Recherche Bay researcher aided natural beauty preservation

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Recherche Bay historian aids natural  beauty preservationOut of sight as one looks south from Hobart's wharves is the end of the world, or at least Antarctica. From this point in the city the Derwent has already begun to spread grandly as it nears its mouth in Storm Bay. This mild late April morning we were to head down river by catamaran to the far south-east of Tasmania, to Recherche Bay.

This is one of the French names sprinkled along the coasts of the island. It comes from a ship of Rear-Admiral Bruni D'Entrecasteaux who made landfall in 1792 and 1793 while vainly searching for the expedition of lost compatriot, La Perouse. D'Entrecasteaux bestowed his own names on Bruny Island and on the long, sheltering strait that separates it from the Tasmanian mainland.

The catamaran pulled away from the pier, leaving behind a shipchandlers and the art deco Telegraph Hotel, passing the wheat silos that disfigured the southern end of Salamanca Place and are now apartments. Behind the city the mountain loomed blue-black. As the boat picked up speed so did the yellow-billed Australian gannets that playfully kept pace. By the sheer alum cliffs of Taroona we idled, better to see the sharp geological dividing line between sedimentary rock and red molten dolerite. In the lee of Bruny Island are Atlantic salmon pens, the small, yacht-filled bay of Kettering.

From here on south the industries of the nineteenth century have left traces: observation posts for bay whaling, overgrown tramways that had brought coal and timber down to the water's edge. Pods of dolphins frolicked in the bow waves and a seal indolently basked with flippers in the air. Far behind the mouth of the Huon River (name courtesy of the French) the Hartz Mountains rose into the clouds.

Then we were out of the channel and into Recherche Bay. We cruised past the remnants of the garden that the French had planted here in 1792, a nine by seven metres plot, in the event that they would return. So they did the following year, enjoying two peaceful contacts with large groups of Aborigines by Little Lagoon Beach. The two French stays totalled fifty days (about the same time that Cook spent far to the north while the Endeavour was repaired).

Here they botanised, collected specimens, made geo-magnetical investigations, and wondered about the 'noble savage' whom Rousseau had tutored them to expect. The French left no traces in stone. These would come later, from whalers, miners, timber-getters, for instance in the ruins of the Sawyers' Arms on Fishers Point looking out into the Southern Ocean and — while it raucously lasted — the most southerly pub in Australia.

By the mid-nineteenth century these industries of the area were in decline. The French presence was barely recollected. Recherche Bay was most famous in popular memory for an act of piracy in 1829 when convicts seized the brig Cyprus on its way to Macquarie Harbour and sailed away into legend and literature, memorialised in ballad by 'Frank the Poet' and in fiction, in an episode in Marcus Clarke's For the Term of His Natural Life.

Recherche Bay historian aids natural  beauty preservationSo it was that when — five years ago — the North East Peninsula of Recherche Bay was threatened with logging, the heritage importance of the area had to be freshly and strenuously established. Here was one of those familiar and always disquieting Tasmanian conservation fights, between loggers and greenies, owners and interlopers, progress and ideology. Or so it first appeared.

The issue was complicated by the work of a local historian, Bruce Poulson, whose book Recherche Bay reviewed more than two centuries of European presence in the district, besides the Aboriginal occupation for thousands of years. It was crucial in confirming the cultural and historical importance of Recherche Bay. If Tasmanian forests could be logged more or less with impunity, the 'past' deserved more tender care, no matter how little of it could be seen.

The ensuing battle was a draw. Leadership of the attempt to prevent logging fell to Bob Brown. With financial support from the entrepreneur Dick Smith, 140 hectares of land was purchased from the owners. In 2006 it passed into the control of the Tasmanian Land Conservancy. Smith's intention is that the money should be repaid, but then diverted to other conservation projects. This sane compromise in a quiet place at the bottom of Australia ought to be exemplary, but is more likely to be singular. As we surfed the ocean swell before finding calmer water, the day closed in. The catarmaran travelled in an envelope of grey rain and Recherche Bay was left behind, if not exactly as the French found it, then safe from immediate harm.

In memory of Bruce Poulson (9/2/38-4/5/07), who passed away during the writing of this article.



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Enjoyed the article as someone who visited Recherche Bay in the late 60's while resident in Hobart and saw the derelict steel hull that was to be refloated and towed to Sydney by dedicated crazies with more money than sense - or so it may have seemed.

Therefore surprising this was not mentioned in an otherwise enjoyable piece of writing!

stephen procter | 28 November 2009  

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