I went in search of the hiding place of the notorious bushranger Rocky Whelan on Mount Wellington one crisp and clear autumnal morning and it was appropriate that a Tasmanian scrubwren should lead me there.
In times past the scrubwren made its home among the bushrangers, the murders and thieves who terrorised Tasmania’s citizens, aiding and abetting them in their efforts to escape the law.
The little bird was dubbed the “alarm bird” by the early settlers because it warned with a scolding, rasping chatter of unwelcome visitors. This applied of course to the bushrangers and to this day visiting the lair of one of the most fearsome murderers of the Victorian period you can still find scrubwrens at the entrance to Rocky Whelan’s Cave on the mountain.
Golden whistlers called from the peppermint gums and the yellow sandstone outcrop that hides the cave was dappled with the soft rays of autumnal sunshine as I played out the role of bushranger for the day, on the trail of Hobart’s bushranger history. In that quest Rocky Whelan’s Cave is a vital piece of Tasmania’s heritage.
Heritage might sound a curious term to describe a slab of eroded sandstone on the eastern slopes of the mountain but the outcrop and its cave remains a potent symbol of Tasmania’s cruel and brutal bush ranger past. What’s more, the cave and its scenic location is a potent symbol of the present – an “artefact” where man’s and nature’s worlds collide in both human and natural history.
Such an idyll seemed at odds with the harsh brutality of Rocky Whelan’s life. He had come to the mountain by way of convict settlements in Sydney and Norfolk Island to gain the reputation as Tasmania’s most ruthless bush ranger, confessing to several murders once arrested.
The mountain was Whelan’s last hiding place before he was finally caught when he was spotted in Hobart buying a pair of boots. He was sentenced to death on June 26 1855 and caused a sensation by making a last-minute confession to the attending clergymen, in which he admitted murdering an elderly man near Kingston, another old man at Bagdad, a hawker at Cleveland, and a young man on the Huon Track, whom he had shot and struck on the head, and robbed.
A fellow convict said that Whelan had told him be would “kill a man for four pence”. His modus operandi was to shoot or club victims first before robbing them. At his trial he said of a man giving evidence against him – whom he had spared – that he now wished he had shot him, because “dead men don’t tell tales”.
Whelan had two caves conveniently guarded by scrubwrens in the general Hobart area – the other being above the road to Kingston to the south – but it is the mountain one that, in estate agent’s parlance, would have been the “des. res.” of convicts.
A lip above the shallow cave still protects it from wind, rain and snow coming off the higher elevations of the mountain and, as I discovered later in the afternoon, it would have caught the sun all day. It offered a view of not only the south towards Fern Tree, but the Organ Pipes to the north. Alongside the main cave was another, smaller one open at its far end, which would have provided an escape hatch if troops appeared from the south. No doubt Whelan would have listened for the alarm calls of not only scrubwrens but Bassian thrushes to determine if human foes were approaching.
Sitting in the cave, I pictured the lonely, fraught life of Whelan. He knew that death could arrive any day, or be around any corner if he left the safety of his refuge. All the while birds flittered around and I wondered if he saw in them a metaphor for his own life. Was he one of the smaller, vulnerable species, hunted and harassed by the goshawk? Or was he a falcon or hawk, a bird of prey that preyed on others? More likely his lonely, persecuted fate would have been that of the forest raven. Opportunistic; a mugger, robber and occasional killer.