Off the Beaten Track

Pem­ber­ton’s colour­ful his­tory – of groupies, cult in­vaders and eco war­riors – is only half the story of this en­chant­ing for­est town, writes Mal Chenu. Pho­tog­ra­phy by Rus­sell Ord.

QantasLink Sprit - - Contents - OFF THE BEATEN TRACK

Tall trees, secret rivers... Pem­ber­ton re­veals its charms

IT WAS a pithy two-word bon mot that put Pem­ber­ton on the map: “Tough tit­ties!” de­clared Ra­jneesh cult spokes­woman Ma Anand Sheela in a 60 Min­utes in­ter­view in 1985. And the en­tire na­tion tit­tered in turn. It was her re­tort to lo­cals’ con­cerns over plans (which were ul­ti­mately un­suc­cess­ful) to es­tab­lish an “orange peo­ple” com­mune near Pem­ber­ton. She de­scribed the towns­folk in a litany of deroga­tory terms; television cam­eras were shown the mid­dle fin­ger.

But Sheela has not been the only con­tro­versy to tag this pic­turesque val­ley town, 327 kilo­me­tres south of Perth in the South­ern Forests re­gion of West­ern Aus­tralia. Wan­der­ing the quiet streets of Pem­ber­ton, which has a pop­u­la­tion of about 1000, it’s hard to imag­ine this was the scene of one of the most bit­terly fought con­ser­va­tion bat­tles of the 1980s and early ’90s.

Log­ging of the tow­er­ing karri trees be­gan here in the late 1800s and a tim­ber mill was built in 1913. Con­ser­va­tion had been a sim­mer­ing is­sue since the 1950s but the de­bate be­came main­stream in the 1980s and peaked about a decade later. The fi­nal act of the drama was a dif­fi­cult pe­riod for the town. Peo­ple were ei­ther “brown” or “green”. Protesters swarmed in and were dubbed “fer­als” or “he­roes”. Some chained them­selves to log­ging ma­chin­ery and squat­ted in the trees.

Threats, block­ades and sab­o­tage were com­mon from both sides. Vi­o­lence was rare but there were in­ci­dents. Gree­nies were barred from the pub. Teach­ers were not al­lowed to teach con­ser­va­tion. Chil­dren asked each other if they were a brownie or a gree­nie. High-profile con­ser­va­tion­ists came to town and made head­lines.

Andy Rus­sell is an off-the-grid kind of bloke who moved to Pem­ber­ton in 1981 to work as a builder. He now op­er­ates Pem­ber­ton Hik­ing & Ca­noe­ing (hikingand­ca­noe­ing.com.au). Back in the day, he was part of the move­ment to halt the log­ging. “In the 1990s, we re­alised the gov­ern­ment had a plan to con­tinue log­ging. Eighty-five per cent of the log­ging was for wood­chips – sell­ing for $15 a tonne,” he says, still in­cred­u­lous at the de­struc­tion that was caused for such a bargain-base­ment price. “The West­ern Aus­tralian For­est Al­liance and other groups took ac­tion to pre­serve the Hawke for­est block, which would link two ex­ist­ing na­tional parks to cre­ate a greater park. That was achieved and the domi­noes started to fall.”

Rus­sell is no “feral”. He speaks of the lo­cal en­vi­ron­ment with sim­ple af­fec­tion. “I like undis­turbed sys­tems. Forests with­out stumps. No crowds. Sim­ply walk­ing through the for­est is a med­i­ta­tion and there aren’t many places in the world where that’s still pos­si­ble. I love the pris­tine rivers, lakes, ocean and forests around here.”

The log­ging is­sue was piv­otal in the 2001 state elec­tion and con­trib­uted to the de­feat of Richard Court’s Lib­eral gov­ern­ment by Ge­off Gal­lop’s “no more log­ging of old-growth forests” La­bor Party. The town’s main in­dus­try was on its way out.

By all ac­counts, the rifts healed quickly. To­day, Pem­ber­ton re­tains a pal­pa­ble sense of com­mu­nity as the log­ging in­dus­try reaches its de­noue­ment. The town’s mill will close for good in March, leav­ing noth­ing but her­itage.

Fred Well­burn has lived through it all. Born in Pem­ber­ton in 1929, he was one of the thou­sands who worked at the mill, join­ing his fa­ther and brother there at the age of 14. Well­burn’s par­ents were orig­i­nal “groupies”: group set­tlers brought from Eng­land to work the area af­ter the First World War. His fa­ther saw a poster promis­ing a farm with palm trees. “You can have this in two years,” it said.

“It didn’t quite turn out like that,” re­calls Well­burn. “It was very hard in the early days. They had to clear trees by ring­bark­ing. Our fam­ily of five lived in a one-bedroom con­crete hut. We had to re­pay ev­ery­thing given to us. And there were no palm trees!” But he also tells of the fun of grow­ing up in Pem­ber­ton, of rid­ing his horse to the coast and camp­ing on the beach. He re­mem­bers his mother – the last of the groupies – say­ing, “If it’s good for Pemby, I’ll do it.” She died here, aged 106.

“Sim­ply walk­ing through the for­est is a med­i­ta­tion and there aren’t many places in the world where that’s still pos­si­ble.”

The in­dus­trial use of tim­ber might be wind­ing down but its artis­tic use is thriv­ing. Pem­ber­ton Fine Wood­craft Gallery (pem­ber­ton­fwg.com.au) shows the work of lo­cal ar­ti­sans and the cur­rent crop is su­perb. Artists have turned lo­cal karri, marri, black­butt and jar­rah into fur­ni­ture, grand­fa­ther clocks, chess sets, bowls and much more be­sides.

The area’s fine wood­craft and other art forms, such as sculp­ture, pho­tog­ra­phy and paint­ing, are all inspired in some way by the for­est. Pem­ber­ton and North­cliffe (about 30 kilo­me­tres south) are the South­ern Forests’ re­gional art hubs, where com­mit­ted, pas­sion­ate in­di­vid­u­als show­case lo­cal tal­ent through the Pem­ber­ton Arts Group’s (pem­ber­tonarts­group.org.au) reg­u­lar ex­hi­bi­tions. This year’s Un­earthed Pem­ber­ton (un­earthed pem­ber­ton.com.au) fes­ti­val of art, wine, food and ad­ven­ture will be held from April 21 to 30.

A per­ma­nent ex­hi­bi­tion is set into the foot­path on Brock­man Street: 40 chil­dren’s de­signs of for­est life cut from stain­less steel and pre­served in hand­made ter­razzo tiles. They com­ple­ment the Pem­ber­ton Artscape in­stal­la­tion, a re­mark­able 80-me­tre-long, dou­ble-sided balustrade. Cut from alu­minium, the pan­els fea­ture im­ages of en­demic flora and fauna and are LED-lit at night. Two years in the mak­ing, it was con­ceived by lo­cal artist Mark Grey-Smith, who, along with nine others, con­trib­uted de­signs.

Grey-Smith ex­plains his vi­sion over a Guin­ness at the Pem­ber­ton Ho­tel as a driz­zle chills the town. “Na­ture is very pow­er­ful here. The bush has an in­spir­ing com­plex­ity. Big stuff, small stuff, life, de­cay, lush green colours – it’s all aes­thet­i­cally strong. Artscape re-cre­ates the thin ve­neer of light and shade. The dual-sten­cil con­cept con­veys the ef­fect of chang­ing light in the for­est.”

When you’re in the for­est, it doesn’t take long to un­der­stand what Grey-Smith and pretty much ev­ery­one here mean when they rave about their blessed en­vi­ron­ment. It casts sen­sory en­chant­ment. The light does dance, the for­est speaks through rustling leaves and bird calls, the scent is pure and fresh and every mot­tled me­tre of bush of­fers a unique por­trait that changes through­out the day. Then there are the sea­sons: spring, for in­stance, adds an ex­plo­sion of colour­ful wild­flow­ers to the pal­ette. How could you not pro­duce art here?

A great way to ex­plore the re­gion is the 86-kilo­me­tre Karri For­est Ex­plorer self-drive (parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au) that takes in Big Brook Dam and Beedelup Na­tional Park. A shorter ex­cur­sion is the Pem­ber­ton Tram’s (pem­tram. com.au) twice-daily, one-and-three-quar­ter-hour round trip into the for­est (ex­clud­ing Sun­days). The 1000-kilo­me­tre Bib­bul­mun walk­ing track (bib­bul­muntrack.org.au), stretch­ing from the Perth Hills to Al­bany, passes through Pem­ber­ton. So does the Munda Biddi Trail (mund­abiddi.org. au), a 1000-kilo­me­tre track for moun­tain bikes from Mun­dar­ing to Al­bany. Graeme and Toni Dearle at Pem­ber­ton Dis­cov­ery Tours (pem­ber­ton dis­cov­ery­tours.com.au) can show you the di­verse scenery by four-wheel drive or hook you up with bikes and maps.

This part of Aus­tralia is also a food bowl. So­phie Zalokar runs For­agers (for­agers.com.au), a restau­rant, cook­ing school and chalet ac­com­mo­da­tion just out of town. Zalokar grew up in South Aus­tralia’s Barossa and was ap­pren­ticed to Mag­gie Beer. She learned about “pad­dock to plate” be­fore it be­came every chef’s mantra and is the author of Food of the South­ern Forests.

“I’m fas­ci­nated by the culi­nary her­itage of this area and ex­plor­ing the lo­cal pro­duce,” she says. “This place is blessed with rich soils and we get plenty of rain. Mar­ron are in­dige­nous to the area and thrive be­cause the wa­ter is so clean. Truffles are prob­a­bly the jewel in the crown; we think we have the French wor­ried!”

Pink Lady ap­ples, she adds, “were de­vel­oped in Man­jimup, just up the road. The orig­i­nal tree is still there and now you can buy Pink Lady ap­ples all over the world. Pota­toes, cau­li­flower, broc­coli, cher­ries and av­o­ca­dos all grow well here. Stone fruit and dairy are also ex­cel­lent.”

Ac­cord­ing to Zalokar, the secret in­gre­di­ent is the Mace­do­nian and Ital­ian im­mi­grants who brought their food culture with them, in­tro­duc­ing gar­lic, white beans and their own sausage-mak­ing tech­niques. One also in­tro­duced her to buck­wheat. “The third day we were here, a larger-than-life Ital­ian farmer bowled in, of­fered to mend our fences and gave us fire­wood and some of the buck­wheat he’d grown,” she says. “Now I do an en­tire din­ner based on his buck­wheat.”

Zalokar says South­ern Forests winer­ies pro­duce top-class cool-cli­mate wines but haven’t yet achieved the mar­ket­ing suc­cess of Mar­garet River. “The pinot noirs, viog­niers and chardon­nays are very good and I par­tic­u­larly love the rous­sanne from Lil­lian win­ery. Bel­larmine, Chest­nut Grove, Lost Lake and Woodgate are fine pro­duc­ers, too.”

Re­lax­ing with a glass of Lil­lian viog­nier be­side the serene Cas­cades wa­ter­fall as the colours of the for­est dim in the late af­ter­noon, it seems fit­ting that Pem­ber­ton is now more about reds and whites than browns and greens. Or or­anges.

Tour op­er­a­tor Andy Rus­sell loves the re­gion’s pris­tine rivers and lakes (above); long-time res­i­dent Fred Well­burn re­vis­its his­tory at the Pem­ber­ton Mu­seum

The tim­ber town is home to the Pem­ber­ton Fine Wood­craft Gallery, where Bren­ton Cox (top right) and H.W. Dirks (bot­tom right) are artists-in-res­i­dence

The self-drive Karri For­est Ex­plorer trail passes (from top) War­ren Na­tional Park’s tall karri trees, Big Brook Dam in Chan­ny­bearup and the sus­pen­sion bridge at Beedelup Falls

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