The trouble with twitchers

We are staying at Mountain Valley Cabins, hidden deep in the mountains of north central Tasmania. This is a hotspot for serious wildlife enthusiasts because it’s one of the few places in Tassie where you are likely to see a wild Tasmanian Devil.  Tonight there are six of us here, all Brits, but sadly the other four are twitchers, and they spend an hour over dinner comparing notes on the rare birds they’ve seen over the years, how much they’ve paid to travel to the far flung corners of the world where these unfortunate specimens can be found and how much they’ve suffered in the process.

How unutterably depressing! When friends and acquaintances refer to us as twitchers, Julie and I will correct them sternly.  Twitchers, it seems to me, care little for the bird itself, but are obsessed by the chase.  For them it’s all about the quarry.  Once a particular species has been seen and ticked off in the appropriate book or list they quickly lose interest and move on to the next challenge.  It’s as if by seeing the bird it becomes their property, theirs to log and then ignore as they immediately consign it to history in favour of the next target.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see a rarity, to get the chance to study in the flesh a bird that most birders have only read about. But it gives me just as much pleasure to spend a quiet hour watching an everyday bird, like a starling in the UK or a Superb Fairy Wren here in Tassie, to marvel at its existence and enjoy its antics as it goes about the everyday business of living.

Twitchers, it seems to me, are doomed to a life of unhappiness: they have never seen enough birds, or the right birds, to bring them satisfaction. Julie and I, however, live in the moment, enjoying the starling or the sea eagle or whatever else comes our way, taking our pleasures in the wonders of nature and evolution.  This to me is what birding should be about, not pursuing a quarry species to the ends of the Earth and then all but forgetting it once it is seen.  There’s a book in here somewhere, Zen and the Art of Birding Contentment perhaps?  My next project, maybe?

[23 November]

A tale of two cities (2) Sheffield

Just a few kilometres down the road from Railton is Sheffield.  It styles itself Town of Murals, and is a world apart from its topiary touting neighbour.

Sheffield seems like a lively place, with a sense of energy. And pride.  There are murals all over the town centre.  It seems as if every available wall is covered with a massive, colourful painting relating to the history of the local area and its people, or to Tasmanian wildlife and landscapes:


The artwork isn’t necessarily great, but the murals brighten the place up and give it character, creating a pleasing sense of place:


There is even, it seems, an annual mural-painting competition, presumably to keep alive the interest of both locals and visitors:


While Railton did not, in my view, live up to its billing Sheffield exceeds expectations. Maybe I’m wrong about Sheffield, or Railton, or both. But if the first impressions of an outsider with no previous knowledge of either count for anything then Sheffield is plainly going places while Railton, sadly, is going nowhere.

[22 November]

A tale of two cities (1) Railton

Railton, in the north of Tassie, styles itself Town of Topiary.  On the Internet there is a town plan showing the location of dozens of topiary features dotted about all over the place.  We like quirky, and decide to give it a go.


First indications are promising. As we drive into Railton we spot a topiary show-jumper, pretty much life-sized and in good order, a real labour of love.

But as we drive on into what Americans would call downtown, along what they think of as Main Street (actually its Foster Street), we begin to feel uneasy.  In the UK I’ve driven on motorways that aren’t as wide as Foster Street, but apart from a few random parked cars the road is unoccupied.  The place has the feel of a nineteenth century American frontier town that’s down on its luck.  It would be no surprise to see John Wayne to ride by on a black stallion, closely pursued by a ball of tumbleweed.

We’ve been driving for hours and need a break. The cafe looks fairly OK from the outside, and in the absence of any other options we decide to give it a try.  Inside the place is deserted except for the server and one old man, presumably a local, who is wading through a pile of newspapers.  He glances up briefly, decides our presence is not worth acknowledging further, and returns to his reading.

The hot food cabinet is all but empty, just three sausage rolls huddled together in a corner looking sorry for themselves. The pastries seem a little better, so we order and take ourselves off to the seats in the window.  Outside the supermarket is boarded up and for sale; it doesn’t look to be a proposition that would get Alan Sugar’s heart racing.  A stray dog wanders up and down the street, sniffing and listless.  An occasional car passes through, but there are no pedestrians.  Railton seems lifeless.


Revived by lunch and mocha (who can’t be revived by mocha?) we take to the streets in search of inspiring topiary, but are quickly disappointed. Many of the living sculptures have seen better days and are apparently suffering from die-back, or neglect, or both.  A few are plainly still tended and the “topiary park” has some reasonable figures, but others have clearly been abandoned to their fate and nature is taking its inevitable course.

We suspect that the topiary was The Big Idea to revive the town, to get people energised, to engender a sense of pride and community, to bring the tourists in. Only it hasn’t quite worked out: topiary requires long-term effort and commitment, and apparently there isn’t enough of it here.  Too many people have moved on or moved away, have lost interest or hope or maybe both.

The Town of Topiary isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The topiary could almost be a metaphor for Railton as a whole: some pockets of achievement and honest effort, but not enough to overcome the sense that this is a place that’s lost its way.  Maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe there’s more to it than meets the eye, but I came here expecting much more, and leave saddened by thoughts of opportunities lost.

[22 November]

A close encounter

In an earlier post mentioned that echidnas are awkward little sods that will go out of their way to avoid being photographed. It was therefore all the more surprising that today, while driving through Gowrie Park on the way to Railton and Sheffield we encountered one that was not only happy to have his picture taken …


… but also had a strange desire to stick his enormous snout up my trouser leg:


Normally I’d be flattered that any wild animal trusted me sufficiently to approach in this way, but given that echidnas are notorious for the size of their fleas this was probably a mixed blessing.

[22 November]

A grand day out

tasmania-strahan-west-coast-wilderness-railway-2016-28About 20 miles from Strahan lies Queenstown. During the late nineteenth and much of the twentieth century it was the home of a very lucrative copper mine.  However its location deep in mountainous and thickly forested terrain meant that the biggest challenge was not to get the copper ore out of the ground but rather to get it out of Queenstown.  The answer they came up with was to build a railway to the coast at Strahan, an astounding feat of engineering.  The work was all done by hand in period of less than three years, which was way ahead of schedule (we learned later in our trip that this outstanding result was probably due to the sassafras tea the workers were served – it’s made from the leaves of a local tree and contains amphetamine, which acted as a performance enhancing drug.)

The copper mine is no more, though locals hope for its revival if prices pick up sufficiently. However the railway has been preserved, and is doing a great job ferrying tourists past wild landscapes and though magnificent forests.  So we join them and take a relaxing return day-trip from Strahan to Queenstown, getting great views of the train and the land through which it runs:


We are generously fed and watered throughout the trip, and even get to spend an hour in Queenstown, which to me feels a bit like a careworn frontier town in the American Wild West, although without the tumbleweed:


It’s interesting to note that the steam trains were originally coal-fired, but have been converted to run on recycled sump oil. The reason, we are told, is that locomotives running on oil won’t release sparks and embers into the atmosphere, and are therefore less likely than their coal-fired cousins to set on fire and burn down the UNESCO accredited rainforest through which they run.

Heritage steam trains are always good fun, and the West Coast Wilderness Railway is no exception.  Travelling the line allows an appreciation of just how much effort and ingenuity went into its construction, while the locomotives and rolling stock are full of character:


A grand day out was had by all.

[21 November]

Messing about on the river

tasmania-gordon-river-cruise-hells-gate-2016-6Today we’re back in luxury mode as we take a cruise on a catamaran, first exploring Macquarie Harbour, which is the second largest in Australia and therefore much bigger than the more famous Sydney Harbour, before heading past the old penal colony of Sarah Island and up the Gordon River into a UNESCO World Heritage Area of temperate rainforest.

Luxury is not an exaggeration. Sparkling wine is available on tap, and they seem to feed us at least once an hour.  No such luxury for the skipper however.  We are seated on the captain’s deck and if we get bored with the view outside we can turn our attention to him instead and watch him drive the catamaran, constantly fiddling with knobs and dials while gazing at a bank of VDU screens.

The captain obviously knows where he’s going, which in the first instance is out past Bonnet Island, where we watched penguins yesterday evening. From there a narrow channel, marked by a lighthouse, gives access from the Harbour to the Southern Ocean through Hell’s Gates:


However it is not the narrowness of the channel, the risk of running aground or the savagery of the waves on the Southern Ocean that led to this place being called Hell’s Gate.  Rather, this was the name conferred on it by convicts on their way to Sarah Island.

The Sarah Island penal colony was established partly because it was very difficult to escape from, but the determining factor was the British navy’s need, in the years after the Napoleonic War, to access high quality Huon Pine timber to build new warships, usable oak currently being in short supply in England. And who better to undertake the back-breaking and dangerous work of felling the timber in the dark, impenetrable rainforest than a bunch of convicts?  Not only did they work for free, but the convicts were not protected by health and safety legislation, or indeed any legislation at all.


Our cruise drops us off at Sarah Island for an hour. Although convicts were forced to work on number of trades on behalf of their masters, most notably the building of ships with the timber they had felled, there’s not much to show that they were ever here, just scattered ruins:

But in the hands of a guide the stories live on, stories of a brutal and sadistic regime, of desperate prisoners and corrupt guards, of failed escape attempts and of cannibalism amongst men who did manage to flee the island only to find that there was nothing to eat on the nearby mainland except each other (see my review of the movie Van Dieman’s Land earlier in this blog, which tells the story of infamous cannibal convict Alexander Pearce.)

Later that day, back in Strahan, we attend a theatrical performance that dramatises a remarkable event from Sarah Island’s dark and shameful history, the escape to Chile of some convicts who stole a boat they were being made to build. It’s been running for some 23 years, which makes it Australia’s longest running play. The Ship That Never Was is great fun, with lots of laughs and plenty of audience participation.  Julie and I find ourselves called upon to play a pair of disreputable scoundrels, so absolutely no type-casting there.


The cruise also takes us up the Gordon River into virgin rainforest. Well not quite virgin if truth be told, as the forest was systematically ravaged by the convicts searching for Huon Pine on behalf of their guards.  Now the forest is fully protected and is recovering but as the diameter of a Huon Pine trunk grows by just one millimetre per year and a decent specimen can be more than 2,000 years old it will be many generations before the impact of the convicts is fully eradicated.  Nevertheless to the untrained eye the forest looks in good shape, and it’s great to spend time in such a special place that is a million miles away from our everyday existence in the UK.


[20 November]

P-p-pick up a penguin

We leave the luxuries of Pumphouse Point behind us, and continue west along empty roads that wind up and down mountains, in and out of the mist. We call at several scenic spots along the way, the best of which is Nelson Falls:


But we push on, aiming for the coast. Our destination is Strahan (which, for some unexplained reason, is pronounced to rhyme with yawn), and we can’t delay as we have an appointment with a penguin.

Fairy Penguins are the smallest species of penguin in the world, and the only one coloured blue and white rather than black and white. They breed at several locations around Tasmania (we’ve already seen a couple on Bruny Island), including Bonnet Island which lies close to the entrance to Macquarie Harbour, just a few miles from Strahan.

The penguins only come ashore after dark, so we take a boat trip out to Bonnet Island just as the sun is setting. It’s a tiny outcrop, rocky and tree-covered.  To avoid scaring the birds we have to use torches that have been adapted so they only throw out red light.  This makes them difficult to see and to photograph, but obviously the welfare of the birds comes first.  And, as bonus, on our way to the island, we are briefly joined by a pod of Common Dolphins cavorting and playing around our little boat.


Julie won’t mind me saying that this photo of two penguins hiding under a bush won’t win any prizes, but it’s great just to get and to be able to share the evidence of our success. Fairy Penguins were one of the bird species we most wanted to see on our trip, and we’ve done it.

[20 November]

Eat your heart out Chris Packham

Long-time followers of Platypus Pandemonium will know that I have previously promised to search out some wombat poo, photograph same and publish said photograph on this blog. Wombat poo is famous for being cube-shaped.  Wombats, of course, are famous for their pained expressions.

I am delighted to report that, whilst wandering around the grounds of our accommodation at Pumphouse Point, we found what I’m looking for (I should point out that Julie has totally disowned me in regard to my obsession with wombat poo).  Here’s a cube, strategically positioned on top of a stone to make it clear to all the other wombats in the neighbourhood that someone with an awesome pain threshold lives here.


Chris Packham, famous naturalist and broadcaster, is a great aficionado of poo. Many times he has dissected poo live on national television, sometimes metaphorically but often physically, to the delight / disgust of the watching millions (Julie and I are in different camps on this one).  If I thought I could get it past immigration and customs I’d take the cube home with me and send it to him.  Wombat poo would, I reckon, be right up Chris Packham’s alley.


That evening, our excellent dinner at Pumphouse Point was interrupted by a sighting through the dining room window of the poo’s perpetrator. We grabbed cameras and dashed outside, much to the bemusement of our Aussie fellow diners, who tend to see wombats as an occupational hazard due to their ability to write off your car if you hit them at speed (they have armour-plated arses, apparently, but that’s another story).  Wombats are nocturnal and nervy so we’re lucky to see this one at all.  This photo is taken with flash, and in the circumstances we’re pleased with it.

So, at last, after nearly two weeks we at last see the King of Cubes in the wild. This trip just gets better and better.

[20 November]


tasmania-pumphouse-point-2016-43We move on to the Cradle Mountain / Lake St Clair National Park. This time we are staying inside a national park, in a luxurious boutique hotel called Pumphouse Point, which is fashioned from a restored and re-purposed hydro substation and associated pumphouse.  It may not sound promising, but in reality it’s truly exceptional.

And we have the best room in the complex, on the first floor of the art deco style substation with panoramic views across Lake St Clair towards the former pumphouse, which has also been converted into visitor accommodation.

The views are spectacular, but the wind howls like a banshee and is cold enough to persuade a brass monkey to grab a hot water bottle. No matter, we tog up and explore the extensive grounds of the property for some great views of the lake and pumphouse.  In a sheltered, sunny spot we almost tread on a Tiger Snake, which is reputedly the fifth deadliest in the world.  It sees us just in time and slithers off into the undergrowth, and Julie snaps a quick photo as it disappears.  We continue on our way, with renewed caution.


We take a side trip to visit The Wall in the Wilderness, a nearby art installation that has been ten years in the making and is still not complete. The artist tells the history of this area of central Tasmania in carvings from the wood of the rare Huon Pine.  The installation is over 100 metres in length, is exquisitely carved and absolutely brilliant.  Sadly, no photos are allowed but do check out the website.

[18 November]