Like its ancient, limestone cliffs – bed-upon-bed of compressed fossil shells first laid down 280 million years ago – Maria Island is a many-layered experience.
For a time in the 1880s and again in the 1920s the cliffs were a focus for mining to produce lime for the making of cement, first by immigrant businessman Diego Bernacchi and his Maria Island Company and then by the Portland Cement Company.
Today, Maria is Tasmania’s Noah’s Ark, an isolated 11,550-hectare sanctuary for native wildlife off the coast from Triabunna, a 90-minute drive north-east of Hobart.
The island was declared a national park in 1971. Its charm derives not only from its sweeping natural beauty and its worth as a stronghold for endangered animals, but also for its rich history. From early Aboriginal to convict settlement, its isolation has formed the backdrop for the gamut of human experiences – success, failure, endurance, power, penury, suffering, courage and love.
There are devils here. The island has even seen the birth of monsters.
The boat ride from Triabunna across Mercury Passage takes about forty minutes, with the choppy waters and white caps an invigorating prelude to what lies ahead. The wide, white arc of the beach at Chinamans Bay looms. Boots and socks off, the small group of hikers on the Maria Island Walk jump over the side into knee-deep water and walk barefoot the last few metres up to the tide line and the pile of offloaded backpacks.
The tide line is just that, there is no plastic litter. The fine, clean white sand squeaks at each step of our bare feet. The words “clean” and “fine” spring to mind a lot over the next few days.
The Tyreddeme people of the Oyster Bay tribe walked this beach up to 30,000 years ago, on the way to Bloodstone Point to fetch ochre to decorate their bodies and hair. They called the island Toarra Marra Mona.
They built huts, hunted and buried their dead in conical-shaped, bark tombs. The women hunted seals, slipping into the water near seal colonies and crawling through the shallows until they got close enough to strike with a club, carried between their toes. In the early 1800s some were abducted by American sealers, taken as slave concubines to Kangaroo Island, in South Australia, the beginning of the end of Tasmania’s full-blood Aborigines.
Today, Maria Island is a safe haven for animal refugees including Cape Barren geese, more than 100 Tasmanian Devils transported from the mainland to escape a tumorous disease that threatens their species, pademelons, forester kangaroos and Bennett’s wallabies. Wombats go about their daily business like small bush bulldozers. Grazing wallabies watch walkers pass with vague disinterest.
Tiny, beautiful and rare, Forty Spotted Pardalote welcome the morning with chatter, flitting through the branches of the White Gums – a bushland alarm clock of bird calls mingled with the soft sound of surf.
Much of the walking is easy, on hard-packed, sandy beaches and the first night’s stay at Casuarina Beach Camp sets a trend of comfortable camping with sleeping bags and sleeping sheets in sturdy-framed tents set on decking. Showering is done under a bucket of warm water in an open bush cubicle. The drop toilets are a wonder – non-flush based on composting sawdust, with solar-powered extraction fans. There is no smell.
Maria Island was part of Great Britain’s “cultural solution” in the 1800s. Darlington was a penal settlement from 1825-32, where convicts laboured under an assignment system tanning leather, weaving woollen cloth and cutting timber.
From 1842-50 Maria Island became a probationary convict station and farm, with convicts working towards freedom. Imprisonment for some meant a confrontation of both culture and climate. Among the prisoners were two Koi tribesmen from South Africa’s Dutch Cape Colony and five young Maori warriors from New Zealand, arrested for carrying weapons while out hunting, charged with rebellion against the Crown and transported to Van Diemen’s Land in 1846.
Decorated in facial tattoos and standing proud at six feet tall, young Chief Hohepa Te Umuroa died of tuberculosis on the island at the age of 25.
By the end of 1845 there were 1117 male convicts at Darlington and the agricultural settlement at Long Point.
Continues next week in Part 2
All photos by Vincent Ross – All Rights Reserved