Malbena

By Bert Spinks

The Walls of Jerusalem was my favourite place in the world before I had even been there.

I had wanted to visit, but for various reasons my first bushwalk into the Walls had been postponed for several years. Despite this, I was already allured by the promises of the map, the euphony of its name, and the accounts of those who had been there and knew it well. I had seen some of its peaks from elsewhere, and I had swum in water born in its lakes. For me, at that time, it was a patch of country with mystical qualities. And although I rarely confessed the truth of the situation, I had no qualms in saying it was my favourite place, even though I’d not yet experienced it with any senses other than those we use in the imagination.


Solomons Jewels by Brodie Emery

I was twenty-three years old when I first got up into the Walls. Emerging out of the eucalypt scrub into the broad acreage of the plateau for the first time was rather special. The effect of seeing this previously imaginary place was like seeing a gas solidify – as if the dream had hardened into rock and soil. I hoofed it up to Dixons Kingdom and stretched out my tent in the grove of pencil pines there. Cantankerous currawongs woke me in the morning. I hiked up King Davids Peak in the mist and collected molecules of moisture on my moustache. And in the evenings, I laid out the map and began to dream of the landscapes that lay beyond where I would be sleeping.

For there was a great tract of land out there, marked on my map in much white and brown, bejewelled with blue lakes, each of which had a name that meant both nothing and quite a lot. It is almost wrong to list them – for I swirled my eyes in no linear fashion as I looked over them – but even now the names retain their magnificence: Lake Mikany, Lake Rotuli, Ah Chees Lake, Lake Antimony, Lake Malbena.

In truth, the boundaries of the Walls of Jerusalem national park are arbitrary. The ‘walls’ themselves are two roughly parallel bluffs of dolerite which protrude over the main walking track into the reserve. But the national park extends along southwards into a dominion of water, tarns and lakes that waterlog the map, linked together by little blue chains. And then great rivers burst eastwards out of the central lakes, making a mockery of the shadowed line that represents the boundary of the park.

It is the north-eastern corner of a contiguous land mass that has been declared the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. From the ascent up to the Walls, we could essentially head south and traverse the entirety of this area. That journey would encompass a variety of unique ecosystems, embracing a range of habitats for endemic species, and expressions of geology found nowhere else in the world.

It is also a landscape that encompasses a history of human endeavours. The designation of the World Heritage Area welcomes the human past in this wide patch of bush. It is country from whose materials people built their lives: kelp and abalone and cherty-hornfels and wallaby flesh, hunted and collected and quarried. It is the source of the spirituality and art of those first peoples. It is also country where in a thin sliver of recent history – the past two centuries – imported tools and concepts created new industries in this stretch of land: the hunting of marsupials for their fur, the digging for other minerals, the large-scale cutting of trees for construction and boat-building.

What is celebrated in all this is the intersection of the human imagination with the features and movements of the landscape and the other creatures within it. If nothing else, we are given the opportunity to appreciate the various ways a person might see a wombat, a pencil pine, or a chunk of ochre. We may even better understand our own perspective on these things.

Of course, all the World Heritage Area designation really does is points in the direction of these valuable elements of our Tasmanian lives. In theory, as a series of national parks, all this is to be protected: the large tract of storied land, the complexity of ecosystems that overlap and intertwine, and the diverse experience of humans in this landscape. But not everyone sees its worth.

Some years ago, the new Liberal government made public an agenda to create more tourism businesses in reserves around Tasmania, including throughout the World Heritage Area. In theory this didn’t represent any real change in legislation. But it did indicate what might happen next, or rather, what might have already been happening behind closed doors: sly alterations to the stated principles that had previously guided our management of these places. Under the government’s expressions of interest process more than a score of business proposals were presented, and given the first tick of the state’s approval process.

I still remember the way my stomach dropped when I read that a business plan at Lake Malbena had been given initial approval.  Lake Malbena was one of those spots on the map that I had looked upon with a head full of wonder. I was a young man crouched in a tent just beginning to understand the vast possibilities of the landscape beyond the thin walls of tarpaulin around me. No-one had ever taught me how lucky I had been to grow up in the vicinity of all this magic; now, I felt like I had the whole of the rest of my life to explore this place. That I would be free to bush-bash into the future.

Photo of Halls Island on Lake Malbena by Grant Dixon
Halls Island by Grant Dixon

But all that seemed fragile when I saw Lake Malbena named in the list of places to be converted for business. For the first time, I felt the future looming like fog in the gloaming. It was, in hindsight, like I’d hit one of those hedges of spiky scoparia that you sometimes find in the heath country. Like it was closing in on me.

What the proponents of this tourism project want to do is to convert a small island on Lake Malbena into fly-fishing accommodation. Clients will be helicoptered over a segment of the World Heritage Area and dropped off near the lake. Halls Island, and the wonderful historic hut which has hitherto been open to everyone, will be privatised.

Halls Hut by Grant Dixon

I am not a political journalist, and I am certainly not a legal correspondent, so do not be surprised that my argument here lacks a certain evidence-based robustness. Allow me, though, a moment to defend this approach, for in fact the government processes around tourism in national parks remains opaque and confusing even for those who are attentive and deeply invested in the consequences. Those who have thought at length about landscape and culture seem to be excluded from any conversation about these matters.

There is also a grinding frustration at the misleading language used by the advocates of these national parks businesses, who for the most part have previously been opponents of national parks and now find themselves supporting them – so long as they can be exploited for money. So often we have heard the accusation spat at environmentalists that they want the land ‘locked up’. This is one of the most grossly misleading statements you can hear in the public realm. Let it be made perfectly clear: national parks are not locked up. Any person can go there. It is true that there are some conditions on entry: you should pay a small fee, you generally cannot drive there, you should not cause any environmental damage. You cannot buy a block of land there, or start a business. These are your limitations. Consider these in comparison to private land, which is truly locked up.

The tourism proposal on Lake Malbena is a proposal to lock it up.

‘Access’ is another term used cynically by those who are pushing for more businesses to open in national parks. These people claim that the current conditions for those who may enter national parks are restrictive; they say that it is not fair that you have to be fit to get to places to Lake Malbena. The thought that these business owners are somehow rectifying an injustice by creating high-end tourism projects in national parks is laughable and incredible – it properly diminishes any credibility that arguments behind these proposals have. Those who say these things have entirely lost their bearings – they cannot be listened to. For what these operators will provide is access based on income. They are not flying in people living on Newstart or a Disability Support Pension; they are not offering a tourism experience for those who are unable to get a visa for Australia. They are making it more accessible for the demographic for whom almost everything on Earth is accessible.

I work in a national park, for a private company. I think there are plausible arguments for operating tourism businesses in national parks. It requires much careful discussion, but there are indeed a range of ways of thinking about these things. But we only need to scratch the surface of most public discourse to see that this is a reckless intrusion into how national parks are managed. The current government is not a long-term supporter of national parks. They do not believe in the fundamental values of national parks. They do not know how to manage national parks. They have shown no precedent for successful environmental stewardship – in fact, the environmental tourism they are pushing was an idea they’ve come upon extremely lately, a vehicle which they’ve hijacked and in which they now heedlessly speed off.

It’s another good ol’-fashioned dispute over the ways we might use land in Tasmania. Once, the subject was hydro-electricity; another time, it was forestry; and now, tourism has become the newest catalyst for a battle. (There was also the most fiercely fought dispute over land use, the Black War – which may be, in spirit, the precedent to all of this.)

None of the industries that have prompted each fracas in the bush are inherently bad. They do, however, threaten a concept many hold dearly in Tasmania – ‘wilderness’. This ‘wilderness’ is a strange entity: it is as much social as it is ecological. Our national parks are set up to preserve rare and beautiful ecologies, endangered species. But many Tasmanians also need them for their identity. I am certainly one of these people. I need the vastness of mountains, forests, and moorlands behind me in my day-to-day life; I need reserves of the unknown; I need spaces where I meet with other species on their terms, not my own, spaces with endless surprises. To me that is what our Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area is: a huge tract of unpackaged country, one of the last left in the world.

Lake Malbena
Lake Malbena by Grant Dixon

Not so long ago I spoke with an old grazier whose family used to run their stock in the eastern plains of what is now the Walls of Jerusalem national park. They were among those who had been angered by the decision to ban grazing in those landscapes, which happened with the World Heritage listing. When I asked him what he thought of the Lake Malbena proposal, he said he thought it was positive. Through the guided trips to the island, the old stories of his tradition might still be told.

I understood his mood. These were men and women who were, for a time, the people most closely connected to that country. With the creation of the World Heritage Area, on the back of a growing awareness of the damage stock can do to mountain ecosystems, these people were, in a sense, exiled. The old graziers understandably carry a chip on their shoulders about all this.

Unfortunately I think it’s a bit of a furphy. Tourism will not extend the future of these traditions. The stories may be told, and perhaps even told well, by guides on Malbena. But you cannot sell a traditional experience. There is something in this kind of commercial exchange that almost invariably depletes the story, washes the colour out of it, bleaches it of its meaning. The story is lost in its packaging. Especially when they are the stories of outsiders, told to those who cannot empathise: the stories of the men and women who have lived remotely and on the margins, bought by those who will fly to that landscape for only a few days. These are the stories that must be discovered in one’s own way. They are not to be consumed.

Another word that bothers me is ‘branding’. We might recall what it originally means to brand something: to sear it with a hot iron, to mark it like a tattoo against its will. The vogue of branding will collapse; its emptiness will undo it. Maybe my linguistic vindictiveness makes me reckon this way, but I’ve come to think that branding is a charlatan’s activity. At least it won’t cut it for me when it comes to the bush that I know so well and love so dearly. Any landscape on this planet is too complicated to confine to a brand. And converting a culture into a brand is its humiliation: branding makes cultures into caricatures.

My point is that we cannot sell what makes Tasmania so wonderful. I’m not merely saying that we shouldn’t: I am saying that it is impossible. You can’t sell wild. As soon as it is for sale, it is worthless. You can sell a holiday in such a place – and people will buy it, there is no doubt – but once you’ve bought it, you are not truly in the wild. For the social meaning of the wilderness is hollowed out by its commercialisation.

In the meantime, the essence of our wilderness could be traded in for this mediocrity. It is a most foolish plan. Tourism is such a fickle industry, and this sabotage of our national parks would be taking place mostly on a whim. In a more rash moment you might hear me say that so much of Tasmania’s tourism increase is based around the silly fact that it there is a current trend for people to publish photographs of themselves with broad vistas around them. I promise you that this won’t be popular forever. Some other aesthetic will replace it.

The current government is very keen to cash in on our island’s present popularity. I understand that: there is a great deal of pressure on them to turn tourism into money. In the meantime we might rip the guts out of the wilderness. But this is an enormous treasure, one which is only increasing in value as the world moves frenetically into the future. We ought not to squander it so easily.

Not so long ago I pulled up at a trailhead for the western lakes, in a firm westerly and bright autumn sunshine. I followed a footpad past lakes brimming with blue, pencil pines sharpened like mosques’ minarets at the sky. I had Lake Malbena in mind. But the daylight had dwindled, and I had other curiosities to fulfil. Thick forest caused a premature dusk. I pulled into a fisherman’s shack, made a pot of dinner, and read.

This shack was not Reg Hall’s old hut on the island on Lake Malbena. It was another edifice of corrugated iron, humbly and probably painfully built, pitched among the scrubby eucalypts. Five decades of notes were pencilled on the walls. For decades this was a secret haunt for wanderers; now it is publicised by a small notation on the maps, but it is still a quietly-known resting-place. It is certainly a locus of dreams, even if mostly the dreams here are of large trout bustling in the waterways.

I woke to the sound of the forest hissing. Snow clumped on my tent and made tufts in the shrubs. As I hiked that day, elastic branches would flick ice at me. My boots would fill with cold water. The mountains of Jerusalem were clad in black and white. Lake Malbena lay beyond my reach.

I walked without ambition. I came to a lake I’d never seen before, one of the many whose names are memorised from hours spent atop an unfolded map. There I lay myself down on a bed of grey moss and ate my provisions, a sandwich of salami and cheese. From the bough of a eucalyptus on the edge of the lake, a white goshawk came swooping. It looped around, skimmed the surface of the lake and returned to its branch. I could not see whether it had caught its own lunch.

This is all I ask for. This is all I want in life. When I lay those maps out before me, this is all I am imagining: a place to entirely be oneself, untrammelled by the expectations of others, not hassled by commercial demands. Even (though for how long I can’t say) without phone reception. In this place, on that pile of moss, I am free to meet with other expressions of the Earth, without commodifying any of it. I am free to think my own thoughts, without the incursion of all those whose voices are so much louder, such as those of media or advertising. I can pass my time without the cruelty of having to put a monetary value on it.


Halls Island by Grant Dixon

Do we realise how little of this is left in the world? Tasmania is a bastion for this type of wildness. We cannot casually trade it in. For the most part, we have yet to realise what we have. It is the possibility of solitude. This might be the deep source from which Tasmanian culture is born. (Personally, I can say that it is the basis of my identity as a Tasmanian.) A helicopter rippling overhead, on its way to dump a pack of punters at the Lake Malbena camp, shreds the solitude. It is not that it is stripping me of some illusion; it is not simply disrupting a day-dream. It is destroying a rare and precious entity, which we have not yet  understood.

These are not inaccessible places. These are locations of play, creativity and friendship.
I have not mentioned the first Tasmanians much here. This  is only to avoid assuming too much on their behalf. But we know that a significant work of art has been left behind by the old people in a location not too far from Lake Malbena; even without having seen it, the presence of this artwork is enough to let me know that there are sites in the high country that prompted a creative view of things, an enactment of imagination upon land. Perhaps it was inspired by the bass-tone beat of a wallaby bounding through the scrub, the unfixed flickers of a campfire’s flames, or the scintillating dazzle of a body of stars drifting through this strange and special galaxy. These are Tasmanian themes, ones that will provoke fascination until the very end.

For centuries, we may suspect, the maps of the first Tasmanians, however they were conveyed, were marked with this spiralling urge to connect with the land and sky. For as long as I live, certain squares on the 1:50,000 Jerusalem map will be associated with my most cherished memories. I am not the only one who has their significant squares on this map, including the one in which Halls Island sits on Lake Malbena. Our fear is that we may be locked out of them.

Instead of selling holidays in these places, we need to teach visitors to connect to the environments around them with their imagination. I think back to my time as a young adult, when I first heard the place-name of the Walls of Jerusalem and set my mind to an adventure there. This was a life-changing encounter. These reserves are still expanses for dreaming. Until a tourism project smothers it, you can go to Lake Malbena and meet it on its own terms. This is true of all our protected areas: they are unhindered by branding or advertising, unmediated by a guide or  tour leader. You are free to encounter these rare and curious landscapes with an unrestricted imagination. You could go right now.

Please help by donating to TNPA's Lake Malbena Appeal Fund!

 

Bert Spinks is a Tasmanian writer, storyteller, and bushwalking guide. He is the author of Towns of Tasmania: A journey through time.

Feature image: Grant Dixon

Like this article? Please share:

Older Post
Newer Post
Close (esc)

Popup

Use this popup to embed a mailing list sign up form. Alternatively use it as a simple call to action with a link to a product or a page.

Age verification

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

Search

Shopping Cart

Your cart is currently empty.
Shop now