Tasmanian Times

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. No price is too high for the privilege of owning yourself. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. No price is too high for the privilege of owning yourself. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche


The Tarkine Pebble Route – Myth or Mystery?

*Pic: Looking across the heavily forested and undulating route that Henry Hellyer traversed in 1829


Negotiating a horizontal forest maze en-route …

It has been claimed that the Tasmanian Aboriginals used a trade route from the Surrey Plains across the Tarkine wilderness to the coastline. But where exactly was this path, how often was it used, and was it maintained?

To date there is no evidence that it ever existed, though conversely there is no reason to think that it wouldn’t have.

The Pebble Track as it was known, was last documented on a 1923 mining map, but was this the route used by Aboriginal people or merely a trans-access track for prospectors?

Around 1800 to 1840 European explorers were encroaching deep into the Tarkine region and conflict with the Aboriginal custodians invariable occurred. By the middle of that century the Tarkiners were almost non-existent in the far west due to the resettlement endeavours of Augustus Robertson.

In the summer of 1827 explorers Jorgen Jorgenson and Clement Lorymer headed south along the northwest coastline then inland from near Sandy Cape around the Norfolk Range until they reached a point east of the Donaldson River on a prominent ridge known today as the Longback. There they were thwarted by bad weather, and with low supplies and difficult scrub confronting them they retreated.

In December 1828 Henry Hellyer took up the challenge and headed west in his goal to find arable country for future settlements. His first journey led him past the Surrey Plains and Waratah to the summit of Mt Cleveland where he discovered no suitable farming land, only horrendous wet scrub, and daunting views west over the expansive rainforest that revealed no coastline in sight.

Hellyer then returned in early 1829 to attempt a traverse to the coast. From Champion Plain west of Waratah he stayed on higher ground and descended to the Whyte River south of Luina through thick broken country to the northern end of the Meredith range. It was a long arduous struggle through the thickly wooded country within the Heazelwood Valley.

Hellyer noted in his journals about the gruelling scrub – “so deep indeed and so difficult to get through that with its gullies it occupied us 4 days and I cannot estimate it at more than 10 miles across in a right line”.

Having crossed the Heazelwood River, Hellyer ascended to Long Plain near where the Savage River township is now located. This was the first time it was relatively easy going, though short lived, as they soon plunged into the steep Savage River valley then up westward to Longback Ridge.

Here was their first sighting of the sea, though it was still many miles away. This was the most eastern point from where Jorgenson and Lorymer had explored from the coast just 2 years prior on the 20th March 1827

Hellyer then dropped into the steep ravine of the Donaldson River and continued west keeping south of the Norfolk Range en-route to the coastline. Hellyer never mentioned anything about recent fire activity across the landscape or any contact with Aboriginal people until he neared the Sandy Cape area.

There was obviously no signs of regular burning west of Waratah to the coastal plains as to keep the country clear for travel; in fact Hellyer described most of the country as hellish and very tiresome to make easy or rapid progress.

In 1864 some 35 years after the Hellyer expedition, Gordon Burgess cut a track from Waratah west to the coast along a similar route just slightly north of Hellyers’ nearer to the Luina area. The track remained virtually unused until James Sprent relocated the cut and blazed route from the west 10 years later, though he found it difficult to follow as most of the scrub sections had already overgrown.

Throughout the nineteenth century mineral exploration was prominent all across the Tarkine as the search for any rich ore bodies prevailed. By the late 1800s some notable ore deposits had already been discovered in places around Waratah, Savage River, Balfour and Corinna.

So where was the mythical Aboriginal track that led from the Surrey Plains to the West coast? The grand expanse of rainforest north of the Savage River road between Waratah and the Western Explorer road has not seen extensive fire for centuries so regular burning – albeit natural or cultural – had not provided an open route across the Tarkine for a seemingly long time.

The Pebble Track, as indicated on the mining map, was much further north from Burgess’s route, leading from Surrey Plains across the upper Arthur River and emerging somewhere in the plains west of the Donaldson River and south of Pyramid Hill.

This route essentially traversed the southern extent of the vast Savage/Donaldson River rainforest-clad wilderness. Illustrated as a straight line on the map, this meant that if a track existed it had been cut through the dense forest, or otherwise it was inaccurate and merely convoluted along a path of least resistance.

There was certainly no means of burning access through this damp complex and entangled country, which raises doubt about the Aboriginal Pebble path taking this route. The use of stone axes to tunnel through kilometres of dense horizontal and mixed scrub seems preposterous.

Nearly 200 years later.

My first expedition into the Tarkine’s rainforest expanse was in the mid 1980s when I walked (mostly crawled) into the upper Savage River and rafted down its magnificent emerald corridor. The entangled horizontal scrub was defiant of fast and easy travel, yet in an unpredictable nature there were occasionally open leads of magnificent cool-temperate rainforest superlative in its representation of Myrtle and Sassafras splendour.

I was soon to realise that a traverse across the Tarkine’s vast rainforest extent would be a dauntingly slow and unpredictable task. But the mystery of the unknown has always lured me, and the search for a feasible walking route ultimately became the challenge.

On route I located no formed track, only some blazes on trees that could have dated back to the great depression era, and some faint, heavily overgrown swathes in the east, which was bulldozing from about 60 years ago.

There are a few possibilities for an east-west traverse, though they would require continual burning or track cutting. The route I chose through the mature rainforest and western heathlands seemed the most pragmatic one.

As for the exact location of the Pebble Route – The mystery lingers on!

*Ted Mead has been exploring Tasmania’s wilderness areas extensively over the past 35 years. Ted claims that his east-west traverse through the Tarkine rainforest, unaided by a GPS, was an inspiring remote country challenge, which ultimately reinforced his commitment to campaign for the wild tracts of this remarkable country.

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  1. John Wade

    June 24, 2017 at 12:29 pm

    @ 10 – As a former surveyor and one who studied the roles and paths of early surveyors I can say that most of our current and early roads were formed by following, to a point, aboriginal tracks with the understanding that these paths went to an intended destination point.
    The early explorers in general followed native tracks as these tracks meant water and ease of crossing the terrain.
    Take for example the McDonnell Ranges, a seemingly endless chain of range from east to west, except for one small gap, The Gap.

  2. Peter Fagan

    June 23, 2017 at 9:47 pm

    Thanks Ted for that fascinating article, and all you do to bring the Tarkine’s heritage to our attention. Please share more stories of your intrepid adventures with us.

    I believe many of Tasmania’ roads have their origins in Aboriginal footpaths. I was told, for example, that the pass through steep and forested terrain known as the Sideling on the road from Launceston to Scottsdale follows the route of an Aboriginal footpath.

    I wonder if other routes such as the old Huon Highway route to Huonville and the Tasman Highway from Sorell to Orford had similar origins.

    I would love to know more about this subject. Are you aware of any research in this area?



  3. Leonard Colquhoun

    June 21, 2017 at 5:38 pm

    The point in Comment 3 about [a] “pebble route” or [the] “Pebble Route” reminded me a similar question in a [recently viewed] QI about who built the first roads in Britain with resident fall guy Alan Davies’ “The Romans” copping the klaxon.

    The resultant discussion then focused on what a ‘road’ is, with a consensus that a Celtic-British track following easy-to-walk contours did not a road make, and most definitely NOT in the ‘built’ sense.

    As for this quip in Comment 6, “Most ‘Rangers’ are now far more adept at composing emails, driving & filling their payslips with allowances”, sadly true – people with Really Useful Skills seem to be supplanted by screen jockeys and qwerty clowns stupified with ever more dodgy ‘credentials’.

  4. Ted Mead

    June 21, 2017 at 12:20 am

    #6 – Actually I worked Intermittently for PWS for about 15 years and I can assure you there is no Ranger these days that could find their way through that country, even with a GPS.

    And most of the good bush Trackies (what’s left of them) are working interstate, or semi retired.

    This is not a walk in the park route, The Tarkine beholds some of the most dense horizontal scrub imaginable.

    One of the reasons why I won’t disclose my route in detail is that I would hate to see an over-constructed track through that primeval country that would open it up to commercial interests.

    Let the Tarkine remoteness remain wild and free!!!!!

  5. Claire Gilmour

    June 20, 2017 at 11:27 pm

    When I arrived back in Tassie in 1997 and moved to my property in Rocky Cape, there use to be some tourism signs at the Rocky Cape lighthouse in the Rocky Cape national park.

    One of these signs talked about the Tarkiner people and incorporated a map of where the Tarkiner people traversed from the West Coast of Tasmania to the caves at Rocky Cape.

    These signs were there for a few years after I arrived (don’t know how long they had been there). It seemed that when the ‘Tarkine’ initially became a buzz word, these signs were taken down and replaced. (wish I’d taken a photo of them now!)

    I cannot recall who put the signs there, (ie who endorsed them) but I’m guessing it would have been either the Circular Head Council or Parks and Wildlife. Where did they get their info from? There use to be, don’t know if there still is, an aboriginal meeting house in the Rocky Cape national park. Perhaps any of the 3 groups mentioned above might be able to help you shine more light Ted Mead?

    I’d very interested in learning more about the pebble trail … and if may be so bold to suggest … the path would lead from water to water, hunting ground to hunting ground, with some high vantage points and the path of least resistance – meaning mostly skirting heavy brush, going through some plains and big tree forest areas where the undergrowth is suppressed by the shade of the big trees … and the light of the sun, moon and stars would factor in significantly … ie for travelling you want the light, for hunting you want the dark, to stay on course all 3 would be used … as above is below … time is a factor but it’s seasonal time not the shortest, quickest route.

  6. O'Brien

    June 20, 2017 at 10:43 pm

    Any Ranger/track builder worth their salt could lead you along the route. It’s a pity our NPWS gave most of them the boot. Most ‘Rangers’ are now far more adept at composing emails, driving & filling their payslips with allowances. Track workers are a thing of the past now they’re outside ‘contractors’ with machines who don’t sleep in the bush at night on the grounds … it’s too uncomfortable. If any proof is required take a look at the filthy mess out Tasman National Park way.

  7. john Hayward

    June 20, 2017 at 8:06 pm

    Once again TGC, #3 makes a telling point.

    Though the “Pebble Route” probably refers to a specific trail from the past rather than a generic name for bushbashing to the West Coast, it doesn’t have any more legitimacy than any other historical or anthropological sites not recognised by either loggers or bogans.

    The Merc apparently had some mention of the Pebble Pathway last year but TGC wouldn’t be caught dead digesting such a lefty rag.

    John Hayward

  8. philll Parsons

    June 20, 2017 at 6:44 pm

    The difficulties of finding such a route, had it existed, could have been enormous. What was in the heads of the searchers as they looked for what a European imagined a track to be in a high rainfall area.

    I was invites to walk a part of a ‘trade route between the Ipili and the Tari people of the PNG highlands in the 1980’s.

    Access to the start of our walk down the track from a point in the rainforest was easy. We were driven a couple of kilometres along the new road being built to bring gas from Tari to the Porgera gold mine.

    European engineers had drawn a line on a map. Road construction was 20% complete and 10% of the construction time remained. This area of land was unstable when you tried to road it.

    We alighted and entered the forest. It was not long before we lost the sight and sound of road construction.

    I tried to keep up with m,y guides and understand ow they could move so easily through the forest when there was no path.

    Suddenly I noticed where they were placing their bare feet enlarged by having never worn shoes and been the main means of transport for multiple decades.

    There they were, flat and polished, without moss, a step apart, pads a little large than a locals foot ready tom receive ma boot.

    I was able to propel myself downhill at almost local speed because what seemed to be a trackless wilderness had running through it tens of thousands of years of travel above the taro line.

    TGC’s special form of arrogance based on an ignorance of Tasmania’s north west up until the the 1830’s is outstanding as the name for the people, the tarkiner, was recorded before deculturalization and dispossession.

  9. TGC

    June 20, 2017 at 12:52 pm

    #As for the exact location of the Pebble Route – The mystery lingers on!”
    It should be noted the capitals in ‘Pebble Route’
    It may be that ‘pebble route’ has been in print many times- but now it has taken on a new life.
    Some may recall the first time- in modern times anyway- that ‘tarkine’ became ‘The Tarkine’- and the rest, as they said at the time- is ‘history’
    Watch out for ‘Pebble Route’ growing in stature as did ‘tarkine’ with the consequential demands that it be placed as a ‘reserved corridor’ amongst the many other ‘reserved’ areas of Tasmania.
    Slowly! Slowly!

  10. Nicole Anderson

    June 20, 2017 at 12:42 pm

    Great detective work Ted. I suspect Aboriginal routes would now be long overgrown – it doesnt take long for thick scrub to choke unmaintained roads – there’s certainly plenty of not so old forestry roads which have morphed into near impenetrable jungle as I’m sure you’re only too familiar with. If indeed there was once a maintained route there’s nothing to say it was still in regular use in the 1800s – they had been walking all over the island for tens of thousands of years with significant vegetation changes during those times, but with invasion, their culture was disrupted. I agree, with today’s vegetation we can only ponder mystery in regards to this route. Credit to your tenacity to explore that country on foot!

  11. Robert Middleton

    June 20, 2017 at 12:02 pm

    Thank you, Ted, for the gift of that informative, interesting and inspiring piece of Tasmaniana.

    For me, you have opened an entirely new chapter in the compelling lore and legend of the Tarkine.

    I consider my limited time in the Tarkine to be one of the greatest experiences of my life. Now, at age 72, I will never be able to set foot there again, but what a great pleasure it was today to enjoy, through your well-chosen words and beautiful pictures, another “visit.”

    I hope you will have many more treks in that area and will share more stories with us.

    Thank you again for this and all the many other outstanding contributions you have made to TT.

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