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Chapter Nine

I visit a dying town, mislay my companions, find a country without population and a ferryman without passengers, sorrow for dead Corinna, inspect one of the world's richest tin mines, and find that the pioneer spirit still exists.

It is difficult to realize that the hobbling old man of ninety who accepts your offer of beer or a shilling was once a young fellow with the "muscles all a-ripple down his back". And it is just as difficult to visualize Zeehan as the 'Vociferous town' spoken of by Charles Whitham in his book on western Tasmania-that classic of guide-books. Zeehan, like the old man, has drunk itself into decrepitude. Fifty years ago it was a place of riotous vitality. Several mines were working and turning out payable ore, store-keepers and stockjobbers were making fortunes, and publicans were making bigger fortunes, for who ever saw a miner who could not drink? New companies were being floated every week, and Zeehan was the hub for all of them, wild-cat and genuine alike.

Some mining towns go out like the snuff of a candle when the ore is exhausted, but Zeehan is either dying hard or not going to die at all. A considerable number of business houses remain in Main Street, but their owners must sigh for the good old days when sovereigns and notes were as plentiful as shillings are today. Many of the former residents have moved themselves, houses and all, to places as far away as Hobart. Those who remain are finding a living tributing, or are obtaining the odd jobs that seem to turn up for the Micawbers who now constitute the population. Zeehan is a model of tenacity, for it hangs on nobly, and with a smile on its face. If the straggling town could be compressed into a small area Zeehan would be quite a cheerful village. Good luck to it!

It was 3.30 in the afternoon when I shouldered my forty-pound swag and turned from the top of Main Street on to the old Granville tram, first getting directions from the courteous Police Sergeant. Hearing of my projected walk of some eighty-odd miles through the least visited parts of the west coast, three members of the Hobart Walking Club had offered to accompany me. I was highly pleased with the company of these virile youngsters. We overtook a man on a horse about a mile out who guided us over the hills for short cuts, took us for a delightful scramble down to the Heemskirk Falls, and chaperoned us at the Eureka hut where he sat in front of the fire all night.

No sleep is as refreshing as the brand of sleep one gets in these bush huts, planted in the middle of nowhere. Whilst the fire and water are changing your tablets into soup you strip branches from the surrounding bushes for your bed. Tea-tree boughs make a better bed than kapok I firmly believe, but doubtless weariness acts as a sleeping draught, and I am perhaps being unfair to the stuffed mattress of cities and civilization. Your lullaby is the crackling fire, the gurgling creek nearby, the wind in the forest, and the dirge of the mopoke. Your alarm clock is the first streak of daylight, the twitter of the wrens, and - to descend from the poetic - the fleas that the former occupants and their dogs have left. The little hut at Eureka, a dozen miles out on the old Granville tram, was a haven we hated to leave, the fleas notwithstanding.
About six miles on, the tram curves to the left and goes, I believe, to the North Heemskirk store. A broad track goes right-hand, which is the one to follow, arid then the train lines reappear spasmodically till the timbering disappears finally and the going is better, for the laying of sleepers on trams and railways is done, as everyone knows to make pedestrians swear. From one sleeper to another is too short for a step, and to take two in a stride may be possible for a kangaroo but certainly not for a human. After you come to some broad stairs in the track a narrow path appears to the right which heads to Corinna, but this is not yours if you want to see Pieman Heads, as I did.

You may get mildly lost at Granville Farm if you like, and my three young friends did so. The tracks hesitate there, and the rule seems to be to avoid left-wheels. Whilst I sat on a log making some notes, the youthful trio went ahead, and that was the last I saw of them for twenty-four hours. I pushed on, stuck some sticks in the path to indicate having passed, and in an hour or so came on to the beach I had been told to look for. As a rule I don't care for beaches, but I loved this one. It is the real west coast, and had I possessed Sam Weller's double million magnifying glasses for eyes the first land clue west I should have seen would have been Patagonia. The waves that spent themselves on this four-mile beach had rolled all the way uninterruptedly from the South Atlantic. It was an eeiie feeling to be alone at this spot. The population was one to twenty-five square miles, and I was that one. My only companions were hoof marks, and these I followed till I lost them-and myself too, nearly-in a button-grass plain at the far end of the beach. Five miles across this would, I knew, land me at Arhberg's hut at the Pieman heads, and a little before six o'clock I burst in on the astonished ferryman, who had not, he told me, had any visitors since the previous October (this was February) except two men who stayed five days. When I informed him that very likely a couple of young women and another man would be along shortly he expressed doubt as to whether his dog Tiger would receive the ladies fittingly, for the eighteen-months-old Tiger had never seen a woman! This I gathered was the real back-blocks at last-solitude of solitudes
Ferryman John Ahrberg owned to 73 years, but I think he understated it, though I hasten to say that he did not look more than three-score. When he told me that I had humped the swag for thirty-one miles I ceased to wonder that I was tired, and drank three cups of his coffee before I was fit for conversation - though conversation was one-sided when you met Johnny Ahrherg, for thirty three years sojourn with only dogs and a horse to talk to had not made him tongue-tied. He was a Swede, and though he must have left home soon after his school days and had completely forgotten his own language, he still spoke with a decided foreign accent.
Strange that these rovers settle down in the most out-landish spots! Many a similar one have I met in the wilds. Johnny had been in every continent as a sailor
before the mast, bad traversed the trackless wilds of western Tasmania in quest of gold and silver and tin, roystered in the hectic mining towns of the heyday of the coast, and gathered a host of experiences that formed the subject for a string of yarns that would last from January to December had one time to listen. He had been poor and rich and poor again When the V.D.L. Bank broke fifty years ago it broke Johnny too: he held enough V.D.L share certificates to start a paper factory, and was just about to rake a trip home to the beloved Sweden that was never to see him again.
Though the climate is mild as regards temperature (blackberries were fully ripe in early February, before Hobart's residents can pick them in quantity), it is severe as to moisture. Not one whole week without rain in it for the last four years, said Johnny. What a lifetime of idle hours lie most have had in those thirty-three years! his leisure was employed in re-reading his six hundred books and in turning on This Edison phonograph for which he had about a hundred records of the roll shape. Day in, day out, month in and month out, not a soul to exchange ideas with. I wondered if lie had any i-egrets when he thought back on the (lays of his lusty youth near Stockholm, where in winter he was wont to put his ''skaters'' on, and with arm round the waist of a red-cheeked girl hoist a sail and speed thirty miles in less than thirty minutes on the ice? The figures are John's, and I was not in Stockholm to check them. But over half a century ago I remember I did meet John, at Stanley, when he was a sailor chattering broken English under Captain Tait and Mate Stockinan in the old Devoir who left her bones on the bar at Macquarie Harbour.

Ahrberg's hut has been a rover too. Firstly it was part of the public house of the celebrated Gam Webster (now deceased) at Trial harbour, then it was moved to the new diggings at Corinna, and then when Corinna died it was moved again and made into the edifice that sheltered me and my companions.
The Pieman has a bar with about sixteen feet of water I believe, and at the entrance is a nasty looking castle of rocks which, if I were captain of a ship coming in during a gale, would cause me serious concern. But for this, a large vessel could navigate the river for twenty miles, just as you could put apples into a bottle if it had no neck. But once across the bar you are on the River of Dreams. Never shall I forget that fourteen-mile row as stroke to Ferryman Abrberg. Even the misty rain that gave my camera a rest failed to obscure the beauties. The dense west coast forest hung over the banks and the placid waters, stretching away till the mist hid it. At quiet corners the dark stream mirrored the forest, ducks and swans
dived and flew, fat trout jumped to tempt us to come again, and nature animate and inanimate joined in doing the honours to the voyagers who had come so far and might never come again. We did not pass Corinna as this was where the only track began. What wonders the Pieman holds above this I shall never know, but doubtless we missed the best of it.
Corinna is a graveyard of hopes and houses. Once the home of a thousand men and women, it is now as dead as Pompeii or Babylon. There was no need for the blackberries to get their stranglehold on Corinna, for they are merely choking a corpse. On the south bank the building that was once the Star Inn stands derelict, but on the north side, where the principal settlement was, the most noticeable relic is one brick chimney that belonged to the Post Office. Traces of the stores, the dance hall, miner's huts, the hotels, there are none. When a mining town dies it dies properly. There are immense iron deposits near here, so perhaps some day a second Corinna will be born.
At dark we made the "Government House" at the nineteen-mile, or twenty-three miles from Corinna. There were eight bunks, and it happened that there were four road workers ensconced there, plus our four. They watched with interest the nonchalant way our women turned into their allotted berths in full walking rig except boots. The roadmen were a kindly quartette and were much intrigued by the recital of our adventures. These gentlemen of the bush are the truest you can meet, and to do you a good turn seems to be their main object in life. Through these fine fellows of the nineteen-mile hut I pay that compliment to all the other hundred fine fellows I have met in my wanderings. The back-blocker I love beyond all others, for I have never been let down outside a city.

Waratah is the home of what was some years ago one of the world's greatest till mines, Mount Bischoff. It is still working, though not at its former strength. James ("Philosopher") Smith discovered Bischoff on 4th December 1871. Melbourne turned the venture down when applied to, and the company came into being in Launceston where several fortunes were made and many small shareholders lived on their dividends for a long period. The company consisted of 12,000 shares at 5 each, of which only 1 was called up. The shares rose to 92 each, and dividends amounted to nearly two and a half million pounds, or about 200 on each 1 subscribed.
Waratah is a pretty town some 2,0000 feet above sea level, the mount being only about 500 feet higher than the town. There is an electric tram to the mine and the smelters are right in the middle of the settlement. In a gorge nearby is the hydro-electric station, a walk of extraordinary beauty. I do not like to think of Waratah decaying, but no metal deposit is everlasting, and agriculture is the only sure and abiding stay. "Go on the land, young man," is advice that is often made the subject for humour; but had I to build a town I would rather build it of potatoes than of tin or silver.
Burnie is the port for Waratah, and a wooden tramway with horse traction was built from Burnie in 1878, superseded by a railway in 1884. Some day - a long way off, let us hope-an aeroplane owner of the city of Burnie will fly over the scarred face of Mount Bischoff and wonder what was the cause of the quarrying. He will perchance conclude that it was to obtain metal for the things called roads that men used before everybody learned the use of wings.
A road of some thirty-five miles or so connects Waratah with the north coast. I took two days over this jaunt, arid slept the sleep of the tired on the very best bed in the world -a haystack -about halfway.
Had I turned my face west instead of north the crows and 'possums would have laid my bones bare, for it is a journey impossible for any human being travelling alone. This country between Bischoff and the Arthur River is marked "Unexplored" on the map. There are mountains and morasses and impenetrable forests, swift unbridged tributaries, bauera and horizontal and samples of all the obstacles that render Tasmania the explorer's heartbreak. Comb the world and you will find nothing worse. Horizontal has never been adequately described, for the simple reason that it is impossible. It does everything except sting. It is the Creator's best attempt to produce a "devil-tree". Horizontal grows up and across and down and up again. To penetrate it on ground level is impossible-it is too thick. To crawl over the top is also impossible-it is too thin and lets you down. The only way is to fight through about three-parts up, with inevitable droppings downwards, breathless scrambles up again, and fight on. Two miles in a day encumbered with a pack is express Speed. Heaven help the man who gets lost in a hundred acres of such trees. If he emerge safely he should take a ticket in Tatt's, for he is the luckiest man alive. Horizontal is the floral nightmare of the universe. "I never saw a tree I hated so" to misquote Browning. If the Henry Hellyer whose name is given to the river I crossed at the justly celebrated gorge on the road came to life again he would bear out my words, for he had battle after battle with the octopi's of the bush.
After travelling the 'wilds of the west as I had done for three weeks, it was a relief to come on the farms' of the Wynyard area, for I had not seen land fit for tilling for over three hundred miles! Run your finger over my route from Wilmot to St Clair and Queenstown and the Pieman if you doubt me.
Tasmania the "Garden State"? Yes, parts of it, but not this part. Grand, awe inspiring, magnificent, any similar adjective you p1ease - but the soul tires of unproductive grandeur and of weeks of travelling unpopulated areas, and to come upon a farm arid a farmhouse with women and children waving a welcome is a glimpse of heaven.
Through the central and western mountains and forests and gorges I had walked the grandest part of the island, and now, as a contrast, I was to see what I name as one of the three prettiest views Tasmania holds. To get this, stand on the Bluff at Table Cape and turn your gaze towards Wynyard. There are the blue sea, the bold cliffs, the sleepy town, and between you and the far mountains is the sweetest farming land the mind can conjure. It is a chessboard of small, square holdings, fenced or hedged, with English trees or native blackwoods sheltering the farmhouses, and every farm with a permanent stream. The colour scheme is of extraordinary beauty. At one's feet slumbers the sea without a ripple to disturb its surface, the town straggles on either side of the white road, green fields alternate with ploughed lands of clark brown or light chocolate, and the course of the Inglis can he traced as it wends its leisurely way to the straits.
From the bluff where Table Cape lighthouse stands, I looked across at the Nut-probably the must distinctive natural object in Tasmania-rising out of the sea, thirty miles westward, This quaint knob of land was first seen, and named Circular Head, by Matthew Flinders in 1798.

It was in 1828 that Circular Head was occupied by Edward Curr, the first Agent of the V.D.L. Company, which had received its charter three years earlier. Reams of correspondence took place as a result of the company's claim to several millions of acres, for they were to have in one block 250,000 acres fit for "tillage or pasture", and waste lands were to be thrown in sufficient to make the block nearly square. it was this last proviso that caused the trouble, and the Right Hon. William Huskisson, the Colonial Secretary, writing from Downing Street on 8 October 1827, remarked that "the whole island of Van Diemen's Land might not have been sufficient to satisfy so unreasonable an expectation". Finally the company was given a total of 422,000 acres in six separate localities, at a quit rent of 468 per annum-about a farthing per acre. They were going to make Britain independent of foreign countries for wool, but the speculation was ruinous for the share-holders. Whether it was any good to the colony is a debatable point. Certainly it opened up a part hitherto entirely inaccessible except by water, but as the land included some of the richest tracts in the island presumably small farmers would have found their way into it eventually at something more than a farthing an acre rental.
The road and the railway hug the shore for nearly a hundred miles, and as I walked along with the odour of the salt sea and of the gum forests in my nostrils and turned my eyes landwards to the hills that seem to he playing at pushing the farmers into the ocean, it came to me that surely this north-west of Tasmania is one of the most favoured spots on earth.
Near the Cam I stopped to speak to a farm youth who was resting from ploughing, and chewing the end of a cigarette. "This is a lovely country," I ventured, certain of assent. "It's a cow of a place," he said, "I'd think it lovely if I was walking away from it, like you. The city for me, boss." The yokel had uttered a great truth-that we eternally hanker for what we have not got, miss the adventure that waits at home, and turn our eyes and thoughts to the world beyond. "Oh! the brave music of a distant drum."

I have heard old folk aver that the pioneering spirit is dead, but such pessimists can be hopelessly astray- Not many miles from Wynyard I deviated from the main road and walked a sandy path to the seashore. The path was being widened to cart-track dimensions. I came on the workers. They were a man, his fifteen-year-old boy, two daughters of eleven and thirteen and his wife. Each of them swung a mattock. They had been city dwellers, where they had taken their places, by birth and education with the best in the land. Government House had been open to them. They had fallen on evil times and were now challenging fate with a smile-and with sweat. Their home-made cart stuck in a nearby bog, their ancient Ford car was garaged under a banksia tree two miles back. They bad selected some land on a river flat near the beach, and were now providing ingress.
With true bush hospitality they laid down their implements and accompanied me to their dwelling to boil the kettle and regale me on what might have been their last loaf. These gentlefolk had at first lived in a bark hut, now the kitchen, and we sat on sofas in their newer "house". It was of one room and the floor was sand. Their rough bookshelf caught my eye. It contained botanical works, Shakespeare, Galsworthy, historians and poets. I tried to gather what was to provide a living for the two heroes and four heroines (there was an older girl at the hut) who constituted the family. All I could see was a paddock of marrows, tomatoes arid strawberries and a score of hardy cattle picking a living from the grass sown among the wilderness of logs and scrub. They had had to get rid of the pigs which originally employed in place of a plough to root up the bracken, had begun to devour the garden stuff. Fencing had not been possible, and the rabbits were taking a heavy toll of everything green. No, the pioneering spirit is not dead; it flourishes in Australia as hardly as it did a century ago, and while it lives our future is sure.

Before I leave them to carve out their destiny let me tell you of one incident of the many that half-an-hour's conversation revealed. One afternoon the youngest girl sat at the rough table wrestling with her correspondence course of instruction- Something moved near her bare legs (no stockings here) and she looked down four feet of black snake crawled across the dead embers in the fireplace and hid in the stones behind. Mother came in with a billy of hot water, and poured it into the crannies; this merely annoyed the reptile, which showed its fangs and sought concealment again. Grasping the fifty inches of death by its middle the lady of the hut pulled him out and the girl battered him to death with a wooden poker. I doubt if they had bothered to tell anybody about it till I enquired about snakes. It was a part of their life, just as yours and mine might be catching trams.

Chapter Ten

 

 

 

Tasmania by Road and Track - by E T Emmett was originally published by Melbourne University Press.
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