Sanctuary of Solace

Published 06 Jun 2019 

When award-winning author Nikki Gemmell visited Bush Heritage’s Liffey Valley reserves in Tasmania, she discovered a landscape where quietness reigns, far removed from her hometown of Sydney.

Wet sclerophyll forest on Liffey River Reserve, Tas. Photo by Wayne Lawler/Ecopix.
Wet sclerophyll forest on Liffey River Reserve, Tas. Photo by Wayne Lawler/Ecopix.
From Launceston Airport the land flattens and the sky widens and you breathe out as the city stresses wash from you like grime, and your soul unfurls.

You drive through the beautifully named Liffey Valley past paddocks of long grass bleached by the sun and tilting barns with corrugated iron roofs curled like leaves.

In the parlance of Henry James, you’re arrowing into a ‘great good place’; somewhere that brings you to recovery and rest. And as you head to the distant blue hills it feels like you’re diving into a secret world.

But it’s for all of us.

You arrive. Step out of your car. The freshness of the air hits you like an embrace.

Day Access Encouraged’ says the sign by the Liffey River that leads you to Bob Brown’s humble cottage, which he’s gifted to the nation through Bush Heritage, and how blessed we all are to have access to this wild land. It rests on the very edge of the vast Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, but the wrong edge – because once the loggers were eyeing it off.

Valley of Bracken Fern amongst Black Wattle at Liffey River. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.
Valley of Bracken Fern amongst Black Wattle at Liffey River. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.
Now, endangered Wedge-tailed Eagles soar above you and a Platypus hides under the bridge and deep in the bush are many native species, whose habitat will never be disturbed.

This magic idyll deep in north-central Tasmania is called Oura Oura; named after the cry of the Yellow-tailed Black-cockatoo.

A humble wooden cottage huddles like a closed fist beneath the great loom of an escarpment with a sheer rock face at its crest. Bob has climbed to the summit many times, once on a moonlit night when he was robbed of sleep by some fractious political entanglement and needed to think.

He writes all his books at Oura Oura, by kerosene lamp or candle. There’s no electricity, he doesn’t need it.

Tasmanian Aboriginal Community member Hank Horton passing cultural knowledge down to the next generation; Oura Oura Reserve, Tas. Photo by Chris Crerar.
Tasmanian Aboriginal Community member Hank Horton passing cultural knowledge down to the next generation; Oura Oura Reserve, Tas. Photo by Chris Crerar.
Just down the road is Liffey River Reserve, which Bob bought in 1990. He got wind of two logging sites of immense ecological value up for sale, roped in a friend to do his bidding with money he’d won for an environmental prize. It covered the deposit but he had to find the rest, fast. That was when the non-profit Bush Heritage Australia was swiftly born, of a beautiful idea: to acquire land in order to protect it, forever.

Two hundred and seventy-five hectares have grown to 1.24 million right across Australia, with an additional 7.62 million managed in partnership. Bob says that Bush Heritage has effectively created a suite of private national parks. Goodness shines.

“Bush Heritage Australia is a landscape of happiness,” says Bob, and you can feel it here and among Bush Heritage staff. Good people, doing good things, for all of us.

And so to the cradle of a national movement now generating work for around 100 people. The Liffey River Reserve is a sanctuary for the Spotted-tail Quoll, Platypus, White Goshawk and Tasmanian Devil.

By the river, White Gums shoot to the sun – dead straight and obscenely tall at more than 50 metres high – announcing that you’ve reached a very special place. A wet sclerophyll wonderland awaits, of Sassafras, myrtle, Stringybark, White Gum and tree fern.

Liffey is a last stronghold for White Gum Wet Forest, one of the most extensively cleared communities in Tasmania.

This land has a layered past, story upon story; of Aboriginal people pushed from their land and snarers who came for the possum fur and then loggers and then environmentalists.

Dotted through the ferny undergrowth are mighty tree stumps, some still with shoeboard holes in them from the loggers. Six men holding hands in a circle would have just skirted the stumps’ girths; this reserve is populated by the sad ghosts of mighty trees.

Relict of pioneer timber harvesting at Liffey River Reserve. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.
Relict of pioneer timber harvesting at Liffey River Reserve. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.
We walk on an old logging path called a Snig Track now maintained by volunteers who keep the Blackberry bushes and Fox Glove at bay; this is a regenerating temperate rainforest. It feels like a hidden paradise, a sanctuary of solace.

Bugger the kids, I laugh to Bush Heritage Reserve Manager Annette Dean; they can fend for themselves after I’m gone – my money’s now going to Bush Heritage. For after all, the land it manages is their future too.

Sarah Eccles is a Bush Heritage Aboriginal Partnerships Officer. She says Bush Heritage is about looking after country.

“The reality of my work is cultural survival. We’re raising the next generation of carers. The kids are educating their parents.”

There are Aboriginal cultural activities at Oura Oura and plans to convert its barn into an education centre for the Tasmanian Aboriginal community, locals, day visitors, school groups and the loggers’ children and their children. So that Australia has this land preserved forever – and so that as many of us as possible understand why that’s important. Goodness shines.

Nikki Gemmell is the author of 15 books, both fiction and non fiction. She writes a column in The Weekend Australian Magazine. Her next novel, The Ripping Tree, will be published early next year.

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