I was home on holidays recently and caught up with relatives including my great aunt who I used to stay with on occasion when I was little. She was very good to me and we always had a great time. I’ve developed an interest in fly fishing (it allows for quiet contemplation in cool climates which is my kind of thing – and most importantly, a whole new line of gear to start hoarding) and was keen to talk to her husband as knew he was an avid fly fisherman back in the day.
He’d jackaroo’d in Western Australia before spending three-and-a-half years in the navy during World War Two. While on convoy duty in the Arafura Sea off northern Australia they’d trail lines off the back of the ship and catch fish big enough that all 110 men on board got a taste. After the war he moved to Tasmania and took up lodgings at the YMCA in Hobart whilst he studied to become a lawyer. He was a keen fly fisherman and hiker in the Tasmanian Highlands in the area between Cradle Mountain and Great Lake in the days before many of the current roads were built and access was along tracks used by anglers, shepherds, hikers and possum trappers. He’d ask his fellow lodgers at the YMCA if they would like to join him hiking and they’d laugh – they were ex-soldiers and had done all the marching they ever wanted to do during the War.
On fishing trips he and his friends would often borrow a pack horse to carry in supplies to one of the numerous huts in the highlands. After unloading it they’d slap the horse on the rump and it would eventually find its own way down and back to its owner. He spoke of fish so thick when the trout were running that every cast would land a fish and of people carrying fish home to bury in their backyards as fertilizer they were so many to be taken. They’d go fishing for the day and leave a curry of trout and rice slowly cooking and skim the fat off when they got back in the afternoon. A thick fog could descend quickly and the only thing to do was to make a fire if you could and wait it out. When they needed water in a thick fog they tied fishing line around someone’s wrist so they could reel him back in without getting lost when he came back from the lake.
There were some characters, heavy drinkers and heavy heads in the alpine huts from drinking “to keep warm of course”. One character would sit on the floor when he started drinking “so I can’t fall any further”. A notorious (non-drinking) individual would rise at dawn to throw stones on the corrugated iron roof of the hut to the great annoyance of those nursing heavy heads from the night before. He talked of hiking along the Overland Track before being turned back by heavy snow and of stand-offs with Tasmanian Devils that felt entitled to right-of-way and were not minded to yield to any man. I asked about Tasmanian Tigers – the last died in captivity in the 1920s and has taken on mythological status since – he said there were sightings but usually by people who were drunk.
He spoke of the eccentrics with strong fly fishing ethics. Anglers that would stalk a particular fish they could see lying in the pools by wearing polarized lenses. They’d take that fish alone and refuse to take any other. Others with less fishing ethics (well, none) would throw gin bottles with carbide in them into the water that would stun the fish. Another disreputable fishing method was to stun fish in shallow water by firing a .303 rifle with its barrel in the water. The fish would float to the surface to be collected. There were hermits who lived in huts and shepherds who tended sheep. Once a friend who was getting on in years – he had been a fighter pilot in World War One – became sick and they took him to a shepherd’s cabin to recuperate for a few days lying “like a sandwich” in sheep skins treated with arsenic. He was fine a few days later.
Possum trappers were among those who knew the tracks best and they asked one by the name of “Stumpy” – so called because he was short and wide – to show them a particular track. Stumpy obliged but he was so quick over steep and rough terrain that they couldn’t keep up. The good news is he is still going strong and planning to head to Cooma this season with the rod he imported from the United States in the 1950s. I’ve only been to Tasmania and to the Cradle Mountain area once in my early teens – Tobes knows the area well, so I’ve asked him to include some photos. It’s hard not to be envious imagining what it would have been like in the 1940s and 1950s.
Footnote: these photos are a selection from my trip down the Overland Track – surely Australia’s best multi day hike – and shorter walks around both ends of the track at Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair. T