December’s edition of Reader’s Digest – out now – includes my feature article on snorkelling with whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef – click the link for an online version at the Reader’s Digest website.

Ningaloo Reef is not only one of the planet’s most spectacular coral reef systems, it’s one of the few places where these huge, highly unusual sharks can be reliably encountered.

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Whale shark filter feeling just below the surface, Ningaloo Reef, WA. Photo by David Levell.

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The Ningaloo Reef whale shark story was published a few weeks ago and is still afloat here. Here’s some extra snaps from the trip:
Not whale sharks, a dolphin pod

Whale shark fleet off Tantabiddi Boat Ramp

Talking to the spotter plane

Leopard shark and 'shark spotter'

Final briefing before whale-shark dive

Whale shark at the surface

juvenile male whale shark cruises by

Intrepid Ningaloo snorkeller

Tantabiddi Boat Ramp

Three Islands Whale Shark Dive

I have a story on swimming with whale sharks in this month’s Qantas inflight magazine. Apart from the skyways, it can also be found online at Travel Insider and the Qantas website. And below, my submarine snaps of two whale sharks we encountered.

Hello... (whale shark filter-feeding)

... and goodbye

Nose to nose with an Eastern Quoll in Tasmania. They went extinct on the mainland in the 1960s, apparently – the last sighting was in Vaucluse (inner Sydney) of all places. But Bruny Island has billions of them.

They are bold little buggers, seemingly unfazed by camera flashes going off in their faces, and some even headbutted the plate-glass door.

I’m sure they would have eaten us if they had the chance.

Here’s a lenticular cloud I shot at Bruny Island (Tasmania) last week, hovering over ‘The Neck’ between North and South Bruny. Or is it a flying saucer planning inscrutable alien experiments on all those fairy penguins and muttonbirds roosting in the dunes below?

Lenticular Clouds at The Neck, Bruny Island

Sydney Harbour sunset

Here’s a link to a travel feature I’ve just had published; it’s about Sydney coastal walks – sandstone cliffs, humpback whales, Aboriginal rock art, a million beaches, that kind of thing…

This article was originally published in Fortean Times magazine in 2001.
THE WIZARD OF ROSS

Ross Bridge, Tasmania

 

Nowhere in Australia is the convict legacy more evident than in Tasmania, where the tiny midlands village of Ross has one of its strangest manifestations – a colonial bridge that kept a bizarre secret for 135 years.  

The unexpectedly intricate keystone carvings impress any riverside observer. The longer you look the more you see, until wild patterns come alive with goblin faces, silent sentinels above the Macquarie River’s restless current.  

Unique as such artistry is amongst convict-built public works, they received little or no scholarly attention until 1971, when an architectural study by Leslie Greener and Norman Laird boldly interpreted the bridge carvings as an array of pagan symbolism and political satire.  

Less controversially, Greener and Laird also identified the long-forgotten convict sculptor, Daniel Herbert – a cultured ex-highwayman who, if their theory is correct, exorcised the demons of his transportation with an outburst of religious and political subversion that was in equal measures both daring and subtle.  

Herbert’s education and family background are unknown. Born in Taunton Dean in 1797, he was clearly a talented mason but his only confirmed occupation in England was a signwriter in Leeds. On 24th March 1827 he was sentenced to death at the York Assizes for highway robbery. This was commuted to life transportation, and the following year saw him arrive in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), then the British Empire’s most remote penal colony.  

Herbert endured the usual punishments over the next few years for such infractions as ‘being absent from muster’ and ‘not working’. He was flogged once (25 lashes) and did several three-to-seven day stints on the dreaded treadwheel. His luck turned, however, when the authorities decided to finish the much-delayed new bridge at Ross, then an important military outpost between Hobart and Launceston. In May 1835 he had arrived in Ross with another convict stonemason, James Colbeck, and the promise of an official pardon upon the bridge’s successful completion.  

Working swiftly, the convicts carved 186 keystones by 14th July 1836, the day of completion. At least 87 carvings are by Herbert; the rest by others under his direction. The subject matter is astonishing.  

Lion & Lamb

 

The six centre keystones depict devouring imperial monsters, including a crowned rat-creature clawing a human head, and a distorted (British?) lion crushing a lamb under its paw. Elsewhere, a lion-headed plant-bodied monster has, according to Laird and Greener, a double-sexed motif – a Jungian symbol of sickness and cure. 

Queen & King

 

The face generally called The Queen has been identified as Norah Cobbett, the alcoholic wife of convict superintendent Jorgen Jorgenson. Herbert apparently surrounded her with androgynous healing symbols, as if to counteract the violence and misery of her short life. Jorgenson is also there, an imperious caricature resembling a playing-card king, befitting this former ‘King of Iceland’ – where in 1809 he led a coup and briefly held sole power.  

Sir George Arthur (Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land 1823-37) appears as a grim, hatted caricature atop a skull, redolent of the suffering he presided over. No less remarkable is a foreboding John Calvin, the Puritan inspiration for Arthur’s stern rule. A lone Aboriginal face is accompanied by a flower, a soul archetype – rare compassion for a people already threatened by genocide.  

Dense, seemingly abstract designs swirl about and sometimes engulf the figures. Laird and Greener see the symbolism as typically Celtic: circles (unity), double-roped spirals (rebirth), eight-petalled rose (regeneration) and horned deities (fertility and purification). Maternal wombs and vulvas reflect the creative aspect of the unconscious; snakes herald transformation. The theme, according to the 1971 study, is consistently oppression and death opposed by rebirth and renewal.  

Ross Bridge from river bank

 

A stag with a hominid mask between its antlers may show the Celtic god Cernunnos in regenerative aspect. Dogs, linked with death and resurrection, appear four times, one with a Celtic horn. Herbert even included himself and his wife – he married convict maidservant Mary Witherington during construction – surrounded by unity and healing motifs.  

If there is paganism and satire in Herbert’s work, it seems to have eluded his contemporaries. At least it passed without recorded comment. No-one else in the far-flung penal colony may have shared his grasp of mythic iconography or realised the implications of the stylised portraiture. The detail isn’t always clear from the river banks and the faces possibly went unrecognised as belonging to particular people amidst all that distracting pattern-work. An extant letter suggests the construction overseer, Major William Turner, admired Herbert’s craftsmanship without taking special interest in the nature of his creativity.    

After his pardon, Herbert settled at Ross where he was buried in 1868. He was remembered locally as a mason, painter, violinist and the ‘artist of the bridge’. The intensity of the artist’s vision remained unexplored for a century.  

The extent to which Herbert’s symbolism was conscious is debatable. Was he being merely decorative, seeking personal solace in beautifying the bridge with iconography that held no particular significance for him? Did the stresses of penal servitude release subconscious archetypes when his artistry was offered rare license? Obviously many of the symbols are unlikely to have been conscious articulations back in Herbert’s pre-Jung world.  

While it stretches credulity to suggest his work reveals a pagan belief system, Herbert could be said at the very least to have expressed displeasure with Calvinist Christianity. It is a curious fact that the two apparently Celtic deities on St Luke’s Church at Bothwell (91 km from Ross) are unmistakably Herbert’s.  

The darkness of Tasmania’s penal history touches Ross in many ways – there’s a ruined ‘female factory’ and several convict-built military structures nearby – but that shadow is cast most deeply by the mysterious legacy of Daniel Herbert.  

 

NOTE: Known locally for superb bakeries, Ross (pop. 250) is 79kms south from Launceston or 120kms north from Hobart along the Midland Highway, set amidst picturesque wool-growing valleys and wooded hills. Accommodation includes the Man O’ Ross, an 1835 coachhouse. The touristy Wool Centre has a small bridge display including some casts of figures. The bridge is best enjoyed through binoculars, as much detail is difficult to fully appreciate from the riverside.

NOTE: My sources for Herbert’s birth and background (principally Greener and Laird’s Ross Bridge & The Sculpture of Daniel Herbert (Hobart, 1971) in this article are at odds with his entry in the online Australian Dictionary of Biography