A Tasmanian Turning Point

We had just come off the tiny car ferry from Bruny Island, itself the most intriguing and fascinating of places. We had camped at Adventure Bay, named after HMS Adventure, one of the ship’s accompanying Captain James Cook on his second voyage in 1774. In the evening, with dusk approaching, white albino wallabies cautiously approached the edge of our isolated campsite. Then, for twenty-four hours, violent squalls of strong wind, hail and rain came in from the south.  We read books and played scrabble.   And when the sun broke out, we walked along the narrow headland to Penguin Island, in the footsteps of Captain William Bligh who brought HMS Bounty here shortly before the infamous mutiny.

But now we were on the move again, in our rattly, twenty-two-year-old Toyota camper van, known at Myfanwy. We had come all the way from Northern New South Wales and Betty and I were agreed-Tasmania was worth the miles.  Pausing at a roadside store to stock up, we took the opportunity to idle over the map.   It showed a road that ran south, petering out at a place called Cockle Creek; the southernmost driveable road in Tasmania and therefore the whole of Australia; that alone was enough to go and have a look.  It was a long way down the peninsula and it would be dark before we got there; thankfully, we came upon a small fuel station just as it was about to close. Daylight quickly turned to dusk and what little other traffic there had been, simply disappeared.  The sealed road ran out at the Lune River and the single-lane gravel road that followed was enough to make your teeth rattle in places.  Now completely dark, the shiny, hard packed and rutted road surface fell away sharply at the edges; trees encroached on either side and the dim glow of the headlights frequently picked out wallabies bounding in and out of the undergrowth. Occasionally, there was drumming from the tyres as we pass over the planks of a narrow wooden bridge crossing some unnamed creek.  There were no signs of habitation or lights along the fifteen miles of corrugated road between the Lune River and Cockle Creek, only the road unfolding in the darkness, the trees and the wallabies.  On that dark, lonely road south, it was easy to imagine that we had run out of people too, but finally, it was almost a relief to find a couple of isolated wooden cabins nestling on the edge of the bush as we reached the end. We camped that night within feet of the sea and the anchor light of a solitary yacht a hundred yards off shore lay perfectly still on the smooth and silent ocean.  This was where the road stopped and the wilderness began; we relished the solitude and lay in our bunks listening to the silence of the night.

In the morning, a small boisterous sea bounced onto the beach, too cold for a swim though.  Strolling along the flat, sandy beach, puzzling over a line of sea washed tree stumps rooted in the sand, we walked around the bay to the point at Cockle Creek.  Unexpectedly, we came upon the life-sized bronze sculpture of a three-month-old calf of a southern right whale gazing longingly over the water.  It’s tactile body and sea-green hue making it even more evocative in this wild place.

The sculpture commemorates not just the whaling station that once stood here but the whole unscrupulous business.  Called right whales simply because they were the right whales to catch- their migration route took them the length of south-eastern Australia as they journeyed to and from Antarctica. They were the right whale in the wrong place. All along the coast, whaling stations took their bounty from the sea. It was bloody but short-lived work, in five years more than 12,000 whales were slaughtered, the supply dried up and many whaling stations closed. Mercifully, the right whale did not die out altogether despite some Australian coastal whaling continuing into the 1960s.  Sit patiently on a headland in early summer and you may be rewarded by the passing of a southern right whale, perhaps with a calf in tow, heading south to the Antarctic.

Tasmania is a compelling island and Cockle Creek especially.  For us, unlike the right whale, it was a destination; the last point south, a turning point in our four thousand mile Myfanwy odyssey. But I left with a short, anonymous verse fixed firmly in mind –

And when the last great whale died                                                                                
No sigh was heard upon the land                                                                                   
But in the heaving of the tide,                                                                                           
With every throb the oceans cried,                                                                                
And cursed the ways of modern man.