The convict stain

The colony of Van Diemen’s Land was swept into existence on a torrent of blood, the blood of the Aboriginal inhabitants who stood in the way of the European invaders’ notions of progress, and the blood of the convicts whose punishment for crimes, real or imagined, in the Old World was to subjugate the new, untamed land to the south.

Tasmania, it seems, has an uneasy relationship with its past.  That Van Diemen’s Land was re-invented as Tasmania was neither a quirk of history nor an idle flight of fancy, but rather a conscious attempt to sweep the excesses of its first 50 years under Britain’s threadbare colonial carpet.

Today, authors and film-makers are increasingly exploring the early history of Tasmania.  The 2009 movie that is called simply Van Diemen’s Land focuses on one of the darkest episodes in the early history of the island, the descent into cannibalism of a group of eight convicts led by Alexander Pearce.  The wretched prisoners did a runner from the infamous penal colony at Macquarie Harbour on the west coast of Tasmania only to find the land into which they had fled to be bleak, unforgiving and almost totally devoid of anything edible … except their fellow escapees.

For anyone planning to visit Tassie this film is good homework, providing an insight into an event nearly 200 years ago that continues to fascinate the locals today.  The savagery of the penal regime is surpassed only by the brutality of the forests and mountains.  And, not least, the movie reminds the potential visitor of the need for decent rainwear … my god, if this film is to be believed we’ll need it.

Richard Flanagan, Tasmania’s foremost literary author, also writes about the penal colony at Macquarie Harbour in his 2002 novel, Gould’s Book of Fish.  Flanagan is one of those commentators unhappy with Australian – and Tasmanian – reluctance to confront the ‘convict stain’ that disfigures the early history of both country and state.  I’d hoped, therefore, that Gould’s Book of Fish would offer the prospective tourist some insights, a dummies’ guide to the penal system that gave birth to a nation.

I should have known better.  Flanagan writes literature, not books, and in 2014 was rewarded with the Man Booker Prize for his troubles, in recognition of his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North.  Inevitably, therefore, dummies’ guides are not what he does.  Gould’s Book of Fish is not an easy read, though to be fair he warns his readers not to expect too much when he has his first narrator say the following:

I had begun with the comforting conclusion that books are the tongue of divine wisdom, and ended only with the thin hunch that all books are grand follies, destined forever to be misunderstood.

Spot on with that one, Mr F.  Richard Flanagan is obviously a talented writer – they don’t give the Man Booker away lightly and Gould’s Book of Fish is not totally without merit, although the  Guardian reviewer didn’t much care for it.  But as preparatory reading for a trip to Tassie this book promises more than it delivers, and to be frank life’s way too short.

Of loggers and bloggers

Every summer, our garden pond is alive with the antics of pond-skaters.  With tiny bodies and legs so long they could advertise stockings pond-skaters walk on water, suspended by its surface tension.  They live their lives on the pool’s silver skin, come rain or shine, blind to the world below.

Underwater it’s a life and death struggle.  Golden Rudd squabble for the right to mate, and their eggs and fry become snacks for brethren who are not above a bit of opportunistic cannibalism.  Adult newts feast on young tadpoles, leeches lurk in the weeds waiting to suck the life-blood from unwary goldfish, and dragonfly larvae patrol the depths like U-boats, watching, waiting, the ultimate aquatic mini-beast carnivores.  And yet the pond-skaters go about their business, oblivious to the drama unfolding daily beneath their feet.

Tourists are like pond-skaters.  They spend their time on the surface of the places they visit, guide books in hand, cameras at the ready, taking it all at face value, never looking into the shadows or hidden places, not asking too many questions.  Is it naivety, or are they complicit, deliberately not enquiring too deeply because they know that if they do they won’t like the answers?

The Hunter, the movie I wrote about in my last post, lifts the lid on one on the tensions lurking just beneath the surface in Tasmania.  It vividly portrays the enmity between the environmentalists, who would protect the island’s forests and the loggers, who make a living out of chopping them down.

Tasmania is justly proud of its natural heritage.  The Discover Tasmania website boasts that the island’s “national parks cover a diversity of unspoiled habitats and ecosystems with plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth.  Around forty per cent of Tasmania is protected in national parks and reserves. Most of them are stunningly beautiful.”  And yet much of Tasmania’s virgin rainforest is potentially at the mercy of loggers.

The Australian Wilderness Society says on its website “logging and mining are decimating Tassie’s spectacular forests every day.  We’ve lost too much ancient forest already. … Continuing down this path will only damage more irreplaceable forests and fail more local communities.”

File:Tasmania logging 10 Styx Devastation.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: By TTaylor (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (, via Wikimedia Commons

It would be hypocritical of me, someone who is wealthy enough to travel to the other side of the world to pursue his passion for nature, to condemn out-of-hand people who have far less money and many fewer opportunities than I have enjoyed.  But I passionately believe a way forward can be found that protects the wild places and their eco-systems as well as local people.

The Wilderness Society says that its “vision for real forest protection means that regional communities can protect their backyards, grow tourism and recreation jobs and have a timber industry of which the whole community can be proud.”  I don’t know the full details, but in principle the Society seems, to me, to be on the right track.  As conservationists we are not going to win many arguments by preaching, by promoting environmental protection as a moral imperative or a simply as a “good thing.”  But if the environment can deliver the tourist dollar then maybe, just maybe, we can save it.  This is a compromise, it’s less than ideal but almost certainly the best we can hope for.

Taking the longer term, pragmatic view, eco-tourism is last best chance for the wild places of Tassie and beyond.  Let’s make it work.

Hollywood comes to Tassie

A few days ago, to get us in the mood for our trip, we watched the 2011 movie The Hunter.  William Dafoe gets top billing, but the Tasmanian landscape is the star of the show.  This is our most in-depth exposure so far to the island we will visit for a month, and it lives up to expectations.  Remote and rugged wilderness is the order of the day, a sparsely populated landscape of desolate grandeur that looks well worth the visit … though not without decent rainwear and stout shoes.

Having said all that, the plot is contrived.  Sure there are folk who believe the Tasmanian Tiger is still alive, out there in the vast wastelands thumbing its nose at a society that, conventional wisdom tells us, drove it to extinction some 80 years ago.  I desperately want to believe it too, but I can’t quite make that leap of faith.  But it’s even more difficult to believe in a shadowy and powerful multi-national biotech company hiring hunters to find the last surviving tiger and kill it for the inadequately explained and frankly implausible commercial opportunities inherent in its DNA.  I think not.

And, ultimately, for someone who believes mankind must live in harmony with nature, respecting rather than destroying it, this is a film that depresses more than it impresses.  Its conclusion appears to be that from here on in things can only get worse. 

As an insight into the greed and lawlessness of the global economy and faceless men who control it, the Hunter works to a degree but lacks subtlety.   As entertainment it just doesn’t cut it for me: even though Dafoe puts in a decent performance, the cinematography is excellent and the Tasmanian landscapes are revealed in all their glory, I find little pleasure in a movie that offers me no hope, in a world in which good guys win only pyrrhic victories and the bad guys win the wars.

Given that I’m about to visit the land in which it was filmed I’m truly glad that I watched the Hunter last week.  I won’t ever watch it again.