May 16, 2012

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 hangs out. 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 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 you would expect; and there was the usual high standard of information available in the national parks.

Our learning 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 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/hydroelectric power generators. 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 not prepared, 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

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 hasn't been seen for 70 years to 'comfortably represent and embrace much that is Tasmanian'. Tourism Tasmania's logo says it all.

There are some people in Tasmania who believe, and doubtless many more who hope, that the Thylacine still exists – in the remotest corners of the island's impenetrable southwestern wilderness. 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.



  1. A great lesson of English (although a tad confusing). Almost philosophical :-)

    Tasmanian devils and wombats are so cute!

  2. You comments about clear felling fall very close to my heart. I am a Tassie girl, born and bred. No matter where I am or end up I will always be a Tassie girl - it's that kind of place, seeping into your very being.

    Growing up in Launceston my family and I travelled to Devonport (the turn off to Cradle mountain is on this road) every two or three weeks to spend time with close friends. Apart from the odd town such as Hagley or Deloraine, the landscape as viewed from the back seat of the station wagon was fertile farming land (the earth turning a rich red the closer you came to Devonport) and vast eucalypt forests. I moved away after Uni and it was a good while until I managed to travel this road again. My heart sank when I saw the devastation and destruction of what was once beautiful when I returned. On the stretch of road past Deloraine heading toward Epping Forest lies one of the most shocking and appalling spectacles of human destruction from commercial tree felling I have ever come across. On the most travelled road in Northern Tasmania it is in your face, plain for all to see (and as it covers thousands of hectares - there's heaps that you can't see!).

    Tasmania promotes itself as a green state and relies heavily of the tourist dollar to bring much needed revenue to its tiny economy. Does anyone but me see the irony in this hypocrisy? I just don't think the people living on my favourite island state actually realise how special and how unique this little piece of paradise at the bottom of Oz is. Or is it just down to money and greed? Sadly, as with many other places in the world, this is the most likely reason. The blame lies squarely with Gunns Timber, past state government and tax schemes associated with forestry. Gunns Timber started as a family owned company and proceeded to thrive and prosper on Tassie's forests at the consent and encouragement of the Tasmanian government (thank goodness the GFC came along because that is the only thing that saved the Tamar River from the same fate). In prosperous times, investors lined up to reap tax benefits associated with forestry investments. A number of farmers also figured it was way easier to plant a heap of pine trees than continue to battle deflating milk, cattle and produce prices. Yes, greed is probably the cause.

    One final comment from the Taswegan - 'Pinus radiata is not the only tree in the world'. Try planting a Huon Pine, King Billy, Myrtle or She Oak. Or even eucalyptus species, not to cut down, but to help restore some of the natural beauty and ecosystem that once was.

  3. Your comments are very interesting: the only other Tassie-born person I know argues for jobs, not trees. Having been to see Tasmania for myself, I would find it hard to debate with him now. I won't forget how I felt as I surveyed the devastation. I can't recall many things sadder than the broken remains of once tall-standing trees? And the extent of it was shocking.
    I fear for the Tarkine and the southwest, unless the reassessment of our global economic system that is inevitably coming saves these regions from mining and yet more tree-felling.