THIS is a cruise of controversy, a shape shifting view from the water of the Tasmanian struggle between the public and the private.

From the banks of the Derwent to the skyline and Mt Wellington — to the southern tip of Tasmania at Cockle Creek and Recherche Bay — the opponents clash.

A resort is to be built in the World Heritage Area at Cockle Creek, and logging has been given the go-ahead just across the water on the northeast peninsula of Recherche Bay. The Federal Environment Minister has decided to protect the area for its high-conservation values, and still allow the private owners to log the peninsula. This rejects the notion that an ecosystem has a right to exist for the public, and for itself, because the political compromise reached will be to the severe ecological detriment of Recherche Bay.

I board in the quiet sunshine before Sunday church and sit starboard on the lower deck of the sleek catamaran cruiser. Across the harbour the ice-breaker Aurora glosses the ripples red. It breathes in and out with the sigh of the lapping swell, resting at its dock before another icy expedition South. All is warm on the MV Marana, but there is a faint shiver on board regarding the fate of our destination. Our boat is the space-age sister of the Derwent River Cruises’ Cartela. The Cartela, a vintage ferry built in 1912, tracks from Wrest Point to the eastern shore, in federation green and cream. It has character and familiarity, a touch of river boat. The Marana is a sleek windowed stingray with a ringing tale of foam. Two St John ambulance men in fluorescent jackets mosey past. I swallow both ginger tablets taped to my complimentary water bottle. Our launch shoots out a fierce wake as we glide off down the Derwent.

The journey will take all day so I have stowed away a thermos of coffee to stir my attention in the dozy lulls. I pour myself a cup and watch the other passengers, mostly pushing fifty in expensive polar fleece jackets, or boutique woollen shawls. A housewife with an assertive gaze that slides down either side of her un-powdered nose drills her friend about decent coffee. She wears a green and purple 1980s knit, jeans and sturdy walking boots. She leans over the rail to get the ‘best shots’ and climbs over laps and bags rather than ever give up her window seat. Younger men in late nineties dull blue denim and crisp shirts stand at the bar nursing premium Boags. Elderly ladies on a special day out wear long beige coats and stretch-waist navy pants. They clasp hands, or a doting son or daughter-in-law steers them by the elbow to a seat with a comfortable view. Silvery men in their second youth stride about in boat shoes. Their wives freshen up fashionable foils scattered about their hairlines.

Clifftops peer over bellowing waves

It is a polished cohort on a cultured cruise, drawn by the allure of the historically, culturally, scientifically important, and politically controversial Recherche Bay. Beyond that though, it is hard to gauge why we are all here. Today is the last day of a month of successful cruises into Recherche Bay. All have sold out. For me this trip is to subvert the censorship. The Recherche Rally in April ended at the border of the Southport Lagoon Conservation Area. Today we will see the forest meet the sea. I hope the other passengers gain inspiration from the trip for Recherche Bay’s protection — that they don’t just take home photographed memories, like a flight over Pedder before it was drowned.

Like a tourist I trace my finger along the path of the cruise, down the Derwent, into the calm D’Entrecasteaux Channel, then around the points into far south Cockle Creek and Recherche Bay. The division between land and sea, gently sloping sand or tall gashing rocks, has harboured this island community since the swirling waters of dire strait washed over the land bridge to the north. Indigenous groups traversed the island lost in the vast ocean between Africa and South America, tucking in its toes from the chilling blows of the deep south. The last of the land strikes the surf abruptly. Cliff tops peer over bellowing waves, eyes craning beyond the horizon to Antarctica. Before the world ascribed to latitudes and longitudes the quietly forested southern bay was home to the Lyluequonny people. They were met by French explorers who took shelter there in 1792. Admiral Bruni d’Entrecasteux’s expedition sailed in on the Recherche and the Esperence searching for the La Perouse voyage lost in 1788. The place was named for science, exploration and discovery. Recherche, ‘research’, Bay. Esperence means hope.

As I finish my luke-warm coffee, rows of giant double choc-chip muffins in a glass case on the bar doubt my ability to resist, and my capacity to pay. I look down at the corduroys I’ve been wearing all week and wish I’d worn something with money in the pockets. There is non-violent-direct-action planned for Recherche this summer, but other than the forest hippies who will make camp the Recherche Bay Protection Group is very ‘clean’. White shirt respectability and nose-rings-out sort of style. Once again I try to unmat the dreadlock growing in my hair. The campaign needs the passengers on this cruise.

We pass prime real estate. It rolls onto the rocky shore at Battery Point. Empress Towers sky-scrapes as a backdrop. My uncle bought there years ago for an expensive early retirement. He has a view of the mountain, and down onto aqua-blue swimming pools and bushes behind the park. My cousin told me that people meet there at lunch time to swap each other’s ties and stockings. From the river the rogue apartment block looks taller than Mt Wellington. The financiers breached town planning laws and stacked on a few extra floors, but it was such a lucrative sale that it was worth paying the fine. Battery Point was left with a sky-sore. As we glide past the Captain mentions ‘Exclusivity’, but not Empress Towers.

A dirty yellow Lego tower

The road nicknamed Ogilvie’s scar strangles the mountain as it rears above the initial eruption of suburbs. Wrest Point, the oldest casino in Australia, stands on the river bank like a dirty yellow lego tower, Hobart’s own Opera House-coloured monument. Nobody takes a photo. Houses grow out of the crinkly green hills like multi-coloured stubble. It is a surreal layering of home upon home with construction site icing. I can imagine candlelit stars finally blown out by the lucky home-builder who gets to buy up the skyline first.

Sandy Beach preludes a panorama of rendered mansions perched on the dunes. Their gardens crash down towards the waves. The levy wall at Nutgrove still lets people dangle their feet, and kids still swim at all times of year. From the folding water the mountain is deeply blue, exposed by the pale sky as one towering mass. Even on the mountain there are plans for development. One day its forested face could have a Hotel nose. Hobart people wouldn’t pay to stay in a hotel on their own mountain, but they would miss out on taking their kids to see the snow at the Springs. Battery Point and Sandy Bay might be two of the most affluent suburbs in Tasmania, but they are dotted with dingy rentals full of students. On the other side of the city the river views are of the zinc works, and the mountain rises at an angle that doesn’t appear on postcards.

Across the river now is a small inlet and sparse houses. It’s sleepy Lauderdale — or Ralph’s Bay — a corporate failure. Walker Corporation finally gave up its proposal for a canal estate development, the community didn’t want, in early September. Waterfront access is becoming more exclusive everywhere, and while canal estates are not yet acceptable on the Derwent, the suburbs still charge the foreshore and controversy follows. Pam Clarke, most famous for her campaigning against battery-hen farming, has been protesting against unnecessary private interference in public spaces. The two blue gums by the beach that she wanted protected have been removed to make way for a house.

I see with clarity through the crystal-clean windows of the MV Marana. I watch as the public versus the private battle it out on the skyline and the beaches. The Federal Environment Minister has announced that the northeast peninsula of Recherche Bay will be heritage listed in the public interest, but the owners will still be allowed to log the peninsula to uphold private land owners’ rights. The potential of this compromise sits uncomfortably with me like my old corduroys on the plush seats. It is a matter of contention for this politically haunted cruise. The Minister’s decision is not a fair compromise because it is to the detriment of the area’s integrity. Logging will abolish the values recognised as worthy of protection as a ‘cultural landscape’. The local ecosystem will be irrevocably damaged.

Rocks with the texture of seals

The air of the political is nicely relaxed into the cruise itself, but the captain stresses it is not political at all. Accompanying the cruise is French Historian Annick Thomas from the Recherche Bay Protection Group. She wears the colours of the French and Australian flag in a very French way. She wanders about explaining the controversial context of Recherche Bay, and offers Bob Brown’s latest book for sale. Out the starboard side, rocks with the texture of seals lie on the beach. Luxurious Mediterranean cottages with patios and swimming pools sit in the dunes above rusting boat houses, respectfully aged like fine Tasmanian wine. Sandstone cliffs scored out in diagonal drifts slide into the water all around the coast to Taroona. Crown Princess Mary of Denmark is name-dropped over the speakers. Now the houses peter out along the shore to make room for a playground on public riverfront space. Just along the beach another suburb peers over the tall rocky cliffs hidden slightly behind horizontally layered stones. Our geologist informs us that these rocks are 300-350 million years old and are ‘fossiliforous’ in places. The cliffs were formed in the time and place of Gondwana. Ever since, vicious little waves have been nipping at the slip of shore.

Straggly gums cling to cracks and crags. They shade a white splash halfway up the cliff, a Raptor’s nest. Countless seabirds roost and nurture their young along the Tasmanian coast. Chicks are hatched and raised on these dangerous cliffs that lean precariously over the shore. Rock slabs jutting out beneath the cliffs are softly snow cropped. Seabirds catch the updraughts and sail away. Bobbing boats, like hungry ducks, wait offshore at Kingston where the mountain rises in yet another direction against a stinging grey sky. The older suburb outskirt has been met, encircled, surrounded and converted into subdivision paradise at the end of the southern outlet. The new houses alienate themselves from the land in ultra-pastel shades. Our speed increases. Water begins to flick up the sides of the boat freckling the windows. Tall and straight cliff gums point us out to sea.

The sky becomes a rippled silver blue as if the sun has been tucked under a thin quilt. Hazy. I took the two hour drive down to Recherche Bay the afternoon before the rally in April. My car dipped and glided on the squiggly road, swapping in and out of forest and mountain views set out under a smoke splashed sunset. Plumes of haze tainted orange, peach, and coral gushed into the sky. The smoulder of private profits dispersed into everyone’s air — Autumn’s ‘oxymoronic’ regeneration burns. Clearfelled coupes are bombed with napalm, the ecology that remains obliterated by flames. Fiery coals die upon a thick crust of earth, strewn with charred stumps and tree parts. I saw the leftovers the next morning as the rally walked to the Southport Lagoon Conservation Area.

The Marana enters the D’Entrecasteaux channel, half an hour of tranquil water bliss. We cross the path of the Bruny Island ferry. Then out of calm waters, out of comfort, to rough sea sick swells swoshing gull ridden rocks, and cliffs and reefs full of shipwreck tales. A shipwreck monument, a long coffin shaped stone, appears on the headland. A little old lady with shaking hands hurries to take a photo for her friend who told her, ‘Make sure you watch out for the ‘Monument’.’ She clicks and smiles — mission complete. Snow capped peaks come into view. The Hartz Mountains, La Parouse, Adamson’s Peak. They change perspectives as we trail past bumping over the waves.

The boat surges into calmer waters

I curl into the window. My desire for fresh air is increasingly outweighed by the thought of getting up. A lady in a sensible raincoat gives me a sympathetic look as she attends her own queasy friend. It is the same look that I will try to execute on the trip home around churning Friars Rocks. One to the little old lady whose pale pink wrinkles leach to a yellowy shade as she shivers uncontrollably under an ambulance blanket. The other to a husband massaging his wife’s back as she sits slumped in a green plastic chair staring through eyes that have already gone home. The ambulance men will say jolly things and wish they could do more. The crew will hose the decks.

The commentary grows despondent as the captain concentrates on the swell, but he pipes up on our entrance into Recherche Bay. We take shelter like the French in 1792. The boat surges into calmer waters and I start to feel well again. I wander up to the roof and look out over the seaweed spangled depths to the northeast peninsula. The predicted clearfell will stamp the peninsula with an eighteenth century boot print. Blackswan Lagoon sculpts the ankle and heel. The toe points to the 1792 French Observatory on the peninsula tip that looks over to Moss Glen on the other side of the bay. The buckles run back up the peninsula just bypassing the French Garden site. The knee-high cuff will border the Southport Lagoon Conservation Area through which Gunns was allowed to scrape a road earlier in the year. This has further opened up the area to mud-running, a popular four-wheel-drive sport, that threatens to decimate the only population of a critically endangered flower called the Swamp Eyebright.

The trails recorded by the French explorers are like desperate etchings on the map of the proposed logging site. In an Indigenous imagining there are more and more tracks. Archeologists haven’t been able to study the entire site, but in the mind of the Tasmanian government they don’t need to. If the loggers notice anything archaeologically significant the ‘Contractor will notify the forest practices officers in charge … who will notify the Forest Practices Board senior archaeologist.’ Bob Brown says, ‘any Lyluequonny or French sites in the forest face destruction.’

Stamped out by the boot of industrial scale logging

The sun glints off the snowy peaks dotted above a forested skyline. The peninsula is lined with trees almost to the watermark. A small grey beach lines the coast with a row of pebbles and leaves. Inside the blue gum forest I imagine finding bark wind shelters built by the Lyluequonny, or hearing the call of ‘wild dogs’ that were probably Tasmanian tigers. I imagine walking around the garden stones, nine metres by seven nestled in leaf debris, and hearing the clumsy conversation between Felix the gardener and a Lyluequonny man as they explain each of their native country’s plants. The French called the Lyluequonny savages, but they drew and respected them as proud people. I imagine what the disguised French widow looked like as a man. Louise Girarden was the first European woman to set foot on this island. I imagine the surprise after her gender was revealed in a duel on the beach. I imagine finding a Swamp Eyebright, its fleshy white petals laced with dark purple veins.

The catamaran spins around on a short circumference of the bay. Cockle Creek is full of camping space and bushwalker mystique. There is a giant whale sculpted onto the foreshore. The captain promised we would see a whale. In Geeveston two summers ago a bored young lady at the tourist information centre drew aggressive circles around prime tourist locations. ‘There’s always the new whale sculpture at Cockle Creek that’s worth the drive’, she said. A new resort development will soon be built in the World Heritage Area. It seems the environment is not enough on its own.

The conversation turns to Recherche Bay and the need for its protection. If the Minister’s compromise prevails, the softly pattered footsteps of the French and the Lyluequonny, through a forest deemed a ‘cultural landscape’, will be stamped out by the boot of industrial scale logging. The Swamp Eyebright will be crushed underfoot. Only the blue gums and stringybarks on the shore will stay a lonely buffer. The cruise ships will not come. Tall sturdy glasses of wine teeter beside our deck chairs. The inverted pendulum swing of the boat encourages us to sip a bit faster.

The hypnotic swell gathers momentum. I hope this is practice for rocking the cliched ‘boat’, and not a lullaby into resignation. Silence gathers and the catamaran turns at the mercy of the breeze. A couple goes downstairs to arrange their things. Three elderly ladies try to establish which of the teas has sugar in it. A man in a colourful beanie grabs another glass of complimentary wine. His hapless wink meets the raised eyebrows of his partner. We all breathe deeply. The salt of the bay and the forest surround us. The engines burr and we course through the quiet water to the choppy waves. This time there is nothing between us and Antarctica. The magnitude is akin to that between the roar of the bulldozers and the whisper of public dissent. The young men drinking premium douse the dregs of the day still standing at the bar.

Claire Jansen is studying English and Public Policy for a Bachelor of Arts at UTAS. Written: November 2005

Judge for yourself in this special Leatherwood Online feature.