It seems like a good yarn- heading to Tasmania’s impenetrable South West wilderness in search of the orange-bellied parrot, one of the rarest bird species, and to uncover the legend of Deny King. Accessible only by sea or air, Deny lived some 50 years self-sufficiently at this far-flung outpost.
When the editor takes fancy to this tale my eyes grow wide with excitement. Like any Tasmanian, my research begins with the local folk.
First stop- Dad. He politely informs me I’m two decades late to meet the legend, but to my surprise, adds that he recalls well the day he met this weathered, likable fellow. With my living connection intact, I make call number two.
“We rarely fly to the South West in mid-winter,” says my seaplane pilot mate, “but you’re in luck Alice, we head down the day after tomorrow. Weather permitting, you’ll be my co-pilot.”
Little did I know the way those words were about to move me. Less than 48-hours later pilot Nick Swinton helps me aboard his floating plane with a knowing smile - unspoken confirmation this is going to be special.
The first time I met Nick, I’d never come across a pilot like him. He stood on a remote Bruny Island beach, with his pilot-pants rolled knee high. His plane had an anchor for goodness sake, and mid-flight he opened his window to cool us down. I knew today would be no different.
Our airstrip this morning is the River Derwent. A little radio chatter and next minute our water-skimming vessel transitions smoothly into the air. The bustling bodies of Salamanca Market grow small and the city buildings are dwarfed by the great expanse of unfolding wild.
Hugging the coastline as we head south, there is nothing but Antarctica directly ahead. But today, we veer south-west following the winding Weld River on a 45-minute passage past snow-capped Federation Peak.
Ever since I saw a photo of Bathurst Harbour as a young girl, I have wanted to visit this lonely harbour equal in size to Sydney’s. But nothing prepared me for its Jurassic-like landscape; imposing Mount Rugby, weathered button-grass plains, white-quartz coves lapped by tannin waters and hedged with ancient forest. This was nature in her wildest mood.
Today Celery-top Island is ours. No permission is granted to remove seatbelts; us adults have already broken free and are clambering out. In my haste, I gracefully end up with a water-filled boot. And that’s when it hits me.
The race is over. My camera falls down by my side; I want to see through both eyes. Immense silence. There are few times in life that can bring you to a complete stand still.
In that moment I am as still as the landscape. Frozen in time, the same way that it has stood for thousands of years. Am I suspended in place or time I can’t be sure? But finding a moment like that - it can last forever.
What pulls me from this curious trance? “Hey Alice, come and climb up on the plane’s wing,” tempts Nick. That’s when my other boot fills with water, but, once up on my lofty perch I ask about that little parrot, the one who chooses this haven as its only breeding ground on the planet.
“Ah those guys migrate for the winter,” Nick informs me,“they’re not stayers like Deny but you can see why they choose this patch.”
I nod and glance out to a watery reflection so perfect a handstand could produce the same view. Why those sweet little parrots and Deny chose here? The mystery is answered in the majesty before me, the solace of a place that demands equal sacrifice.
I recall Christobel Mattingley’s biography of Deny, King of the Wilderness and her vivid account of one man’s love of place, of the woman he lured here and the way he drew her rainwater bath. ‘As she relaxed she
had no idea what labour and love it involved. Deny had to carry the water inside and heat it in kerosene tins over the fire- a fire for which every single piece of wood had to be cut and rowed eleven kilometres by dinghy.’
Perhaps the coffee Nick passes me is less time intensive, but no less appreciated. Others emerge from barefoot mossy wanderings and we gather in readiness for boarding the plane for a coastal journey home.
The Ironbound Ranges roll down into the Grand Southern Ocean. The wind-battered Friars Rocks keep watch over secret coves that dot the coastline. It’s raw, shipwrecked and unforgiving yet I see lonely fishermen forging southward.
And as the isolation of the South West fades into darkening clouds behind, I feel its spell drawing me back. My half hour was not nearly enough. Deny’s fifty years perhaps a little lengthy. But how could one ever know in a place where time stands still?
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