Where There’s Smoke

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - by David Neustein

In 1773, English cap­tain To­bias Furneaux ob­served the many camp­fires burn­ing along Tas­ma­nia’s north-east coast and named the area Bay of Fires. The name is of­ten mis­in­ter­preted as a ref­er­ence to the dra­matic orange lichen that grows on the bay’s gran­ite boul­ders. While it is pos­si­ble to visit the Bay of Fires to­day and see only nat­u­ral beauty, the area is rich with ev­i­dence of its first in­hab­i­tants. Wukalina Walk is both the first Tas­ma­nian tourism ven­ture to be ini­ti­ated by the state’s Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­nity and the only walk in Aus­tralia that is owned and guided by Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple. Lo­cated in the Bay of Fires re­gion, the four-day walk takes a max­i­mum of 10 guests on a 33-kilo­me­tre jour­ney from wukalina (Mount Wil­liam) to lara­puna (Ed­dy­s­tone Point). Hav­ing just con­cluded its in­au­gu­ral sea­son, it joins a sta­ble of other guided tours and treks around Tas­ma­nia, in­clud­ing the Bay of Fires Lodge Walk, Cra­dle Moun­tain Huts Walk and Three Capes Walk. Whereas th­ese op­er­a­tions prom­ise im­mer­sion within a spec­tac­u­lar and un­touched wilder­ness en­vi­ron­ment, Wukalina Walk re­veals that this en­vi­ron­ment is far from un­touched. “Their walks are about na­ture and wildlife,” says Clyde Mansell, chair of Tas­ma­nia’s Abo­rig­i­nal Land Coun­cil and orig­i­na­tor of the vi­sion for Wukalina Walk. “We’re en­gen­der­ing a dis­cus­sion about peo­ple’s re­la­tion­ship to land.” Par­tic­i­pants in this new walk are shown the rem­nants of tens of thou­sands of years of Abo­rig­i­nal in­hab­i­ta­tion. Tas­ma­nia’s Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­nity is used to things tak­ing time. The de­scen­dants of a so­ci­ety iso­lated from their main­land brethren for at least 12,000 years fol­low­ing the last ice age, the palawa/pakana were the last In­dige­nous Aus­tralians to be recog­nised in a state constitution as a first peo­ple and tra­di­tional cus­to­di­ans of the land. Wukalina Walk is it­self the cul­mi­na­tion of more than 10 years of cam­paign­ing and plan­ning by Mansell and other com­mu­nity el­ders. The choice of a site for the walk’s stand­ing camp was a much swifter process. To­gether

with Mansell and Abo­rig­i­nal Land Coun­cil man­ager Graeme Gard­ner, a group of Abo­rig­i­nal trainee rangers fol­lowed the route from wukalina, skirted a pro­tected ea­gle’s nest, crossed the banks of a fresh­wa­ter creek, and came across an area near an open hunt­ing ground and in close prox­im­ity to the beach. It was quickly ap­par­ent that this was the ideal spot. The se­lec­tion of the camp­site’s ar­chi­tect was just as for­tu­itous. Poppy Tay­lor and Mat Hinds of Hobart ar­chi­tec­tural prac­tice Tay­lor + Hinds hap­pened to catch Mansell speak­ing about the idea for the walk on the nightly news. “I bet you they don’t have an ar­chi­tect,” said Hinds. “I bet you they do,” said Tay­lor. Mansell greeted Hinds’ phone call with a sim­ple re­sponse: “It’s good that you called. Let’s meet.” Eight years later, af­ter con­sid­er­able ef­fort, com­mu­nity con­sul­ta­tion and his­tor­i­cal re­search by the architects, the walk’s ideals and val­ues have met their built coun­ter­part. A hid­den track through coastal wattle, melaleuca, banksia and cen­turies-old grass trees leads to a num­ber of charred black boxes set into the veg­e­ta­tion. The largest of th­ese struc­tures con­tains a tim­ber half­dome that opens to its sur­round­ings like a band­stand or cathe­dral apse. In front of the half-dome is a deck with an in­set fire pit. Each of the six sleep­ing huts is a smaller ver­sion of the main pav­il­ion, with a black­ened sil­ver­top ash box con­tain­ing a red-stained black­wood in­te­rior dome, like the smooth hol­low of a seed that re­gen­er­ates through fire. The domed in­te­ri­ors re-cre­ate the spa­tial and ma­te­rial qual­i­ties of tra­di­tional Abo­rig­i­nal domed and bark-shin­gled shel­ters, only in neg­a­tive. The un­usual form of the dome pro­vides a sleep­ing space that is both com­pact and gen­er­ous, with a wide open­ing, through drapes and in­sect mesh, to the hushed and moon­lit world be­yond. Slid­ing or sus­pended doors can be drawn closed the­atri­cally to con­ceal the en­clo­sure from view or se­cure the camp­site be­tween vis­its. On the walk, Ben Lord, one of the pakana guides, points out ed­i­ble and us­able plants along­side the tim­ber board­walk lead­ing down to the beach. “A lot of bush tucker and medicine sto­ries were handed down to us, but no cer­e­mony,” he says. “That’s been lost. There’s a part of it we’ll never get back.” Con­cealed up in the dunes is a huge and an­cient mid­den, rid­dled with the shells of count­less wa­rina (peri­win­kles or sea snails). Lord ex­hibits a col­lec­tion of finely honed tools, made from stone car­ried from the is­land’s in­te­rior, that were de­signed to scoop out snail meat. Some pre­vi­ous guests, Lord says, baulked at the sheer scale of the mid­den, un­able to be­lieve it was hu­man made. At one point dur­ing the third day of walk­ing, the route along the bril­liant white quartz beaches to the light­house at lara­puna turns in­land. This is to avoid cross­ing a coastal dune where Abo­rig­i­nal re­mains have been found. Be­hind the dune there’s a shal­low es­tu­ary and a small hol­i­day en­camp­ment of cor­ru­gated and fi­bro shacks. A mother and two young chil­dren sit in fold­ing chairs, the kids pa­tiently wait­ing to trap a seag­ull un­der a rigged milk crate. The older mem­bers of this fam­ily tell me that they have vis­ited this spot sev­eral times a year for more than four decades, per­haps un­aware of the site’s spir­i­tual sig­nif­i­cance. On the fi­nal day, the group tours the el­e­vated peninsula be­fore as­cend­ing the light­house, a 35-me­tre-tall mono­lith clad in gran­ite quar­ried from the nearby cliffs and erected on an­other vast mid­den. As with ev­ery­thing else in this part of the world, the lay­ers of history are pal­pa­ble and speak of lone­li­ness and dis­pos­ses­sion, but also in­cred­i­ble re­silience and re­source­ful­ness.

“A lot of bush tucker and medicine sto­ries were handed down to us, but no cer­e­mony.”

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