‘You can walk to Susan Bay from here, only you can’t.’ That was the verdict of the two local men working on their boat at a shed on the rocks at Connelly’s Bay a tiny rural community (pop. 40, according to the 2016 census) about 50 km east of Hobart, tucked beneath Thornes Hills and Quarry Hill on the dirt road to Dunalley. We’d taken them by surprise, appearing suddenly from around the back of the shed. Midweek, this small community of seaside shacks seemed deserted. They were the only people we’d seen.
They hemmed and hawed about how far you could walk west along the rocks. There was a track, they finally admitted, but it was on private property. You had to climb through the fence.
And so, rugged up against a considerable chill factor and beneath a constantly changing sky, we headed off along the boulders until the terrain pushed us upwards and we found the going easier along track and through grass. It made for brisk and easy walking and as we neared Susan Bay we shared the path with a woman and her dog. I don’t like trespassing but if she was the owner she didn’t mind our presence and if she wasn’t she allowed me to feel that perhaps it was okay to be walking where we found ourselves. Perhaps, in fact, we weren’t trespassing at all.
After the barriers of one sort or another that we’d experienced along this stretch of Frederick Henry coastline, it was an exhilarating walk, and a pleasure to reach Susan Bay beach again.
Again some birdlife, again that sense of being miles away from anywhere. And then, after a bit of idle strolling along the tide line looking at the shells that had washed up here, after enjoying the sense of arrival and goal attained, we turned around and made our way to back to that tiny community where eucalpt covered hills meet the sea.
If getting started on this walk had taken some initial searching for a plausible route, then completing it proved harder still. No signs had warned us we’d been trespassing on the walk out, but here at the end it was clear that the farmer was protective about his land. We wanted to get off it, back on to the rocks where we belonged and were relieved when we finally escaped and made our way back to the edge of the shore.
Like Susan Bay, Connellys Bay (in the area known as Connellys Mars), is an anchorage used by local sailors because it provides refuge from winds blowing in from the NW and NE and it has a nice sandy bottom that provides easy anchoring behind the moorings at the northern end of the bay.
Source: Cruising Yacht Club of Tasmania. 2014. Cruising Southern Tasmania: a guide to the waterways and anchorages of South Eastern Tasmania from Wineglass Bay to South East Cape. TASMAP, 2014
When we came back to the Primrose Sands area to find our way to the cobbled beach we’d spied as we’d peered over the rocks on our previous visit, a trim of houses along the shore hid the track from view. Signposting just isn’t that great around here, which means that unless you approach by boat, these coastal spots tend to remain local secrets or the haunts of sailors.
Instead we set off along the eastern shore of Gypsy Bay, stopping to chat to a man fishing for flathead, skirting boat houses and spending a long time enjoying the rock platforms. It was a crisp day. A big blue stillness had settled over the water and from the point we had a magnificent view out over Frederick Henry Bay to the Tasman Peninsula.
Always Take the Scenic Route
These two bays – Gypsy and Susan – are rather overlooked spots, only stumbled across if you ignore the highway and instead take the scenic route between Hobart and Dunally. We idled at Gypsy Bay enjoying the boat sheds near the boat ramp and the eccentricities that make it appealing.
It proved impossible that day to walk around the shore of Susan Bay but on a spring low it’s possibly a cinch. Disappointed, our moods rose when we stumbled on a path between houses and followed it down to the bottom of the cliffs where we discovered a beach, rather curved, rather dark and rather thin and therefore easy prey for the ocean that nibbles away at the cliff, felling eucalypts out of the failing banks.
Whisker thin though the beach was on the tide that day, it had an appealing sense of moody seclusion, and we wandered along it in no rush whatsoever, enjoying the birdlife and stopping to chat to a local who spoke at length about this bay and with the most enormous affection. He’d bought two properties along the shore and hoped Hobartians never woke up to this small bay’s particular loveliness. As we followed him back up the path, looking back at those lovely views of the Tasman Peninsula, he told us exactly how to find our way on to Carlton Bluff, which meant that at this point we ended up heading west again, putting eastward exploring on hold.
At the eastern end of Primrose Beach there’s a two pronged point. The western tip is called Renaud Point, the eastern one is Primrose Point and between them lies a cobbled beach. I didn’t know this at the time because our walk was unplanned. We were here after one of our failed attempts at Carlton Bluff and had decided we’d explore this headland instead. It seemed more modest in proportion and couldn’t have been easier to access.
We took the rocks as far as we could go before taking an idle, conversational walk along the clifftop in front of the houses, where we found a path which we followed down to the thin, dark shore. In one particular cove, quiet and shadowed, absent locals were nevertheless a presence because of things they’d left there. An old seat. Boats. Other bits and pieces of fishing gear. It was a small domesticated spot where serenity pooled that late afternoon in the low, cold sunlight.
This isn’t the kind of place I’ve ever heard anyone suggest for a walk and yet it was a pleasure discovering this unfamiliar corner of Hobart’s outer lying environs. Invariably walks in guide books are easy choices but we were certainly finding enjoyment in straying into less visited places and discovering sparks of magic.
We continued along the rocks at the bottom of the cliffs, manoeuvring slowly towards a cobbled beach that had come into view. Two men stood on it, deep in conversation, looking at the sea then turning at times to observe our futile attempts to trump geology. I was excited to reach it and discover what lay behind it.
But a buttress of rock rose between us and that beach and while possibly two of us might have made it over the top it would have been too onerous for our canine companion. Turning back, defeated now by both ends of Primrose Sands, we agreed we’d try to reach this spot again. Next time, we agreed, we’d begin further up the coast and walking east to west.
From Carlton Beach the bluff had looked inviting. We were even sure we we could see a track, but from the beach at Primrose Sands it showed us a different face. There was a little bit of suburb on that side of the slope but not enough to domesticate it because although we explored all its roads, we found no access to a promising track.
It’s the norm in Hobart for suburbs to have tracks and trails through the bushland that backs or interweaves with them, but the Sorell Council seemed to have not yet done Primrose Sands this favour. Still, their lack of action protects the bluff and no doubt about it, the people who live there have millionaire views over Norfolk Bay and the Tasman Peninsula, Sloping Island and Frederick Henry Bay, as well as west towards Bruny Island. One day property here is going to boom, but on our visits it seemed as though everyone had evacuated. Later I read in The Mercury that the place has unfortunately been plagued by arson and there were depressing signs of this.
Carlton Bluff Take One
It was a perfect summer day when we first set off to meet the bluff, leaving our shoes behind us. This meant that when we reached the far end of the beach we couldn’t continue around the bluff by way of the rocks. A young mother and her badly mosquito bitten children were swimming in the sea. There was a house right there, just above the high tide mark and a light smattering of shells caught our attention. Offshore, a boat lay anchored. It was an invitation to dawdle and admire the almost 2 km stretch of beach between the bluff and Renard Point. It’s a moderately exposed beach. Short (2006) explains that the low waves this beach gets are refracted and work with the fine sand to shape and maintain cusps along its extent, as well as a low tide terrace.
We walked back passed undercut foredunes topped with marram grass and a male ray lying dead and mutilated on the sand. We stopped to talk to a local who assured us it was definitely possible to circumnavigate the bluff by way of the rocks on a good low tide.
We decided to come back another day and explore the rocks with our shoes on. We agreed that it would be a short and easy stroll with a bit of rock hopping, but I should have known by now that headlands present all sorts of challenges and it really doesn’t pay to underestimate them.
Carlton Bluff Take Two
When we returned a month later we noticed a plaque freshly glued into the rocks, a small memorial for a lost daughter and so we paused for a quiet moment. The tide was low but not low enough and having reached a point where we could see around the corner into cobbled bays with further rocky points beyond, we agreed we were unlikely to get any further around with our tiny four legged companion and so we called it quits.
Carlton Bluff Take Three
We three tried again some time later, exploring various roads beyond the dried out wetlands, climbing the urbanised stretch of the bluff in search of a path. We could find no access point so yet again we returned to the beach to tackle the rocks. We took off our shoes and rolled up our pants to get over a little gulch. We lifted Matisse up and set him down over those obstacles too vast for tiny poodle legs to manage, but pretty soon they were too great for us too. Sea urchin shells lay about quite densely at the point we reached. In fact, it looked like it could be a midden. Some boys in a boat were fishing and diving offshore. Everything looked serene but I was rueing the fact that we kept missing the better low tides.
Despite the pretty good conditions that day, it was Bluff 3 and us zero. And so decided to abandon our efforts and continue on our way around Renaud Point.
Carlton Bluff Take Four
On another day, further down the coast, we met a man of Dutch descent, who had lived in the area for thirty odd years. He told us that to walk Carlton Bluff you take the path between houses off Midden Street and so encouraged by this new information, we rushed off to try again.
It was 23 November 2017. Hobart was experiencing its longest stretch of continuous days over 27 degrees since records had started 140 years before. That day it was 29 degrees C, a day better suited for swimming than walking, because in Tasmania that sort of temperature is sharp and dry and can feel like needles boring into your skin.
We found the gap between the houses and followed it down to the banks of the Carlton River. In the stratigraphy of the river’s banks there were hints of meals consumed hundreds if not thousands of years ago. We also found an abandoned pair of thongs and several bits of plastic litter and the clear turquoise waters of the river were marred by blooms of what I took to be baggiota floating along the edges. Despite the brutal heat we felt a sense of achievement looking across the river to where we had walked some time before. This time, for sure, we were going to round that bluff.
Eventually we discovered a narrow path above us and clambered up the slope to reach it. Now that we had a path this would be a cinch, we thought, but pretty soon we chose to go back down to the rocks again because we wanted to enjoy the water and we figured that there less chance of encountering snakes down there. We could feel the heat coming up through the soles of our shoes in a most uncomfortable manner and the going was slow. At various points we had to clamber back up, seeking out the path again, picking our way through tussocks of marram and copses of casuarinas, in search of shade for small snatches of cool respite.
Mostly we were off a path rather than on it and the paths we found became confusing – they could well have been made by animals. Our definite preference was the rocks and we started taking every opportunity we could to take off our shoes and sit with our feet in the rock pools, marvelling at their health and the diversity of the seaweed, so different from the D’Entrecasteaux Channel where I’d been sailing and kayaking the week before, observing stressed reefs in the vicinity of the fish farms that I have come to hate for the damage they do to the natural environment and for the impaired lives of the fish entrapped in them.
We had not actually made it to the end of this side of the bluff when my friend remembered an arrangement she had made to see a movie – and so again we turned back.
Four to the Bluff, zero to us.
I still think it’s perfectly possible to walk around the bluff – two locals have said so – but if you plan to do it, start on Midden Road, stay true to the path, choose a cool day and allow ample time. As for kayaking the bluff (something else I considered) sharks enjoy loitering at river mouths, so maybe I will and maybe I won’t. And as for sailing it, that was on my to do list that last summer we owned Samos, but we ended up doing more boat maintenance than actually sailing – and an entirely different adventure was lying in wait.
And yet the faux president of the USA, whose connection to nature apparently extends no further than a golf course claims there is no climate change, a notion that was beginning to sound silly and uninformed back in the 1980s. His is the most stark, most shocking, most dangerous expression of wilful ignorance I believe I’ve ever heard. It illustrates the Great Disconnection that has placed our ecosystem at such dire risk.
On a small island like Tasmania multiple sizeable fires are an indication of how quickly the world as we know it can be irrevocably changed. The air that we breathe, the ground we walk on. The water we drink.
On a beach, a rock pool, deep and vibrant with life one week can be obliterated by sand the next as the beach replenishes itself.
You would not know, as you walk over it, that it had ever existed.
By means of the path and the road we reached the summit of Spectacle Head. It was arguably the most perfect day of summer and we visually wallowed in the landscape about us.
We walked passed the ceramic whale that is a feature of this headland and took a track beneath the casurinas that border the houses (friendly residents, curious dogs) to another clearing. Beneath the cliffs we saw a rocky shoreline interrupted by cobbled beaches. Two 80 year olds drowned off here in the summer of 2017, caught out by rough weather while checking their craypots.
The land was fairly clear of trees on the eastern side of the point and again we lingered, enjoying looking down at the surfers and the long view out along Park and Carlton beaches, with the Carlton river entrance tiny in the distance and Carlton Bluff a heft of shoulder on the far side looking every bit an island and blocking from our view our onward passage.
The track down the cliff face looked too risky, although locals do use it and we ventured some way along it before turning back. A lone Pacific Gull perched on the sharp, narrow edge of cliff. There is no barricade and it would be easy to take a tumble but I liked that it was unfenced and up to individuals to keep themselves safe.
When we got to the bottom by way of the tamer path, the first thing we did was try to get as far around the headland as we could via the rocks. If I’m right this was dolerite, jointed and sandwiched in vertical and horizontal directions that created something of a floral pattern in some areas. That day, we didn’t get far at all.
Park and Carlton Beaches (T392)
Park and Carlton, popular Hobart surf beaches, merge into each other with no natural division between them. Really, it’s a single beach approximately 3 km long IMHO, facing south and copping the southerly swell. With the tide reasonably low we wandered barefoot along the swash enjoying the light, offshore breeze and the long ripple lines left behind in the sand.
At the time I did this walk a friend was keen to buy a place behind the beach while it remained relatively undiscovered and we’d discussed beach erosion and done some Google Earth exploring. The beach is backed by a narrow strip of coastal reserve. But what looked like a single line of dunes online was broader than I’d anticipated when I set foot on the beach. Marram grass cloaked the incipient dunes in front of taller, older dunes that had been undercut by waves at some point and it was interesting to try to figure out beach processes here. Just after this walk a local told me some guinea pig refugees have made a home in these dunes. She also told me she’s given up fishing. Apparently the flathead Emmett said were bountiful are not so bountiful anymore.
We reached the Carlton Park Surf Life Saving Club and walked on by. We rounded the bend at the river mouth where clear green water was streaming out into the bay, swirling around this year’s sandbank, and not far away there were some surfers and people on SUPS. We were nicely protected from the sea breeze now and walked along in the water with tiny fish swirling around our legs. Exploring the river mouth made me feel exultant. My only prior contact with the river had been further inland, crossing it by way of the bridge and following some of its bends along the road. The modest proportions of this river appeal to me. In size it’s much like the rivers around the town I grew up in. I was eager to return with my kayak.
Carlton Bluff, liberally dotted with casurina’s, rises on the other side and someone was walking a path up there. Behind the dunes the river broadens to form a wetland with houses on the inland slopes.
Pied oyster catchers walked ahead of us, gulls gathered near a fallen tree and a pair of swans were off in the distance, paddling out from the wetland where they seem to like to gather. I tried to imagine what the river looked like untouched, full of the birds that should have been there but weren’t because of habitat loss – the great flocks of earlier days now reduced so dramatically the world over.
At Steele’s Island resort we again encountered friendliness and stopped for a while to chat to the owners, who were enjoying the fine day beside the river. They talked about its shapeshifting tendencies and how they become an island several times a year when the river water rises and fills the wetland and the dry river bed at their entrance. We walked a big circle around their property, enjoying the birdlife. There was a deepness of large shells beneath our feet and in the stratigraphy of the river banks.
The day after this lovely walk, the friend who was hankering after property here asked if I’d come back to explore with her and so I showed her the circuit around Steele’s Island. This time the tide was higher. A dozen swans looked at us hesitantly across the vast mudflats and so we kept well away from their territory.
Each walk along rivers and beaches throws up new delights. I studied the layers of shell in the undercut bank, the same shells we were walking over and tried to imagine the landscapes further down the stratigraphic layers that had once had their time to emblazon this world with beauty.
In 1952 E.T. Emmett wrote, ‘From Sorell to Hobart you have the choice of keeping to the main road which strikes Bellerive at fourteen miles, or of doubling back to Lewisham, ferrying across to Seven Mile Beach, and walking through Rokeby, a distance of something over twenty miles. I chose the latter.
Lewisham is another old-timer, for this was once the route to Port Arthur, and Pittwater was crossed at Dodge’s Ferry. Since then three causeways have been built … Lewisham’s main fame today is based on the good fare at the hostelry and the fat flounders in the bay. The iron bars at the windows of some of the outhouses explain what the buildings were used for a century ago.’
Tiger Bay Beach (T395)
Emmett travelled south through a different time and landscape. Our walk took us north out of Lewisham and along Tiger Bay Beach, which lies in the lee of Tiger Head between Okines and Red Ochre Beach. Short (2006) refers to two Red Ochre Beaches, but the locals seem to call the last beach along Blue Lagoon Beach.
The tide we thought would be low was high, the vast stretches of sand gone. We picked our way along the water’s edge and around the eroding cliffs of friable sandstone at Tiger Head. We found a seat, trees with spaces between their roots and the dune, and the visible signs of human concern – tiles and branches once again heaped there to hold back the ocean’s rising intentions. This beach has boat sheds, there’s a boat ramp and jetties and several boats were moored off the beach.
Red Ochre Beaches 1 and 2 (aka Blue Lagoon Beach)
We encountered a sandstone outcrop here with lovely patterns and strange little indented circles.
Further along we found more boat sheds and this time a significant effort being made to hold back the sea because the path now ran along the top of carefully placed boulders, yet still the sea was winkling out the fill and the sand.
We climbed up onto a thin concrete strip on the side of someone’s garden, clutching on to their fence in order to continue. But returning on a low tide occasion I found I could walk the sand beneath the boulders with ease.
The Ferry Man
This was a nautical walk, because on Blue Lagoon Beach we found ourselves amongst more boat sheds, moorings and jetties sheltered this time by the bulk of Spectacle Head.
Ralph Dodge called the land he bought at Dodges Ferry in 1830 Ferry Farm. It seems he swapped his house in Goulburn Street for these 300 acres and this bit of history still stands, because the house he built can be found at the end of Fourth Avenue, (Southern Beaches Historical Society, 2019), pretty much opposite Sandy Point .
He was a man with an eye for business, because he took the opportunity to establish a ferry service and standing there with the sea breeze filling in, it required no imagination at all to imagine him rowing his neighbours over to Sandy Point on the other side. If only all rivers had their Ralph Dodges walking coastlines would be easier and a lot more fun. Imagining Ralph Dodge I remembered an alpine river in Lesotho where the ferry man challenged his wooden boat with generous loads of locals and read the swirls and rapids with consummate skill while those precariously balanced stayed perfectly silent and perfectly still. In another lifetime perhaps I’ll aspire to being a ferry woman and spend my days napping under a shady tree in a warmer climate, waiting for occasional travellers to come my way.
Spectacle Island, one of the Sloping Group of islands, and a mere 3.5 ha lies just offshore. A small number of pied oystercatchers, 600 pairs of little penguins and 8000 pairs of short-tailed shearwater had burrows on the island when Nigel Brothers surveyed it (Brothers, 2001). It belongs to the birds, so respect them by kindly staying away.
A seagull observed us from the boat ramp as we discussed continuing along the rocks or taking the path we could see heading up Spectacle Head behind the boat sheds. We observed the tide and chose the latter.
Walked Feb 2017
Brothers, Nigel. 2001. Tasmania’s offshore islands. Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart.
Emmett, E.T. 1952. Tasmania by road and track. Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.
Sundra and I had decided to walk from Lewisham to Dunally and for these walks her best friend, Matisse, invariably came too. Despite his venerable age he always kept up with us and chose to stick with whoever might be lagging, although sometimes he’d set off alone to find a different way around an obstacle. And ever polite, he accepted us picking him up and passing him over hazards he couldn’t manage alone. He’d pick up his dignity and continue lightly finding his way.
Rest in peace, gentle Matisse.
Dodges Ferry and Lewisham: Sharing a Magnificent Landscape
Long ago I met a writer who lived at Dodges Ferry. It was considered an odd choice by my friends, all better acquainted with Hobart than I was at that time, but walking this area I realised the writer was prescient. Its proximity to vast Pitt Water Lagoon, quiet coves, a string of sheltered beaches, a magnificent headland, beautiful surf beaches and a photogenic river give it an enviable natural richness.
Lewisham consists of a thin string of houses that extend along the eastern shore of the inner entrance to Pitt Water Lagoon just north of Dodges Ferry and so it isn’t physically on Frederick Henry Bay although its watery landscape is intimately connected to the bay. It strikes me as an under rated place, perched as it is above the water with access to some lovely beaches via a rambling path.
Dodges Ferry and Lewisham probably don’t want their natural wealth proclaimed to the world less the financially obese rush in and take over. For the moment laid back Dodges in particular still has enough shacks and rutted roads to keep it feeling like an authentic holiday village.
It’s about a 35 minute drive from Hobart to Lewisham and Dodges Ferry and it’s rich with water views if you choose to take the Lewisham Scenic Drive turn off. It’s my firm belief that one should always take the scenic route and for this series of walks it was such a no brainer that without fail we did.
Walking the Lewisham Reef
There’s a boat ramp at Lewisham and moorings offshore, and the spit that is Five Mile Beach with its bright white dunes backed by pine forest forms the opposite shore. Water flows in and out of the lagoon to Tiger Head Bay and larger Frederick Henry Bay through a narrow channel at Sandy Point on the Five Mile side and Dodges on the northern, and responds to the lay of the land by swirling and rippling in interesting ways.
After considerable discussion we began our walk at the boat ramp and chose to go boulder hopping in preference to taking the path a sailing friend had told me hugged the shore. Sundra’s miniature poodle, Matisse, hopped from one lichened rock to the next with a grace and dexterity that belied his venerable twenty something years.
The lichens, in various hues, indicated the highest reach of the tide.
As well, there was dolerite weathering in interesting ways.
Eventually we climbed up to the path and discovered that one of the particularly enjoyable aspects of this walk is the number of boat houses tucked into the cliff, each quite idiosyncratic. Boats lie about on the shore, silently emanating the richness of their mysterious lives, and jetties are also stop-and-enjoy features along this varied track. Just like on the Derwent and the D’Entrecasteaux, casuarinas (she oaks) fringe the shore, providing light shade and there are three or four ‘covelets’ depending on how you want to define stretches and pockets of sand divided by man-made features or natural indentations. Where these exist, so do the boat houses, which in many cases look to be tiny weekend beach shacks.
Lewisham Beach & Okines Beach (T396)
The path led us to a beach that a passer by told us was called Lewisham Beach. Sundra was struggling to pronounce the word ‘Lewisham’ and so we agreed that we’d call it the Hamlet of Lewis, which made the place feel pleasantly foreign. I’d thought this particular beach was called Okines but one thing I have discovered about walking beaches is that both they and their names can be transient and confusing. Sorell Council refers to a Lewisham and an Okines Beach and they should know. Short (2006) doesn’t reference a Lewisham Beach. I expect they simply segue into each other and did so without us noticing.
As the tide receded the landscape transformed into vast stretches of sand interleaved with shallow fingers of water, leaving a deep channel over on the Five Mile Beach side of what a little earlier had been a single stretch of water. A few groups with fishing rods had strolled over there and tiny clicking noises emanated from the entrances of a million tiny tunnels as the more permanent inhabitants of this sweep of fabulousness, the soldier crabs, began popping up everywhere and marching off together across the watery stretches of sand like endless pink ribbons. It was hard to find any vacant land on which to place our Gulliver-like feet.
We looked at the ripple marks in the sand, practising our reading of tide and current. There were other clues to the life of the beach. Groins indicated local concern about beach loss and the wrack line showed that this was valid. It was right up against the base of the dunes and we wondered whether the marram grass and the houses themselves had affected beach replenishment. Sundra exchanged pleasantries with a landowner industriously chucking branches down to the base of the dune to join the others strewn there in an effort at holding back the weight and determination of water.
We met some walkers who told us they’d seen a large fish head with a protruding tongue and odd curls on its face and although they told us where to find it we never encountered it, just a hoard of jellyfish patiently waiting for wind and water to carry them back out to sea.
Sometimes the weather and a beach are so compelling that it pays to dawdle and lose yourself in the interesting lives of crustaceans, invertebrates, boulders and curly faced strangers from the watery depths. We idled and we lingered until at last we reached the rivulet. We had taken hours, but Dodges Ferry and Spectacle Head were still simply a distant view. and so we agreed we’d come back on the next good low tide.
There’s a natural spring and a wetland behind the beach, which would have once been handy for the Moomairemener who had been pushed out of their country by the time Ralph Dodge, born on Norfolk Island (and one of the group of settlers who came to Van Diemen’s Land in 1807/1808) was granted this land in 1864. He and his wife Charlotte called it Lagoon Farm and in time it passed to their youngest son, Robert, who with his wife Harriet raised nine children here, before selling the farm to the Crown for the new Soldier Resettlement Grants Scheme that was set up for the soldiers back from World War I.
Ernest Okines was the lucky recipient and as with many beaches the foreshore’s name became linked to the owner. Today the Dodges Ferry Primary School stands on this land – the old homestead was demolished in the 1990s.
In the lightest of my summer clothes I explore the winter rock pools beneath the two headlands that hold the cuttlefish beach tight. A fine trail of their shells lie in a tangle with little pumice stones, mangrove pods, seaweed and the occasional bright piece of tiny plastic that together have invariably traced the sea’s overnight reach up the beach on these southern winter and spring days.
Out in the bay whales may breach and the dolphins surf, but my curiosity is usually focussed on the tiny and the ordinary, although nothing – absolutely nothing– is ordinary about a beach when you start to look at it closely.
This beach is in northern NSW. It’s a short stroll from the long beach that fronts this tiny seaside community, but few people find their way around here, to where the cuttlefish wash up in all their diversity – the large and the small, the bitten and the untouched, the wide and the skinny. It’s not uncommon to find them on Tasmanian beaches too. In fact, they are sometimes the same species, just a bit more tolerant of those cooler waters.
Why so many are washing up on this beach I do not know. Perhaps, hanging around in the same vicinity they are hounded down by predators on the prowl. Perhaps they drift here on the current from exotic vicinities far away. Most likely it’s to do with mating and the high price that extols and most likely they are locals.
I’ve picked up huge pieces of cuttlebone, quite weighty, broken and scoured by a predator’s teeth. I’ve picked up the tiny, perfectly formed shells of newborns (unless there is a teeny tiny species out there) and longer shells, oval, with a pink blush and a tiny cusp. I’ve picked up the ones shaped like a plump leaf, with thin black lines sometimes etched on the anterior side.
I’ve picked all these up thinking they were the same but in sorting them I discovered a lot about my ignorance and a lot about their differences. I seem to have collected four distinct species, possibly more.
Cuttlefish Travel Across Time and Language
These exotic cephalapods are so well adapted that their trajectory extends forwards from the Cretaceaous period ‘which lasted approximately 79 million years, from the minor extinction event that closed the Jurassic Period about 145.5million years ago to the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) extinction event dated at 65.5 million years ago,’ according to LiveScience. That’s pretty damn amazing. Humans are untested newcomers in comparison, given we’ve been around in this modern format only during the last 300,000 years (Wikipedia).
Cuttlefish grace the oceans in temperate and tropical locations worldwide, but curiously, they’re not in the Americas and the author of their Wikipedia entry suggests that one theory is that Gondwana had broken up by then and the North Atlantic had become too cold and deep for them to cross. I wonder about the cold bit, given that they’re comfortable in Tasmanian waters.
On the whole they seek out shallow water and are particularly partial to reefs, estuaries and seagrass meadows along the coast although amongst the many different species of cuttlefish, some do like their water deep.
The Greeks and Romans, keen on harvesting cuttlefish not only for their flesh but for their ink called the mollusc sepia.
‘Cuttle’ comes from the Old English name for the species, cudele, which may be connected to the Old Norse word koddi (cushion) as well as Middle Low German’s Kudel (Wikipedia).
Cuttlefish Magic: Embodying the bizarre
Cuttlefish are believed to prefer midnight feasts of shrimp and tiny fish to breakfasts and lunches but some species are out and about during daylight hours. They use two of their ten suckered tentacles with consummate skill, whipping these flexible ‘chopsticks’ out swiftly to pluck unwary fish and crustaceans into their beaky little mouths. It takes significant brain power to manage limbs, tentacles, defence mechanisms and their various mobility features. Its cousin, the octopus, uses nine brains to perform its daily rituals but a cuttlefish has one of the largest brain to body size ratios in the animal world and is known to be a fast learner.
I love the way they hold their tentacles in front of their faces when they swim. It makes them look like they have a long grooved snout. Perhaps this intimidates others while streamlining their motion, but that’s just an uneducated guess.
I’m sorry to make you think twice about that cuttlefish on your predatorial menu but they are unutterably beautiful and if you look them up on Youtube (see links below), you can’t help but feel somewhat mesmerised by the way they sashay about in a frilly sort of way. Think flamenco and think belly dancing for the way they ripple the soft fins along the sides of their body comporting themselves in a languorous or seductive manner.
Yet, no sooner have you thought this than you’re thinking zebras, toads and chameleons because although they are often striped they can change colour, skin texture and shape swiftly, blending into the background by making like they’re seaweed or a rock, or alternatively showing off with a bit of fluorescence or splashes of dazzling disco skin colour (Australian Museum). They use their skin to ‘speak’ or express their feelings, flashing messages via dynamic spots and colourful pulses. For instance, they might colour up one side of their body to bedazzle a potential partner while shading the other side to emphasise a ‘piss off’ to a contender (The Animal Communication Project).
They are physical oxymorons, edible but venomous. Their muscles contain a toxic compound with some suggestion that they are as lethal as blue-ringed octopus. (MarineBio, 2016) Their skin is a canvas and they wield colour like an artist – and yet they are colour blind.
That shell encountered on the beach is actually a phenomenal piece of engineering. We see shell and wonder about gifting it to our budgies or those artistically inclined might sculpt it like a piece of scrimshaw, and those who are frugal might pound it to add to a homemade toothpaste, or to a polish, but a cuttlefish uses this aragonite shell in lieu of a backbone, a shell that does double duty as a nifty buoyancy device because by pumping liquid in and out of the lattice of the minuscule chambers that make up the shell they are able to adjust the internal gas to liquid ratio, and this allows them to migrate up and down the water column, making like an elevator.
There’s a muscular mantle attached to that cuttlebone. It forms a sort of cavity, open at the front and it is also a mobility device. When the mantle muscle contracts, a whoosh of water whips through this siphon, strong enough to propel this magician of the seas at rapid speed. This is the same way it conjures up a cloak of black ink to confuse the enemy – the original “India Ink’ we used in fountain pens once upon a time and the sepia of the Greeks and Romans.
There are many other interesting things about a cuttlefish’s internal geography (for instance, they have three hearts) but for me those eyes have it. There is something soulful about those deep dark, W shaped ancient eyes in a body full of frills and artifice, those colour blind eyes of a master of colour and disguise. Those eyes have an underwater knowingness, but their lifespan is a mere two years. They come together in a big festive crowd to spawn and then, completely spent, they die. A popular place to see Giant Cuttlefish migrate for this molluscan orgy is off Whyalla in the Spencer Gulf, South Australia. (Here is some fantastic youtube footage by Pink Tank Scuba (2015).)
Maternal Cuttlefish Behaviour
The mother may not be around to care for her offspring but she lavishes care on her eggs, carefully hiding and tending them on the under side of rocks, jetties and other shady overhangs. There are sometimes about 30 to 50 eggs in a cluster and they’re not all from the same mother.
Once I read about this I immediately went looking. It was a fine October day and I did actually find eggs in a cluster on the under side of a rock, hanging there like glistening white raindrops, but I couldn’t identify them with 100% certainty and the ease of this find seemed too good to be true given that there’s a lot of diversity in those rock pool worlds.
Cuttlefish as Predator and Prey
Quite a lot of the cuttlefish I’ve collected have smallish teeth marks scouring the shell or making frills along the edges. The literature suggests it’s usually dolphins or sea lions but they’re also preyed on by sharks and larger cuttlefish. Perusing the research it appears cuttlefish numbers have dropped dramatically but are now rising. Some scientists think that overfishing and climate change might, at least for now, be working in their favour.
The Cuttlefish Who’s Who
Cuttlefish are molluscs and belong to the gastropod family. The giant cuttlefish (Sepia apama) is easy to identify by its size. Wild seas over the last few days have brought by the wind sailors, portuguese man ‘o wars in their droves, violet snails and cuttlefish onto the beach in droves. I found two almost perfect giant cuttlefish shells that had been floating around in the oceans for a pretty long time. You could tell; they were encrusted with goose barnacles, most small, but one in particular was large and curious, coming out of its shell to question where the water had disappeared to, I assume.
I started off curious about the different shapes of cuttlefish shell I was finding on the beach but as well as finding out about these cephalopods, these molluscs, these gastropods, losing time to youtube videos about them, I also wandered down related trails and found out some interesting info about people who have studied them, like the interesting Mr Bragg, and stumbled upon some engrossing blogs, like Susan Scott’s. She’s a sailor and marine biologist and I quickly downloaded her book. Here’s her post on cuttlefish.
But I’m still not sure about those eggs and I’m not entirely confident I know the species I’ve found, so if you can help me identify them please leave a comment :).
When a new friend said she felt like an all day walk I translated that into somewhere easy, somewhere short and somewhere straightforward because I had no time to plan and I had a leg that had become the arena for lightning bolts of pain. I figured we were sure to find a track that met these criteria on the Tasman Peninsula somewhere.
The peninsula was green and resplendent after rain and we were lured down the road to Lime Bay. I’d camped there once, years ago, and expecting to see no one there we were amazed by all the tents, activity and music at the campground.
Sundra was immediately hungry and while she ate an early lunch I read the sign that described the route to Lagoon Beach, then returned to the car to photograph the relevant pages of my guidebook. Soon we were heading off along the hot track to Lagoon Beach through coastal scrub and beneath a shady canopy. We were talking enthusiastically and were inattentive to our surroundings. We paid little heed to the dry lagoon at the base of the palaeodune we clambered up, but I did recall it from last time. We did not look back to register our surroundings or to note the way we’d arrived on the beach, because coming over the top of the dunes we were enthralled by the view of the sea and the fingers of land all about us. We should have brought bathers.
Except for three couples sun baking and a yacht anchored in the lee of the southern headland the beach was empty and so, with no regard to the pages I’d photographed we walked south, thinking that a track might possibly take us over the southern headland. There, beneath the cliffs we found a wooden seat and a sand castle, and after eating a second lunch and admiring a couple of pied oystercatchers, our cursory search produced no evidence of a track, although I later discovered there is one. And so we meandered slowly back up the beach, enjoying walking barefoot in the water. And that, I felt, was enough of a walk for my grouchy leg. Sundra, energetic and adventurous, felt the day had barely got started.
The couples were gone. The marker she’d had the foresight to place in the sand where we’d entered the beach had been kidnapped by the rising tide. For well over an hour we wandered up and down the dunes, trying to trace footsteps – anybody’s footsteps – that would return us to the track. How weird to be lost on a beach, I thought, squinting at the pages I’d photographed to my phone. I was pretty sure the best plan was to head directly back to camp and that if we headed for the trees we’d surely find the path, but our memories didn’t coincide. Meandering about on the dunes we had by now utterly confused ourselves, creating patterns of circuitous footsteps that now overlaid anything that had been there before.
But at least there was wifi. ‘Lost,’ I texted back home.
The pages I’d photographed were no help, especially when read with an increasingly distracted mind. I did a Google search and found a helpful blog that talked about exiting the beach at the northern headland with a picture helpfully included. There was red tape up there. If you followed it, it would take you across the headland (Green Head, apparently) to another smaller beach. This blogger had then turned back. Noting the sun’s position in the western sky I was all for turning back too. I was still reasonably confident that if we returned to the forest behind the dry lake we’d easily reach the campground again. A nightmare I’d had of being lost on the peninsula began to haunt me.
We returned to the northern headland we’d previously rejected as a possibility and scrambled up the steep slope that definitely did not look like it led to a path and after a bit of searching we found some red tape dangling from a branch. We walked a little further and found just enough tape to keep taking us forwards. We went down to explore the beach referred to in the blog (Lagoon Beach North) and then went back up on the cliff again and followed the red tape until in the middle of nowhere no more tape was to be found. From here the bays and inlets and fingers of land still confused me. I had no idea what we were looking across the water at and thought that late in the day though it was, we were still better retreating than trusting to the traces of path that might be ahead. Little did I know that the cliff tops here are shallow overhangs and considered dangerous (Leaman, 1999).
Sundra impressed me with her relaxed ‘ever onwards’ attitude. When the red tape ceased again we ended up walking in different circles in search of the oh so faint trail that often looked animal made. It seemed that the trees our red bread crumbs had been attached to had relinquished their hold during storms of long ago or the tape had simply blown away in gales.
Keeping in visual contact with the shore while Sundra’s voice receded further away I tried to figure out our position on Memory Maps and Navionics and every other app I had available but nothing gave me the precise, localised information we needed – a clear track back to camp – a Lime Bay for Dummies kind of instruction. I cursed myself for leaving the relevant map at home.
‘Still no idea where we are,’ I texted home, to the concerned enquiries. No idea where Sundra was either.
The afternoon was softening into evening. I suspected we would be sleeping out. From somewhere far away Sundra called out. Tramping around energetically, she’d found a tiny remnant of red tape, enough to lead us forward a little further but in what to me looked like an inauspicious direction.
Each tag seemed to take longer to find but we held on to a blind faith that we would arrive somewhere sometime. On two or three more occasions we lost the little red tapes seemingly forever and it was with some trepidation that we cut away from the cliffs to enter a thicker section of forest. We walked downhill away from the coast and with a hefty sense of relief found at the bottom (incredibly, disbelievingly) the track we’d walked out along hours earlier.
There was the coastline we’d passed on our way to Lagoon Beach, one or two children still swimming in the water. We had never been that far away we now realised. I thought admiringly of sailors who navigate themselves across oceans. I clearly couldn’t navigate myself across a pyrex bowl. And I’m obviously imminently capable of getting lost in a backyard copse of trees.
Dadirri is an Aboriginal word for deep listening to others and to the landscape. It’s used in both the Ngan’gikurunggurr and Ngen’giwumirri, languages from the Daly River region a couple of hundred kilometres south of Darwin. Feeling lost in the bush, that still, quiet awareness was hard to come by that day. Sundra had long ago finished her water and we were sharing the little I had left. We had no GPS and the battery on my phone was getting low.
Instead, as we travelled home after what had ended up being a six hour walk, we laughed as we reviewed the day and agreed that there was scope to do more walks together, perhaps with a bit more preparation.
But then again, without a map you really feel like you are more properly exploring! (I am not recommending this though!)
If, one day, lost on Lagoon Beach, this is the blog you discover then be aware that the densely vegetated headland to the south is called Lobster Point and Sloping (Slopen) Main beach lies some distance away on the other side. The 1.6 km stretch of sand that is Lagoon Beach lies in the lee of Sloping Island and it’s wise not go tramping about on the 15m high foredunes and their blowouts, particularly for their sakes. Take careful note of Sloping Lagoon which links the beach to the rear end of western Lime Bay beach. There’s also a smaller lagoon at the northern end of the beach.
And perhaps, rather than following the disused and apparently closed track we were on – we did this walk in 2016 so this may have changed – take your bike and go cycling around Lagoon Beach using these comprehensive notes on cycling in this area from Tassie Trails.
If geology is your thing there’s a dyke on Lobster Point and apparently on Green Head we were walking over all sorts of interesting volcanic and sedimentary geology which that day we were blind to. Those dunes we came over – they’re interesting too. Grab a copy of Walk into History in Southern Tasmania by David Leaman and he’ll illuminate the geological wonders for you. And go on the low tide – that way you can walk around the base of Green Head staying safer and not getting lost.
Most of the sand on the world’s beaches consists of two minerals, feldspar and quartz. They are particularly stable and that makes them especially durable. Take a peek at sand through a microscope and you’ll see that the grains look like tiny pebbles bigger than silt, smaller than gravel, many hued, transparent quartz, weathered smooth, pulverised and polished over the millenia. They form the unique, mobile fingerprint of the beach, created by the swish and swash of waves, tides and seafloor shape, gradient and cover. They may wash more or less straight up on to the beach or away from it, or be carried there by longshore drift, arriving at an angle, a part of the shifting sediment carried along by the coast-shaping sea.
Seven Mile Beach (T397)
Seven Mile Beach, mostly southeast facing, is 15 km from Hobart and is pretty much the closest surf beach to the city. The waves aren’t usually much more than a metre here, but they’ve travelled across about 20 km of Frederick Henry Bay to break on this seven mile long beach backed by homes at the western end and a beach reserve further east. There’s a road behind the dunes and the reserve. It’s dirt up the eastern end, bitumen down west.
One of the most obvious features of this beach is the unhappy pine plantation that extends behind it and encroaches on the dunes but if you’re standing on the beach it’s the great sweep of sand and the views across Frederick Henry Bay that are the most compelling.
What’s not so obvious when you’re on the beach itself is that it is a massive ‘sand spit that traverses the axis of the eroded Coal River Valley rift’ (Leaman, 1999), where once back in time there were twenty active volcanoes. In this valley early settlers found skinny seams of coal, enough to inspire hope that quickly collapsed into disappointment.
We’ve come to this beach when the tide has been so high it’s been right up to the marram infested, undercut dunes and there’s been insufficent beach for a walk. We’ve come on extreme lows when the beach’s width and a sunny sky has made it particularly inviting and horses, dogs, swimmers and beach umbrellas have given it a festive air. You don’t want for space here. This beach allows everyone to disperse along its generous length. Some people seem to make use of the dunes to disperse with clothing altogether, but in Tasmania the sun has a sharp edge and can end up being a painful experience for delicate extremeties.
This is a go to beach for cycling at low tide when the sand is hard and you can fly along its length all the way out to Sandy Point where Pitt Water, a 3,500 ha barrier estuary spills into the bay and Seven Mile Beach and Five Mile Beach meet. This beach system they’re both a part of has actually built out 1 to 2 km seaward, according to Short (2006), ‘as a series of more than 50 low foredune ridges which have subsequently been transgressed by dune activity that increases to the east.’ It’s on this barrier land feature that the pines were planted and Hobart’s airport built, so a particular Seven Mile Beach experience is planes landing and taking off low overhead. Pitt Water-Orielton Lagoon is one of Tasmania’s ten Ramsar wetlands and provides refuge for threatened species, both avian and botanical.
From Sandy Point you can see Lewisham on Pitt Water’s eastern shore, a skinny community of houses that traces the shoreline of this estuarine lagoon with the community of Dodges Ferry at the mouth. Looking west to the far end of Seven Mile Beach where the walk around Single Hill ended is actually the best known part of the beach. The hill, the houses and Acton Creek give it an intimacy the rest of the beach lacks. The thin western finger of the small township broadens out eastwards and the houses start extending inland across that ancient but shallow barrier dune system.
Five Mile Beach
This is no beach for a bike. As a Ramsar site it’s the domain of shorebirds. I came here with the geo on a spring low tide that hadn’t receded as much as we’d have liked. There’s a track behind the beach that meanders through pine forest, then turns to follow the Pitt Water coast. True forests uplift and Tasmania has magnificent ones that provide this kind of experience, but plantations cast a desolate atmosphere both sad and disturbing.
We didn’t complete this walk. I hadn’t read this book yet, but the atmosphere was so unedifying that it stilled conversation and dampened our mood. At a certain point we stopped and reluctantly agreed that we found the damaged dunes and miserable trees (upended in places, and ravaged by the sirex wasp) too disheartening, particularly when we imagined what the dune system was like before human interference.
We found a way on to the beach via a pathway through the eroded dunes and because the tide had receded further out by then we could walk along the shallows enjoying the occasional presence of a few shorebirds. Crabs beginning to emerge from their burrows and apart from the sad sight of trees that had fallen with the collapsing dunes the view of Pitt Water was a whole lot better.