No worries!

File:Parque Nacional Cradle Mountain-Tasmania-Australia04.JPG

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

Fancy a trip to Tasmania?  Then speak to the experts.

We arranged our trip with the help of Tasmanian Odyssey.  Nothing was too much trouble, and Susie’s local knowledge and contacts mean that we’ll make every second of our time in Tassie count.  Also, she’s pretty confident I’ll see a platypus, so I’m as a happy as a pig in muck.  You can contact her at http://tasmanianodyssey.com/

No worries Susie!

Why Tasmania?

To be fair, it’s not an obvious holiday destination.  Some would say that the biggest thing in Tasmania’s favour is that it’s a bloody long way from the UK, meaning that the chances of bumping into a member of the Westminster elite, footballer’s wife or B-list media celebrity are pretty damned remote.  But let’s not be cynical, there are plenty of positives other than remoteness, though rumours abound that this is exactly what drew Lord Lucan to those distant shores.

Part of Tasmania’s attraction is its size, or more exactly the lack thereof.  Although around half as big as England, in terms of area it comprises just about 1 per cent of Australia as a whole.  As such, a trip to Tasmania offers Australia in miniature.  Distances are manageable, the climate is tolerable, there are stunning landscapes and even some decent historic buildings.

And then there’s the wildlife.  We first started thinking about going to Tasmania after attending lectures from local naturalists at the British Birdwatching Fair.  The Apple Isle, it seems, has a wide range of birds (including a number of endemics), both Australian egg-laying mammals, numerous varieties of marsupial … and its very own devil.

It’s well known amongst wildlife enthusiasts that the Tasmanian Devil is in trouble, victim to a contagious cancer that is spreading rapidly through the population thanks to the animals’ love of fighting with each other at every available opportunity.  Conservationists are doing their best but numbers are diminishing fast, so the chances of seeing Devils in the wild are receding.  It’s time to visit, therefore, to see them in their natural habitat and to find out more about how they can be saved for future generations of animal lovers … in other words, for people just like us.

File:TasmanianDevil 1888.jpgPHOTO CREDIT:  By Mike Lehmann, Mike Switzerland 09:52, 28 February 2007 (UTC) (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Great news

They’re letting us in!  This morning we sat huddled over the PC and applied for visas.  We still haven’t quite got over the trauma of applying a couple of years ago for visas to visit India, so we feared the worst.  But all credit to the Aussies, their system works and within the hour our entry permits had been emailed to us.

Tasmania here we come.

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

 

 

 

The Sooty Oystercatcher – a vile and scurrilous rumour

I am probably unique amongst birders in nominating the oystercatcher as my favourite bird.  In my view they are feisty and handsome things that are guaranteed to brighten up any day spent wetland or coastal birding.   

Yesterday I was extolling their virtues to my esteemed colleague Mike, himself a lapsed birder.  I explained that I was particularly excited by the prospect of encountering a different species – the Sooty Oystercatcher – on our trip to Tassie.  He responded by wondering if this was simply a regular oystercatcher with Matthew Corbett’s hand up its bum.

Shame on you, Mike.  RSPCA Australia will hear about this!

Embed from Getty Images

Bennett’s Wallaby spotted!

Yesterday I posted our Mammals Hit List of critters we hope to see in Tassie.  Amongst them is the Bennett’s (a.k.a. Red-necked) Wallaby.  However I’m pleased to report that we have already seen them in the wild, and without subjecting ourselves to all the tiresome discomfort and humiliation that is the lot of the international air traveller.  Bennett’s Wallabies are alive and well, and living in the north of the Isle of Man.

We were there in July 2016, staying close to the Curraghs Wildlife Park, and on a couple of trips to the local nature reserve we saw up to eight wallabies going about their business, including this fine specimen.

bennetts-wallaby-iom

PHOTO CREDIT: jpotto All Rights Reserved

The wallabies are thought to have been at large in the Isle of Man since 1989, and are doing well.   Good on yer, cobbers!

 

Snake in the grass

Julie gave me a bollocking the other day.  Nothing unusual in that, of course, except the subject matter.  “When were you going to tell me that Flinders Island is groaning at the seams with snakes?  AND the snakes have ticks, what have you got to say about that?”

“It’s news to me,” I replied, but I don’t think she believed me.  You see, I have form.

Julie loves critters and birds as much as me, but she draws the line at things that crawl, slither and scuttle.  So is it any surprise that a few years ago, when we were wandering through the Costa Rican countryside, I failed to mention that a red-kneed tarantula the size of a saucer was about to walk across her boot?  I mean, what’s a man to do, she might have panicked if I’d mentioned it.  So I didn’t, but she glanced down, spotted the enormous arachnid and panicked anyway.

A few days later we were staying at an isolated lodge in the south of Costa Rica.  Julie was still outside when I unlocked our cabin and spotted a scorpion looking up at me.  We eyed each other cautiously.  Then with a shrug of his handsomely armoured shoulders he waved his stinging tail nonchalantly in my general direction before squeezing himself between two floorboards and disappearing out of sight.  I had to think quickly, Julie was approaching, should I tell her that for the next three days we’d be sharing a bedroom with a scorpion?  Quickly concluding that life’s too short for that sort of conversation I decided to say nothing, and just take sensible precautions.

It wasn’t until we’d left for San Jose that I asked if she hadn’t thought it a little odd that I’d suggested we leave our shoes on the top shelf of a bookcase overnight.  She looked at me quizzically, then asked if there was anything I thought she should know.  I took a deep breath and ’fessed up.  I have to say that the next few minutes did not go well for me, nor have I been allowed to forget my indiscretion in the years since the great scorpion cover-up.

It is little surprise, therefore, that Julie was not convinced that I, a notorious admirer of snakes and other reptiles, had not known of Flinders Island’s little secret.  But I didn’t, honest.

Simon Watharow’s 2012 blog on A Trip to Flinders Island reveals all.  He says,

Wildlife on this island is surprisingly large and very diverse with some notable Tasmanian endemic species, Tasmanian Wombat, Cape Barren Geese (and Green Parrots).  Two extremely important factors make this island a haven: no foxes and no rabbits [though] unfortunately there are feral cats, rodents and pigs.  Flinders Island has 150 species of birds, 16 native mammals including Flinders Island’s unique sub‐species of Wombat (Vombatus ursinus ursinus) once found throughout the Bass Strait Islands but now restricted to Flinders Island, 12 species of reptiles and 6 frogs recorded

Watharow, an enthusiastic ‘herp’ (herpetologist, student of reptiles) describes five types of skink, two other lizards, and three species of snake: Lowland Copperhead, White Lipped Snake and Tasmanian Tiger Snake.  I hope we see a few of these on our trip, especially one of the snakes.

The snake is a grossly misunderstood critter, persecuted worldwide as a result of ignorance and fear.  But it too has a role to play, and just like the more appealing and amiable Wombat deserves its place in the sun.  DH Lawrence wrote an insightful poem about the relationship between man and snake; please read it and reflect.

Tasmania: challenging stereotypes about Australia

Terry Pratchett’s novel The Last Continent is not about Australia.  We know this for sure because in the foreword he says “this is not a book about Australia.”  On the other hand, would you take at face value the words of a man who did irony for a living for over 30 years?

Early in The Last Continent Sir Terry treats us to an excerpt from the diary of inept wizard Rincewind, who is lost in the vast, forbidding land of Terror Incognita.  Here is Rincewind’s account of six days in his wretched life:

Probably Tuesday: hot, flies.  Dinner: honey ants.  Attacked by honey ants.  Fell into waterhole.

Wednesday, with any luck: hot, flies.  Dinner: either bush raisins or kangaroo droppings.  Chased by hunters, don’t know why.  Fell into waterhole.

Thursday (could be):  hot, flies.  Dinner: blue-tongued lizard.  Savaged by blue-tongued lizard.  Chased by different hunters.  Fell off cliff, bounced into tree, pissed on by small grey incontinent teddy bear, landed in waterhole.

Friday: hot, flies.  Dinner, some kind of roots which tasted like sick.  This saved time.

Saturday: hotter than yesterday, extra flies.  V thirsty.

Sunday: hot.  Delirious with thirst and flies.  Nothing but nothing as far as the eye can see, with bushes in it.  Decided to die, collapsed, fell down sand dune into waterhole.

Plainly Terry Pratchett didn’t take his inspiration from Tasmania which has way too much rain to match this description, while the small grey teddy bears – incontinent or otherwise – are notable by their absence.  As for the flies, I’ll report back later.

The thing about Tassie is that it’s not much like the rest of Australia.  The typical Briton’s image of Australia is in tune with Rincewind’s observations, all sand, heat, enormous distances and bugger-all in the landscape except things that will do you harm.  But Tassie isn’t like that: it’s smaller, cooler and rainier that the mainland, and about 30% of it is given over to national parks or some other form of protection.  It has a temperate rainforest for God’s sake and sounds like a place where I could feel at home, though it does have its fair share of things that will do you harm including the infamous dunny spider.

I’ve always thought that Australia would be hard work, and Sir Terry has done nothing to dissuade me of that view.  Tasmania however sounds like my sort of place.  We’re due there in 44 days: I can hardly wait.

Postscript:  The late, great Terry Pratchett was one of the funniest and most gifted writers in the English language.  His books came from so far out of left field that it seemed like he was playing a different game from the rest of us, a game in which it is a self-evident truth that orang-utans make the best librarians, a game in which Death rides a horse called Binky and has a soft spot for cats.  He is sorely missed by those of us who believe that we all take ourselves too seriously.  If you’re not familiar with the man and his unique take on reality read about him here.

 

Wombat poo: the shocking truth

Every evening, if we get home from work in time, we watch The Chase on ITV 2.  The quizmaster asks contestants a question, then offers them the choice of three answers and not much time to choose between them.  Just  now, as I was upstairs getting changed, I heard a whoop of triumph from the kitchen.  “There was a question on wombats, and I nailed it” says Julie.

“Tell me more,” I respond.

“Well, the question was, ‘what’s unusual about wombat droppings?’ and I had a choice of (a) they’re a delicacy, (b) they’re pink, or (c) they’re cube-shaped.  And of course, I said they’re cube-shaped.”

Is it any wonder that wombats usually wear a pained expression and walk with a limp?  And isn’t good to know that a university education and a subscription to the BBC Wildlife Magazine pays such handsome dividends?

If we are lucky enough to see some wombat poo in Tassie I promise to get Julie to take a photo so I can post it on this blog.  Until then, here’s a cute photo of the King Of Cubes, courtesy of Creative Commons.  Look carefully at the image and you can just see his eyes are watering.  No surprise there, I reckon.

File:Wombat 3.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: By Julian Berry (http://www.flickr.com/photos/julianjb/463699422/) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Hollywood comes to Tassie

A few days ago, to get us in the mood for our trip, we watched the 2011 movie The Hunter.  William Dafoe gets top billing, but the Tasmanian landscape is the star of the show.  This is our most in-depth exposure so far to the island we will visit for a month, and it lives up to expectations.  Remote and rugged wilderness is the order of the day, a sparsely populated landscape of desolate grandeur that looks well worth the visit … though not without decent rainwear and stout shoes.

Having said all that, the plot is contrived.  Sure there are folk who believe the Tasmanian Tiger is still alive, out there in the vast wastelands thumbing its nose at a society that, conventional wisdom tells us, drove it to extinction some 80 years ago.  I desperately want to believe it too, but I can’t quite make that leap of faith.  But it’s even more difficult to believe in a shadowy and powerful multi-national biotech company hiring hunters to find the last surviving tiger and kill it for the inadequately explained and frankly implausible commercial opportunities inherent in its DNA.  I think not.

And, ultimately, for someone who believes mankind must live in harmony with nature, respecting rather than destroying it, this is a film that depresses more than it impresses.  Its conclusion appears to be that from here on in things can only get worse. 

As an insight into the greed and lawlessness of the global economy and faceless men who control it, the Hunter works to a degree but lacks subtlety.   As entertainment it just doesn’t cut it for me: even though Dafoe puts in a decent performance, the cinematography is excellent and the Tasmanian landscapes are revealed in all their glory, I find little pleasure in a movie that offers me no hope, in a world in which good guys win only pyrrhic victories and the bad guys win the wars.

Given that I’m about to visit the land in which it was filmed I’m truly glad that I watched the Hunter last week.  I won’t ever watch it again.  

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.”

File:Tasmania logging 10 Styx Devastation.jpg

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.