The Tasmanian Tiger’s Trail, Pt II: Fragility

Last March I visited Tasmania, a long-awaited voyage to the home of my favorite childhood animal, the thylacine. Since the trip occurred before I rebooted this blog, I didn’t post about it in real-time. This month I’ll take you on an anniversary tour, posting a highlight from my ecological adventure every Sunday. Catch up on Part I, and hit that follow button so you don’t miss a moment!

After several enchanting days on the East Coast, my Tasmanian trek turned inland. The inland expedition began down a narrow gravel road just outside Bicheno in Douglas-Apsley National Park, one of the island’s newest reserves. A pleasant but unremarkable hike brought us to the steep edge of Apsley Gorge. Exposed rock yawned up from the riverbed, an alternative return route only available when the water is low. We took the wild way.

Low water levels allowed us to hike through the riverbed in Tasmania’s Apsley Gorge.

Of all the biomes I’d seen in Australia to date, this one looked the most familiar. Thick pines might’ve graced any park in North America (although the ethereal green-blue of the water reminded me more of Canada than anything I’d explored in the continental United States—I almost expected a moose to poke its nose from the undergrowth). Terrain became a puzzle, picking paths back and forth across the river. I silently thanked my parents for all the money spent on my childhood dance lessons; balance and subconscious nimble footwork saved me from injury in more than one spot. 

My Laddie wasn’t so lucky: he sidestepped one of the ubiquitous bronze lizards and wrenched his knee. Examining the joint, I became acutely aware of how isolated we were, alone in a rural riverbed with no phone service. Even uninjured, climbing the gorge’s steep back up to the trail would be herculean. One loose stone could turn our casual day hike into a survival story. Humility crashed down on me so hard that my chest contracted. How insignificant we seemed! Rain could swell the river and erase all trace of us from the boulders. The looming trees would say nothing. Thankfully my partner was able to continue, and the sinuous gorge delivered us back to the start.

Scraped and sore, we were almost glad to sit in the car for a few hours. Sun filtered through the leaves overhead, scattering bright coins on the macadam. Lush ferns gave a deceptively soft edge to a road even more treacherous than A3. Now straying onto the shoulder wouldn’t just land me in a ditch, but send me careening down the side of a mountain. Terrain flattened out when we descended into the Tamar Valley, and the Bass Highway—an odd mix of coastal and industrial scenery—carried us west to the town of Stanley. 

In the mid-19th century, Stanley was essentially run by the Van Diemen’s Land Company (VDLC). Today that role has passed to the Stanley Hotel, which seems to manage everything from holiday cottages to boutiques to restaurants. The place feels less like a functional village than like a movie set (which it has been—the 2016 historical drama The Light Between Oceans was shot there, and judging by DVDs sold in every shop, and a large mural dedicated to the filming, it was the biggest event in Stanley since a submarine telephone cable to Victoria provided Tasmania’s first mainland telephone connection in 1936). 

Stanley anchors itself to the base of a volcanic plug called The Nut.

All this quaint charm huddles at the base of a sheer volcanic plug—the rocky heart of a volcano left after the soft outer cone eroded away—called The Nut. Less masochistic visitors ascend it in a chairlift, but my Laddie and I scaled the short, steep footpath. Uneven pavement deposited us on a flat expanse of savannah. Burrows amid the tall grass evinced the presence of moonbirds, which fly north to the Arctic every year before returning here to breed. Interpretive signs explained not only the area’s ecology, but its checkered social history. Massacres of indigenous people had occurred nearby as colonial powers obliterated any obstacle to their profits.

I admired Australia’s candor: no historical site I’ve visited in the U.S. offered such public acknowledgement of Native American persecution. Perhaps human frailty is easier to admit in such a rugged setting. Far below, Stanley’s modest structures looked like the mollusks I’d left behind in the east coast’s tide pools: fragile clusters of shells, clinging to a rock while the ocean surged around them. Today it made a postcard-perfect view of red roofs and calm ultramarine water, but what if a storm rolled in tomorrow?

Doubling down on this raw display of existentialism, the Nut’s gift shop marketed extinction. Thylacine souvenirs crammed every shelf. The VDLC once placed bounties on thylacines, signing the species’ death warrant. Now its descendants profit from the creature’s ghost as a merchandising novelty. Although I’d like believe this is well-intentioned—remembering a lost island icon and raising awareness against future tragedies—it’s hard to infer a sober environmental message from caps, socks, and plush toys. Instead, I still cherished the giddy hope of spotting a live thylacine in the Tarkine rainforest.

An aura of mystery surrounds this part of Tasmania. It appears on the map as a green blob consuming the island’s northwest quadrant. No roads or trails penetrate the Savage River conservation area, and few people venture into it. Even in the 21st century, it seems to be largely uncharted territory. The closest that casual day hikers like me can get is the Tarkine Drive, a loop of road that includes several short walks into the forest fringe. Although it was hardly the thylacine expedition of my childhood fantasy, I hoped it would at least give us a glimpse of this unique environment. But as we turned onto the gravel track toward Trowutta Arch, my doubts rose with the plume of dust behind the car. Neat rows of pines scrolled on either side, cut by tracks from logging trucks.

“I hope we didn’t schlep all the way out here to see a Christmas tree farm,” I grumbled.

Then something dark loomed in the windshield. Not a thundercloud, but a wall of trees rising abruptly behind their spindly domesticated cousins. I’ve never seen such a stark border between tended landscapes and wilderness. It looked like a fortress, the rainforest’s last bastion against a century of industrial onslaught. I half expected a portcullis to raise when we drove over the line to a small car park and stepped into the jungle. Green engulfed us. Ferns as long as I am tall cast feathery shadows over the ground. Thick green moss pillowed everything from tree roots to fallen logs. Lichens the size of dinner plates adorned tree trunks.

Although the trees weren’t as imposing as the sequoias I’d once visited in California, they gave me the same heightened awareness of how small and transient my human life is compared to an ancient forest, and the thrill of knowing we’re composed of the same carbon. I don’t mind the humbling perspective, but it must have bothered the many people who’d scratched their names into the stone arch, desperate for some record of their presence. Late morning sun illuminated a sylvan pool and made the manferns glow, all framed within the arch like a stained glass window in nature’s cathedral.

Dazzled, we drove the entire loop around Savage River Conservation Area, snaking down narrow roads and one-way bridges. The clean woody air tasted as mysterious as the word Tarkine, derived from the aboriginal takayana. A faded interpretive sign at the Julius River picnic area identified the faintly musky scent as Eucryphia lucida, endemic leatherwood trees endemic new to my American nose. We spotted pademelons and speckled bassian thrushes, but no thylacines.

Still, even skeptics could easily imagine how such a few shy marsupials could hide in these jungles. They seem almost untouched. Almost. A stop at the Milkshake Hills region showed us a different side of the landscape: open plains that indigenous people had burned millennia before to encourage the growth of edible buttongrass. Long before the VDLC commercialized Tasmania, humans shaped the land to their needs. No other organism so radically transforms its environment. And yet for all our world-destroying power, we’re still vulnerable to one loose stone.

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