I travel over Tasmania's newest road, climb the "Mystery Mountain" of the west; tell of the days when Macquarie Harbour was a prison, see one of the world's richest copper mines and voyage on Australia's least-visited scenic stream.
The west coast was the first part of Tasmania to be seen by European eyes and it has been the last to be opened up by road. For many years the richest copper mine in the British Commonwealth had no outlet by land, and four goodly sized towns in the Mount Lyell district north and east of Macquarie Harbour were unconnected by road not only with the rest of Tasmania but even with each other. Each of those towns had motor cars, but they were leg-roped as effectively as the cows whose milk they distributed. The Strahan motors had a run of about three miles, while from Zeehan and Rosebery there was no way out, but the Queenstown barriers came down first. It is said that on the evening of the official opening of the road there were only three sober men in Queenstown, and they would not have been sober had not the town's supply of beer given out. One cannot blame the coasters for getting excited, for were they not imprisoned for over a hundred years? And so they would have been still had not a fairy godmother-to wit the Federal Roads Subsidy-released them at long last.
It was over a century and a half after Tasman's first sight of Mount Heemskirk and Mount Zeehan before they were seen again by outsiders. Bass and Flinders during the first circumnavigation of Tasmania in 1798 named them after Tasman's two ships. Next came Kelly in 1815, and soon the convicts began their grim occupation. I do not know who was the first person to accomplish the overland trip to this part of the coast but perhaps it was that resourceful individual Pearce-the celebrated escapee-who regaled himself on the carcasses of his companions when he ran short of food. In 1842 Sir John Franklin and his intrepid Lady performed the overland journey from Lake St Clair. Many years later the telegraph line pushed its way over the mountains and rivers and the linesmen opened a passable track. This, however, fell into disrepair when the telegraph changed its mind and followed the Emu Bay Railway from Burnie.
Even as late as 1931 -eighty-nine years after Sir John Franklin's exploit-the overland journey was accounted something to boast about and stay-at-homes dubbed the travellers lunatics. As I followed this new road to Queenstown I recalled my own walk through in 1929 and the difficulty then of crossing the Franklin and the Collingwood rivers on the wire contraptions that meant death to the careless. Now the two streams are crossed soberly and in orthodox fashion by bridges, and we who did the tight-rope act are glad we had the experience before the bridges came and ended the thrills for all time.
The road when under construction was Port Arthur over again, except that members of the gangs chose their own colours in clothes and were not supplied with yellow and black uniforms, nor haircuts, at Government expense. The gangs included some of the hardest cases on earth, according to the bosses I talked with. One overseer told me a tale of a gentleman whom we will call Jim Smith, which I pass on for you to believe or not as you like. Jim wanted to get across to Victoria, and the only way he could finance it was through the Workers' Compensation Act. In order to claim accident money the resourceful James offered a mate a couple of quid to chop his finger off. His mate accepted the job, produced a mattock, and Jim placed his finger on a log. The implement descended, lopped off the top of Jim's index finger, and the injured one drew £75 and decamped without paying his "surgeon's" fee, confiding to another friend his intention of getting the lopped digit healed in Victoria so that he could have it chopped again and draw more accident pay. Being good at arithmetic, Jim calculated that the possession of eight fingers and two thumbs would, if judiciously exploited, yield him an amount of £1,500 and enable him to retire in comparative affluence. As a stand-by he could, he pointed out, begin on his toes. Surely this is "Aurelia's Unfortunate Young Man" of Mark Twain brought up to date!
When this coast road was projected there were, of course, the critics and the pessimists; but its construction was surely justified for the scenery alone. It is the most spectacular road in all Australia. The mountains-and there are scores and scores of them-are unbelievably grand. Frenchman's Cap, that mystery mountain of shining white quartz, is the giant of the company. Lyell itself is like nowhere on earth, as you will see when you approach it. Gaunt, weird mountain shapes hem the towns of Gormanston and Queenstown, and the entry through Linda Valley is a nightmare. A journalist visitor was challenged to sum it up in a terse sentence, and his pronouncement was "Hell, with the fires out". Go and see how right he was.
Irked by the fact that all the adventure surrounding the journey to Mount Lyell has passed with the building of the road, I decided to vary the going by a side trip to the Frenchman's Cap and, anxious to live to finish this book, I asked two young men to accompany me. A mile beyond where the road crosses the Franklin River we set out, my swag swelled to fifty-one pounds by the addition of sleeping gear, an axe and a week's food. At three in the afternoon we recrossed the Franklin to pick up what was once a track. High above the wide stream stretched five strands of wire laced together, and above this two single wires about three feet apart for handholds, the top wires being connected to the bottom one by V-shaped pieces, specially supplied, I am sure, to catch your swag in. It is ticklish work freeing yourself when you are afraid to take either hand off the "balusters". In justifiable haste to get the ordeal over, I heartily cursed the companion standing on the bank who asked me to wait to be photographed, and I cursed even more on finding later that the darkness of the forest rendered the picture a "dud". Traversing a typical Tasmanian myrtle forest, we stopped at dusk on the banks of the Loddon and pitched our tiny tent. Providentially the recent bushfires had spared some of the loveliness along the river side and it was still a most beautiful spot. Five miles in three and a half hours was fast going, for it is infernally hilly and we kept losing the track. Showing his hoary head for about ten minutes we saw our goal-the Frenchman's Cap, "Mystery Mountain" of the wild west. He looked unclimbable-as more than one disappointed adventurer had found previously.
Storing some of our food in a cache, we started at daylight on the next stage, over burnt hills to the South Loddon, through a blackened tea-tree forest to the equally black stream. It was the only depressing place on the trip. The "track" we were trying to follow had been cut thirty-four years before by that resolute explorer, T. B. Moore, and naturally the blazes had been nearly erased by time. Just here the track cut ten years later by J. E. Philp branches off to the right, forgotten by the authorities and obliterated by the quick-growing scrub. Crossing button-grass bogs with a wary eye for snakes, we encountered a devilish tangle of the bush which Tasmanian explorers have cursed for nearly a century and a half. Tea-tree, cutting grass and bauera grasped our packs, encircled our legs and lacerated our hands. With scarcely enough breath left to curse we reached the top of the divide and descended through a similar inferno to the shores of a sheet of water known to the dozen or so people who had seen it as Lake Vera. To scramble along its mile of length to the far end took nearly two hours, for every known forest obstacle impeded us, including that devil-tree, the horizontal. It was a relief to throw off our loads and pitch our tent in the darkness made denser by a grove of Huon pines. High cliffs, to be scaled tomorrow, frowned above this, one of the handsomest lakes in all Tasmania.
The next day's journey will live in my
memory for ever and a day. In my time I have traversed countless
hundreds of forests, but never such a forest as this upon the slopes
that are the outliers of the Frenchman Range. Mounting all the time,
even our heavy burdens could not dull our rapture in the kaleidoscope of
scenes in that vale of no travellers. Beeches, treeferns and fifty other
species beautified our breathless way; grass trees touching fifty feet
in height reared their strange heads among the commoner flora, the rare
climbing epacris with its long pink and scarlet bells festooned remains
of dead beeches and hung in ropes above our heads; gay fungi, red and
tangerine, lip-shaped, reminded us of the prevailing female fashion and
behind the forest towered the sheer white cliffs dripping their eternal
shower-bath upon the puny mortals who had sweated and puffed their way
towards the pass. Barron Pass, Philp named it, after the then governor.
It is only a hundred yards or so through, but its white walls are many
hundred feet in height. Then round a rocky spur, across a basin of
"wild artichoke", through another smaller pass, and Lake
Tahune is the welcome sight, for it means rest again. A day-long,
slogging journey, and we had covered three miles!
Strahan, though it is the pleasantest
place of residence in the west, doubtless would not have come into
existence at all but for the discovery of gold and copper at Mount Lyell
and of silver at Zeehan. In the early years Zeehan stream with
marvellous fidelity, and it is difficult to separate shipped its silver
through the tiny port known as Trial Harbour, for there was no means of
communication with Macquarie Harbour. But the development of Mount Lyell
meant that a port was necessary and Strahan came into being - named
after Sir George Strahan, governor from 1881 to 1886. Then, owing to the
exposed position of Trial Harbour, it was decided to make Strahan the
port for Zeehan also, and in 1892 the Strahan-Zeehan railway was opened.
Just prior to this extensive harbour works were put in hand at Strahan,
large wharves built, and the entrance dredged to allow larger ships to
enter. On every occasion that I visited Strahan by the sea route I have
felt a couple of distinct bumps as the little ship crossed the sandy
bar. I also noticed the remains of the little steamer Devon at the
Heads, her "bump" having proved fatal. Now and again one of
the bigger steamers trading between Hobart and New Zealand took
passengers and light cargo and transferred passengers and freight
outside the Heads to the tiny steamer Moonah. I once went round in the
Penguin and shall not forget the hazardous climb down her side to the
bobbing lighter that was such a competent promoter of seasickness. It
was almost preferable to take an all-the-way trip in the Mahinapua (239
tons) that I had sampled once. With the deepening of the bar and
construction of a breakwater, larger ships paid visits to Strahan.
Largest of the early ones was the North Lyell (2027 tons), flat bottomed
and built to 'lump" the bar. But she only tried it once, and was
taken off the run.
Tasmania by Road and Track - by E T
Emmett was originally published by Melbourne University Press.
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