It was a Friday in October 2021 when we packed our bags in our little cottage outside of Swansea and were hitting the road for St Helens, 120 Km up the east coast of Tasmania. Later that morning, the Tasmanian Government announced an expansion of the areas covered by Covid lockdown and the “Covid border” now reached out to include Swansea. By the time we heard this announcement, we were moving our bags into a cabin in the NRMA St Helens Waterfront Holiday Park. We had noted the signs to Kate’s Berry Farm down the road from the Piermont Retreat and we decided we would have breakfast there before driving north. It was a beautiful little hillside farm with a great café for homeless travellers like us!
Our caravan park was located on the Waterfront that was the south side of Georges Bay and it was a ten minute drive or less into the shopping precinct of St Helens. Although our cabin was small, it was new, well-appointed and very cosy as it was pretty cold while we were there. The previous few days had dumped a lot of rain on North Eastern Tasmania and this caused issues with the roads around St Helens. We decided to take in the coastal village of Binalong on our first afternoon but the main road was cut off by floods and we were lucky there was an alternate route.
The geography and history of St Helens reminded me of Bicheno back down the coast. Both towns had started back in the early 19th century with settlements based on whaling and sealing. The big difference between these two towns was that St Helens had a large inlet, Georges Bay, so a whaling fleet had significant protection from the weather during storm season. Like Bicheno, its economy today is based on its fishing fleet and the associated support industries. It is also situated at the start of the Bay of Fires, so it attracts significant numbers of tourists like ourselves!
The first European to explore the St Helens area was Tobias Furneax who captained one of the ships that accompanied James Cook on his second voyage of exploration in 1773. We would come across the story of Furneaux again towards the end of our tour of Tasmania when we visited Bruny Island down the coast from Hobart. He made the earliest British charts of Van Dieman’s land; he named Adventure Bay on Bruny Island after his ship. He also named the stretch of coastline going north from Binalong Bay as the Bay of Fires. As Furneaux was sailing along this coastline, he noticed many fires lit by the local first people. Sometimes in tourist industry accounts of the area, they propose that maybe he chose the name because of the orange lichen on the granite boulders lining the sea front. I suspect this is fanciful as I don’t think Furneaux spent much time on shore along this coastline.
Our afternoon destination after finding our caravan park was to make our way to Binalong Bay, the official start of the coastline named the ‘Bay of Fires’. One of the reports on the area I discovered was a 2009 newspaper article that announced …
“Tasmania’s Bay of Fires has been named the world’s “hottest” travel destination for 2009 by international guide book Lonely Planet…is described by Lonely Planet as “a castaway bay” with a 29 kilometres ribbon of sea and surf spooling out from the old whaling town of St Helens, on Tasmania’s north-east coast.
“White beaches of hourglass-fine sand, Bombay Sapphire sea, an azure sky – and nobody,” the guide says. “This is the secret edge of Tasmania, laid out like a pirate’s treasure map of perfect beach after sheltered cove, all fringed with forest.”
The map above left attempts to outline our drives around the region over the next two days. On our first afternoon, we took a right hand turn to Binalong Bay in the centre of St Helens but didn’t get too far along it before we were turned back by ‘Flooded Road’ signs. This meant that we had to drive north out of town and take the dirt road turn off near the Priory Vineyard which then took us straight to Binalong Bay. This location at the start of the Bay of Fires has clearly been a beach holiday town for many years. It was too cold and windy for a beach walk so we were very happy to find an established walking trail that led around to Humburg Pt. It started off with the usual professionally designed viewing platform with information about the beautiful area we were about to explore.
“The Bay of Fires extends from Binalong Bay to Eddystone Point in the north-26 nautical miles. This unusual name was given to the area by Captain Tobias Furneaux, in 1773, when he saw the fires of the aboriginal people along the coast. This led him to believe that the country was densely populated. Abundant evidence of this occupation by Aboriginal people can be seen along the coast today including Aboriginal middens (shell and bone deposits) that are found in the sand dunes.”
Another local information board provided more useful information about this coastline.
“The pristine white sands that make up the coastline of the Bay of Fires are derived from the granite bedrock that is predominant in North East Tasmania. A big proportion of the coastline and adjacent land along the Bay of Fires has had little influence since white settlement and is therefore a haven for many species of plants and wildlife. From the rare yellow rock orchid to the endangered swift parrot and many others not quite so endangered; such as the White-bellied Sea-Eagle, Pied Oystercatcher, Pacific Gull, Hooded Plovers scurrying along the beaches.”
From Binalong Bay, there was a short drive back to a road junction where we could turn right and head north again along the coast for 13km until the road came to the start of the Bay of Fires Conservation Area. This spot is called ‘The Gardens’. There is a small holiday house settlement there and a boardwalk with views (Image below) all the way along the Bay of Fires. The name of the area comes from 1835 when Lady Jane Franklin, wife of Lieutenant Governor of Tasmania, came to Georges Bay. That she was an unconventional woman is illustrated by the fact that she rode a horse from Georges Bay to this point and named it ‘The Gardens’ due the acres of wild flowers she found here.
One of the information boards here spoke of the use of fire-technology in this area by aboriginal people over many thousands of years… “ensured the country was kept low and open, making it easier to move and hunt. Mosaic burning also encouraged fresh and diverse plant growth. This attracted kangaroos and other mammals and birds, which the Aboriginal people hunted.”
This same noticeboard mentioned above also had an 1837 portrait of a Tasmanian Aboriginal woman from Cape Portland. Her name was Manalargenna, a leader of the pairrebeene clan from the area of the north-eastern tip of Tasmania.