Trekking Tasmania: When driven by hunger

By Simon Morris 29 June 2009
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Six determined Tasmanians retrace the arduous overland journey of convict bolter Alexander Pearce – the first known white man to cross the Franklin River country.

Maureen had slipped and was precariously balanced, like an upturned turtle, on a knot of banksia and tea tree. “Lie still!” I shouted as her 25 kg backpack threatened to pull her down a 5 m rock face. Ever so slowly she slipped her “shell” off and we hauled her, and then it, to safety.

Our descent down South Darwin Peak was treacherous. “It’s akin to doing an all-day gym session carrying a heavy pack while taking a shower,” said Su, attempting to make light of the situation. The loose, steep earth offered no firm footing and working our way through the dense vegetation was energy-sapping. In the torrential rain, our progress was painfully slow and mentally debilitating.

Jason, who had been leading the expedition for the past 30 minutes, turned and said: “Take over; I’m done.”

I reluctantly stepped forward, not yet recovered from my last arduous stint half an hour earlier.

“Which way?” I said.

Paul, the bearer of GPS, map and compass, offered options but I was too tired to think. “Just give me a bearing on the shortest distance to the stream,” I said.

View gallery

The trail of Alexander Pearce View Gallery

Forty-five minutes later, we at last collapsed into a leech-ridden area that became our overnight campsite. It was the fourth day of our 170 km journey and 12 hours of hard slog had returned just 3 km of progress. We were exhausted, soaked and chilled to the bone – surely it couldn’t get worse than this.

We were fighting our way through the tangled bush of western Tasmania to highlight an astonishing feat of endurance, navigation and survival. In 1822, habitual thief Alexander Pearce escaped from Sarah Island – Van Diemen’s Land’s harshest and most remote prison – in Macquarie Harbour, with seven other inmates, and travelled for 49 days through largely unknown terrain to Ouse, 170 km to the east. He was the sole survivor. Pearce’s story is the stuff of folklore – a tale of betrayal, starvation, murder and, ultimately, cannibalism. By retracing his escape route, our team – Cynthia Schaap, Su Carey, Maureen and Paul Le Fevre, Jason Hoyle and I – hoped to illustrate just how extraordinary an achievement it was.

In the eight months leading up to our endeavour, we devoured all the information we could about Pearce and his journey, including written accounts of his confession to Father Philip Connolly, the Catholic priest who hailed from the same Irish county as Pearce, and who recorded Pearce’s confessions (in Gaelic) after he was condemned to death. He was taken to the gallows at Hobart Town jail on Monday 19 July 1824 at 9 a.m. We also spent that time preparing our bodies for the demanding trip – we’re all volunteers of the State Emergency Service (Search and Rescue) Tasmania and regularly go bushwalking, running and cycling.

At last, full of nervous energy, we set out on 17 November last year, hauling our 25–35 kg backpacks to Coal Head, the starting point of Pearce’s epic journey. In convict times, Macquarie Harbour was seen as an escape-proof prison within a prison – built to destroy the human spirit. Today it’s a World Heritage-listed tourist destination promising spiritual rejuvenation. As we set off east and the vegetation engulfed us we wondered which of these two perspectives we would identify with.

Tasmanian weather is famous for delivering four seasons in one hour and it didn’t disappoint – of our 22-day trek only seven were free of rain, hail or snow. In any case, even the smallest shower ensured we stayed sodden for days. Pearce also struggled with “the inclemenancy [sic] of the weather” and the suffocating bush. Despite lugging the latest navigation gear, we found it at times impossible to maintain orientation in the silent, thick understorey of baurea, melaleuca, hakea, cutting grass and banksia that combines to form a multi-dimensional spider’s web often concealing rock escarpments. The damp smell of rotting, moss-covered vegetation was ever present.

We developed a range of “bush-bashing” techniques: climbing atop the scrub and, precariously perched metres above the ground, moving forward; pulling the scrub down from head- to knee-height, standing on it and repeating this action for each step, and occasionally, collectively pushing as hard as possible to break individual vines that were ultimately impassable. Pearce, with understatement, described it as “very rough country”.

At times, surrounded by dense bush and with visibility restricted to 1 m, we instinctively headed towards the more open areas, hoping for the luxury of taking five steps in a row. But many clearings were filled with windthrow – shallow-rooted trees that have been blown over and lie resting on scrub 2–3 m above the ground. They posed hurdles too difficult to step over, but too brittle to walk on, crumbling under our weight. Falling through to ground level delivered us into a dark labyrinth of ensnaring vines and an arduous and time-consuming climb out.

River crossings were a welcome break from the claustrophobic forest, and none was more beautiful than the mighty Franklin River, which we reached on Day 10. (Pearce and his companions arrived on its banks 11 days into their march.) Here, we disrobed and, packs in watertight bags, swam one by one across a 25 m stretch, a length of rope braced by teammates on either bank helping us resist the strong current. While the remainder of the team set up camp around a headland, Paul and I finished coiling the rope. “Look!” Paul said, pointing upriver. A raft full of people was floating towards us. They looked shocked; a reasonable response to finding two unshaven men dressed only in their undies in the wilderness, with no evidence of boats or equipment. On hearing the name of our expedition, the Cannibal Run, they shied away from the river bank but were reassured by our promise that we didn’t view them as delectable menu items at a floating restaurant.

Pearce described the descent to the Franklin River as “great trouble – being so rough and steep”. His party believed the Franklin was the Gordon River, upon which they knew soldiers in boats could pursue them. They cut “a wattle pole of some 30–40 feet [9–12 m ] in length” to pull the two non-swimmers across.

Finding campsites was challenging. With darkness falling on Day 12, we dropped into Livingstone Rivulet, a steep valley that becomes a canyon before merging with the Franklin River. The bush was so dense we had to walk thigh-deep for 300 m along the centre of the river to find a clearing large enough to accommodate our five tents. On average it took two hours to clear a site before we could make camp.

On Day 15, when we thought we’d overcome most of the journey’s anticipated difficulties, the notoriously boggy Loddon Plains (known as the “sodden Loddon”) presented us with one more challenge – an almighty hailstorm that battered our heads and bodies as we waded waist-deep through frigid water.

 Two days later, as we stood atop the snowy, 1324 m summit of Mt King William I, our eyes took in the country that we’d just crossed and, exhausted, we knew we were almost home.

At last, on Day 22, we sat in a paddock at McGuires Marsh – the end point of Pearce’s route – reflecting on the trip. The fact that Pearce survived this epic journey is a remarkable testament to him: he was unprepared, ill-equipped, poorly clothed and negotiated unknown terrain. If it weren’t for the cannibalism, he’d probably be hailed as an Australian folk hero. To have left footprints where Pearce had walked before gave us a great sense of achievement. We stand in awe.

Further reading: Bloodlust: The Unsavoury Tale of Alex Pearce the Cannibal Convict, 2008, Nick Bleszynski, Random House; Hells Gates: The Terrible Journey of Alexander Pearce, 2004, Paul Collins, Hardie Grant; Closing Hells Gates: The Life and Death of a Convict Station, 2008, Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, Allen & Unwin.

The convict cannibal

At the start of his seven-year sentence in February 1821, Irish labourer Alexander Pearce worked as a farmhand.

He was troublesome, repeatedly before Hobart’s magistrates for various offences, and was frequently punished by flogging.

In August 1822 he was sent to Sarah Island, in Macquarie Harbour – an escape-proof prison for repeat offenders, who were subjected to hard physical labour on near-starvation rations and given severe floggings for even minor offences. About six weeks after he arrived, Pearce escaped in an eight-man party that headed inland. Led by ex-seaman Robert Greenhill they trekked towards the east, quickly ran out of food, and followed the “custom of the sea” (see “Eat or be eaten”, below). Pearce claimed that Greenhill and Matthew Travers did the killing, starting with Alexander Dalton – who’d volunteered as a flogger. Fearing they could be next, two of the party’s oldest members, William Brown and William Kennerly, turned back. Both made it back to Sarah Island 22 days after their escape, but died soon after from exhaustion.

In the dense western Tasmanian scrub, first Thomas Bodenham then John Mather were killed and eaten. Travers, Greenhill’s mate, was next. Bitten by a snake and carried for several days until his foot turned gangrenous, he was killed in his sleep. That left Greenhill and Pearce to see who could stay awake the longest. Pearce did, killing and eating Greenhill. Pearce was recaptured 113 days after his escape and confessed, but the trial magistrate thought he was covering for mates still at large, and returned him to Sarah Island. Several months later Pearce again escaped, this time with Thomas Cox, whom he killed in a rage when he learned that Cox couldn’t swim. Pearce surrendered himself, but this time a piece of flesh from Cox’s body, which lay nearby, was found in his pocket. He was tried, sentenced to death and hanged in Hobart Town on 19 July 1824.

Eat or be eaten

Nick Bleszynski

A terrible dilemma faced Alexander Pearce’s “bolters” after a punishing week in the wilderness. When one incautiously said, “I could eat a piece of a man,” leader and ex-mariner Robert Greenhill told them about the “custom of the sea”. This allowed shipwrecked sailors to eat their dead or draw lots to sacrifice a member of the crew for the sake of the common good. History appears to bear Greenhill out.

In 1820, a sperm whale hit the US whaler Essex in the South Pacific. The crew took to three lifeboats and starvation forced them to cannibalise the dead during their 93-day ordeal.

Heavy snows during the winter of 1846 trapped George Donner and his party of 87 pioneers in the Sierra Nevada mountains in America’s north-west. After consuming their livestock they lived off the bodies of the dead; in all, 48 survived.

In 1884, the English yacht Mignonette sank off the coast of Africa. After drifting helplessly for weeks the survivors killed and ate a weakened crewman.

More recently, the 16 survivors of a flight that crashed in the Andes in 1972 agreed to eat the flesh of those who perished, in order to get the strength to climb down from the mountains to find help. Their story became a book, then the 1993 movie Alive.

At the height of European exploration, cannibalism was the preserve of people in lands where the “light of civilisation” had yet to shine, but if it was necessary for survival, public sympathy was with the explorers. The authorities tolerated it, although cases involving murder were prosecuted. Pearce, who famously revealed that human flesh tasted like “chicken or pork” was tried, hanged and dissected in 1824, whereas the Mignonette survivors only got six-month sentences.

Perhaps Pearce would have received a fairer hearing from Sir John Franklin. The famed Arctic explorer and noted humanist tried to reform Van Diemen’s Land’s brutal penal system during his tenure as governor in 1836–43. Franklin sailed for home past Hells Gates, the
infamous entrance to Macquarie Harbour, little knowing that, like Pearce, he and his crew would face the same grave questions of survival during their ill-fated 1845–48 search for the Northwest Passage (see Passage of a lifetime).

In 1854, Scottish Arctic explorer Dr John Rae announced that Inuit had located the bodies of Franklin’s lost party, and some had been partially consumed. The English press and Franklin’s wife refused to believe it. Later investigation proved it to be true.

How anyone could bring themselves to commit cannibalism, “the last taboo”, still excites the popular imagination. In his confession, Pearce said: “No person can tell what he will do when driven by hunger.” In one of history’s great ironies, both Pearce, a lowly Irish convict, and Franklin, a celebrated knight of the British realm, came to understand the truth of those words.

Source: Australian Geographic April – June 2009