Speech to the annual general meeting of the Tasmanian National Parks Association on November 26, 2017.
The battle to protect and conserve Tasmania’s pristine wild places was brought home to me within days of arriving in the state from Britain 20 years ago.
I was staying with my mother-in-law in Howrah at the time and wandered down to the Shoreline shopping centre where I came across an exhibition being mounted by the Tasmanian Conservation Trust.
Peter McGlone, who was manning the trust’s stall, was quite possibly the first person I had met in Tasmania outside of my wife’s family.
I was intrigued because he was holding a sprig of gorse, explaining that it was a weed in Tasmania and he had recently been engaged in digging it up from Tasmanian soil.
There was something ironic in the conversation because just weeks previously I had been engaged in planting gorse in Britain, a vital species vanishing from the British countryside.
Irony, I was to discover, travels with wildlife conservation, not just in Tasmania but world-wide.
Gorse in Britain is a signature species of plant for the most threatened environment in the British Isles. It grows in the sandy soils forming a belt across southern England, areas that can be considered wilderness because they have never been cultivated and never built on, until now.
There is even a nature reserve at Arne, in the south-west county of Dorset dedicated to gorse where, as a volunteer, I planted the stuff just before coming to Australia.
These sandy soils were dumped by glaciers at the end of the ice age and for thousands of years were classified as common land. Animals allowed to roam on them never did any damage because they were merely domestic forms of animals, like wild boar, which had gone before. And these areas retained their unique flora and fauna. The sandy heaths of southern England might have been unfit for cultivation but the land has proven to be ideal for housing development close to London and south-west towns and cities. I grew up on a vast housing estate on the fringe of London constructed on such soils. Luckily some of the common land remained, in the shape of Horsell Common near the town of Woking where H G Wells set his War of the Worlds novel, and discovered their worth when I first started to develop an interest in wildlife while still at primary school. In fact, these areas might well have inspired that interest.
Although they were not classed as national parks as such, I saw these stunted forests as truly wild places and as I grew older I went in search of areas with that designation, mainly in the north of England.
And I soon learned that wilderness and national parks could represent different concepts.
I actually worked on a farm in the Peak District national park, but believed at the time these were wild places even though the park mainly composed ancient farmland dissected by drystone walls. Only the tops of the moors, along the Pennine Way forming the spine of Britain between England and Scotland could be classed as truly wild.
When my travels took me to East and Southern Africa I continued to go in search of what I considered at the time as wilderness. I ignored the roads and railway lines dissecting national parks where elephants roamed free.
I lived in America for a time and didn’t explore some truly wild places there, to my regret, so I can’t comment on these. I spent my time in New York writing a book about Central Park, which in its own sense can be termed a wild place!
And then I came to Tasmania, and realised what wild and wilderness really meant, discovering only recently that there are very strict guidelines set down by international conservation bodies defining wilderness. And it doesn’t include roads or railways or even huts.
In recent years I have had the chance to look again at “wild” places in southern Africa and was shocked and appalled by the Kruger Park and the Victoria Falls National Park, in the light of my Tasmanian experience.
The Kruger Park has a more extensive network of roads from the time I remember it 40 years ago, and franchise fast-food outlets in its camps. And the Victoria Falls is ringed by a high fence, guaranteeing that visitors pay a $50 American dollar entrance fee to view it. The Victoria Falls serves to give the Zimbabwean Government precious foreign currency.
My disenchantment with the places I once loved in Africa has coincided with a push by the Tasmanian Government to open our own wild areas to business.
I’m not really qualified to comment on specific projects – beyond the proposed cable car up kunanyi/Mount Wellington – but at the same time I have become increasingly worried about this assault on wild places in general.
I might have tolerated roads once, and crossed the Wankie park in the old Rhodesia by train (seeing elephants and lions from the carriage windows) but in recent years I have become a wilderness tragic.
I’m like the smoker who gives up cigarettes. There’s no one worse amid tobacco fumes as a reformed smoker and amid the scent of eucalypt oil in the gum forests, a reformed wilderness tourist.
And the word irony keeps emerging. Am I the only person who sees the notion that we ruin the very thing we consider beautiful and precious by “opening it up for business” so greater numbers of people can see it, and worse, exploit it.
We are told trails that at the moment present a challenge to cross them in pristine areas of the Tasmanian wilderness, and add to the spirt of adventure, need huts so more and more people can enjoy them.
We are told that wild areas, wilderness and otherwise should be opened up for mass tourism. These area can’t just lie there, they must turn a profit.
But so often these apparently harmless and non-intrusive schemes to allow more people to see, feel and hear wild places turn out to be the thin edge of the wedge.
I was once a great supporter of the bike and mountain bike lobby, seeing value, for instance, in turning disused railway lines into bike tracks.
This has been successfully achieved in Britain and I’ve walked many of these level trails through some spectacular country inaccessible by any other means.
When I first learned of the north-south bike track across kunanyi/Mt Wellington, I walked it and had an enjoyable experience, walking but at the same time showing the cyclists respect because it was after all their trail.
A gentle bike ride, however, has suddenly become something else. Now the bikers are demanding high-speech, zig-zag tracks down mountainsides, a bike ride has become an adventure sport.
I’m not opposed to living life at the edge, however. But plans for such a track cut into kunanyi/Mt Wellington concerns me. I gather there are plans for a downhill/gravity track from Big Bend on the mountain down to Junction Cabin.
I see that in recent years mountain biking has been listed on the Wellington Cable Car Company’s website as one of the pursuits the cable car will make possible.
But why do these things like bike tracks have to be in high-value natural areas. Around Hobart I can think of many hilly areas already modified by farming or even industrial activity, like rubbish tips. Perhaps we could have descending, zig-zag bike trails threading their way through the forests of alien gorse which litter the state.
Again, like five-star huts for hikers, I see cyclists as the thin end of the wedge. Allow one bike and you have a bike track, and a cable car to take bikers to it.
As I say in my book, The Shy Mountain, the beauty of kunanyi/ Mount Wellington is it brings the south-west wilderness right to the very doorstep of a state capital city.
A cable car would reverse the process. It would take the city – with its glass, and concrete and steel and its commercialism – to the mountain.
The government mantra of being open for business, opening up our wild areas also raises the question of access by air, and noise pollution. I accept there must be air routes open to the far south, even for emergencies. I’ve travelled to Melaleuca by Par-Avion and know the orange-bellied parrot recovery program could not be possible without this air link.
But one or two planes a day is something different to frequent flights by helicopter, dropping off tourists here and there. I’ve written in the past of the movement in the United States to declare a portion of at least one national park a human-noise-free zone.
Gordon Hempton has established what he describes as “one square inch of silence” in the Olympia national park in Washington state. He describes the site in the Hoh Rainforest as the most pristine, untouched and ecologically diverse area of the United States and has even persuaded some airlines to route their high-flying aircraft away from the area so the people down on the ground don’t even see their vapour trails.
Is this man eccentric to the point of being a little mad? I certainly don’t think so. Part of my latest Victoria Falls experience was having the day ruined by three helicopters at once hovering over the falls, one afternoon drowning out the call of the beautiful Heuglin’s robin, a bird I had searched for without success in all the years I had spent in Africa. And here it was in a patch of rainforest at the falls edge, and I couldn’t hear its song, one of the most beautiful in Africa.
We hear the phrase loving places to death, and the Victoria Falls is a perfect example of what dangers lie in allowing more and more of what I call “trippers” access to nature’s masterpieces, to allow them to have an experience beyond just walking and seeing and hearing.
Closer to home we have a place I love, not wilderness as such, just the route of a road.
I am intimately familiar with The Neck on Bruny Island, having watched penguins and short-tailed shearwaters there on many a spring and summer night. The paving of the road was a concern because I thought the penguins I had seen at night on its dirt surface would end up as roadkill. I’m told tunnels under the new road have alleviated that problem, but I think we have all been blindside by the decision to site a car park at The Neck which ruins the view from the lookout, looking south.
Now that is ironic. And as I said earlier, in my lifetime irony seems to have travelled with the trashing of the environment.
Take that housing estate I told you about, Sheerwater in Surrey, where I grew up.
It was designed to provide a home for us Londoners displaced by the bombing during the blitz in the Second World War. About 6000 Cockneys were planted down on what had been considered wilderness, even if it was only about 35 kilometres from London.
Soon after the birches and the pines, and the gorse, were cleared, and construction of more than 1,500 homes started, the planners and developers suddenly realised the Cockney sparras being transplanted to the countryside from Bermondsey and Rotherhithe and the Old Kent Road would need a focal point, a pub.
One was soon built on what had been the pristine forest – and it was named The Birch and Pines.