In the footsteps of Charles Darwin

A twelve kilometre stroll along beaches, riverfront, suburban streets and open scrub on Hobart’s Eastern Shore (locally reputed to be the sunnier of the Derwent’s banks and at least a jumper warmer than the city side of the river) allows walkers to retrace the footsteps of the young Charles Darwin. He visited Hobart for about a week during February 1836 during his global circumnavigation aboard the Beagle. During this time, he made observations that would profoundly influence his thinking and contribute to his theories on evolution.

His description of Hobart from the harbour is recognisable:

“The bay should rather be called an estuary, for it receives at its head the waters of the Derwent. Near the mouth there are some extensive basaltic platforms; but higher up the land becomes mountainous, and is covered by a light wood. The lower parts of the hills which skirt the bay are cleared; and the bright yellow fields of corn, and dark green ones of potatoes, appear very luxuriant.”

Kangaroo Bay, Bellerive and Sullivans Cove from the Waverley Flora Park
Kangaroo Bay, Bellerive and Sullivans Cove from the Waverley Flora Park

However, his first impressions of the young colony were not favourable:

“The first aspect of the place was very inferior to that of Sydney; the latter might be called a city, this is only a town. It stands at the base of Mount Wellington, a mountain 3100 feet high, but of little picturesque beauty; from this source, however, it receives a good supply of water. Round the cove there are some fine warehouses and on one side a small fort. Coming from the Spanish settlements, where such magnificent care has generally been paid to the fortifications, the means of defence in these colonies appeared very contemptible.”

He made several excursions into the surrounding areas, taking particular note of the geological formations.

“The Beagle stayed here ten days, and in this time I made several pleasant little excursions, chiefly with the object of examining the geological structure of the immediate neighbourhood. The main points of interest consist, first in some highly fossiliferous strata belonging to the Devonian or Carboniferous period; secondly, in proofs of a late small rise of the land; and lastly, in a solitary and superficial patch of yellowish limestone or travertin, which contains numerous impressions of leaves of trees, together with land-shells, not now existing. It is not improbable that this one small quarry includes the only remaining record of the vegetation of Van Diemen’s Land during one former epoch.”

On or about February 4, Darwin “took a long walk on the side of the bay opposite to the town: I crossed in a steamboat, two of which are constantly plying backwards and forwards. The machinery of one of these vessels was entirely manufactured in this colony, which, from its very foundation, then numbered only three and thirty years!” (The Voyage of the Beagle, by Charles Darwin, Chapter XIX)

The propeller and rudder from an old ferry decorates the Clarence Hotel
The propeller and rudder from an old ferry decorates the Clarence Hotel near the starting point of the Charles Darwin Trail

According to Tasmanian geologist and author David Leaman, this was a geological excursion.

“Most of his notes of this, one of his ‘pleasant little excursions’, are about the rocks … Although we, today, know him for much more than his geological thoughts he had been trained by the finest geologists of his day and he saw himself as a geologist.” (David Leaman Walk into History in Southern Tasmania, Leaman Geophysics 1999)

Along the Alexandra Esplanade in Kangaroo Bay, Bellerive
Along the Alexandra Esplanade in Kangaroo Bay, Bellerive

It is widely accepted that Darwin’s geological examinations in Hobart and elsewhere in Australia raised questions in his mind about the widely held theological belief that the world was created in just six days by divine creation. The evidence of geological shifts he witnessed in the rocks he studied required millions of years to occur and is thought to be Australia’s leading contribution to his theories of evolution, ultimately published in On the Origin of Species.

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Bellerive Oval (currently referred to as Blundstone Arena) and beach from Bellerive Bluff

Darwin crossed the Derwent by ferry from Sullivans Cove, where the Beagle was moored, to Bellerive, also known then as Kangaroo Bay. The formal walking route begins here and there is an interpretive sign across the carpark (this point is also the formal start of the Convict Trail, which leads to and around the Tasman Peninsula, perhaps a topic for a future post).

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The battery at Kangaroo Bluff was part of a network of fortifications developed to defend Hobart from invasion in the late 19th century. Most were not installed until long after Darwin’s visit.

The route itself has some wayfinding signage, but they are few and far between. I have walked its full length twice in the past 18 months, once in either direction, and it was not until recently completing the reverse route did I discover the actual route, so inadequate in places are the wayfinding markings.

Unfortunately many of the wayfinding signs have been vandalised or are missing
Unfortunately many of the wayfinding signs have been vandalised or are missing

The best bet for those not familiar with the area is to download the walking notes from the Clarence Council website (see link below) and the map and possibly the map route from the Greater Hobart Trails site (link also below, or see my own map into which I’ve incorporated the official route).

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The trail includes the Waverley Flora Park in the hills above Bellerive

The first part of the walk proceeds along Alexandra Esplanade around Bellerive Bluff, below the defensive battery on Kangaroo Bluff and along Bellerive and Howrah beaches. If preferred, there are quiet streets and footpaths behind the dunes of both. At the end of Howrah Beach, its onto the suburban streets. Stencilled signs on the footpath lead up Tranmere Road to the traffic lights and across Clarence Street and proceed uphill opposite the Shoreline Shopping Centre. Here the signage is grossly inadequate.

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Mount Wellington – kunanyi from the Waverley Flora Park

The unmarked route is down what looks for all the world like a private driveway on the top side of the Petrusma real estate office. Down here, there is an opening in a fence that leads to the small Tilanbi Park. Cross the park into Tilanbi Road and proceed along it to Ninabah Street. Turn right and pass through the opening in the fence onto the verge of the South Arm Highway, then left and follow the track which leads through light scrub and eventually up Mornington Hill into the Waverly Flora Park.

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Summer twilight on Bellerive Beach

The track leads up the hill to a reservoir then across a saddle to emerge in the streets above Rosny, then it’s a short walk back down to Kangaroo Bay and Bellerive Village. My most recent walk here on a warm summer evening took the reverse route, coming along the beaches and around Bellerive Bluff at sunset.

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Sunset on Bellerive Beach

By default, the walk includes the Waverley Flora Park, which can make for a pleasant shorter walk (see link to map and notes below). The entrance to this area commemorates renowned Tasmanian botanist Winifred Curtis.

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Twilight on Kangaroo Bay
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Twilight at the marina on Kangaroo Bay

Resources

Maps

Greater Hobart Trails Map

Charles Darwin Trail – Clarence City Council 

Downloadable walk notes from Clarence City Council (downloadable pdf)

Waverley Wildflower Walk 

Historical records

Excerpt from The Voyage of the Beagle

Darwin Online 

Other bloggers and articles

Charles Darwin’s evolutionary revelation in Australia (article published on The Conversation)

Charles Darwin in Hobart Town (University of Tasmania exhibition page)

The Responsible Traveller

Weekend Notes (note – this blog states that Darwin undertook the walk on Monday 8 February, but according to The Voyage of the Beagle (see excerpt on link above), The Beagle sailed from Hobart on 7 February. Other sources suggest he walked the route on February 4)

Wikipedia article on Winifred Curtis

Map

5 thoughts on “In the footsteps of Charles Darwin

  1. Tasmanian traveller says:

    This is all my ‘home’ territory so it was marvellous to see all the familiar shots taken by another. Thanks. The changing quality of light in your photos seems to indicate you were out walking for a few hours – good to see these familiar sites at different times of day.

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