Any place once considered as a possible site for an international Jewish homeland is worth a visit. Especially so if it’s in Australia, and particularly if it’s in the remote southwestern wilderness of Tasmania. In fact, the more I read about the history of Bathurst Harbour and Port Davey at the bottom corner of Tasmania, the more I wanted to find out. Apart from its natural beauty, the area has a history full of unlikely characters whose stories bear testament to the extremes people will go to when left with nothing else but the need to survive.
From the earliest times of European exploration, it seems the area around Bathurst Harbour has done its best to discourage settlement. Yet time and again people have attempted to stake a foothold in this inhospitable, but starkly beautiful part of the world. And for the most part, they were spectacularly unsuccessful. Take Critchley Parker for example. At some point during his late 20s, Parker came up with the idea of transporting the persecuted Jews of Nazi-occupied Europe to Tasmania, where they would establish a new and prosperous homeland on the shores of Bathurst Harbour. This was in the 1940s, by which time the area had already earned a formidable reputation for its reluctance to tolerate human activity of any kind, let alone a sanctuary for downtrodden Jews. But despite the best advice of just about everyone he spoke to, young Critchley persisted with his plans, eventually disproving the viability of his Zionist vision by perishing miserably and alone on the shores of the harbour in 1942 (see Lost cause P135).
On its own, the story of Parker was enough to make the trip south. But an invitation from Hobart-based Par Avion to join one of its World Heritage Tours to the untamed southwest corner of the island state in early November last year was enough to tip the balance. Access to the area is either via a 5- to 7-day walk, or by air. No roads lead into the area. Par Avion specialises in flights into the remote region and also offers a fly/cruise package, which includes either two or three days on board the MV Southern Explorer, an elegant 18.5-metre timber craft, cruising the waters of Bathurst Harbour and Port Davey.
After being picked up at Hobart Airport by Par Avion’s Greg Wells, I was deposited at the company’s headquarters at nearby Cambridge Airport, where I met my shipmates for the coming adventure. Joining me on the MV Southern Explorer would be Elizabeth and Mark from Brisbane, Leigh from NSW, and his business associates, Ralph from Germany and Eric from Bahrain.
Initial concerns that deteriorating weather around Bathurst Harbour might delay our departure by a day were luckily unfounded, the cloud cover in the area clearing mid-afternoon, so it was all aboard for the scenic 50-minute flight to Melaleuca. With pilot, Martin at the controls of the twin-engined Norman Islander, we followed Tasmania’s rugged and spectacular southern coastline, soaring over South East Cape, the southernmost tip of Australia, and enjoying views of the Maatsuyker Island Group, before descending into Melaleuca, close to the shores of Bathurst Harbour.
There to greet us were our guide, Bob Nurse and skipper, Graeme Jones, both of whom would be taking care of us for the next three days. Like everywhere else around Bathurst Harbour, the airstrip and surrounding valley are rich in history. The landing strip was built by local identity, Deny King, who carved the runway out of the ground by hand in the late ‘40s. Initially working with his father, Charles, Deny went on to develop tin mining in the area – the remnants of his efforts still visible today. In fact, the mine, adjacent to the airstrip, is still operational, though run on an almost hobby basis by Peter and Barbara Willson, the only two semi-permanent residents of the 4500sq km wilderness.
Deny King became quite well-known for his exploits as a naturalist and explorer in the rugged south-west, particularly among bush walkers who trekked into the area from Lake Pedder across the Arthur and Ray ranges. Other traces of King’s presence still remain, including his hut and some bric-a-brac, which visitors can explore as they wander the tracks that crisscross the area.
The MV Southern Explorer was moored a little way from the airstrip, up Melaleuca Inlet, which snakes its way out into Bathurst Harbour proper. Built in Queensland in 1985 and rumoured to have been owned by late fugitive, Christopher Skase, the Explorer is a spacious, comfortable and welcoming vessel, with four guest cabins, each with their own ensuite showers and heads. An upper observation deck offers 360-degree views, while occasional trips to shore are possible via a tender roped to the stern.
After stowing our gear and spending a little time getting acquainted with the boat, we were soon under way. Meandering gently up the coal black, tannin-stained waters of the inlet and across a short stretch of open water, we arrived at Claytons Corner, a secluded spot with a rustic timber jetty on the southern side of Bathurst Harbour. Once moored – under the shadow of the extremely well-named Mt Beattie – Bob and
Graeme assembled us all for a welcoming drink and introduction to the places we’d be exploring over the following three days.
An amateur historian and ardent devotee of the area and its geography, Bob provided a fascinating insight into the history of the harbour and surrounding area, beginning with its Aboriginal habitation through to its exploration by Europeans in the early 1800s. While generations of Aboriginals eked out an existence on the shores of the harbour, living off what they could find in the surrounding bush and water, it wasn’t until European arrival that the area’s other natural resources were recognised and whaling, seal hunting and timber operations were soon established. But the early pioneers had to endure a harsh and unforgiving environment, especially in the winter when the area is battered by ferocious Antarctic winds. Lives were lost and spirits broken as settlers battled to gain a foothold on the shores of the harbour, but the wild nature of the area ultimately prevailed and apart from the small tin mine and limited tourism, it is now largely as it was before Europeans arrived. Nowadays, ecotourism and occasional visiting sailors in search of a safe harbour are the only intrusions from the world beyond the surrounding ranges. And that’s mostly in the warmer months, when the climate is at its friendliest.
Speaking of the weather, for our first day and much of the rest of our stay, the skies were overcast, with medium to strong winds and occasional light drizzle blanketing the harbour. As Bob explained, it was the start of the tourist season, which runs from November to March-April, and generally speaking warmer, drier conditions can be expected. Nevertheless, the grandeur of the mountains and stark beauty of the harbour and port compensated for any weather-induced discomfort.
As night closed in, Bob set about preparing our first meal; a delicious palette-pampering feast of Atlantic salmon, asparagus and salad, capped with a delicious sticky date pudding and all washed down with a great selection of Tasmanian wines.
After a hearty egg and bacon breakfast the next morning, we ventured onto the land to survey our surroundings. A nearby hill provided a spectacular vista directly across the harbour to Mount Rugby (771 metres), which dominates the northern shore and overlooks a section of water known as Bathurst Narrows. While it is possible to climb the mountain, the wet, wintry conditions weren’t encouraging. We did, however, take the opportunity to climb another nearby peak and I am pleased to say that I have now conquered my namesake, the only slightly less majestic Mt Beattie.
The remainder of the first day was spent sedately cruising the harbour west out into Port Davey. Exposed directly to ocean winds and waves, the waters of the entrance were being stirred by blustery conditions that made it too uncomfortable to hang around. Instead, we turned inland again and took the opportunity to go ashore at a sight occasionally used in the past by Aboriginals. A cave on the shoreline provided shelter for the natives and the low, scrub-covered plateau above showed evidence of their presence, with shell-scattered middens amongst the tussock.
With daylight fading, we returned to Claytons Corner, where Bob treated us to another culinary treasure in the form of a hearty roast lamb dinner, with lashings of gravy and vegetables – ideal fare considering the weather was closing in, with gusting winds whipping through the surrounding tree tops.
Critchley Parker was an idealistic, naïve young man, who has been described as a gentile martyr to the Jewish cause. His curious story perfectly sums up the extreme nature of the southwest of Tasmania and its intolerance for human habitation.
Born into a wealthy family in Melbourne in 1911, he, along with his father, Critchley Senior, was a frequent visitor to Tasmania in his youth. When, at the outbreak of WWII, he was declared unfit for military duty, Critchley Junior first began entertaining the idea of transforming the southwest into a haven for Jews displaced by the Nazis.
He approached a leading Jewish activist, Isaac Steinberg for his support and eventually convinced him to lobby the Tasmanian government to approve the venture. The idea was for various enterprises to be established on the shores and surrounding countryside of Bathurst Harbour to support a settlement that would eventually grow to more than 50,000 refugees from Europe. With seemingly little research – or rational thought, for that matter – being put into the idea, Parker proposed that settlers might establish whaling and fishing operations, and in their spare time set up liqueur, perfume and textile manufacturing ventures.
Incredulously – at least to anyone who has visited the area – two state premiers were supportive of the idea, one, Robert Cosgrove, writing in 1941: “The government accepts in principle the proposal that a settlement of Jewish migrants would be established in Tasmania.”
Parker set out to survey the area on his own in March, 1942. He was dropped off on the northern shore of the harbour by Deny King’s (see main story) father, Charlie, on the understanding that if he encountered difficulties he would light a signal fire in sight of King’s house a few kilometres distant. He was never seen alive again.
It wasn’t until September, when his decomposing body was discovered, that the details of his ordeal became known.
Bad weather set in almost immediately after he was dropped off, preventing him from exploring the area as he’d intended. Instead, he spent much of the next few months trapped on the bleak and exposed northern shore of the harbour. As his diary explained, he did light distress fires, but none were seen and he eventually ran out of matches and fuel. Despite the fact that he was in sight of King’s residence, only separated from the southern shore of the harbour by a few hundred metres of water, he was unable to attract his attention and eventually died miserable and alone in his tent, where his remains were later buried. Today a small headstone marks his grave.
Parker’s curious, and ultimately tragic story illustrates the folly of trying to tame such a rugged and unforgiving area for human habitation. Ultimately, the displaced Jews of Europe should be grateful Parker’s dream came to nothing – despite the obvious difficulties the state of Israel has experienced post-WWII, they at least live in a region that tolerates human settlement. ¿
Low cloud, light drizzle and a northwesterly wind greeted us as we rounded the point into the harbour on day two of our adventure. Today would provide an opportunity to explore the area’s European history, as we puttered into Parker Bay on the northern shore of the inlet. The bay was named after the unfortunate Critchley Parker, and a short walk from the shore revealed his humble grave. It was a sobering experience to survey the surrounding tundra and try to imagine his last days, stranded apparently without hope, yet only a short boat ride and walk from salvation.
From there, Graeme steered us further down the harbour to Bramble Cove, a sheltered bay just inside the entrance to Port Davey. We’d come to visit the remnants of a graveyard for seaman and whalers who’d perished in the area, but our path was blocked by a flooded creek. Our burly shipmate, Mark – a former Wallaby rugby international who wanted to preserve his anonymity – came to our rescue in a Tarzan-like display of chivalry, carrying us all over the rushing water. Once deposited onto dry land, we were able to push our way through the thick tea tree to the graveyard, where only one solitary weathered headstone remains from what are believed to be around 30 to 40 graves.
In the afternoon, we were treated to a spectacular demonstration of nature’s power when a violent lightning storm descended on the harbour, renting the air with booming thunder that echoed explosively through surrounding hills. It was as though Mother Nature was expressing her displeasure at our intrusion into this pristine and ancient world.
We sat out the storm in another sheltered cove, feasting on leftover roast lamb, with a red or two to mellow the effects of the enclosing turmoil.
The onset of evening again saw us return to the shelter of the jetty at Clayton’s Corner for our last night on the harbour. Resident chef Bob had saved the best for last, serving up a delicious feast of quail and vegetables, crowned with a desert of chocolate cake and rich Tasmanian cream. After a few wines and anecdotes of past adventures on the harbour from Graeme and Bob, we left the night to its own devices as rain pattered gently on the roof.
The next day we were due to return to Hobart, but not before exploring the eastern-most arm of the harbour, including the Old River, which cascades and swirls its way down from the towering Arthur Range. The river was showing signs of the recent rainfall as our dinghy struggled to make headway to our landfall, a few hundred metres up from the entrance. It was worth the effort though, as we dismounted into a Lost World-like rainforest, with moss- and vinecovered huon pines presiding over intricate ferns and verdant, water-saturated undergrowth. We spent an hour or so marvelling at the natural beauty of this part of the harbour before returning to the Southern Explorer for a farewell cruise that took us past spectacular Margaret Falls, which spills hundreds of metres off a ridge on the eastern side of Mt Rugby.
We finally docked back at Melaleuca Inlet mid-afternoon, at which time (naturally) the sun finally broke through the clouds, just in time for our departure. We had an hour or so to spare before the arrival of our plane, which we spent exploring the nearby tin mine and its ramshackle, rustic collection of vintage mining equipment.
Our return flight took us over the Arthurs and allowed us a peak at the surrounding wilderness – an experience that would normally involve days of trekking. From such a lofty vantage point I was able to put the previous three-day expedition into perspective. The beauty, solitude and majesty of this part of the world are hard to put into words. It has a stark splendour that can captivate and – in the case of many early explorers at least – lull visitors into a false sense of security. Bathurst Harbour and Port Davey are examples of nature at its best and worst. It is easy to see why so many were lured by its beauty and isolation. But the graves on its shores are testament to the folly of those who thought they could tame this wild and rugged country.
Special thanks to Bob Nurse and Graeme Jones for being such warm, generous and informative hosts. ¿
Tour supplied by Par Avion Wilderness Tours, Hobart.
Tours run from November to May and include return flights from Hobart to Melaleuca.
Options include one-day fly/cruise tours, two-day camping tours and two- and three-day fly/cruise tours.
Prices start from $140.00 for a return flight to the area. Two-day fly/cruise packages cost $1400.00 per person, with the three-day package set at $1650.00 per person. Costs include meals, beverages, accommodation and return scenic flights.
Par Avion suggests tourists bring clothing and footwear suitable for a remote and sometimes harsh wilderness. Waterproof and warm garments are recommended. You also need to factor in possible delays due to weather, as the itinerary is very much controlled by local weather conditions.
For more information, tel (03) 6248 5390, or go to: www.paravion.com.au.