Tasmania’s veiled beauty

By Chrissie Goldrick 29 June 2010
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A posse of photographers descended on the stunning Vale of Belvoir to document the facets of this latest jewel in Tasmania’s conservation crown.

IT’S NOT IN THE nature of wilderness photographers to hunt in packs. Chase the light; second-guess the weather; wait a few more minutes for the mist to lift; and follow your instinct, wherever it may lead. Decisions turn on a dime and wouldn’t be well served by the ponderings of a committee. Even two can be a crowd in this rarefied world. 

So, what’s brought 11 members of such a distinguished breed together for a week of intense photography? Rare access to the wild windswept grasslands and sheltered old-growth rainforests of the Vale of Belvoir, 17 km north of Cradle Mountain, in Tasmania’s north-west.

Long-time Australian Geographic contributor Matthew Newton is largely responsible for this unlikely gathering. Matt and partner Jane Hutchinson, strategic projects manager for the Tasmanian Land Conservancy (TLC), represent the fresh face of Tassie conservation. Jane’s legal background and Matt’s photojournalism skills are a boon to the conservancy. Through the smart use of new media and the persuasive power of imagery, they’re helping ithe organisation project a polished professionalism aimed at a new breed of devotees of the green cause. The funds are following.

“We are attracting interest and donations from the kind of people who might not have wanted to get involved with traditional Tassie environmentalism,” Jane says. “And Matt’s images are integral to our success. It’s hard to create excitement with words alone.”
The TLC identifies properties of special biological significance and buys them with a mix of private and public money, placing the land under covenant. In most cases, the properties are then bought by like-minded owners. In special circumstances, the TLC retains the property for direct management, as has occurred with the 474-ha high-country cattle run in the Vale of Belvoir, which it bought from the Charleston family in 2008.

James Kirkpatrick, Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Tasmania, describes the acquisition as “the major Tasmanian conservation triumph of the 21st century to date. It’s an area of outstanding biological and aesthetic significance and is the most important missing piece in the World Heritage storyline of the western part of the State,” James says, explaining further that World Heritage Site status is envisaged for the entire Vale.

This is a biodiversity hotspot. The Vale of Belvoir boasts a long list of outstanding natural qualities that has experts fired up: geologists thrill at its perfect example of a limestone karst landscape; botanists are ecstatic about the Vale’s vegetation communities, including rare and endangered native grasslands, alpine herbfields and fragile sphagnum bogs. To the untrained eye, however, it’s enough that the broad sweep of the valley is a vision of pure, untrammelled beauty. The TLC sees this as a powerful asset supporting the expansion of the reserves system and it’s the reason such esteemed and dedicated wilderness photographers have answered Matt and Jane’s call to spend a week documenting the magnificent Vale.

Images celebrating Tasmania’s wild places have always served the environmental cause well. The legendary relationship between photography and conservation in the island state dates back to the work of celebrated photographer and conservationist Fred Smithies and friends in the 1920s and ’30s.

Full of rough-hewn charm, the historic Blandfordia Alpine Club hut in the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, 13 km from Belvoir, is the hub of the week’s activities for the 11 who have arrived, mostly from Hobart, eager to strike out into the valley and unlock its secrets. They aim to create a portfolio of images showcasing the TLC’s work, presenting donors with the results of their generosity and exhorting the involvement of others.

The images will also be made available to other environmental groups keen to enhance their efforts with the kind of high-quality photos that would usually be beyond their means. Renowned wilderness photographers Rob Blakers and Grant Dixon have been joined by a raft of more recent recruits grateful for the opportunity to mix it up with the older guard. “I feel really privileged to be able to come here and spend time with these masters,” says New Zealander Paul Hoelen. “There are some pretty legendary characters floating around this week and there’s a definite feeling of lineage here.” 


ITS AN ANCESTRY THAT finds physical expression in the super-fit frame of Hobart-born Grant, a Tasmanian Wilderness Society activist during the early 1980s and now an earth scientist for the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service. Grant’s interest in landscape photography took a serious turn during the 1978-83 campaign to halt construction of the Gordon-below-Franklin Dam. “I had quite a big collection of slides and got actively involved because, demonstrably, photography proved useful during that campaign and although the Franklin [River] faced the immediate threat, the Tasmanian wilderness was such a special place that the whole lot needed protecting,” Grant says. He refers to the pivotal role played by the late Peter Dombrovskis’s iconic 1979 photograph, Morning Mist, Rock Island Bend, which influenced the outcome of the Franklin-Gordon battle in favour of conservation.

In 1983 Grant took his slide collection to the mainland, travelling from Cairns to Adelaide for four-and-a-half months, presenting 85 illustrated lectures in a personal crusade to raise awareness of the fragility of Tassie’s wild places. It’s this shared passion for the places they photograph, and a collective desire to keep them pristine for future generations that unites the Belvoir team. Grant and his photographic colleagues exchange banter around the hut’s rustic dinner table each night, surrounded by camera bodies, bags, lenses, tripods and piles of heavy-duty wet-weather gear – essential kit in this part of the state where it rains on four out of every seven days.

Mornings see them all out well before sunrise, seeking that magical dawn light. But that’s proving elusive this week and it’s usually mid-morning before the sun finally penetrates the mist shrouding the valley. Beyond the camaraderie of the hut, out in the field, many of the photographers opt to work alone. Rob sets up his beautifully crafted, large-format camera in a dense stand of myrtle-beech and sassafras where he’ll wait patiently for perfect conditions before depressing the shutter.

Hillary Younger prefers to cover a lot of ground. “I feel like I need to be alone to take photos,” she explains after returning from a lengthy romp. “I was coming back from that ridge when I saw a little wombat. He was curious and crept nearer and nearer to me – it wouldn’t have happened if I’d been with someone. When you’re alone and quiet, things happen out here.” Others work in pairs and small groups, clearly enjoying the shared experience of exploring an exciting new environment that would ordinarily be off limits.

The TLC’s initial plans don’t include opening up the Vale for public access. Early research shows the riparian zone around the Vale River, which bisects the treeless valley, is a significant miniature ecosystem where dense mats of tiny herbs and rare wildflowers thrive despite more than 150 years of sustained cattle grazing. It’s an area particularly rich in marsupial carnivores with significant Tasmanian devil and spotted-tailed and eastern quoll populations. The endangered Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagle and rare grey goshawk are also regularly sighted here.

Monitoring carried out between 1992 and 1998 by State Government botanists showed no measurable difference between native grassland sites grazed or ungrazed by cattle. In fact, further investigation may even reveal a positive impact of grazing on grassland species’ diversity here so, for the time being, the Charlestons will retain the right to run cattle on the property each summer as the family has done since the 1860s. The TLC has also brokered a 99-year lease on the stockman’s hut and stables on the property, so they can maintain an important physical and emotional tie to its heritage.

As the week draws to a close, the photographers begin to disperse. Some take advantage of the location to explore beyond the Vale. Others head back to Hobart. Grant, Paul and Hillary decamp from the Blandfordia hut into the very heart of the Vale for the final night; perhaps to forge a stronger connection with the place or to experience its darker moods. The final morning dawns clear and that exquisite light they’ve all waited for floods the Vale. As always in the world of landscape photography, persistence and patience are rewarded at last.

Source: Australian Geographic Issue 98 (Apr – Jun 2010)