Reflections on place and memories of the Critchley Parker story 

A talk presented by Janet Fenton at pubiic forum about Critchley Parker, Salamanca Arts Centre, 8 May 2003

From the broad waterway of Bathurst Channel, Mt McKenzie sweeps upward to a backbone of ragged quartzite. The landscape is old. Grey Precambrian quartzites, long leached of nutrients, protrude like bones through poor shallow peats clad with moorland vegetation in soft umber and sienna hues. At the mountain’s feet the water is blue, or grey, depending on its mood, and sometimes streaked with ribbons of white foam, the result of mixing fresh with salt. Lift your eyes to look east, where mountains range in grey jagged shapes one behind another and another and another.

At the foot of Mt McKenzie, sheltered behind a fringe of foreshore scrub, stands one lone grave, set with white quartzite stones. Critchley Parker’s search for a haven for the Jewish people ended here. Had he fallen in love with this unpeopled landscape, much as my father did when he reached this spot almost a decade earlier seeking gold? My father, Deny King, with his father Charlie, made this land his haven. In our little home and garden, and on the moorland and mountains, my sister Mary and I felt secure. We grew up hearing many stories of people who had connected with this place, for better or worse. One story was about Critchely Parker and his fatal journey in search of some remote refuge for Jewish people.

Parker stayed for three weeks with my grandfather at Melaleuca in 1942. Here he saw a man content in this environment, mining tin from the ground and making a garden flourish. Grandfather, beginning to go deaf and no doubt pleased to have company, probably did most of the talking and he did try to dissuade this man, whose bush skills he doubted, from undertaking the journey. But the young man was insistent. At the end of March grandfather rowed his unusual guest fourteen kilometers down-river in his huon pine clinker built dinghy. Critchley’s journey continued along the Port Davey track, benched around the hill slopes and although well built in 1889 for the use of ship-wrecked sailors, probably quite overgrown at many creek crossings. His destination, about five days’ walk away was Fitzgerald, a small settlement at the end of the railway line from Hobart. Grandfather told him to light a smoke signal (then the only means of communication in remote areas) on the slopes of Mt McKenzie if he turned back and wished to be fetched by boat. Grandfather kept an eye out, but saw no smoke.

April brought particularly wild and wet weather. In May a search was mounted, and my father, being a fine bushman with an intimate knowledge of the country, was recalled from service in the Second World War to assist, to no avail. Critchley Parker had in fact turned back. Did he find the weather and track too difficult, or was he so unwell? He survived for fifty-four days, so his diary told the stunned fishermen who found his body months later. My uncle, Clyde Clayton, told the story. In September he and his step-father, Syd Dale, were ashore hunting with Syd’s dog. Clyde remembers the strange and tragic scene at the foot of Mt McKenzie. Critchley’s tent had blown away, and he was there, sticking out of his sleeping bag. Clyde and Syd recovered the diary and dried out the pages on the boat’s stove. I believe the diary revealed the story of the matches. On trying to light a smoke signal to Charlie, Parker’s entire supply of matches was burnt! With them went his means of making fire for cooking and warmth, and any hope of sending further smoke signals. Critchley wrote that he heard the low drum of boats’ motors, and even a dog barking. Clyde and Syd passed by a number of times in their fishing boats that autumn. So if he wanted to be found, Clyde asked, why didn’t he pitch his tent where it could be seen from the water?

Syd alerted police, and brought the official burial party back on his boat to dig a grave in the shallow peat and unyielding quartzite where Critchley lay. He had wished to be buried more grandly on a high headland overlooking Port Davey, with a monument to match. Was the young man’s mind wandering in some grand delirium through starvation, exposure or illness near his end? As it happened, the state of his earthly remains by then prohibited transport, and his grave was marked by a practical wooden cross surrounded by a chicken wire fence.

Some years later, Clyde brought Critchley’s mother on the long boat journey to Port Davey to visit her son’s resting place. She arranged for a finer monument. This still endures, its plaque engraved in marble, and headstone set on top with the ancient quartzite rocks of his promised land.

Janet Fenton, 2003