July 2016


by Bruce Pascoe

Too upsetting

The boat cruise commentary had everything – except indigenous Tasmania

One hundred and thirty dollars buys you a six-hour World Heritage Cruise – including “sumptuous” lunch – out of the west Tasmanian town of Strahan, across Macquarie Harbour and along the Gordon River.

The tour commentary is constant, about Bob Hawke and Bob Brown’s fight to save the Franklin River from the hydro-electricity engineers, about the high quality of the salmon produced in the local fish farms (and their owners’ fortunes), about the domestic details of the prisoners and guards at the Sarah Island convict settlement, even about an officer’s indiscretion with a very attractive goat.

As we pass 3000-year-old Huon pines, the guide describes how two men could cut down 1000 of these trees each year, how there were at least 30 such teams – 30,000 trees a year – and how those fellers battled once the pine was all gone. (Hell of a surprise.) Rapacious companies and the government sooled them on until the hills were bare and their mighty labour was no longer needed, after which they were sacked. (More surprise.)

There are many stories of these indefatigable piners, their horrific accidents, the leeches that assailed them and the women who loved them, but not once are the words “Aboriginal” or “indigenous” mentioned. The closest we get, and I listened intently, is the phrase “the first white men on that river”. That inconspicuous phrase is tantalising. There may have been men of other colour on the river.

Evidence of indigenous Tasmanians has been found up and down the island’s west coast. There are the whalebone house constructions, their cooking ovens, their fishing machines, the whale etchings older than any other art in the world apart from that of mainland Australia. And yet their labours, their injuries, their loving women, their contest with the leeches and their industry are of no interest on this wonderful craft.

I did appreciate the guide’s story of the logger who rowed nonstop for 14 hours to get help for the axe wound in his brother’s leg. I hoped that we would segue from that story to the master boatwomen and men of the Gordon, and the curatorial crayfisherwomen of the west coast with bone growth accreting in their ears to protect their brains from the cold. It’s a fascinating story.

As we hoed into the locally farmed salmon, boutique cheeses and beers – I can devour seafood, camembert and Boag’s along with the rest, and polish my plate and look around for more – was it too much to hope for even a scrap about the First People to inhabit the harbour and river?

Later, I scour Strahan’s information centre, a vast barn of Huon pine memorabilia and nightly re-enactments, but find no mention of whale petroglyphs there either. Nor on Bruny Island, south of Hobart, where I had gone to look for the whale songline.

Not one person I met at any of the information centres could provide a single shred of information, nor could any of the glossy brochures for cheese, wine, salmon, oysters, bread, art and lawn bowls. Whales? Songline? How curious.

There were some people who sensed the direction of my search, and their jaws hardened, like that of a boatman who had been rowing for 14 hours.

Aboriginal people still perform ceremonies to welcome the whale, to thank him for regurgitating his lore onto the land. But apparently a living songline, tens of thousands of years old, that begins at Hervey Bay in Queensland and goes all the way to Albany in Western Australia, is of little historical import when compared with convicts, bestial officers and old kerosene lamps.

Most Australians know about Burke and Wills, and Hargraves’ discovery of gold. But few know that Aboriginal people tried to save Burke’s silly life before he began to shoot at them, or that Hargraves was not the first to find gold. Locals had known about the metal for tens of thousands of years but had decided not to gild religious domes with it, slaughter for it or scrooge it away. Perhaps most Australians prefer not to know.

I admit that I sat curmudgeonly in my cruise-ship seat, watching schoolchildren on the forward deck allow the wind created by our 32 knots of progress to fill their parkas so that they all looked like Michelin Women. Even I, in my grumpiness, couldn’t deny them their hilarity, their exhilaration at braving the elements. But I would have liked to pose a few questions to them after they had come inside to fill themselves with chips and fizzy drinks. I would have liked to talk to them about other families on other exquisitely designed craft, where other children shrieked in delight at the bracing wind and the waves slapping the sides of their canoes.

But we ran out of time. There’s only so much history that can be revealed in six hours.

Bruce Pascoe

Bruce Pascoe is a Bunurong, Tasmanian and Yuin man who has published 31 books, most recently Dark Emu (history) and Mrs Whitlam (fiction).

July 2016

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