Bays of Dismay 1: North West Tasmania – Cowrie Point, Sawyer Bay


Beaches T 996-998 (Short, 2006) 

 Embedded map:

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.

Cowrie Point-2
Cowrie Point. The view from the tombolo of T 996 and T997

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.

Cowrie Point
Port Latta processing plant and jetty

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.

September on Tasmanian Beaches

A Little Pause

There’s been a delay in posting because of visitors, learning about beekeeping and preparing a beehive, travel about the state and trying to get my first issue of a local newsletter to the printer on time. But while it may seem I’m making my way excruciatingly slowly down the Western shore of the Derwent Estuary, I did in fact reach Piersons Point much earlier this year and so I’m playing catch up on this blog.

While writing, I’ve walked some beaches down the D’Entrecasteaux Channel and on the South Arm Peninsula.

I can also report that from Cockle Creek to Couta Rocks the boobiala has been in brilliant yellow blossom. Epacrids and cyathodes have also been adding colour to the coastal landscape. There are a diverse range of sponges washing up on the Cowrie Point beaches and while the sand at Robbins Passage seems pale at first glance, a little digging reveals black sand lies just beneath those beautiful ripple marks the outgoing tide leaves far behind. The surf was big at Marrawah and at Mt Cameron West, a place I’ve long wanted to visit, we acquisced to aboriginal requests not to take dogs in, and we turned back.

This month I also got to know the sandhoppers at Sarah Ann Rocks (West Coast) far more intimately than I’d ever anticipated. If any beach was aptly named its Sarah Ann. That sand is rocking and hopping beneath your feet and unless you go digging you would probably never know.

The plover that gave me an in the face warning that I was not welcome on Red Chapel beach (see my last post) also  gave me reason to pause and think a little.  I phoned the Parks and Wildlife Service to report the broken gate but more than that, as a person who has long bewailed the dog apartheid on many of Tasmania’s beaches my walking has led me to the conclusion that during the prime breeding months in spring, we should all be avoiding the beaches, ceding tenure to the birds, so that they can enjoy their parenting without abandoning nests or succumbing to anxiety and alarm. After all, it’s we, not our dogs who are the most menacing of species and with the dunes eroding on many beaches, it’s a hard call for nesting birds to simply find a spot to lay an egg.

This is why over the next few months I’m exchanging my walking shoes for my bicycle. I’m hopping in my kayak and I’m hoisting my sails.  Walking, developing an intimacy with landscape, paying attention to it and asking questions of it has been exhilarating and has expanded my thinking but now I’m curious to experience small adventures out on the water.