of the Old Tasmanian Bushmen
The track cutters were
an integral part of Tasmanian bush lore, and the Fletcher family were without
peer. Their dynasty began in 1870 with Charles Fletcher, followed
by his sons and then their sons. Latter-day track cutter Milford
Fletcher followed in the footsteps of his grandfather. He was responsible
for keeping clear of encroaching bush the many bush tracks so relied upon
by the various government departments and the bush walking fraternity.
It was hard, exacting work, necessitating building and replacing bridges
and cordwood tracks, often in unforgiving circumstances deep in wilderness
areas. These men kept the tracks open into strategically important
areas of the island. Most of this work is done today by the National
circa late 1800s - early 1900s, near Ringarooma.
Tom Billett of Smithton, in northwestern Tasmania, was born around 1910
and spent his whole life in and around the Smithton area. Ever versatile,
he worked in various occupations during his long life, including: farmer,
council worker, road builder, bullock driver and undertaker. Tom
was a first-rate bushman and storyteller; his treasure trove of yarns best
spun around a campfire in the bush or over a drink at the local pub.
In later life, he became something of a celebrity driving his ancient 1927
Chevrolet utility around his home town. Perhaps Tom's favourite and
best known tale was that of a tiger who came scavenging around his house
at night. Determined to catch the animal, he set a heavyweight snare
in a paddock not far from the house and finally trapped it. However
that was not the end of the story; in its desperate efforts to escape the
snare, the tiger wrapped itself up in a barbed wire fence and Tom stepped
in to try and release it. Things turned decidedly nasty when he too
became tangled up in the fence with the angry tiger. Fortunately,
the tiger broke its way from the wire and bolted, leaving Tom a bit worse
for wear but free of its snapping jaws. This is the abbreviated version;
the story in its entirety made for a fascinating tale.
The French family are reputed to have trapped numerous tigers on their
property at Tiger Hill beyond Buckland.
| James Dunbabin lived
most of his life at Bream Creek on the Tasman Peninsula, and had many tales
to tell passed on to him by his father, F. Dunbabin who caught twenty tigers
on their Bream Creek property. The country surrounding their property
was well cleared grazing land surrounded on the fringes by densely wooded
tiers, providing perfect cover for the tigers.
Turk Porteus was a fine old northwest Tasmanian bushman who had first-hand
knowledge of the Tasmanian tiger. He learnt to identify their tracks,
and was able to skillfully track them through the bush. In 1986,
Turk came face to face with a tiger as he cleared a bush track near the
Arthur-Franklin rivers junction, not far from his beachside home at Arthur
River. The tiger was barely twenty metres away, and lingered for
many seconds before moving away. His extensive knowledge of the animal
told Turk that the tiger had young at foot; he decided to track it through
the bush, and it wasn't long before he picked up their tracks. At
the time, his sighting raised great interest because it happened only ten
kilometres away from the much heralded 1982 Hans
Naarding sighting at Togari.
Camping bushmen boiling
beside their tent. Source: State Library of Tasmania, PH30-1-6044.
The Advocate newspaper
of the 6th November 1926 (p. 26) published the following bushmens' tale
- "Hyenas Visit the Camp":
"Late in the evening
of the first day out, we camped at the 19-Mile Creek
(near the Hampshire Hills). In the gathering darkness we did not
observe that the spot we had chosen was really a deserted camp of the plate
laying gang of the Emu Bay and Mt. Bischoff railway. Broken crockery
and bottles with the usual inordinate litter of tinware were everywhere
under our feet. We got a good fire going, and soon the billy boiled,
while the rashers of bacon were sizzling in the frying pan, and all four
of us heartily enjoyed our supper. Mr. T. Hilder camped with the
teams, he having travelled from Burnie on horseback. We had a big
tent pitched across the long pole of my bullock dray and all four occupied
it. Just when the senses were drowsed with sleep uncanny noises were
heard a great rattling among the tinware and broken crockery, with now
and again loud growling going on. Billy Charles was the first to
speak and made the astounding declaration that it was the growl of a hyena.
Poor Sam Barker was positively scared and was all shivered with apprehension.
Mr. T. Hilder was somewhat sceptical and, as I lay nearest to the tent
opening he said: "look outside Dick and see what?s up". I cautiously
drew back the tent flap and crept partly out. I caught my breath
with a gasp, for there not ten feet away, was a monstrous striped hyena
crouched down with its forefeet clutching a big bone, and its fearful teeth
crunching the bone into fragments. It was not dismayed by my presence.
Looking up at me it snarled viciously, but made no attempt to seize hold
of me. As I hurriedly retreated into the tent I saw a second smaller
hyena join his fellow. Of course, we were all much concerned as to
what course to pursue. Sleep would be impossible with such murderous
creatures so close, even if they did not attack us. Billy Charles
carried the customary long bullock whip with silk cracker and declared
his intention to give the hyena a taste of it. So taking off the
silk cracker he put on one made of strong hemp, then cautiously mounted
the tent pole, with good light from a hurricane lamp which in no way disturbed
the hyena crunching the bone. Unfortunately, Billy's long whip failed
to reach the hyena. At every crack it snarled more savagely, and
leaving its bone, it threatened attack. Its eyes blazed and it teeth
glistened and snapped continuously. Billy feared not, and moving along
the pole he got closer and eventually caught Mr. Hyena a severe stroke
which caused the animal to roll over, then recover, and with a deep growl
it turned tail and fled. Neither of the beasts came close up again
that night, but we could hear them and sleep would not come".
One of the most notable
southern Tasmanian bushmen was Ernie
Bond, a giant of a man who almost single-handedly carved out
an empire in the depths of the wild and untamed South West Wilderness.
He called his paradise "Gordon
Vale", reputedly building his sprawling homestead from one huge
swamp gum cut down and hewed on site. Renowned for his genial hospitality
to all who passed his way, Bond ran sheep and milking cows, produced his
own honey and grew his own produce in his veritable "Garden of Eden".
Strawberries and raspberries, potatoes and root vegetables, various fruit
trees; Ernie grew the lot. His homestead was blessed by a huge open
fireplace where many a frozen visitor was brought back to life after trekking
through from Adamsfield and Maydena, and where winter skins could be dried
around the walls of his hut. Out the back was the bakery where huge
loaves of bread were freshly baked and washed down with Ernie's potent
honey-mead; a super-charged drop of the nectar beverage was
guaranteed to leave you feeling somewhat worse for wear.
Located in the Vale
of Rasellas, Gordonvale lay at the foot of the Dennison Range and adjacent
to the Gordon River. This beautiful vale of the Gordon had not had
a permanent resident since it was first discovered in 1828 by two escaped
convicts from Macquarrie Harbour penal settlement, James Goodwin and Charles
Connelly. When Ernie Bond's tenure finished in the 1950s, Gordonvale
then becoming a favourite destination for bushwalkers. Today it is
no more, and having succumbed to the ravages of the severe climate, it
has all but disappeared, being reduced to piles of rotting timber and rusting
iron. And as for Tasmanian tigers? Yes, they were there too,
for Ernie confided that he had sighted them in the surrounding countryside
on occasion, and if eyewitness accounts are to be believed, still are to