Creation, destruction and beauty

Sunday 14th February 2016

 

Today we finished the drive to Strahan, stopping off at a couple of places along the way.  Just a few kilometres along the road from Bronte Park we came across The Wall in the Wilderness.  The wall in question is made of 3-metre high panels of wood, into which scenes from the history of Tasmania have been sculpted by artist Greg Duncan.  His aim is to create a 100-metre long wall which will tell the history of the harsh Central Highlands region and commemorate those who helped shape its past and present, beginning with the indigenous peoples, then to the pioneering timber harvesters, pastoralists, miners and Hydro workers.

 

We had no idea what to expect when we paid our $12 each entrance fee, but the guy in the ticket office assured us it would be worth every cent.  He was absolutely right.  From the sculptures in the entrance lobby – a workman’s jacket carved from wood that looked so much like cloth that I wanted to reach out and feel its softness – to the massive work in progress that is the wall, it was fascinating.  The detail in the work was amazing. The sculptor had deliberately left a piece of each panel unfinished – a horse’s back leg, a man’s arm – so that one could see stages of his work and how he had transformed a piece of wood into scenes that were almost alive.  Truly impressive.  I had to remember to close my mouth as I stood and marvelled at the artist’s skills and took in the stories they told.

 

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We had no idea of the treasure hidden inside this building.                           Photo courtesy of Outback spirit tours.  No cameras were allowed inside.

 

From here we stopped next at Lake St Clair.  This is at the southern end of the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, the opposite side of the mountain we visited last weekend.  We plan to return here on our way back to Hobart to do some walking  by the lake, so for today it was a quick stop at the visitor centre to get some walks info and to take a look at the lake.  We wandered around the displays in the visitor centre before setting off once more for Strahan.

 

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Interesting information about the threatened Tasmanian Devil.                                A newborn attached to a nipple in its mother’s pouch. Tiny.

 

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The critter on the right looks just like Steve’s unfriendly friend.

Glad it was inside a glass case, and more importantly, dead!

 

We drove on through beautiful mountain scenery, until we approached Queenstown, where suddenly the surroundings changed.  Instead of forested hillsides in shades of green there were suddenly huge areas of orange and yellow bare rock.  The change was dramatic and rather shocking.

 

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A waterfall finds its way down the hillside.                                                           The dramatic change to bare rock as we approached Queenstown.

 

As we drove along pondering why on earth this landscape was so different to everywhere else, we came across a laybay with a viewpoint over the town of Queenstown below, and an enormous information board that explained it all.  Don’t you just love the Aussies’ penchant for information boards?  Who the heck needs Google in this country?!

 

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The info board told us why the landscape changed in this area.

 

It seems that the rocks which make up Mounts Lyell and Owen and the surrounding area, where we now stood, contained vast quantities of a variety of metal ores.  In the late 1800’s the nearby creeks were being panned for gold, and during the search an outcrop of oxidised rock was found, which indicated the presence of mineral ores below the surface.  The ‘fool’s gold’ which was found by the first prospectors was actually pyrites, or iron sulphide.  It was useless to the prospectors, but from ancient times the incendiary nature of sulphur had been well known – the ‘brimstone’ of the Bible.  With the discovery in the area of not just gold, but silver and copper, tin and iron, fuel was needed for the smelting plants that extracted the metal from the rock.  A long way from supplies of coal to fuel their furnaces, they turned instead to the pyrites which was so abundant and readily available. 

 

This was to be the kiss of death for the surrounding hillsides.  The smelting plants used the recently developed process of pyritic smelting, which utilised the heat generated by the combustion of sulphur and iron in the pyrites.  In the closing years of the 19th century, Queenstown was referred to in the press as “Copperopolis” – the Copper Town - as its smelters churned out thousands of tons of copper.  The image of the billowing smokestacks was a symbol of pride and progress, but the smoke was a toxic gas – sulphur dioxide.  It clogged the air and left the surrounding landscape covered with a poisonous yellow dust.  It changed the local climate – workers would carry hurricane lamps during the daytime to light their way to work through the yellow pea-souper fogs that could be seen from Strahan, over 30 kilometres away. 

 

Some of the surrounding forests were cut down as supplementary fuel for the smelters, but what remained was killed by the sulphur.  Within a few years the slopes of the mountains were devoid of all vegetation, and with Queenstown’s high annual rainfall, the shallow topsoil was quickly washed away, leaving bare rock.  By 1921 the pyritic smelting process had been superseded, but the preceding twenty years of pollution had changed the surrounding landscape forever.  Over the last 100 years, slow re-growth has taken over in the valleys, but with no topsoil on the higher slopes, it is likely that the bare rock will remain for generations to come.

 

A fascinating piece of history that demonstrates how, in our ignorance, we have changed our environment irrevocably.  But even as I felt sadness for the damage wrought to these  hills, I couldn’t but marvel at the colours, textures and shapes of the barren rock which seemed to have a beauty of its own.

 

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Approaching Queenstown, the first signs of change in the landscape.

 

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The effects of 20 years of pyritic smelting become clearer as one descends into the valley and Queenstown itself.