Tasmania, wonderful wilderness but poor communications

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December 7th 2018
Published: December 7th 2018
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Tasmania 21 November - 7 December 2018

The excitement of the seahorses had hardly subsided before we were on the road again heading for Narawntapu, a National Park on the north coast just west of the Tamar Valley.
Not really sure what to expect we were enticed there by it's description of itself as 'the Serengeti of Tasmania'. Rather an ambitious claim! When we arrived we met a couple in the car park who were experiencing a problem with their solar panel. It did not seem to be sending a charge to the battery. Jim had a look but I don't think there was anything they could do about it other than hope it was charging but not showing on the gauge. They asked us if we were going to stay overnight which was our plan and said that they had intended to do the same but having arrived they felt it looked boring so were going to move on. They had not been outside the car park so it seemed a strange decision to us.

Anyway, after lunch we went for a walk along a track to the bird hide and came across another couple who were standing watching a Copperhead snake. We joined them for ten minutes or so, a very long time to be near a snake but he seemed too busy searching for food to notice us. I managed to take a short video. Then we enjoyed the rest of the walk and some time watching the water birds from the hide before seeing another Copperhead slithering across the path in front of us on the way back to the van. Two snakes on one short walk as well as numerous pademelons and Forester kangaroos tucked in the bushes. In fact, late afternoon I went back to the bird hide while Jim was resting and walking along the track was like walking along a village high street there were so many animals just lazing by the side, each tucked in beside its own bush. I felt I should be saying good afternoon as I passed by.

We waited then until dusk to see what came out and were mesmerised. Around the camp are huge flat paddocks and they were full of pademelons and Forester kangaroos, hundreds if not thousands, from small wallabies to huge male kangaroos, much taller than Jim. It was an amazing sight. Then when it was fully dark we took our torches and wandered around the bush. Suddenly a Spotted tail quoll jumped out in front of us and crossed the road before disappearing again. We were so lucky, they are very difficult to see in the wild. We were told they were declared extinct on the mainland in 1964. I thought extinct meant they had died out completely but it seems there is a population in Tasmania.

Carrying on our hunt with torches Jim was lucky and spotted a Bush tailed possum with a baby on it's back. Then we saw a shadow move and I thought at first it was a small pademelon until I put the torch on it, then I knew it was something completely different but could not recognise it. We had a good view for a few minutes as it moved through the shrubs.

The next morning we went in to see the Ranger to ask her what we had seen. I was describing it to her while Jim strolled through the visitor centre looking at displays. The Ranger was just saying that from my description she thought we had been very lucky and seen a Tasmanian devil. At the same moment Jim called out, 'this is it but the one we saw was much bigger'. He was pointing to a young devil, we had seen a fully grown adult which was the size of a cat.

We had been mislead by the road signs warning about the possibility of devils on the road at night. They are called devils because the early explorers and settlers heard the eerie noise they make at night but in fact the drawings of them make them look like cartoon devil characters with scary faces, and only ever show them from the front. It might make it more interesting for tourists but does not help with identification. Needless to say as we had to use the torch and it was dark we did not manage a photograph but as we did see them in the wild we feel justified in taking photographs of them in one of the commercial nature reserves. We told ourselves that we could not do that unless we had seen them in the wild first.

Keeping an eye on the weather forecast we realised we were in for a couple of bad days, one of non stop heavy rain to be followed by strong winds. So we decided to spend time driving through much of the rain and then stay at a commercial site for power and a little shelter.

We passed through Sheffield which has established itself as the Mural Town and is attracting visitors to see the numerous murals scattered around on its walls, then Railton, the Topiary Town, where topiary kangaroos hop around, topiary soldiers march along the street and even a camel can be spotted lurking in a garden. There is something of interest popping up everywhere on our journey. Unfortunately when we reached Latrobe, the 'platypus capital of Australia', it was still raining so hard that after a brief run to the river from the van we decided to give up the platypus hunt until the weather improved.

The idea was to travel while it was raining constantly which we did, but when it stopped we had reached Stanley, one of the prettiest towns we have seen. It is surrounded by sea with lots of very old attractively decorated houses and the Nut, a circular volcanic flat topped mount towering above the town. There is a chair lift which I hoped to take to the top of the Nut but unfortunately after the rain the wind arrived so the chairlift could not operate. We continued on to a free camp site at Marrawah, on the north west coast. It is beautiful. There is a long beach battered by amazing surf as the wind crashed the waves inshore. The wind increased. We went to bed and sometime after midnight I woke Jim up to pull down the roof. The wind was so strong I worried it might tear or be badly damaged. As we can sleep easily with the roof down it was no problem, it just meant that Jim's first job in the morning was to put it back up. Not an easy task.

Marrawah was an overnight stop on the way to Arthur River which consists of a few houses, mainly summer 'shacks', a tiny shop and a Parks & Wildlife Reserve Ranger station and campsites. The first thing we did was call in to see the Ranger. She was really excellent, as most of them are, very enthusiastic and keen to share her love of the area. They have so much local knowledge and information. She told us about a walk along the beach past Aboriginal middens, remains of settlement accumulated over many years, to petroglyphs on coastal rocks. We did the walk and although the petroglyphs are wearing away they are fascinating to see. They consist of indentations and carvings which acted like boundary posts. They were messages to anyone arriving by sea telling them, amongst other things, who the land belonged to, where there was fresh water, and to wait there until a local person came to find them. The equivalent of a customs post but more welcoming. The European explorers must not have understood the message.

That night we waited for darkness then went wildlife hunting spotting three wombats, the first time we have seen these creatures, which look like a miniscule version of a hippopotamus but without the large and scary mouth. We tried for a photograph or video but attempting to get the torchlight and camera fixed on the wombat at the same time defeated us. But at least we saw them.

The next day the same Ranger gave us a lovely book about orchids and told us where to find some. She described their location exactly. So then we went orchid hunting but eventually decided we could not search every square metre of Tasmania looking for them. Although there are about thirty varieties flowering at present they are mostly tiny little things no more than five centimetres tall. But it did keep us busy for a morning and we did find some but unfortunately too late to see them flowering.

The next destination was Cradle Valley, by Cradle Mountain & Lake St Clair National Park. However as it is high there the weather is rarely good so when we saw a break forecast in the rain we raced up, arriving late afternoon at the Visitor Centre. It is a complicated place to visit made more so by the contradictory and unclear information provided. I spoke to the person on the desk to ask if we could drive out to Ronny Creek, a good place to see wombats. She said we could after the shuttles buses stopped running at 6pm. Before then in theory only authorised vehicles and shuttle buses can use the road.

There is a research/breeding station for Tasmanian devils and quolls (devils@cradle) that provide information and viewings for visitors at fixed times. We decided we could go to Ronny Creek then on to the 8.30 session to see the devils at feeding time. Happily on our way again we called in to book tickets for the devils session to find the centre was closed until 6.55, so we carried on to Ronny Creek only to find campervans are not allowed on the road. I went back to the Visitor Centre to see if that applied to us as we are no bigger or higher than an ordinary vehicle to be told by another person (the first one was no longer on duty) that unfortunately if it is possible to sleep in the vehicle then it is not allowed down the road. She was very apologetic and when I said we had already booked into the campsite for the night she suggested we could sneak down the road later but if we were seen then people might be annoyed with us but to ignore them. By this stage I was getting grumpy. I said I did not want to break the rules I just wanted to see some wombats but I could not understand why gathering accurate information was so difficult. She was very apologetic and polite and said the problem was they had been completely overwhelmed by a recent sudden increase in the number of visitors, 40% higher than the same time last year and that they were playing catch up, but not very successfully. By that stage I was feeling sorry for her. However she did tell us where to go to see wombats so we drove off again, calling in to book the devil tickets en route. They might have opened at 6.55 as promised but by 7.10 they were closed again until 8.15. Trying to stay calm and hoping they would have space for us at 8.15 we went wombat hunting.

After a slow start we spied one munching away on the hillside but then he proved the first of many and by the time we returned to the devil venue we had seen lots. So already feeling happier we went to the 8.30 devil and quoll feeding and information session. We had had quick sightings of both a few days earlier at Narawntapu National Park but wanted to see and learn more about them. By the end of the evening I was not sure I wanted to meet any more in the wild. It was like something out of Jurassic Park. Quite a shock after being used to the generally laid back,herbivorous macropods. These devils are serious carnivores. It certainly seemed to support the theory that meat eating increases aggression. As the guide/feeder explained, in their world it is every devil for him or herself. They are loners. They can smell road kill from more than a kilometre away. Then they will go and fight for it. That has its own risk attached as devils often end up as road kill themselves as they are so reluctant to give up their 'treasure'. When the raw meat was thrown into the enclosure there was a feeding frenzy. They are certainly not cute or cuddly! The quolls are almost as bad but not quite.

The female devil gives birth to forty young (yes, 40), which are about the size of a grain of rice. Then they have to find their way into her pouch and latch on to a teat. However the bad news is that the mother only has four teats so thirty-six young die almost immediately. Welcome to the tough world of the Tasmanian devil. Once a joey is old enough to fend for itself it has to go off alone and get on with it, competing with adults for prey and road kill.

It was fascinating to hear about the work being undertaken to try to protect the species. They are endangered by loss of habitat and humans as well as a contagious cancer, Tasmanian Face Tumour, which is spread through bites and eating road kill already infected by other devils. They breed the devils and transport them to appropriately protected areas according to their genetics (to avoid in-breeding)and behaviour. Then they are selected for release into the wild in areas that are free from the disease. In this way they try to increase the gene pool and select the devils with behaviour traits that are most likely to succeed when they are released. Whilst in the centre their regime is managed to prevent them from becoming institutionalised. So for example, they are fed different amounts of food, at different times of the day, in different ways so they cannot get into a routine. They have to compete for it as they would naturally. It was a enthralling couple of hours.

In fact the owner of a camp site had already explained to us that if we really wanted to see one in the wild we should find roadkill at dusk and sit and watch it as a devil will soon arrive. The other option is to collect roadkill and put it near your pitch. As we have a bucket, dustpan and cling film I was quite enthusiastic about this strategy but Jim vetoed it. Having seen the devils attack their food, eating all of it including bones, I am pleased he did.

From Cradle Valley we drove south west through Rosebery, Zeehan and on to Strahan (pronounced Strawn). Strahan is a lovely town on the mouth of the Gordon River where you can take a cruise upriver. It has pretty old houses along by the jetty. The following day we turned eastwards and drove through Queenstown to Derwent Bridge along a flowered and forested road, delightful to look at but painfully slow as it winds up hill and down dale with a hairpin bend every few minutes. We stopped a few times to take short walks through rainforest and to waterfalls as a way of coping with the stressful road. At dusk as we were looking for a wild camping site by Bronte's Lagoon a wombat ran along beside us.

A couple of days later we were approaching Hobart in order to take the road south so decided that as we were very close we would stop off at MONA (Museum of Old & New Art) to the north of the city. It was my number one must see sight in Hobart so that seemed very convenient. It was easy to find but as we turned into the long drive we could not decide if we had made the correct turning or were driving into a winery as vines grew all along one side of the road. Eventually we arrived in a sprawling car park split up into numerous different areas, some apparently overspill parking. Once out of the car we were in a no-man's land of open space between what looked like the back of modern industrial units half completed and a couple of open air restaurants and bars not yet open. There was no signage so we had to try and see where other people were going and follow them. Eventually a tiny footpath took us around into what might be called a small plaza, mostly open air with a tennis court (no screening around it to trap wayward shots) laid out on the ground in the middle and a huge trampoline in one corner and a shimmering reflective metal wall part way along one side with what might have been a door camouflaged within it. We tentatively entered and found ourselves in the entrance foyer. There had still not been any clear signage other than to the bar, restaurants and cellar door for wine tasting.

I had known much of the museum was built underground but had expected something more noticeable above ground. Glad to have found ourselves in the right place we picked up a copy of the Museum guide and read through it. I had really looked forward to this visit. The Lonely Planet described it as a must. We tried to understand the guide, what was where and in which 'pavilions', and what they had highlighted as their main attractions. After a few minutes of silence I shocked myself, and I think Jim too, by saying, 'I don't think I can be bothered!' He gave a sigh of relief and said, 'Thank goodness, because neither can I! So we turned around and left.

We will never know what we missed. It might have been a wonderful experience. The whole ambiance of the place right from the car park put us off. It is in a wonderful position overlooking the River Derwent but it all looked so disorganised, amateurish,untidy and ugly. It might be deliberate to challenge visitors? The language in the guide sounded like an over excited adolescent, with contributions such as, 'You can spend the night here, but not in the Museum unless you are dead', as they try to sell their accommodation on site. The Museum was the concept of a rich entrepreneur who funded most of it and we were left feeling rather cynically that it is another money making venture for him. Modern art enthusiasts might find it offers something special but we felt alienated by the whole place. Perhaps we are getting to old and set in our ways but we enjoy visiting interesting, architecturally elegant, thought provoking, enjoyable venues. This seemed to offer nothing like that. Or we left before we found it! Maybe we are culture snobs. A part of me still feels ashamed that we gave up so easily.

So we carried on south, soon leaving Hobart behind after a quick shop to stock up on food and both gave a great sigh of relief to be back in the forest wilderness looking for a good walk and overnight campsite.

Eventually a few days later, after driving through Dover, Southport and past Hastings, we ended up at Cockle Creek in a National Park, as far south in Australia as you can reach in a car. There is a little bit more you can walk along to be at the southernmost point. We didn't as it rained all day. Between showers we managed short walks to a whale statue and along the beach, having a good view of an echidna near the van. It was darker and smaller than previous ones we had seen here.

The elderly volunteer rangers, from Somerset, were keen to tell us that a devil had been around the camp the night before. I am not sure if it was a form of cabin fever resulting from staying in the van to avoid the rain or Jim being devilish himself but he started to think how we might attract one. The rain eased about sixish so we changed our evening menu and Jim went outside to BBQ beefburgers but not before he had chopped a little bit off a couple of the burgers. Then as darkness descended he put it on a low shrub and we sat in the front seats keeping watch. We had a few false alarms as wallabies munched their way past but when it was fully dark and we were about to give up a devil walked along by Jim's side of the van. I did not see it as before it could come around my side where the meat was positioned an over excited Jim had jumped out to follow it and frightened it away. He did have a clear view, identifying the white markings on it. It must have returned during the night as the meat and part of the shrub had been eaten. If the raw meat had still been there we would have retrieved and disposed of it.

The area, like most of the National Parks, is beautiful, having a mountain backdrop, which drifted in and out of view between rain clouds, tiny isolated beaches separated by low rocky outcrops, views to islands and other parts of the coast, and hardly any people. Only a few hardy campers venture down here. It might be busier during school holidays or when it stops raining? All the National Parks we have visited have been worth the effort although surprisingly for a relatively small island, they are all different which of course makes it more interesting.

We have been lucky with our wildlife viewing in Tasmania, the only disappointment being that we have not seen any platypus to date. We have walked numerous platypus paths, along by platypus pools, strolled platypus bays and boardwalks and sat silently for hours by platypus falls without success. They are supposedly common here but for some reason we have missed them. The walks are always through ferny rainforests, often with waterfalls and streams, or rivulets as they are more usually called here. For some reason I did not expect to find such wonderful ferns, forests and wild flowers in Tasmania, especially in the south as I thought it would be more bleak and windblown. The vegetation is very mossy as in Alaska but because there is no permafrost here the trees can grow to huge heights which of course was one of the attractions for the early explorers and forestry is still one of the main industries on the island.

I watched a machine pick up a newly felled mammoth tree and literally in three seconds it just stripped it completely of all branches and twigs leaving it looking like a 40 metre long chopstick. The debris is left behind and I am not sure what if anything is done with it. Agriculture is also important and travelling around we see huge numbers of cattle, sheep and fewer llamas. A wide range of fruits are grown, hops and vines are common, and local seafood is on offer everywhere. Tourism seems to be on the increase fuelled by hundreds of small attractions, mainly about food or drink, such as the Honeybee (all things sweet), roadside fruit stalls, markets, wineries, breweries, ice creameries and cheeseries. Just when I thought we had exhausted the 'eries' I found details of the Artery, artists materials and creative art lessons. Surely on such a small island there can only be sufficient business for one so can we be spared 'arteries'?

The forecast for the following day was constant rain so we raced a little further north and checked in to a commercial site in Snug. I think the name gave us false hope. It rained non stop for twenty four hours. The ground was flooded. Running across to the amenities block was like going for an icy swim. There was no heating anywhere. It was the exact opposite of snug. Inside the van was fine but we did get into bed at 8.30pm to stay warm.

The next morning we were due to go to Bruny Island but Jim checked the forecast which said it was going to be 4 degrees at night with more non-stop rain. We scrapped that idea and Jim found where it was going to be the best weather, back on the Tasman Peninsular, and we went there instead. There was nothing on Bruny that we had not already seen so there was no point in suffering unnecessarily. Lime Bay Reserve is in a dryer zone, although hardly any distance away, and we had some sun, and a few strong winds but it was good enough to go walking. It also had more echidnas and wombats. The weather pattern here is intriguing. The temperature, rain and wind can be totally different in two places only 50 kilometres apart. We know now to read the details very carefully. Once you climb high into the more mountainous areas then the cold and rain is almost guaranteed but it is worth a quick visit for the scenery and wildlife.

Now we have reached our last stop at Seven Mile Beach where we will wash and clean the van ready to return it on Sunday before flying back to Melbourne in readiness for a very early flight out to Hong Kong. Our stay in Tasmania has been different. The scenery, wildlife, small towns, huge number of Reserves and National Parks and eccentric small businesses have been fascinating and enjoyable. The weather has been a constant challenge, lots of sunshine and mild days, low temperatures at night and early morning, often down to 4 or 5 degrees Celsius, a couple of hot days reaching towards 30 and three horrific days when it did not stop raining. That is without mentioning the high winds. We are really looking forward to some warmth in the New Year and have vowed never to visit a cool climate again, perhaps with the exception of a cruise to Antarctica if we can ever afford it!

The only real disappointment here has been the poor wifi. We can accept the lack of phone signal out in the wilds of Reserves and National Parks but even on commercial sites in towns where in theory wifi is provided the connections have been so poor that most of the time we gave up trying to use our devices. Only the Tasgov hotspots have proved reliable, most of the time.

It will be lovely to be home for Christmas to see family and friends so the next blog should be in January if all goes to plan. Hope you all have a lovely holiday.

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