The Fingal Valley is one of few places in Tasmania that still feels distinctively Tasmanian. No slick tourism operators here. Head into the Mathinna Country Club and you’ll be stared down by a portrait of former Premier Eric Reece and a large, black penis hanging above the bar. Drive through Rossarden, Fingal and Avoca, and you’ll often see nobody at all.
Thousands of people once filled the Fingal Valley. At its peak, 5000 people lived at Mathinna alone. Now, the town is home to 150 people, mostly elderly, many of whom have lived in the picturesque town their whole lives.
The region’s rich and unique history forms much of its charm. Avoca was built by convicts and roamed by murderous bushrangers, later focusing on tin and coal mining. At various points the now-small town boasted a blacksmith’s shop, tannery, rival stables, a baker, a butcher, two general stores, two sawmills and a plethora of pubs.
Rossarden sprung up around a tin mine and was later desecrated by modern-day criminals. Urban legends persist of country and western-style dawn shootouts and twitching curtains menacing away visitors as recently as 20 years ago. Now the town of about 48 people is elderly and battling one sworn foe: a broom weed infestation that has left Rossarden fire-prone.
And Mathinna. Once home to Tasmania’s second-highest yielding mine and plenty of Chinese prospectors, the town suffered the closure of the Golden Gate Mine in 1929. The removal of Forestry was another blow to the town. Then Gunns bought up much of the fertile farming land for plantations now filled with dead or dying trees.
“Tourism?” said Gipps Creek woman Mary Knowles. “It’s all we’ve got left.”
Enticing tourists to the Fingal Valley is a challenge, but the region has a formidable champion in Mrs Knowles. She founded the Greater Esk Tourism Association in 2006 in response to the loss of jobs and closure of schools in the area and has been instrumental in promoting the region as “the Valleys of Adventure”, offering mountain biking, hunting, four-wheel driving, bush walking and fishing.
“We want people here,” Mrs Knowles said.
“We want them to enjoy the place and what we have to offer.”
And there is plenty to offer. But a lack of maintenance has frustrated efforts to draw in tourists. Phone reception is poor and the gravel roads leading to many of the attractions are inaccessible to people driving hire cars.
Mathinna is connected to the rest of the world by 1.8 kilometres of exposed sky-blue cable snaking along the South Esk Bridge. Adrian Parsons is worried a wallaby might chew on it and disconnect the town totally.
“Phone reception, that’s the biggest killer,” said the licensee of the Mathinna Country Club.
The 28-year-old moved back to his hometown about three years ago after six years of living in Launceston.
After watching the slow decline of Fingal and Rossarden, he felt compelled to act.
“I didn’t want to see the town disappear,” he said.
“I’m definitely looking at a long-term thing, purchasing a block of land in the area and looking to built a house.”
Since moving home and taking the reigns of the Mathinna Country Club he has installed a pizza oven, encouraged eight-ball competitions, painted the pub’s outside, built a disability ramp and successfully applied for a Tasmanian Community Fund Grant to fix the club’s ceiling.
Mr Parsons was behind a dirt biking competition held in August that attracted 250 people to the town, and he has successfully lobbied for the installation of a shower block on the Mathinna oval. A permanent phone tower is the next item on his agenda. It was a lack of reception that stopped a car race roaring through Mathinna as competitors could not be tracked.
But to Mr Parsons, the attraction of Mathinna is clear. Ben Lomond is 20 kilometres away. Beautiful giant whitegums fill Evercreech Forest. And the stunning Mathinna Falls – still inaccessible due to the June floods – are 10 minutes away.
Some other areas, he said, perhaps needed a bit of work.
“Poor Fingal does look a bit dreary,” Mrs Knowles said.
“The Fingal Valley Festival really needs a boost.”
And of course Mrs Knowles and a team of dedicated locals are working on the issue, lobbying for a steam train to visit the town once a year for the event.
The Local Government Association of Tasmania supports the initiative and members of the government have met with the community.
But first the old train station needs sprucing up, and regular working bees have taken place to make the dream reality. The volunteers suffered a blow when paint, rollers and brushes were stolen, but in the true spirit of the Valley’s resilience the St Marys Lions Club has stepped in to replace what was lost.
Stories of volunteers triumphing are the norm. Rossarden established a full volunteer fire crew when the Tasmanian Fire Service pulled out of the town and will soon welcome new owners of the Rossarden Club – a couple from New South Wales. The Green Army will plant 2000 trees in the town to take the place of the dreaded broom weed.
The Fingal Valley is a woefully underrated, untouched part of Tasmania, ripe with natural beauty, stories and old-fashioned Tasmanian charm.
With little help from a tourism body, and despite being left off many tourist maps, residents have banded together, created their own route and will fight to ensure the region is kept alive.
“People are really, really protective of this place,” Mrs Knowles said.
“It is full of adventures.”