Above: Lakeside cabins at Cradle Mountain Lodge.
Going to the ends of the earth to meet Tasmania’s elusive—and endangered—mascot
By Jeff Greenwald
Photographs By Matthieu Paley
There’s always one moment in a journey when the place you’re visiting scrubs off its makeup and shows you its true face. In Tasmania, this moment comes to me late on a Wednesday night, in a wind-lashed fishing shack on the island’s wild northwest coast.
A gale is howling. Outside the single window, a wallaby carcass is staked to the ground. My host, rancher-turned-conservationist Geoff King, lets me know that our hours-long vigil could stretch on for hours more. Then, suddenly, we hear a blood-curdling screech. King pulls back the curtain and peers out, waving me forward. My pulse quickens: it’s not every day I come face-to-face with the devil.
Tasmania, a heart-shaped island about 240 kilometers south of the Australian mainland, is terra incognita for many travelers. But nearly everyone has heard of its most famous resident. The Tasmanian devil—Sarcophilus harrisii—has been the island’s unofficial emblem for generations, and anyone weaned on Looney Tunes will remember the manic, dervish-like creature that first bedeviled Bugs Bunny in the 1950s. Real devils, however, bear little physical resemblance to “Taz,” their cartoon cousin. They’re stocky black marsupials about the size of a small pit bull, with beady eyes, broad heads, snubby snouts, and thick, fatty tails. Shy and nocturnal, they’re also in serious trouble. During the past 12 years, a mysterious cancer epidemic has cut their population by more than half. In May 2008, the status of the devil (which lives only in Tasmania) was changed from vulnerable to endangered.
After hearing that news, I wanted desperately to see one in the wild. And to do that, I needed to travel to the world’s jagged edge.
According to the instruments at the Cape Grim Baseline Air Pollution Station, Tasmania has the cleanest air in the world. I feel it as soon as we drive out of Launceston Airport. The atmosphere has a taste here, a silky texture with hints of honey and lavender. It’s delicious.
I set off with Di Hollister, a Tassie-born guide from the seaside town of Devonport. She’s a compact, vivacious woman who’s done a bit of everything, from shucking abalone to teaching in Vietnam. Di provides a running commentary as we drive west along Tasmania’s northern coast, chatting about local produce (in these parts, raspberries, cheese, and chocolate) and the island’s prodigious botanical wealth, which includes 27 varieties of eucalyptus. Still dizzy from jet lag, I gaze out the window at the passing countryside, mesmerized by the procession of emerald hills and farmlands dotted with sheep.
“What I love about this place,” Di says, “is that I can be up a mountain in the morning in alpine meadows surrounded by trees and animals you can’t find anywhere else—and on an empty beach, swimming, in the afternoon.”
In the historic town of Stanley, first settled in 1826, I discover that the island’s exotic wildlife includes not only the world’s largest crayfish, but also its smallest penguin. Stanley sits on a knob-shaped peninsula beneath a massive volcanic plug called The Nut. Grassy terraces separate The Nut from Bass Strait, and the beach is layered with sharp, black rocks. Sightseeing boats ply these waters, looking for the hundreds of seals that colonize its rocky offshore islets.
On this chill spring night, myriad flashlight beams—filtered with red cellophane—scan the shore. A small troupe of beachcombers tromps through the dark, hoping to watch as tiny, flightless fairy penguins return from the ocean to find their mates.
“Little penguins are not ‘fairy penguins,’ ” growls Peter, the tank-sized Stanley local guiding our expedition. “They’re little penguins.” I don’t argue.
Twenty years ago there were just a handful of little penguins living along this coast. Habitat destruction, especially around the old stone quarry just below The Nut, made digging a burrow virtually impossible. Today, inspired by local innkeepers Graham and Maxine Wells, Stanley’s citizens are helping the birds by hand-building rookeries from the native stones. “From about six pairs when I started in 1989,” Graham tells me, “there are at least 80 to 120 pairs now.”
The life cycle of the little penguin is complicated: a regimen of hard work, monogamous coupling, shared tasks, long spells of near-starvation, and constant squabbling with mates and offspring. But they keep coming back for more. Early every morning, the penguins wobble out to sea. And every dusk they return, their bellies full, along the exact same path.
Tonight it’s windy, and so clear that the Milky Way hovers like a puff of breath above The Nut. At first, all is quiet; it’s a long walk, for a short bird, from ocean to nest. Soon, though, I see my first penguin. It’s not much bigger than a fat seagull, tuxedoed and walking upright. Penguins’ eyes are so sensitive that flash photography can blind them. Our red flashlight beams are harmless, but the 40-centimeter-tall birds are well aware of us. They hesitate, sometimes backtracking a few steps before soldiering on. At one point, there are half a dozen dodging around my feet. I tread with caution, imagining Peter’s wrath if I trip over a penguin.
We watch them disappear into the undergrowth, and hear their shrill greeting calls. Our tour ends in the graveyard, a square of land tacked with crosses bearing the names of the men and women who established Stanley. A few penguins have burrowed beneath the grave of Graham’s uncle.
“And that’s not all,” Graham says. “They’re starting to move into our houses.” He motions toward his yard, where a fully occupied rookery sits beside the vegetable garden. “It’s just a good thing they’re not Emperors.”
Slicing inland from stanley, we drive through a landscape of lush hills and cattle lands separated by tall stands of gum, pine, and myrtle. There are almost no cars, few homes, fewer shops, and no billboards. Kookaburras perch everywhere on the wires. A road sign warns of wombat crossings.
“The reason this part of Tasmania is not heavily settled,” says Di, “is that it’s densely forested, with heavy rainfall. That worked against sheep grazing. People settled here after 1877, when the penal colonies were closed. So they had no convict labor to help clear the land.”
As we drive on, that wilderness gives way to denuded hillsides. Here, the rain forest has been clear-cut. It’s stark evidence that devils aren’t the only local species in danger. Our license plate reads tasmania: your natural state—but the past few decades have witnessed a battle between those trying to protect Tassie’s wild rivers and forests and the powerful companies working to exploit these resources.
It’s such a sensitive issue that one authority I talk to asks to remain anonymous. “The main thing is the forestry issue,” he informs me. A pair of billion-dollar corporations, he explains, make huge profits by cutting down the rain forest, planting eucalyptus, then grinding up the trees. “They’re selling off our rain forests to Japan,” he says, “where the wood chips are used to make boxes.”
The process is terrifying to anyone who loves wildlife. First, the native rain forest is bulldozed. Then the ground is scourged using napalm. Finally, the area is poisoned with a chemical called 1080 (sodium fluoroacetate), which kills all the herbivores attracted by the young eucalyptus shoots: wallabies, pademelons, possums.
The tension between exploitation and conservation is part of Tasmania’s history. That’s evident at Cradle Mountain, a highlight of the vast Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area that encapsulates much of this island’s wild beauty. This is where glaciers retreated, etching deep lakes and soaring buttes of quartz and dolorite. These formations, set amid swaths of pink heath, King Billy pine, and rain forest, are the backbone of Cradle.
But when British settlers arrived 200 years ago, their focus was on business, not beauty. Tasmania itself was known then as Van Diemen’s Land, after the Dutch East Indies governor-general who commissioned Abel Tasman’s 1642 voyage of discovery. In 1831, the chief surveyor for the Van Diemen’s Land Company, Henry Hellyer, became the first European to climb Cradle’s 1,545-meter peak. Looking for grazing properties, he gazed from the summit—and declared the region a wasteland.
A brighter era for Cradle began in the early 20th century, when a field naturalist named Gustav Weindorfer stood at the same spot as Hellyer. According to local lore, the prescient conservationist stretched out his arms and cried, “This entire area must be preserved for all time, for all people!” Weindorfer, an Austrian who relocated here, spent his life lobbying for Cradle’s protection. In 1971, his wish was fulfilled: the area became a national park. It’s now a treasured wilderness. The famous Overland Track traces its most spectacular scenery, attracting up to 9,000 hikers a year.
Ben is my lanky, animated guide to Cradle’s natural beauty. Our course is less ambitious than the 65-kilometer Overland Track, which can take six days to travel. Instead, we start off along the edge of Dove Lake. Looming over the landscape is Cradle Mountain, a soaring reef of rock that looks like the silhouette of a baby in a cradle. One circuit of the lake is about six kilometers.
“Kilometers mean nothing in this country,” scoffs Ben, waving his arms. “Everything depends on the weather, trail conditions, and if you’re in a hurry.” We aren’t.
As we start our walk both Ben and Liv, his willowy guide-in-training, agree that this is a fantastic year for wildflowers. The flowers of Cradle, blooming in white, red, yellow, and orange, are rough and shrubby, with bristly stems and nasty thorns. The plants that took root in Tasmania, I note, are as tough as the people who settled it.
We spend several days exploring the craggy range and its landmarks: Mount Campbell, Artists Pool, Twisted Lakes, and Hansons Peak, which we scale with the help of a loose chain rope. Near Cradle itself, mists swirl and patches of snow glint like gems against the dark stone. The ground is carpeted with white melaleuca flowers; strands of waratah petals, dripping with sweet nectar, add splashes of red to the scene. The earth itself swirls in marble-like patterns, the warp and weft of ancient geologies woven through the cliffs and river rocks.
One night we bivouac in the Scott-Kilvert Memorial Hut, a big pine room with a coal-burning stove and a sign hammered into the wall: no nail boots upstairs. The hut was built as a shelter after two young hikers died in this capricious wilderness, frozen during a midsummer storm. Our plan is to climb Cradle Mountain. But that night foul weather moves in, blanketing the peak with rain and fog. We make it only as far as the “cradle” itself—but even this effort is rewarded with a glorious vista of Dove Lake to the north, and towering Barn Bluff to the south. On the final leg of our hike, we encounter yet another obstacle: wombat scat litters our path.
“Wombats find the highest ground, and mark it like this,” Ben explains. “But here’s the amazing part: their droppings are cube-shaped, so they don’t roll away.”
I look down. It’s true. “They’re like little building blocks,” I say, amazed by this miracle of adaptation.
“Yep.” Ben nods. “I reckon the pyramids were built by giant prehistoric wombats.”
For millennia, aboriginal tribes populated Tasmania’s west coast, a rough-hewn landscape of red lichen and quartz boulders. European diseases and the genocidal Black War of 1828–32 all but destroyed the island’s native population, but their grinding stones and kitchen middens still lie among the dunes and grasses. Today—along a lonely shoreline near the town of Marrawah—the only sign of human habitation is a single hut, illuminated by the low amber sun.
Bull kelp and abalone shells crunch underfoot as I hike toward Geoff King’s fishing shack. The beach is so windy that even the sand has been blown away. The gales and waves hammering this shore have had time to muster their energies; they originated off the coast of Argentina, some 16,000 kilometers west. Outside the shack is a pickup truck. Lashed to its hitch is a worn rope, tied to a mangled wallaby carcass.
King comes out to greet me, his T-shirt flapping in the wind. Nine years ago, inspired by a wildlife biologist, the third-generation rancher decided to break with family tradition. King relocated his cattle and turned his grazing land—the 335 hectares of foreshore surrounding us—into a private nature reserve.
The land, in turn, has embraced the opportunity. Even a short bush walk provides encounters with aboriginal middens and exotic fauna, hopping wallabies and rotund pademelons (both of which look like small, chubby kangaroos). There are tiger snakes, wombats, and bandicoots. But the creature I’ve come to see will emerge only at night, when its coat matches the darkened sky.
King began the preparations hours earlier. He attracts devils by first laying down a scent trail using roadkill—that mangled wallaby—which he routinely collects from the highway. With his pickup truck, he drags the carcass over his property’s sandy tracks. “Devils tend to snuffle along creeks and streams looking for food,” he says. “And they use these tracks as well.” His roadkill strategy serves a dual purpose: devils are carnivorous, and primarily scavengers. By removing carrion from the highway, King reduces the chance that devils become roadkill themselves.
I wait in the shelter of the shack while King stakes the wallaby in view of the single window. Portable lights illuminate the macabre scene. We open a bottle of local Chardonnay and wait.
As the night sets in, King explains why devils are endangered. It is not because of human predation. True, the animals were once hunted (along with their bigger cousin, the thylacine or Tasmanian tiger) to the point of extinction. But the death of the last known thylacine, in 1936, inspired a law that protected the remaining devils and allowed their population to recover. That, sadly, now seems like a temporary reprieve. A virally transmitted cancer called Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) is devastating the devils, whose numbers have fallen from an estimated 150,000 in the mid-1990s to about 25,000 today.
Oddly, the devils on our side of Tasmania—west of Cradle—seem to have a genetic immunity to the disease. “We hope to learn something from these devils that can be used in the fight against DFTD,” King says, “and possibly in developing a vaccine.”
Just as I’m about to make a quip about devil’s advocates, we hear a vicious snarling. King pulls back the curtain; I race to his side. There it is: a female devil, giving our wallaby the full tooth-and-claw treatment.
Tasmanian devils aren’t the sort of animal to inspire adoration. But the pugnacious creature tearing into the carcass outside King’s shack is somehow irresistible. Ink-black save for a white belt of fur on her chest, she stops to chew and glances at our window. She can’t see us; there’s too much glare from the portable lights. But I can see her just fine—and perceive, beyond that bloodstained muzzle, a precarious blend of nobility, autonomy, and vulnerability. I can’t think of an island with a more appropriate mascot.
I join up with Di again the next day. “Unless we cure the disease,” she says soberly, “devils may be gone in 15 years. That’s just unthinkable to a Tasmanian.”
And to most of us, I imagine. Outside Marrawah, we drive to a promontory that plunges into the Indian Ocean. A weathered plaque neatly sums up my impression of this raw land: the edge of the world.
“It’s tradition,” Di tells me, “to toss stones into the water, like coins into a wishing well.” I cast a piece of wave-worn quartz into the pounding swell —with a wish that I’ll someday return, and further explore this enigmatic and seductive island. Then I catch myself and, before the stone sinks from sight, add an ardent prayer for the devil.
Most flights to Tasmania, which does not have an international airport, operate between Sydney/Melbourne and Hobart, the state capital. For those wishing more direct access to the island’s north, Qantas (qantas.com) and Virgin Blue (virginblue.com.au) also offer regular services to Launceston.
Where To Stay
Overnighters in Launceston will want to book one of the nine suites at Hatherley House (43 High St.; 61-3/6334-7727; doubles from US$200), an 1830s heritage property turned stylish boutique hotel. Abbey’s Cottages (abbeyscottages.com.au) in Stanley manages a range of self-contained cottages as well as the refurbished Stanley Hotel (61-3/6458-1430; doubles from US$59), while Cradle Mountain Lodge (61-3/ 6492-1303; cradlemountainlodge.com.au; doubles from US$200) makes an ideal base for exploring Tasmania’s wilderness.
What To Do
Spot Tasmanian devils at Geoff King’s wildlife preserve, King’s Run (61-3/6457-1191; kingsrun.com.au). Advance bookings are essential: tours here only operate five nights per fortnight.
For a taste of local produce, stop at Ashgrove Cheese (61-3/6368-1105; ashgrovecheese.com.au), a family-run operation on a dairy farm near Devonport. To hike the entire 65-kilometer Overland Track, contact Cradle Huts (cradlehuts.com.au).
Originally appeared in the February/March 2009 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Devil of a Time”)