The Battlements of Cape Raoul

By Ben Walter

I remember my first trip to Cape Raoul some years ago. It had been a long time coming. There’s a small canon of walks that local bushwalkers hope to stride before their knees give out completely, from short hikes on Mount Wellington all the way through to multi-day hikes like the South Coast Track or the Western Arthurs. Like any canon, it expands as you experience it further. And the classics nag away at you until you finally put them to bed. I’d walked all over the Tasman Peninsula, but Cape Raoul had always passed me by. Twice I’d taken the alternative route sloping down to Tunnel Bay, and I’d also been down to the far south-west, searching for shells on an unmarked track at Salters Point.

Naval shells, that is.

Cape Raoul by Brodie Emery

There aren’t many pieces of folk history passed amongst Tasmanians. Given these accounts are so rare, it’s appropriate that one of them concerns an environmental travesty. If you mention Cape Raoul to many Tasmanians, the first thing you’ll hear is “The bastards. You know the story...”

The story? Well, it varies. Some time in the First, or perhaps the Second World War, the Royal Navy (or was it the Royal Australian Navy?) used the magnificent dolerite columns around Cape Raoul (or was it Cape Pillar?) for target practice. I can’t remember where I first heard of it, but it’s commonly told, and Cape Raoul is linked to images of foolish environmental destruction, and at times, anti-imperial sentiment.

Cape Raoul is one of the headlands glamourised by the Three Capes Track, though the track doesn’t pass it just yet. Nonetheless, the whole peninsula showcases a spread of sea cliffs that are like nothing you’ve ever seen. Towering columns, pillars extending to huge fingers pointing into the sky. Early travellers observed them from the waters below; in the early 1800s, the zoologist Francois Peron stared up in awe at “Cape Raoul, bristling all over with projecting crests, prisms and needles,” though he found the cliffs around Cape Hauy “more horrible still.”1

Horrible, perhaps, and unspeakably high. When I stand close to the edge of cliffs like these, particularly if there’s nothing above me, I feel the swell of vertigo and struggle to come up with reasons why I shouldn’t throw myself off the edge.

In the year prior to walking to the cape, I’d been working on a series of poems responding to paintings, one of which featured the columns of Raoul. I wanted to use the naval bombardment in the piece, but decided that I should get my facts right. Which war was it? I couldn’t remember what I’d been told, so I began to look online for information.

Just a few blog and forum references, the online equivalents to telling the story around a campfire. I began checking books and then emailing local historians. Many of them had heard the story; some doubted its accuracy, others were more open-minded. What had happened? Who shelled Cape Raoul, and when did they do it? How could a story that everyone knows be so hard to pin down? Comparing modern photographs with early paintings proved inconclusive. The story began to feel like it was slipping away, as though there was no reality behind the outbursts, no bedrock.

Finally, a reference in an old Argus newspaper. On 29th April 1939, Russell O. Atkinson, writing about the schooners and ketches plying their trade on Bass Strait, the body of water separating Tasmania from the Australian mainland, observed, “Well to leeward were the wonderful fluted pillars of Cape Raoul – pillars which ships of the navy once used for gunnery targets until people protested against such vandalism.”2

The writer of this account was not a Tasmanian, he mentions no date or context, but he has clearly heard the story and it was colourful enough to print in his column.

An earlier writer from The Otago Witness felt the same way. On the Oonah, a ferry plying the tourist trade from Hobart to the old convict settlement at Port Arthur, he reported that:

“This marvellous headland calls forth cries of admiration from all on board as we steam slowly by. Giant basaltic columns tower above our heads, some standing up like organ pipes above the rest, clearly defined against the cloudless sky. Truly it is a wonderful piece of Nature’s handiwork, and one can scarcely believe that Englishmen could be such vandals as to do their utmost to destroy those tapering pinnacles of rock. And yet such is the case – the men-of-wars-men having been actually allowed to use Cape Raoul as a target to practice at, greatly to the destruction of its beauty.”3

It’s the same story found rumoured on bushwalks, sailing and rock-climbing expeditions today. How could those vandals have fired on such a magnificent coastline? But there’s one major difference between the two articles. The piece in The Otago Witness was published in 1894. That is to say, shelling had clearly taken place before the two world wars.

For more than a hundred and twenty years then, this tale has been circulating in substantially the same form, passed on to tourists, handed between locals. One can understand how the world wars became appended to the story as time passed; if indeed, that is what happened.

On the negative side, so far as establishing the facts are concerned, these are travelling reporters, passing on hearsay. Could this just be a striking anecdote that journalists stumbled across? If I’d been in their position, I would have included it. I’ve told the story to others countless times. It always seemed appropriate, given the issues that have shaped Tasmanian ideals and identity over the past century.

Perhaps it’s simplistic, but to my mind the story about Cape Raoul has always seemed fitting, an archetype for the kind of protests that have lacerated Tasmania over the destruction of beautiful landscapes. In the 1970’s the damming of the pristine Lake Pedder in Tasmania’s south-west for hydroelectricity led to the formation of the world’s first Green political party, the United Tasmania Group; in the years that followed, the Franklin River blockade made international news and helped determine the outcome of the 1983 federal election. Greg Buckman writes that “some commentators argue the Vietnam War forever polarised the United States – the same can be said of Lake Pedder’s effect on Tasmania. In many ways, each new wilderness battle in the state is a repeat of the Lake Pedder experience.4” But here was a protest prior to them all, when community attitudes were very different. Did it actually take place?

I remember making it to the headland proper after two or three hours walking, distracted by wildflowers. When I finally found the edge, the view was initially disappointing, but only because I was staring at the wrong spur. I continued along the track and eventually came upon the true columns that leave your body breathless. The arches and deep cut bays that line the eastern coast of the peninsula are remarkable enough, but Cape Raoul is different. What immediately strikes you, as does any huge thing which has been domesticated by language and photographs, is just how huge it is and how far it extends into Storm Bay. Leaning in a great series of pillars, it seemed an exaggeration. If it was shelled, and if this substantially damaged a number of columns, what on earth must it have looked like before?

On Tuesday the 19th December 1882, as the HMS Nelson, the flagship of the Royal Navy’s Australian Squadron was nearing port, a columnist for Hobart’s The Mercury wrote:

“We hope we shall not be thought guilty of bad taste, in expressing our trust that Admiral Erskine, in his shot and shell practice, will avoid the vandalism of some of those who have preceded him in these waters in command of Her Majesty’s ships of war, who made a target of the pillars that constitute one of the natural beauties which attracted all eyes on rounding Capes Pillar and Raoul. Several of these have been ruthlessly destroyed, and at the time caused a very unpleasant feeling among Tasmanians.5

Notice the same story, but from a local writer in a local paper. Notice again the usage of the word ‘vandalism,’ notice the upset, perhaps a protest, amongst the locals. Notice the ‘unpleasant feeling’ is caused by the destruction of beauty. And notice the very careful wording, early in the sentence, that aims to minimise offence to this social, military, economic and symbolic lifeline to imperial Britain.

And yet the columnist went out there and said it. And perhaps the Nelson, who, like other naval ships, engaged in target practice in the relatively peaceful surrounds of Storm Bay, Norfolk Bay and North-West Bay - calm waters guarded from severe weather by the idiosyncrasies of Tasmania’s geography - perhaps this time they listened.

But perhaps they didn’t. Perhaps they let roar at the cliffs that dwarfed their ships.

We can’t say. But we can at least settle some of our doubts. The Mercury’s small drop of criticism provides on-the ground documentary evidence that the coastline was targeted.  

Support is also forthcoming from physical evidence. The late Dr. David Leaman, a geologist who wrote widely on that very Tasmanian rock, dolerite, found himself puzzled while bushwalking in the mid-nineties. There was a radial shatter impact zone on a cliff behind the main Raoul pillars. What is a radial shatter?  “If you throw a rock at your car windscreen, where the rock hits it you actually smash and crush the glass, and you get fractures radiate away from that point,” Leaman once explained to me. “When I first saw it, I thought, what is that shattering effect in the rock? Because that’s not natural.”

It wasn’t until hiking on a trip to Salters Point that the pieces began to fall into place. “Well, we walked right past it. I remember it was me wanting to go down and have a look at Salters Point, and walking along here there’s a little clearing with windblown sand on top of the cliff...and there’s that thing.”

A rusted blank shell, sitting in the sand. Probably dating from the 1870s. Salters Point, at the south-west tip of the peninsula, is a fair hike from Cape Raoul. Leaman suspected the firing was widespread along the coast. “Because Shipstern Bluff here is a nice interesting target as well, and the next cliff along has dolerite columns on it, and they’ve had a go at everything. It’s just not as interesting as the Cape Raoul fingers were.”

Cape Hauy by Em Wilson

He’d taken a closer look at the pillars that constitute the marvel of Raoul. “If you look at the tops of the columns, they’re not natural weathering, they’re snapped off.” He went on to explain that no natural process could account for this. When a dolerite column falls, it doesn’t just snap in half; the whole thing crashes down. But if a heavy shell, even a blank shell, was propelled at great speed...

I once tried to find this shell with a long-suffering friend. According to Leaman, it had been seen as recently as 2009, despite having been taken away at some point by an enterprising party. We started poorly, mistaking a turn and bush-bashing through the forest before applying our loose navigation skills and finding an old, overgrown four-wheel drive track that led us closer to the coast. Eventually we met Salters Point, an impressive collection of cliffs and gulches, and began searching in the general area, trying to find an old shell lying patiently in the sand.

Perhaps it had been removed, ironically damaging the national park’s heritage; more likely, we just didn’t find the right clearing. “Like trying to find an ordinance on a sea cliff,” muttered my friend, darkly. This pilgrimage, though a pleasant walk, was a failure, but the glimpses of Raoul across the bay whet my appetite for another.

Either way, the presence of the shell and impact on the dolerite had settled the question. The cliffs along the southern coast of the Tasman Peninsula were used for target practice by naval vessels. However, one thing that Leaman had observed remained puzzling. The radial shatter on the cliff behind the columns where an off-target shell had slammed was no longer clearly visible. Physical processes are the explanation; when the rock gets cracked, water gets in, frost and ice wedge the damaged pieces away. Erosion will do its work. In other words, it doesn’t last. But could it have lasted one hundred and forty years?

“No,” Leaman had replied.

The newspaper reports, and many of the stories, assume that the complaints of Tasmanians put a stop to the naval bombardment once and for all. Perhaps it did for a little while.

But Paul Fannon, a peninsula resident, recounted to me in a personal email that his father, a turret trainer on the HMAS Australia, had spoken to him about firing on Raoul in the years following the ship’s 1927 launch. Anecdotal rumours from two further sources suggest that the cliffs may have been targeted with naval guns up until the 1960s – remarkable, given that parties from the Hobart Walking Club were visiting the Cape as early as 1962.

The evidence for these events remains tantalisingly partial and suggestive. People don’t want to talk about it; it’s too close to home, particularly in a divided Tasmania. At the very least it appears that we can’t blame everything on the English. The anti-imperial rhetoric, while appealing, has to be toned down.

It’s no longer a question as to whether Raoul and its coastline were targeted, but rather, how often. As David Leaman observed, “Everybody does this from the schoolyard on...when you’ve got a big toy called a battleship, and you’ve got a magazine full of blanks, and it looks like a good target for practice, I can understand it. It doesn’t mean I approve of it.”

The great cliffs looming over you, an opportunity to make your mark. Imagine the spectacle. Imagine the natural impulse, an opportunity to aim and hit and watch a great tower falling into the water. Imagine the sound, the splash, the height of the water leaping into the air, the triumph of a successful piece of shooting. If I’d been on the ship in those days, I’d probably have been waiting in line.

What did Cape Raoul look like one hundred and fifty years ago? There are paintings, only partially suggestive. One drawing by the early writer and artist, Louisa Ann Meredith shows an unbroken series of columns, but this is likely to be more impressionistic than exact. How much damage has been done? We don’t know.

What does seem clear is that there have been Tasmanians who have always valued the natural beauty of their island. Who would not have their heads buried in a book as they circled the headlands outcropping from the Tasman Peninsula, but who stood on the deck and watched as they were rounded. Who were staggered that someone would think it sensible to heedlessly destroy these wonders. The references are consistent in supposing there was an upset, or protest, from the Tasmanians.

Yet there’s a sad irony in the fact that in an age of greater environmental awareness, even as the story of Cape Raoul was passed on and spread through newspaper articles, commending the locals for putting a stop to it, the practice may well have been continuing.

And you can’t build dolerite pillars back into the sky.


Ben Walter’s stories, essays and poems have been widely published in Australian journals, including Meanjin, Overland, Griffith Review and Island. His debut novel manuscript was a winner in the 2017 Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prizes, and his latest book is Conglomerate, published as part of the Lost Rocks series.

This story first published in Island.

Feature image: Brodie Emery

1        . Peron, Francois – Voyage of Discovery to the Southern Lands Volume 1, Adelaide: Friends of the State Library of SA Inc. 2006. p.207.

 2        . Atkinson, Russell O - “By Ketch Across Bass Strait” in The Argus Week-End Magazine, 29th April 1939, p 4, NLA Trove. Web February 17th 2010.

 3        . Cigarette - “Picturesque Tasmania: A Trip to Port Arthur,”  in The Otago Witness, 22nd February 1894, p.47,  Paperspast. Web February 17th 2010.

 4          . Buckman, Greg – Tasmanian Wilderness Battles: A History, Crows Nest: Jacana Books. 2008. p.35-36.
5        . Anonymous - Editorial Columns, The Mercury, Morning 19th December 1882, p2, NLA Trove. Web February 17th 2010.

Older Post
Newer Post
Close (esc)

Sign up for 10% off!

Join our mailing list for new product updates, Tassie nature news and some cheeky subscriber only discounts.

You beaut!

Age verification

By clicking enter you are verifying that you are old enough to consume alcohol.


Shopping Cart

Your cart is currently empty.
Shop now