The Lady Nelson in the Thames, whose explorations included the Bass Strait c. 1802
The Lady Nelson in the Thames, whose explorations included the Bass Strait c. 1802

In September, we share four installments of this short story Tasmania, a Lovesong, by Australian author John Bryson, which journeys us along the eastern waters of Tasmania.

THE SEA PASSAGE I’m speaking of now also carried Peter Mathers who was, around that time, moving from the writing of novels to the writing of plays, despite his brace of Miles Franklin awards, or maybe because of them. From the Dunnally channel we set North, to take the landward side of Maria, the mountain Island named for the wife Van Diemen, and the convict settlement until Port Arthur was thought of. Mathers likes stories to do with delusional grandure, and he had a fine time with this place. Maria, in the late 1800s, was leased for its limestone, kilns built, a hostelry sprang to its feet at North Point, the township fattened, and the company’s paper given a flutter on the London stock exchange. All this enterprise was the vision of Diego Bernacci who then renamed the town San Diego. The timing was just right, as events turned out, for the crash of the 1890s, but thirty years later Bernacci did it again, this time for the crash of 1929. Tasmanians have changed the name of the town back to Darlington.

Not far off course, and worth every mile, is Isle des Phoques. Left over from some previous arrangement of nature, these grand pillars have no inland to support any more. The pose is of enough scale, and of might, to stand as a nostalgia for the size of the world once was: here is Atlas relieved of duty. The trick now is to glide as closely as nerve allows. These heavy portals have been teetering here a long time so far anyway, and watch the birds nesting the ledges. The instant they scream: the terns, gulls, cormorants, all into the heart-beating whirling air, so will it seem that you have chosen the exact moment for the collapse of the counterpoise, of the entire crumbling vault, pealing from higher than the masthead, a landslide exploding into the waters all around, and I’ve watched seafarers go ashen right then, until the eyes catch up with the action enough to see that these are seals, hundreds maybe, the bulls and the cows roaring their dainty calves to the long plunge, to surface again in the tumultuous water, whiskery and inquisitive.

Dusk is not long away, but before it’s too dark I want to get us through the Schouten Passage, sea side of the Great Oyster Bay, and near enough to halfway now to Bass Strait. We could go around, and out into the Tasman, but the charm of the inshore route is the scenery, and the navigator’s excuse that, in here, we dodge the south set of the outer current. The island and the peninsular almost meet, and it’s difficult to see the convenient gap. But the run, when you find it, is very deep indeed, and so a favourite of locals. I know a Hobart seaman with a Masters ticket whose job is to pilot rusty ships from the far Orient to his home port for refit, and who, one summer evening, turned the 25,000 tonnes of Japanese freighter under his command through the skimpy passage here, grinding neither side on the rocks, to the tooting delight of the nearby lobster fleet, which understood just who must be up on the Bridge there, whose hand to the wheel.

About the Author:

In 1985, the book Evil Angels by Australian author John Bryson was released. Its revelatory investigation into the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain shed new light on the controversial case and quickly became a career defining piece of work for Bryson. Other publications include the novel, To the Death, Amic (Viking/Penguin 1994) a collection of short fiction, Whoring Around (Penguin 1981) and a collection of reportage, Backstage at the Revolution. Bryson lectures in law, literary journalism, and fiction, acts on advisory panels to government, NGOs, and universities, and on literary judging panels. At the end of the millennium, a Schools of Journalism panel included him in ‘The 100 Australian Journalists of the Century’. In 2014, he was awarded membership of the Order of Australia.