I am deeply dispirited. I have some sad news. My impulsive project to walk from the mouth to the source of the Derwent River will be thwarted by greed and other human characteristics of a negative nature. Despite this situation, I am working on a new plan to reach the source of the Derwent River at Lake St Clair Lagoon in a physical and meaningful way and, once I have fleshed out the details, a future post will offer an explanation. Meanwhile, after you read the following, your suggestions will be most welcome.
During stages 1-14, from time to time I recorded how access to the actual river edge was sometimes denied me because properties were fenced and gated. I bemoaned the fact that across Tasmania, in many instances the law provides that property owners own land and water to half way across rivers. While a ‘grace and favour access’ or by ‘a permission granted approval’ process exists in some places, much of our river edges cannot be walked freely. Yet in so many European countries ‘right of way’ paths and walking trails across the land have been taken for granted for centuries so there is much more freedom to simply enjoy being outdoors. Non-indigenous settlement is too recent in Tasmania so a criss-cross of ‘ancient’ walking paths has not been established, and the pathways of the inhabitants prior to settlement, the aborigines, either have been obliterated or knowledge of their location is not easily available to the non-indigenous population.
Photo of the Derwent River taken through a house block on the western edge of the town of New Norfolk.
The damage is done and to repeal laws and ‘take away’ land from owners would be political suicide, and cries of unfairness and for expensive compensation would abound. I can imagine the legislation arose partly from consideration of the practicality as to who or which organisation would maintain the thousands of kilometres of river edges across Tasmania and keep them clear from bracken, blackberry brambles and exotic weeds.
Can you spot the River through these profusely growing weeds?
While walking for leisure purposes has a history in Tasmania since the beginning of European settlement, our early legislators did not have a crystal ball to see that the 21st century is one in which many people want a healthy lifestyle that involves exploring and accessing our natural environment without barriers.
Unfortunately, a damaging minority of people are greedy, thoughtless, and cannot be trusted to meet their promises. The consequence is what I found during Stage 15 and what I can foresee for Stage 16. I soon realised that almost no free/public access to the River exists between New Norfolk and Gretna, and it seems this will also be true for any future inland push along the River.
After leaving New Norfolk on the westward proceeding Glenora Road on the southern/western side of the Derwent River, I soon registered paddocks and more paddocks had been recently re-fenced with fresh spiky barbed-wire.
Note second fence line inside and parallel to the barbed wire fence line.
This year, the Australian Federal Government budget made a concession for small business owners and granted an immediate full tax deduction for expenses up to $20,000. My conclusion was that farmers in the Derwent Valley grabbed this opportunity and used it to protect the limits of their properties.
As a child my father showed me how to pass through barbed wire fences. The process is best with two people but one can do it. You put your shoed foot on a lower strand of wire to hold it down, then pull the next one up and slip through the enlarged space hoping not to be spiked by the barbs. But today’s farmers in the Derwent Valley know this trick. Since they don’t want people on their land, the wires are now extremely taut and the spacing between many lines of wire is only about 10-15cm. If an adult expects to pass through the barbed wire fences of Derwent Valley farmers then Dad’s technique cannot work.
Barbed wire fences were not my only barrier to accessing the Derwent River. Gates presented insurmountable challenges. Almost all gates that I arrived at were padlocked. That hasn’t always stopped people accessing a property because the use of strong square wires or other metals in gate construction usually helps you with a footing to lift up and over the top. Not so with many Derwent Valley farmers’ gates. The new gates either are ringed in barbed wire or are wrought iron with high straight verticals which provide no place for feet. For me these were unclimbable.
Very occasionally I came across older fencing that had minimal or no barbed wire and seemed very climbable. But alas. These fences had an additional strand attached; an electrified line. Intended to keep the cattle in and from trampling fence lines, these electric fences were an absolute barrier for walkers like me.
In places, farmers had cleverly left overgrown tangles of thorny blackberry canes that extended down paddocks and into the river, as an impossible barrier near their fence lines.
I came across signs such as ‘Private Property’ and on one occasion the sign warned that ‘Trespassers would be prosecuted’.
Even access was limited to the very open Sports Ground at Bushy Park, one which contains almost no infrastructure. This Sports Ground edges the Styx River as it flows into the Derwent River.
The sign pictured below was particularly annoying because it was suggesting that permission might be given if a request was made. However, I couldn’t get access to ask for permission to walk across the land. Once on the spot, there was no way to discover who the landowner was and then to somehow connect with them using technology.
On a particularly wonderful luscious green hill that wound around the Derwent heading for Gretna, one where walking close to the river would have been a great pleasure, the sign ‘Trespassers will be shot’ was a strong deterrent.
During my walk I had decided that perhaps anglers had not respected the limited access they were given to the River at key points, via styles over fences. I mused that perhaps fishermen had strayed further than permitted, wrecked fences and generally not left the land as they found it.
Blog follower Jo told me a story of how a few men had prearranged with a landowner to come and fish in his dam. After their weekend of fishing they emailed the landowner with thanks for the opportunity to take home 50kgs of fish. Needless to say, this greed was rewarded by the owner telling the fishing party never again to ask for permission to enter his land.
Later at the Gretna Green Hotel where I waited for the bus back to Hobart after completing the Stage 15 walk, I talked with a local about the reason for the impenetrable barriers to properties. Apparently wood lifting, and cattle and sheep rustling used to be rife in the Derwent Valley until farmers closed their borders. Not only would people drive onto properties to chop down trees and collect sufficient fire wood for their own personal needs, they would bring trucks in and take loads away to sell. All without the permission of the land owner. Similarly, whole cows and sheep would disappear in their droves overnight. Regularly. Modern day farmers’ costs are high, their income comparatively low for the hard work they put in, and so they were unprepared to subsidise the living of others. Their fences and gates have become good barriers – not perfect, because occasionally some unscrupulous wanderers bring bolt and fence cutters. Nevertheless, as a walker with no intent to leave my mark on the land, I cannot proceed.
In my last steps walking into Gretna, I passed the two paddocks through which I envisaged Stage 16 would start. But both had impassable fences and gates with padlocks. For the next stage, which was expected to cover the area from Gretna to Hamilton via the river, there are at least 4 property owners and who knows how many padlocked gates, bramble congested river edges, barbed wire and electric fences. It is not realistic to ask owners to come and unlock the padlocks and then relock them after I pass through.
While it is true, and you will read details in future posts, that I did access the river from time to time during Stage 15 and experienced some wonderful locations, for most of the walk I was deeply depressed about the limitations under which my project is being placed. I am pleased that writing this post has helped purge some of that anger and frustration. Now that the situation has been recorded, I feel much more ready to be positive again and determine a new way to reach my goal. The goal remains the same, but the process must be modified.