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Edition 39

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Memoir

Status anxiety

'JO, WHY ARE you going to the west coast of Tasmania?' a puzzled friend asked me in 1974. 'That's the end of the world.'

Ah, but what a world! A world of tangled mountains and temperate rainforests; of sand-dunes and wild, windswept beaches; of Tasmanian devils and possibly even thylacines. A region with a history of doomed Aborigines, escaped convicts and miners, so many miners that two properties, Granville Estates and the Top Farm, had been established on the coast to fatten cattle to feed them.

My husband, Peter, and I were heading for a new life on Top Farm. Our goal was to bring prosperity back to the neglected property by raising cattle for the north coast markets. Two hours' drive out of Zeehan, Top Farm lay at the end of a four-wheel-drive track that wound northwards along the coast towards the Pieman River heads.

Rain fell in thick gusts during my first trip out to Top Farm. Peter drove the Land Rover and we swirled through mud holes, skirted sand-dunes and drove along beaches strewn with giant brown spaghetti, called bull kelp. Soon afterwards we bumped across a crazily sloping bridge. The creek flowed beneath the decking on one side, then emerged in the centre of the bridge. Like a bird with a broken wing, the bridge dragged one side in the water.

Apprehensive about the isolation yet excited about the adventure, I wiped my sweaty hands down my jeans and stared at the wheel ruts leading the vehicle up the last hill to our new home. Peter had already spent a month on the place and his enthusiasm for our coming life had fuelled my sense of adventure. Having grown up as a sheltered only child, I had taken myself off to Papua New Guinea, South America and Europe as soon as I hit twenty.

Yet Top Farm was a different feeling.

 

OUTSIDE THE COCOON of the vehicle's cabin, the rain turns to drizzle as we reach the top of the hill and drive onto a grassy paddock. Ahead I see undulating paddocks ribboned with tree-lined creeks. Inland there are mountains in the distance and as I turn seawards I glimpse through the mist pockets of vegetation and white sand-hills.

Closer, there is a weatherboard cottage and a farm shed three times as big.

I step up a short ship's ladder to the front door of the cottage, which opens into an alcove. Gumboots and rifles stand against the walls and raincoats hang on hooks. Boxes of bullets, jars of nails and bottles of kerosene sit on a high shelf. The alcove leads me into a closed-in veranda that runs the length of the house. There's no internal lining in the veranda, so spiders and insects have made their homes on the exposed skeleton of the house. Dusty cobwebs hang from diagonal timbers. Bridles, saddles and a carton of old magazines litter the floor. On a raised platform, a new gas stove and refrigerator sparkle with whiteness.

There are two circular holes in a window. Bullet holes?

The bare floorboards creak under my weight as I step through a doorway into the living room. Two calendars with curling corners hang on the walls. One shows a photo of a naked blonde woman, the other advertises fertiliser. I see two lounge chairs, a coffee table with a chessboard set into its top, a packing case covered with a fringed rug and a kerosene heater. A bookcase is crammed with agricultural pamphlets, rolled-up maps, a compass and shells. Leaning against the end wall of the room is a sheet of corrugated iron, which screeches as I pull it away and peer behind. I see grass. A gap in the wall for a fireplace.

A bench along one wall is the 'kitchen'. There are cupboards beneath and a blue plastic bowl on top. Peter has told me there's no plumbing into the house. Water is carried inside in buckets from a rainwater tank.

I walk into the bedroom. A double bed with a dark wooden headboard is made up with clean sheets and blankets. I smile, glad my husband has his priorities right. Yet as I stand in the main room and gaze at the unpainted walls, the frayed fabric of the lounge chairs and the 'kitchen', I experience a bleakness that tightens my chest, a wholly unexpected sensation of dismay.

This is my life.

The next morning reminds me there is more to my life than a house. Spring sunlight shines through the bedroom window and wakes me. The rain has vanished overnight. I step outside. The air is warm and the sky is blue without a cloud, which I take for granted, then. A fence encloses the house and yard and two sheds. One of the sheds contains the toilet, a large can crowned with a toilet seat. I learn that the can has to be emptied when one can no longer sit without being tickled.

Standing in the paddock, I see that a line of trees hides shadows along a creek, inviting exploration. There is a stand of trees on a far hill, which rises and disappears.

The house nestles into the eastern side of the hill we'd climbed in the vehicle the day before. A breeze touches my cheek as I look to the west where the ocean stretches to the horizon. I breathe in the salty smell of the sea. Separated from the farm by a kilometre of sand dunes, wind-pruned trees and swamps, the beach and its rocky outcrops beckon.

I become aware of a low rumbling sound in the distance. Two horses gallop over the crest of a hill. Here are Big Mick and Pinto, black and white stock horses agisted on Top Farm by Johnny and Colin Casey, who have a weekend shack at Granville Harbour.

I reach out and let Big Mick smell my hand but when I raise my arm to pat him, he snorts and tosses his head. Some days later I make the mistake of riding Big Mick, or trying to. As soon as I am seated on his back, this part-Clydesdale horse gallops off with his head lowered. The wind whips my face as we tear up the hill behind the house then fly down the other side. Holding my breath and tensing every muscle, I pull back as hard as I can on the reins but Big Mick ignores my command. He speeds along as though his tail is on fire. Near the dam he veers around in a tight circle and races back to the shed where he stops so abruptly I fall off. Unhurt but shaking with terror and relief, I lean against the wall of the shed until my body calms down.

 

WHILE PETER AND our part-time partner, Bob Schulz, repair fences, slash brackenfern and drive the tractor around the paddocks followed by a faint white cloud of fertiliser, I explore. Much of the pasture has been claimed by regrowth vegetation: bracken, dogwood, teatree, blackwood and fireweed. I peer along game trails in thickets of brackenfern, imagining devils, wombats and pademelons moving through these tunnels at night. I watch skylarks skimming over tussocks of grass. I startle native hens which bolt to the nearest vegetation, tails jerking up and down.

I step into the hush of the rainforest bordering the pasture and breathe in the fragrance of sassafras, myrtle and blackwood trees. I see moss-covered logs and colourful fungi. Giant tree-ferns grow out of the tops of slender peat-like stumps. I run my finger over the glossy leaf of a native laurel.

As an only child I am accustomed to solitude and embrace the hours I spend alone each day. I become hooked on gardening when my pea seeds burst out of the chocolate soil. I tame currawongs with pieces of meat but wish I hadn't when one flies into the house and flaps around my head in the kitchen, now in the closed-in veranda. I read books about the west coast and write articles for a Burnie newspaper. Peter and I are thrilled when a wombat visits us nightly to feed on the lush grass in the house yard that's fenced off from the stock. We focus torchlight on our visitor and learn that female wombats' pouches face backwards, for we see a tiny face peeping out at us. I fashion 'still life' scenes out of treasures I find on Four Mile Beach but I never master the craft of crochet, despite having taken a how-to book, a crochet hook and cotton to Top Farm.

I try to bake bread. A friend gives me a recipe and tells me I can't go wrong but I prove otherwise. My first effort is so dense even Big Mick and Pinto refuse it. The second is so hard I need a chainsaw to cut it. My third attempt rises so much while cooking that it hits the roof of the oven. Big Mick eats this one but Pinto, who is fussier, spits it out. Oh, to be judged thus by a horse.

 

WE STOCK THE property with cattle. Peter and Bob attend sales in Burnie and purchase Hereford heifers, Shorthorn cows in calf, and two Hereford bulls. Our aim is to build up a herd of high-quality cows whose heifers will join the breeding herd and whose male calves will be castrated and, in time, sold as prime beef. The animals are trucked to Granville Harbour, offloaded there and walked to Top Farm.

I watch the cattle as they reach the sweet grass of Top Farm. They kick their heels and gambol over the paddocks. Several animals walk towards me, eyes alert and tails swinging. One cow comes closer. Lifting her nose to me, she looks at me with deep, dark eyes. Her eyes are like mulled wine and I stare into their depths and in that moment I fall in love with cows. There is wisdom in those eyes and knowledge of the seasons and of rearing youngsters. I am being fanciful, yet I cannot look away. The beast swings her head to one side, her eyes never leaving my face. She steps closer and extends her head. I see the wet rubber of her nose but as I lift my hand she jumps backwards, crashing her hooves on the ground.

By now I am as excited as Peter about our venture. Bringing prosperity back to Top Farm is a task worth doing. Peter and I will build a log cabin and improve the track to town. I will write articles for Tasmanian newspapers. With hard work, tenacity and luck, we will turn the property into a spectacular place of undulating green pasture and healthy stock. But cattle prices are beginning to fall. We listen to the news on the radio with concern but live thriftily, determined to see out the downturn.

As summer turns into autumn there are many days of rain, ideal weather for work indoors. While Peter and Bob line the verandah walls and hammer architraves and skirting boards in place, I hang around trying to be useful but getting in the way. Excluded from the male camaraderie, I don a raincoat and trudge along the ridge towards the stockyards, kicking tussocks of grass with the toe of my gumboot.

I reach the stockyards and lean my forehead against a weathered hardwood rail now wet with rain. My hands are stuck into the pockets of my raincoat. The only sounds are the gentle drizzle of the rain falling on my raincoat and my gumboots squelching in the mud as I shift my feet. I think about the men absorbed in their building work back at the house, enjoying their male, workaday world. I find myself in a dark place in which the past doesn't exist and the future isn't visible.

Rousing myself, I stride back to the house. I will bake a batch of scones. The thought of eating hot scones with butter and jam fills my mouth with saliva. Comfort food? You bet.

 

THE VEHICLE BOUNCES down a sandy track onto Four Mile Beach. I love this beach. It is raw and vast and wild. I feel sure this beach will tell me the secrets of Nature, if only I open my ears and listen. Its vastness reaches into me, into a primal place where I am an ancient myself, with an ancient's awe at his world and its mysteries. Here it seems nothing has changed for thousands of years, nothing, that is, except the everchanging sea and its habit of throwing timber, seaweed, shells and ships' rubbish high up onto the beach.

Even on a benign day the sound of the wind fills my ears, drowning out all other sounds except the harsh cry of a seabird, and whips my hair into my face. Waves crash onto wet sand and race up to meet me. I dip my hand into the water but snatch it back. The water is as cold as a melted iceberg.

The air is heavy with salt and there are mysteries amongst the debris. Hard ocean sponges, driftwood so sun-bleached it resembles animal bones, abalone shells with glistening, mother-of-pearl interiors, huon pine logs that began their lives many hundreds of years before as seedlings in an ancient forest. One day Peter and I find an Aboriginal midden in the sand-dunes: a hillock of weathered animal bones and shells.

Unlike the Aboriginal midden, the modern rubbish tossed up by the ocean tides – glass bottles, plastic containers, orange boxes, buoys and lengths of nylon rope – does not belong in this place.

 

MY PARENTS STAY for a month on Top Farm. Hiding their anxiety about our isolation and the financial riskiness of our venture, they help. My father and Peter build a fireplace while Mum and I paint the living room walls. Peter goes to town and returns with a ball of black and white fluff in a box. I peer in. Big eyes stare up at me.

'He's black and white,' Mum says, looking in. 'We must call him Whisky.'

The kitten settles into farm life. We laugh at his antics in the living room but feel nauseous when he crunches blowflies and purrs at the same time. I love stroking him on my lap in the evenings.

One night, unearthly screeches outside the front door yank us out of sleep.

'What on earth?' Whisky! Were Tasmanian devils killing Whisky?

'Grab the torch.'

Cracking shins and stubbing toes, we make our way to the kitchen by torchlight and shine the beam through the window. Two Tasmanian devils are fighting over the remains of crayfish we'd eaten the night before. The snarling animals wrestle and tear at each other and scatter the contents of the rubbish bin all over the ground. They break apart to crunch up more crayfish shells then abruptly return to the fight. My feet grow cold on the bare floorboards as I watch, fascinated. No other animal is remotely like the devil. Weighing six to seven kilograms, devils have a large head and massive, powerful jaws. The animals are black with white markings but these two look scruffy with sparse tufts of fur on their backs. They alternately eat and fight, screeching all the time and ignoring the torchlight. The unearthly screeches don't cease until they lollop off into the night.

And Whisky? He appears the next morning and, purring, rubs his soft body against my leg as I stand at the kitchen sink.

I grab the opportunity to spend a day in the field with zoologist and devil researcher, Dr Eric Guiler of the University of Tasmania, as he studies devils on Granville Estates. He is a stocky Irishman who laughs easily and calls all devils 'George'. I accompany him and his assistant as they check traps they've set the day before along the edges of paddocks, on farm tracks and on game trails. I take photographs for a newspaper article as the animals are tattooed if caught for the first time, weighed, measured and sexed, and the females examined for young in the pouch. Dr Guiler and his assistant tattoo a devil's ear by transferring the creature from the trap into a hessian bag with one corner cut out. The zoologist tells me the object of his study is to observe the population structure and numbers over a period of years, assess the breeding success and obtain knowledge of the movement pattern of devils on the west coast. He had been studying Tasmanian devils on the west coast for ten years and had trapped 282 different animals 946 times, reporting his findings to the Royal Society of Tasmania in 1978.

 

PETER AND I discover that winter on the west coast means rain and more rain and still more miserable rain. Every morning I put on my coat and gumboots and tramp out to the rain gauge attached to a fence post. The rain makes a lot of mud. There is mud at the front steps of the house, mud at the paddock gates and mud all around the shed where the tractor and Land Rover rechurn it regularly. Everyone and everything gets bogged. The cattle, the vehicles and us.

Worst of all, the rain turns the hill up to the farm into a 300-metre-long mud slide. Made of mudstone, which turns to grease in wet weather, steep, and criss-crossed with half-metre deep wheel ruts, the hill terrifies me.

Our worst trip to town takes place after 200 millimetres of rain have fallen in two weeks. Our supplies are low so we have to go. We set off at seven o'clock in the morning. I hate slipping sideways down the hill, so I walk down and clamber into the cab with muddy gumboots.

We set off. We crest a sandy rise and see the track ahead disappear into a new lake thirty metres long. Tips of brackenfern and teatree show above the water. Using a long stick, Peter tests the depth. We cruise over the lake and I admire bow waves from the vehicle.

We have to ford George Town Packet Creek because the bridge is covered with debris. This is the bridge with a broken wing. A tree trunk and a tangle of branches are strewn over the lopsided bridge. Water laps the bonnet as Peter drives through the water. I clamber over the bridge. On the other side, I open the passenger door to climb in but icy water flows out, straight into my gumboots. I gasp and stare downwards as my feet turn to ice. My husband is laughing so much he drops his cigarette onto the watery floor where it goes out with a hiss. I begin to laugh, too, somewhat hysterically when I realise I have no dry socks.

Zeehan is a town in which grand buildings rub shoulders with humble miners' cottages. A bitter wind greets my emergence from the Land Rover and I pull my coat tightly around my body as I hurry to our mailbox. We collect the newspapers and purchase food and fuel and head out of town early in the afternoon accompanied by a cold drizzle. On the way home the Land Rover is bogged for three hours in a mudhole. It is dark by the time we reach the bridge with a broken wing. Peter uses plastic bags from the groceries to cover the electrical parts of the engine. I clamber over the debris-strewn planking and watch the weird sight of the vehicle's headlights travelling under water.

Cold, tired and hungry, we reach the base of the hill up to Top Farm at ten o'clock. Peter gets a good run-up at the bottom of the hill but the vehicle is quickly bogged in half-metre deep wheel ruts. He puts into words what I am dreading. 'We'll have to leave the vehicle and tow it up in the morning.'

I rise the next morning to a bleak, drizzly day. My heart is beating faster than usual. My gumboots become caked with mud as I slip down the hill. At the bottom I climb into the driver's seat and slam the door.

'Keep the engine running,' my husband tells me through the window. 'If you see the tractor wheels spinning, go into first gear and drive. If your wheels start to spin, let up the accelerator.'

'Right.'

'You won't tip over.'

'No?'

'No.'

He climbs up the slope to the tractor. The tow chain between us tightens and lifts, flicking mud from the links. The Land Rover creaks and moves upwards.

The drizzle turns to rain. All I can see through the windscreen is the hillside, criss-crossed with wheel ruts. All I can hear is the roar of the vehicle's engine.

Hauled up by the chain and guided by the zigzagging ruts, we travel sideways a few metres. A bump and a lurch, and the right hand wheels fall into a ditch. I crash against the door and see mashed wet clay half a metre from my face.

We slide over to the other side of the track. I am a fish at the end of a line. My neck muscles tighten and I try not to panic. We slip into deep ruts then lurch up out of those only to drop all four wheels into another set.

Anger is beginning to tinge my nervousness. I engage the clutch and to my surprise the vehicle drives itself for a short distance, but the tow chain disappears under us. I stop. Peter bellows down the slope. I poke my head out of the window and shout back, furious with him, the hill and the whole of the west coast with its rotten weather and lousy roads.

The tractor takes up the slack and the chain jerks up. I glance out of the passenger window and gasp. We are sliding sideways towards a wheel rut that looks like a bomb crater, but the chain hauls us up and beyond the crater.

We reach the grass at the top of the hill. I stop the vehicle and breathe out. Peter unhooks the chain.

My anger and fear have evaporated. I drive the rest of the way, grinning to myself and filled with a curious elation. We have beaten that wretched hill.

 

I FLY TO Canberra to stay with my parents for the birth of our daughter, Nicola. The baby and I return to Top Farm when she is two months old, despite concern from a Canberra matron about our isolation. 'What if your milk dries up?' As I resemble a jersey cow at the time I smile at this question.

Peter meets us at Wynyard Airport. We drive straight to Zeehan and stock up on supplies, then head out to the coast. The bright yellow flowers of parrot pea border the track and their colour matches my yellow jumper that rapidly becomes grubby, but I don't care. While Nicola sleeps in a baby-sling across my chest I revel in the familiarity of the landscape: the button-grass plains, the huge tree-ferns in the pockets of rainforest we drive through; the wild, rocky coastline. The salt-laden air fills my nostrils, reminding me that I am back in the real world after a sojourn in the unnatural perfection of Australia's capital city.

The real world, indeed. Cattle prices are falling as fast as our savings. Determined to hang on until the market improves, we eke out our money while making inexpensive improvements to the property.

Due to high levels of world production of beef and the collapse of some export markets within a year our stock are no longer worth the cost of transporting them to sale yards. Wallaby stews are cheap meals, a lucky consequence of Peter's game control measures, but it is not long before we have no money left for food or fuel.

Peter lands a job as a miner at the Renison Bell tin mine near Zeehan.

As we drive away from Top Farm for the last time, my primary feeling is one of relief. Yet deep down there is dismay, too. I have not only coped with this strange new life; I have experienced adventures and satisfactions that have unearthed my life force and let it rip.

I turn my eyes to the track ahead and a tamer life in a mining town.


From Griffith Review Edition 39: TASMANIA – The Tipping Point? © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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