A Travellerspoint blog

A walk on the wild side

Travels in Tasmania

sunny 20 °C

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“Stop!” I hissed through clenched teeth, my eyes never leaving the black, scaly tail ahead of us. Every muscle in my body was tingling, I didn’t dare breathe. Brilliant plan, moving to a country filled with venomous snakes, just brilliant. “What do we do now?”

The trail was barely wide enough for one person to stand abreast, overgrown with scraggly, chest-high brush. For all I knew, we could have fifteen angry snakes on either side. “Looks like a copperhead, they’re pretty chill,” Marcus whispered from behind me, with less-than-convincing confidence. “Maybe make some noise, let him move off?” We stomped and rattled bushes hesitantly for a moment, then paused to watch and listen again. I could just see the front half of the metre-long dark, scaly body. It slowly turned in our direction.

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“That’s NOT a copperhead!” I squawked, moving and breathing as little as possible. “That’s a #$#%ing Tiger!” Tiger snakes are the world’s fourth most venomous and are notorious for being curious and territorial, particularly during the breeding season. And, apparently, attracted by rattling bushes.

“It’s coming this way! You said it would be scared, WHY is it coming this way?!” My whisper had risen to a panicked squeak and I was now attempting to flatten myself against Marcus and the bushes behind me without moving my feet.

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Australian Tiger snake, photo courtesy of DPIWE, Government of Tasmania

We could only catch glimpses of it through the scrub as it undulated closer and closer, until its scaly form emerged precariously near the toe of my boot. My throat closed around my heart as the seconds dragged by. As quickly as it had appeared, it turned and moved away through the brush.

Now I am not generally afraid of snakes. As a kid I caught my share of garter snakes, and I’m happy to pat pythons and embrace boa constrictors. There is just something entirely different about venomous snakes, something deep and instinctive that gets my heart racing and sets my nerves tingling even before I’ve consciously identified a snake’s presence. A few million years’ worth of evolution saying, “Dude, stay away from that,” I’d venture to guess.

That said, once I recovered from the shock, I felt privileged to have seen such a powerful and elusive creature in the wild. Despite their toxic venom, tiger snakes bite few people each year and kill very rarely, they don’t deserve an evil or dangerous reputation. Given every opportunity, they will generally leave you alone, and you should do the same. The image of that snake at my boot is burned into my memory and still sends a shiver down my spine, but I’m glad to know that he’s out there somewhere, happily snacking on potoroos. After all, it just wouldn’t be Australia if it wasn’t full of venomous snakes.

Aussie slang of the week: rough as guts (adj., uncouth), yobbo (redneck), just a titch (only a little), ‘Struth! (exclamation, abbr: ‘it’s the truth!’)

Posted by JuliaInOz 20.10.2009 11:20 Archived in Australia Comments (1)

The hidden southland

Travels in Tasmania

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Charming country towns are scattered between sprawling, eucalypt-dotted pastures. Colossal sandstone cliffs shelter sparkling bays and white-sand beaches. Vast primordial forests conceal giant tree ferns, hot springs, and spectacular waterfalls. There is nowhere in the world like Tasmania, and you can’t help but fall in love with it.

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Waterfall in Mt Field National Park, Tasmania

After six weeks in the complete isolation of my field site, autumn found me footloose and more than ready to hit the road. You hear little about Tassie on the mainland, and even less about Hobart, so I really wasn’t expecting anything special. Coming from the airport at sunset, however, I was shocked into open-mouthed wonder as a glowing panorama unfolded below me. Nestled in a valley on the glassy-calm bay, Hobart is a relatively small, sleepy city, but hosts some gorgeous scenery, excellent food, and fun local pubs.

While in Hobart we stopped to visit the Sea Shepherd’s Steve Irwin (circa Whale Wars), docked for repairs after a season of chasing Japanese whalers around the Antarctic. The crew was kind enough to give us a tour onboard. It was fascinating to learn about this radical approach to conservation, but I don’t think I’ll be joining up anytime soon. Though the Sea Shepherd does important work in drawing attention to the unsustainable slaughter of marine mammals, I would prefer to stick to conservation methods that don’t endanger my life or the lives of others (including the whalers).

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My favourite part of road trips is taking random detours. For example, who can see “Trout Fishing Museum” on a map and not feel inclined to prove its existence? Or resist a sprawling model of Old Town Hobart, in miniature, for that matter? Certainly not I.

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Those gems aside, the true treasures of Tassie are the extensive and pristine native bushlands. Our journey took us through the lowland rainforests of waterfall-studded Mt Field National Park, home to descendants of some of the world’s first tree-like plants, the tree ferns. They make the landscape feel so ancient and foreign that I wouldn’t have been the least surprised to find a velociraptor lurking behind one.

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From there we made our way to the southernmost point of Tasmania (and Australia), where we camped and took a day bushwalk along the South Coast Track to South Cape Bay, another remarkable vista.

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In a way, Tassie's hidden beauty reminded me most of home in Oregon. You can't go without being shocked and amazed that the rest of the world isn't clamoring to get there. You want to share the wonder of it, but at the same time you hesitate to let the secret out and lose the wonderful sense of solitude that these still-wild places grace you with. I suppose it's a bit late now to lie and tell you what a terrible place Tasmania is. Awful. Horrible. Ugly. Full of snakes. You don't want to go there. Well, the bit about the snakes is true, anyway.

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Posted by JuliaInOz 05.10.2009 15:50 Archived in Australia Comments (1)

Platypuses, Gliders, and Bilbies, oh my!

Behind the scenes at Healesville Sanctuary

overcast 17 °C

Small ripples broke the calm of the dark, watery enclosure as we peered cautiously through the back door. “Milson!” The keeper called impatiently. We held our breath as a dim shape glided slowly towards us. Small, beady eyes glared at us as it slipped out of the water and waddled up the bank in our direction.

“There you are!” The keeper reached in and swept him up by the thick, beaver-like tail, wrapping him in a towel. “This is Milson, one of our platypuses. Go ahead and pat him.”

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The platypus has to be one of the strangest creatures on the planet, looking a bit like a beaver’s failed attempt to swallow a duck; mammals that very peculiarly lay eggs then nurse the hatchlings, and use electro-receptors to forage under water. I find them best described by the phrase “What the f&@%, mate?”

A leathery bill closed around my finger, worrying it with surprising ferocity for a creature you could fit in shoebox. “You’re cute, mate, but it’s a bit hard to be fierce without teeth,” I said, patting the platypus fondly with the hand he wasn’t using a chew-toy.

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The keeper smiled slyly, “Well, he’s actually just trying to get your hand in reach of his venomous spurs.”

“Oh.” I quickly withdrew both hands. Why is it that even the adorable, furry things in Australia have to be perilous? Male platypuses have spurs on their back ankles that hold a powerful venom which short-circuits pain receptors. It won’t kill you, just make you wish you were dead. In some cases even morphine can’t relieve the excruciating pain that can last for months. As ‘spurred by a platypus’ was not on my list of desired Australian adventures, we finished our careful patting and bade Milson a fond farewell.

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Venom spurs

My mate Marcus worked at Healesville Sanctuary before moving to Phillip Island and kindly offered to take myself and Ilka, a German post-doc penguin researcher, along for the grand tour. After being gnawed on by a platypus I felt like the luckiest kid in the world (mostly in the joyful sense, but with a little ‘lucky-I’ve-escaped-with-my-life’ thrown in), from there it just got more amazing.

Healesville is home only to native Australian fauna. Many of its residents are rescued animals that couldn’t be returned to the wild, or threatened species kept for conservation and captive-breeding programs. They also have a remarkably visitor-interactive, nationally renowned wildlife hospital on site that welcomes all injured wildlife, great and small.

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Spoonbill

In the reptile house we met gorgeous Chantilly the Lace Monitor (pun intended), as well as a mother python incubating her eggs, and were quite happy to observe the deadly Taipans and Tiger snakes from behind a thick layer of glass.

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Marcus and Chantilly the Lace monitor

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Incubating python

From there we made our way to the Nocturnal House, where we were lucky enough to catch keeper James at his feeding rounds. We hung bits of raw chicken from tree branches to give the spotted quoll a bit of a workout for his dinner. A rabbit-sized bilby snuffled mealworms out of my palm while Ilka dangled a dead mouse for a tawny frogmouth to swallow in one gulp. Funny enough, there’s actually been a movement in Australia to celebrate the “Easter Bilby” instead of encouraging a fondness for the highly invasive and damaging rabbit.

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Bilby Photo courtesy of the Australian government (environment.gov.au)

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Ilka and a Ringtail possum

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Tawny frogmouth

I found myself standing in a dusky, red-lit enclosure staring up at two jet-black, raccoon-sized furballs with huge eyes, large, bat-like ears and long tails. The gliders stared back hesitantly, radiating a sense of “We’re not coming down unless you show us the goods.” I held out a dish of nectar enticingly and they warily clambered down to head height, sniffed, then promptly grabbed the dish (and my fingers) in their needle-sharp claws and buried their faces in the syrupy snack. These incredible critters can soar through forest canopy using only the loose folds of skin connecting their elbows and ankles.

Just before we were shooed out for closing we got to meet an orphaned echidna puggle! They only feed once every five days and spend the rest of their time buried in a makeshift burrow, so we were incredibly fortunate to catch it. The adorable little grapefruit-sized bundle just had his spikes coming in, so he was a little prickly to hold but well worth the trouble.

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Not too many people can say they’ve been pricked by a puggle, snuffled by a bilby, or gnawed by a platypus. By far this was one of the most incredible days I have had in my life, and certainly one of my most memorable Australian experiences.

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Posted by JuliaInOz 22.04.2009 21:22 Archived in Australia Tagged animal Comments (0)

Pillars of smoke

sunny 20 °C

In every direction I turned an expanse of white-capped water greeted me. I sighed. There wouldn’t be any boats for a few days at least. The ocean is a fickle master, and Bass Strait in particular is not known for its kind temperament. My gaze caught on a peculiar cloud rising above the nearest landfall, Wilsons Promontory, and my stomach plummeted. I cursed and raced for the satellite phone.

“The Prom is burning.”

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By sunset I’d been through the fire plan three times with my supervisor, then repeatedly with my volunteers. At the least sign of trouble we were to grab food, water, and warm clothing, make a dash to the rocky haven of the seal colony, then call for a chopper. An island is both the best and worst place to be facing a bushfire. We were protected on all sides by several kilometres of open water that could only be circumvented by windblown embers. Unfortunately high winds were lighting spot fires all over Australia, sending embers six, eight, ten km from the nearest fire line. We were also trapped on a small rock covered in knee high, drought-stricken tussock grass that would burn quick as a rat up a rope.

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Darkness fell and the clouds were lit with an ominous orange glow. We were left to wait anxiously for the wind to change. Growing up in the temperate Oregon rain forest, I’d never before felt that instinctive, gnawing fear in the pit of my stomach, but it became a familiar companion. A night stretched into days, then a week. We tracked billowing pillars of smoke as they crawled from one side of the Prom to the other and back again, watched as the wind daubed the horizon with a dirty brown smear, and occasionally choked on the acrid tinge of burning gum trees. Each morning when the sun broke through the smoky haze, it would set the entire sky aflame.

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The fire burned more than 25,000 hectares, nearly half of Wilsons Promontory National Park. The southern point nearest to us was the only coast untouched by the flames. Thanks to the brave and tireless actions of Parks employees and firefighters from around Australia, the fire was contained without any loss of life or major structural damage. Three weeks after I watched that first cloud of smoke rise we cruised along the smoldering, devastated ruin of a coastline, finally on our way home. Life in the bush can be filled with awe-inspiring moments of beauty and serenity, but it is the occasional reminder of the sheer, violent power of nature that makes the strongest impression.

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This year’s bushfires were some of the worst Australia has experienced in the last two centuries. Few people in Victoria were untouched by the horrific swath of destruction they brought, taking homes, friends, colleagues, family members. Nearly two hundred lives were lost. The remarkable outpouring of sympathy and support from within Australia as well as from around the world has been a powerful reminder of what a unified global community we have created.

(Support for the victims of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires can be donated through the Australian Red Cross: http://www.redcross.org.au/vic/services_emergencyservices_victorian-bushfires-appeal-2009.htm)

Posted by JuliaInOz 30.03.2009 14:23 Archived in Australia Comments (1)

Phillip Island on the Today Show

The Today Show did an excellent little clip on the Nature Park and our penguins this week (yes, those same little buggers that insist on biting me in the most inconvenient places!).

Check it out:
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21134540/vp/27765697#27765697

Posted by JuliaInOz 19:24 Archived in Australia Comments (1)

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