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.