Tasmania: the beautiful and damned
Tasmania felt different from mainland Australia; almost like another country. Apart from around Launceston and along a stretch of the north coast from Devonport to Wynyard, there seemed to be hardly any people: admittedly, we didn't visit Hobart where half the island's population lives. Only Wineglass Bay had too many tourists. All roads were blissfully empty (and better maintained than we're used to).
Some beaches, especially in the Bay of Fires and on the Freycinet Peninsula, were contenders for the Best in Australia list. And the clarity of the water was as good as in New Zealand; that is to say, the cleanest, clearest seawater I have ever seen. The sand was the whitest; the sea the most turquoise. And the mountain vistas in the centre were breathtaking.
We ate as well as we have anywhere in Australia; all the local wines we sampled were good and some were excellent; local people were friendly and accommodating, as we would expect; and there was the usual high standard of information available in the national parks.
Our learning of the Australian language continued. We were a bit baffled by the Tasmanian concept of coming and going, and in particular the sign below. This was a door to the outside: can you enter the outside? Or does it mean there'll be no one coming in this way if you're trying to get out? Or, once you go out, you won't be able to get back in? Or, you can't use this door at the moment?
And we were flummoxed one morning when trying to order breakfast at about 9.40. We were told breakfast was 'coming in' in 20 minutes. Er... 10 o'clock was terribly late to serve breakfast, wasn't it? Minutes of confusion later, we realised breakfast was, in fact, going to be cleared away. We were having this conversation with a waitress in the dining room, but maybe she thought she was in the kitchen.
And then there was this, on a beautifully renovated building (in case you were in any doubt what it was).
Did the restorers intend to be rude about those who supported their efforts? Or had they been thwarted by the very same?
There were environmental issues, however, that weren't so funny. I had known, of course, about the battles between Greens/environmental activists and loggers/miners/the Hydro-Electric Commission. After all, Tasmania had the world's first Greens party, formed in 1972 in opposition to the flooding of Lake Pedder in the island's southwest. I was unprepared, however, for my first sight of tree debris in the aftermath of extensive felling. Almost as far as the eye could see. This was on the way to Cradle Mountain, and at the time completely took the edge off the raw beauty of Tasmania's mountainous wilderness. Later, we contrasted old-style timber-getting in the charming little 'village' of Chudleigh (how English), with modern-day methods, in a lay-by down the road near Deloraine.
For those environmental activists not fully employed trying to prevent further old-growth-forest logging and woodchipping, there are mining proposals to tackle. Tin, iron and zinc lie beneath the Tarkine's forests (see also Tasmania's northwest, March 2012). There are currently 59 mining leases and at least ten proposals for opencast mines in what should be a World Heritage Listed area, or at the very least a national park. The Australian government has to apply for World Heritage status but it has been dragging its feet. Pristine forest is already being cleared for tracks and drilling pads. The Wilderness Society is on the case, but it needs all the help it can get. See also here.
Tasmania's wildlife record is nothing to be proud of, either. I recommend Thylacine: the Tragic Tale of the Tasmanian Tiger, by David Owen. This insightful book tells much more than a story of ill-judged slaughter. It chronicles many 'development-versus-conservation clashes' in the state's recent history. And eloquently reflects upon the ability of a creature that allegedly hasn't been seen for 70 years to 'comfortably represent and embrace much that is Tasmanian'. Tourism Tasmania's logo makes his point.
There are some people in Tasmania who believe, and doubtless many more who hope, that the Thylacine still exists – in the island's impenetrable southwestern wilderness and other remote corners. The creature's mystique is intoxicating. If it is indeed extinct, there could be no better legacy than that of lessons learned across the whole Australian continent.
As of 2008, Tasmania's other great icon, the Tasmanian Devil, has been on the endangered list. This carnivorous marsupial, like the Thylacine, was trapped and poisoned by European settlers who believed it ravaged their poultry. Numbers plummeted until Devils were protected under law in 1941, after which they recovered. In the mid-1990s, however, a new threat emerged in the form of Devil Facial Tumour Disease, which is fatal. In the state's northeast there was a 95 per cent reduction in Devil sightings over the next ten years. It took three years to realise that the disease was so destructive because Devils normally have scarred faces from fighting over food. DFTD has now spread three-quarters of the way across the island (the Tarkine's is one of the few disease-free populations). Its origins are unknown but environmental toxins are among the suspects. Now the devils are monitored (captured and examined) and euthanized if they are infected to prevent the spread of the disease. Orphaned joeys are fostered before being released back into the wild.
As if things weren't bad enough, a fox snuck across from Melbourne on the ferry around the turn of the 21st century, and its descendants are in competition with the Devils for food. The Freycinet National Park information office told me cautiously that in the last three or four years Devil numbers have increased on the Peninsula from 12 to 20. Some fear the animal will be extinct within 20 years. I didn't spot a Devil, unfortunately, but here's one I've seen since, in a koala sanctuary in Brisbane. And my T-shirt.
I would like to end on a positive wildlife note...
On our last evening in Tasmania, after our walk by Cradle Mountain and a well-deserved delicious dinner, we returned to the cabin to relax on the deck. I knew something was going to happen before I heard the rustling. We peered down into the undergrowth: it was almost dark. And there were two wombats, mother and young'un; the first we'd seen in the wild. There was no light for a photograph, so here's one I took earlier (also in the koala sanctuary).
And, finally, the words of Henry David Thoreau: 'In wildness is the preservation of the world.' Lest we forget.