OUR JOURNEY TO TASMANIA — LAND of the ANTIPODEANS
RECHERCHE BAY SOUTH EAST TASMANIA.
Where the French came in friendship.
Our 2016 visit to Recherche Bay was to advance our understanding of the French connection with Australia, especially since spending time in France during our 2012/2017 Encountering the Past adventures.
The Recherche Bay Reserve extends south from the Southport Lagoon conservation area. In 1792 a French scientific expedition led by Bruni d’ Entrecasteaux sailed into a sheltered harbour that would be named Recherche Bay.
Over the years we have visited the Recherche Bay area to kayak and walk. At the southern end of the bay is Cockle Creek, noted as being the most southern point you can drive to in Australia.
To actually visit the most southern tip of Australia (Southeast Cape) it requires stamina, determination and a good sense of direction as there is no track and a fair amount of bush bashing is required. Southeast Cape is 3680 kilometres (as the crow flies) from the most northern tip of Australia’s Cape York.
In 1998 our eldest son and two friends walked part of the South Coast Track from Cockle Creek towards Melaleuca in the west. We met them on their return to Cockle Creek and after picking them up and hearing of their experiences we decided that we should be walking with them in future, not being chauffeurs. Our first walk together was to Frenchman’s Cap, a true wilderness walk.
Finding a suitable campsite in Recherche Bay is not easy. Locals set up camps and leave their caravans in situ all year round, even if they are not in attendance, and it’s because of this action it is hard for the casual visitor to find a spot. However after enquiring where we might camp we were directed to a nine out of ten idyllic spot.
The first French explorer, Jean-Francois de Galaup La Perouse, arrived in Australian waters in 1785. His sponsor was the French King Louis XVl who was inspired by Captain Cook’s Pacific voyages. The king ordered the French expedition to show the world that France was capable of dominating the world’s oceans as well. The ships under the command of La Perouse were La Boussole and L’Astrolabe and they carried 225 crew, officers and scientists.
French attitudes, including that of La Perouse were different to many other 18th century explorers. The French were primarily interested in discovery, places and the inhabitants they met in the newly discovered lands. This was not the case in other parts of the world such as North Africa where colonisation was more on their minds. A good read about European colonisation of Africa is The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu by Charlie English.
La Perouse arrived in Botany Bay just days after the English first fleet arrived from England in 1788. After leaving Botany Bay the La Perouse expedition ships disappeared and their fate remained a mystery until 1964 when the wrecks of La Boussole and L’Astrolabe were reportedly found on Vanikoro’s reef in the Solomon Islands. Anthropologist Dr Garrick Hitchcock of the Australian National University has cast new light on the La Perouse event by suggesting the last survivors of La Perouse’s voyage were wrecked in the ‘graveyard of ships’ near Murray Island in the Torres Strait. From my reading, it was a smaller vessel built by the surviving sailors, which was sailed west and wrecked on Murray Island. The following map shows the location of both the Vanikoro Reef and Murray Island.
There is a suburb on the shores of Botany Bay south of Sydney called La Perouse and as a child my father took me fishing there. Near where I fished there was a snake pit and I marvelled at the courage of the snake charmer who went into the pit picking up snakes and explaining how some were dangerous and others not.
The original snake man was ‘Professor’ Frederick Fox who set up the snake pit at La Perouse in the early 1900s. In 1920 George Cann took over the show and from 1965 his sons continued the tradition until 2010. Today, regardless of the dangers, the snake show is still presented by a dedicated band of reptile devotees.
Following the disappearance of La Perouse, Bruni d’ Entrecasteaux with the ships La Recherche and L’Esperance were dispatched to find them. D’ Entrecasteaux sailed across the Indian Ocean and by the time he arrived in southeast Tasmanian waters the ships were in urgent need of repair. Also the ships’ stocks of water and food needed replenishing and the bay now called Recherche Bay was the perfect place to carry out repairs and gather food and water. The ships remained anchored in the bay for four weeks and during that time the botanists and scientists established gardens and carried out scientific observations.
It will be difficult to describe my feelings at the sight of this solitary harbour situated at the extremities of the globe, so perfectly enclosed that one feels separated from the rest of the universe. Everything is influenced by the wilderness of the rugged landscape. With each step, one encounters the beauties of unspoilt nature… trees reaching a very great height, and of corresponding diameter…— Bruni d’Entrecasteaux, Recherche Bay, January 1793.
An observatory was set up on the north-eastern peninsula of Recherche Bay to observe the Earth’s magnetic fields. The observations marked the beginning of the science of geo-magnetism. The magnetic field studies made at that time resulted in more reliable compass navigation. Also established was a vegetable garden to determine if European vegetable and herb plants would grow in the local soils. When the French fleet left, the garden, now known as the French Garden, was presented to the local indigenous people as a gift of goodwill.
The vegetable garden site has attracted controversy as the private landowners of the site sought permission to selectively log the area, which was opposed by conservationists and historians. The site was important to Australians and every effort was made to save it from the chainsaw. In 2006 the Tasmanian Land Conservancy (TLC) announced they had raised over two million dollars to purchase and rehabilitate the site.
The expedition botanists, led by Jacques Labillardiere, catalogued five thousand plant specimens, including the blue gum (Euc. globulus), which later became Tasmania’s floral emblem and a widely planted eucalpyt in Australian gardens.
The Bruni d’ Entrecasteaux expedition was a resounding success from a scientific point of view. When the fleet arrived back in France the French Revolution was in full swing and the captain and officers were immediately imprisoned. The Labillardiere botanical collection became war booty. Eventually the collection fell into English hands but through Labillardiere’s friendship with the eminent English botanist, Joseph Banks, the collection was returned to France. Eventually Labilladiere was released from prison and soon after published a two-volume record relating to his botanical observations named Novae Hollandiae Plantarum Specimen or Nov Hol Pl for short. Unfortunately I have not been able to find out where the original is held but I’m working on it.
In the Royal Hobart Botanical Gardens there is a memorial to the French explorers and on a plaque is listed many of the French names given to places in Tasmania. To name a few: Freycinet, Bruny Island, Huon Valley, D’Entrecasteaux Channel and Recherche Bay.
Bob Brown retired Greens politician and conservationist, in an attempt to save the historic Recherche Bay foreshores from clear-fell logging, wrote: ‘It was obvious that the cultural exchange was not considered an invasion, it was an experience of wonderment and joy’.
These days the areas immediately outside the conservation area are suffering from an invasion in the form of clear-fell logging. Overseas visitors I have spoken to are dumbfounded that in the 21st century in Australia such wanton abuse is being effected so close to important historical sites.
There is a tragic modern day event relating to French botanist Labillardiere’s botanical collection held in the Jardin des Plantes at France’s Natural History Museum. Despite the collection surviving the French Revolution, World Wars 1 & 2 and budget cuts of recent years, Australian biodiversity officers destroyed a portion of his collection in 2017. What went wrong has never been made public and the whole event has been an embarrassment to the Australian Department of Agriculture and Water Resources. A botanist with the Queensland Herbarium had made a loan request, possibly seeking to confirm whether or not he had identified a new species in Queensland. The collection, which the French authorities were happy for him to borrow were destroyed, much to the horror of both the people of France and Australia.
Some might question the loss of a few old sticks and leaves but portion of the collection destroyed are what the botanists call ‘type specimens’. They were the first examples of new species ever collected. They were, as the French newspaper Le Monde put it, ‘the memory of the planet’.
During our stay in the Recherche Bay area we canoed in the wake of the French explorers and scientists. It’s difficult to describe the feeling when one stands where former explorers stood. I can’t help but think about what everyday chitchat was about, how they were dressed, what were the common man’s aspirations and desires and what must have gone through their minds when they saw for the first time Australia’s incredible wildlife such as the kangaroo, echidna or platypus. Sailors returning to families in France would have captivated audiences with tales of their adventures.
There are still unusual things to observe in the Recherche Bay and one geological feature captured my curiosity.
The geological explanation relating to these formations is somewhat complicated so I sent copies of the images to Dr Luke Milan at the University of New England and his reply was: ‘They are looking like concretions to me. This is where after a sedimentary rock is formed, fluids move through the rock via the pore spaces (open spaces between the packed in grains of sediment and minerals), new minerals can precipitate cementing the grains together. This makes the rock far harder and more resistant to weathering than the surrounding rock, thus they stand proud and obvious. They are usually cannon balls in shape but you can get lots of weird shapes’.
Before closing this post there is one last topic that needs mentioning and it refers to a possible tourist development in Recherche Bay. A developer intends establishing a two-storey floating resort at the point where the French ships entered the bay. The resort will be in the shape of the ships, Recherche and Esperance.
All I have to say about this development (and other developments in wilderness areas) is: I used to think Utopia hung over the Southern Wilderness but with the establishment of lodges and resorts in the wilderness my Utopia is slipping away to be lost forever.
Note re antipodean: people of the northern hemisphere used the word ‘antipodes’ to refer to Australia and New Zealand and antipodeans to their inhabitants. It was long believed that the inhabitants of these countries were the opposite of people living in Britain and Ireland. For example, antipodeans had two left feet, two heads, four arms and other grotesque features.
That’s the end of another adventure. Bev and I trust you have enjoyed going to Recherche Bay with us, and the diversions along the way. Should you wish to continue with us click on FOLLOW and you will be alerted each time we do a posting. Also please feel free to make a comment via the comment box.
This is the last post for 2018, the next post will probably come to you from Europe. In April Bev and I are heading for Zurich once again from where we hope to continue along the Eurovelo 6 cycle path to Lyon then to the west coast of France, north through the WW1 battlefields and on to Denmark and Sweden. There is a canal that runs from the west coast of Sweden to Stockholm called the Gota Canal and we hope to ride our bicycles along it. From Sweden there is the possibility of taking a ferry to Estonia and riding south through Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and back to Zurich. However these are rough intentions at the moment, but I must say without a dream I cannot function into the future.