A wasp emerged from the hollowed eyes of a sheep skull next to me on the grass. It was late afternoon and the warm air made me sleepy. Tasmania was relishing its turn hosting a classic Australian drought, and the March sun showed no sign of falling to earth anytime soon. The campground at Burnie sloped up a hill, backing onto someone’s overgrown backyard. My site boundary was demarcated by a barbed wire fence. My office was a foam mat by the tent. I hung my wet towel on the fence, lay down on the mat and dozed.

Burnie faced the Bass Strait, its point of existence apparently being to wave in ships to its deep water port. The pulpy smell left in 2010 when the mill closed for good, or possibly for bad, depending on who you asked.

Two films played that night at the Wharf Hotel Wynyard. They were almost identical: an unedited parade of talking heads presenting the case to end clearfelling of a nearby coupe of regrowth forest called Lapoinya. Bob Brown had recently played a leading part in the world politest arrest, when a young constable informed a serene Brown that refusing to leave the logging area would see him accompanying the copper back to Burnie police station. Brown said he couldn’t abandon the forest. ‘At this point…you are under arrest,’ said the copper. ‘Okay,’ said Bob Brown.

I lasted about half way into the second film – I do apologise. But I left with a resolve to go out and ask why our country’s last true wilderness – our last untouched link to Gondwanaland – was reserved for digging up and chopping down. So I drove deep into the Tarkine wilderness and hiked and camped for two nights in the rainforest. In the car I cranked a Midnight Oil live CD. Peter Garrett and Bob Brown had once been great mates. Coincidentally I had seen them both late last year – mere weeks apart – holding court at Melbourne’s Federation Square. Garrett was launching his clunky autobiography, while Brown offered to the world a guidebook to the Tarkine. There was gushing adoration for Brown when he took to the podium, whereas Garrett presented himself as a kind of grotesque curiosity, his halting, booming voice filling the auditorium with intense defences to his integrity.

Midnight Oil was for a time the greatest band Australia ever produced. Their live album finishes with an acoustic version of a song called Burnie. In it Garrett imagines himself a Burnie local, disillusioned at his coastal town becoming overrun by industry. I played the song over and over as I drove back to Burnie, partly because I was searching between the lines for meaning into what I was doing here, and partly because it has the most tender guitar licks you’ll ever hear. I had actually been listening to the song for over 25 years, and wondering where it came from and what it all meant. It was still ringing in my head when I drove back into town. I choose a place called the Menai Hotel at random (actually, because it was cheap). It was the kind of place you could only find in a place like Burnie. A huge complex on a hill dating from the 1950s, it once had grand ambitions, but the most amazing thing about it was that it was still standing. I was time-travelling to an era I had never lived. I checked in and shuffled to a row of peeling posters on a pillar. Apparently the place had been a music venue in the 1970s and 80s. AC/DC played here. So did Midnight Oil. My head spun a little as I read a small, lop-sided plaque. After a gig here in the late 1970s Midnight Oil retired to room 24 and stayed up late into the night. They looked out across the city lights to the harbour, and to the pile of woodchips that rose like sandcastles, and wrote a song. They called it Burnie, and it featured on their next record: Place Without a Postcard.