‘It is too far south for spices and too close to the rim of the earth
to be inhabited by anything but freaks and monsters’
Abel Tasman upon sighting the West Coast of Tasmania in November 1642.
I came into the Tarkine tracing the footsteps of Jorgen Jorgensen, the for-
mer Danish revolutionist, Foreign Office intelligence asset, gambling ad-
dict and general human problem turned convict-explorer.
It is a remnant of wild nature in Tasmania’s fantastically remote northwest.
Jorgensen was searching for sheep country or at the very least stock routes.
This was a mission doomed from the start. The Tarkine – as the area is now
called after one of the ancient indigenous tribes of the island, the Tarkayna
– is a land of wild seas and monumental sand dunes, stony high country
clad in heath and moor, and river valleys where there stretches the larg-
est span of cool temperate rainforest outside Alaska. Very soon Jorgensen
and his companions were stalled in rainforest, having seen almost noth-
ing fit for sheep. There in his Journal the Dane observed of his comrades:
‘Bread and a good piece of pork would afford them more delight than the
most sublime or beautiful prospect of nature.’ The year was 1827; evidently
there was only one Wordsworthian here.
It was not only in his attitude toward nature that Jorgensen felt a man apart. His
West Coast Journal also records the first glimmerings of an intellectual interest
in the hunter-gathers of Tasmania, that unique people isolated by flooding seas
for some ten thousand years until the appearance of the first Europeans.
Already, when Jorgensen travelled in the west, flames were being fanned
across the island in Tasmania’s infamous Black War that would end with
the native tribes largely wiped out. That dirty war was fuelled by land com-
petition (and the abduction of black women); and Jorgensen’s employer,
the Van Diemen’s Land Company, played a prominent part. In fact, the
northwestern tribes suffered some of the worst violence, and the Chief
Agent of the Company was effectively satrap in the area. A determined
gentleman called Edward Curr, he openly used the word ‘extermination’,
and, amongst other things, threatened to place the heads of blacks on the
roof of a stock hut as a deterrent.
By contrast, Jorgensen wrote privately to the Governor in Hobart warn-
ing correctly that the abuse of Aboriginal women by Company staff risked
spreading the war to the northwest. During his foray into the Tarkine, he
also took careful note of the local tribes:
March 31, 1827: We observed a very compact native hut far dif-
ferent (as are all huts in this quarter) from those seen to the east.
It was a complete piece of gothic architecture, in the shape of
a dome and presenting all the first rudiments of that science. It
was made to contain twelve to fourteen people with ease. The
entrance was small and not above two feet high. The wood used
for the supports had been steamed and bent by fire.
The Danish convict-explorer was, after a fashion, an intellectual. Thirteen
years later, when he was fished out of a Hobart gutter and dragged away
to the old Colonial Hospital to die, he was still working on a sympathetic,
ethnographic study of the Tasmanian Aborigines, and even today I am told
by descendants of the indigenous tribes Jorgensen is remembered for his
efforts to preserve shards of their lost languages.
These former themes of nature, isolation and violence, and the strange
counter-example of a Danish reprobate, recurred to me when I walked in
the Tarkine this autumn. For they seemed to echo eerily in the present.
I wanted to walk on the Tarkine coast.
Past lakes and peaks, I drove six hours over Tasmania’s central plateau
to Corinna, an old gold-mining town in the west transmogrified by green
financial alchemy into a hub for eco-tourism. The woman at the front desk
asked, ‘At what point when you don’t return do you want us to alert Emer-
gency?’ My face must have betrayed me, because she added: ‘Well, you
might break your leg.’ ‘I have no intention of breaking my leg,’ I finally
replied. ‘As far I’m concerned, you can alert Emergency whenever you
I took a boat down the Pieman River. As we puttered along, mist ghosted
through the foliage on the hillsides that fell into the black waters and were
reflected back in perfect clarity. It is the tannins from the heathlands above
that, draining into the rivers of the Tarkine, give them their extraordinary
resonance; and now images of leatherwood and myrtle, sassafras and cel-
ery pine, blackwood and ti-tree, trailed beside me in the inky waters.
At length, the rainforest receded and the coast announced itself.
The white surf and the golden spray could be seen for hundreds of metres
from the river’s mouth, where the waves of the Southern Ocean, roaring in,
struck a sandbar and sent jets spouting high above the jagged rocks. Those
rocks might have been dragon’s teeth stained orange by lichen. If ever Abel
Tasman’s remark about freaks and monsters on Tasmania’s west coast rings
true, it is surely in these seas. Wild winds and breathtaking waves (the high-
est recorded last winter was a mere twenty-two metres, I was told by one
local) are generated by a movement of air and water undisturbed by any
landmass between Tasmania and Patagonia half a world away. It is a coast
littered with wrecks.
I was dropped some way short of that sandbar at a place called Hardwicke
Point. Here the jetty was a few rotted planks the colour of tobacco. I took
my pack and headed north on a muddy track. Behind me the foaming vio-
lence of the ocean could be heard. Ahead I saw the southern flanks of the
Norfolk Ranges, mantled in green. On I walked through a veil of sea mist.
The only contemporary signs were a few empty beer bottles, a tossed ciga-
rette lighter, and a rusted forty-gallon drum from Korea that was rolling
in a shingled cove. ‘Warning may cause an allergic reaction. Avoid skin contact. Wear protective gloves,’
Already the air hinted of rain and I stopped above a stream. But I didn’t
hear any water murmur over the stones that night. For a deluge came and
the wind rose and tossed my tent like a plaything.
In Hobart I had met a fellow called Rob Fairlie. He runs wilderness treks
through the Tarkine and on a map he’d marked for me the many prehistoric
sites to be found on the coast between the Pieman and the Interview Rivers.
Next morning that map was disintegrating in my hands through the minis-
trations of wind and rain. But I could still see where Fairlie had inscribed
the letter M for midden, and in truth the indigenous sites were not difficult
On lonely bluffs and headlands I found myself walking directly onto these
signs of ancient human habitation: piles of sea-shells collected in great
sandy heaps and left there in seeming perpetuity as a reminder of a van-
ished people. White shells of sea snails, and shells of the much larger aba-
lone that still released their iridescent play of pink and blue and grey when
scattered up to the light.
Artefacts, too, were buried here, stone tool heads, and human bones. In one
midden I picked up an object. A chiselled piece of tawny stone with a sharp
cutting edge, I thought it was possibly a piece of spongolite – very hard
rock quarried from just one source on the island and traded in prehistoric
times for the fashioning of tool heads. Elsewhere on the coast are rock
carvings that in their geometric motifs are a form of abstract art; and hut
epressions marking the location of the dwellings described by Jorgensen
in his Journal. I couldn’t see any, but even to my eye this was a landscape
of great archaeological richness.
Unfortunately, the shell middens on the Tarkine coast are at the centre
Two years ago the federal government gave them National Heritage protec-
tion and a ban was placed on vehicles being driven through the sand dunes
and over the bluffs to stop the prehistoric sites being damaged. Then, last
year, the Tasmanian state government, chasing some sort of off-road mo-
toring enthusiasts’ vote, pledged to reopen tracks in the area for four-wheel
drives and – why not? – Mad Max-style quad bikes with souped-up wheels.
I saw no vehicles when I walked (only those discarded beer bottles), be-
cause the matter is now before the courts and an injunction exists. One out-
spoken former Parks manager has described the Tasmanian government’s
pandering to ‘ego-driven macho men and their machines’ and has spoken
of ‘anarchy in a lawless wild West.’
As with the archaeological sites, so with the wider Tarkine landscapes.
Earlier in the summer I walked through the rainforest and on the button
grass heath of the high country. These are natural and scientific wonder-
lands, still housing their many living marvels – giant freshwater crayfish,
and the largest of wedge-tail eagles, and the Tasmanian devil, and not least,
the ancient species of tree that, hugging the cool dark river valleys, descend
from the broken supercontinent of Gondwana. Conservationists have long
sought the area’s protection, and their literature has made frequent refer-
ence to the first recorded evocation of the rainforest, that of the Danish
convict-explorer in his West Coast Journal:
March 19, 1827: Fallen trees in every direction had interrupted our
march, and it is a question whether ever human being, either civi-
lized or savage, had ever visited this savage looking country. Be that
as it may, all about us appeared well calculated to arrest the pro-
gress of the traveller, sternly forbidding man to traverse those places
which nature had selected for its own silent and awful repose.
Nature has not been heard. Where previously sheep condemned the north-
western tribes to ‘extermination’, the interests of the extractive industries
(logging and especially mining) have more recently prevented the Tarkine
landscapes, which the indigenous mapped, used and traversed, from being
properly protected. Around forty per cent of the area is now covered by min-
eral exploration licenses, and at the height of the mining boom, following a
campaign by unions, the federal environment minister rejected advice from
the Australian Heritage Council that the entire Tarkine be given possible
World Heritage Listing. (As it happened, the promise of jobs proved chi-
merical: mining projects were shelved when the global iron ore price fell.)
And yet, though pockmarked here and there by tailings dams and acid
leaching and clear-felled rainforest, the Tarkine still possesses landscapes
of immense natural beauty that can be salvaged. It is glorious to walk here
on the golden moors in the sun, clapping your hands to warn off the flicker-
ing black tiger snakes; or in a forest glade to stop and see a myrtle-beech,
its trunk several-arm spans wide, towering overhead, or fallen in its fluo-
rescent green majesty.
The Tarkine coast, too, has a certain power. This autumn I walked on be-
yond the Interview River. And here on a grassy verge above another tannin-
dark stream I suddenly saw stretching away to the north a line of golden
sand dunes. In their immensity they were the shape and hue of lions’ paws.
No human sound was to be heard and no machine. Everything seemed to
be on the rim of dissolution: the soft grey sky and the foaming turquoise
sea, the mist and the sea spray, the opalescent sheen of the wet sand and the
washed-up spumes of the tannins. Into that emptiness, I could have kept
walking (I had food for two days and water was abundant). But I had to
At Hardwicke Point I had a boat to meet, or they would be calling Emergency.