Monthly Archives: April 2010


Whaling—the hunting of whales for food and oil—stretches back through history to the Stone Age. As a food source, whales were vital in many areas. However, in the centuries before petroleum was discovered, when vegetable oils existed in only a few areas (because most commercially used vegetable oils—corn, safflower, canola, and cottonseed oils—are modern creations), the oil from whales may have been even more important than the flesh. Whale oil fueled lamps and stoves, it was used in cosmetics, soaps, and candles, it treated wool, was used in cooking, and it was turned into margarine. It was the first oil to become commercially important, and it became important worldwide.

Before steel was widely available, “whale bone,” really the baleen of filter-feeders, was also commercially important, as it was both strong and flexible in a day when nothing else offered this combination of virtues. For centuries, every corset in Europe was reinforced with “whale bone.”

When most of us think of whaling, if we think of it at all, we envision the Nantucket whaling vessels described in the Herman Melville classic, Moby Dick. Whaling was immensely important to New England in the 1700s and 1800s, and images of the harpooner balanced in the front of a small boat with a few men at the oars accurately reflects whaling of the era. Those images also suggest how commercially important the oil was—you didn’t risk your life for something that didn’t matter.

Australia was being settled in the midst of this era of classic whaling, and because the South Seas were even richer in whales than the northern seas, whaling came to Australia with early settlers. Our next destination in Tasmania, Bicheno, was established as a whaling center in 1803. While whaling still relied on boats for the actual capture, Bicheno had the remarkable good fortune of having a high, granite outcrop that overlooked water deep enough to be home to whales. Called Whalers Lookout, this hill offered a land-based “crow’s nest” for viewing spouts and alerting the fleet.

Today, it is a popular spot for simply gaining a view of the surrounding countryside and ocean, and it was the view that drew us to the top of the granite outcrop. The hill itself was lovely, and the view of the small town (current population around 700), surrounding greenery, beaches, and water was certainly worth the climb.

The sea is still vital to Bicheno, but the prizes sought today are rock lobsters (called crayfish in Australia), abalone and Australian salmon. Fine by me. I’d much rather eat lobster than salmon.

The images below are from my climb up Whalers Lookout in Bicheno.

Whalers Lookout, Bicheno

Bicheno, from Whalers Lookout



Filed under Australia, Book, Geography, History, Travel

Spiky Bridge

Heading north again, up the east coast of Tasmania, we stopped at a spot outside the old town of Swansea, which sits on Great Oyster Bay. The road to Swansea is crossed by a deep gully, and the gully is in turn crossed by a bridge: the Spiky Bridge, also known as the Prisoners Bridge.

Constructed in 1843 of local fieldstones, the convict-built bridge was created almost entirely without mortar or concrete. In the book, I mention that there are more practical explanation for the rocky spikes along the bridge than the one I reported, and the most common of those practical reasons seems to be that it would prevent cattle from falling over the edge. I can imagine they’d accomplish that.

Swansea overlooks Freycinet National Park, one of Tasmania’s oldest national parks, but that park, along with the other colonial-period relics in Swansea, will have to wait for a return trip to Tasmania.

The Spiky Bridge

The Spiky Brige


Filed under Australia, Book, Geography, History, Travel

The Isle of the Dead

The name sounds like a bad horror movie, doesn’t it? Isle of the Dead. It is, however, the island that Port Arthur used as a cemetery from 1833 to 1877. It was a wise choice, as burying the dead off shore limited the spread of disease.

Everyone who died was buried out there, though convicts were separated from soldiers, sailors, doctors, ministers, administrators, and their wives and children. At first, only those who were not convicts got headstones, but starting in the 1850s, headstones dedicated to convicts did begin to appear.

Near the end of its useful life, two structures were built on the little island: a hut for the grave digger and a shelter for mourners.

The island was surprisingly lovely when we were there. It was spring, so everything was in bloom. The lovely surroundings made the headstones poignant, rather than grim.

Isle of the Dead

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Filed under Australia, Book, History, Travel