The road to Raffles

Singapore is famous for its order and efficiency. Unsurprisingly therefore our arrival this afternoon went like a dream. Within an hour of our touching down at Changi Airport we’d cleared immigration and customs, picked up our baggage and travelled by cab downtown to check into our hotel. Having spent many a miserable hour queuing to get into America at various airports across the USA the Singapore experience was a breath of fresh air. Donald and Hillary please note, the American way isn’t the only way nor is it necessarily the best.

Our hotel is on the edge of the colonial quarter where historic buildings jostle cheek by jowl with post-modern skyscrapers and four lane highways.  After unpacking and cleaning up we strolled a few hundred metres along a bustling arterial road past office blocks and fast food joints to the Raffles Hotel, the city’s most famous landmark.

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Built late in the nineteenth century Raffles belongs to another age, and has the elegant architecture to match.

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The rich and the famous have spent time there, particularly from the literary world. Maugham, Coward, Kipling and Hemingway have all hung out at Raffles, adding to its mystique and, inevitably, the prices it can charge the unwary tourist. We decided to eat elsewhere.

Singapore is typically tropical, for which you can read “hot and humid”, though this means flowers that seem exotic to us in the UK are commonplace here. The food court where we ate had trees in the outdoor courtyard on which orchids were growing; Julie was pleased to see one variety that she has at home, pampered in the warmth and safety of the utility room. Meanwhile the road from airport was lined with bougainvillea bushes, all dripping with blossoms of pink, carmine and red. Wonderful! I have to admit that it’s so sultry that Julie and I have turned a similar colour, and are also dripping liberally. I think it’s time for beers.

Here we go, here we go, here we go

This trip has been a long time in the making.  We first started talking about visiting Tassie about five years ago, and it’s almost 12 months since we contacted Susie at Tasmanian Odyssey to start planning in earnest.  And now, finally, we are on our way.  Tomorrow we head off to Heathrow and board a plane to Singapore to start our adventure.

I’ve always been a bit puzzled by Singapore.  Seems like it’s a place that nobody visits for its own sake but which everybody passes through on their way to somewhere more interesting, like an Asian equivalent of Watford Gap Services only with better noodles.

Having said that, from the research we’ve done Singapore sounds to be rather appealing, a cosmopolitan city state with a lot going for it.  If our hotel’s got Wi-Fi I’ll report back on what we find there.

The hoax that never was

The annals of history are full of hoaxes.  They come in all shapes and sizes, Piltdown Man, the Cottingley fairies and the Hitler Diaries to name but a few.  Less well known are the occasions when people thought they were being hoaxed but weren’t, occasions when reality had the last laugh.  The platypus falls into this category: it is the hoax that never was.

When British scientist George Shaw received from Australia the desiccated skin of an unknown creature in 1798 he examined it and then wrote:

‘Of all the Mammalia yet known it seems the most extra-ordinary in its conformation; exhibiting the perfect resemblance of the beak of a Duck engrafted on the head of a quadruped.  So accurate is the similitude, that, at first view, it naturally excites the idea of some deceptive preparation by artificial means; … nor is it without the most minute and rigid examination that we can persuade ourselves of its being the real beak or snout of a quadruped.’

In other words, Shaw suspected that some mischievous soul might be pulling his leg.

The surgeon Robert Knox argued in 1823 that because the specimens arrived in England via the Indian Ocean, naturalists suspected that Chinese sailors, who were well known for their skill at stitching together hybrid creatures, might have been playing some kind of joke upon them:

‘They reached England by vessels which had navigated the Indian seas, a circumstance in itself sufficient to rouse the suspicions of the scientific naturalist, aware of the monstrous impostures which the artful Chinese had so frequently practised on European adventurers; in short, the scientific felt inclined to class this rare production of nature with eastern mermaids and other works of art; but these conjectures were immediately dispelled by an appeal to anatomy.’

In all fairness it’s little wonder that British naturalists had their doubts: the platypus is seriously weird.  With a bill like a duck, skin and feet like an otter and a tail like a beaver its appearance suggests it was created from bits and pieces found gathering dust in a bankrupt taxidermist’s workshop.

To add to his oddball qualities Mr Platypus has special spurs on his hind feet that he can use to defend himself by injecting poison into a predator.  And then, or course, there’s the small matter of being a montreme.  This means that like the echidna, but unlike anything else in existence anywhere, Mrs Platypus is a mammal who lays eggs rather than giving birth to live young.

If ever there was an odd couple, Mr and Mrs P are that couple.

And the weirdness doesn’t stop there.  This film courtesy of National Geographic describes another oddball platypus feature, an electro-location system in its bill that enables it to hunt underwater in zero visibility. Useful.  What a pity I can’t have a similar adaptation to my snout that would enable me to find my car keys when I’m late for work.

The platypus is no hoax … nobody with an ounce of sense could make it up and hope to get away with it.  Despite that, or perhaps because of it, seeing is believing and I badly need to see one.  Thanks to Susie from Tasmanian Odyssey, who kindly pointed out in our final itinerary all the platypus hotspots we’ll be visiting, our chances appear good.  I’ll keep you posted.

The Devil fights back

The Tasmanian Devil is threatened with extinction in the wild due to a contagious tumour that has been sweeping through the population over a period of around 20 years, wiping out vast numbers of animals.

To its immense credit the Tasmanian state government has set up a Save the Tasmanian Devil programme with the Zoo and Aquarium Association.  Under this “insurance policy” about 600 disease-free animals are kept in captivity at zoos, wildlife parks and sanctuaries in Tasmania and on mainland Australia.  During our trip we will visit a couple of these sanctuaries, at Bonorong and Devils@Cradle to see first-hand the brilliant work they are doing.

But now news from the University of Tasmania suggests that some Tasmanian Devils have developed immunity to devil facial tumour disease (DFTD).  This is encouraging on two counts: we now know that some animals can naturally fight the disease and will hopefully pass on their resistance to future generations in the wild, and researchers can use the data being captured to support the further development of an immunisation programme that has already seen two groups of immunised Devils successfully released into the wild.

Plainly these are early days, but it’s great to know that evolution and science are both doing their bit to save this charismatic critter.  The Devil’s fighting back.

Saved by the Devil?

Driving home a couple of evenings ago I was astonished to hear the Tasmanian Devil mentioned on the 6pm news on Radio 4.  Devil milk, it seems, has extraordinary antibiotic properties that could ultimately save the world from superbugs like MRSA.

PHOTO CREDIT: By Wayne McLean ( jgritz) Taken with Nikon D100. (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The explanation is fairly simple, although a tad revolting.  Devils are of course marsupials, meaning that the young spend several months in mum’s pouch before leaving home to spend their days beating up the local wildlife.  Rather like a teenager who never cleans his room or changes his underpants, the infant’s existence in the pouch is somewhat squalid.  The chance of infection is ever-present, and to survive Devils have become masters of disease resistance.  If the mother did not pass on through her milk her own immunity to infection junior’s chances of survival would be pretty slender and the Devil species itself could be on the road to hell.

Scientists tell us that Tasmanian Devil milk contains several types of peptides called cathelicidins, a natural kind of antibiotic.  When exposed to these peptides drug resistant bacteria, including MRSA, have keeled over and died.  The search is now underway to better understand just what’s going on, with a view to developing new treatments that could save millions of lives.  There’s still a lot of work to be done, but diligent and painstaking research will no doubt be the key … clearly, the detail’s in the Devil.

This is a great piece of news, with humanity gaining new cures and the Devil new followers.  It does however raise an interesting question that had never occurred to me before.  Given that it spends several months holed up in its mother’s pouch how, or more pertinently where, does an infant marsupial go to the toilet?

Answers on a postcard please.

The convict stain

The colony of Van Diemen’s Land was swept into existence on a torrent of blood, the blood of the Aboriginal inhabitants who stood in the way of the European invaders’ notions of progress, and the blood of the convicts whose punishment for crimes, real or imagined, in the Old World was to subjugate the new, untamed land to the south.

Tasmania, it seems, has an uneasy relationship with its past.  That Van Diemen’s Land was re-invented as Tasmania was neither a quirk of history nor an idle flight of fancy, but rather a conscious attempt to sweep the excesses of its first 50 years under Britain’s threadbare colonial carpet.

Today, authors and film-makers are increasingly exploring the early history of Tasmania.  The 2009 movie that is called simply Van Diemen’s Land focuses on one of the darkest episodes in the early history of the island, the descent into cannibalism of a group of eight convicts led by Alexander Pearce.  The wretched prisoners did a runner from the infamous penal colony at Macquarie Harbour on the west coast of Tasmania only to find the land into which they had fled to be bleak, unforgiving and almost totally devoid of anything edible … except their fellow escapees.

For anyone planning to visit Tassie this film is good homework, providing an insight into an event nearly 200 years ago that continues to fascinate the locals today.  The savagery of the penal regime is surpassed only by the brutality of the forests and mountains.  And, not least, the movie reminds the potential visitor of the need for decent rainwear … my god, if this film is to be believed we’ll need it.

Richard Flanagan, Tasmania’s foremost literary author, also writes about the penal colony at Macquarie Harbour in his 2002 novel, Gould’s Book of Fish.  Flanagan is one of those commentators unhappy with Australian – and Tasmanian – reluctance to confront the ‘convict stain’ that disfigures the early history of both country and state.  I’d hoped, therefore, that Gould’s Book of Fish would offer the prospective tourist some insights, a dummies’ guide to the penal system that gave birth to a nation.

I should have known better.  Flanagan writes literature, not books, and in 2014 was rewarded with the Man Booker Prize for his troubles, in recognition of his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North.  Inevitably, therefore, dummies’ guides are not what he does.  Gould’s Book of Fish is not an easy read, though to be fair he warns his readers not to expect too much when he has his first narrator say the following:

I had begun with the comforting conclusion that books are the tongue of divine wisdom, and ended only with the thin hunch that all books are grand follies, destined forever to be misunderstood.

Spot on with that one, Mr F.  Richard Flanagan is obviously a talented writer – they don’t give the Man Booker away lightly and Gould’s Book of Fish is not totally without merit, although the  Guardian reviewer didn’t much care for it.  But as preparatory reading for a trip to Tassie this book promises more than it delivers, and to be frank life’s way too short.

An Australian icon

A few months into my third year at junior school an Australian girl joined our class.  Her name was Dawn Culshaw, but pretty soon we’d christened her Kangaroo Culshaw.  Partly this was because we loved the alliterative rat-a-tat-tat of the words, but mostly for the simple reason that we were in awe of her origins.  For working class kids growing up in West London in the 1960s Australia was impossibly remote and exotic, and nothing symbolised this antipodean other-worldliness more than kangaroos.

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PHOTO CREDIT: By Quartl (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The kangaroo belongs to the macropod family of marsupials, or to put it another way they have big feet and carry their young around in pouches.  There are around 60 species of macropod still living, mostly in Australia although a couple are hanging on in New Guinea.  Very few of them, however, are true kangaroos: also included amongst macropods are tree-kangaroos, pademelons and wallabies.  Although here are no tree-kangaroos in Tassie, the Apple Isle boasts three types of macropod: Eastern Grey (or Forester) Kangaroo, Bennett’s (or Red-necked) Wallaby, and Tasmanian Pademelons (Rufous Wallaby).  We hope to see them all.

As the variant name of the Tasmanian Pademelon implies, pademelons and wallabies are very similar, but what’s the difference between kangaroos and wallabies?  Put very simply and somewhat crudely (well that’s what Julie reckons anyway) the wallaby is in essence a short-arsed kangaroo.  The largest kangaroo – the Red, which is not found in Tassie – measures up to 9 feet from head to tip of tail, compared with 6 feet for the largest wallabies.  Most wallabies, however, live up to their short-arse billing, coming in at around 2 feet long.

The lower legs of kangaroos are disproportionately large, making them look long and rangy.  Wallabies have shorter, more compact legs and look better proportioned.  They also tend to have bright coats sporting splashes of different hues, unlike their duller and more monochrome cousins.  Generally speaking kangaroos are animals of open, treeless areas, and so grasses are their staple diet.  On the other hand, wallabies tend to frequent forested or wooded areas and as a result tend to eat leaves.

In Tasmania the Forester Kangaroo suffered greatly from hunting in the nineteenth century, and from disease and loss of habitat to agriculture.  It’s now fully protected throughout the island, and we have high hopes of seeing them in the  Mount William National Park, which was originally proclaimed to protect the last of Tasmania’s wild Forester Kangaroos.  They are reported to be common in the park, and easily spotted from the aptly named Forester Kangaroo Drive.  If we don’t strike lucky there we have another chance to see them at Narawntapu National Park, which has somewhat fancifully been referred to as the Serengeti of Tasmania.  Interestingly Narawantapu was previously known as the Asbestos Range National Park … a marketing man’s worst nightmare, no wonder that in 1999, in pursuit of the tourist dollar, they adopted the Aboriginal name for the area.

The kangaroo is, in my view, one of five great Australian icons, the others being the koala, Uluru (Ayers Rock), Sydney Opera House and the incomparable Shane Warne.  The kangaroo is, however, the only one of these icons to have been the subject of a poem by D H Lawrence.  The author and poet spent a three months in Australia in 1922, during which time he wrote the novel Kangaroo, which isn’t about kangaroos at all.  However we can forgive him that indiscretion for penning this excellent poem, also entitled Kangaroo, which for me captures something of the soul of this enigmatic Australian icon.  Read and enjoy.

You couldn’t make it up – the weird world of the echidna

To the untrained British eye the echidna looks like a hedgehog that spends every evening at the gym and all its pocket money on steroids.  However there’s far more to it than that, and like many of the other critters on our Mammals Hit List it is seriously weird.  Here’s what you need to know …

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PHOTO CREDIT: Lyle Radford/lyleradford.com.au [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The Short-beaked Echidna, which is the type found in Australia, measures up to around 45 centimetres in length and weighs up to 5 kilos compared with a UK hedgehog in tip-top condition which grows up to around 25 centimetres and weighs up to two kilos.  Remarkably echidnas are reported to have the world’s biggest fleas, which measure a scratch-inducing 4mm.

An echidna’s spines, which reach 50 mm in length, are in fact modified hairs.  Fur can still be found between the spines; this provides insulation, and is longer and thicker in the Tasmanian subspecies, reflecting the colder temperatures on the Apple Isle. Tasmanian echidnas are also bigger than their mainland counterparts.

Unsurprisingly for a critter that’s also known as the spiny anteater, the echidna dines out on ants and termites, but won’t turn up its snout at grubs, larvae and worms either.  That snout is specially adapted, and can sense electrical signals from insect bodies.  On detecting prey, the echidna uses its long, sharp claws and short, strong legs to dig into the soil and expose the invertebrates.  It then licks them up with its tongue, which is 15cm long and covered with sticky mucous.  The echidna’s Latin name is Tachyglossus; it means fast-tongue, which is plainly well deserved.

The echidna’s main claim to fame is that, along with platypus it is an egg-laying mammal, or monotreme.  However, the egg isn’t laid in a nest.  Rather, it’s laid directly into a pouch on the female’s body, where it hatches after 10 days.  The young echidna, or puggle, spends most of its first two or three months in the pouch, by which time the growing spines are causing such discomfort that the female evicts the youngster for good.

This brilliant piece of film from National Geographic shows the echidna’s egg, and later a tiny pink puggle.  Amazing!  Another notable feature of echidnas is that unlike “normal” mammals they have no nipples, but instead the mother feeds the puggle with milk that simply oozes through patches in her skin.

The mating behaviour of echidnas is also bizarre, with “trains” of up to ten randy males pursuing a female in season for hours on end.  The males don’t fight, they simply follow, until the female finally succumbs and allows one of them to have his wicked way with her, using his remarkable – and I’m not joking here – his truly remarkable four-headed penis.  Did I mention that echidnas are weird?

The “echidna train” behaviour is not fully understood and is rarely witnessed, but was filmed a few months ago in Sydney’s Taronga Zoo.  Breeding echidnas in zoos is difficult, so Taronga must be doing something right.  The good news is that echidnas are common, and are said to be the most widespread native animal throughout Australia.  Let’s hope we see one on our travels.

How green was my Tassie

The environment, it seems, is an issue that divides Tasmanians.  They all have a view, and hold it passionately.  From afar it appears that, much more than in the UK, the environment is a political issue, and it is no accident that Tassie saw the emergence of the world’s first Green Party in the 1970s protesting – unsuccessfully as it turned out – about the damming of a river and the consequent drowning of a wilderness valley.

The Green are an important element of Tasmanian politics, though at the moment they appear to be in some disarray.  Politicians and political activists falling out is nothing new, but how refreshing it is that the arguments are about whether the Green Party is green enough.

If only we cared that much in the UK.

Of loggers and bloggers

Every summer, our garden pond is alive with the antics of pond-skaters.  With tiny bodies and legs so long they could advertise stockings pond-skaters walk on water, suspended by its surface tension.  They live their lives on the pool’s silver skin, come rain or shine, blind to the world below.

Underwater it’s a life and death struggle.  Golden Rudd squabble for the right to mate, and their eggs and fry become snacks for brethren who are not above a bit of opportunistic cannibalism.  Adult newts feast on young tadpoles, leeches lurk in the weeds waiting to suck the life-blood from unwary goldfish, and dragonfly larvae patrol the depths like U-boats, watching, waiting, the ultimate aquatic mini-beast carnivores.  And yet the pond-skaters go about their business, oblivious to the drama unfolding daily beneath their feet.

Tourists are like pond-skaters.  They spend their time on the surface of the places they visit, guide books in hand, cameras at the ready, taking it all at face value, never looking into the shadows or hidden places, not asking too many questions.  Is it naivety, or are they complicit, deliberately not enquiring too deeply because they know that if they do they won’t like the answers?

The Hunter, the movie I wrote about in my last post, lifts the lid on one on the tensions lurking just beneath the surface in Tasmania.  It vividly portrays the enmity between the environmentalists, who would protect the island’s forests and the loggers, who make a living out of chopping them down.

Tasmania is justly proud of its natural heritage.  The Discover Tasmania website boasts that the island’s “national parks cover a diversity of unspoiled habitats and ecosystems with plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth.  Around forty per cent of Tasmania is protected in national parks and reserves. Most of them are stunningly beautiful.”  And yet much of Tasmania’s virgin rainforest is potentially at the mercy of loggers.

The Australian Wilderness Society says on its website “logging and mining are decimating Tassie’s spectacular forests every day.  We’ve lost too much ancient forest already. … Continuing down this path will only damage more irreplaceable forests and fail more local communities.”

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PHOTO CREDIT: By TTaylor (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

It would be hypocritical of me, someone who is wealthy enough to travel to the other side of the world to pursue his passion for nature, to condemn out-of-hand people who have far less money and many fewer opportunities than I have enjoyed.  But I passionately believe a way forward can be found that protects the wild places and their eco-systems as well as local people.

The Wilderness Society says that its “vision for real forest protection means that regional communities can protect their backyards, grow tourism and recreation jobs and have a timber industry of which the whole community can be proud.”  I don’t know the full details, but in principle the Society seems, to me, to be on the right track.  As conservationists we are not going to win many arguments by preaching, by promoting environmental protection as a moral imperative or a simply as a “good thing.”  But if the environment can deliver the tourist dollar then maybe, just maybe, we can save it.  This is a compromise, it’s less than ideal but almost certainly the best we can hope for.

Taking the longer term, pragmatic view, eco-tourism is last best chance for the wild places of Tassie and beyond.  Let’s make it work.