Saturday, July 29, 2017

A quiet week

Breakthrough -morning sun finally reaches the north facing window

It's been a quiet week. Wan sunlight now filters Stonehenge –like through the clerestory window. This means that we are now over the hump and hurtling towards Christmas, but winter isn't over yet.  I know this because there’s snow on the mountain and I'm stuck in bed with a book and a cold.

I blame this on yet another unfortunate walk to what seems to have become my nemesis, Adamson’s falls. A friend and I set off in light drizzle. He’d already told me that he had to be back in Hobart by 5 p.m. but no problem I thought, the sign said "2 Hrs. Return." At least we actually found the way in this time thanks to Forestry, correction Sustainable Timber, at Geeveston. (Thanks Cathy). However, I would personally like to strangle the person who put up the sign. It should read approximately 3 hours in if you are trying to keep your feet dry and then two hours back if you don’t mind getting muddy to the withers.

Scytinotus Longinquus  (Thanks Herman and Genevieve)- about the only fungus I am allowed to stop long enough to photograph
All this and I still haven’t actually seen these falls, though I have heard them twice now. At first I was trying hard not to get my boots wet by skirting around the edges of enormous puddles or balancing precariously on sticks placed across them. We got a bit further this time than on my original visit – it could only have been another five minutes at most, but my friend suddenly announced that as it was already  2.15, we were going to have to get a move on to get back on time. I was already a bit wet by then, so I thought that in the interests of speed I had better march right through all those puddles, instead of trying to avoid them. This is in fact proper bushwalking practice but wasn’t as straightforward as it sounds. 

Another view - same spot
 What looked like solid ground beneath the puddles was clay of varying thickness, so deep and soft in places that you sank almost to your knees. In between are tangled roots and the all too familar cutty rushes that slash your face and like to entangle your feet. Clay is also very slippery and I managed to slip over twice. No injuries fortunately – at least clay is soft, but by the time we got back to the car, I was wet through and muddy all over. My friend fared slightly better – decent jacket, woollen pants and tough all leather boots. I have trendy walking boots - not cheap, but they have stupid ventilation panels on the upper side of the foot, which means that whenever you step in any liquid more than five centimentres deep, you get very wet feet.

Another of the better moments, shortly before we turn around
It was then that I came to appreciate why people say you should always wear wool in the bush – yes, even if it’s heavy and scratchy. On the top half I was fashionably attired in a tee-shirt followed by a half woollen thermal and topped off with a woollen jumper. On the bottom half I only had on a thick pair of jeans. Even though my top half was wet, my heaving bosom remained fairly warm, but the jeans clung to my body and got stiffer and colder the further I walked. I then shivered in my wet clothes all the way home.  Next time – and yes, there will be one – this has become my K2, I will wear gumboots, a proper miner’s long tailed woollen shirt and some waterproof pants, or better still some waders – the sort that fly fishermen wear, that go all the way up to your waist. I’d put in a small zodiac for the larger puddles too, if I thought I could carry any more than I am already carrying. 

It is as Jamie Kirkpatrick* says, in his new book “The Environmental Worrier” (2017, De Press Inc. pp. 102), “The human brain treats bushwalking as it treats childbirth. Somehow despite the horrors of the first trip, Adrian and Jamie convince themselves that it would be a good idea to walk from the Walls of Jerusalem to Lake St. Clair, through trackless country....”  It’s a bit like that for me, if I ever recover from my latest affliction. Snuffle, snuffle, sniff.

Another as yet nameless fungus very close to where I slipped over

·       *  Jamie Kirkpatrick is the humble but distinguished Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Tasmania whose scientific research underpins many of our conservation struggles of the past five decades. He is also the author or co -author of some fifteen other books. The new book is a lighthearted look in the rear view mirror at that era. It also includes some charming and acerbic vignettes of people and places which will be familiar to anyone who read the news or attended Tas Uni during that time.  Hmmm. Never knew a certain LW was also a rock climber.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

A Musical Protest

Hobart is up in arms. Our small historic city, the second oldest in Australia has just received two proposals for multistorey hotels, one of them is to be forty stories high and 210 metres tall, the other 94 metres. In a place that is renown for its quaint old buildings and where the height limit in the historic precinct is 18 metres,  I can’t help but think that they are going to look very out of place and spoil it’s old world charm. You can see what the big one would look like here.

Now I don't want to offend Mr Koh or the Fragrance Group and Hobart certainly needs the work, but does it have to look like every other city in the world? This is not Dubai or Singapore. Is there no international ordinance to prevent such vandalism? How does Washington DC manage?  Perhaps the whole of Tasmania should be declared a heritage site. Not that we want to scare off potential  investors either, but surely there other places or other ways of achieving the same ends, without destroying what people come to see? Four to six smaller buildings – say, where the Marine Board is, would be far less intrusive.

Much more could be said. Nor is just about looks either. For instance, I am sure shading is not a problem in places where the sun shines overhead for much of the year, but it is a big problem in Hobart. We have lichen growing on our street as it is. Even when compared to other places in the northern Hemisphere, the angle of incidence is much lower, so pity help any buildings behind either development.

Many people have already spoken out about this such as tourism leader, Simon Currant and author Richard Flanagan and there's a public meeting in the Hobart Town Hall at 7.30 on Wednesday 26th.  Click here if you would like to know more.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Extreme Monotremes - Day 2 in the Huon Valley

Watch this space.....
The unexpected feast was not the only surprise in Geeveston. My friend went home the night before but I still wanted to do the Duck Hole Lake walk and possibly Adamson's Falls, which I had previously encountered but not conquered. Alas, this time I couldn't find the start of the track so I was heading into Geeveston to ask Forestry when I noticed the sign “Platypus Walk.” Nice, I thought, not for a moment expecting to see one.

The tiniest bit of sunlight allows the bryophytes and fungi to flourish along the Duck Hole Lake Track
Yep, still intrigued by the fungi - interestingly, although most other species increase in diversity towards the equator, the opposite is true of mosses and fungi
The platypus Ornithorhynchus anatinus, is a most unusual creature. It belongs to an early branch of the mammalian family and its only near relative is the echidna. Not only do platypuses have fur and suckle their young like other mammals, but like other marsupials such as kangaroos they have a pouch, but unlike them, they also lay eggs. They are excellent swimmers and have webbed feet and a bill like a duck.  When naturalists sent the first specimens to the British Natural History Museum in 1799 the curators thought the collectors were playing a trick on them and looked for the stitching which held the bill. Among many other curious features the male platypus also has a poisonous spur to protect it against enemies and to fight off other males, so don’t ever try to catch one.

At first I saw only the telltale bubbles and rings, but one by one, platypuses popped up to the surface grabbed a few mouthfuls of air and returned to the business of scouring the bottom for food. It took me a long time to recognise a platypus. I blame little Golden Books and Warner Brothers for this. In my childhood copy of “Animals of the World” the platypus was shown as a large brown thing rather like a fox with a beaver tail (as Warner Bros. did later too) and I looked for this creature in vain for many years. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that someone finally pointed one out and they turned out to be small black shiny rat-like creatures swimming in dark water. Those at Geeveston were a bit bigger and blue grey in colour and much more easily recognisable, although a local man who took up a position beside me, said that these were only juveniles and there were bigger ones in the Kermandie River. 

 Alas, my platypus shots are a lot like my bird and seal photographs – I usually catch them just as they are leaving or diving. For a really good look at what they look like in action, you should see this National Geographic clip. For more amazing platypus facts such as their feeding and breeding habits, try livescience  though be warned, this site is riddled with ads. Nor does it mention that platypuses are in fact threatened and declining

The latest research also shows that they have about two thirds more DNA pairs than humans. Since many of these are for ancient evolutionary traits, many of which have not been carried forward, it not only tells us about the evolution of platypuses, but other species as well, including our own. Curiously, I learned more about this from the Seattle Times, than from the Australian papers, but maybe I am reading the wrong ones. It's just another reason why we should take better care of them.  Who knows where this research will take us in future. 

At least you can make out its distinctive shape

Obviously these platypuses (yes, that is the plural, not platypii) have not read the texts that say they are nocturnal and very shy, as they are splashing about and having lunch in the middle of the day. It’s a delight to watch them. You just have to be quiet and a little patient. 

Although the sun is shining,  the shadows are getting long and I still can't raise anyone at Forestry. I am also determined not to spend another freezing night in the van - it makes me pity those poor woodcutters in their tents, so I start heading home. However, no visit to this area would be complete without taking home some apples. It produces over half of the apples exported from Tasmania and honesty boxes still abound, though I notice that one bears a sign saying "If you steal my apples, I hope you choke."  I  pay for mine. They are considerably cheaper than in Hobart and usually tastier too.

Heading home - A ship of dreams sails on a painted river beneath a painted sky

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

A Journey in Time –Stories from the Huon Valley

The Ida Bay Railway at work - once the age of steam had arrived, little workhorses like this were the lifeblood of many small mining and forestry communities. This is one of the few left. Many of the bushwalks in this area follow former rail lines

The Huon Valley is about as far south as you can go in Australia.  It’s a beautiful sight in the spring when its abundant orchards – apple, cherry and pear are in bloom, but even in winter there are attractive views of little patchwork farms, vineyards and orchards and tiny hamlets nestled against a backdrop of dark timbered mountains and bordered by the mighty Huon River.

Sometimes when I travel this way, I wonder if our lives would have been different if our parents had landed here, where the landscape superficially resembles the European countryside they left behind, rather than in the flat alien country to the north.  Not that it was always as bucolic as it now seems.   It is still literally at the end of the earth, but until the roads were built in the late C19th, the only way in was by boat. To this day, the older houses in Ranelagh still face towards the river and not the road. Nor would it have been much fun being a convict, a miner or a woodcutter, most likely living in a tent in one of the harshest climates in the country. The greatest enemy however, has always been fire which has obliterated whole towns, not just once, but on many occasions, even as recently as 1967. Lastly,  none of the productive and pretty landscapes we see today would exist without the unremitting toil of those who came before.

I learned much of this while travelling on the Ida Bay Bush Railway. Our original plan was to take the railway to the head of the walk to Southport Lagoon but by the time we had made our way over the winding and still frosty roads, we’d missed the early morning run and there was only time to take the afternoon train there and back.  Still, since this little train hadn't been operating when I have been down on previous visits, it was too good an opportunity to miss. Until 1977 this tiny 2' gauge railway carried limestone to the river, after which the limestone was transported upstream by barge to the sulphide works at Electrona.  

It's a bit drizzly as we leave the station. Then the little red train putters through bush beside the river.  We rattle past lonely graves, past the site of where the township of Ida Bay once stood on the far side of the river, before it was  destroyed by the fire of 1896 which also claimed nearby Cockle Creek and Hastings. Cockle Creek was then known as 'the poor man's Venice" and had a population which rivalled that of New York. Sixteen whaling stations were established there and the whalers were soon joined by fishermen and wood cutters, not to mention the odd absconding convict. While the Huon pine was prized for ship building, the sturdy hardwoods were sent to Britain to pave the streets. Today the permanent population of Cockle Creek is four, though it’s a busy place for holiday makers in summer. Eventually the train comes to a stop for a while at a beach opposite Southport, once the second largest ‘city’ in Tasmania, but now little more than a sleepy holiday resort.

Sombre weather seems fitting as we pass the last resting place of early settlers. Granite was not available in the colony until much later and wooden headstones would have perished in the great bush fires. The remaining headstones attest to harsh conditions.Their owners died young due to industrial accidents such as being caught in timber milling machinery or while shoeing a horse.

The landscape itself doesn't look promising, being either sandy or rocky, though it is rumoured that Chinese market gardeners were able to grow cabbages on the river flats. It was at Recherche Bay just down the river and named after one of his ships, that  Bruni D’Entrecasteaux stopped in 1792 while exploring the Channel, but he only stayed five weeks. He did however, establish a garden for the Aboriginal people of  the Lyluequonny tribe, with whom he had had friendly contact. As well as searching for their lost countryman, Laperouse who had vanished off the East Coast of Australia in 1788, the French were anyway more interested in scientific discovery than conquest. They also built an observatory which helped to establish that the earth's magnetic field increased as it neared the poles. Esperance, D'Entrecasteuax Channel, Bruny Island, Port Huon, the Huon River, Kermandie and even North West Bay, all owe their names to this expedition.
D'Entrecasteaux's naturalist Labillardiere would have had a field day with all that never -before -seen vegetation. His comprehensive Florae Novae Hollandiae which he began to compile at this time, remains one of the definitive works on the subject. Today, a few early wattles, one or two pink heaths and the banksias are starting to put on a show. The train driver says that it’s also a great place for orchids. Occasionally the fire – scarred bush gives way to button grass plains. Though attractive to the casual visitor, they are not the fertile pasture that Government Surveyor, Henry Hellyer thought them to be when he viewed them in the Northwest. When his British backers at the Van Diemen’s Land Company discovered otherwise – i.e. all their sheep died or were eaten by devils and tigers, he committed suicide, so it always makes me think of them as “heartbreak plains.”

Button grass plains

The hardy bottlebrush - Banksia marginata  looking like a Christmas candle, brightens the scene. They are named after Sir Joseph Banks, Cook's naturalist who is credited with bringing eucalypts, mimosas and the the attention of Europeans. In all, some 40 species are named after him

All too soon we are back at the station. Although it's too late to do the walk, we call in briefly at the  Duck Hole Lake track and then head back to Geeveston where I have left my van. To our delight, there’s feasting in progress at the Visitors Centre which also happens to be lovely and warm.  The smell of satay sticks being grilled outside the venue was nothing short of cruel and unusual punishment, but inside there were also tables piled high with food - Vietnamese steamed buns, baked potatoes, salmon and salads, soups, curries, apple pies and sticky date pudding to name just a few, not to mention warm spiced apple juice and mulled wine. It was not only a big surprise but the perfect way to end a pleasant day.

At the end of the day, food, glorious food!  - and the drinks weren't bad either.

A Little Footnote and a Big Thank You:
I managed to lose my wallet on that South West trip recently. This was a complete disaster because it had everything in it - credit cards, driver's licence, Metro card, parks pass etc and even a bit of money. After waiting a few days, I pretty well gave up hope of ever seeing it again, given that there is very little traffic on that road in winter and it would have been eaten by the rainforest – by those enormous lichens most likely, before anyone found it. I then began doing the rounds of the banks and various government departments to cancel everything and have new cards issued  (do you know how hard it is to prove who you are when you don’t have a single bit of plastic? I felt like an illegal alien) but on Monday I got a call from the police saying that a representative from Parks and Wildlife had handed my wallet in. Not only did it have all my cards and paperwork still in it, but all the cash was still there too– so thank you David O.  The world needs more people like you.
It also reminds why I    Tasmania and a big thank you to everyone else involved too.