Walking the Western Shore of the Derwent River: Taroona to Taronga
(This is a continuation from an earlier post)
‘There’s a new bit of track on the Derwent River,’ a friend told me earlier this week. ‘It hasn’t been open long at all and the council hasn’t advertised it yet.’
I realized that the trail she was talking about was the much needed link between Hinsby Beach and Taronga Road and so as soon as I had a moment, I went to see for myself. And it was true. The track now leaves Hinsby Beach, involves a short walk along Wandella Avenue, then ducks down into a stretch of forest before emerging at the Shot Tower, where the vegetation is compromised by weeds but the path enlivened by river views across to South Arm. This is a stretch I’d chosen to cycle because walking on major thoroughfares at a distance from the river is an unrewarding experience.
A steep stretch of downhill comes next, and then an equally steep stretch of uphill. It’s actually not too much of a slog at all and I sat at the table at the top with the geo, enjoying the views before walking along the cliffs, then turning back and doing it all again from the other direction.
There’s a clue to why this short piece of track may have taken so long to come into being and my guess is that landowners needed encouragement. ‘Private Property – Keep out’ signs – even one ‘Bloody Keep Out’ sign, line the fences on either side, a small sadness really, when contrasted with the UK and some other European countries where rights of way across private land are well established, well accepted and enrich communities… and I speak as someone with a right of way across our land – it’s never been an issue.
Until you reach the bottom of Taronga Road where this track links in with the Alum Cliffs walk, it feels rather disconnected from the water. But it does provide continuity with other paths and coastal strips and so it is fantastic that someone with initiative on the council has managed to work with the community to create this short but pleasant path.
The path crosses two rivulets, but these participators in the making of this landscape had vacated their beds. The shapes of tiny waterfalls were visible on one, and the rivulet it flows into was napping in a few residual pools.
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.
Tyndall Beach looking north
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.
Historic Photos of Brown’s River (Source: LINC Tasmania)
They were mine for paddling, and kayak along these cliffs I did, before discovering sailing and long before embarking on this humble little project. Now, standing on Hinsby Beach gazing south along their tall and shadowed extent, I wondered about the possibility of actually walking along their base. I’d once assumed the Alum Cliff track that begins at the bottom of Taronga Road on Bonnet Hill was the only way. Now I was not so sure.
The coastline south from Hinsby Beach to Kingston is known as Alum Cliffs; the hill’s abrupt and perpendicular descent into the river. There is no beach at its feet, just rocks and boulders, as well as a rocky platform containing fossils beneath Taronga Road (a cul de sac that runs from the Channel Highway down to the edge of the cliffs not too far north of the point where the highway – in reality a narrow semi rural road – begins descending down to Kingston Beach).
I knew about this fossilised platform from chats with locals on Hinsby Beach and from Sue Mount’s article. They said that once it was possible to reach it on foot but a local landholder had built a fence that now excluded the public. Did they mean from their beach, or, in hindsight, did they misunderstand me and mean from Taronga Road? Exactly how you accessed this platform wasn’t too clear but I was determined to try.
Many years ago, when I was deeply into archaeology I walked the Brickfields Track (also accessed on Bonnet Hill) with the Tasmanian Archaeology Society. The Taronga Road area has mudstone, dolerite and a patch of quality sandstone along its ridge and is strewn with evidence of early colonial activities.
On that walk we came across remnants of the Brown’s River Probation Station (1840s) where over three hundred predominantly road building convicts once lived. There were the remains of a kiln used for brickmaking. Bits of the station are scattered through local gardens now and there’s a house with a swimming pool built into the old quarry. As the years have unfolded some of the bricks once part of structures or left lying about have been removed and incorporated into new structures or lost altogether. Some have no doubt ended up in the river. On my earlier walks I’d encounter red bricks remoulded into satisfyingly round and textured shapes by water.
On the Channel Highway, close to Taronga Road, there is still evidence of an old convict built wall. Some of that high quality sandstone (by Tasmanian standards) from the Taronga Ridge became the Shot Tower, locally famous for being the last remaining circular standstone shot tower in the world, built in 1870, almost twenty years after the probation station had become redundant. It, too, eventually became redundant but in its heyday was used for producing lead shot.
Kayaking, you can get much closer to the cliffs than when you’re on a yacht, although it can be unpleasant when the waves rebound strongly off them. On a yacht it’s best to leave a little seaway, especially along a lee shore, and when I pass by Alum Cliffs these days I’m usually sailing, observing these dark cliffs rising from the water, more wildness in the city precincts, topped as they are by communities of trees and shrubs forming a satisfying stretch of bushland.
There was a strong north westerly wind blowing on the first day I first set off to uncover a route along the cliffs from Taroona itself and I was feeling uncharacteristically despondent, in need of an activity to blast that mood away. Sue Mount’s article seemed to be a hint that the Alum Cliffs track had once started at the right of way onto the beach at lllawong Crescent. I’d looked at other brochures and I’d looked on Google Maps. None of them show it starting at this point.
But still I searched. I returned to the start of the Hinsby Beach track at Wendell Crescent. I walked down it and saw that there was in fact a path to the right that went along the very edge of the cliff, somewhat steep and slippery. I got as far as a patch of escaped daisies from the garden above. They were growing over the track and to proceed I had to grab hold of vegetation to pull myself upward. It wasn’t clear that the path continued on the other side so I decided that as I was alone and the path a tenuous, unused one so hazardously close to the edge, I’d best go up to Taronga Road and see if I could meet up with it by heading north.
I was enthused by the discovery that I could indeed head north to Taroona on the Alum Cliff track but I was not far along it when I met a local walking her dog, one like Ash, and so we got talking. She confirmed what I had already learned: that once it had been possible to take a path down to a large rock platform at the base of the cliffs hereabout and continue along towards Taroona, but it had been closed off by a landowner. If I continued along this path I’d reach the Shot Tower.
‘And it’s steep,’ said a man I encountered a little further along, and he was right. I came to a point where I had a clear view of the path heading downhill and then up the other side. My focus is on beaches and the stretches of coastline between them, and with these beaches it’s on the river itself, particularly (but not only) where it interfaces the land.
I declined the path’s feeble invitation and turned back.
This was back in June 2015. Since then, I’ve gone back to Hinsby Beach on five or six separate occasions, all on the most promising of low tides, sometimes in winter but also at the supermoon’s low last month (9 March), when, unfortunately, the seabreeze worked against me, hurling waves at my knees in a quite malicious fashion as I tried to negotiate a watery gap in the rocks close – very close, I feel – to the little turn the cliffs take as they head to the area beneath Taronga Road. You’ve no business to be here, I felt they were saying. You people have made your track, now walk it.
But that day beneath the supermoon, I sat for a long time enjoying my splendid isolation, looking back towards Hinsby Beach, marvelling at seeing the cliffs with so much more of their base exposed, and enjoying their powerful presence at my back. They are not the only cliffs in the world. They are not even spectacularly tall but all the silence of the ages they contain gives them an undeniable aura in which I basked while deciding that, feeling personally rejected by the cliffs and the river, reaching the rocky platform and climbing up to Taronga Road wasn’t going to happen. The track above the cliffs is there for a purpose, I could only agree, and it affords a different vantage point from my watery stamping grounds. I decided with regret that I’d be satisfied with that.
Dropstone and periwinkles
The rocks below Alum Cliffs
And so that walk along the top of the Alum Cliffs from Taroona to Kingston is the subject of my next entry.