The Fantastic Story of the Huon Pine

About 80 million years ago, just as the first modern turtles were swimming the world’s oceans, southern conifers were growing in Tasmania. Our land mass was still just connected to the Antarctic. 

The Huon Pine, a descendant of these early conifers, still grows in Tasmania today and played a pivotal role in the industrialisation of the region’s trade routes. It can be argued, the tree was a crucial resource, necessary for creating a newfound prosperity, on which the entire economy was built, including thriving apple production in the Huon Valley.

Published by Simon Mustoe

Surrounding lush hills of temperate rainforest first fuelled the passion of pioneer settlers. 

Huon Pine was a perfect timber for building the ships that plied up and down the river, an important highway linking the timber-rich south with Hobart and beyond. The pine contains natural, aromatic oils, that waterproof and preserve the timber against rot, even when submerged in fresh or sea water.  

Famous for being lightweight, durable and extremely craft-worthy, “piners” would risk life and limb to navigate the most inaccessible stretches of river, for this valuable resource.

For its value, it was almost completely eradicated and today it’s scarce. One of the only accessible stands left, comprising several hundred year-old trees at Tahune, aren’t much thicker than a telegraph pole. It takes that long to grow.

The oldest known trees have been dated around 4,000 years but there is a stand on Mt Read in northern Tasmania that’s existed as a clonal colony for over 10,000 years. All the trees are descended from one male.       

The timber is classed as a soft wood and has a fine grain. Being slightly denser than water, not all the stock-piles of extracted Huon made it to the timber mills. Some were lost to the bottom of lake-beds. Others were naturally washed from river-banks and lake-sides in hundred-year floods and there they have remained perfectly-preserved, until now. 

Still being among the most highly prized boat-building material, in recent years, a new industry has formed to refloat 2,000 year old logs and supply Huon Valley shipyards, such as the Working Waterfront in Franklin. 

Here, centuries-old ship-building traditions and skills are still used to make boats and this knowledge is passed to new generations through apprenticeships. 

The town was named after Tasmania’s Governor Franklin who years later was lost at sea during an expedition to the Arctic. The final resting place of his ship, the HMS Erebus, was unknown until it was discovered in 2014 in Canada’s north west passage. Lady Jane Franklin’s piano can still be seen in Frank’s Cider café and museum. 

The apple orchards here date back to the town’s first European settlers in the early 1800s and while the settlement has old-world charm, it’s beguiling. The place is built on brawn, determination and a continued proficiency for the trades and craft that made it what it is today. 

Franklin remains a working example of Tasmanian traditional industry and it still attracts modern pioneers, like the Lassen family who moved here on their gaff rigged tall ship, the Yukon. 

Bought with money earnt from the Canadian gold fields and built of oak in 1930 to trawl the North Sea, the Lassens discovered her near Copenhagen and exchanged salvage rates for a case of cold beer, when only the tips of her masts were visible above the dark grey harbour water.

After seven years of restoration and circumnavigation of the globe as a family with two small boys, the beautiful Huon River in Franklin was an obvious choice to be the final destination in this historic vessel’s epic life story. The ship and her family continue to sail and help restore wooden boats with historic Huon Pine.  

Here, not just a landscape but a tree, has helped shape and continues to define a region’s economy and culture. 

The forested hills, tannin-stained river waters and the Huon Pine - even long-since dead remants, remain an influence on its culture and people ... even the wildlife. Tasmanian Devils and Eastern-barred Bandicoots still make their dens beneath townhouses on the surrounding slopes. The rare Australasian Bittern still emits its eerie booming call over the Egg Island marshes and Platypus cavort in the streams that flow from mountain to sea.      

Wildiaries • September 2016