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Published: November 29th 2007
My last place to visit in Tasmania was Maria Island, about an hour north of Hobart. It was named by good old Abel Tasman in 1642 after Maria van Diemen, wife of the Governor of Batavia (that's Java to us modern folk). Van Diemen himself had already had the whole rest of Tasmania named after him, as Van Diemen's Land. A few hundred years of Australian accents have changed the pronunciation though, so now the island is called Ma-rye-a Island rather than Ma-ree-a Island. Like the rest of Australia, Maria Island started out being used as a convict settlement but it was so easy to escape from that it was abandoned as such after only seven years! More recently it has become sort of a lifeboat for threatened Tasmanian wildlife, with several species being introduced here as a safeguard against possible extinction. Curiously, several of those species already occurred naturally on the island, like the echidnas and wombats. The grey kangaroos and Bennett's wallabies aren't natural inhabitants and without any predators to keep their numbers down they have to be artificially controlled every so often (although that's kept pretty quiet apparently). In 1965 when the introductions started, however, some species were
quite reasonably thought to be on the way out, hence the Cape Barren geese now dominating every open space on the island.
Eleven of Tasmania's twelve endemic birds are found on Maria and although I'd already seen them all elsewhere it was fun trying to see if I could find them all over again (I didn't quite get there: somehow the strong-billed honeyeater eluded me, and it's just as well I found the forty-spotted pardalote at the Peter Murrell Reserve because I couldn't find any here).
I had been going to camp on Maria for two nights but then I found out that there are actually some rooms available in the old Penitentiary which are only $15 per night (as opposed to $12 per night for a tent-site), so I got to have a roof after all. Just like a convict.
On the first day, apart for random birdwatching, I took a wander along to see the Painted Cliffs, the patterns of which were formed by ground water trickling down through the sandstones and leaving iron oxide deposits behind them. There are lots of little rockpools around the base of the cliffs, one of which had about
a hundred fish fry shoaling in it -- and me without my aquarium! In the evening I went and sat by the beach near the jetty to see if any little blue penguins would come ashore there. First arrival after the sun went down was a water rat, which is a big shovel-nosed amphibious rodent. Oddly it came out of the tail-end of a stream behind the dunes, ran across the sand to the surf and struck out away from shore, heading towards the open ocean. I have no idea what he was thinking. About half an hour later a little huddle of penguins came out of the waves and scuttled up the beach to their burrows.
The second day was more birding. Out of all the birds recorded on the island I saw almost half of the total list which is alright. Amongst the ones that were new for me were the Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagle (a smaller and rarer subspecies than the mainland one), swift parrots, flame robins and the rare hooded plover. I finally managed to find some yellow-rumped thornbills which are common all over Tasmania, except of course for where-ever I happened to be. One bird
that I completely failed to find there ("they're all over the place," the ranger had told me) was the black-faced cormorant, found only around Tasmania and southern Australia. As luck would have it however, I spotted two of them swimming in the sea on the trip back to Hobart as the bus crossed the causeways by Sorell (and if that name sounds familiar its because I went through a little town called Port Sorell on the way to Narawntapu National Park. There's also a Lake Sorell over here). The black-faced cormorant looks much the same as the pied shag back home but with a black face. Its a small difference but its obvious when you see it, and its things like that that make something worth seeing.
One of the most astounding sights of the Maria visit occurred right at the end when going to catch the ferry back across to the mainland. All around the jetty were dozens of big pinky-purple jellyfish pulsing slowly in the sunny waters. At first glance it looked like there was an oil-film on the surface but it was actually an effect caused by the water column swarming with millions of little transparent
salps. A closer look showed the guts of the jellyfish to be packed with their smaller relatives through which they were drifting. Among the salps also roved larger ctenophores with strobing luminous green lights along their sides, and scattered about were a different kind again with a single electric blue light beaming up through the water like jewels. It must have looked fantastic at night time.
Maria Island is a bit of a secret place. The locals know all about it but because its not one of the well-publicised destinations like Cradle Mountain or Bruny Island, relatively few tourists go there. Apart for the seemingly-constant coming and going of variously-aged school groups when I was there, Maria Island was probably my favourite place in Tasmania.
And finally, because I haven't done any "interesting observations" for ages, here are two:
Interesting observation number one: there are some unusual place names over here. On the way to/from Maria Island the bus passed Break-me-neck Hill, Bust-me-gall Hill, and (who could forget) Black Charlie's Opening. Some quaintly-named towns in other parts of Tasmania that I didn't visit were called Snug, Penguin and Cygnet.
Interesting observation number two: shops in Hobart sell pretty
much everything, including -- should you want one -- an armchair made entirely out of golliwogs; or how about a Cyberman head?
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