A Different Sense of Direction: the intimacy of Sea and Soil
It seems so long ago now, but during summer, shortly after friends told me they’d seen thousands of shearwaters from their yacht as they were crossing Frederick Henry Bay, we came to Cape Deslacs one evening to watch the shearwaters return to their burrows.
It seemed to me that this, really is the best way to experience the cape – as a refuge for these well travelled birds and so rather than wander its tracks or follow its roads, we sought out the viewing platform.
I’d once seen large flocks of Short-tailed Shearwaters (Puffinus tenuirostris) rafting in Port Davey and I’d seen the very first of them return one year from their long migration down the latitudes to Fisher Island, a tiny granite island in the Great Dog Island Group between Flinders and Cape Barren Islands. Those Fisher Island birds have been the subject of a longitudinal monitoring program extending back to the 1950s and because they return literally to the day, we were there when the leaders arrived. A scratching in the soil the next morning gave their presence away.
Although I’d read that they could be seen rafting off Taroona I’d rarely seen any on the Derwent River but when returning from Recherche Bay on Samos we saw for the first time in the D’Entrecasteaux a flock of perhaps two hundred winging their way down the Channel. I’ve been unlucky because these long winged birds are Australia’s most numerous seabirds and while there are no longer flocks of many millions, as the explorer, Matthew Flinders in 1798 asserted he’d seen, the flocks are large enough still to create awe when you see them.
The track to the platform led through native bushland. The day was already darkening and gradually the stars came out. In total there were four of us stargazing on the platform, our sense of self miniaturised by the Milky Way and the looming sky. All around Tasmania and especially around the Bass Strait islands great flocks of shearwaters were on their way home to their burrows but when the first dark shadows flitted overhead we thought at first that they might have been bats.
Aborigines believed they wintered behind the moon. That’s apparently how they got the name ‘moon bird’. They make a good meal and taste like sheep and so they’re more commonly called ‘mutton birds’. They might migrate almost the length of the globe on those metre long wings and swim proficiently with those webbed feet, and for a bird have a keen sense of smell, but they are so inelegant at landing that you swear they must sustain bruises. They are renowned for their excellent time management and for their magnificent sense of direction. They set off at the end of each Northern summer from the waters off Japan, Siberia and Alaska, barely, if ever making landfall, honing in on their tiny burrow at the far ends of the earth.
They partner for life (mostly), lay their single egg at the end of the November and watch it crack open in January. Then they take turns minding their one and only, feeding it up until it’s double their size. Come April they fly north without it and abandoned, wandering about and testing their wings, the chicks don’t eat. They tone down, feather up and intuitively follow their parents north a few weeks later in May.
Shearwaters are predators at sea and on land they are prey. The snakes that inhabit some Bass Strait islands rely almost wholly on the chicks for sustenance. It’s a physically close and terrible relationship. They are also commercially harvested for feathers, oil and meat and the traditional mutton bird harvesting practised by Aboriginal Australians continues. Modern life has thrown in further difficulties. Think gill nets and plastic, habitat loss and feral predators like cats.
That night on the cape the sky was soon awash with birds cascading down through the air. It was awesome. It was impossible to count them. There was a profound sense of a community returning, of lives lived with purpose and capability, of birds bringing their oceanic experience back with them and deep down into their burrows within the earthy skin of the cape.
After slithering down off Cape Contrariety we took off our shoes, Cathy and I, and walked barefoot along the swash, quickly leaving behind the small groups of swimmers and surfers taking advantage of sunny weather. Soon we had the whole beach to ourselves and forgot completely about the existence of the low lying houses between the beach and Pipe Clay Lagoon, except for when we paused to study the sand dunes, their shape steeply altered by marram grass, their mass being gnawed away at by the sea. The dunes extend about 300m inland and reach a height of about 20 m (Short, 2006) and amongst the native bush growing on their backs is Acacia longifolia and the threatened species Cynoglossum australe. These Cape Deslacs/Clifton Beach dune fields are a geoconservation site of state significance, and Clifton’s Frederick Henry Bay beach alignment is also considered significant.
Especially along some parts of Bicheno Street the houses here are regarded as being at early risk from sea level rise (Sharples, 2009) and sea level rise will of course impact coastal values too and destroy the dune habitat the Clifton Beach community is currently working to preserve.
We studied the ripple marks and read the southerly swell, counting numerous rips and we observed that apart from a lone juvenile Pacific Gull studying our progress this popular beach, facing south- southeast into Frederick Henry and towards Storm Bay was that day devoid of birds.
When we reached the end we lingered and with a little assistance from Memory Maps pointed out to each other the landmarks we were observing to the south and then we turned our attention to the cliffs at the base of Cape Deslacs taking stabs in the dark about the pale rock, before guessing at sandstone. Later I read that there have been numerous drownings at this northern area of the beach, so it’s a wise swimmer who stays within the flags down the southern end.
Our efforts at amateur geology ending in uncertainty, we walked back down the beach contemplating a stroll around the lagoon on a future low tide and pondering the difficulties Cape Deslacs might pose for our exploring.
Sharples, C. 2009. Climate change impacts on Clarence coastal areas. Clarence City Council, Clarence.
Short, Andrew. 2006. Beaches of the Tasmanian coast & islands: a guide to their nature, characteristics, surf and safety. Sydney University Press, Sydney.
Tasflora. 2012. Clifton Beach Coastal Reserve: reserve activity plan 2012-2016, draft (revision 3): advice prepared by Tasflora for Clarence City Council. Unpublished report.
Zooming in with Google Earth I thought I spied a couple of small beaches north of Smugglers Cove and the light tracing of a path through what looked to be a nature reserve. It was enough to convince us that it was worth trying to tackle the cape from Clifton Beach on the northern side and so on a sunny day at low tide, while people swam between the flags and surfers lolled on their boards beyond the break Cathy and I scrutinised the dunes and the cliffs at the southern end of the beach and found a path that led up a steep gully. With an eye out for snakes, we scrambled up it, trusting our weight to the branches of a couple of conveniently located bushes.
There was a narrow strip at the top between the ‘keep out’ barbed wire fencing and casurinas rimming the high cliffs, some of which had fallen away. Peering over the edge we could see their broken pieces tumbled down against the sea.
We found a path, but it looked wallaby made and we meandered on and off it making a difficult passage over and under vegetation, sometimes trusting to the generosity of land owners by slipping over the fenceline to where the walking was easier. In one memorable spot, we had pretty well a foot wide space of sky we needed to cross. I avoided looking down. The drop was horrible, but Cathy skipped over it oblivious to Death’s outstretched hands.
Our tardy progress was made even slower because the views were compelling and so we’d stop, point out landmarks we were confident about and speculate about those we weren’t.
We finally found ourselves on the far end of the casurina copse, gazing down a long slope of golden grass and up the slope on the other side. There was no clear path and it had the look of large expanses of private land. With a couple of households dotting the cape, we decided to avoid rebuke and reluctantly turned back, walking single file. Cathy quietly observed the tail of a snake disappearing down a hole between us, so we were pretty pleased to reach the beach unbitten, and as the day was still young and the beach glorious, we decided to take an amble to the cliffs below Cape Deslacs.
Not much has been written about this cape, but on Placenames Tasmania I discovered that D’Entrecasteaux had noted this name on his voyages of discovery and that it had another as well – Watsons Bluff. Watson was definitely no lady because it’s my observation that places get named after men, rarely women. No doubt he was merely an earlier landowner whose name buried earlier ones tangled with mythology,
I dug about on Trove as well and discovered a 2000 fisheries arrangement between the Commonwealth and Tasmania that referred to a shark nursery in the ‘area known as Frederick Henry Bay and Norfolk Bay being all waters within an imaginary straight line between North-West Head and Cape Contrariety’ and in an article on geology in the Sanford area, Green (1961) mentions dolerite intrusions into mudstone as well as landslips in the cape’s basalt soil. As he also mentions lavas here, this little cape has some complexity but keeps a low profile in the island’s literature.
The moon had given us a low tide and with a slender window between cold fronts Cathy and I whipped on our walking gear to continue our saunter along the coastline.
We paused on Goats Bluff to look across the long expanse of Hope Beach before making our way down the narrow path through native bush to the beach. The last time I’d come here it had been 25 degrees and people, heavily tattooed, were lounging under umbrellas beside the sedimentary cliffs. Today was crisp but sunny. Ever since the geo and I had driven off the ferry after a couple of weeks spent in shorts and t shirts on the mainland, Tassie had been lashed by a bout of wild, wintery weather, so this was a brilliant reprieve.
Calverts had been our ‘go to beach’ when we first came to Tasmania. Every time I walk it I remember a tiny kelpie x border collie puppy from the Stirling Ranges in Western Australia. Along with two of his siblings he’d been bundled into a box and on to a plane in Perth. Several hours later I plucked him out of that box at Kununurra Airport in the Kimberly region of WA and for the next two years he enjoyed field camp living with us. The creek, the waterholes, the fishing expeditions and the parties in the annex, the walks down to the chopper to meet the guys returning from another blisteringly hot day doing mag anomalies. Two years in a caravan in boab country, living small. Two years in a tiny field camp in all that wild, vast inaccessible space. We were lucky though, because sometimes, in the chopper, we got to explore caves rich with rock art and canyons with verdant microenvironments that felt way off the map, far from roads or even a track, that you wouldn’t know were there unless you could spot them from the air.
This puppy, born of working stock, climbed trees (sort of). His acrobatics intrigued children. His speed was astonishing and Calverts was a beach he raced along, trying unsuccessfully to round up seagulls. He drove around Australia, squeezed on top of a mattress that was wedged on top of a motorbike, that weighed down the already sagging boot of our Holden station wagon.
Cathy and I walking along discussing economic conundrums, saw a spout of water off Betsey Island, just as two birds lifted into the air close by. Further down the beach a lone man stood on the sand dunes assessing the swell on this rip-prone beach. Behind him, the dunes sloped down to Calverts Lagoon, a change in the vegetation and a quieter sort of environment.
We reached the opposite headland. This is where the geo and I have always turned back, but had occasionally noticed people making their way down it and had puzzled over where they were coming from. Cathy was the person who let me in on that secret, but before we set off up that path we explored the rock platform that slants upwards around its base because another beachwalking friend had told me that if you climbed to the end of it and peered around the corner you could see a little cobbled beach. But what we saw when we reached the end was the narrow shape of a gulch that at low tide probably did leave cobbles and rocks exposed. While I stood there musing, Cathy bounded up the daunting cliff face and when I looked up I could see her standing on the headland enjoying the view.
I followed slowly up that steep side. There was only marram grass to grab hold and it looked rather puny. Besides, it’s hostile and I wasn’t wearing gloves. I surveyed the big drop beneath me and the hard faced rocks. Those I was clambering up were damp and my shoes lacked grip. One up to Cathy, I decided, and slithered slowly down to a more welcoming ledge before seeking out the little path further back along the headland.
From the top we could see Calverts Lagoon, fingers of land and stretches of sea. The best was yet to come, because on the other side of the bluff lies a hidden beach, outstandingly beautiful. I’d been here once before, pretty much as soon as Cathy had told me about it. It had been a hot day and our party had disturbed a lover’s tryst. ‘Beware the snake,’ the man had yelled at us, jumping up to shoo us away. We had clearly destroyed their moment because it wasn’t too long before they were trailing us back along Calverts.
Smugglers Cove (Beach T 410)
We descended through soft sand, stepping over dead birds and a dead sheep to reach Smugglers Cove. It’s seriously lovely and is cupped by the steep headlands of Cape Contrariety. It’s also seriously private and intimate even though it’s spacious enough to accommodate several parties of beach goers. Two eagles wheeled above us and a pied oyster catcher stood on the rocks regarding us.
After a while we followed a fence line up the bluff on the other side, keen to reach the other end of the Cape. I’d tried hunting down the owner of the private land without any luck, so we didn’t like our chances. There were mutton bird burrows. There were sheep, happily alive. We followed their tracks until we reached a fence that crossed our path.
This was as far as we figured we could go. From there we could see the spot we’d reached on an earlier expedition, when we’d attempted to cross the Cape from the Clifton side (see next blog post), so that long slope separating us from that point near the top was frustrating. We knew there was a nature reserve along the tip of the cape and that another beach (T409) was down there too.
On the Beachsafe site its described as ‘a 150 m long high tide cobble beach located along the western end of the cove, with a sand and rock low tide terrace. Waves averaging about 1 m break across the 50 m wide bar and surge up the cobbles, with the steep slopes right behind. The 4 ha tip of the cape is a private wildlife sanctuary.’
We’d been defeated but the walk back was uplifting. A yacht was crossing Norfolk Bay, a north easterly filling its sails. That whale breached and blew again. We saw Little Betsey Island tucked away behind Betsey Island, Black Jack Reef and the great sweep of Hope Beach beyond Goats Bluff. We saw the Iron Pot at the entrance to the Derwent and snow on kunanyi and the Snowy Range. And as we clambered back down the path to Calverts there were seven surfers in the swell beneath us, where originally there had been only one. You’ve got to have ichor coursing through your veins to take on Tasmania’s winter ocean. I lack even a single drop and just the sight of them had me zipping up my down jacket.
This walk: 1 September 2017. If you’ve walked this cape or know the contact details of the farmer, please let me know so we can try again.
When we were preparing the house for sale earlier this year, we moved on board Samos, thinking we’d be at Kettering in Little Oyster Cove for several months. We planned to spend that time cruising the D’Entrecasteaux and Norfolk Bay but within a matter of days our lovely mountain home had found itself new owners and we barely had time to tackle our list of boat tasks before we were home again packing boxes.
Travelling in a small van as we did last year and cruising in a small yacht proves that truism of life being richer as possessions get exfoliated and waste gets reduced. But moving house is not good for the environment. You may give the Red Cross Shop your library and St Vinnies the clothes off your back, but the recycling and refuse bins fill exponentially and zero waste targets shatter alarmingly.
We went down to the marina on a sunny day and stepping on board Samos I noticed a swirling black ring beneath the water, just behind the yacht’s transom, and an overlapping circle of silver, moving that little bit quicker. A cormorant was hunting a school of bait fish that panicked into a leaping confusion as the bird downed its catch while rising to the surface.
Relaxing beneath the boom tent with a g&t on a blue day before summer’s lease expired, we watched a puffer fish slowly inspecting the seaweed attached to the floating marina and each time the black swans came visiting the dogs were transfixed.
Life in the marina spools out slowly. Those of us working on our boats shared tools, suggestions, advice and meals while in the background yachts slipped quietly through the marina, the Bruny Island ferries came and went where once the Nuenonne paddled their bark canoes, where Bruni D’Entrecasteaux sailed – sealers and whalers too – and the constant sound on the boat, in the quieter moments and most noticeably in the silence of the night, was the idle clicking of tiny beings feasting on the hull.
The super blue blood moon rose over Bruny Island, the Channel and the yachts while the dark hills slept and we looked up at the moon and also down at its reflection, snagged in the riggings of yachts impressed by its light on the water.
There have been other times at the marina when nature has gifted us a surprise or two. We’ve been astonished by flocks of about 200 black cockatoos swirling around the pine trees. We’ve stopped to watch the parade of crabs along the marina shallows. Kayaking this cove I once followed a ray as it made its way around the north east corner. I like rays. The ones I have encountered all seem capable and full of purpose.
We were at the marina long enough to enjoy several coffees and breakfasts at the café beside the ferry terminal with its views of Bruny Island and to enjoy the pub up the hill. Really, the marina is for me the heart of Kettering and Kettering the link between mainland Tasmania and Bruny Island. For a small place it’s pretty amazing that along with the pub it has three cafes as well as artistic credentials and links, some believe to planets elsewhere. This extra terrestrial history inspired the Kettering Incident.
We walked the short track through coastal woodland around to Trial Bay, lazed at Kettering Point and in the evening took the short walking track below the cricket oval on the northern side of the cove. There are houses on the hills which were once entirely forested, that therefore drew timber cutters in Kettering’s early days, and tucked away in the valleys behind the village are farms producing organic produce for which Tasmania is rightly famous.
Marinas can be tough on the watery world but this one has achieved some recognition for its environmental efforts and living on board proved so enjoyable that we agreed that while small is beautiful if we want to live on board all summer long then a yacht a little bigger would be more comfortable. And so our lovely yacht Samos is on the market and a new adventure is about to begin.
The view from Goat’s Bluff is splendiferous and uplifting, but it’s a threatened vista because the toads are coming. I didn’t know if such a term (threatened vista) for endangered beauty existed but then I found literature on seascapes and this, right here on a Tas government site:
‘The condition of scenic landscape values is important for Tasmania for a variety of reasons… landscape values often have an association with environmental and natural resource values – the values that people appreciate in a landscape may often also be important ecologically.’
And the report goes on to recommend that ‘… scenic landscapes and areas of consistent and recognisable landscape character be recognised in local and regional strategies in relation to beneficial values including natural resource management; open space and recreation; vegetation management; catchment management; and coastal management.’
Which brings us to the messy issue surrounding Storm Bay
Storm Bay is bound by North Bruny Island, South Arm Peninsula, the Tasman Peninsula and the tip of the Tinderbox Peninsula, which means that there are any number of brilliant perspectives from which you can view this tempestuous bay.
It’s the wilds – right there, where the Derwent River and the D’Entrecasteaux enter it in company and sometimes a gale blowing across the bay can bring that sense of the menacing wild right up the river and into the city.
Storm Bay has a few anchorages along the exposed coastline of Bruny Island for yachts seeking sanctuary from foul weather. Samos has hung out in Bull Bay off North Bruny enjoying this environment distinct from the river, where the movement of the swell and the surf hold warnings and the feeling of being out here is unique from the river and Channel.
Let’s Not Forget the Voiceless
It’s not just people who are vested in the bay. It provides feeding grounds for the migratory shearwater and other shorebirds and seabirds. It is traversed by dolphins and whales, penguins and seals. Life flourishes on its reefs and I hope you’ll agree that seaweeds have a right to the good life too.
Storm Bay is the magnificently scenic entry that stops people’s hearts when approaching Hobart by sea, the you and me as well as those Sydney-Hobart sailors and passengers on cruise liners. And rounding the Iron Pot, as you sail down the Derwent marks the point, both mental and physical, at which you finally feel you are sailing the ocean, albeit coastal.
It is the aquatic commons of the whole glorious multiplicity of us and its moody beauty is deeply loved. Even on a fine day you know its mood can change in an instant and with too much sail out you are quickly humbled.
Goodbye to All That
Storm Bay is about to change into an industrial zone. The three Tasmanian fish farming companies – Tassal, Petuna and Huon Aquaculture – are encroaching massively on our aquatic commons and while their heady expansion plans are good for the economy in the short term, the public’s interest and that of other sentient and non-sentient communities stand to be sacrificed by government complicity. There are fish farm leases planned for Storm Bay and they’ll be visible over vast distances, all around the lovely shoreline. The relaxing high and sense of connection that Nature gifts us will give way to further despair. The scenic vistas will be destroyed.
We have already lost grand views and the sense of desolation many of us feel when we try to navigate through multiple leases or view bays and waterways taken up by ugliness reflects the all consuming loss felt by the people we replaced when their hunting grounds and sacred sites became no go areas and disappeared under pasture and houses. This time, buried in that same greed and disdain lies self mutilation.
Navigating Storm Bay, especially in gales, will become more dangerous. The plastic pollution, the exceeded nitrogen caps and the damage to reefs that the companies have caused in the D’Entrecasteaux Channel and Macquarie Harbour will happen here too. These companies are bringing along that same disdain for the commons, those same bad habits. For example, so often they’ve been advised that when towing pens they need markers on their lines because the distance can be such that other vessels could accidentally cross between with dire consequences. This week, in the Channel, we again noticed a tow underway without markers. It’s disrespectful, it’s frustratiang and it’s downright dangerous.
The weight of the farms on top of visible climate change impacts worries a lot of us down this part of the world. After all, we are a climate change hot spot.
It’s beyond disappointing that the companies said they were heading offshore then chose to plonk themselves down in this significant coastal bay – to plonk themselves down in the magnificent entrance to the Derwent. And rather than deep ocean – just take a lead from this, guys – they’re heading for the coastal zones of our offshore islands, those last bastions of the birds. There, amongst sparsely habited islands they can get away with environmental savagery. But on King Island some are beginning to cry foul.
In the future, Petuna’s leases just south of Betsey Island are going to marr the Goats Bluff view. Tassal’s will probably be visible too. You’ll see pens from Bruny and that’s why the locals are concerned there too. Friends of North Bruny, the Bruny Island Community Association and the Bruny Island Environment Network have joined forces to call for a moratorium on this alarming expansion of fish farms into Storm Bay.
Almost everyone wants these companies to really be clean and green and to excel at that, as opposed to dirtying the waterways they’ve encroached into. But that means upping their standards and appreciating the limits to growth, respecting the public and their customers. Unfortunately, it still doesn’t seem to be something they’re in any rush to do.
We only have one planet. Let’s stop hampering its efforts to nourish us.
Guarnieri, G et al. 2016. The Challenge of Planning Conservation Strategies in Threatened Seascapes: Understanding the Role of Fine Scale Assessments of Community Response to Cumulative Human Pressures. PLOS. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0149253
Johns Point and its Beach (T417): The minuscule, the long and the vast
There is a great sweep of rock platform with cracks and tessellations that curves around Johns Point at the western end of Fort Beach and then narrows as it wanders north along the base of the cliffs. We’d planned to walk out of Half Moon Bay south onto Fort Beach, but we ended up doing it the other way around because sometimes its okay to be contrary.
The Minuscule but Long
Invertebrates in their tiny rock pool worlds live their quiet watery lives along the reefs here, grazing and hiding out in the variegated forests of seaweed, while beside them the river and Storm Bay sweep one into the other. There’s an altitudinal order on the reef. When the tide recedes some barnacles, periwinkles and limpets will sit out the dry period while other reef species make sure they’re fully immersed.
Many of these tiny beings know more about the river than we would imagine and between conversations with Cathy as we walked along beneath the cliffs that sunny day I was contemplating barnacles in particular, those small hermaphrodites in their calcareous huts that choose to stand on their heads, that relative to their size have the longest penises* in the world (it’s true – move over, elephants!), their wispy little cirri feet swaying in the water but who look to be as sessile as trees. Why move, when the river brings endless meals of assorted meats and veg in the form of phytoplankton and zooplankton, right on to your calcareous plates and your perfectly adequate cirri spoon them into your mouth?
Only, if these arthropods were really that sedentary I wouldn’t find them seeking trips on Samos’shull, so what’s going on?
What’s going on is the exploratory tendencies of all of us who are either young or young at heart. After being brooded by their parent they become travellers in the body of water they find themselves in, swimming free in their naplius one-eyed larval stage, part of the great planktonic realms of the river. These little crustaceans are in their cyprid stage by the time they’re ready to settle down. Brushing up against a boat’s hull, they choose it. Landing on a rock, that’s where they stay. Shoved against a jetty paling, their little feet cling to it or, more adventurously, they hitch a ride on a passing whale**. The cement they exude from their antennae is so powerful science is trying to mimic it and Charles Darwin, who walked this river paying deep attention to its geology and life forms, had a particularly fascination for the not so humble barnacle — he knew of its achievements, both physical and chemical.
I knew from my earlier walks that across the Derwent, just inside the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, there were other rock platforms with a similar species richness and that just as the barnacle’s home looked like a tiny volcano, Charles Darwin had discovered deposits from an extinct one off Taroona. I was beginning to see how the vast geology of Tasmania reveals itself if you put on your walking shoes – fossils in siltstone and sandstone on either bank, similar weathering, layers of shell in the South Arm stratigraphy. We were enjoying the patterns unfolding in the rocks when unexpectedly we arrived on a little beach. Cathy pointed out a line of houses on the cliff top. My attention had been on the tiny secrets the rocks and pools were unveiling and I was somewhat surprised to see civilisation above the blue sweep of the river that was filling the hollows and depths of the drowned rift valley spread about us.
Beside the jetty we stood on the sand for a moment contemplating the scope of Half Moon Bay and relishing the fact that we had now walked its entirety, avoiding pesky roads. But beaches are transient landscapes. They change every day, and incrementally so do we. Some events marked in the sand – the small wanders of a plover, for example – get extinguished by wind or water. Some traces and tracks get sandwiched by sand, perhaps even fossilised. That’s one of life’s lessons you can read on a beach, the nature of memory.
We could not claim to know the beaches we had walked so far. In human terms, our meetings with beaches were no more than briefly meeting someone’s eye at a bus stop, but this walk around the reef, and the pleasure of discovering a beach was a completely fulfilling way to while away an hour at the end of a longer walk.
*This Californian Academy of Science video is worth a watch.
** A whale washed up on a NZ beach carrying some stupendous barnacles. A video worth watching because it also demonstrates the respect of the local maori for the whale.
Lauderdale, an outer suburb about a forty minute drive east from central Hobart, is situated on the isthmus where the South Arm peninsula officially begins. Carry on through it and there are two routes you can take to reach the Arm End beaches that are on the far side of a second more southerly isthmus. Of the two options, I like taking Rifle Range Road. It wanders along the western slope of Mount Augustus and continues onto Collins Springs Hill. There are tracts of dry sclerophyll forest, views west across Ralphs Bay to kunanyi, views east over Calverts Beach and lagoon and finally a spectacular view of the Iron Pot and Betsy Island.
Opossum Bay Beaches
Opossum Bay stretches its 1.5 km length west to southwest. It harbours three beaches, although, if you’re not a local, its easy to make the mistake of thinking that there is one beach only. Opossum Bay beach is easy to find while the other two are easy to overlook, unless you are paying close attention to the landscape.
I pretty much started this blog here, with my first walk around Gellibrand Point, accessible from this point. Now I was back here with my friend Cathy. We’d set ourselves the goal of walking the coastline to the end of Seven Mile Beach and we’d planned to do it on low tide days over the coming months.
T 422 Mitchells Beach: in the shadow of its middle sibling
The tide was out on Mitchells Beach and it seemed lighter and more gracious than when I had been here last. On that day a band of cobbles barely separated the winter sea from the eroding slope at the western end of Opossum Bay and the stone percussion in the roll of the swell had been audible to us some distance above it. But the day Cathy and I had chosen had begun with a big frost. Now the sky was blue and on the far side of the river there was snow on kunanyi.
We turned our backs to the mountain and walked east along the pale terrace of sand the low tide had exposed, in the long gone footsteps of family bands of the Moomairemener, believed to be members of the Paredarerme (Oyster Bay tribe). They called the land along the eastern shore of the Derwent River Nannyelebata and they were people of both the coast, the river and the lagoons that are to be found on this diverse peninsula, a peninsula largely in kunanyi’s rain shadow with few hills. As there are no real makers of rivers around here (save Den Hill, Jim’s Hill and Blatherwick Rise – all rather too lowly to whip up a creek) their water sources were springs and the freshwater that collected in the dunes, as well as their freedom to follow the seasons further up the river and to cross it in places.
Mitchells is a reflective beach of about 850m, the longest in this bay, and stormy weather can invigorate the waves that are eating away at the weed infested slope. We stopped for a moment because I wanted to try to understand what the stratigraphy was saying about this beach’s past.
Still catching up on each other’s news, we reached the rocky platform and headland that separate this beach from Opossum Bay Beach, embraced with so much enthusiasm by the locals that houses literally perch on the wrack line.
T 421 Opossum Bay Beach: houses as rampart
We walked along sharing the memories it has given us. Cathy knows it far better than me and she mentioned that we had the option of a footpath between here and South Arm. I’ve viewed its houses, boatsheds and slender sweep of sand on windy days from heeling yachts and also when, becalmed, there’s been ample time to absorb the view more fully. The beach houses and shacks on their bluff are the rampart the rising river meets and the views are of the estuary widening.
There’s a difference between walking and exploring, and concluding that today at least we fitted in the latter category, we shunned the pathways on the headland above us at the eastern end in favour of the shoreline and clambered around the headland with its jetty by way of the rocks.
T 420 Glenvar Beach: The Secret Beach
We crossed a boat ramp and walked into the more hidden part of the bay. Too often I’ve been that sort of beach walker who stops at the end of a stroll along the sand without testing its boundaries. That’s why I’d never found Glenvar Beach. Recently a friend had told me that she’d rented a beach house at a Gellibrand Beach. She described where it was and spoke about the lovely way the swells sometimes swept into the bay from three different directions.
Glenvar is definitely the smallest and most crescent shaped beach in the bay. Here, the houses also show an inclination to cosy up to the water, but held more tightly between two headlands, the feeling is more intimate. I figured this had to be my friend’s ‘Gellibrand Beach’. Cathy and I lingered on the rocks before beginning our walk out of it, admiring all the things large and minuscule about it – the nautical things like boat sheds, the sea walls in places, the features in the siltstone – fossils included – a feather or two along with shells and the vibrant seaweeds of the reef.
I came back here the other day after a storm. Kelp lay washed up on the beach. This time I walked the lanes between the houses on on the headland seeking out a path to the beach. That’s the way to arrive on Glenvar. Not by directions but by following the lean of the land until you arrive on the sand.
Blatherwick Rise* stops Glenvar Beach. We set off along the rock platform at its base. The siltstone here has been sculpted by the winds and rain so that its stippled with hollows. I was pretty thrilled to have reached this spot because once, crewing on the big blue Beneteau in a long distance race, a buoy was placed off here and we’d had to check the chart, none of us precisely certain about where the mysterious Pigeons Holes were to be found.
It’s a favourite spot with the cormorants, perhaps because there’s quite a variety of fish here. I counted twenty one of the birds taking in the long view and apart from a gull or two, they were the only members of the avian nations that we saw on this walk. We also discovered the remnants of a battered metal boat lodged on the rocks.
Our rock hopping had warmed us. We took off our jackets and explored the platform with its mollusc rich rock pools fringed with red and green seaweeds. Beneath the water where the rocks give way to sand the stingrays and the flathead lie camaflaged and all these are reasons why divers like this spot.
We walked the shoreline, sometimes scrambling, wondering where above us the house owned by Brian Ritchie (Violent Femmes) happened to be. According to the website for the tv series Sandcastles that featured it, he left the Big Apple seeking the serenity of The Apple Isle and bought this land from Peter Garrett (Midnight Oil and ex Labor MP).
At one point we found a narrow path beneath casuarinas and sauntering along this cliff top path we heard voices below us. The water seemed unusually blue just there. Two heavily tattoed men on a motorboat, oblivious to our presence, were getting ready to dive. We regarded them silently before continuing on, coming to a small beach neither of us expected to encounter. Its beauty was marred by the litter it was assiduously collecting. (Later I checked Short’s inventory but it isn’t noted there.)
We filled our bags with plastic bottles and styrofoam and then clambered over more rocks and down on to another beach in the next bay along.
Half Moon Bay
Like Opossum Bay, Half Moon Bay has three beaches within its 3 km extent and it also faces west across the Derwent’s estuary, which is vast here, the swells and waves from Storm Bay flow directly into the river, merging with the water from the D’Entrecasteaux on the other shore. Humans may demarcate the boundary with a mark (the Iron Pot in this case) but the moon and the weather determine where and how the waters mingle.
T 419 Half Moon Bay Beach and its smaller sibling
This beach (T419) we found ourselves on was known to Cathy but not to me. Robertson (2008) calls it Half Moon Beach and Short (2006) calls it Pigeon Holes Beach . It’s about 150m long and on a summer’s day it would be a lovely place to come to with a beach umbrella and a good book. But if you were a bird, that’s what you’d be dreading. Your eye would be on making a nest here and beach umbrellas play havoc with that.
The smaller beach we’d stopped to spring clean is in effect a little companion tucked into the long headland that is Blatherwick Rise, so seemed to me to be not quite Opossum Bay and not quite Half Moon either. Unrecognised, it’s without a Beachsafe number (unless my beach interpretation is shaky here and I’m suffering from beach confusion).
T 418 South Arm Beach
A quick clamber over the next lot of rocks and we were on South Arm Beach, the long, generous curve of sand backed by dunes. We increased our pace because we were fast running out of time. Sometimes we walked below houses. We exchanged waves with a couple on a sundeck toasting their mountain view with glasses of wine. I found an enigmatic layer of shell in the dunes. It could have been a midden, but one of Ralphs Bay’s most intriguing features are the dense layers of shell. This lovely embayment lies held in the crook of the peninsula’s skinny arm and I thought I might be seeing an exposed part of that layer.
We walked passed boat sheds. We passed the conifers. We reached South Arm (no more than a village or a far-flung Hobart suburb, take your pick) and as we turned to walk over the headland by way of the roads, we eyed out the rocks below Johns Point. We’d hoped to walk around and complete Half Moon Bay but we had run out of time.
If we’d taken the South Arm to Opossum Bay trail that runs close to the road, we’d have done that 4.5 km walk in less than two hours, but we had chosen to scramble over rocks instead and we had dallied on beaches. The school bell chimes at 3 p.m. though, and one of us could not be late. That last Half Moon beach would have to wait until next time.
* According to Place Names Tasmania, this name was ‘advised by Mr G. Calvert and Mrs B. Gellibrand; family by this name lived for many years in old days at top of rise on South Arm Road.’ Locals also call it Blatherwick Hill.
** They also record this information about (The) Pigeon Holes: “Pigeons as we know, favour ledges for nesting and roosting. Mr Cramp recalls that pigeons used to nest on a cliff face at Opossum Bay, South Arm. There was a considerable number of them, and the ledges were—“.
Once, several years ago, bound for Stanley across Sawyer Bay, an open, 25 kilometre long coastline, I sailed passed Port Latta in a fast diminishing gap between gales. While the skipper took waves in her face with the broadest of grins, my friend and I tucked up under the dodger and watched the coastline go by. I was identifying old landmarks I hadn’t seen in a while – Rocky Cape, where this bay begins, and then the long jetty of Port Latta. Behind that jetty there’s Australian Bulk Mineral’s large, grey processing plant that belches smoke and in its shadow there’s a cluster of houses. Looking at them from out at sea, I felt for the people who had to live there and knocked it off my bucket list.
The holiday home had a couple of books on local history and an outstanding view along the coastline of the bay all the way to the volcanic neck that is The Nut, standing elevated above the landscape at Stanley, but I had not realised until we arrived that Cowrie Point was the site of those homes I’d looked at through the rain from that bucking yacht all those years before.
I went down to the inviting beach to stick my feet into Bass Strait’s waters. The high tide had piled seaweed high along the wrackline and the beach was backed by both feral and native plants over to my right. The rocky platforms of what I took to be a point, and the pebbles that I found, were unexpectedly stunning. They looked like agate with volcanic intrusions but when the geo went to take a look he said no, they’re Precambrian sediments with iron oxide deposits in the joints and sometimes in the bedding plates. There were stratigraphies laid on their side with sharp edges, long thin columns with longitudinal jointing, tessellations, pale colours, burnt ochres, swirls and speckles. Neptune’s necklace flourished in some of the rock pools but others seemed entirely empty. Cowrie Point, he said, was actually a tombolo.
On the eastern side of the tombolo I found another beach (T 997), this time a half crescent curve of about 100m, rather narrow, that backed onto the beach I’d just come from. Again, but that bit closer, there was a view of the jetty and the looming plant, the white smoke dense in the sky, sitting improbably with the lovely proportions of the quiet beaches. Occasionally there was a low industrial rumble.
Just passed another outcrop of rock was a third beach (T998) and beyond it a stretch of rocks and then the industrial works. There was a lone house above the rocks of T998. Two men stood below it with a dog. I was strolling slowly, looking at the differently shaped sponges that had washed up, but eventually I turned and walked away.
Later, when one of the men came around to the Coral Point Beach with his dog, he told us his family’s story of Port Latta.
He was barely school age when his family built their Cowrie Point home and it predated the refinery which was built in 1967/68. It’s the terminus of an 85 km pipeline that starts at Savage River mine on the West Coast. What runs through this pipe is a slurry of crushed ore. When it reaches Port Latta it’s transformed into marble sized pellets that are baked at 1000 degrees C, which then travel via a conveyor belt along the jetty to the ships that take the pellets away to Port Kembla and China.
The refinery, he said, spoiled everything and devastated the shack owners. Thirty seven homes were razed so it could be built and for the first twenty years they’d been unable to use their house at all. The plant was so loud and noisy, the smoke terrible. When they hung up their washing it turned black. Worse, the chemicals that leached into their water burnt them, but the company didn’t want to know. The conditions were so intolerable and depressing that those who could moved away.
‘There weren’t any greenies back then,’ he said, as though that might just have made a difference, and expanded on how beautiful this stretch of coastline had once been, the ways they had enjoyed it and just how much it had been spoiled. He said more recently the processing plant had changed to gas and it wasn’t so bad anymore but as we stood there white smoke was dense in the sky and the whole place began rumbling.
‘It rumbles when they’re tweaking the mix,’ he said. ‘Wind’s northwesterly.’ We stood in silence, happily upwind, listening to the plant before saying our good byes.
I couldn’t find anything about Cowrie Point’s social history but I did find out that there is a landfill at Port Latta that accepts general and hazardous material and this has resulted in groundwater contamination. I also found out that ABM holds the Savage River Project through its indirect subsidiary, Goldamere who in 1996, entered into an asset purchase agreement with the State Government of Tasmania. Goldamere would purchase the Savage River mining operation assets as well as the Port Latta pelletising and shiploading facilities for a deferred payment of Aus$13 million. As well as that, the government agreed to indemnify them against all liabilities, both pre-existing and on-going, caused by environmental pollution or contamination that have resulted from past operations.
Port Latta to the east, The Nut rising above a faint sea mist to the west, and Cowrie Point perched on the edge of the Little Peggs Beach State Reserve. There were spectacular sunsets and lovely beach walks and Stanley not that far away. It was all exquisite, as long as I kept looking west.
Go there. Definitely go there. Explore the exceptional beauty. Discover what it’s like to think you own paradise and then to have hell settle in beside you.
As I kayaked towards the next headland I couldn’t see a thing beneath the water because of the sea state and I was trying to angle the kayak against the uppity swell. Walking, a path may take you away from the shore. In a kayak, the sea state can keep you at a distance from it too. I was having to focus harder and unlike when I’d kayaked the Tinderbox Peninsula’s eastern shore with numb legs, this time I’d adjusted my pedals too far forward, so the only purchase I was getting was with the tips of my toes. Meanwhile, the fetch was increasing, the water was darker and deeper and the white crests were getting more numerous. There was a small beach, only accessible by boat, on the northern side of the headland. Waves were breaking on it. I’d come back and explore it another day, I decided, because I did not want to risk capsizing.
Snug’s Coastline on Foot
Snug is another place on the Channel Highway that I’ve habitually driven through en route to other destinations, except for once, when we’d walked up to Snug Falls in the forest behind the town one wintery day. Not once when driving did I bother to imagine what it was like when this area was the domain of the South East Tribe or what impressions D’Entrecasteaux, Bass, Flinders and their crews formed on those early expeditions as they made the acquaintance of this part of the bay, comfortably secluded beneath the Snug Tiers and fed by the streams running down from them. Not for a moment had I stopped to imagine a fishing fleet operating out of Snug or small freight ships visiting in the early 1800s. In fact, I had never even connected Snug with the coastline.
In the 1820s timber cutters did business here and farmers took up land. A tiny settlement began to grow, but bushfires destroyed it in 1854, and returned again on 7 February 1967 to repeat the performance. There’s a monument in remembrance of those who lost their lives.
It was only more recently, with my attention increasingly focussed on Tasmania’s coastline, that I decided on a whim one day to turn south off the highway to see if I could reach the shore of North West Bay. I didn’t notice that the road was, in fact, called Beach Road.
It took me to the Esplanade and I found a caravan park, a footy field, a beautiful beach and and a peaceful little river. I was immediately won over by the way it curved around some lovely cliffs and quietly nosed its way into the bay between beach and headland. A little footbridge crossed it, providing access to the headland and so, without hesitating, the dogs (on their leads) and I bounded up it. There was a light drizzle. I soaked up the beautiful views. With Bruny Island at the opposite end of the bay it looked like an enclosed lake. There were a couple of yachts on moorings, the water was somnolent and a small motor boat puttered across it.
Snug Beach (T477)
Landcare have been doing careful work here and the beach was almost (but not totally) devoid of litter. It’s a lean beach and I think of it as green hued because of the green river and the thin strip of overlapping vegetation separating it from the road. There are no dunes, so to compensate there are neatly laid sandbags suggesting to the sea that it keeps back. Blackwoods grow right down to the beach. Of course, as the sea is swelling, there is coastal erosion because Snug is on a soft sediment plain cupped by sandstone slopes and there are rockfalls on the beach’s southern headland (Sharples & Donaldson, 2014)
Walking Snug Rivulet
It was a foul day. Snow had fallen and then settled overnight, but been washed away by rain in the early morning, and apart from being bitterly cold the waterladen sky sagged. Grey misery pervaded the landscape.
‘I think this is a great day to go to Recherche Bay,’ said the geologist.
My preference was to sit by the fire with a book, but I was also curious to revisit rivulets, now in flood. As we visited previously dormant streams now grown powerful and active, I recalled the Snug River. This was the perfect day to walk its banks.
We started at the coast and walked upstream around a leisurely bend. The tannin water, the reeds, and the river widening peacefully further upstream made for a pleasant stroll. There is a little wetland area with native grasses and reeds and a white faced heron and a large egret were enjoying the mudflats. We counted 22 hooded plovers there too and there was pink epacris in blossom, prickly moses, leptospermum lerigium, acacia dielbata, banksia marginata, eucalyptus amygdalina and sag. The multiplicity was greater than my botanical knowledge.
We passed two black pipes, side by side entering the river close to where I was now picking up litter – a dummy, plastic bottles and a cardboard drink container.
Where the river narrowed there were rapids and somewhere along here the path left the wetland and we had to walk along the side of a road. There were signs about dog control – dogs on the loose have been destructive. The river is in close proximity to houses and it isn’t fenced. It’s not just dogs, it’s people too. The litter up here was disappointing.
A native hen swam the river, making use of more rapids further upstream, and as we walked along the bridge on the Channel Highway I saw two tiny black ducklings in the reeds below but could not see their mother. There was a track on the other side of the bridge that followed alongside the opposite bank and then meandered up a hill. It was the old main road, we figured, closed off now to vehicles. We were high above the river flats with a filtered view through eucalypt forest but still we were picking up litter – more and more plastic, more and more styrofoam, all heading incrementally down to the waterway and on out into North West Bay.
At the top there was nowhere to go. We didn’t realise we were in the area allocated to the Electrona Industrial Park. There were houses and a path in the forest nearby had broken bridges. Old car parts were strewn through the undergrowth giving it an abandoned, somewhat hostile appearance. There was no incentive to explore; we returned the same way and when we got back to the beach we crossed the footbridge and did the headland walk the dogs and I had done before, only this time we carried on walking alongside a seafood factory, wondering exactly what it was. We came to its entrance. A notice proclaimed ‘Ralphs’ [Tasmanian Seafood Pty Ltd]. There were piles of abalone shells, a bad smell and a lot of litter.
Another astute business man and this time an Italian migrant success story (if you’re the human and not the piscean abalone predators) because this company had its beginnings when Ralph Caccavo, a prominent Tasmanian businessman, began exporting live abalone to China in 1996. It is now the world’s largest supplier of live abalone caught in the wild, exporting more than 500 tonnes per year out of a total Tasmanian catch of approximately 2,600 tonnes. Ralph’s also owns government-issued abalone catch quotas in Tasmania’ (Company website).
We strolled up to the factory again more recently. The abalone shells were all neatly bagged up and there wasn’t quite as much litter lying about the hillside.
Abalone fisheries are in decline and several areas have been closed this year. In the D’Entrecasteaux, there’s a belief that at least some of the reason is because of fish farms. If a generous proportion of those 2,600 tonnes were still in situ, I wondered, would there be more birds? Would the ecosystems be more intact? One of those self-evident questions, really.
Surfing a Following Sea
I rounded Snug Beach’s southern point and turned into the next bay, rather muddy looking and quite triangular, with Snug Creek entering at its northern end. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a concrete post looking like a monument in the water, but actually just part of a substantial jetty that was now a ruin and maybe a reminder of the days when fishing was more active here. This was another area I wanted to return to because, also out of the corner of my eye, I saw an appealing boatshed on a thin muddy shore. But the swell pushed me, this time from right behind, and I was surfing down a following sea, the kayak’s prow burying itself in the wave ahead. It was getting to be far too full on for my liking and so I turned to face these swells rolling in from the D’Entrecasteaux because at least that way I could keep my eye on them and there was less chance of them knocking me over.