Lake Leather - A Small Slice of the History of North West Tasmania (Part 2 of 2)

This is the second half of an account written by my great-great grandfather, Thomas Stephens, about his experience riding from Devonport to Circular Head in north west Tasmania in 1858. His ride was on behalf of the Tasmanian government with respect to the establishment of educational facilities for Tasmanian settlers and their families. I have shared this with you as I was delighted by my connection with this man. I found his writing to be very warm and accessible, even 160 years later. His account of his experiences, so far removed from ours today, riding through the virgin forest of Tasmania on his trusty steed – named Brian – is so animated, so fascinating and really brings to life a period that is hard to feel much connection with today. You can find the first half of the account and some background information in our previous blog. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Pioneering the North West Coast (Tasmania)

By T Stephens, M.A., F.G.S.

(continued…) Next morning, my kind host volunteered to save me the long roundabout journey to the mouth of the Leven by swimming my horse over the river behind his boat. We landed on a mud flat which was reported to be passable, but the sensation of sinking up to and over one’s ankles while leading one’s horse across it was not very agreeable. Following the directions received, I kept along the bank of the river for about four miles over steep ridges and deep gullies, the route being indicated only by a blazed tree here and there, and occasional horse tracks. At last, I emerged upon a patch of cleared land near Myrtle Creek, with a cottage upon it, of a type superior to that of the ordinary hut

north west tasmania - dried up creek

that one meets with in the bush. This had been built for the manager of the splitting industry and was now occupied by a settler who had taken up a section of crown land in the vicinity, who received me most hospitably. After learning my destination, he suggested that I should turn my horse into his paddock, and that we should spend the afternoon exploring the route of Kentish’s track, which had been roughly cleared from the Leven crossing to Penguin Creek. We found the track fairly open through the Leven Forest, after crossing Myrtle Creek, though occasionally blocked by huge fallen trees round which a way had to be forced with great difficulty. Arrived at the top of the ridge, I found myself in country more lightly timbered, but thickly covered with scrub six to eight feet high. The only way to find the route was to grope through the scrub in search of one of Kentish’s marked trees, his ‘blaze’ being nearly two feet square and deeply cut into the sap wood. Following these, we descended the ridge to a sandy beach which continued for about a mile to

north west tasmania - basaltic rocks on the coast

Penguin Creek. Our return was a simpler matter, as we had marked every conspicuous tree along the track. We had noticed columns of smoke over the heavily timbered country to the north of this part of Kentish’s track, and about nightfall it became evident that the Leven Forest was on fire. Now that numerous fires have ravaged the country during the last half-century, it is impossible to give an idea of the condition of things when all was virgin forest, every foot of ground between the big trees being occupied by smaller growths, which only required a few sparks to create a fiery furnace. The flames ran up the lofty stems, especially the stringy barks and dead trees, while now and again some giant of the forest would come down with a thundering crash. The wind fortunately was from the south, so that there was no danger of any interruption to my journey on the following day. Kentish’s track took its name from a surveyor who had been despatched by the Government with instructions to find and mark a route overland to Circular Head. Leaving the Deloraine Road at Whitefoord Hills, he followed Coiler’s Creek to its junction with the Mersey. He forded that river near the place now known as Kimberly. Traversing the rugged country in a south-westerly direction he emerged on a tract of open country with good soil and well grassed, which was naturally named after its discoverer as Kentish Plains. It is still called Kentishbury, although a large part of it bears the inappropriate designation Sheffield. The ford at Kimberly, as I found from personal experience when following Kentish’s track, was a dangerous one when the river was in flood. The riverbed consisted of rounded boulders on which a horse could get no sure foothold, while the force of the current was so great that it was impossible to cross safely except by keeping the head upstream. It was necessary to make an early start from Myrtle Creek the next morning, as the track from Penguin Creek to Emu Bay was described as being the worst along the whole line of coast.­­ The bedrocks of slate, schist and quartz etc. have a northerly trend, and terminate mostly in rugged headlands, except were the basaltic capping extends to the coast, so that no passage along the coastline is practicable, except where there were short stretches of sandy beach. But the

forest workers watering horses on the Railton - Sheffield road

special reason for my early start was the necessity of reaching the River Blythe at ebb tide. This river has an evil reputation from the number of fatal accidents to men tramping the coast from Circular Head. On the other side of Penguin Creek, the route lay across parallel rocky ridges. Halfway down the descent of one of these lay a big log crossing the narrow track through the scrub. To attempt to leap a log downhill in such a position on horseback was out of the question so I climbed over it, and Brian jumped it without hesitation, cleverly recovering himself before he got far down the steep slope. A little farther on I managed to get down to the beach and found myself on the edge of a broad basaltic plateau, the rock at and above highwater mark looked like it had been systematically broken up for road metal. This good travelling did not last long, and after negotiating a number of difficulties on the rocky headlands I at last reached the mouth of the Blythe, and crossed it safely on the bar, though there was a heavy swell rolling in, and it was difficult to see and avoid the sunken rocks which impede the crossing of this river. About a mile from the river mouth, I had to turn south and climb the steep side of a ridge leading to and past the crest of Round Hill beyond which a couple of miles of easier travelling brought me to the Emu River, which I crossed without difficulty. Shortly afterwards I arrived at the little settlement, comprising of an inn, a small church, a store, and a few scattered dwellings where the prosperous town of Burnie now stands.  There was little official business to detain me there, and I followed a fair cart track all the way to Wynyard, crossing the Cam River bar, where the flood tide was coming in fast, with a heavy swell, which pretty well drenched both horse and rider. Approaching the solitary public house of Wynyard, I saw a team of cart horses with an empty dray making for the steep bank of the river. (There was a big mare in the shafts, with a foal running alongside). They had brought down a load of timber from the bush: their driver was solacing himself at the public house: their stables were on the far side of the river, and they naturally made straight for them going down the steep bank into deep water, as the dray had capsized. By some strange chance the mare got free from the shafts and swam safely across, followed by her foal, but the two leaders were drowned, their legs getting tangled in the trace chains. After inquiry into the local conditions, I crossed the Inglis to prosecute similar enquiries on the other side, and to seek out some stopping place for the night, from whence a very early start could be made in the morning for Circular Head. In those days it was a very arduous journey for a stranger, with every risk of him being ‘bushed’ for the night, if he escaped other casualties. The quarters available on the other side of the Inglis were not very attractive but sufficed for my purposes. Next morning a start was made soon after daybreak. The bridle track, winding up the hill through dense forest, emerged from the forest a little to the west of Table Cape, and kept along the edge of a basaltic plateau, with occasional dips into deep gullies, till it came out on a short stretch of sandy beach at Jacob’s Boat Harbour. The scrub along the track had quite changed its character with the change in soil, and consisted chiefly of so-called ‘prickly mimosa’ (Acacia Verticillata) so closely massed that you might ride for a mile at a time without being able to see your horse’s head. From Jacob’s Boat Harbour the climbing stage of the journey began. The rise from the beach toward Sisters’ Hills was exceptionally steep. Riding was out of the question, and it was only by walking alongside with my hand on his mane that I got Brian to face it.

At the Sisters’ Hills there is an entire change in country. The formation is white quartzite, and among the sparse vegetation is the dwarf grass tree (Rihea
Banksia serratifolia
drachophyllum) and a honeysuckle (Banksia serratifolia), the latter occurring nowhere else in Tasmania, and probably originating from cones drifting over from Gippsland, where it is a common tree. The descent from here on an alluvial flat bounding Sisters Creek was not without difficulty, the original track being deeply sunk, and often blocked by angular masses of quartzite. On the farther side of the creek were outlying ridges of the Rocky Cape Range, and the range itself was crossed a little to the north of the Trigonomical station. The whole of this morning’s journey had to be done at top speed, in spite of numerous obstructions, for the Rocky Cape River, now known as the Detention, had to be forded at the bar before the tide was too high, and this was safely accomplished. A long stretch of sandy beach extended westward, interrupted occasionally by rocky rises, and the Crayfish Rivulet was crossed on the bar. On approaching the Black River, I saw that the tide was too high to allow crossing at the bar and struck across the sandhills for a mile or two up the right bank of the river, passing a place where preparation was being made for the erection of a bridge. A little higher up I found a good fording place, from which a ride of about an hour
early Tasmanian settlement

and a half brought me to Circular Head. This settlement in north west Tasmania consisted of a line of isolated dwellings on a road extending about a mile, to a substantial jetty. The jetty was built by the Van Diemen’s Land Company in connection with their establishments at Highfield and at the Green Hills, on which, after clearance of the forest of heavy timber, extensive farming operations were carried on.

See the first part of this amazing story here.