Bruny Island: Tasmania’s adventure islands

By Tim Dub June 16, 2009
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Easy to get to, hard to leave: this spectacular island off southern Tasmania enchants all who come across on the ferry.

BUFFETED BY SOUTH-EASTERLY winds, I trudged up the wooden steps to Big Hummock lookout on Bruny Island Neck, the 5 km long isthmus of dunes connecting north and south Bruny Island.

I lost count of the steps after 87, distracted by tracks and burrows – signs of a nesting colony shared by little penguins and short-tailed shearwaters – in the sand on either side.

At the top I paused for breath at a memorial to the ill-fated Tasmanian Aboriginal woman, Truganini; her proud face, portrayed in bronze, keeping vigil over the homeland to which her ashes were eventually returned.

In the far distance loomed the unmistakable outline of Hobart’s Mount Wellington over which great black rain clouds were gathering. I leaned into the cold wind as I turned and looked across Neck Beach, a sweeping 10 km long crescent of magnificent white sand, constantly cleansed and replenished by the relentless pounding of ocean breakers.

A kilometre offshore, thousands of muttonbirds in a feeding frenzy plundered a huge shoal of krill while westwards, in the protected waters of D’Entrecasteaux Channel, a pair of black swans punted up and down, unhurried and dignified, while a tugboat slowly towed a cage of live salmon.

Business is booming for Tasmanian island

While much of the island’s attraction lies in its blend of wildness and civilisation, Bruny’s easy accessibility from Hobart adds to its appeal. It’s 20 minutes on the car ferry from Kettering, 30 km south of the Tasmanian capital, to Roberts Point on the western side of north Bruny.

On a fine summer’s day, the noisy crowds of daytrippers and holidaymakers onboard leave little doubt Bruny Island has been ‘discovered’. In the 12 months to September last year, 44,460 overseas and interstate tourists – 6 per cent of Tasmania’s total – explored its rich maritime, indigenous and European history and stunning natural environments.

In another sign of Bruny’s increasing popularity, property prices are going though the roof. In early 2003 for example, 26 year-old Mark Hansson bought an 80 ha farm that for a decade had been on the market for $250,000. Eight months later, he knocked back a $1 million offer for just half the property. The 2001 census recorded a new peak of 617 permanent residents on Bruny. Many new buildings are in the form of comfortable town houses rather than the traditional spartan holiday shacks, suggesting that the population continues to grow. For generations, Bruny’s shack owners have been an important component of the island’s social mix, many arriving from the mainland for weekends and school holidays.

Some Bruny residents are pleased about the island’s growing popularity, but others are concerned too much development could spoil their home’s unique character.

Dutch explorer Abel Tasman was the first European to put Bruny’s 300 km coastline on the map. His 1642 attempt to land on south Bruny’s eastern side was thwarted by strong north-westerly winds but the area, later named Adventure Bay, went on to become well known among 18th and 19th-century sailors as a handy provisioning stop.

No one understands the significance of this better than Bev Davis, known affectionately by locals as “the history woman”. Bev’s research and writing on Bruny’s history, together with her community work, was recognised with an Order of Australia in 2003. At the Bruny Island History Room she helped establish in 1997 in the old courthouse at Alonnah, one of south Bruny’s three townships, Bev stands surrounded by artefacts, memorabilia and books and proudly proclaims that, “Adventure Bay is the most historic bay in Australia”.

Between 1773 and 1802, the island was visited by at least six European explorers: the Englishmen Tobias Furneaux, James Cook, Matthew Flinders and, on three occasions, William Bligh; and the Frenchmen Nicolas Baudin and Bruni D’Entrecasteaux, after whom the island and channel are named. In August of 1788 – some eight months before the famous mutiny on the Bounty – as a member of a shore party led by Fletcher Christian, Captain Bligh’s botanist, David Nelson, planted Australia’s first apple trees at Adventure Bay, sowing the seeds of a crop for which Tasmania has become famous.

I saw the 24 km crescent of Adventure Bay through the eyes of the early Europeans on a cruise down Bruny’s east coast with Rob Pennicott, one of several operators conducting tours around the island. At the southern end of the bay, spectacular, weather-polished dolerite cliffs recede in diminishing semicircles into the deep blue of the sky.

Magnifcence of Tasmania

How Tasman, Bligh and the other Europeans must have gazed in wonder at these great stone walls. At Fluted Cape, these walls rise to 272 m, the country’s second-highest sea cliffs after those on the Tasman Peninsula, across Storm Bay from Bruny.

It’s an easy walk from the Adventure Bay township to the remains of a whaling station at Grass Point, beneath Fluted Cape. Apart from a low wall – the remnant of a building – and some eucalypts near the foreshore still showing scars from whalers’ fires, there’s little physical evidence of an industry that by 1829 employed as many as 90 men at three whaling stations between Adventure Bay township and Fluted Cape.

By the time Tasmanian whaling collapsed in the 1840s, the southern right whale population of perhaps 100,000 had been decimated. Today, it’s estimated at just 3000. However, sightings of these magnificent creatures increase yearly, suggesting the species is slowly recovering.

From Adventure Bay, it’s a 20-minute drive up a narrow winding dirt road to a walking track that leads to the top of Bruny’s highest mountain, the 571 m Mt Mangana, part of a range that runs north–south for almost the length of south Bruny. This range traps even more rain than Adventure Bay’s 1100 mm yearly average – perfect for the dense temperate rainforest habitat preferred by the vulnerable Mt Mangana stag beetle.

Rainforest trees – sassafras, myrtle, blackwood and leatherwood – on Mt Mangana’s upper slopes give way to the more common white and blue gums nearer the mountain’s base. Beyond that, on the brim of flatter terrain surrounding the mountain, are the deep-green paddocks of small farms extending to the wetlands around Cloudy Bay Lagoon.  Further on lies the v-shaped headland of Cape Bruny, with the historic Cape Bruny Lighthouse at its tip.

Just before Cape Bruny, a sign points to the Peninsula Walking Track – a six-hour circuit of the Labillardiere Peninsula. The walk is noted not just for its contrasting sea and channel views but also for its snakes – tiger, copperhead and white-lipped. I saw four snakes and everyone I met who had done the walk had seen at least one.

Bruny Island’s southern coast

Cruise operator Rob Pennicott and his artist wife, Michaye Boulter, live at the entrance to a placid lagoon separated by a sandbar from Cloudy Bay, on Bruny’s southern coastline. Their house looks east through a screen of gums across Cloudy Beaches, Bruny’s most popular surf beach, and the Southern Ocean lies beyond.

Rob is not the crusty old salt his career might suggest even though three of his four decades on earth have been spent messing about in the boats that have provided him with a livelihood. At 13, he was already selling enough fish to buy his own dinghy and outboard and by 17 he had his commercial fishing licence.

In her studio, Michaye paints south Bruny’s cliffs, seas and skies, capturing their suffused, lustrous light on big canvases in minuscule detail. “Bruny is a place of immense beauty. It’s a privilege to live here,” she says of the island. To Rob, Bruny is “a place to relax and unwind”, where he can “fish and share the things I love with the kids”. The Pennicotts have neighbours but they aren’t visible from their house. Terry and Mariam Butcher moved from Sydney in 1998 to live in a large, prominent house set in a commanding position just back from Whalebone Point – a small headland in Cloudy Bay.

Nobody there seems to watch tv, preferring the sound of the ocean intermingled occasionally with classical music. They have time for some serious hobbies. Terry’s antique tool collection, for example, is one of Australia’s largest and includes an amazing 1500 corkscrews, the oldest dating back to 1750. Another neighbour, the reclusive Dr Ian Hugh Johnson, is a retired neurosurgeon who translates ancient Chinese poems and attends meetings around the world with other experts who share this esoteric pursuit.

Just up the road from Ian lives Howard Hill, an organic pea-seed farmer. He has more than 40 pea varieties but is working to increase his range to more than 100. He lives simply on 4 ha in a shack he built himself. He has no use for tv or electricity, but his living-room’s sand floor is an ideal surface for yoga. In winter, he begins his exercises at 4 a.m. to allow time, in the relatively few hours of daylight, for his draught-horses to finish ploughing and cool down before sunset.

It seems that to blend into the Cloudy Bay community, you should be a remarkable individual who prefers personal reality to anything on telly.

Bruny’s people return

Murrayfield, a property of particular significance in indigenous history, takes up about one-third of north Bruny. From the battered Murrayfield sign at the property’s entrance, on the opposite side of the island to where the car ferry docks at Roberts Point, a dirt road winds between well-tended paddocks where sheep graze on hills that rise to stands of gums. The road forks after a couple of kilometres, one branch leading to a vast red shearing shed, the other to Trumpeter Bay, where a neat shack perches above a small beach. The road continues south, following the crests and ridges of hills all the way to Variety Bay with its convict-built pilot station and the ruins of St Peter’s Church, built in 1846.

As the sun dropped in the sky, I drove to the top of the highest hill, where my skin tingled in the chilly ocean breeze. Before me sprawled the spectacular Murrayfield, most of its 16 km coastline and much of its 4097 ha visible from my vantage point.

The property was bought in 2001, for about $4 million, by the Indigenous Land Corporation. It’s maintained as a working sheep station but, perhaps more importantly, now it’s also an education centre teaching traditional knowledge and culture to both Aboriginal and non-indigenous visitors. As the place where the troubled alliance between Robinson and Truganini was forged, Murrayfield makes a poignant location for the Aboriginals’ return to Bruny.

A recent heritage survey identified more than 250 culturally important Aboriginal sites on the property. What does Murrayfield mean to Aboriginal people?

 “We have been returned to the land,” says Deb Hocking, Secretary of the Murrayfield Management Committee. “With that comes a restoration of our sense of belonging.”

As history’s witness, Truganini’s impassive face looks on from the top of the hill.

Source: Australian Geographic Jul – Sep 2005