Van Diemen’s Land

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Our journey began with riding on a road only a few hundred kilometres away but a world apart. At one end of Beach Road, Melbourne’s most popular ride that thousands of people cycle every day, sits the Spirit of Tasmania. During a 10-hour sail across the rough seas of the Bass Strait, the Spirit of Tasmania afforded us comforts and luxuries that the convicts who sailed for months from Britain did not get. From 1803, some 75,000 were transported to what was then known as Van Diemen’s Land, many of them shipped away for no greater crime than poaching.

A traditional English folk song of the period, Van Diemen’s Land, chronicles the convicts’ journey. Also known as The Gallant Poachers, it serves both as a lament for the lives they left behind and a stark warning to those contemplating similar activities. The poem also describes the horrendous conditions the convicts endured en route and their subsequent exploitation at the hands of plantation owners.

Van Diemen’s Land
Come all you gallant poachers that ramble free from care
That walk out of a moonlight night with your dog your gun and snare
Where the lofty hare and pheasant you have at your command
Not thinking that your last career is on Van Diemen’s Land

There was poor Tom Brown from Nottingham
Jack Williams and poor Joe
Were three as daring poachers as the country well does know
At night they were trepanned by the keeper’s hideous hand
And for fourteen years transported were unto Van Diemen’s Land

Oh when we sailed from England we landed at the bay
We had rotten straw for bedding we dared not to say nay
Our cots were fenced with fire we slumber when we can
To drive away the wolves and tigers upon Van Diemen’s Land

Oh when that we were landed upon that fatal bay
The planters they came flocking round full twenty score or more
They ranked us up like horses and sold us out of hand
They yoked us up to the plough my boys to plough Van Diemen’s Land

There was one girl from England Susan Summers was her name
For fourteen years transported was we all well knew the same
Our planter bought her freedom and he married her out of hand
Good usage then she gave to us upon Van Diemen’s Land

Often when I am slumbering I have a pleasant dream
With my sweet girl I am sitting down by some purling stream
Through England I am roaming with her at my command
Then waken broken hearted upon Van Diemen’s Land

God bless our wives and families likewise that happy shore
That isle of sweet contentment which we shall see no more
As for our wretched females see them we seldom can
There are twenty to one woman upon Van Diemen’s Land

Come all you gallant poachers give ear unto my song
It is a bit of good advice although it is not long
Lay by your dog and snare to you I do speak plain
If you knew the hardship we endure you ne’er would poach again

We docked in Devonport at 5am just as the sun was rising and headed straight to Cradle Mountain into a block headwind. Spirits were high, the riders were energetic and quick to establish an unsaid pecking order. Heavy, dead roads turned into Strada Bianche which took us far off the beaten track. Not a car or person in sight in this wild land, it couldn’t have been further way from the fast-moving bunches on Beach Road where this voyage began.

After a long hard day of riding on varying terrain we settled in for the night in Strahan, a stunning coastal town in the southwest corner of Tasmania. We didn’t need to travel far to find our feed at a traditional Aussie pub along with a couple of bottles of Micheal Wilson’s Velo Pinot Noir to reflect on the day.

The plan for day two was to make our way through the old mining area of Queenstown and then beyond. The eerie moonscape terrain and a desolate gravel cricket pitch was a reminder of just how remote a place this was. In need of food, we found the only open milk bar in town and a miner named Travis who had just got off his shift from being over a kilometre underground. No matter where we stopped on this trip, we always found a local who took interest in us and told us their story.

Day three brought us closer to Launceston on roads where many of the top pros learned their craft. Just beyond is an awe-inspiring place called Ben Lomond National Park wherein lies a 20km climb on gravel up to the cathedral-like Jacob’s Ladder. We didn’t need to travel all the way to Europe to see spectacular climbs etched out of the sides of mountains.

Tasmania is a beautiful land that’s so close and easy to get to for us Australians, yet seems so far away. Many Australians I speak to have never been to Tasmania but say they always have wanted to go. We hope our journey inspires you to venture onto these roads less travelled wherever they may be. It doesn’t need to be far, either. In a time where the grass always seems to be greener somewhere else, you can often discover some gems and tell your own stories about roads that you might find right in your backyard.

Brief History of Tasmanian Indigenous Population

At the time of British settlement in 1803, the indigenous population of Tasmania consisted of nine ethnic groups and was estimated at between 4,000 and 10,000 people. The introduction of infectious diseases (to which they had no immunity), as well as war and regular persecution by European settlers meant that, by 1833, the population had dwindled to just 300. Following frequent petitions from settlers, the remaining indigenous population was eventually relocated to Flinders Island, which lies 12 miles to the northeast of Tasmania. The man charged with this forced migration was George Augustus Robinson, a British former engineer whom, sympathising with their plight, applied for the newly created position of Protector of Aboriginals.

Tragically, Robinson’s intervention was not sufficient and the upheaval caused by European settlement led to the eventual demise of Tasmania’s indigenous people. A woman named Truganini (1812–76) is generally recognised as the last full-blooded Tasmanian Aborigine, although there is evidence to suggest that the last survivor was in fact another woman, Fanny Cochrane Smith, who was born at Wybalena and died in 1905.

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