Poatina Esses


Uphill battle

Recently someone criticised the Bear for writing a story ‘that had nothing to do with motorcycling’. In response he wrote this.

I am not a fisherman. I subscribe to the attitude expressed so succinctly in the comment that if you “give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and he’ll understand why people find golf interesting”.

Likewise, I am not an anthropologist. I did study to be one for a while, but we’ll draw a considerate silence over what happened next.

Finally I’m not any kind of expert on Tasmania’s Aboriginal population, even though (because?) I knew Keith Windschuttle at university.

All of these things I’m not came together recently when I sat down on Sorry Day to write about a recent trip to Tasmania’s central plateau where (and this is where it all comes together, folks) there are some interesting Aboriginal remains and trout fishing is the major recreation. More or less idly I did some Googling around these topics and up came a fascinating article by someone who likes to be known as “Thiudareiks Gunthigg” but may also be called “Tim O’Neill”. Check it out yourself if you don’t believe me.

Thiudareiks, whom we’ll henceforth call “Tim” to save keystrokes, notes that when whites first colonised Tasmania, there were several things which struck them as very strange about the native inhabitants.

“Firstly, their technology was … incredibly limited and primitive. Unlike their mainland Australian relatives, the Tasmanians had no hafted implements (such as axes), no implements made of bone, no boomerangs or spear throwers, no dingos and no microlithic stone tools. Indeed, their entire tool kit seems to have consisted of about two dozen kinds of objects.” (Tim Flannery, The Future Eaters).

“On top of this, the Tasmanians were one of the only [sic] peoples on earth who did not have the ability to make fire. When a band moved from camp to camp they carried smouldering fire-sticks, which they used to kindle fires at the new location. It was a great shame to allow these sticks to go out (which would have happened easily in Tasmania’s wet and windy winters). A band that lost their fire had to eat raw meat until they found another band from which to get fire. It was utterly taboo to refuse another band’s request for fire, even if the band were enemies or a band with which you were at war.

“Secondly [or thirdly, depending on how you count], the whites noticed that the Tasmanians never ate scale fish. They ate shellfish in abundance, along with lobsters and seaweed, but no fish with scales… When whites offered any kind of scale fish to Tasmanian Aborigines they either fled in terror or even reacted with violence.” Now this is all the more amazing when you consider that Aboriginal people are usually staggeringly good at using the resources of their country.

The plot thickened in the 1960s and ’70s, when archaeologists analysed camp sites that had been continuously occupied for more than 7000 years. It turned out that up until 3500 years ago [a time, incidentally, when my ancestors in northern Europe were just beginning to think that making things out of metal might be a neat idea), “the Tasmanians actually did have most of the technology of the mainland tribes. Small, finely made microlithic tools – quite unlike the larger, clumsier tools of the later Tasmanians, were found in abundance. So were bone needles, also unknown from later finds, indicating that the earlier Tasmanians did sew fur clothing. It seemed the Tasmanians had once been far more technologically sophisticated. Then, quite suddenly, 3500 years ago, all these things disappear from the archaeological record.

“The other remarkable find was that the early Tasmanian did eat scale fish. In fact, they ate so much of it that it seemed to form 10-15 per cent of their total diet. Then, quite suddenly, all fish bones and scales disappear from the record as well,” and at the same time.

But why would the Tasmanians suddenly stop using relatively complex technology and eating fish? Tim has a theory, of course.

“The waters around Tasmania are sometimes prone to large outbreaks of an algal bloom called ‘dinoflagellatae’ or ‘red tide’. This alga can infest large fish populations, killing the fish in vast numbers. The problem here is that if these fish are then eaten by humans, the result is usually chronic food poisoning, often leading to a very sudden death.

“The hypothesis is that such a bloom killed large numbers of fish, giving the Tasmanians an (apparently) free summer feast on the beach. The result would have been a sudden, massive case of almost certainly fatal food poisoning – resulting in most of the adult population dying in the space of a week.

“The survivors would have been on the brink on extinction, but obviously survived. It’s also likely that some parts of the population would have been less affected by others – small children who were still being weaned are less likely to have been poisoned.”

Imagine if something similar happened today and almost all of the adults suddenly died. Obviously society would retain the capacity to program VCRs, plunder refrigerators and operate video games, but such skills as emptying dishwashers, taking out the rubbish, washing cars (except for substantial payment) and tidying bedrooms would be lost.

Likewise, in the Tasmania of 3500 years ago the orphaned children would have had to teach themselves survival skills.

“Simpler technologies – spears and primitive stone tools – would have been within their capacity,” writes Tim. “More complex technology like fire-making, fine tools, hafted weapons etc would have been beyond them, the knowledge for making them lost with the dead elders.

“So when the whites arrived, the Tasmanians they met were the descendants of these child survivors of the cataclysm of 3500 years before – people with very simple tools, no ability to make fire and a pathological fear of eating scale fish. Understandably so.”

Now, true or not, isn’t that fascinating? Yes, I thought you’d agree.

Hey, just imagine the impact such a cataclysmic event would have on motorcycling. Modern bikes would be fine, since even a babe in (or, in this case of course, out of) arms would be able to simply remove and replace a faulty ignition module or fuel pump. But classic and vintage bikes would rust where they lay as skills such as doing points, re-spoking wheels and tuning carburettors were lost.

But enough of these rather gloomy considerations. Tasmania has many more cheerful aspects. Not that I saw many of them on this particular ride. For one thing, it rained almost constantly while I was there, even though the place had been in drought for years. Who said motorcyclists were useless? On the east coast the locals offered me a substantial retainer if I would come down, borrow a bike and go for a ride on a regular basis – on the assumption that I would continue to bring the rain.

It got to the point where it was physically difficult to see any of the cheerful aspects through the falling rain, quite apart from the fact that they were all rendered much less attractive by it anyway.

With one exception.

When I reached the base of the Western Tiers, I suddenly found myself in rain shadow. The showers marched past just beyond the first sheltering hill, but I was dry and so was the entire road to the top of the escarpment. Even beyond that there was only light rain, not the soaking downpours below me. As a result I enjoyed the Poatina esses even more than I usually would; the BMW had good tyres, but in my experience a dry road will still always offer better grip than a wet one.

Grip is something you need on this ride.

The road alignment is just wonderful, something you can see on almost any map. Just west of Poatina there’s always a series of interesting wiggles which still don’t do the road justice. It climbs what I suppose is about 1000 metres by a series of switchbacks and hairpins linked by short but fast straights, usually just long enough to pass a few of the trucks or camper vans that will be holding you up. Perfect.

The surface is also good and well maintained, although you occasionally get a patch that has been chewed up by the timber and stock trucks that love this road so much. More of a problem is the fine gravel, almost sand or dust, that collects on the road. Especially obvious, and dangerous, on corners this stuff needs to be watched. Fortunately it’s generally lighter in colour than the tar so you can pick it out. Just remember to look for it!

The fun doesn’t stop when you get to the top, where the road opens up and gets a lot faster. Keep an eye on the wildlife and try not run off the road – the ground is mostly more or less sharp rocks and would not offer a soft landing. You can keep going all the way to Hobart if you like, or do what I did and pop over to Miena to the pub for a cold drink or a coffee. It’s a cosy place, run by motorcyclists, that caters mostly to trout fishermen and also offers accommodation and meals.

While we’re on the subject of cosy places, do stop in at Poatina. It’s a small Hydro town (built to serve the nearby power station) only a few metres off the road. It provides the closest thing to a time machine that I think I’ve ever seen. Visit Poatina and be transported back to the 1960s; eat at the ’60s style Mountain View Restaurant in the ’60s looking Chalet and you will be served ’60s food on ’60s crockery … it’s by no means unpleasant, but deeply weird. The prices aren’t far off ’60s levels, either!

They seem to serve scaled fish at the Mountain View, but I’d be careful if I were you.