Image of the Week

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In our final weeks at Maatsuyker Island, my partner Gary and I had the joy of sharing the island with the Friends of Maatsuyker Island (FOMI), a fun-filled volunteer group who visit the island each year for an intensive working bee. Amongst the hard workers was photographer James Stone. On the second morning of FOMI’s stay, I made my way down to the lighthouse at first light to carry out a routine daily check. Rounding the corner I did a double take at the sight of a camera and tripod standing untethered on the path, where it had stood overnight. With the relentless winds at Maatsuyker, snagging a time when you might find your camera and tripod in the same place as you left it is a noteworthy event in itself. But when I saw the results of James’ photography, the aurora shown above, and a second image below, I was the one blown away. I invited James to share the story behind his stellar images.

James Stone_IMG_9227As a night sky photographer and self-confessed aurora-addict I couldn’t believe my luck when an aurora was predicted for my first couple of nights on Maatsuyker Island, Australia’s southernmost lighthouse and maybe the best location from which to view the Aurora Australis or Southern Lights outside of spending a winter in the Antarctic. This was in conjunction with clear skies and no wind – conditions exceedingly rare on this exposed lump of rock in the Southern Ocean, renowned for being amongst the wettest and windiest places in Australia. Despite a very early start to get to Maatsuyker I knew I had to stay up and make the most of this incredible opportunity.

The lighthouse stood as a stoic sentinel as the lights danced high in the sky behind, the peace of night broken only by the cries and bellows of the seals on the rocks far below, and the occasional muttonbird swooping by. Being my first night on the island, and with restoration work going on in the lighthouse, I wasn’t sure if I should venture inside, but chanced sticking my head through the door to shine my headtorch up the stairwell, illuminating the windows and lantern room for effect. I would loved to have posed for a silhouette shot on the upper gantry but didn’t think I had better risk it without permission. Next time…

I watched the display long into the wee hours of the morning, in awe of not only the stunning night sky, but my spectacular good fortune to be able to be there, in that location, under those conditions, a unique and truly memorable experience.

Eventually tiredness overtook me and, placing my tripod in a sheltered spot out of the wind and flightpaths of birds, I left my camera clicking away shooting a time lapse until its battery ran out. Meanwhile I staggered back up the hill to bed.

For keen night-sky photographers, James shares his camera settings, and a second aurora image below: Camera: Nikon D750, Lens: Nikkor 16–35mm f/4, Exposure: 20seconds @ f/4.0, ISO: 5000. Be sure to check out James’ brilliant time lapse sequence on Vimeo.

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Beneath the rainbow

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Any title that includes Rainbow is bound to conjure images of crystals and incense sticks. Nope, there’s not a tinkle of glass nor a whiff of sandalwood to be found in this post, only photographic proof that it is possible to see the end of the rainbow, and live a serene life beneath it. We’re talking Maatsuyker Island, site of Australia’s southernmost lighthouse, the island where my novel Wildlight plays out, within cooee of the south-west corner of Tasmania.

Our six months of caretaking and weather observing at Maatsuyker Island has come to a close. Now, even more than our first few days of treading paved roads, it feels like crashing back to earth. The work on the island was hard, the living conditions cold, and the wind rarely stopped blowing, but perhaps all these challenges contributed to us having the time of our lives. And even though we turned into eating machines, we each left the island many kilograms lighter, and fitter, thanks to hauling lawnmowers up and down slopes, wielding brush cutters, digging drains and tending a large vegetable garden, plus all the walking. It’s a win-win formula that I’m naming The Maatsuyker Diet.

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Here is my partner Gary with ‘Helga’ the mower. There’s little scope for traditional gender roles on Maatsuyker Island. We divided the mowing and brush cutting work that tends a 2-kilometre-long grass road, 2 helicopter pads, 1 vegetable garden, the surrounds of 3 cottages and 1 lighthouse, 1 paddock, and brush cutting 7 bush tracks, paths and numerous slopes too tricky or hazardous to mow. One round took each of us 4–5 days on a 3-weekly cycle.

A corner of the Maatsuyker pantry at the start of our stay; strawberries from the veggie garden’s poly house; sushi rolls for dinner (my partner Gary’s speciality); during our stay we consumed 42 kgs flour transformed into sourdough loaves and baked goods.

During our first caretaking term in 2010–11 we barely saw another two-legged being, but on this stint we relished the company of several energetic visitors. Long-time friends Katherine and Kevin from Western Australia arrived on a crayfishing boat and stayed for five days. The permits and arrangements took them months, and even then it was nail biting times as the ocean swell and weather was against them both on their arrival and throughout their stay. Katherine and Kev were thankful for the handrails in the howling gales; they very quickly found their footing, embraced nature, and contributed to Maatsuyker with all manner of island work.

The wonderful Friends of Maatsuyker stayed over for two intensive working bees. This volunteer group contributes to almost every aspect of the island. Amongst the hard workers was Mark, who has turned his passion for lighthouses into restoring those around Australia that require serious TLC. Mark made his own way down to Tasmania and donated time and skills to continue work on restoring Maatsuyker’s lighthouse. During his days on the island we would regularly cross paths at first light as he headed down the hill to begin his day, working until late into the nights. He made impressive progress by removing damaging paint from a big section of the inside walls, and repainting top parts of the tower.

An unexpected visitation came from Dutch presenter-producer Floortje Dessing and her camerawoman Renée, who flew all the way from the Netherlands at short notice to produce a documentary about life as caretakers on Maatsuyker Island. Floortje To the End of the World (Floortje Naar Het Einde Van De Wereld) is a popular Dutch TV series which focusses as much on the people who choose to live in remote corners of the world as it does on the the natural wonders of wild places. While they were on Maatsuyker the girls got to experience the brunt of the Roaring Forties latitudes with 6-metre ocean swells and a record wind gust for January. Maatsuyker claims plenty of ‘personal bests’ when it comes to record winds: still to be beaten is its August 1991 squall of 112 knots (207.4 kms per hour), the country’s highest non-cyclonic wind gust. Floortje and Renée embraced every moment of the weather and were fun to be with. I only learned later how big a celebrity Floortje is in her home country, while to us they were simply two sparkling, energetic women who joined us each evening for dinner, washed up afterwards, brought a whopping great round of Edam cheese in their suitcase and followed us here and there on our daily routines.

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Lastly we welcomed Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife video competition winner Simon whose prize was a visit to Maatsuyker Island. Simon and his mate Noodle lobbed in for an overnight stay via helicopter, though with under-par weather conditions it was touch and go whether they could even make it to the island. Thanks to the skilled pilots at HeliRes they arrived safely after a short delay. Without losing another minute, the boys donned wet weather gear and bounded from one end of the island to the other with cameras in tow. In the evening, between ducking outdoors to watch a brilliant sunset, they joined us at Quarters 1 for curry and a pint of home brew beer. Next morning at 0400 they were up and at ’em to watch Maatsuyker’s thousands of short-tailed shearwaters launch off the island. In 24 hours Simon and Noodle succeeded in filming and later producing a professional 3-minute video which showcases the island. I will have that clip available to share in a week or so, along with an interview with Simon.

I could go on about Maatsuyker, but will close with the info below and a selection of photos which I hope express the magic of the island.

The nitty gritty of caretaking at Maatsuyker Island

The volunteer caretaker program is coordinated and managed by Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service who currently advertise the position through Wildcare Inc. every two years. Each applicant must demonstrate a range of skills and an adequate level of physical fitness, and will be responsible for purchasing their own provisions for the six-month term. Part of the Maatsuyker caretaker duties is to conduct daily weather observations for the Bureau of Meteorology Hobart. Many short-term volunteer caretaking opportunities across Tasmania are advertised through Wildcare Inc., the incorporated community partner organisation that provides management and support for volunteers working in natural and cultural heritage conservation and reserve management. Friends of Maatsuyker Island (Wildcare Inc.) is a volunteer group who contribute time and skills to the island, raise funds towards maintenance and improvements on Maatsuyker, run day trips to the island via boat, and conduct annual working bees.

Last gasp of a big year

dsc_3874-robyn-gary-at-maatsuykerWith my times away from home, my blogging pattern tends to be feast or famine. This week sees no nutritional lack. Despite spotty attendance I feel great personal reward in the interactions with readers and guests that maintaining a website generates. Imagine, then, a world with no internet, no email and no mobile coverage; then—as daunting as the prospect may be—picture me in that world for the next six months. Shortly, my partner Gary and I are off to remote Maatsuyker Island, site of Australia’s southernmost lighthouse, for a second term as volunteer caretakers and weather observers. While the island remains happily rodent and snake-free, it also remains staunchly internet-free, just like its old light keeping days, minus the carrier pigeons.

Maatsuyker Island with Needle Rocks in foreground

Maatsuyker Island with Needle Rocks in foreground. ©Robyn Mundy

This has been a mega year for me with the launch of my second novel, Wildlight, a story set on Maatsuyker Island. I feel personally touched to have had many lovely responses from readers who in different ways have been moved by the story, along with the relief any writer feels on receiving favourable media reviews. This doesn’t come without the sting of the odd 1- or 2-star reader rating on Goodreads, but—Man-up, Robyn!—such is the nature of writing and reading. This year I also feel fortunate to be amongst the lucky few to receive a grant from Australia Council for the Arts toward my new novel in progress. Thank you, ACA, for considering the project worthy of support. Those of us who throw our hats into the ring for such funding understand how competitive and slim the prospects. There are so many talented writers deserving of success, combined with brutal slashes in funding for Australian Arts.

Between ship work and writing research, it’s been a scramble preparing for Maatsuyker Island, months in the planning with the need to provide 6 months of provisions for our island time. Imagine running short of coffee. Or wine. Or chocolate! Imagine forgetting to take books to read. It has been the mother of all shopping lists, let me tell you. As seasoned caretakers on Maatsuyker there will be no shortage of lawn mowing, brush cutting or maintenance tasks; thankfully, there will still be ample time to savour the beautiful island surrounds and to make solid progress on my new novel. Novel 3 will not be a sequel to Wildlight, though my Auntie Muriel is keen to know why I refused to write Wildlight‘s final chapter. 🙂 This new story is set in a vastly different wilderness, about as far away from Maatsuyker Island as is probable to venture.

Earlier in the year I was invited to write an article for Newswrite magazine on what attracts writers like myself to wild places. With permission from the New South Wales Writers’ Centre, I have reproduced the article below.

For now and always, keep safe and happy. Keep loving books. More from Writing the Wild in March 2017.

Robyn x

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Writing the Wild

This article first appeared in Newswrite Magazine, June 2016, and is reproduced here with permission of the New South Wales Writers’ Centre.

When asked to consider why, as a writer, I feel drawn to wild places and isolation, I initially grappled for an answer, which led to this confession: forget about being a writer; the urge to experience places such as Maatsuyker Island and Antarctica where my novels are set, originates from purely self-seeking motives, from some deep well of longing to experience nature. As a novelist, the fascination for wilderness precedes all else; from immersion in its landscape comes story.

The Nature of Ice frontcov smallMy first novel, The Nature of Ice, draws on Antarctica, the backdrop of my life for nearly 20 years. I have wintered and summered at Australian Antarctic stations, working as a field assistant on science research projects that included a remarkable winter on the sea ice with emperor penguins. I am doubly fortunate to spend several months each year aboard a small ice-strengthened vessel, guiding adventure tours to Antarctica, the Arctic, and other wondrous outposts.

While the Antarctic wildlife rates as a huge drawcard, the ultimate spellbinding seduction for me is the ice. Being within it. That is not to imply some trippy state of serenity. If wonder is one face of awe, the other is a guarded caution in knowing how easily Antarctica can turn from beauty to malevolence. You can’t be in a wild place for long without respect for its might.

The first draw to Antarctica began with someone else’s story. As a young adult I read Lennard Bickel’s This Accursed Land, a dramatised account of polar explorer Douglas Mawson’s 1911–14 Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Along with the iconic images of photographer Frank Hurley, the story of that thwarted expedition ignited my curiosity and imagination. How might such a hostile place feel, where nature determines everything? I had to find a way to go.

when_the_night_comesAs a contemporary Antarctic novelist, I am not alone in this draw to the frozen south. Favel Parret’s When the Night Comes has its origin in the history of Nella Dan, a former Australian Antarctic supply vessel. I posed the question to Favel: what attracts you to wild places?

‘At first I was drawn back into my childhood memories of the south of Tasmania. Mostly it was the child’s fear of the wild that I wanted to understand. Then at 27 came surfing and the feeling of wanting to be on the wild water, and wanting to find remote wild beaches that were pristine and free of concrete car parks and cars and houses. The clean waters of Bass Strait and the Southern Ocean became vitally important to me.’

Reflecting on the genesis of When the Night Comes: ‘Nella came first. I had to follow her and experience where she went. I had to go to sea and visit the Southern Ocean properly. On my first trip, to Macquarie Island, I found that I was in love with seabirds and could easily spend the rest of my life watching them. That trip was not enough; I had only scratched the surface and I knew I had to go to the ice. It was wonderful to experience Antarctica for the ten-day resupply at Casey Station, but it was the long journey at sea that felt most wild. The moments always changing, the ship always moving, new birds to watch, different whales to see, different swells to navigate. The wildness of that ocean speaks to me in so many ways and I would go again in a heartbeat. It is the wildest place I know.’

chasing-the-lightAuthor Jesse Blackadder also travelled south to understand Antarctica. Her novel Chasing the Light draws on the 1930s history of Ingrid Christensen, wife of a Norwegian whaling magnate. Ingrid and two unlikely female companions are each poised to become the first woman to land on Antarctica. Serendipitously, I recently met up with Jesse and asked which came first, the draw to Antarctica, or Ingrid’s story? Like me, like Ingrid Christensen, Jesse’s personal longing to experience Antarctica stretched back years, driven, in Jesse’s case, by images of wildlife and ice. Place first, story second.

All three Antarctic novels are fictional works inspired by history, yet the authors’ personal experience infuses an undeniable verisimilitude into their sense of place. Similarly, the voyage across a vast Southern Ocean to reach Antarctica is as fundamental to each story’s narrative arc as it is to the writer’s personal quest. For writers where place sits at the forefront of the work, it behoves us to connect with its landscape, to fully know it through personal experience or memory or research.

Wildlight front coverMy new novel Wildlight plays out on remote Maatsuyker Island off Tasmania’s South West. Here, my partner Gary and I spent four months living in isolation as volunteer caretakers and weather observers. The inspiration for Maatsuyker Island was triggered by a childhood at our family shack on the edge of the ocean. Maatsuyker amounted to a dot on the wall map, to a reputation for wild weather and the home of Australia’s southernmost lighthouse. Evening weather reports on Dad’s crackly transistor radio conjured images of light keepers trudging to and from the lighthouse in knockdown gales, of a place riven by storm and fearsome seas. As a child I wanted to know such a place. As an adult, I wanted to write it. Yet I couldn’t—not with credibility—until I had experienced it.

The sheer force of wild landscapes—their capacity to slough away the noise and clutter of urban life, to command our full attention, to beguile us with their majesty then strike with their hostility—preoccupies me as both a novelist and traveller. Each season on polar voyages I see fellow travellers ‘expanded’ by these other worlds. For some, like me, the experience is a form of meditation, the likes of which is largely unattainable in the workaday world. For others, the journey may mark a pivotal turning point. As sites of transformation, places of wilderness offer a bounty of riches for literary fiction.

It feels important to qualify that a love of nature—of any landscape—is not sufficient to sustain a work of fiction. Within the layers of a compelling story lies human conflict. It must. ‘Without the friction of conflict,’ says author Stephen Fischer, ‘there is no change. And without change, there is no story. A body at rest remains at rest unless it enters into conflict.’

Even during the lead-up to being on Maatsuyker, the anticipation of the island performed its alchemy, stirring characters into being and offering potential conflicts: what would months on Maatsuyker be like for a teenage girl dragged there by her parents, removed from her friends and the comforts of home? What if that family were isolated from each other, grieving for the death of a child? What would the surround of ocean mean for a 19-year-old deckhand who fears the sea and holds a premonition that some day it will take him? And the big question: how do I make best use of island and ocean in a story where these lives collide?

I strive to make place dynamic, to function as a fickle, layered character. Landscape holds a capacity to not only reflect the inner turmoil of characters, but to shape and transform. Who better, it seemed to me, than two young people at odds with their landscape, still making themselves up as they go along?

On a recent walk to a wilderness lookout, I happened upon an interpretative sign with this, by author-environmentalist Aldo Leopold: Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The challenge for the writer remains one of language: to fathom the meanings of wild places through the characters that inhabit them.

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Image of the week

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Storm front off Maatsuyker Island. ©Robyn Mundy

On a day of screaming winds and rain squalls right across this island state of Tasmania, I am reminded of this rain-bearing front approaching Maatsuyker Island. Within minutes Maatsuyker was deluged. During the writing of Wildlight I frequently drew upon my island photographs; this one helped build a scene for a destructive storm that would leave its mark on a fleet of fishing boats as well as those on the island.

Saving Maatsuyker

It’s been abandoned, neglected, flooded, even struck by lightning, but a unique piece of Australia’s maritime history — our loneliest, southernmost lighthouse — is ­finally being brought back from the brink of ruin.  —Matthew Denholm, Weekend Australian

Read today’s inspiring cover page article in the Weekend Australian on the valiant efforts, largely by volunteers in concert with Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service, to save Maatsuyker Island lighthouse.

Opening of Maatsuyker Island Lighthouse, June 1891. Photo reference NS1013/1/277, published with permission of the Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office

Opening of Maatsuyker Island Lighthouse, June 1891. Photo reference NS1013/1/277, published with permission of the Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office

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Maatsuyker Island Lighthouse has suffered further deterioration since this 2010 photograph. ©Robyn Mundy

Wildlight countdown

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Maatsuyker Island Lighthouse

With Wildlight in stores next week, remote lighthouses and windswept islands are fresh on my mind. Wildlight is a contemporary novel set on Maatsuyker Island, the site of Australia’s southernmost lighthouse, located off the south coast of Tasmania.

I was recently interviewed by the lovely Georgia Moodie for ABC Radio National’s Books and Arts. If you would like to hear it, listen to the podcast here.

Also check out the Wildlight book trailer.