(1) Down on the farm
We’ve stayed the night in a comfortable B&B on a farm near Little Swanport. Carrying our bags back to the car I find my path blocked by a female wallaby. She has a big joey in her pouch and they watch, alert and curious but unafraid as I struggle with the suitcase. I pass within feet of them, and they continue staring for a minute or two before mum turns and hops off in the direction of several companions browsing by the fence.
Looking around there are wallabies everywhere, plainly very much at home down on the farm. The owners, Tom and Jane, are into their wildlife. Jane explains that in a drought some months ago the grass wasn’t growing and the wallabies on the property were starving. Tom and Jane fed them until the crisis was over. For a while the wallabies had become tame and confiding. Once the feeding stopped most had gone back to their old ways, but the female with the joey is still hanging around the farmhouse, hoping – in vain – for treats.
We’d love to stay longer on this wildlife-friendly property to get to know the wallabies better but we have an all-day boat trip booked and must get to the wharf in time for an early departure.
(2) Seal Island
Our boat pulls up to the wharf, scattering a flotilla of pelicans. We board with a degree of trepidation: up close it’s a small boat and we’re told there’s a bit a swell going on, enough to unsettle delicate stomachs:
Our first destination is Ile Des Phoques (Seal Island), a rugged granite outcrop of around 20 acres. This island is known as a haul-out spot for bachelor male Australian Fur Seals, but in recent years a few mothers and their pups have also been seen. This is encouraging news: the Australian Fur Seal was hunted to the brink of extinction in the twentieth century, but thanks to being wholly protected numbers are slowly recovering, forcing mothers to find new spots to give birth to their young.
As we approach it’s clear that Ile Des Phoques lives up to its name. There are seals all over the rocks that line the shore, some loafing, others sparring or chasing one another. The noise is cacophonous, an unholy mixture of barks, yells, wails and snorts. And the smell leaves us in no doubt that these guys eat fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
We scan the rocks, enjoying the action. Mostly, as expected, we see young males posturing and pouting, giving it some for the benefit of any of their brethren who might be watching. We’re pleased to spot a few mums and their pups a little further up the rocks. They have wisely distanced themselves from the mayhem at the water’s edge, and keep a wary eye on proceedings. There’s also an older male; he’s a big boy so the teenagers give him his space, aware that if they get too close he’ll work them over until they’re bloodied and bruised.
It’s a two-way process, this wildlife watching. We watch the seals, and the seals watch the tourists. They can’t resist diving into the water and dashing towards the boat for a closer look, ducking, diving and leaping. It’s a performance worthy of a gang of crazed Olympic gymnasts. Soon we are surrounded by dozens of lively, curious critters, all intent on enjoying the show.
But Ile Des Phoques has more to offer than seals. There are plenty of birds, including nesting sea eagles and these Black-faced Cormorants:
The island is also famous for its sea caves, carved by the Pacific waves from the unforgiving granite rock. Here our little boat comes into its own, being small enough to edge deep into the caves, so deep that in one we can see sunlight shining through a small opening from the other side of the island:
(3) The Little Prince
From Ile Des Phoques the boat takes us north to Maria Island, pronounced to rhyme with ‘pariah.’ The whole of Maria Island is a National Park, protecting endangered wildlife, stunning scenery and ruins from the convict era. After landing we enjoy an excellent picnic lunch under a hot sun before taking a guided walk to explore the ruins and search for wildlife. Due to the protection afforded by National Park status the wildlife here is unafraid, so it’s no surprise when we see this nocturnal pademelon in the early afternoon sunshine.
However, it’s another critter that we’re really hoping to see. Our guide eventually tracks down the King of Cubes but he must be in a bad mood, standing with his back to us and refusing to have his photo taken. Julie waits, hoping he mellows, while I wander off in search of other pleasures.
A short distance from Julie is a large tree with low hanging branches, and snuffling around in the grass growing beneath I spot a second wombat. But she’s not alone. Next to her is a youngster.
It’s a strange thing about young animals, how obvious they are. The size difference between them and adults is clear, but in countless other ways youngsters look slightly different. They share an indefinable delicacy of form. All young critters, in my experience, are somehow softer, less angular, fluffier and, dare I say it, cuter than their parents. This pair conform to type, the mature Queen of Cubes and her exquisite, perfect Little Prince.
I call Julie over as mother and child go about their business, grazing contentedly. We are spellbound by the beauty of the Little Prince. He is a photographer’s dream, and Julie takes full advantage:
And then, to our dismay, the Little Prince is startled when one of us steps on a twig and it snaps. He stops nibbling and rushes full speed for the undergrowth. Mum carries on as if nothing has happened. Her son doesn’t return, and we worry that they won’t find each other again, but when we look more closely we can see that he has run towards the entrance to a burrow.
The Little Prince has gone to ground to await his mother’s return. We must leave Maria Island in a few minutes to begin the journey back to the mainland, so we know we won’t ever see him again. A cloud slides before the sun and drains all colour from the day. Sadly, we turn and trudge towards the waiting boat.
(4) The Painted Cliffs
Maria Island is famous for its stunning coastline, and we take in a couple of the highlights on the return trip. We sail past the spectacular Fossil Cliffs rising vertically from the sea:
… and then close to the equally impressive and improbable Painted Cliffs:
(5) A fitting end
As soon as we’re back on dry land we return to the car and head north. We have around 100km to drive before we get to our accommodation. As we go along we reflect on the day’s events and agree that we should round it off with a bottle of Devil’s Corner, a Tasmanian Pinot Noir Chardonnay for which we’ve developed a taste during our month of travels. It’s not cheap, but then nothing in Tassie is, so we put the cost out of our mind and dive into a bottle shop – the local version of an off-licence – to do the business.
A couple of hours later we are holed up at our luxury eco-retreat on the Freycinet Peninsula, contentedly quaffing Devil’s Corner while watching a wallaby grazing outside the window. We raise a glass to him, and to the wombats and seals and scenery we have enjoyed over the past 12 hours. It is, we agree, a fitting end to a perfect day.