Taroona to Brown’s River
I had an assignation with Mr Brown’s River and so it seemed quite appropriate to invite him to accompany me, if only in mind, on the cliff top walk above the Alum Cliffs one day late last year.
That day I’d paused at the beginning of the track, surveying the view from a picnic table above the cliffs while chatting to locals, but mainly, I was quizzing Mr Brown, a drop out medical student from the University of Edinburgh who was thinking about all things floral while his fellow students focussed on cadavers, and whose enquiring mind and botanical obsession had, with a little help from Joseph Banks, brought him here aboard the Investigator in 1801, on Matthew Flinders expedition to discover whether New Holland was one island or many.
There was a breeze, I was ostensibly alone and a single yacht had the white capped river to itself as it headed up river just like the Investigator, which spent some time in the D’Entrecasteaux and the Derwent. Accordingly, Robert Brown spent a lot of time collecting plant specimens from Table Mount (aka kunanyi / Mount Wellington) and along the river, encountering and following the course of Brown’s River in the process. These are my tramping grounds, but on the voyage out he’d visited another of my favourite haunts – Cape Town, where he climbed Table Mountain several times and enjoyed botanising in the fynbos and across the surroundings slopes, including Devil’s Peak.
Defeated by the boulders below the cliffs (see previous blog) it was a whole lot easier rambling along a well formed path that often felt more bushland than clifftop as it wove through eucalypts (silver peppermint and blue gum) and banksias, past epacris in bold red flower, with the companionable little sounds of small birds calling. It’s a sunny and shadowed path with a faintly minty fragrance in places, that occasionally deposits one at the cliff edge for filtered views across to Trywork and Gorringes Points and the long vista through the gap into Ralphs Bay as well as north and south along the river’s two shores. The Iron Pot was visible out towards Storm Bay. I had no doubt that samples of the plants I was walking amongst were included in the 3000 specimens my companion collected and that made their way back to the UK on the very damp Investigator. A conversation between Robert Brown and Charles Darwin, I decided, would have been interesting. They were both lateral thinkers with acute observational skills of the natural world, including geology who spent time here that led to new insights.
These cliffs, where Bonnet Hill abruptly meets the estuary, are unstable and prone to collapsing into the river along their fractures and faults. They’re siliceous and weather from their greenish-grey to a far paler white, patterned with hues of oranges and lemons. Sometimes oxides and pyrites stain their fractures and as they’re composed of Fern Tree Permian siltstone they occasionally bear fossils. I sauntered over all this rich geology not much thinking about it except to wonder, as I walked by the junction of the Brickfields Track, whether the alum they hold ever found its way into the tanneries that used to line the Hobart Rivulet and made it whiffy back in the early years of settlement. Robert Brown came from Edinburgh, that cold city of stone and so it’s not surprising that geological samples, the substrate on which plants grow, and which moss, a favourite plant of his, is prone to nibble, were among his samples too.
I crossed three small rivulets by way of wooden bridges and passed a few other people out walking that day but otherwise had the friendly solitude of the forest all to myself until, quite unexpectedly, I was out of the forest and crossing a broad and sunny expanse of grassy reserve with lovely views from the bench down to the beach where people walked their dogs oblivious to the fact that they were being observed from up on high. I clambered down the steep steps to the beach. I had left Taroona behind and was now in Kingston, originally known as the Brown River Settlement.
Brown’s River, or Promenalinah, as it was named by the Aborigines who enjoyed its bounty before their lives were rudely disrupted, divides Kingston Beach into two shifting halves and although it’s really a single beach the northern section that has gone to the dogs in the best possible way (although shorebirds would disagree), is known as Tyndall Beach. This section is continuously shape shifting in the most beautiful way. There’s a small cove in the northernmost corner tucked behind a lovely rock formation, it is fringed by vegetation and eucalypts as opposed to the houses and shops along the main beach but we walk it with a heavy footstep and so there are few shorebirds.
After lingering at the cove, I chose the narrow path that winds through the strip of vegetation at the foot of the cliffs in deference to my companion. A fair number of his new discoveries from this area turned out to have been discovered already by La Billardière on D’Entrecasteaux’s 1792 expedition. The two men didn’t just have botany in common. Conversely, La Billardiere started off with botany but later qualified in medicine.
I crossed the casual parking area between park and beach. Time was against me but the northwesterly was due to swing south westerly so at least I’d have the wind at my back on the return walk. And so there I paused on the footbridge over Mr Brown’s River contemplating both it and the floodplain it has carved between Bonnet Hill and Boronia Point. The tannin in the river makes it whisky coloured. It rises on kunanyi and I’ve followed much of its course, from above Silver Falls, down to the estuary. It runs narrow and free down the slopes (although some of its water is detoured into Hobart’s water supply) and then it weaves through its floodplain.
Robert Brown found the river when Aborigines still camped here and enjoyed the river’s largess and the hunting to be had behind the beach. There’s still a remnant wetland and there’s still the remnant bush I’d walked through, but my eyes took in an urban landscape – houses smothering the floodplain, and houses on the surrounding hills with their gobsmacking views. Looking down from the Channel Highway, the clubhouse of the golfcourse is the Red House built by John Lucas way back when. He was a a member of the first settler family to acquire land here. They picked up several hundred acres of land around Brown’s River and it’s on this land that, in about 1808, Kingston began to take shape. (For a historical perspective see the photos below). He found other things to, being the first person to describe a living cell nucleus and observing the tiny random movements of miniature particles down his microscope. You learned about this in Biology. It’s named after him – Brownian motion.
I retraced my steps, trailing my companion but mingling with modern day locals using the track. With the arrival of the south westerly the river grew wilder and the forest canopy transformed into an orchestra of wind instruments. I hoped the trees would hold.
I once took a walk in Eastern Turkey with a friend. That path was the only link between two villages. It crossed a shallow river that my friend traversed on a donkey. There were caves where hermits had once meditated; the way we were walking was thousands of years old. The Alum Cliff track links Taroona and Kingston but it is purely recreational. It’s quite possible that Aboriginal feet originally made it but I don’t know this to be a fact. Even though these days the purpose of footpaths has diminished, in the same way that arriving at an anchorage by boat is so different in feeling from arriving by car, so is it different arriving at a well known destination by foot.
There are at least two suburban developments in Hobart that would have thrown Robert Brown into an apoplectic fit behind his desk in Joseph Banks’s library (he became its librarian). One is Tolmans Hill, completely natural not that long ago. The profound shock when the first house appeared up there! The dismay as the suburb grew. The other is the small enclave above Tyndall Beach that doesn’t really belong anywhere but has further eroded the landscape Robert Brown found so rich and strange. This used to be native bush but subdivisions continue to happen on Bonnet Hill and in the fullness of time the land still open land looks set to disappear.