Back to the calm

In layers of sedimentary rock or in ice cores, we can uncover natural history and understand a little of what our world was like long ago. In old cities, such as Edinburgh, we can observe similar layers of human history. In some parts of the city, each layer below the present-day street represents an era further in to the past. These distinct layers make up the ongoing story of a place. Some layers are long and stable, some are short and dramatic. In the layers of local human history, we not only find interactions with the place itself, we find the changing ideas and beliefs that chart the course of humanity.

At Freestone Point, 4km south of Triabunna on Tasmania’s east coast, there is a 43-hectare parcel of land which can tell a layered story of humanity with a symbolic significance that, in some ways, rivals those of the great cities of the world. It is a site that can be viewed as a prism for reflecting social and political life in Tasmania for thousands of years and across vastly different eras. But its story is globally relevant. In recent history, the site was known by many Tasmanians as the Gunns Triabunna woodchip mill. Today, it is rapidly becoming known as Spring Bay Mill.

. . .

For thousands of years, people of the Oyster Bay Nation spent time on the land near Triabunna as they moved up and down the east coast, inland towards the southern midlands, and across to Maria Island by canoe. A rock shelter where seafood, freshly taken from around the sandstone ledges, was cooked and eaten still reveals physical layers as part of a memoir written in earth.

On the other side of the point, a larger midden reveals shells from brown and black mussels, warrener, limpet and whelk. It’s not hard to see why it was a popular place for thousands of years: sculpted sandstone cliffs interact with little coves to meet clear waters where shell fish are plentiful; casuarina and eucalypt forests provide shelter and plenty of edible plants; and when the wind lashes one side of the Freestone Point, the other side often remains calm.

What's left of the wharf and ship loader

In the early 1800s, after millennia, permanence was shattered. Forests began being felled. Sheep arrived. Whales were beached and slaughtered in Orford and Spring Bay, their bones still revealed from time to time as sand shifts on beaches surrounding the Mill.

Within a stone’s throw of the ancient rock shelter, another relic of this era emerges from a sandstone cliff hidden in bushland, a mill-stone quarry from the mid-1800s. Huge sandstone mill wheels were chiselled out of the cliff to be transported by horse and cart to colonial industries throughout the state. One even remains, half-finished, and begs the question why. On cliffs nearby, bricks were cut for the General Post Office in Melbourne.

The next distinct layer didn’t come until 1972, when the site became home to the world’s largest woodchip mill and gradually became a protagonist in the “forest wars” that would divide, hurt and, for some, define Tasmania for decades.

The site was transformed into a huge industrial complex. Just above the middens, a colossal mountain of woodchips, with a base the size of four football ovals, became an ever-present feature of the landscape. The only calm deep-water port on the east coast was established to ship the chips overseas. Fifty thousand truck-loads of trees – almost a million tonnes – rolled into the site every year, for 40 years.

Most of the “feed” for the chip mill came from the old growth forests south of Hobart. Not so long ago, a fully laden truck would pass through the capital every few minutes en route to Triabunna. Tens of millions of trees were turned to chips at this site and conveyed in to the waiting ships.

How this world changed in 200 years.

As the years passed, concern about the industry grew as it became more powerful and brazen. The mill and its ship-loading port was a critical component of an increasingly divisive forest industry. Aside from its logistical role in turning trees into chips and shipping them overseas, it was a potent and visible symbol of a huge industry. The constant flow of log trucks careering along the narrow winding highways leading to the mill, the ships filling on the wharf and the now almost incomprehensible mountain of wood chips that stole the view of Maria Island from the Tasman Highway, provided a visual on the scale of the forests disappearing in remote places.

The log loader

Typically, one in 10 logs from the old growth forests of southern Tasmania were used for sawn hardwood timber. The other 90 per cent, termed “waste wood” by the industry, went through the chipper at Triabunna. The protests got bigger and the campaign spread to the international buyers of the chips. Gunns became increasingly aggressive towards environmentalists and showed increasing disdain for due process, famously attempting to sue 20 environmentalists in 2004 and then withdrawing from the environmental approvals process in 2007.

Not too long after, the business, and the industry, began to collapse. The public had lost faith. The banks had lost faith. In 2011, the chip mill ceased operating. It had no buyers for its chips.

A few months later, having replaced its long-term CEO and deciding to use only plantation timber, Gunns sold the site to environmentalists Jan Cameron and Graeme Wood. It took both the industry and environmentalists by surprise. The following year Gunns went into administration.

After a few years of desperate attempts by parts of the timber industry to regain the strategic site, an uneventful government inquiry in to the sale and talk of compulsory acquisition by the Tasmanian Liberal government, Graeme Wood took full ownership of the property. He and his partner Anna Cerneaz began forming a new vision for the property, and so began the next distinct chapter in the story of a small headland on Tasmania’s east coast.

. . .

In keeping with those that preceded it, this next layer is dramatically different to the one that it builds upon. It is a highly evocative, unique site to work with. There is something haunting yet exhilarating about the juxtaposition of the brutal, rusting infrastructure that possessed such power set in the arresting natural beauty of Spring Bay and Maria Island. The two extremes wrestle for your attention.

On the way up to the industrial yellow gate that lumbers sideways to let you drive in, it is easy to miss the neat paddock next to Paddy’s Beach leased by Spring Bay Mill to produce a diverse range of organic fruit, herbs, vegetables and honey for the kitchen, as well as for locals on a weekly basis. Across the property, more than 10,000 plants have been planted, land has been rehabilitated, accommodation has been built, decrepit industrial buildings have been transformed.

The administration building before renovation

Once through the gate, you follow the route of hundreds of thousands of log trucks up to the gatehouse and over the weighbridge. Maria Island and the vast former log yard appear before. Two massive yellow log loaders block your way and the road peels into a parking area next to what was once the Gunns administration building for the chip mill.

It is now known as the Banksia Room, in honour of the beautiful Banksia serrata that the courtyard has been delicately built around, a rare endemic plant that must have been planted by mill workers decades ago. The Banksia Room is a stunning reimagining of the previous building, which was completely stripped and rebuilt. With the help of Spring Bay Mill architect Ross Brewin and interior designer Claire Ferri, it has been transformed from utilitarian decay to the most warm and modern space, with an attention to detail that constantly catches the eye. With most of the internal walls gone, the building is set up with the latest technology to host diverse events and serve as the site reception, bar and a lounge area.

In keeping with layers long past, large sandstone boulders were dug up on site, milled up the road in Buckland and artistically placed to form the most stunning paving that runs through the Banksia Room, into the courtyard and frames the giant firepit. Following this walkway through the courtyard takes you on to the Tin Shed, which was once central to the woodchip production line. It is now the heart and soul of Spring Bay Mill. It has retained its raw industrial feel, but a rough-cut insulated timber floor, folding back wall and entertainment balcony have been added. The tin shed has outstanding natural acoustics and has already hosted a variety of acclaimed artists.  

One of the most striking structures on the site is the huge concrete 270-degree arc of the former slew wall that now sits on a smooth hilltop. The structure once supported the gantry’s 50-metre swivelling neck that shaped the ever-present mountain of chips received conveyed from the chipper.

Standing inside the slew walls, they tower above you, sending your voice around the arc, and place you within a strange post-industrial amphitheatre. And so, by mid-2020, amphitheatre it will be. By adding a movable stage and rotating seating around the central pole, a flexible performance space that can be adapted for audience sizes and orientate in different directions according to weather or time of day is cleverly created. There will not be another one of these anywhere in the world. This is part of what makes Spring Bay Mill so special – you would never come up with their designs, nor the vision, if you weren’t working with an immense former chip mill.

There are two huge concrete bunkers around the foot of the hill facing to the sea, through which chips were once sucked from above and then shot out on conveyers to the ship-loader on the wharf. One of them particularly conjures a sense of being in a refuge from the apocalypse. This one has hosted an intimate soprano concert and they are both earmarked for exciting adaptations in the next year or two. The current talk at Spring Bay Mill is for a small event space, whisky bar, “library for the end of the world” and even a sauna and plunge pool.

The administration building after renovation

Spring Bay Mill aims to become a sought-after destination for all sorts of events, but a core part of the market will be a venue for retreats, workshops, gatherings, and the like for corporates and organisations.

Part of the argument against forestry had always been that, apart from the unique and intrinsic values of Tasmania’s wild places, future economic opportunities in tourism were being destroyed. Eight years on from the demise of Gunns, tourism has grown exponentially. Visitors to Maria Island are increasing 30 per cent year-on-year.

Spring Bay Mill has recently bought a boat for charter trips and has employed experienced experts in adventure and eco-tourism and education with this to be another pillar of the activities based out of the mill.

One hour from Hobart Airport and with growing demand nationally and internationally for experiences that respect the environment and leave participants with something unique and lasting, even inspiring, Spring Bay Mill is a business for this time.

The layers of Edinburgh reveal tales of public health advances, the birth of the industrial revolution, prosperity and poverty. Spring Bay Mill can tell a story with an even wider historical lens, revealing thousands of years of humans living as part of nature, through a colonial era of struggling to conquer it and into the forestry era, where an industry – and an idea – with seemingly no eye to permanence, possibly reached its peak in Tasmania.

Now we see a new layer emerging, a new idea forming, in which we might again live as if we intend to be here for millennia.

Entrance to the revamped administration building

. . .

James Dryburgh

A publisher once told James that when he is asked for his bio, he should say: “James writes subversive essays about important things.” James felt a bit awkward about saying this publically, but secretly he liked it. He has written for many publications. His books are Essays from Near and Far, Walleah Press, 2014 and The Balfour Correspondent, Bob Brown Foundation, 2017.

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