With the Colony practically bankrupt, in Oct 1845 senior-surveyor James Calder was sent to thoroughly examine the real potential of the bush country on both sides of Kentish’s marked track through to Emu Bay. Calder’s report would guide the Government’s decision, now that all free convict labour under the Probation System was withdrawn, on whether to continue constructing a public road right through to the Emu River. It was a particularly extensive project because it required five significant bridges and many smaller ones. Calder decided to commence his assignment by examining the area surrounding the Kentish Plains.
Calder’s convict helpers
Calder took with him three probationary convicts as his assistants. One was a mere youth whom he put in charge of their camp site to protect all their provisions during this six to seven-week expedition. The second convict was a burly half-civilised Irishman of whom Calder wrote: ‘he had the combined strength of the horse with all the clumsiness of the jackass. He was, however, a most good-natured and willing fellow, and thoroughly honest.’ The third fellow Calder described as ‘flash, saucy, talkative, presumptuous, consequentially idle, and thievish; his virtues bearing about the same proportion to his vices. Moreover, he was one of those pests of Australian Society known as a bush lawyer whose talents for skiting make them a nuisance wherever they are found. His mouth, like the sportsman’s gun, was always on full cock, ready for an explosion at any moment.’
Setting up Camp on the Kentish Plains
Calder’s priority was to get their supplies up onto the Kentish Plains, where Field’s Bros had already built a cattle station. The place was ten miles from the Mersey Ford, and the difficulty of moving several hundredweight of stores up to it was one of the severest, back-breaking tasks he had ever undertaking. The difficulty was greatly increased by the desertion of the man with the horse and cart he had hired, forcing him to employ convicts from the probation station to help him across the Mersey River, as mentioned in last month’s article.
Regarding carrying his supplies up to Kentish, Calder wrote: ‘With all my heart, soul and strength, I worked at it for several consecutive days; but it was not till the 18th October that all was completed, and a comfortable permanent camp-site was established, by the side of a small brook which partly drains the Kentish Plains.’
Calder made his first task to climb Mt Roland and ascertain the extent of any open lands visible from the top that could be turned by the Government into immediate and profitable revenue. Admiring the massive monolith before they moved off, Surveyor Calder wrote: ‘Mt Roland is the handsomest mountain in Tasmania.’ His party would be the first to attempt an ascent up the front face of the Mount Roland and Surveyor James Calder is the first person to provide a detailed description of this traumatic experience. The three men all carried heavy loads on their backs, thinking it could possibly be a twelve days expedition. The following is a condensed summary of what Calder wrote:
Climbing up the front of Mt Roland
‘From Field’s hut, we travelled on a general bearing of ‘south, 15° west’. After two miles we
crossed the early waters of the slow-paced Dasher, skirting a small grassy plain of 7 or 8 acres, which lies hidden in the tall dark forests that crowd the mountain’s base. We continued over a very good kind of level ground for another half mile, then the uphill work commenced. The climb continued for several miles, the ascent resembling most of our mountains, being steep, heavily wooded, disgustingly scrubby, and covered with fallen trees, lying in every direction, in chaotic arrangement and great profusion.
Then we reached the base of the enormous black rock that constitutes the higher part of this mountain. Its massive and gigantic cliffs extend round the whole of the north and western fronts of this great eminence, towering above the forests that grow up to its very base. The height of these cliffs are little less than a thousand feet. A few very narrow gorges, or mere slits in the face of these immense cliffs, offer the sole means of reaching the top. These crevices are nowhere more than 10 or 12 feet wide, with inaccessible precipices on the right and left, preventing the slightest divergence from the limited space allotted to the climber. The chasm we entered was steep almost to precipitousness and choked with an entangled underwood. The exhausting task of leading the way fell upon myself and I struggled upward with great difficulty.
At this elevation, the musk, the sassafras, the dogwood, and the multitudinous species of Tasmanian ferns entirely disappear. They were replaced by bushes a hundred times worse, namely prickly trees, wire scrub, and many plants of which I neither knew, nor wanted to know the names. Conspicuous, however, by its profusion, and abominable stench, was that villainous tree, known amongst the unrefined, by the expressive, euphonious name of ‘stinkwood’.
The closeness with which these slender-limbed plants grew, and the tangled way they were woven and knotted together, joined to the steepness and ruggedness of the climb, made the last mile of the ascent as difficult and wearisome a labour as any I have ever undertaken. The matted under-wood caught our knapsacks, our heads, arms, legs, and bodies at every step, and like kangaroo snares, the more we struggled to get away, the closer they clung to us. A hundred times did they bring us to a complete stand-still.’
Camping on the Mountain Top
‘When we did at last reach the top, we crawled, rather than walked another two miles across open stony ground before we reached any water. Erecting our tent for the night, we were too exhausted from our day’s adventure to care how it looked. If it afforded a little shelter, we tumbled into it like pigs into a sty. Before we closed our eyes, it began thundering loud enough to awake the dead, but once asleep, it had no effect on us.
Next morning, I left my men at the camp, and proceeded to check the views from the mountain top. In the entire wilderness which lay before me in the direction of the North and North West coasts, I saw nothing but one apparently boundless ocean of forests, an interminable desert of trees, as stern and dusky looking as if it had rained nothing but soot on them through all time. The immense and deep ravines of the rivers Forth and Mersey, and numerous mountain ridges with their broken cliffs and waving outlines, did indeed afford some relief to the eye.
Returning to our tent, I found smoke everywhere, caused solely by my Irish convict, who allowed our camp fire to catch the dry herbage on the mountain top, and was too lazy to put out. It quickly spread in all directions and rolled such a dense cloud of smoke over the whole landscape that it quickly hid it from view. Luckily, I had taken a good look all around prior to the fire, and saw quite enough to convince me, that there was little to hope of finding any new plains or pastures in this quarter of Tasmania. I was confoundedly disappointed, and determined on quitting this mountain without delay, after having carried up our heavy load of supplies now for no purpose.’
Couldn’t find the Way Down
‘After dismantling our tent and repacking our knapsacks, like beaten and retreating soldiers, we commenced retracing of our steps for the descend. But for the life and soul of me I could not rediscover the narrow path by which I had ascended. It was lost amongst cliffs and countless fragments of rock right along the edge of the mountain. I saw several similar slits or clefts in the rock and chose one that in all respects looked exactly like the right one. The same steep and narrow path, the same huge walls of black rock frowning down on us from right and left, and the same bewildering jungle choking the way, all led me to hope I was descending successfully.
But after a fearful conflict with scrub and rock for more than two hours, all prospects of further descent died. An impassable precipice suddenly sunk fully a hundred feet perpendicularly down between me and ‘terra firma’ below. I had by this time descended fully a thousand feet, and had now to return, disgusted and disappointed, to the summit. By the time I reached it, the day was too far advanced to renew our search.
I was up very early next morning, watching for the first streak of light in the east. We picked up our loads and were again at the mountain’s edge, even before the sun had fully emerged from behind the distant hills of Deloraine. I now chose another cleft to descend but was a second time defeated after a thousand feet of descent, by a precipice which offered no other prospect but broken necks if we continued. We had no alternative but to climb the accursed mountain again. A third, and even a fourth time was I similarly baffled on this day. Each time we tried to descent the enormous crowning rock of Mt Roland, my party was doomed to the same fate. Why I never could discover the track I climbed up, I cannot account for.
My fifth trial however was successful; but only after an accidental discovery made by my Irish assistant. The same obstruction occurred again, and I had just turned a fifth time, to reclimb to the top when this man espied a very small hole amongst the creeping shrubs, about 50 feet back from the face of the cliff. He was tempted to explore it and found it to be a steep natural tunnel, zigzagging downward which landed us at the bottom of the cliff. Here ended the difficulties of our mountain excursion, for soon after the ravine began to widen, and then to expand into an ordinary mountain glen. We encamped soon after, amongst a grove of beautiful fern trees that bordered a creek. It rained hard all night, but early next day we managed to get back at Field’s hut.’
Embarrassing Encounter at Frogmore
Calder now decided to look for any good land on the north side of Kentish’s marked track. They skirted around the very dense forest growing between the present town of Sheffield and Stoodley. Calder called it the Forest of Arden after a similar place in Warwickshire. Then they headed for the clear-topped hills marked on his map Sunridge (now Sunnyside). From there they crossed by the future town of Railton and trekked down the valley until they eventually reached the Mersey River at Sherwood. They were aiming for Frogmore where pioneer settler Wm Moriarty had purchased 200 acres of river flats. What they didn’t know was that Thomas Johnson and Dolly Dalrymple had very recently taken over the tenancy of Frogmore and they were about to have an unexpected and embarrassing encounter with a near-naked 37-year old Dolly Dalrymple. Calder continues his story:
‘At this point of our journey, we were blessed by meeting with the first stranger we had met for some weeks, namely, a young woman, who was wading across the swift and dangerous Mersey River. This ‘Tasmanian native’ whom we thus accidentally encountered, was already half across before we saw her. She was followed by a troop of kangaroo dogs, engaged in a chase, to which occupation I discovered she was no less attached than Diana herself.
But let me make no further comparisons between her and the chaste goddess, for never was a half-naked woman less abashed, when suddenly placed in presence of three rough looking fellows like us. So unnecessarily I thought she exposed herself but was in no way disconcerted. For on reaching the bank, she marched straight up to us just as coolly as though she had nothing to be ashamed of and began conversing with us. But we wishing to move on, left the unchaste huntress to talk to the gum trees.’
Calder’s party continued overland to the Forth River then beating their way up through the rich forest land of Barrington, returned to their base camp on the Kentish Plains.
Calder’s Report to the Government
After Calder’s completed his investigations through to Emu Bay, he sent in his final report to the Government. It stated that a large proportion the soil in this area of the North-West is of the very richest description and better watered than almost any other part of the island. However, except for the Kentish Plains, the remaining area is so covered with enormous timber, as to make the laborious and expensive operations of clearing it entirely out of the question, unless very great facilities and encouragement be afforded by Government.
So, despite the cart road up through the Kentish Plains being completed, the cash-strapped Government ceased all further work on this second grand attempt to build the main highway to the North West coast across our Kentish Municipality. However, Surveyor Calder always retained a soft spot for Nathaniel Lipscomb Kentish because they both graduated from the same training institution in England. So when he succeeded James Sprent as next Surveyor-General in the late 1850s, it was Calder who officially named our district Kentish Plains.
Next time: Wm Kimberley and his Sheep come to Kentish