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A Devilishly Nice Place

October 6, 2017

We recently took a short holiday and decided to explore a part of Australia we hadn’t seen before.  We talked to our friends and decided on Tasmania, which up until that point we knew only as an island south of Australia, the home of Tasmanian devils and a former penal settlement.

We flew to Hobart, the capital and largest city and drove right around the island in a counter-clockwise direction.

There was just too much to see and a chronological narrative would get way too complicated, so I’ll just describe some of the highlights.

First of all, a little geography.  Tasmania is 240 kms (150 miles) south of mainland Australia separated by the Bass Strait.  It is just a little smaller than Ireland or Sri Lanka but only has a population of about half a million.  Almost half of the people live in Hobart, the capital, so you can imagine, the rest of the island has lots of wide open spaces.

Aborigines are believed to have settled in Tasmania 40,000 years ago but they were virtually wiped out by the British settlers.  For 50 years, from 1803 – 1853 the colonial population grew, largely because of transporting of about 75,000 convicts from the British Isles.  There are a number of museums where you can learn about convict history and the settlement process.  People were sent to Tasmania for infractions such as stealing a handkerchief or loaf of bread.  And both men and women were transported.

Because European settlement began in the early 1800s, there are a lot of interesting old buildings all over the country, and an amazing amount of history.

Here are some of the more interesting buildings we saw along the way.

Downtown Hobart and Launceston (the second largest city) are an interesting mix of old and new buildings.

And in Richmond we saw the oldest stone bridge in Australia, built in 1823 with convict labour.

Of course one of the highlights of any trip to Australia is the wildlife and Tasmania is extra special because of the Tasmanian devil.  We saw a lot of them—both in wildlife sanctuaries and as road kill.  They are about the size of a big cat or small dog, but they have a few special features.  Notice the teeth for one thing.

We learned that they have the biting strength equivalent to three pit bulls!

But for the most part, Tasmanian devils are in more trouble than they cause.  They are mostly scavengers and they will defend themselves, but they don’t attack or do feeding frenzies or anything like that.  They got their name because they have red ears and eyes and when the early settlers saw them in the light of their campfires, they looked rather satanic, so they got the name “devils.”

Also at the wildlife sanctuaries we were able to see a lot of interesting animals up close and personal!  We got to feed some kangaroos.

And check out the koalas:

This is a wombat:

The peacocks didn’t feel like spreading their tails, but seemed happy to drag them in the dirt.

I’m no kangaroo expert, but I think this baby is too big to get back into the pouch.

This is a black currawong, a native bird endemic to Tasmania.  Locals told us that they were bold and friendly and this one didn’t hesitate to hop up on the bench we were sitting at.

We also saw some rocks that reminded us of animals!

What animals/ birds can you spot?

 In addition to interesting animals, there was nonstop fantastic scenery, and because of the size of the island, in one day we could find ourselves in snowy mountains, sunny beaches and rainforests.

It is technically spring in Tasmania, and you could see the transition from winter to spring as we drove along.

The wattles and acacias were flowering and the variety of yellow flowering trees was amazing.

However, not all yellow flowers were a welcome sight. In one region there was an invasion of gorse, a plant that was brought in from England.   The entire plant is prickly and in England, where they regularly have frosts, it is used for fences and hedgerows.  In Tasmania where summers are warmer, there is nothing to slow it down and it is growing wild in huge areas and there are eradication programs in place.

Speaking of frost and cold weather, however, we encountered plenty of that.  This is the view as we drove to Cradle Mountain:

And this is part of the drive across the island from Strahan to Hobart:

But there were also some really nice beaches, although it was too cold to enjoy the surf!

This is the beach at Scamander where we stayed one night.

And this was our room!

We also learned about the interesting trees and forests.  A lot of Tasmania is covered in eucalyptus forest. There are numerous varieties of eucalyptus, and all these trees have amazing character.

This is the Eucalyptus Obliqua which can grow up to 90 m (295 feet)!

We also learned about a tree called the Huon Pine, which isn’t a pine at all but rather a unique tree that has its own genus and species.  It is native to Tasmania and stands of the tree have been almost destroyed because the timber is so valuable.  In addition to beautiful grain, the wood contains an oil that prevents it from rotting and so the trees live several thousands of years.

Between loss of habitat and logging, the tree became threatened and it is now illegal to cut down live Huon Pines.  We visited a timber mill with an amazing old but still functioning saw that was over 100 years old.  The mill has a special license to collected Huon Pine logs that were submerged when the hydro dams were built and the timber is sold to artists and furniture makers.

This is a Huon Pine in the wild.

Speaking of trees, we visited an interesting place called the Tahune Airwalk.  It is an amazingly engineered forest canopy walk at the confluence of the Huon and Picton rivers.

We saw the amazing trunks from the ground.

And then went for a walk in the canopy.

View of the Huon River and surroundings from the airwalk

We were up there!!

In addition to an elevated walk in the trees, you can cross the rivers on some hair raising bridges.

The locals told us that the rivers were unusually high because of heavy rain, but they weren’t as high as they were during the last floods.

And speaking of water—as we drove around we visited a number of interesting waterways and waterfalls.  This is the Cataract Gorge in Launceston which you reach by means of a chair lift.

There were lots of interesting rock formations, some with spooky faces.

And this is the St. Columba Falls, the highest in Tasmania:

One of the most interesting places we visited was Cradle Mountain National Park.  Cradle Mountain is 1545 metres high and got its name as it reminded the early explorers of a baby’s cradle.

There are several volcanic lakes in the area but the largest, Dove Lake, at the foot of the mountain has a walk way established all around it. It is one of the prettiest walks in Tasmania and it took us almost three hours because of the ice and snow, which we hadn’t expected, but that made it even more interesting.

There was some interesting vegetation.

This section is called the “Ballroom Forest” because the canopy of beech trees is so dense nothing grows under the trees and, I guess, you could dance away!

Also as we drove along, in addition to meeting interesting and friendly locals, we got some insights into life in Tasmania and also had a chance to see efforts being made to revive small towns and attract visitors.

This is Franklin, population 500, where they have a great weekend farmers market and some nice heritage buildings.

The Huon River flows through Franklin so it is also a boat building and recreation centre.

Lilydale, population 288, distinguishes itself by having artists paint power poles along the main street.

In Sheffield, population 1600, artists decorate the buildings with murals and there is a competition for new murals each year.  They also have a nice mosaic walk in the main park.

This is a directional sign to the actual suburbs of Sheffield.

In Devonport, you can get the overnight ferry boat to Melbourne.

And in Hamilton they are cashing in on their convict history

One of the most memorable towns we visited was Strahan (pop 800) on the west coast of the island.

It is a fishing town with nice walks and beaches.

But what was most memorable is that it was the scene of my theatrical debut!  A local theatre group has developed a fascinating, entertaining and funny historical play about convicts in Tasmania called The Ship That Never Was.  It is Australia’s longest running play.  It is an institution in Strahan and it has been performed by just two actors in an open air theatre every evening (except in winter when they show a movie of the play), since 1994.

We went along and settled into our seats.  It starts out with just an introduction of the 10 characters, all of whom are actual historical figures.

As the play progresses, the two actors actually assemble the ship that never was and then, assemble the crew from the audience.  I’ll spare you the details, but the plot involves convicts building a ship, mutinying, stealing the ship and sailing to Chile.  Even though they got caught eventually, they got off because of a technicality in which the ship had never been properly registered and therefore they successfully argued that there couldn’t have been a mutiny and the ship couldn’t have been stolen.

Anyway, I was press ganged into serving as the ill-fated captain of the ship who has to deal with the mutineers.  I even got to wear an oversized Napolean hat!

It was a lot of fun and all of the proceeds from the show go to help disabled children.

We were really impressed with Tasmania and its wonderful animals, scenery and friendly people.  One of the things that was most interesting was the sense of the island being poised for growth as more people move from mainland Australia to escape the heat.  It is also rapidly developing as a tourist center.

There is a lot of emphasis on making sure that the development doesn’t have an adverse impact on the natural beauty, and there are many reminders about what happened to the Tasmanian Tiger, a wild dog that was hunted to extinction in the early 20th century.  Everyone knew what would happen.  In 1863 this warning was sounded:

And people recognized the problem:

But the last Tasmanian Tiger died in the 1930s and today, people are looking to protect what is left of nature.

It’s definitely worth experiencing Tasmania and I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.





Rodent Code Red—Could It Be Karma?

September 7, 2017

One of my jobs at CUE Haven is pest control, which entails stocking poison bait stations and maintaining traps to keep invasive possums, weasels and rats from killing both our plantings and the native birds we are trying to bring back.  Just last week I gleefully updated our running totals of pests caught and a few days ago gave a presentation to some high school students on the benefits of whacking introduced baddies.

Somewhere in the rat world, they decided it was time to extract a little vengeance.

As a result of this merciless campaign, among other things, we’ve learned what dead rat smells like and that’s why I was alarmed when we got home the other day and my wife said, “Do you smell a dead rat?”

“Indeed I do,” I responded.

I don’t want to give you the wrong idea about our living conditions, but this has happened before.  We have lots of bush around the house and a crawl space underneath and every couple of years we get a whiff of something that’s not quite right but at the same time not horrendous.  I’ve been able to deal with it by spraying some stuff a guy gave me that he claims is used to deodorize cars and hotel rooms that have been smoked in and crime scenes.  And it’s always worked.

Not this time, however.  The stench just got stronger and it seemed to be coming from everywhere.  I kept spritzing until the bottle ran dry and the look on my face was probably how Bruce Willis would have looked if he’d ever run out of bullets in Die Hard.  He probably would have said something similar to my utterances, too.

There was only one thing to do.  Actually two–a sane person would have called in professional help.  But I decided it was time to gird my loins and go down into the crawl space to see if I could find the source of the problem and (the horror) deal with it.

Over three days, I went down twice but was unable to find anything—it didn’t even smell down there.  But the odor was becoming localized in the downstairs bathroom which shares two walls with the crawl space.  That spawned a new theory of where the creature was and a plan for extraction.

Because I didn’t have one of these

I went to plan B, the homemade version

It was hard for my wife to get a clear picture because she was laughing too hard to hold the camera steady.  But she wasn’t the one who was going into the hole!  I, for one, wasn’t laughing.

Even with the greater confidence that my protective gear afforded, I was unable to see any evidence of a rodent incursion.  The insulation was intact, nothing was chewed or disturbed and there were no body parts in evidence.

I gave up the search, but we were truly getting alarmed at the quality and intensity of the smell.  I had inspected every inch of the bathroom where the scent was the strongest but found no possible source.  For some reason it seemed strongest in the shower.  There was no way it could be coming from the drainpipe.  I’d even knelt down and checked.  I looked around for a possible source and that’s when I saw the recessed light fixture.  Please, no!

Getting up on a ladder confirmed my suspicions and my worst fear.  These recessed lights sit in the ceiling cavity.  What if the rat had been walking along and got zapped?  Would it catch on fire?  I was forced to act and the only thing to do was to pull the fixture out of the ceiling.  But what if the rat fell out when I did that?  With maggots on it? There wasn’t enough digitalis in the Southern Hemisphere to bring me back from that experience!

Ascending the ladder and making sure I wasn’t positioned directly underneath,  I took out the light bulb.  I tugged at the fixture while holding a bucket underneath.  The fixture slid out easily and there was nothing there!

Except a lot more stink!

I examined the cavity with a flashlight and didn’t see anything.  I wasn’t sure if I was happy about that or not.  Emboldened by not having had a decomposing rat flop out of the ceiling I took a closer look.  I saw something that looked like a wire where no wires were supposed to be.  Using some kitchen tongs that will never be used again I gave it a tug.


Of course, the thing didn’t have the decency to pull out easily.  Which somehow made it even scarier.  How could it have gotten wedged between the light bracket and the insulation?  Shouldn’t it have shrunk?

My new primal fear became having the thing come flying out at me when I finally dislodged it, but after a bit of breathless (literally) work, it plopped obligingly into the bucket.

Open windows and a lot of incense are getting things back to normal odor wise.  My blood pressure will take a little longer!

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