A Tale of the West Coast

For anyone who has not spent at least a little time knocking round Tasmania’s west coast, upon which giant rollers of the great Southern Ocean crash in a snarling maelstrom of foam, I can only say that they have missed one of life’s more unique experiences.

A place of a score or more of mines. One or two, producing great wealth for over a century. Others, a momentary kaleidoscope of colour then just as rapidly dying. Still others unknown, the skeletal remains of the pioneers who started them, still hidden in the embrace of some rugged and untamed valley. It’s probably just as well that when I was first there in the early 1960s, places like Queenstown and Zeehan had by then lost much of their previous, but not undeserved “Wild West” personas.

Yet even today, the West Coast generally, is still known for being an area that fosters “grit” and a practical, “have a go” mentality. A place in the main, of a hardy people, as quick to give the “shirt off their backs” as they sometimes are to remonstrate with no holds barred.

The description, above, however, is merely for the purpose of setting the scene from which at least two of the following characters originate. A scene clothed in a hardy and varied array of native flora, much of it unique to the west coast of Tasmania. And all surrounding the once wild and woolly, mini metropolis of Zeehan, with its ten thousand souls, once   boasting in excess of twenty pubs at the beginning of the twentieth century. Now, however, the town is  reduced to two or three hotels by the nineteen sixties.

This is area whose flora ranges from great tracts of button-grass and scoparia, the latter with its aggravating and needle-sharp foliage, to thick, wet sclerophyll forests, complete with swathes of “horizontal” scrub with impenetrable thickets. This is a moderately tall bush whose long slender limbs are rendered, quite literally, horizontal under their own weight, at which point, the procedure begins all over again, and again, to ultimately present a dense natural lattice work. A tightly knit weave, where it is not unusual to find oneself clambering ever higher in efforts to climb out of the stuff, only to be left many metres above terra firma with no easy way down.

Having thus provided some of the necessary background to the scenario in which I, as a wet-behind-the-ears, youth found myself fifty-something years ago, perhaps it’s as well that I introduce my companions who at the time, accompanied me through this particular little account of recent history. To begin with, there was my immediate boss, Kevin Jordon, recently of the Malay Police Force, and now an engineering surveyor for what was then the Forestry Commission. Kevin was a tall, well versed bloke, generally likeable but tending to be brusque if something didn’t quite suit him. This brusqueness was often extended to know-it-all, sixteen year olds. A no nonsense sort, for the most part.

As for me, I had only recently been employed as a surveyors’ chainman, or “nipper” as youngsters on the job were known then. We were stationed in the upper Mersey Valley, above where the Hydro Electricity Commission was to later on construct Parrangana and Rowallen Dams. Not long after this appointment, it was decided by the Hobart bureaucracy that Kevin and I be temporarily seconded to a private logging enterprise based at Zeehan for the purpose of surveying a couple of secondary roads into known forest stands of the much valued King Billy pine.

To augment our tiny survey team, we were allotted two West Coast bush men whose jobs were to appraise us of the location of the  timber and to literally carve a track through the almost impossibly dense under-growth by means of razor sharp axes, while following the survey’s “grade line”. The bigger of the two bush men was a gentle giant of a man who I’ll henceforth refer to, simply as Jack. What I do remember of Jack is of a fifty-ish, easy going, big fellow with dark wavy hair and a likeable grin. Something of a fossicker it seemed and always happy to impart what he knew about the place in which he lived and worked. In fact, it was he who was to give me my first glimpse of gold, a few specks of which he brought to work one morning, in an Aspro bottle (when Aspro did indeed, come in little glass bottles) and with the owner taking much satisfaction from our obvious excitement at seeing the precious metal in all its minuscule glory.

By contrast, Jack’s mate and apparent “leader” of the pair, was, Peter Casey, a small wiry man, also around the fifties mark, with the first two fingers missing from one hand. A feisty little bloke with a quick wit and ready answer to almost any situation, he and Kevin soon found themselves at odds with each other. The first occasion came on our very first day’s “recky” into the west coast’s nether regions– it all started with yours truly.

Typical of so much of the region’s dense understorey, we had no sooner stepped from the Land Rover and into the surrounding scrub, that upon looking back not a trace could be seen of either the vehicle or the road. These were environs in which more than one intrepid pioneer and others since, had become hopelessly lost with neither sun nor stars to be seen from which to get their bearings.

Suddenly however, I had been transported to a different world. A wild, exciting, Tolkein fairy-land. A forest, if not enchanted, at least one exotic in its variety of thickly growing trees. Some haughty, ram-rod straight and unbending like the celery-top pines. Others like the willowy, sassafras, their lime green leaves shimmering in what sunshine penetrated their habitat. Or still others, like the myrtle, with their great strong limbs clad in a cloak of lichen, and dinner plate sized fungi in shades of beige and orange along with an array “herring-bone” ferns among the myrtles’ deep green foliage. Then there was the forest’s, great, great, great, grandparents, the Huon and King Billy pines, both species gnarled and arthritic and draped appropriately in copious, flowing gowns of moss. Stoic and steadfast in their wisdom it seemed.

And through it all, was the great defensive wall of horizontal, through which was interwoven through the bauera with its rough bark and tiny, prickly leaves which after a time, along with other bits of detritus, began to find a way down shirt fronts, only to stick to sweaty bodies and irritate the skin. Now and then, while high in this tangled under-growth I would glimpse an anonymous mountain peak. It was here that the two bushman demonstrated the toughness and the skills for which West Coasters generally have become known, as they literally carved a burrow-like track in which, I’m sure, Bilbo Baggins the Hobbit would have felt quite at home.

Having persevered for a number of hot and clammy hours, a welcome halt was called for in which to shake our shirts free of leaves and bits of bark, and to roll a smoke before heading back to the “Rover” and boiling a billycan of sweet black tea.

It was at this point, that the first signs of dissent arose, with Kevin maintaining a course considerably at odds with the direction in which Peter claimed the Land Rover to be situated. After several minutes discourse, becoming increasingly heated between the two alpha males, I in all my, not-so-many-years of wisdom, dared to venture the opinion that in fact, they were both wrong. This presumptuousness precipitated a withering glare and a caustic observation or two from Kevin, alluding to young know-alls. I was grateful therefore when Peter, asked quietly; “And what makes you say that lad?” Having been given the chance, I was only too willing to explain (with what I hoped to be, suitably adequate nonchalance, of course) that upon entering our particular patch of bush, we had passed by, two very straight and very tall, celery-top pines, standing like a pair of ship’s masts (for that was indeed what they appeared to be, to me) the tops of which lined up perfectly with the distant mountain peak. Naturally, by turning around a hundred and eighty degrees and with the mountain at our backs, I was able to point to where the tops of the two trees could still be discerned and beyond which, should be the Land Rover.

It was then by unspoken agreement that I was allowed to lead the way until a short time later we stepped from the thick under-growth and almost into the side of the vehicle. How proud I felt when Peter took my soft, boyish hand in his own calloused paw and without a word, shook vigorously. I was just getting the feeling back in my fingers when Jack sidled up with his usual grin and with one big arm around my shoulders gave them a congratulatory squeeze that I can feel to this day. Kevin? Well yes, he did manage; “My apologies”, but then, bending down until his eyes were level with mine, he added: “Just don’t let that happen too often, will you?”