In Foreign Parts: Explorers' secret garden is threatened by the logger's axe

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The Independent Online

On the south-eastern tip of Tasmania, at the end of an unsealed road, lies Recherche Bay, a tranquil and lovely spot where a eucalyptus forest grows down to the rocky shoreline.

Modern travellers are smitten by it; so was the 18th-century French explorer, Admiral Joseph-Antoine Raymond de Bruny D'Entrecasteaux, who wrote: "With each step, one encounters the beauties of unspoilt nature."

D'Entrecasteaux spent 10 weeks at Recherche Bay in 1792 and 1793, planting a garden to protect his sailors from scurvy. Reports of its existence intrigued European settlers, but attempts to locate it failed until recently, when two farmers scouring the densely wooded peninsula found a row of moss-covered stones. It was part of the garden wall.

More than two centuries after the French left, the lost piece of history had come to light – only to be threatened with eradication. The garden lies on private land, and the owners plan to log the area to make woodchips for the Japanese paper industry.

A battle is looming, with conservationists convinced that the state government will refuse to intervene to save the garden. Australian experts consider it as important as Sydney Cove, where the First Fleet laden with convicts arrived in 1788. The wall is believed to be the earliest European structure outside Sydney.

D'Entrecasteaux and his party were the first white men to explore Tasmania, sailing into Recherche Bay in search of fresh water a decade before the British colonised the island. Unlike the British, they enjoyed friendly relations with local Aborigines, exchanging gifts and observing each other's lifestyles with interest. The expedition's gardener, Felix de la Haie, who later became head gardener to the Empress Josephine, planted fruit and vegetables in the patch, including cabbages, potatoes, radishes, cress and sorrel.

Among those who tried in vain to find the garden were Lady Jane Franklin, wife of the Tasmanian governor, and the Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin, who spent several days searching for it in 1838. When the farmers stumbled across it, the site was overgrown with tall grass and shrubs.

Professor John Mulvaney, Australia's most eminent archaeologist, said the entire area was worthy of World Heritage listing. "This is a complex cultural landscape," he said. "Its destruction would represent vandalism of significant cultural heritage."

The bulldozers were due to move in last month, but a temporary protection order has been granted while the Tasmanian government makes its own assessment.

Conservationists are pessimistic. State governments have shown scant interest in protecting the island's rich heritage and environment, preferring short-term economic gain. There are few restrictions on the logging of old-growth forest.

Recherche Bay has barely changed since D'Entrecasteaux described it as "so perfectly enclosed that one feels separated from the rest of the universe". He also wrote: "We were filled with admiration at the sight of this ancient forest, in which the sound of the axe had never been heard."

The French also built an observatory where they helped to prove that the Earth's magnetic field varied with latitude. So influential was this discovery that scientists gathered at Recherche Bay on the bicentenary in 1992 to lay a plaque.

Professor Mulvaney said he would be unhappy to see the forest felled. "You would be destroying a historic landscape that was witness to friendly relations between the French and the Aborigines. It would be a tremendous loss."