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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.