Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Tas Files

Unlike last year's epic, multi-state journey, our trip to Australia this year involved a good deal of hanging around in Canberra. We did take two wonderful trips down to the New South Wales coast, but it didn't quite satisfy the wanderlust. Unfortunately, what we the working and the talk-giving and the needing-to-be-back-before-Rosh HaShana-ing, we had barely three days left at the end of our trip to plan any sort of vacation. That's not nearly enough time to see anything is this vast country. Still, we did out best to lay out the options.

At first, we were talking seriously about flying into the outback to see Alice Springs and Uluru. But that only got as far as the researching stage. For one thing, it would have eaten almost an entire day on either side of the vacation just to get there, since, almost by definition, the center of the outback is not the most accessible place. To make matters worse, we would have gotten there in the middle of the week, when there weren't any tours running. And much as Michael got a hopeful gleam in his eyes while thinking about it, the prospect of renting a 4x4 and rambling across hours worth of unimproved roads while carrying our own water, fuel supply, and spare car parts did not appeal to me in the least.

So we needed someplace a bit more accessible. We also needed someplace that we could get a good feel for in just a few days. Someplace small, then, and close to a major airport. Someplace, perhaps, like an island?

Tasmania is located about 150 miles (240 kilometers) off of the southeast coast of mainland Australia, but it might as well be on Mars for all the resemblance it bears to the mainland. (Okay, hyperbole. But bear with me.) The most striking and profound difference is that it's wet. Really, really wet. Like, rainforest wet. (Yes, literally.) Everywhere we went it was rainy, or at least misty, and there was still snow on the ground in the mountains. This snow melts into a vast network of rivers and streams, rushing through the landscape, spilling over cliffs, and gurgling across the plains to the ocean. And such water! It was fresh and clear and cold and delicious, exactly the way water should always be. It's a strange thing to say that water can be delicious, since it's theoretically speaking not supposed to taste like anything, really. But there it is.

"So big deal," you're thinking. "So it rains --- so what?" Well...everything, that's what. The big deal is that it's such an enormously different place from the rest of Australia. Being there is almost exactly like taking a long, satisfying gulp of water, and it's only after you swallow it that you realize how thirsty you'd been. Mainland Australia is dry, dusty, and, for most of the year, dead. Tasmania, by comparison and in actual fact, is teeming with life, the vast majority of which is not found anywhere else in Australia. The presence of water also means that there's a gigantic system of underground caves (more on that later). And, it means that a scary abundance of sheep and cattle can graze on this stuff called grass, which grows in furious abundance in Tas, which in turn means that there's an awesome abundance of local cheese. (Hee. I like saying "abundance." I also like cheese.)

It also means that Tas is a wild place, much more so than anywhere we'd been before. A huge chunk of the island is protected land of some sort or other, and most of that is national parkland. It's very sparsely populated, which is saying something in Australia, and most of the rural towns appear to be stuck somewhere circa 1947. There's only one paved highway on the entire island, and most of the other roads, even major ones, are packed dirt. It gets foggy. It snows. There are actual mountains, for chrissakes. I should know --- we drove up them. Yes, they're fairly high. No, the road wasn't paved. Yes, it was green and lush and beautiful. Welcome to Tasmania.

On the first day of our trip, we flew from Sydney to Hobart, the state capital. It was a glorious and chilly late winter day, and there was a fresh breeze blowing in off the ocean. We picked up our rental car at the airport and headed up the A5.

Our first destination was Cradle Mountain Lodge, inside Cradle Mountain National Park, where we would spend two nights. Along the way, we picked up lunch at a charmingly quaint pub in Bothwell, which is, as are most things in Tas, happily ensconsed in the middle of nowhere. Naturally, there wasn't a damned thing on the menu that we could eat (Who has a whole steak for lunch? Honestly.), but we prevailed upon the bartender/waitress/manager to make us a pair of grilled cheese sandwiches. Michael had his with a pint of the local beer, which was a disappointingly bland lager, tasting almost exactly the same as all of the other disappointingly bland lagers that are brewed throughout Australia. Unfortunately, Tas seems not to have escaped that aspect of Australian culture.

The rest of the drive took us on a winding path up into the mountains, past the Great Lake, which wreathed itself in rainbows for our arrival.

We arrived at the Lodge at around 5:30, and it was already starting to get dark and quite cold. We'd picked up some bits and pieces for dinner at a town along the way, in hobbit fashion: bread, cheese, apples, mixed nuts, and chocolate. We picnicked in our room along with a lovely bottle of pinot noir from Central Otago in New Zealand, courtesy of our friend and Canberra colleague Ben J. (Cheers, Ben!) Before it got completely dark, we took a short stroll on the boardwalk path that wound behind the main lodge and into the rainforest. I figured that we would have to be extra-vigilant in order to see any of the very small and notoriously shy Tasmanian wildlife, but not so --- there was a pademelon welcoming committee right at the top of the trail:

Unfortunately, we'd miscalculated the timing a bit and the trail soon became too dark for us to see any other creatures. So we packed it in for the night in the hopes of a productive day tomorrow.

We started out our one full day in the mountains with breakfast at the lodge. I was pleased to note that among our fellow travelers were one Japanese family, a slew of holidaying Australians, and not a single American. We were definitely off the map. After breakfast, we booked an evening animal spotlighting tour at the desk in the hopes of being able to see some Tasmanian devils, and then headed out on a walk along the King Billy trail, across the street from the lodge. The trail is named after a species of tree, the King Billy pine, which can grow to be over 1000 years old.

We saw a second pademelon hopping through the forest here, as well as some spectacular views of Cradle Mountain itself, still covered in snow.

When we got back to the lodge, we joined an 11:30 guided tour of the path that we'd been on last night, and learned a bit about the local plants and critters.

The guide pointed out some devil scat, recognizable for containing fur and bits of bone and other undigestible chunks of its prey animals --- including, in our case, an entire pademelon claw. How their digestive systems aren't continually ripped to shreds is beyond me. In between describing the ecosystem and telling stories of stupid tourists who'd lost fingers by petting the resident wombats, our guide mentioned that the best way to see devils is at the sanctuary just down the road, which has a daily tour and feeding demonstration. Now that I had to see.

But I couldn't rush off just yet. We wanted to get in a more serious hike before the sun set, so we drove out to Dove Lake, within the boundaries of the national park.

After looking of the trail options, we decide to head up the Overland Track a short ways, then cut off to the side to see Crater Falls, and the Crater Lake beyond that. We liked the trail because it had a loop option if we had the time to continue on, but we didn't have to take it.

The beginning of the trail was a wooden boardwalk, covered with what looked like chicken wire but made out of rubber. I don't know what it's called, but I'm damned grateful for it, since it saved me from more than one dangerous slip. This part of the trail led out over windswept, open grasslands, where snowmelt, running down from the top of the mountain, poured in rivulets between and through every tussock of grass.

Panorama! Click to make it big.

The rest of the trail was quite muddy and covered with snow at various points, but we pushed on despite cold, wet feet to get to a series of stone stairs, which led to a gorgeous waterfall.

We paused here for a lunchtime snack, consisting of dinner leftovers from the night before (minus the wine, obviously), and then pushed on to Crater Lake.

I'm not sure if the name refers to the lake's origin or its appearance, but it did provide some spectacular views of the mountain range. The water was completely clear but tinged slightly orange; our guide at the Lodge told us this was because the button grass, which makes up most of the low-growing flora in this region, has a high tannin content. Flowing water strips the tannins out of the plant, and they're responsible for the color.

It had taken us longer than expected to reach the lake, since it was slow going over the slushy mud and snow that covered most of the trail, so we decided to turn around rather than complete the entire loop. On our way back down the trail to the parking lot, we came upon a mother wombat and her baby, nibbling at the button grass and looking quite unconcerned about our presence --- you can see how close they are to the boardwalk:

On our way back to the Lodge to clean up and change before our evening activities, we stopped in at the Devil Center to see about a tour. We arrived at 3:45 and they closed at 4 (nooooo!!), but the manager (Paul) told us that we could book a spot for their evening feeding and walkthrough at 5:30. Yes! We immediately decided to join that instead of the spotlighting tour from the Lodge, and fast-forwarded our cleaning and changing routine to make it back in time.

In fact, we made it back early, and were able to stroll around the enclosures before the tour started. Paul was there to conduct our tour, and explained to us, "We specialize in marsupial carnivores." I just love that. In addition to their devil breeding and conservation program (which you can read about here), they maintain several Eastern and spotted quolls, the other major marsupial carnivore.

But it was the devils, of course, who were the main attraction.

After having a good look at them in their enclosures, we came inside the interpretive center where Paul talked a little about the devils' biology and habits and history. He was very emphatic that the name "devil" was unfairly negative to what is essentially a harmless (to humans) species. To prove it, he ducked outside for a moment and returned with one in his arms. Her name was Ossa, and he carried her around so that all of us could "have a pat," as he put it. Awesome!

That kooky grin on my face is sheer delight.

After this literally warm and fuzzy "nice devil" demonstration, we headed back outside into the cold to watch the feeding. Paul tossed in large bits of dead pademelons and the devils went to town:

They did look a fearsome bunch, and in listening to them scream at each other, I could certainly see why the settlers gave them their name. (Full disclosure: previously posted video.)

I can only imagine how bone-chilling it must have been to have been sitting in one's camp, trying to sleep, and hearing those howls echo through the woods. On they other hand, they're stinkin' adorable.

After that very full day, we were more than ready for a hearty meal at the Lodge, and we were not disappointed. They made several tasty vegetarian dishes, which we enjoyed with a Tassie pinot noir. Yes, they make wine in Tas. Yes, it's amazing. No, we couldn't bring any back. And no, it can't be found in the States, confound it all.

We also discovered that they make scotch in Tas --- who knew? There are actually peat bogs on the island, which they use to make some terribly delicious spirits, which went delightfully well with our cheese plate and a slice of beetroot chocolate cake. And how many distilleries do you suppose can be supported on an island with a population of less than half a million people? Three. Yeah, I like this place.

In the morning, we checked out of the Lodge and wound our way back out of the mountains. Our destination for the day was the Freycinet National Park on the east coast, but along the way there we stopped at the Mole Creek Karst National Park to have a look around their cave system.

If the devils were my contribution to the planning of our route on this trip, this was Michael's. He's always loved underground spaces, so he was very excited about the caves themselves, but the main attraction was the peculiar species of insect that they shelter: the cave glowworm. Michael has been desperate to see some ever since we watched the Caves episode of Richard Attenborough's Planet Earth documentary (skip to 3:13 in the video to see the relevant bit).

Yes, my friends, we went underground to seek out a population of phosphorescent creepy-crawlies who go fishing with their snot.

The cave in question was Marakoopa Cave, located next to a lovely, fern-lined trail, which followed the path of the river flowing out of the cave.

There were two tours that traveled through this cave, one to the lower chambers with reflection pools and dry river beds, and one to the upper chambers with magnificent stone formations. We were initially booked for the former, but since we were the only two people on the tour and could move along at a reasonable clip, the guide took us on both.

The glowworms were located near the mouth of the cave --- they like to position themselves over flowing water, because that's where the most insects congregate, hence where there's the most food available to get caught in their snotty fishing lines. We couldn't see them at all with the lights on, although we could see some of their dangling lines swaying under a low outcropping where the river met the path. But then our guide turned the lights off, and after our eyes adjusted, there was a whole galaxy of glowing tails suspended above us.

We met some other interesting insect life on our tour, including lots of cave crickets and one extremely large spider who likes to eat them (and small dogs, too, judging by its size). And the stalactites and stalagmites were, of course, amazing.

The rest of the day was a bit of a letdown after that. After a lunch stop in Campbell Town, we continued on to Freycinet. A storm was blowing in, so we couldn't see much of the view, but we did get in a little walk along the rocky beach before dinner.

I'm afraid that we'd been a bit spoiled for beaches. Although the view was lovely it didn't quite feel as magnificent as the New South Wales coast, and certainly nowhere near as exciting and fresh as Cradle Mountain. But we did enjoy a nice evening sipping Tassie whisky by the fire in the lodge's bar, and the room itself was very well-appointed. Our flight back to Sydney left the next day in the evening, so we figured that, with some careful time management, we could put in a short hike around the coast before heading back to Hobart.

The weather, unfortunately, had other plans. The storm that had been threatening the night before had now arrived in earnest, and the fog made futile our planned attempt to see a bit of Wineglass Bay, the main natural attraction in the area. Rather than struggle over a wet and rocky trail only to encounter a bank of clouds, we decided to drive back to Hobart right away and see if we could get a little bit of a feel for the city before we had to leave.

This turned out to be quite a lucky thing. In addition to having lunch at a charming little pizza place in Orford (Scorchers, check it out if you're in the area), we were able to see some very dramatic views of the fog rolling over the mountains to the ocean.

We also had time to stop along the way at a liquor shop to pick up a bottle of one of the whiskies that had particularly struck our fancy: Hellyers Road single malt. Plus, we arrived in Hobart in enough time to visit one of the distilleries: Lark, although it was damned hard to find on the winding streets, and a bit too pricey to justify purchasing a bottle.

We wrapped up our time in Tas with a little driving along the wharves and a short walk around --- there wasn't quite enough time to hit up the maritime museum, and it was too rainy to really explore. But I'm sure we'll be back. Tasmania casts a powerful spell, and there's still so much for us to see and enjoy on this lush, wild, and thoroughly beautiful island.

Editor's note: Yes, this is sneakily backdated to when I should have posted it, not when I actually posted it. But it's been a busy semester, so cut me some slack, 'kay?

Monday, September 13, 2010

The great debate

Once upon a time, all of the Tasmanian marsupials got together to decide who was the cutest.

"Clearly, it's me," said the quoll, flicking his long, bushy tail as he spoke. "I have the most beautiful spotted pattern, and I'm a natural redhead."

"And I crawl around in trees and take naps in the branches --- just like a koala! So clearly ---"

"Clearly," interrupted the wombat in a huffy tone of voice, "you haven't looked in a mirror lately. You think anyone is going to vote you the cutest? Look at your teeth!"

"You're a carnivore, for crying out loud! You jump down from trees and eat baby pademelons!" There were some murmurs of assent at this, and the baby pademelon gave a squeak and crawled deeper into his mother's pouch.

"Well...well, I don't think that's ---" the quoll began, but the wombat was too worked up to listen. (They're stubborn like that.)

"If anyone is going to win the title of cutest, it's going to be me," the wombat insisted. "Just look at my perfect little button nose."

"And have you seen my little daughter? Her ears alone should clinch it --- they're just perfect!"

"Did you know, just the other day, she was nibbling on some grass and making the cutest snuffling sounds --- weren't you, my adowable widdle button-pie?"

At this delicate juncture there arose a quiet but ill-concealed guffaw from the back of the assembly. "Who did that?" insisted the wombat, looking around angrily --- a difficult task considering that her head was rather poorly differentiated from her neck. "How dare anyone laugh at me!"

"Oh, it was me," confessed the pademelon, not at all embarrassed. "I was just thinking that you look more like a furry coffee table than a proper marsupial."

"Why --- wh --- well, I never!" the wombat huffed, choking with rage. "Why"

As the wombat trailed off into a string of unprintable insults, the pademelon drew herself up to her full height (a mere three feet), and declaimed, "Kangaroos are well-known to be some of the cutest animals around. As a miniature kangaroo, I am obviously even cuter."

"My joey pokes his head out of my pouch in the absolutely most cute fashion, and I hop through the forest like a bunny --- but better!" the pademelon continued, running her little claws (rather vainly, it must be said) through her matted brown fur.

"Yeah, but have you seen your tail?" put in the Tasmanian devil testily. "Hopping like a bunny is fine as far as it goes, but from the back you look like a giant, ugly rat."

"Besides," added the devil, "if anyone is going to be the cutest Tasmanian marsupial, it should be me. I'm the only one of you who's found only here! And I'm bleedin' adorable!"

"And when it come to babies...well! Just have a look at one of my four little joeys, just out of the pouch. Have you ever seen anything that cute?"

"I'll grant you that the babies are cute," responded the pademelon in an belated attempt to be diplomatic, "but I'm just about ready to disqualify you on the basis of your pig-squealing alone."

"And you're an obnoxious carrion-eater," grumbled the wombat under her breath. Luckily no one heard her over the devil's outraged howling.

"I'll give you pig-squealing, you runty, rat-tailed excuse for a mammal!"

"Who are you calling runty, you pea-brained ---"

"Oh, and just what do you know about brains, winner of the Miss Squished-By-A-Car championships for ten years running?"

"Hey! I won that title!" put in the wombat. "And I refuse to listen to any more of your bad attitude, you nasty, disease-ridden pest!"

"I wasn't talking to you, you lumpy barrel with legs!"

"And I wasn't talking to you, you muddle-headed moron!"

"Who do you think you're calling a moron, you pathetic, brainless bit of quoll-bait!"

"You leave me out of this!"

As the debate raged on through the night, louder and louder, the last remaining thylacine snuggled deeper into her cave, a contented smile playing about her lips. "Soon," she thought. "Soon..."