendants.

In the King's garden, Melaleuca 

To visit his garden, and peer into the many outbuildings that are still cared for, is to feel still the presence of this extraordinary individual. Typical of the man, the private garden remains open to the public. His family simply asks that their privacy be respected, and for a donation to help with the upkeep.

Deny King's boatshed, with "blue boat" inside, Melaleuca, SW Tasmania 
Especially evocative is the boatshed on Moth Creek. Inside we find “blue boat”, freshly painted and ready for use. A smaller cream-coloured dinghy floats free on the bank. The creek is still and calm, as dark as stout from the tannin-rich waters that wash from the surrounding hills.

Deny’s semi-outdoor art “studio”, complete with a palette, benches and a contemplation chair, is perched on the bank above the creek. His blue chair, upholstered in hessian, is even monogrammed with his initials.

Deny King's monogrammed chair, art studio, Melaleuca 

There is a hush about the place that seeps into you. Everywhere there are birds. They chat and flit between native trees and the exotics that Deny mixed together. Here and there pademelons hop about, probing for fresh fodder.

Our visit has come on the tail end of a strong south-westerly weather pattern. In a place that is otherwise almost silent, we are surprised to hear a distant roar, like that of waves on the shore. But with Cox Bight nearly 10km south-east of us, we think that unlikely.

It turns out to be precisely the correct explanation. Swells between 7 and 10 metres are pounding the distant coast. With no wind or ambient sound to interfere, the muted crashing of waves is our background noise, a literal white noise.

One of our party, a first-time visitor to Melaleuca, is finding it hard to sum up the difference between her expectations and the reality of Melaleuca. It seems it is both more and less than what she expected. Its physical presence is less commanding: with no wildly high mountains; no cascades tumbling into deep ravines. And yet there is a wildness about the place, a blend of isolation, open skies, bleak weather and a brooding sense of the past. Together they seem to produce a profound calm that might help you understand why generations kept returning to this "resort". 

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