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Friday, February 12, 2010

Beauty and the Beasties

Stanley’s postmistress Sue and her husband Mick had invited us over for bon voyage drinks, and after a short walk along a lane filled with mid 1800s cottages, we found ourselves at their modernized bungalow, just a stone’s throw from the town’s scenically situated cemetery. Comfy in full sun, in an area out the breeze, our view overlooked North Beach with its row of Norfolk Pines making it even more scenic.

We first met Sue when posting a letter and somehow got discussing Tasmanian Aborigines. Maybe my mentioning our visit to Wybalenna and interest in Aboriginal history sparked her telling us she was a teacher and taught this subject at high school two days a week. Facts flew thick and fast, as she replayed history in her quaint post office. She kept coming around her counter to first show us a poster filled with Aboriginal artefacts then a painting of Truganini, the last pure blood. We learnt she had travelled not only to Wybalenna on remote Flinders Island, enduring a scary single engine air flight, but had also been to Oyster Bay, the black folk’s final place on the island they’d inhabited for thirty-five thousand years.

One special joy of travelling by yacht is our ability to invite new friends to our home. And although Sue had mentioned several times her fear of scary things, she had mastered those fears in the past, so we weren’t surprised when she showed up the morning after our first meeting. From that short visit and a few others, we ended up at their place the night before our departure, to hear more local history and insights into Tasmanian rural life.

Our next destination had been seen from The Nut the day we had picnicked upon its flat top. Strung away to the nor-west was a necklace of islands; Robbins and Walker lead to Cape Grim, and the last in sight was a flat triangle with conical hills near each corner.

Strong winds delayed our departure for the island that Flinders had named Three Hummock, just twenty miles north of Stanley in the Hunter Group, but said to be one of the most isolated spots in this part of the world. I had been ready to do battle with the boisterous conditions until Jude had taken my hand then walked me to the harbour entrance where mean ugly waves washed across the narrow entrance. Beyond, a nasty sea was set to attack anyone setting out and that made settling in for another day seem a much wiser alternative.

Although still lumpy the next morning, once the sun melted away the early grey cumulus, Banyandah settled into an easy sail. After that, Jude and I relaxed on the stern seat watching those hummocks gain height while our lure attracted one of those bony barracudas. As it was nice and small, instead of chucking it back, I quickly cut off a couple of small fillets for our lunch. Meanwhile our previous port dwindled from sight as our new destination grew and the wind eased to hardly more than a light caressing breeze that smoothed the sea. All seemed perfect. Days of calms lay ahead, to explore what is reputed to be one of this area’s prettiest islands.

Then reality bit hard. Long before the island’s frilly white shore break appeared, a buzzing was heard, followed by the landing of a pesky March fly. Those unacquainted with our Aussie March fly might know them as the Horse fly. Large and strongly built with huge eyes - the male's eyes actually meet in the middle. But it’s the female that seeks meals of blood while the male feeds only on nectar and plant juices. After mating, the females disperse, travelling many kilometres in search of blood. Female tabanids are armed with two large blade-like mouthparts that can easily penetrate socks and trousers, piercing and slashing skin, inflicting a painful wound, which continues to ooze blood long after the mouthparts have been extracted. It’s been estimated that some animals can lose up to 300ml of blood a day due to attack by these flies, that’s a serious loss, one we wouldn’t tolerate.

First came one, then another, until our sunny cruise turned into a shipboard nightmare as a never ending swarm invaded. How fortunate Jude had recently purchased three new fly swatters, which were immediately put to work. Suddenly, it became very painful to manage our ship, so as soon as anchoring depth was reached, down went the hook and a serious battle began.

My record during that stop was eight March flies with a single swot. But even though our cockpit gutters turned black with the dead, more kept coming. The carnage never seemed to dent their numbers, so, swotting as we worked, the sails flew once again as we made our way up the island to an anchorage off the homestead.

For many centuries, the island was a summer hunting ground for aborigines of the North West tribe who reached it by swimming across five kilometres of open water from nearby Hunter Island. All islands in the Hunter Group were seasonally occupied by aboriginal people for hunting, fishing, and mutton-bird harvest, and shell middens provide evidence of a long aboriginal presence in the recent prehistoric past. The first European visitors were Bass and Flinders in the Norfolk, who made landfall during their circumnavigation of Tasmania in December 1798. Bass went ashore and reported the site as “…impenetrable from the closeness of the tall brushwood, although it had been partially burnt not long before.” In 1889, the first recorded lease was issued to a small family group of settlers who farmed until the early 1900s. The longest period of continuous European occupation was from 1951 to 1976 by Commander John Alliston and his wife Eleanor who farmed dune land adjacent to the small settlement at Chimney Corner. The Alliston’s became well known identities and their story is recorded in ‘Escape to an Island’ (Alliston 1966). In 1976, Three Hummock Island was proclaimed a Nature Reserve, and the Parks and Wildlife Service took on its management including de-stocking. A small area around Chimney Corner still remains privately leased, and was only recently sold by Rob Alliston to new managers. A resort has been mooted. Wildfires in 1982 and 1984 destroyed much of the island’s vegetation which has reverted to scrub/short forest.

Here are a few more details that I’ve dug up. South Hummock, the highest point, some 237 metres high, takes in a view of the island, nearby Hunter Island and Tasmania. The stunning beaches and coves, with rolling surf breaks, are punctuated by rocky granite outcrops. Fish are plentiful in the waters around the island, as are crayfish and abalone. Birdlife abounds, with over 90 species recorded. Wild ducks, black swans, and eagles frequent the small lakes behind the sand dunes lining the beaches. A wide variety of seabirds are seen around the coast, including international visitors that stop there to breed. And Fairy penguins can be observed making their nightly trip up the beach to their nests.

It all sounded delightful, but how much we would enjoy depended on those pesky March flies that now blackened our decks and seats, forcing us below behind tight netting.

In fact, although the weather remained placid through several days of bright sunshine followed by a cloudy one, we only ventured ashore once. And that once was enough. Dressed head to toes in thick safari garb, we had to continuously swat those nasty buggers from our faces while strolling vacant sand beaches and rock hopping some spectacular granite formations. We would have loved to have done more; the interior tempted us with hints of wild creatures, as did the beach profusely dotted with myriad animal tracks, and at sundown came the plaintive cries of penguins. But those pesky March flies just wouldn’t release us from our netted prison. Anytime we went out, to fish, to watch a sunset, to catch a refreshing cool breeze, they swarmed in incessantly, no matter how much we swatted them dead.

It’s no wonder I threw in the towel when the first serious sailing breeze stirred our fourth dawn at the Three Hummock. It arrived in the night, and by first light quickly gained sufficient strength to warrant double reefing the main and only letting out a small portion of our headsail. So strong in fact, maybe we should have stayed put another day. But I’d had it with imprisonment on my own ship. So we sailed, preferring to face an angry ocean than endure another moment with those vicious March flies.

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