The edge of the world

Today we take a boat trip up the Arthur River, into the Tarkine rainforest. The Tarkine is a cause celebre for Tasmanian conservationists, who are determined to see it protected.  It is named after the local tribe of aborigines who lived in the area at the time of the first European explorers, and is now said to be the most pristine example of rainforest left in Tassie.  The Arthur is one of Tasmania’s seven major rivers, and is unique because it’s the only one that has been neither logged nor dammed.  Conservationists want to keep it that way.

To start our river cruise we must drive for nearly an hour from Stanley to the remote western corner of Tassie, which officially has the cleanest air of any settlement in the world (the prevailing wind is westerly, so air pollution would have to come from Argentina, half way around the globe). As we approach the town of Arthur River we start to pick up signs telling us we are in Tasmanian Devil country, where un-diseased animals still roam free.  We are therefore urged to drive with particular care.  However the Devils are nocturnal and will be safely tucked up in bed on this cool November morning.

tasmania-arthur-river-edge-of-the-world-2016-5

We press on, and reach the wharf ahead of schedule. The boat captain is still setting up so he suggests we nip along the road to the Edge of the World.  If you were to sail due west from this rocky coastal promontory you would not hit land again until you reached Chile.  It is a lonely place today, bleak and cold in a buffeting wind.

The Edge of the World is also the mouth of the Arthur River, and as we look at the shoreline we see a tangle of logs and branches, the bleached bones of trees torn from the ground and washed downriver in the terrible storms that hit Tassie a few months ago.  The locals say they’ve never seen such carnage, so many skeletons on the beach.

tasmania-arthur-river-edge-of-the-world-2016-6

This is a dark, brooding, timeless place. On a small stone cairn is a poem by Brian Inder, who was plainly inspired by the Edge of the World.  The poem, which we later discover is also reproduced in the boat taking us up the Arthur River, reads as follows:

I cast my pebble onto the shore of Eternity

To be washed by the Ocean of Time

It has shape, form and substance.

It is me

One day I will be no more

But my pebble will remain here

On the shore of Eternity

Mute witness for the aeons

That today I came and stood

At the edge of the world.

We return to the boat and board with a dozen or so other people, and soon we are cruising upriver.

tasmania-arthur-river-cruise-2016-1

We are being watched.  White-bellied Sea Eagles know that a couple of dead fish will be tossed into the river from this boat to entice them down.  One plays his part to perfection, swooping down from his vantage point high in the trees, grabbing a fish from the water with sharp talons and flying off triumphantly with his trophy.  Cameras click appreciatively.

tasmania-arthur-river-white-tailed-eagle-2016-57

The eagle’s mate however is nowhere to be seen, so the fish is retrieved in a net and will be offered up again when we return downriver a few hours from now.

We continue to head upriver at a leisurely pace, the captain at the intercom telling us about the luxuriant vegetation all around us, and sharing stories of the men who lived, and loved and died on the river in the old days.

tasmania-arthur-river-cruise-2016-19

After a couple of hours we tie up at Turk’s landing, Turk being one of those old-timers who called this place home. The captain takes us on a short guided walk through a section of rainforest, naming and explaining the various species of tree.  Meanwhile the other two crew members prepare a barbecue in a small clearing.

While we eat a pademelon hangs around, begging pieces of lettuce and other scraps.

tasmania-arthur-river-cruise-2016-53

She has a joey in her pouch, though he mostly keeps his head down and is difficult to see.   Just occasionally we catch a glimpse:

tasmania-arthur-river-cruise-2016-56

Her older son also makes himself known.  He’s left the pouch now and should be away by himself, making his own way in the world.  But he knows a good thing when he sees one, and tourists with lettuce to spare fall into the category so he stays around looking hopeful and is rewarded for his cheek.

All too soon the barbecue is over, the pademelons disappear into the undergrowth and we must start on the return trip, immersing ourselves once again in the utter peace and tranquillity of the Tarkine rainforest.

[26 November]

Reflections of a Platypus Man (part 2)

Our accommodation in Geeveston is a fine period building. It’s one of the oldest buildings in town, and dates from around 1870:

img_0509
img_0507We didn’t know when we first booked our trip that the B&B is only a few metres from a small river that boasts plenty of platypus.  The locals are justly proud of this and have even built a special platypus viewing platform, overlooking the river, which can be seen in this photo:

This morning, before breakfast, we pull on our clothes and hurry down to the river to try our luck.  Almost immediately we spot a familiar brown shape with what looks like a duck’s bill, on the surface of the water and paddling fast downstream.  We scan around carefully and spot a second platypus a little further away, emerging from a burrow in the bank and disappearing into the water.  They continue to entertain us for the next 30 minutes, giving Julie some great photo opportunities such as this:
tasmania-geeveston-platypus-6-2016

Our close encounters of the platypus kind move me to poetry.  The haiku is a strictly disciplined verse structure from Japan.  The poet has at his disposal just 17 syllables split between three lines: the first and third lines must contain just five syllables each, while the second line has seven.  His challenge is to use these three lines and 17 syllables to capture a single moment in time, to distil the essence of an event by stripping out all unnecessary detail.  Simple yet profound is the aim.  Here’s my attempt at condensing our experience today:

Swimming fast downstream

Improbable platypus

Hunting water-bugs

Brief and to the point, I think.  Very Zen.

[13 November]

 

 

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.

File:Eastern Grey Kangaroo Young Waiting.JPG

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.

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.