A perfect day

(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:

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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.

tasmania-maria-island-cruise-isle-des-phoque-2016-55As 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.

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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:

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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:

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(3)  The Little Prince 

tasmania-maria-island-pademelon-2016-1From 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.

tasmania-maria-island-wombat-2016-14A 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:

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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.

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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:

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… and then close to the equally impressive and improbable Painted Cliffs:

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(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.

[4 December]

All creatures great and small

tasmania-forester-kangaroo-drive-2016-108We drive north from St Helen’s to the Mount William National Park, 14,000 hectares set aside to protect beautiful scenery and a wealth of interesting wildlife.  In particular we’re heading for the Forester Kangaroo Drive, so you can guess what we’re hoping to see.  Our hopes rise when we spot this this sign all over the place as we enter the Park.

Having said that, similar signs normally depicting wallabies, but sometimes wombats, Devils or even echidnas, are everywhere in Tassie.  This reflects the fact that conflicts between wildlife and motor vehicles are commonplace, and driving in some areas you come across roadkill literally every few metres.  The sad thing about Tasmanian wildlife is that it’s often not alive at all by the time we get to see it.  Partly this is because most of the critters are nocturnal and therefore difficult to spot on the road, but it’s also a result of what one might best describe as the cavalier night-time driving habits of many Tasmanians.

The Mount William National Park was originally set up to protect the island’s last remaining population of Forester Kangaroos.  All the other populations in Tasmania were wiped out by settlers in the early nineteenth century – the Forester Kangaroos we saw at Narawntapu National Park are there as the result of a reintroduction programme in 1975.  The Forester Kangaroo Drive traverses large areas of coastal heathland, open grassy plains and dry woodland:

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Thankfully the Kangaroo Drive lives up to its billing and we’re pleased to get views of several individuals, though none of them particularly close:

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It’s also good to re-acquaint ourselves with some old friends: this King of Cubes is out and about, foraging happily and apparently unaware that he’s supposed to be nocturnal:

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We’re also pleased to see this echidna giving the local ants and grubs a hard time:

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But Mount William National Park also gives us a chance to make some new friends, including this Banded Plover:

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We stop to eat lunch at the Stumpys Bay campground and quickly find ourselves surrounded by dragonflies:

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As we leave after just a few hours we reflect on a what has been a great visit.  The area of the National Park covered by the Kangaroo Drive is all but deserted – we saw was one other visitor car and a couple of workmen in the campground – but was teeming with wildlife.  Most definitely it’s our sort of place.

[2 December]

Kangaroo!

We’ve been in Australia a whole month, and so far the only kangaroos we’ve seen have been at the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary.  Today, however, we break our duck when we visit the Narawntapu National Park, which is somewhat fancifully known as the Serengeti of Tasmania.

We’ve seen so many wallabies on this trip that they’ve become familiar to us.  But would we be able to distinguish the Forester Kangaroo from them when the chips are down?  It’s all very well to say that kangaroos are much bigger animals, but it’s not as simple as it sounds when you get only a fleeting glimpse or when you are some distance away.

As it happens, it isn’t a problem.  We have barely entered the park when I spot an animal that is so much larger than the wallabies we’ve been seeing that it can only be a Forester Kangaroo.  They are BIG animals, nearly half as big again as most of the wallabies we’ve seen.  Also their rear legs are much longer than a wallaby’s, perfectly adapted for high-speed bounding across open country.  And wow do they bound along, springing huge distances apparently without effort:

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We see several kangaroos during our time at Narawntapu, though mostly only at a distance, and lots wallabies and pademelons too.  We also enjoy this flooded patch of forest, which reminds us of swamplands in the Deep South of the USA and is not at all what we’d expected to find here in Tasmania:

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The sad news is there has been an outbreak of sarcoptic mange amongst the wombats in the park.  Narawntapu is known as one of those places where wombats are easy to spot, even in broad daylight.  However not today.  The mange that is afflicting them is the same as scabies in humans, caused by parasitic mites that burrow into the skin resulting in hair loss, thickening and cracking of skin, and secondary infections that are usually fatal.  Wombats are endearing animals that we have grown very fond of, and we’re sad to learn that at least 90% of the park’s population has been wiped out.

[30 November]

We’ll meet again …

I’m writing this in a hotel room in downtown Melbourne while catching up with last week’s episode of The Archers on BBC iPlayer.  Outside it’s bloody noisy, a constant roar of traffic intermingled with bursts of shouting and raucous (probably drunken?) laughter.  God, how I hate city centres.

This will be my last post before I get back to the UK (we set off for the airport tomorrow morning) but I will continue this account of our travels on my return.  I’m almost two weeks behind with my posts and there’s a lot still to tell … including how our trip nearly came to an abrupt end on Flinders Island a couple of days ago.  Plainly all is now well, but for a few hours things got pretty hairy.  Want to know more?  Then keep reading Platypus Pandemonium, where posts will continue until around the end of December.

Meanwhile, just to keep you interested, here’s another cute wombat photo:

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[10 December]

 

All hail the King of Cubes

Every trip has a bogey-bird or bogey-critter, something that should be easy to see but turns out to be elusive.

In the first half of our trip to Tassie, the King of Cubes was looking like a bogey-critter. We thought wombats would be everywhere, we expected to be tripping over them, but it was not to be.  Of course we had seen (and indeed stroked) the orphan wombat at Bonorong Sanctuary, but that doesn’t really count.  And we managed to see one in near darkness at Pumphouse Point, but the views and the photos were disappointing.  Other than those two encounters, and the occasional bit of wombat poo, we’d seen nothing.

All that changed at Cradle Mountain. Here, by late afternoon, wombats were all over the place begging to be photographed.  And of course Mrs P was happy to oblige, firing off more than 250 photos in the course of two viewing sessions spread across a couple of days.  For example:

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and:

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and:

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God bless digital photography! …

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The best moment was when Mrs P was sitting on a slightly raised boardwalk to give her a different angle on the wombat she was snapping. The King of Cubes wasn’t bothered, engrossed as he was in nibbling grass.

The best grass, it seemed, was closer to Mrs P so he approached, unconcerned by her frantic clicking. Closer and closer he came, doggedly pursuing the most succulent blades.  They were, it seemed, right between my wife’s legs; she did the splits, while still sitting and snapping, and the wombat inched forward.

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But one of her legs was in the way, so with a deft shimmy of his shoulders he nudged it to one side so he could continue to browse unimpeded.  It was an amazing sight, and for Mrs P an unforgettable experience to be so close to a wild animal that was totally unafraid of her.

The views of the King of Cubes were certainly worth waiting for. They are, without doubt, one of the cutest critters you could ever hope to encounter, a bit like a small tubby teddy bear, or maybe a miniature hairy hippo.  The great sightings we had at Cradle Mountain more than made up for the earlier disappointments.  What an animal.  All hail the King of Cubes.

[28 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.

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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.

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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]

A critter-fest at Bonorong

tasmania-bonorong-2016-94Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary is a key player in the ongoing effort to maintain a viable captive population of Tasmanan Devils that can be released back into the wild as and when the threat from the highly contagious Devil Facial Tumour Disease has been contained. In the wild Devils are strictly nocturnal, but the keeper tempted this one out of his den with the offer of a dead chick.  It was wolfed down ravenously.

Bonorong looks after sick and injured animals from all over Tasmania with a view to ultimately releasing them back into the wild once they have recovered. We were pleased to meet this young wombat, who is an orphan.  She is recovering well, and is due to be released in about a year from now.

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Bonorong also has some koalas on site. Koalas are not native to Tasmania, but Bonorong was asked to take on some from Kangaroo Island in South Australia.  These had to be removed to help manage an overpopulation problem amongst the koalas there.  This guy is called Bert, and he is very cute and very, very sleepy … koalas have to sleep for about 20 hours a day so that their systems can cope with the toxins in the eucalyptus leaves that are their staple diet.

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We hadn’t realised before that koalas are closely related to wombats, and when you study that them closely the similarities are obvious. However one lives in trees and the other on the ground.  Also, the koala is as thick as two short planks (a brain about the size of a walnut, apparently) whereas the wombat, which is regarded as the mastermind of the marsupial world, is only as thick as one short plank.  Both, however, are as cute as hell, and who needs brains anyway when you can make friends and influence people just by being unbelievably cuddly?

There are also a number of Eastern Grey Kangaroos bounding around the grounds at Bonorong. However it was hot today, and for some of them bounding was just too much bother.

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[17 November]