The country along the Huon River had been known to Europeans for a couple of decades. The French had come up the river under Bruni d’Entrecasteaux. He had assigned the river’s name in honour of the commander of one of his vessels, Huon de Kermadec. That was 1792.
Pre-eminent naturalist Robert Brown led a journey down the Huon in 1804, before declaring it unsuitable for settlement. But there was now knowledge of the country’s geography and the first scattered settlements appeared.
In 1819, for example, someone called I. Riddell came and scratched his name into a tree.
In the 1820s, an absconded convict with the surname of Martin was found at a makeshift campsite at what is now the township of Franklin. As was so often the case with the bolters of colonial Van Diemen’s Land, this Martin had escaped into a location with a wealth of resources. The river, the wetlands, and the hinterland of eucalypt forest were full of life; here it was possible for an outcast to find shelter, find food, make fire and survive.
However, as elsewhere in Tasmania, these colonial outposts required ingenuity and bravery. New settlers would live in bark huts and work long hours. Everything was home-made. Conflict with the original Tasmanian population was also prevalent in this period of history, and these remote settlements were exposed.
After the development of a bridle track the following decade, the Huon Valley became one of the most fecund agricultural areas on the island. Even Lady Jane Franklin acquired a large block of land and put it to use.
The Huon River came to have over 70 jetties; even with the bridle track, it made more sense to use the water as a road. Vessels without engines were replaced by steamers and soon enough, a Huon resident would be able to take an early-morning boat ride to Hobart.
Like many others, George Lucas shipped timber upstream. He felled the trees on his property Ranelagh, today the name of a village of about 1000 people. Many of their predecessors are remembered in stone in the churches’ graveyards.
It was here I woke up one winter’s morning, a few years back. Not quite in the cemetery, amongst the tombstones of my predecessors, but in the adjacent park. Sometimes after midnight, I had arrived from the Huon Valley Midwinter Feast, the local wassailing festival. (It is one of my favourite festivals and I’m sorry to have had to miss it this year). Giddy with cider and bock, I’d sort-of put up my tent and slept in it. When I woke up, the sun was melting the frost. The resonant voices of the Sunday morning flock rose from the Anglican church-house, joining the mist lifting from the Huon. Some children were hunting for Pokémon – now that’s history.
What makes a person try and mark their time and place in the world so definitely, to scribble their name on a wall or scratch it into a tree? If ever I needed to fix myself somewhere, it may have been that morning in Ranelagh. I was completely untethered for the day – no car, no mobile phone, no plans, no companions. I went and found a wallaby pie for breakfast, and wandered off, unregistered, with the other old souls of the Huon Valley.