To assist him with his surveying assignment to find a new inland route along the NW Coast, Kentish was given William (Lukin) Boyes (21), son of G.T.W. Boyes the Auditor-General of Van Diemen’s Land, plus 20 handpicked convicts from the probation stations at Westbury and Deloraine.
These convicts were to help Kentish explore the unknown country, peg the center line of his proposed route, clear scrub and haul in regular provisions on pack horses to their camp sites. One of convicts ‘Old Bill’ was an especially reliable and trustworthy man, who became a companion to Kentish on his lone travels to and from the coast. As with all survey parties, the convicts were responsible to catch their own fresh meat. Interestingly, the horse Kentish chose from the Government stables for his exploration work was the same steed Count Strzelecki had just returned after his epic travels around the island.
Difficulty crossing the Mersey River
After assembling their camping equipment, the party set out from the Meander River ford (later Deloraine) on their first exploratory expedition in June 1842. Kentish had no difficulties selecting a westward route to the already discovered Mersey River ford (later Kimberley). He crossed three open plains where some very early settlers had already taken up land, then followed down the valley of Coiler Creek to where it joins the Mersey River. Kentish was delighted to establish his base camp near the current Kimberley warm springs where aboriginals had camped for many centuries.
The winter of 1842 proved to be the wettest ever known causing the Mersey River to constantly flood. Trying to across the river with all their gear and supplies, Kentish’s party were forced to use ropes and log rafts to prevent being swept downstream. This was the same crossing where 16 years earlier the advance party of the VDL Co lost their first convict employee and his horse. It was also where, in later decades, a number of early Kentish pioneers perished or had their belongings washed away while trying to cross. One who drowned was John Strawberry. Driving a bullock across the river, his horse stepped into a hole and both disappeared. The horse eventually surfaced but not the rider. Strawberry (48) left a widow up in the bush with 10 children, the youngest one barely a year old.
Steep Climb up the Dasher Valley
Once across the Mersey, Kentish’s party followed the river flats south for a few miles until they came to the junction of the Dasher River coming in from a westerly direction. The Dasher had been discovered much earlier by Hellyer and Lorymer who followed it up between the hills onto higher ground. Kentish’s party chose exactly the same route, also seeing the impressive Dasher Falls in flood which originally gave rise to its descriptive name.
They continued climbing up the valley for several miles until they reached the southern base of Vinegar Hill near Sheffield, where the Dasher River turns sharply south toward Mount Roland. There they set up camp between its junction with Dodder Creek coming from eastern Sheffield and Duck Marsh a little further up river. Carrying heavy packs with tents, blankets, rations and tools through densely wooded bush in wet cold conditions for days on end, and not being able to light a fire at night to dry out their clothes, made the convicts rather irritable and rebellious. Kentish told them, his intentions were now to leave the Dasher River valley and strike out westward across unexplored country towards the Forth River.
Discovering Kentish Plains
Fortunately, James Fenton in his book Bush Life in Tasmania gives us an account of the actual discovery of the Kentish Plains as told to him directly by Kentish’s companion ‘Old Bill’. Fenton writes:
‘Old Bill was an active wiry man with a sprinkling of grey hair in his beard, but not a lazy bone in his body. Old Bill was off as usual, to lay his wallaby snares, when he came upon a well-beaten track through the scrub showing footprints of a good-sized kangaroo. “Ah” he thought, “there’s clear country somewhere.” Presently he came upon a place where cattle had bedded only a short time before. Following their tracks, he suddenly emerged into a beautiful open space, with a wide-extending grass plain in front, and from all appearance, miles of open country ahead.’ Old Bill had doubts whether this park-like plain was a new discovery, so hurried back to the campsite to tell Kentish, who followed him to the place of his discovery.
Old Bill’s discovery must have been near the present-day junction of Old Paradise Road and Brays Road, for he and Kentish climbed up onto the hill at the end of Bray’s Road to get a better view of the open plains.
This hilltop site later became the property of the pioneer settler Edmund Lord. The view from there showed undulating park-like country extending north across eastern Sheffield to the foot of the Badgers then across to West Nook road and south along the eastern side of the Don River to West Kentish.
The two men spent the whole day walking over the grassy area, which they felt contained at least six or seven thousand acres. With his pocket-knife, Old Bill cut into a gum tree: “August Plains, 1st August 1842.” They counted about 80 head of unbranded cattle grazing across the plains and wondered how they got there. Almost certainly these cattle had strayed from the herds of VDL Co and later Field Brothers while being driven by stockmen over the Great Western Road behind Mount Roland. Looking for good pasture, these lost cattle had crossed Mount Claude and come down along the Dasher River flats onto the open Plains. Some feel Field’s stockmen knew of the plains long before Kentish’s official discovery but kept it a secret. Anyway the 80 head of cattle were soon claimed by Field Brothers who sent them to the meat market in Launceston and immediately negotiated two 15 years leases over these newly discovered plains.
The irony of this new discovery is that Old Bill had barely walked half a mile up out of the Dasher River gully which Hellyer & Lorymer had previously traversed several times some sixteen years ago. These earlier surveyors had missed finding the open plains probably for the same reason Kentish’s party hadn’t seen them earlier. Their view to the west was blocked by heavy scrub and tall trees.
After investigating these open plains, Kentish and his party continued his exploration in a westerly direction through heavy forest reaching the Forth River in about five miles. There they were blocked by the very deep gully (now the Devil’s Gate Dam). To find a reasonable fording place, Kentish was forced down stream to just below the junction of the Wilmot and the Forth Rivers near the Paloona Dam, only seven miles in from the coast. Once this crossing was chosen, Kentish could now go back and finalize his entire road route between the Mersey to Forth Rivers. It would come up the hills on the northern side of the Dasher River, pass around the northern side of Vinegar Hill, cross the Kentish Plains and descend through Lower Barrington to the Paloona Dam.
Three and half weeks after discovering the plains, on 25 August 1842 Kentish sent off his official dispatch to his boss Surveyor-General Power in Hobart giving a full glowing description of his discoveries and progress to date. He wrote:
“The plains …constitute an immediately available country, never before known to exist, a portion of which might be laid out as a township.”
Ignoring Old Bill’s inscription August Plains, Kentish suggests the plains be called Tasmanian Felix (meaning a pleasant, prosperous place).
Although relationships between Surveyor–General Power and Kentish began amicably, once Kentish commenced making caustic comments against his superior officer, things quickly soured. Over time Power’s attitude to Kentish hardened it seems from hostility to hatred. Power released no public statement about Kentish’s new discovery. In fact, it would be over a year before there was any mention in the local press of the discovery of these new plains, and then it came from James Gibson’s written report which had been read to the Annual general meeting of the Van Diemens Land Company held in London.
Instead of Power responding to Kentish’s discovery with accolades, he replied informing Kentish that his exploration work was immediately suspended. He had been reassigned to more urgent survey work at Emu Bay. So, Kentish’s party were forced to quickly retreat and disband. Two weeks later Nathaniel Kentish was aboard the 108-ton schooner Eagle sailing from Launceston to Emu Bay.