Escape off the Beaten Track to Pemberton

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Feb 15, 2017

Pemberton’s colourful history – of groupies, cult invaders and eco warriors – is only half the story of this enchanting forest town, writes Mal Chenu.

It was a pithy two-word bon mot that put Pemberton on the map: “Tough titties!” declared Rajneesh cult spokeswoman Ma Anand Sheela in a 60 Minutes interview in 1985. And the entire nation tittered in turn. It was her retort to locals’ concerns over plans (which were ultimately unsuccessful) to establish an “orange people” commune near Pemberton. She described the townsfolk in a litany of derogatory terms; television cameras were shown the middle finger. 

But Sheela has not been the only controversy to tag this picturesque valley town, 327 kilometres south of Perth in the Southern Forests region of Western Australia. Wandering the quiet streets of Pemberton, which has a population of about 1000, it’s hard to imagine this was the scene of one of the most bitterly fought conservation battles of the 1980s and early ’90s.

Logging of the towering karri trees began here in the late 1800s and a timber mill was built in 1913. Conservation had been a simmering issue since the 1950s but the debate became mainstream in the 1980s and peaked about a decade later. The final act of the drama was a difficult period for the town. People were either “brown” or “green”. Protesters swarmed in and were dubbed “ferals” or “heroes”. Some chained themselves to logging machinery and squatted in the trees. 

Threats, blockades and sabotage were common from both sides. Violence was rare but there were incidents. Greenies were barred from the pub. Teachers were not allowed to teach conservation. Children asked each other if they were a brownie or a greenie. High-profile conservationists came to town and made headlines.

Andy Russell is an off-the-grid kind of bloke who moved to Pemberton in 1981 to work as a builder. He now operates Pemberton Hiking & Canoeing. Back in the day, he was part of the movement to halt the logging. “In the 1990s, we realised the government had a plan to continue logging. Eighty-five per cent of the logging was for woodchips – selling for $15 a tonne,” he says, still incredulous at the destruction that was caused for such a bargain-basement price. “The Western Australian Forest Alliance and other groups took action to preserve the Hawke forest block, which would link two existing national parks to create a greater park. That was achieved and the dominoes started to fall.”

Russell is no “feral”. He speaks of the local environment with simple affection. “I like undisturbed systems. Forests without stumps. No crowds. Simply walking through the forest is a meditation and there aren’t many places in the world where that’s still possible. I love the pristine rivers, lakes, ocean and forests around here.”

The logging issue was pivotal in the 2001 state election and contributed to the defeat of Richard Court’s Liberal government by Geoff Gallop’s “no more logging of old-growth forests” Labor Party. The town’s main industry was on its way out.

By all accounts, the rifts healed quickly. Today, Pemberton retains a palpable sense of community as the logging industry reaches its denouement. The town’s mill will close for good in March, leaving nothing but heritage. 

Fred Wellburn has lived through it all. Born in Pemberton in 1929, he was one of the thousands who worked at the mill, joining his father and brother there at the age of 14. Wellburn’s parents were original “groupies”: group settlers brought from England to work the area after the First World War. His father saw a poster promising a farm with palm trees. “You can have this in two years,” it said.

“It didn’t quite turn out like that,” recalls Wellburn. “It was very hard in the early days. They had to clear trees by ringbarking. Our family of five lived in a one-bedroom concrete hut. We had to repay everything given to us. And there were no palm trees!” But he also tells of the fun of growing up in Pemberton, of riding his horse to the coast and camping on the beach. He remembers his mother – the last of the groupies – saying, “If it’s good for Pemby, I’ll do it.” She died here, aged 106.

The industrial use of timber might be winding down but its artistic use is thriving. Pemberton Fine Woodcraft Gallery shows the work of local artisans and the current crop is superb. Artists have turned local karri, marri, blackbutt and jarrah into furniture, grandfather clocks, chess sets, bowls and much more besides.

The area’s fine woodcraft and other art forms, such as sculpture, photography and painting, are all inspired in some way by the forest. Pemberton and Northcliffe (about 30 kilometres south) are the Southern Forests’ regional art hubs, where committed, passionate individuals showcase local talent through the Pemberton Arts Group’s regular exhibitions. This year’s Unearthed Pemberton festival of art, wine, food and adventure will be held from April 21 to 30.

A permanent exhibition is set into the footpath on Brockman Street: 40 children’s designs of forest life cut from stainless steel and preserved in handmade terrazzo tiles. They complement the Pemberton Artscape installation, a remarkable 80-metre-long, double-sided balustrade. Cut from aluminium, the panels feature images of endemic flora and fauna and are LED-lit at night. Two years in the making, it was conceived by local artist Mark Grey-Smith, who, along with nine others, contributed designs.

Grey-Smith explains his vision over a Guinness at the Pemberton Hotel as a drizzle chills the town. “Nature is very powerful here. The bush has an inspiring complexity. Big stuff, small stuff, life, decay, lush green colours – it’s all aesthetically strong. Artscape re-creates the thin veneer of light and shade. The dual-stencil concept conveys the effect of changing light in the forest.”

When you’re in the forest, it doesn’t take long to understand what Grey-Smith and pretty much everyone here mean when they rave about their blessed environment. It casts sensory enchantment. The light does dance, the forest speaks through rustling leaves and bird calls, the scent is pure and fresh and every mottled metre of bush offers a unique portrait that changes throughout the day. Then there are the seasons: spring, for instance, adds an explosion of colourful wildflowers to the palette. How could you not produce art here?

A great way to explore the region is the 86-kilometre Karri Forest Explorer self-drive that takes in Big Brook Dam and Beedelup National Park. A shorter excursion is the Pemberton Tram’s twice-daily, one-and-three-quarter-hour round trip into the forest (excluding Sundays). The 1000-kilometre Bibbulmun walking track, stretching from the Perth Hills to Albany, passes through Pemberton. So does the Munda Biddi Trail, a 1000-kilometre track for mountain bikes from Mundaring to Albany. Graeme and Toni Dearle at Pemberton Discovery Tours can show you the diverse scenery by four-wheel drive or hook you up with bikes and maps.

This part of Australia is also a food bowl. Sophie Zalokar runs Foragers, a restaurant, cooking school and chalet accommodation just out of town. Zalokar grew up in South Australia’s Barossa and was apprenticed to Maggie Beer. She learned about “paddock to plate” before it became every chef’s mantra and is the author of Food of the Southern Forests.

“I’m fascinated by the culinary heritage of this area and exploring the local produce,” she says. “This place is blessed with rich soils and we get plenty of rain. Marron are indigenous to the area and thrive because the water is so clean. Truffles are probably the jewel in the crown; we think we have the French worried!”

Pink Lady apples, she adds, “were developed in Manjimup, just up the road. The original tree is still there and now you can buy Pink Lady apples all over the world. Potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, cherries and avocados all grow well here. Stone fruit and dairy are also excellent.”

According to Zalokar, the secret ingredient is the Macedonian and Italian immigrants who brought their food culture with them, introducing garlic, white beans and their own sausage-making techniques. One also introduced her to buckwheat. “The third day we were here, a larger-than-life Italian farmer bowled in, offered to mend our fences and gave us firewood and some of the buckwheat he’d grown,” she says. “Now I do an entire dinner based on his buckwheat.” 

Zalokar says Southern Forests wineries produce top-class cool-climate wines but haven’t yet achieved the marketing success of Margaret River. “The pinot noirs, viogniers and chardonnays are very good and I particularly love the roussanne from Lillian winery. Bellarmine, Chestnut Grove, Lost Lake and Woodgate are fine producers, too.”

Relaxing with a glass of Lillian viognier beside the serene Cascades waterfall as the colours of the forest dim in the late afternoon, it seems fitting that Pemberton is now more about reds and whites than browns and greens. Or oranges.

SEE ALSO: Cruising Through the Kimberley