Hells Gates

I went to Tasmania. It was magnificent.

Here are memories:

In Strahan. We went on a cruise out to Hells Gates, Macquarie Harbour, and saw on the way rainforest that dates back 60 million years. We sailed through cold crystal air of probably the same vintage. We saw a lighthouse where the keeper, from his workstation, watched his wife and daughters drown. Looking down into the black water, I thought of those women and their stout woollen clothing, protection from the cold, but now holding them down and away from oxygen, and him, watching from above and unable to act, looking at them perishing, eyes still open and small cold hands clawing at water. We saw Sarah Island, where men and women sank to death, grateful in the end, or, along with their jailers, went mad. Nobody seemed to have repented or been rehabilitated.

On the boat we had lunch. The staff were young and wore shorts, moving fluently through the freezing air. Getting down on their knees to speak to passengers in seats. Managing the cutlery and a lecture on penal colonies, piners, convicts and the dramatic timber of the Sassafras trees, all at the same time. One convict escaped with a small number of companions, some of whom he ate on the way. What price freedom. They captured him again, anyway.

Huon pine trees, 800 years old. They grow one golden millimetre each year. One, fallen next to our path, is 2300 years old, born when Julius Caesar was alive, but right now, is lying in front of me. The wood perfectly preserved, but now a log garden bed for 320 new trees and plants, which all tread delicately across its furry back and thread roots into its spine. Life, on this innocent tour, cutting new deals.

The piners raised their families by logging the Huon pine trees. Felling 600 year slices in a matter of minutes. Cut it down in impossible conditions, marking the logs and waiting for the winter floods to carry it down to Strahan. It was cold. Four meters of rain a year. Getting home after a long haul and hoping your kids were still alive but knowing that at least one of them no longer would be.

There’s a log on the foreshore only just washed down. The pioneers missed out on that one.

And then the logging of Huon stopped.

Rest back in our seats on board. Good to get out of the wind. And good that we, thank God, we didn’t live back then.

Behind my seat, a nanna and a grandson, aged five. She says, ‘It’s good to get out of the wind.’ He says, ‘Can I have an orange?’

In front of me, another family, mummy taking photos, dad taking the kids for walks around the boat, looping inside, then outside, and through my window, I see the children gulping at the air, so much of it, so cold and clean. Their cheeks are red. The little girl carries a barbie doll with a green shiny dress.

There’s a talk about the Greenies. What they did. What they saved (everything). We are sailing through World Heritage, ticking seven out of ten boxes for the World Heritage application, and not many places on this planet able to do that, possibly none. The young staff acknowledge the First Australians with reverence, one young woman with closed eyes, ‘the Togee Tribe’, the the Lowreenne and Mimegin bands. But there are no words. No way to express the shame.

‘I didn’t know that.’ This said by the young dad who is still looping his family gently around and around the boat. He is carrying the barbie doll now. ‘I never knew’. His small daughter looks up at him, learning something.

Next to me. A man with a huge watch which he keeps checking. No need. There are 60 million unhurried years out there, leaning over the boat and breathing slow green cold all over us.

A man on the top deck takes a picture of his wife wrongly and has to do it again. But still wrong. Sliding behind her back unnoticed is the silent forest, and it is deafening. There’s a waterfall, and then it’s gone.

Trees clustered at the sunlight.

People clustered at the bar.

Through my window, a man with an expensive whirling camera; people moving aside respectfully to let him through, the expert.

Wind. The glass doors are closing loudly. People come in.

‘Arctic out there.’

‘I didn’t dress for this.’

‘Did you get the waterfall?’

‘Can you get my coat?’

Lunch is served.

The nanna and grandson behind me eat side by side. ‘How’s he doing?’ This is dad, calling from the seat behind.

‘Oh very well.’

But he still wants an orange.

‘I want an orange.’

‘We have to be sensible don’t we.’ Nanna is hopping into the chicken. There are rice and noodles under their chairs, and now under mine.

‘Nan, can you get me one?’

‘Well, I don’t think they have those.’ The child presses his nose to the window and looks out at World Heritage. Dad stands up from behind and stretches. ‘Might go out the front.’

On Sarah Island. Led by a speaker who told the awful stories. Two little girls climb a pile of bricks, remnants of the olde bakery. They hop over it, light as birds scratching at history, but they are told to hop down. ‘Please, everyone, stay off the ruins’.

The tour guide invites the group to participate, and we all stiffen. Nobody wants to be wrong about history even though this is normal.

The guide points to a young father whose daughter has a Barbie doll and who hopped across the ruined bricks of the bakery.

The young dad gets the answer wrong. His eyes swivel to see if anyone notices, but we are all just glad that WE didn’t have to answer. What was the question, anyway.

The worst of the convicts were punished on a smaller island nearby with no shelter. A small group of women sheltered in a tidal cave there where they mostly died. We stand on deck in the not so cold wind and feel cold.

Sailing back.

Now in Hobart, and old buildings around the harbour are made of henpecked blocks of stone, pecked into perfect desperate oblongs with convict held tools, and today they hold up history. They hold up culture. The price of not getting freedom. Tourists admire them, and then have to find something else to do. The price of never having to pay a price.

In Hobart, at a fish restaurant. A man and his teenage son quarrel. ‘Go home then’. The boy lurches out, on his phone, looking at nobody.

In Hobart at an Indian restaurant. An old place but not fancy. People lining up for takeaway mostly, but we dining in. The waitresses in sneakers and rushing. Mild air through the windows over old Hobart Town, keeping the hen pecked stones going.

And the magnificent bathroom. I went there after we’d finished, and I opened the door into a rich orange experience that seemed to sum up everything on that night, our last night, and having to fly home the next morning and masks on again. Why paint your life so bright? We do. We must.

7 thoughts on “Hells Gates

  1. One of your most evocative blogs. I loved it.

    For those who haven’t already read them, Robert Hughes’ magnificent “The Fatal Shore” and Marcus Clarke’s “For the Term of His Natural :Life” are, I think, must-reads. I also think “The Fatal Shore” should be required reading for every Australian schoolkid.

    Unfortunately, when I was at school, Australian history was barely given a mention, apart from James Cook, The Rum Rebellion, and MacArthur’s bloody sheep.

    Like

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