An Alien in Tasmania

Kill Your Darlings (literary journal)

THE Spirit of Tasmania isn’t a ship. It’s a floating civilisation. The giant ferry has a disco, a food court and even a movie theatre. The cabins come with all the usual conveniences – clean sheets, thick blankets, and mints on starched pillows. Outside it’s near freezing and the gales are upending gulls, but in here it’s a comfy 25˚C and the only breeze is steam billowing from the shower.

The first Europeans to make this trip braved Bass Strait without heaters or hot water to keep them warm and cosy. But that’s not to say their boats were without technology. On board were the most advanced tools and weapons ever seen in these waters, technology the Europeans used to overpower the inhabitants of the island and change its ecosystem forever. The landing was an alien invasion, unexpected and irrevocable.

As I leave the boat and board a waiting bus, I’m acutely aware of my place in this, the story of Tasmania. I am a descendant of those aliens. I have come to visit a world my ancestors conquered, to drive along the paths they cleared through the bush, to camp in the forests they claimed as their own. Most tourists travel to see a foreign culture; but here, on this island at ‘world’s end’, I have come to see how my own culture is faring in a foreign land.

***

Early morning. Mists haunt the valley like the ghosts of lost tribes. My campervan pushes through the fog, following the winding road into receding whiteness. I can’t see much, but I know I’m north of Launceston, travelling up the Tamar River towards the coast.

Narawntapu National Park emerges from the mist – a thinly wooded area with rust-coloured ferns among the green scrub. A brochure at the ranger’s office explains that the  Punnaalaapunnaa people once lived here, but were wiped out by the British. One paragraph reads: ‘The new people brought with them significant changes to the environment; new diseases, animals and a complete disrespect for place and people…’ Tasmania has lost more than 28 species of plants and animals, including the emblematic thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, and more than 600 species are threatened. The European fox is a worry for native wildlife, the European carp causes problems for the island’s fish and the European wasp harms native bees.

It’s dark by the time I set up camp. My eyes adjust to the dimness as I make my way to the beach. A full moon is out and the sand glows with a grey luminescence. I walk to a large bank of washed up pebbles and shellfish – a ‘shell midden’ where the Punnaalaapunnaa people once camped, ate and slept – and my thoughts spill into empty space. I imagine Aboriginal children laughing and chasing each other along the beach. But on the walk back to camp it’s just me here, alone with the unnerving silence.

As I travel down the coast a few days later the weather warms, the mist recedes, and I decide to go for a walk to Wineglass Bay on the Freycinet Peninsula. It’s a protected area, a place so alive with vegetation the bush extends right up to the crescent-shaped beach. A sign on the trail informs me that some shell middens are also Aboriginal burial grounds, sacred sites that remained undisturbed for thousands of years. The European settlers took the shells and melted them to make lime for use as mortar.

A few hours’ drive south of Wineglass Bay is Wielangta, a temperate rainforest with a well-known walking trail. On the descent to the creek bed, the air ripens with moisture and the smell of wet earth. Lichen sprouts from rocks and tree trunks, and giant ferns form archways overhead. The forest looks violently fertile. A breath catches between my collarbones.

Why does this place frighten me? An area of undisturbed land should seem familiar and comforting, not strange and terrifying. After all, this is what vast swathes of the world would look like if we just let nature be. Yet people will travel thousands of kilometers to see wilderness: the phenomenon of things left alone. Is our culture now so steeped in the artificial we find the natural novel? I stand between creek bed and campervan, confused.

***

Port Arthur: a quaint village of crime and cruelty. In 1873, the local paper, The Mercury, noted it had ‘charming gardens, lovely green lawns and gay flower beds’. Over a century later, those emerald grasses and pretty picket fences still create an erroneous first impression. Their beauty belies the horrors that occurred within the town’s buildings.

Port Arthur was established in 1830 as a sawing station for convicts to harvest timber. It quickly became the island’s most notorious penal settlement, a grim outpost reserved for only the worst serial offenders. From 1833 convicts in Van Diemen’s Land were classed according to their crime and behaviour while in custody. Those who had committed the most atrocious acts or had re-offended were sent to Port Arthur for further punishment. As such it held some of the Commonwealth’s hardest convicts – rogues and heavies accustomed to long hours and tough conditions, and men whom no physical torture could break. What they weren’t prepared for was the psychological ordeal.

The site of their demise was Port Arthur’s Separate Prison, completed in 1852. Each new arrival spent four to 12 months in this building, confined in a cramped solitary cell. Inmates were dressed in hooded masks and forbidden to communicate. They spent 23 hours a day like this, making shoes and brooms for sale outside the prison. Silence was mandatory. Even guards wore special padded slippers to muffle their footsteps.

Modelled on Pentonville Prison in England, the Separate Prison was a radical departure from earlier nineteenth-century British gaols, where inmates slept two or three to a cell and could talk among themselves. The inspiration for this new, silent incarceration came from British utilitarian philosophers, such as Jeremy Bentham, who described his perfect penitentiary as ‘a mill for grinding rogues honest’. The idea was that enforced introspection would engender moral change in a man, turning outlaws into useful and obedient citizens. Every aspect of the inmates’ lives was regimented, down to how long prisoners should exercise (one hour a day) and how far they should stand apart while doing so (five paces).

I tour the building, restored to near-original condition. A central tower overlooks the hexagonal structure. Wings radiate out from the main hall. The long corridors, once washed with lime from crushed Aboriginal middens, are now painted white. The architecture is symmetrical, Spartan and precise – a monument to mathematics; the worship of cold, geometric perfection. It makes me shudder.

Nothing could be so far removed from the freedom and spontaneity of nature. Yet exposure to this rigid setting was supposed to redeem a person. What kind of a culture believes this environment can make a man good? I step into a solitary confinement cell and peer out through iron bars. How little has changed, I think. We’re still doing this to people – still locking them in tiny boxes, still severing their ties to nature and community. We still think the way to reform men and women is to deprive them of the very things that make them human.

***

I’m in the campervan approaching Hobart with the Derwent River coursing on my right. The water looks cool and grey, the surrounding hills dark green with daubs of pastel – the pale shades of weatherboard houses in the suburbs. Mount Wellington hunches over the diminutive central business district, shepherding the buildings from strong westerly winds.

While Melbourne and Sydney have bought into the glamour of commercialism, bulldozing historic blocks to erect glittering skyscrapers, Hobart has kept its cobbled streets and squat stone buildings. It remains more of a charming settlement than a state capital.

I walk down Salamanca Place on the foreshore, watching yachts bob in the water and picking my way between bars, cellars and cafés where urbanites sip drinks and chat in the fading light. I take their cue, ordering wine and cheese to accompany dusk’s slow descent.

The wine is served. Tasmanian pinot noir, and with it local produce: Brie, blue cheese, Cheddar and apples. From my table I can see the perfectly manicured gardens of the Tasmanian Parliament. I pick up my cheese and lift the wineglass to my lips. The action feels like a victory toast.

This is it: the place where the aliens landed. I’m standing in Risdon Cove at the exact spot where Lieutenant Bowen and his crew rowed ashore in 1803. To some, this site is significant for another reason. The first massacre of Tasmanian Aborigines occurred here, in 1804. It was spring and the wild plants were coming into bloom. The Mumirimina people had been following the river for weeks, feeding on honey and bush foods. On May 3 they descended from the hills.

The British soldiers looked up and saw Aborigines on the ridge stretching left to right around the settlement. In Blood on the Wattle, Bruce Elder writes that eyewitness Edward White reported seeing ‘300 Natives’ coming down the hill towards the cove. The soldiers fired their muskets and let off a cannonball. A great many Mumirimina were wounded, and between 30 and 60 died. The survivors scrambled to safety, except for a small boy whose mother and father had both been killed. He was taken by the settlers and christened Robert Hobart May.

I wander about the swampy ground, re-imagining the scene from different angles. The soldiers thought the large group of Aborigines was a ‘war party’, in Bruce Elder’s words. But in all likelihood the Mumirimina were on a kangaroo hunt. Edward White said he saw the natives coming down the hill with ‘a flock of kangaroos hemmed in between them’. They held in their hands not spears but ‘waddies’ – sticks used to club animals at close range.

My culture – European culture – once thrived in this place. Homesick settlers transplanted their traditional way of life onto a new setting and watched their society prosper. They sowed crops from home, introduced domesticated European animals, built churches and erected picket fences around their properties. They toiled day and night to maintain the illusion that they were still in England. But no amount of effort could turn the island into something it wasn’t. The bush was always there, a constant reminder of how far they were from home.

Eventually, the White Tasmanians learnt to accept and appreciate their antipodean surroundings. Now more than 35 per cent of Tasmania is national park or conservation reserve, and other areas are being regenerated as native bush land. The island is returning to its natural state. Risdon Cove is a case in point. In 1995 the area was handed back to the Tasmanian Aboriginal community. A sign at the former settlement describes how the community intends ‘to slowly transform much of Risdon Cove from exhausted farmland back to healthy bushland’. Gone are the settlers’ houses and the plots where crops once grew. Now the grass is littered with gumnuts, leaves and the shed skins of eucalypts. The shrubs are untended, the trees left to creak and topple as they age. Fleshy green saplings sprout from the grass, reclaiming the soil.

One of the first things the traditional owners did to rejuvenate the land was remove the English willows clogging up the waterways. I put my camera in my pocket and slowly walk away. It’s time this alien left the island, too.