In South West Tasmania, 1999

View of QueenstownMacquarie-Harbour Tasmania

[Notes from a trip to south west Tasmania fourteen years ago.]

In South West Tasmania (1999)


This is a dead mining company town. The pervading atmosphere is that of my childhood in the 50s and 60s. Most people one sees seem to be of the working poor. A van passes marked ‘Redundancy Tours’: the industrial worker is redundant, surplus to requirements on the dust heap of history. In the town’s square there isn’t even a bored youth to be seen. The Paragon Theatre is ‘closed until further notice.’ There are four pubs, one closed, and one welfare office. On the main street a steam train is exhibited. From it issues a ghostly recorded sound of a steam train. It all feels a little like a cheap film set.

For kilometres around the town, the landscape is one of utter desolation, a moon landscape that was once, unbelievably, a rainforest. The two rivers, aptly named the King River and the Queen River, flowing on to Macquarie Harbour, are now completely dead. Mining for gold began here at Mt Lyell in 1893. Then silver and copper were also mined. The end result is that biotic life in the rivers has been replaced by around 90 million tonnes of heavy metal tailings (lead, copper, silver). According to the Mt Lyell Company, the rivers will remain devoid of life for 200 years after the mine closes. Mt Lyell may now be re-opened if an Indian transnational, Vedanta Resources, buys it. The heavy metal rivers now support jet boat tours.

In 1912 the Mt Lyell mine was the site of an underground fire disaster in which 43 men died. The miners’ bodies were buried in unmarked graves in the Queenstown General cemetery.

We can find neither a good restaurant nor fresh food. Industrial malnutrition and weakened lungs seem to define life in this place. A hand-written notice displayed in shops reads: ‘Support your local Asthma/Emphysema Support Group – the incidence of asthma/emphysema is high in Queenstown and the West Coast/Zeehan’.

We notice that German names keep cropping up: Schulze’s milk bar, Wolfe’s, the Abt Railway was opened by superintendent’s wife Mrs Sticht. Yet the list of the 43 dead miners of 1912 reveals no German names. Perhaps the Germans were post-world war migrants like myself, seeking and finding a better life, escaping the ruins to create new ones.


At the Visitors’ Centre there is an exhibition euphemistically called ‘West Coast Reflections’. It deals with Strahan’s convict history. Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour was a convict concentration camp: between 1823 and 1834, before Port Arthur was built for ‘double felonies’, and about 300 convicts were kept there on 12 ½ acres. Tasmanian Governor Arthur’s philosophy of penal reform was simple: the application of hard labour and torture.

To these ends the cat-o-nine-tails whip was ‘improved’ and carefully applied to maximise pain: waxed tips or nails were added, the whipping slowly applied at one minute intervals to allow the skin to swell and increase the pain levels. Solitary confinement was in utter darkness.

As in the English school prefect system, and like the Nazis, the divide-and-rule of a ‘capo’ system was used: some convicts were made superintendents over the others. Nazi and Gulag vocabulary was also used a century before Europe: ‘commandant’, ‘commissariat’.

Recalcitrant convicts were segregated on Grommet Island Rock where twelve were crammed into a small room, each convict thus only being able to sleep on his side. At dawn convicts were rowed up the Franklin River to work till sunset cutting pine for boat and ship building. Until they went on strike, they had to work in water that was eight degrees Celsius. Things also improved after they murdered an officer on Grommet Rock Island. It seems violence does sometimes achieve results.

Some convicts managed to escape, even as far as to China and Chile. These escapees were often handed back to British authorities who re-tried them and sent them back to Van Diemen’s Land. Two who escaped became well known: Alexander Peirce for his cannibalism on his fellow escapees, Mathew Brady who became a bushranger and tried to return and liberate his fellow convicts by force but was betrayed.

Both suicide and the murder of fellow prisoners were used as means of escaping the hell of Macquarie Harbour. Physical punishment often increased the prisoners’ recalcitrance.

Macquarie Harbour is a wide expanse of breathtaking beauty and terrible sombreness. As the tourist boat passed Sarah Island we all, even those of us who did not know its history, became deathly silent and felt the air thicken. It was like passing a black hole emitting no light, no sound.


Vedanta Resources did buy and reopen the Mt Lyell mine. In December 2013 it suspended operations when two maintenance fitters, aged 25 and 45, died deep underground in a mine shaft fall.

In Indian Vedanta, the universe is the play (lila) of the Supreme Being, the succession of his many masks. The spiritual task is not to be fooled by this delusion.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on December 11, 2013.

5 Responses to “In South West Tasmania, 1999”

  1. I can’t say I “like” this really it’s dreadful. Is this a view from the future we are rapidly approaching? Hemce the cryptic comment at the end.
    Your boyhood growing up sounds a bit like mine in Central Africa: Hot, dry, bright and lacking any aesthetic qualities.
    And the sadistic cruelty. Part of the social control of course, to encourage all the others, not to buck against the traces.


    The Mining Company worldview still imbues our world to our detriment- and the world itself to a lesser degree because “it” is hardier than we are… the picture of the ex-Rainforest says it all

    • Yep, Nick. And the ‘mining company worldview’ is particularly strong in Australia, and always has been. From small time proletarian miners on the goldfields to BHP’s and Rio Tinto’s One big quarry for the world market.

  3. I live just downstream from the Butte open pit copper mine, for many decades the “richest hill on earth” and worlds largest open pit. Now it is the largest taxpayer fueled “Superfund” site. Miles of poisoned streams and landscape but hey, it was work! And profit.

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