It was only about twenty minutes since we had driven off the ramp of the Mirambeena, the small ferry that takes cars from the little village of Kettering on mainland Tasmania to Roberts Point on Bruny Island. We were approaching The Neck, a thin isthmus of land that joins North Bruny to South Bruny, where on the right as you drive south is the calm water of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, and on the left is the pounding surf of Adventure Bay. At dusk The Neck is where fairy penguins come back to their burrows to roost. It is where the tarmac runs out, and the island’s roads become little more than gravel tracks.
Suddenly a large logging truck pulled out behind us and overtook four cars in a row, churning up big clouds of dust and stones before disappearing around a bend.
“What a silly driver,” said my six year old, sitting in the backseat. “That happened last time we were here too. Do you remember the big truck that woke me up from my nap by being so loud and fast?”
He was right. That had happened.
There is an old saying on Bruny. We are living on an island, under an island, under an island at the edge of the world. When you stand at Cape Bruny looking south and realise that there’s nothing but water between you and Antarctica it really does feel like the edge of the world. Australia’s fourth oldest lighthouse stands tall beside you, and it’s hard not to imagine the isolation its nineteenth century keepers must have faced.
Nowadays there is a slow but steady stream of visitors who make their way up to admire the view and take photos, gingerly stepping over the lines of jack jumper ants that scurry across the ground. There is a small museum, glass cases packed with old logbooks and equipment. There is a ranger from the Parks and Wildlife Service who offers to answer any questions you have, and to share stories about the years when the lighthouse was still in service.
Bruny Island is a place full of stories. They have layered on top of each other for years, jostling to become the dominant narrative.
The Aboriginal history of both Bruny Island and mainland Tasmania dates back more than 40,000 years. Bruny – or Alonnah Lunawanna as it was called – was the home of the Nuenonne tribe, and the birthplace of Truganini, the woman widely considered to be the last full-blooded Tasmanian Aboriginal. Truganini’s ashes were scattered in the D’Entrecastaux Channel – but not until a hundred years after her death when indigenous campaigners finally persuaded the Hobart Museum to release her body.
After European colonisation in the early 1800s, Bruny became an island of timber ports, linked by tramways. It became a whaler’s island, at one point running eight whaling stations that employed ninety men and almost hunted the southern right whale to extinction. It even became a mining island, as coal was mined and traded from a site at Adventure Bay and a sandstone quarry provided stone for buildings such as Melbourne Post Office.
Despite the fragments of history – the structures from industries past – that are everywhere as you walk around the island, it feels for the most part like a place that is looking to the future.
It has developed a literary reputation, the setting for novels by contemporary Australian writers such as Favel Parrett, Karen Viggers and Danielle Wood. It is where Man Booker winner Richard Flanagan has a shack and writes most of his work. It even has a festival of children’s literature, which earlier this year attracted world-renowned writers of children’s books.
It has become a foodie destination. From the Bruny Island Cheese Company to Get Shucked Oysters, from Bruny Premium Wines to the Berry Farm, from the Smokehouse to the roadside stall selling Black Devil Tasmanian Cherries … for an island with a population of less than 650 there is an astonishing choice of artisanal products available. Bruny even has its own cookbook, worth buying for the beautiful photography as much as the recipes.
And it is, of course, a wildlife lover’s paradise, a top destination for eco-tourists from around the world. More than half the island is protected as National Park or State Reserve, and as well as the fairy penguins, the Bennetts wallabies, and the spotted quolls, Bruny is a place you can see many rare and endangered species such as white wallabies, swift parrots and forty spotted pardalote. If you take a boat trip out from Adventure Bay, there’s a good chance you’ll come across a humpback whale or southern right whale.
But, as our experience on the road showed, it is also a place of tensions. When we told the owners of our rental accommodation about the logging truck overtaking us so dangerously on the narrow track of The Neck, they were horrified, but unsurprised. It wasn’t the first time it had happened. We had long conversations with many people on the island about the fact that logging is still going on there, despite the fact that it makes no economic sense. It seems to be happening just because it can, as an ideologically motivated middle finger from the timber industry to environmental groups.
Like Tasmania in miniature, Bruny Island is trying to find the right balance. It is asking itself a lot of questions, none of which have easy answers. How do you ensure that people can make a living on an island so small? How do you encourage short-term visitors without overburdening the infrastructure, jamming up the roads and overfilling the cafes? How do you preserve all that is unique about the place while also opening it up and allowing those who are interested to come and see?
Sitting on an outside deck with friends, talking all this over, drinking wine from the vineyard up the road and eating oysters which had been hauled out of the channel earlier that day, I felt positive. Bruny seemed like a place that was getting the balance right.
But then I turned to watch the setting sun, and saw that while the sky was a beautiful deep red it also had a strange, hazy look to it.
“That’s from the smoke,” I was told. “A regeneration burn. Once they’ve clearfelled an area of forest, they torch it with napalm. They blitz it.”
They blitz it.
Not so balanced after all.
Ruth Dawkins is a writer, editor and campaigner, originally from Scotland but now living in Tasmania with her husband and son.
She is a columnist for The Island Review, and will be contributing to the site regularly.
You can find her blog here.