Freycinet National Park
By James Frankham
July 28, 2004
Just to the west is the small settlement of Coles Bay, a sleepy town
with sunburnt holidaymakers and well-tanned tour operators who work
from their garages. Simon Stubbs runs Freycinet Adventures, an
easy-going group of enthusiasts who have been guiding here for a
decade. He gave us some boats, some local knowledge and tips on the use
of a device he called a ‘Skweet Jeek’. After much enquiry in the Coles
Bay store we discovered he was describing a squid jig, a menacing
plastic rod with an array of spines that catch on clothing, bags and
fingers - in fact anything but squid.
But after some experimentation involving improvised anchors we succeed
in pulling in a couple of fish and bashing them into submission on the
flexible kayak deck – clearly an inadequate bait board.
It occurs to me just how easy it is. And I wonder why, in the last
4,000 years of inhabitation, the Aborigines never ate fish, preferring
to scour the banks for shellfish or hunt inland for wallabies.
Let’s go back to the arrival of the first people on continental
Australia some 40,000 years ago. Aborigines are believed to have
crossed overland from what is now Indonesia, filtered through the then
lush outback and finally spread as far south as Tasmania. About 10,000
years ago the world experienced several catastrophic flooding events,
which saw sea levels rise up to 100 metres, cutting off Tasmania from
the mainland with an enormous - though relatively shallow - passage of
water now known as Bass Strait.
So began the longest isolation of any society in history. The Tasmanian
Aborigines never managed to cross the strait, never bred with their
mainland brethren, never engaged in war with anyone but neighbouring
bands, never used boomerangs axes or dingos to hunt and only traded
within their own confined culture. And because they were nomadic and
food was relatively plentiful, even stone tools were abandoned. Without
the pressing necessity of innovation, Tasmanian aboriginal civilisation
remained unchanged, and perhaps even lost technologies previously
developed. The small population lacked genetic diversity because they
typically married within their language group, usually totalling less
than 700 individuals. So by the time Abel Tasman arrived in 1642, the
population was in decline. The diseases that were introduced from the
ships destroyed frail immune systems and over the next few decades,
thousands of aborigines died of respiratory conditions.
But Tasman never clapped eyes on an Aborigine, preferring to chart
coast from a distance. And it must have been a great distance, for the
feature he named Vanderlins Island actually turned out to be a
peninsula. This was aptly noted 160 years later by the Frenchman Baudin
who named it Freycinet after a couple of lieutenants he favored, and
every other peak, bay and premonitory after mates back home he hoped to
Unfortunately, Baudin had a run-in with the local aboriginal band,
beginning a lengthy legacy of misunderstanding. By the time settlers
arrived, the Tasmanian Aborigine was regarded with great disdain. There
was a careless massacre at Risdon Cove, with the subsequent indigenous
retribution and it was all on. In fact the story is one of the saddest
tales of maltreatment and misunderstanding by a colonial power of any
native people anywhere. In a grand finale the remaining population were
rounded up and sent to almost certain expiry on an offshore island.
Decades later there were less than 40 left, who returned to a
settlement on the mainland and died to the man. In fact the only
Tasmanian Aborigines alive today are the progeny of cabin-weary sealers
who used to work Bass Strait and evidently stopped on the islands for a
bit of R & R. Their descendents still live there, buoyed up with
government subsidies, traditional hunting rights and the benefits of a
greatly enlarged gene pool ever so kindly donated by the willing
The air is cool and dry. Milky calm water laps against the granite
outcrops cloaked in wiry she-oaks. The kayaks cut through the sea like
it is liquid Teflon, fine displacement waves peeling gently off the
rudders. We paddle without talking, just the swish-swish sound of
powerful strokes, the cackle of birds in the trees and the barely
discernable gurgle of the little vortices left in our wake.
It was right here that Silas Cole burnt the aboriginal middens, or
shell piles, to make lime for mortar. And I sense a certain
prescriptive irony in the fact that the first act of the first settler
was to torch the only significant trace of previous society, the
accumulated detritus of 40,000 years of occupation, and sell the ashes
for concrete to build their own houses.
Here was also the first whaling operation on the east coast 180 years
ago. Whalers spotted Southern Rights and put out into the bay in small
sailing boats to harpoon them in pursuits that often lasted for hours.
After striking a killing blow with a square-tipped harpoon they would
tow the 96-tonne whales to shore and slaughter them on the beach.
Unsurprisingly, fatalities were common. The whalebone made ladies
corsets and lamp oil was boiled from the blubber. The plunder was so
intense that within 16 years the station had shut down. Tasmania had
simply run out of whales.
We coast around Fleurieu Point and into a long Tasman swell rolling up
the belly of Promise Bay. It’s easy paddling with a little help from
the current pushing us toward the hazy tip of the peninsula. But first
a short jaunt to stretch the kayak-cramped legs is in order and we
catch a steep break onto Hazards Beach.
Birds squawk in the bush in a fashion louder and more grating than
those in New Zealand. They just seem to have more to say. One can walk
clear across the peninsula at this point in little more than ten
minutes. On the other side is Wineglass Bay, a deep sweeping beach of
considerable length. In fact it is considered among the top ten beaches
in the world, which would account for the Germans "ooo-ing" and "ahh-ing"
and ticking it off their list. Fanning the imagination, it appears more
or less the shape of a wine glass. But go back to the 1820’s and look
again: a hundred or so Southern Right whales dragged up at stations at
both ends of the beach and thousands of litres of blood filling the
bay. The likeness may have been unavoidable.