History: Taste of home in Tassie

SILVER CITY: Zeehan was once the island’s third largest town, after Hobart and Launceston, at the height of its mining boom. Picture: Bruce MillerSO, where the hell is Sassafras? That’s where Kooragang Island’s iconic 73-metre wind turbine is going soon. It’s actually in northern Tasmania, out from Launceston, where it will power a sustainable poultry farm.

You know Tasmania, that’s the scenic Apple Isle across Bass Strait at the end of, well, Australia, and almost the world, half way to Antarctica.

And on a recent whirlwind return visit there for the first time in 24 years, I discovered why they really like wind turbines. Lower down, in western Tasmania, local farmers are proposing to erect 33 more wind turbines to exploit what is one of the world’s most marketable coastal wind traps.

For as well as being a historic island, Tassie is an island of surprises and one where Hunter Valley visitors can feel right at home, whether it’s admiring stunning scenery or exploring its oddly familiar coal and convict heritage.

And I’m reminded also of a bunch of threatened Tasmanian devils now thriving in our own Barrington Tops after being relocated there about a year ago in a bid to preserve their species.

There’s also a coastal road sign down there which probably sums up the whole visitor experience. It reads: “What’s around the corner? Expect the unexpected.” And that’s true.

I’m not talking either about usual tourist treks to the preserved Port Arthur site or visiting the World Heritage West Coast wilderness with its strange tannin-stained rivers, despite their Macquarie Harbour being more than six times the size of Sydney Harbour.

DISASTER: In 1975, the bulk ore-carrier Lake Illawarra rammed into Hobart’s Tasman Bridge. Twelve people were killed.

No, I’m talking about an often quirky Tasmania: the home of Penny Farthing bike races, a Tahune Forest “wishing well” 12 metres up in the sky, odd five-storey, 19th-century stone tower windmills (one still operating), or discovering Tasmania’s Chinese mining heritage in the late 1800s on the “Trail of the Tin Dragon” in picturesque north-east Tassie. Or maybe learning Captain William Bligh (yes, he of Bounty mutiny fame) is credited with planting the island’s first apple trees, way down south, on Bruny Island, in 1788.

Dutch mariner Abel Tasman first spied this part of the Great Southland back in 1642, so there’s lots of history-related items to explore. But that alone can’t totally explain why Tasmanian tourism figures have just hit a record high (up 10 per cent over the previous 12 months) or why more than a few Novocastrians (including some former Herald colleagues) have now decided to live permanently down there.

Maybe for some Novocastrians, there’s a sense of home. There’s local names like Coal River, George Town, Hamilton, Mayfield, Macquarie Harbour, Boat Harbour (near Burnie), Fingal and Swansea (with its strange convict-era Spiky Bridge).

There’s also strong local links with Colonel William Paterson who has a Hunter Valley town and river named after him. Tassie’s northern city of Launceston even escaped being known as “Patersonia”. And there’s a replica vessel the Lady Nelson, in Hobart docks. The original vessel first explored the Hunter River in 1801.

So let’s maybe delve into some secrets of Tasmania. It might have been once home to the Tasmania tiger, but sadly it’s probably only one of several species to have bitten the dust since Europeans arrived.

Hobart’s Botanical Gardens also reveals that size does matter when it comes to the island’s plants. Tasmania has about 500 rare and threatened species (trees, shrubs, orchids, small grasses and herbs).

Now, let’s take the road from Waratah to the former “Silver City” called Zeehan on Tasmania’s rugged West Coast. Rather surprisingly, this small remote mining township above Strahan was once the island’s third largest, after Hobart and Launceston, at the height of its mining boom, according to a 1901 census.

Zeehan, named after a Dutch explorer’s ship, once had26 hotels and its elegant Gaiety Theatre, built in 1899, was claimed at one time to be Australia’s largest.

World entertainers like Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, the notorious Lola Montez and celebrity escapologist Harry Houdini were attracted there because of its wealth.

Shifting now instead to the East Coast, we come across the oddly named Elephant Pass, near the coastal hamlet of St Mary’s. Visitors were once told of a circus elephant in the 1800s dying here. Another yarn concerns a former owner telling gullible tourists about Aboriginal hunters once driving elephant herds over the cliffs there. A welcome stop on this twisting bypass is the Mount Elephant Pancake Barn, where children are on their very best behaviour. The menu notes that rowdy brats “may be fed to the elephants”.

Outside, in the barn’s car park, there’s a sign in four languages. “Don’t even THINK about blocking these gates! Our elephants will stomp your wretched hire car down to the hubcaps. Your co-operation is appreciated . . . Tenksa lot.”

The site is also noteworthy in that no staff accept tips. Any tips are donated instead to the Fred Hollows Foundation for operations to save the sight of people in poor nations.

When people discovered this, donations went up tenfold, raising at least $70,000 so far and at $25 an operation that’s saved the sight of 2800 patients.

Moving on, some 300 convicts built Tassie’s nearby main east coast road between 1843 and 1846. That’s a hell of a chain gang, all in one remote location, so, could that possibly be right?

Well, it probably is, as some 72,500 convicts were transported to this former Van Diemen’s Land between 1803 and 1853 as cheap labour to build the colony. Only 10 per cent of felons went to the dreaded Port Arthur. Even today, about 74 per cent of Tasmanians are said to descended from convicts.

According to convict era historian Alison Alexander, of all the babies born in Tasmania back in 2009, only 16 had no convict blood.

Alexander, the author of the 2010 book Tasmania’s Convicts, is herself a seventh-generation Australian but one with convict ancestors in the first, second and third convict fleets to New Holland.

She said many Tasmanians today may not even be aware of family convict links. After all, over the decades a terrible stigma became associated with the felons and everyone went to extraordinary lengths to hide the fact.

Moving south now, the visitor is struck by the island state’s big list of firsts. Well, according to the locals, anyway. Like at Bothwell, in central Tassie, where Scottish settlers in the 1820s created Australia’s first golf course on a sheep station, so it’s said to be the oldest outside of Scotland!

Hobart town itself has the dubious honour of having Australia’s first parking meters installed on April 1, 1955.

It was also once home in the late 1820s to the rascally “Ikey” Solomon, said to be the inspiration for writer Charles Dickens creating the memorable character Fagin in Oliver Twist.

The impressive Mawson Huts replica museum in Hobart only opened last December. It seems an odd idea, yet explorer Mawson’s Huts at remote Cape Denison are the birthplace of our nation’s Antarctic history.

The spur to Hobart’s replica project came from the sad truth more people have climbed Mount Everest than have been inside the real Mawson huts.

Upriver and almost equally as forgotten today probably is the Tasman Bridge disaster, which happened one misty January night in 1975. That’s when the bulk ore-carrier Lake Illawarra rammed this mighty bridge spanning Hobart’s Derwent River, sending two piers and 127 metres of decking collapsing into the river, sinking the ship.

Seven of the ship’s crew (including some from Newcastle) were killed, as well as five occupants of cars which plunged into the river.

Crime files: Dead man’s DNA proof of murder

LEFT: Stacey Lee Kirk was raped then choked to death with a pair of underpants. Ian Sargent was proven to be the offender, 18 years after the attack.TO the poor folk called to the scene, the mangled wreck seemed like just another semi-trailer crash on a notorious stretch of the Pacific Highway which had claimed the life of another young truckie and father.

But when Ian Raymond Sargent’s big rig ploughed into a tree near Grafton on February 22, 2002, it kickstarted a series of events which would end up solving a murder mystery that had haunted Maitland for almost two decades.

In a previous life, Sargent used to help manage the Gangster Shooting Gallery – a popular attraction in the seriously weird and wacky work of sideshow alley which travelled from country show to country show to fleece the locals of their coin in return for mangy prizes.

And it was in this job, and when he was spending his nights at the Maitland Show in 1984, that he first laid his eyes on Tenambit teenager Stacey Lee Kirk.

STACEY LEE KIRK: The 16 yo found murdered at Maitland Show on February 18, 1984.

Police would later prove, according to formal findings by then State Coroner John Abernethy, that Sargent was the person who had lured the 16-year-old schoolgirl behind a toilet block just 20 metres from sideshow alley, sexually assaulted her before strangling her to death with a pair of underpants.

The undeniable piece of evidence was the matching of Sargent’s DNA profile from blood taken from his body following the accident to evidence at the murder scene some 18 years earlier.

Sargent’s family, who said after the findings in 2003 that they were never told there would be an inquest, have repeated their claims that Sargent was not to blame.

But there was no doubt, according to investigators, and the evidence was strong enough for Abernethy to formally find Sargent responsible.

It is fair to say that Stacey Lee Kirk entered more than just the front gates of Maitland Showground when she ventured under the neon buzz of the show on that Thursday night, February 16, 1984.

She had also entered the sleazy and unpredictable world of the show workers, “carnies” as they are sometimes called, where secrets were kept, infidelity was rife and talk of group sex were as common as fairy floss.

In fact, Coroner John Abernethy was to briefly touch on the “brotherhood” within the show circuit during his findings.

GRIM SITE: The toilet block at Maitland Show where Stacey Lee Kirk’s body was found.

“On the evidence before me, showmen and show workers are a difficult breed of ‘suspects’, if I can put it that way,” he said. “They are clannish and close and they are on the move. First names are the order of the day with the workers.”

Stacey Lee Kirk was a country girl with a trusting nature. The friend who went with her to the show that fateful night was to later tell police of some teenage flirting between her friend and the young carnie.

Sargent was just 18 and battling to make ends meet with his girlfriend, who was five months pregnant with their second child.

He would later tell police he flirted with the attractive local girl.

It was about 9.30pm when Stacey Lee Kirk was summoned into the darkness by an unknown man.

The girls agreed to separate but also agreed to meet later outside the main gate.

As the coroner was to say: “Sargent was the one show worker who showed interest in Miss Kirk and she, to some extent, in him. She appears to have gone to a quiet spot at the show with him. From that point she was never seen again.”

When she failed to return home by morning, her father, Trevor Kirk, began to get worried. And by the following afternoon, he received the worst news imaginable – his daughter’s body had been found by a cleaner – stuffed under a tarpaulin probably at the spot she had been murdered.

She had been raped and strangled with a pair of men’s underpants and her partly clad body discarded. Her own underpants were stuffed in her mouth. Instantly, detectives were behind the eight-ball.

The killer had a couple of days on them, torrential weather had ruined most of the crime scene as well as ruining the end of the show and prematurely sending the carnies on to their next gig.

Murder investigation of Stacey Kirk of Tenambit, at Maitland show.

But the investigators did their best. They identified a number of suspects and continued to chase leads for as long as they could.

They never had the technology for DNA. They needed someone to break into the secretive world of the carnies and get to the truth.

Sargent was one of the suspects identified but was given an alibi by his girlfriend.

Horrifically incorrect rumours also muddied the waters.

The case ran cold.

One of the five suspects identified was later charged with her murder but had it dismissed in 1991.

Then, in 2002, police received a DNA profile from the sexual assault kit taken at the time of the murder.

Police covertly obtained the DNA from four of the former showmen on their suspect list, and none of them matched.

And they were still looking for Sargent, only to find he had been killed in the crash.

It was never lost on investigators that they got incredibly lucky.

First, someone took a sample of Sargent’s blood during autopsy.

It was a single-vehicle prang, and many times when the only person involved has been killed, it is a report to the coroner and move on to the next one.

But not only was it taken, it also wasn’t destroyed after the usual three-month period.

Somehow, a sample still existed and could be tested against the semen found at the scene.

It was a match, Abernethy later adding: “prospects of the DNA belonging to a person other than Sargent are fewer than one in 10 billion”.

Ian Sargent.

There was also a match, along with Stacey Lee Kirk’s DNA profile, to a pair of underpants taken from Sargent at the time of the murder.

Two partial DNA profiles were also found on the underpants found wrapped around Stacey Lee Kirk’s throat. But the samples were too weak for statistical calculation.

Police had given evidence they did not think Stacey Lee Kirk had been gang raped or there were others involved.

Sargent’s family were highly critical of the process towards the inquest and identifying him as the murderer.

They said he couldn’t defend himself, that they were never told of an inquest before he was named, and that he may have had sex with the teen but would not have killed her.

Seasoned detectives and the coroner thought differently.

All joking aside

Lawrence Mooney, host of Dirty Laundry Live, will perform at Newcastle’s Playhouse Theatre on October 11.

LOVE them or hate them, we’re all obsessed to some degree with the lives of celebrities. And no one wears the badge more proudly than comedian Lawrence Mooney.

The stand-up comic, voice-over artist and host of Dirty Laundry Live on ABC2 is relaxed and candid when he speaks to Weekender from his Melbourne home, as he broaches politics, how to win over a crowd, and where you will find him when he comes to Newcastle.

“The nicest person I’ve ever met in high-stakes celebrity is Sandra Bullock,” Mooney says.

“Absolutely divine person. I said to her on camera, ‘I have been accused of wilting under pressure when meeting a famous celebrity’ and she said ‘well you’re doing fine just now, I like you’.

“I was like ‘oh God, oh God, oh God’. Very disarming. Very beautiful.”

Mooney laughs when he mentions another brush with celebrity – his involvement with short-lived reality show Brynne: My Bedazzled Life. Although it would be easy at this point to take a cheap shot at the expense of the over-the-top socialite Brynne Edelsten or her risque fashion choices, Mooney describes her as a wonderful person.

“It was a bit of fun really; just a couple of days in the recording studio, watching episodes over and over again,” Mooney says of his role in the show.

“You never see me. I just comment on Brynne’s life.”

In fact, Mooney doesn’t seem to take cheap shots at anyone – except himself and a certain federal education minister. We can only hope he does his impression of Christopher Pyne when he brings his show Lawrence Mooney Is a Stupid Liar to Newcastle’s Playhouse Theatre on October 11.

Mooney says he is looking forward to it.

“I love Newcastle,” he says.

“Darby Street is fabulous. There’s a good book shop, I love going to Goldbergs, and I’ve been to your art gallery and you’ve got an amazing array of indigenous art, too.”

It’s a good thing Stupid Liar doesn’t extend to statements made in interviews. The genesis for the routine came when Mooney was watching The Hangover with his wife and she remarked offhandedly that men get black-out drunk because they cannot handle reality and they are all stupid liars. A somewhat harsh reality check, it caused Mooney to examine the things he routinely lies about – like his gym membership, which he bought almost a year ago and has used only once, despite the fact they keep direct debiting him, and lying to himself about how much he drinks.

“I’d find myself on my second bottle of red on a Monday night standing in front of Q&A just screaming at the television,” Mooney said.

“If Christopher Pyne was on Q&A, I’d want to assault the television, so I thought no, that’s not good for you,” he says, drawing out Pyne’s second name to do a spot-on imitation of the politician’s nasal accent.

After briefly recapping his favourite heckle – from a room full of drunk, hostile football players where he was a fill-in comedian – Mooney says his favourite moment of comedy is the moment when he walks onstage and the crowd doesn’t know whether he is going to be funny or not.

“It’s nice that tension going out there; you see their faces full of anticipation,” he says.

“Then, the first time they laugh, it’s kind of a relief and it’s like ‘OK, we can trust this guy’. You’re a new sheriff just coming into town and you have to control things.”

He said after two decades of comedy, he has become more confident and capable on stage; able to divert from his set material and interact with the crowd, then return to it without confusing himself.

Then he stops with a laugh and says that’s probably too boring.

“I’m just funnier,” he amends.

“I’ve become 10 per cent funnier every year.”

This humour will come to good use when Dirty Laundry Live returns with a new season next year, on the main channel of ABC with a shorter time slot. Hopefully, the show will grant Mooney’s wish to interview two particular celebrities: Kim Kardashian and Jack Nicholson.

“I’d love to meet her and chat with her, because it’s a fascinating evolution of someone who’s incredibly famous without having done much,” he says of the former.

“It’s celebrity for celebrity sake – I’ve always found it quite interesting how people who are in the public eye have rules and regulations about what you can and can’t talk about.”

And of Nicholson, Mooney says he’d love to sit down for an hour and talk about everything.

“I just think that we’d get on OK together,” he says.

“That’s it. I’ve decided. So I’m not without my own self-belief and delusion.”

Best of both worlds

Fiona McArthurTHE birth of a baby might not be a typical plot development in a romance novel, but that doesn’t bother Kempsey midwife and best-selling author Fiona McArthur.

“I’ve written 32 books and every single one has a birth, whether they’re a medical romance or not,” McArthur says, laughing.

“The funny thing is that when I started to try and write for Mills & Boon, which was in the 1990s, I actually didn’t sell one until I started to write about midwifery.

“I tried the secretary stories, but you know what? I’ve never been a secretary and I couldn’t make it work. It was a lot easier to get into the head of my heroines when they were midwives.”

McArthur has been a midwife for 29 years and has observed the joy of birth, but also the devastation when things go wrong. Her experiences at Kempsey Hospital, where she is now an educator in advance life support obstetrics, inform her fiction. The impact of the death of a baby is a recurring theme in her new novel, which also has its share of romance to balance the heartbreak.

Red Sand Sunrise by Fiona McArthur

In the book, Red Sand Sunrise, her first with Penguin imprint Michael Joseph, the three key characters, sisters Eve, Sienna and Callie, are all health professionals who end up in the small fictional outback town, Red Sand, after the death of their father. Eve and Sienna were estranged from him and both react differently to news of his death (Callie is their half-sister). A new hospital funded by the wealthy matriarch and landowner, Blanche McKay, cements their connection to the dusty town and each other.

McArthur visited central west Queensland to complete research for the novel.

“I went out and saw the red sandhills outside Windorah and just had to use it for a setting,” she says. “I brought home some of the red sand; it’s so amazing. I also did the outback mail run west of Quilpie and spent eight hours with the mailman, who is an absolute card.

“You visit all these outback stations and realise that these people are two hours from their neighbour.

“They’ve got little kids and a helicopter poking out of the back shed. It was Durack country; it was Kings In Grass Castles. I was really inspired.”

It was a longing for adventure and financial independence that prompted McArthur to explore a writing career alongside midwifery. While raising five sons and working part-time at Kempsey Hospital, she seized whatever spare time she could to focus on writing. Her husband worked long hours with the ambulance service so she became a very early riser – and remains so.

“I guess I was searching for something that would give me another world, as well as the world, and I’ve certainly got that,” she explains. “I’ve certainly got two worlds.”

Medical romance, a sub-genre within romance, enables McArthur to combine her two passions and her knack for capturing the intensity of a medical setting clearly appeals to readers: she has sold more than two million books.

“If you start with a decent doctor and decent medical staff, you’ve got heroes already,” she says. “That’s a really nice place to start and then you’ve got drama – a snake bite, a car accident . . .”

McArthur is preparing for her next research trip, this time to Broken Hill and beyond where she will seek out locals and “soak in” the landscape. One 10-day trip can inspire as many as three books and given that romance is one of the highest-selling genres, McArthur is well placed to meet demand.

The appeal of the genre is easy to understand, says McArthur.

“People want to smile when they put the book down, that’s what I want to deliver. There will never be a Fiona McArthur book that has a sad ending because as a reader, I need to be uplifted at the end.”

Young turns her hand to coaching as Mindarriba launch their Knockout campaign

Bec Young hopes the Mindaribba Sisters can harness the spirit that saw them crowned champions in 2012 when they start their NSW Aboriginal Knockout campaign on Friday.

Australian representative Bec Young is at the helm of the Mindaribba Sisters NSW Aboriginal Knockout team this year after playing for the team in 2012 when she was named player of the tournament.

Young, who captained that 2012 team and was named player of the tournament, will coach the Sisters this year, along with husband and Maitland Pickers women’s coach Mick Young.

There will be a strong Pickers flavour in the Sisters team, with 12 of the 25-strong squad playing in the Sydney Metropolitan Women’s Competition with Maitland.

Young’s sister-in-law Julie is out this year, but her other sister-in-law, Emma, will be joined by a host of regular Pickers including Eunice Grimes, Candice Clay and Lily Garvey.

The Sisters have developed a strong rivalry with Sydney Metro adversaries Redfern and 2013 champions the Newcastle Yowies.

Young said Mindaribba had only one aim for the tournament.

“We’re there to win it, that’s what we’re hoping,” she said.

“We’ve got the same core of players in the squad which we’ve had for the last three years.

“The girls who weren’t with the Pickers we got them along to training with us so they’ve got that fitness base and know our structures.

“They picked it up really well and that will be one of our strengths if we play to those structures in attack.”

The Mindaribba Warriors begin their tilt at the men’s’ title on Saturday.

The Warriors won the competition in 2011 but have lost the last two deciders to Newcastle, including last year’s heartbreaking loss in golden-point extra time.

Greta Branxton’s group 21 ­premiership-winning coach Ron Griffiths will again lead Mindaribba in the annual competition.

The first three days of the competition at Raymond Terrace’s Lakeside Sporting Complex are the knockout stages with the finals to be played on Monday.

See Monday’s Mercury for a preview of Monday’s finals.

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