I am lying in a bunk bed, a Tasmanian devil gnawing on a pademelon carcass under the floorboards, and I am trying to think of a song. Only I can’t remember how it goes. I’m sure it’s something to do with a star. I try to hum the tune in the hope that words will reveal its title, and I don’t care if the devil hears.
I’m trying to think of this song to stay awake; to ward off nervousness and apprehension. I’m a city animal and I am out here in the environment of the devil, as wild as it gets, and I am not going to deny it’s an uncomfortable habitat for me. Uncomfortable is an understatement. I am scared.
How long has it been since I have been alone, truly alone, lying in a bunk bed at least 10 kilometres from the nearest human being, from the nearest man-made source of light? I’m thinking about light because at this moment I am looking at a flickering candle and wondering how long does a candle burn? It’s my last one and when it dies in a thin whisper of smoke I’ll know I am truly on my own, isolated without even the yellow glow of light for reassurance, a friend in the night.
Out here in the wilds of North-West Tasmania, with only devils and a marauding spotted-tailed quoll for company – if the world’s largest marsupial carnivores can be described as company – I’m thinking that a flickering candle can take on a new meaning, come to represent something entirely different to what it is, a flickering candle. Out here in the wilds of North-West Tasmania the candle is a comfort, a safety blanket, a sanity blanket. I’m thinking these things and it’s only my first night out in the wild.
Within a few hours of bedding down in the shack that serves as a devil-viewing centre at Kings Run near the coastal town of Marrawah I realised just how disconnected and isolated from nature I had become. In truth, I realised I had never been that connected with nature at all.
My window on the wild has always opened from the city and suburbia. There are certainties there, it’s a cosy cocoon, routine, predictable and safe, a cushion against the whims and sometimes destructive forces of nature. We hear the alarm calls of birds in our gardens, smug in the knowledge that the marauding goshawk will not disrupt our lives, tear our family apart. The daily battle for survival is for other, lesser creatures even if we marvel at their beauty, or are amused by their antics. We forget, though, that all living things are travelling on the same remarkable journey of life and death as we are, a garden bird’s pain is ultimately our pain, and its joy, ours.
It was not the birds singing in my garden that brought this realisation, however. It was the sight of a rainbow one day, arcing across the Derwent. We curse tempest, complain of rain but all the same stand transfixed by a rainbow arcing across the Derwent. We only want nature on our terms.
I’ve been a wildlife enthusiast all my life and engaged in countless birding trips and safaris to the wilds of four continents, but could I honestly say that I was ‘‘at one with nature’’, as a London taxi driver had once put it, describing his lunch breaks in London’s Hyde Park? It occurred to me in the discomfort of the shack at Kings Run that my previous wildlife experience in a truly wild environment had been sanitised, behind the windows of a national park lodge or tourist vehicle.
North-West Tasmania is as wild as it can get. There is no back up, no serum for snake bite, no helicopter rescue if I fall off a cliff. I don’t even have my mobile phone.
But coming here was not just about connecting with wild places and the birds and animals that inhabit them. It was largely prompted by my concern that the devil might not be around much longer, to be studied and observed in the wild.
The Tasmanian devil has been inflicted in recent years by a terrible contagious cancer, Devil Facial Tumour Disease, cutting its numbers to about 20 per cent of what they were a decade ago. There are still pockets of healthy animals, one of them being around Marrawah. It is here that local farmer Geoff King has turned part of his property holding over to devils and the tourists who want to view them in their natural setting. At Kings Run, the farmer stakes out roadkill, and more often than not the devils come to call.
So I found myself under Geoff King’s tutelage one autumnal evening, lighting a fire in the shack and connecting a battery-powered spotlight that is trained on an area just beyond the windows, a stage of sorts amid buttongrass and cutting reed in which the devils perform after dark.
Hours earlier I’d raced along the Lyell Highway from Hobart, going too fast I know but trying to make the outskirts of Marrawah before dark. At the wheel, I was thinking that when it comes to mammals at least, my contact point is the highways of Tasmania and the roadkill I see. Before visiting Kings Run I had only seen a single live devil and that was crossing a road. It also occurred to me that I had only viewed some of the top tourist scenic attractions of Tasmania from behind the steering wheel, through the windscreen. The scenery along the Lyell Highway, cutting through the mountains forming Tasmania’s spine, is a case in point. It is magnificent, dominated by the frequently snow-coated Frenchman’s Cap, but I’ve never stopped to take it in; always in too much of a hurry.
I’m disconnected from wild places, and wild animals and birds, as most of us are. But my experience at Kings Run will confirm what I so often read in wildlife literature: that humans need wild places and the diversity of wildlife that inhabits them.
Unlike myself, Geoff King is a man for all seasons, a man for wild places. Several generations of his family have farmed properties in the Marrawah area since the late 1880s, originally driving cattle 200 kilometres to the mining camps at Queenstown to the south. After the great cattle runs ended with the coming of the railways and sealed roads, the Kings continued to drive cattle between their rich inland pastures and a vast expanse of coastal heathland on the Southern Ocean that now forms the Kings Run tourist park.
Although cattle were only grazed on the property during the winter months, Geoff King grew increasingly concerned about the damage they might be doing to the fragile coastal environment. His suspicions were confirmed when he saw them pulling up and eating heathland plants that were an important food source for migrating orange-bellied parrots. At the same time, King was monitoring an increase in devil roadkill on a recently sealed road from Marrawah to the mouth of the Arthur River, going south. It was then that he decided to protect the property for the devils and their lovers.
My lack of bush craft – my insensitivity to the workings of the wild – revealed itself within a half-hour of my arrival in Marrawah. I had foolishly emptied a water bottle, my scent on the last of its drops, upwind of the devil feeding station. Who gives a second thought to a splash of water in the human world, even if care is taken to dispose of the plastic bottle itself? Who thinks about an animal picking up their scent? But this is devil and quoll territory. Scent is everything – invisible and vital.
Shortly after arriving at the hut, with the fire lit and the kettle on the boil, King suggested that if I wanted to go to the toilet I should head off a little way to the north, to the other side of the devil feeding station, to avoid the devil picking up my scent.
‘‘The wind’s in the south-east, we should be okay,’’ King told me after demonstrating his bush craft by pointing out devil prints, as well as those of wombats and an echidna on tracks near the hut.
I was too embarrassed to confess my guilty secret of already leaving my scent right upwind of the devils. I felt a fool – a real townie – and I wondered if King would understand. I was convinced I had spoilt our chances of seeing devils that night and that I was wasting King’s time, who stayed with me late into the evening. I reconciled myself to not seeing devils that night, and started to practise my look of disappointment.
After a few slugs of bourbon I felt a little better and prepared to settle for King’s conversation and his tales of devils and cattle runs on horseback. He had much to tell a city boy. And I would tell him my tales of urban birdwatching; the white goshawk that comes to my garden on the outskirts ofHobart, sending the forest ravens into a panic. But it would hardly be compensation for ruining an evening with the devil.
My concern, however, was misplaced. As I poured myself another bourbon, King announced we had a visitor and immediately switched off the internal battery-powered light. The devil on the carcass, tearing away at the flesh, appeared to be a young male, with the square jaw and head that sets males apart from the more delicately proportioned females, with their pointed head and chin. A beautiful animal, flashing white teeth, was bathed in the yellow light of the spotlight. We were lucky to see one so quickly after we had hunkered down in the hut, and the last light over the ocean had barely vanished, following the setting sun.
The devil had only been on the carcass for about 20 minutes before it stopped suddenly, lifted its head and gazed into the night. He made a grunting, almost coughing sound, and Geoff King said this was a warning: part alarm call, part threat. Another devil was about, and the devil on the carcass had caught its scent. Suddenly a larger devil rushed into the light beam and attacked the devil on the carcass in a cacophony of grunts and screams.
In a moment, the stage had become a theatre of screams.
The first devil retreated, pausing briefly as if to rush back, before deciding on retreat. The second devil was enormous, with a square head that was a mass of flesh-coloured scars. The skin on its lower jaw had been ripped open in an earlier fight and hung like dried wax from a candle. King recognised it as Scarface; he had seen it on the carcass before. The mangled face, which I thought was evidence of the devil facial tumour, is common among these fighting animals, though this one was perhaps a little worse for wear.
Scarface fed frantically, even though his stomach appeared bulbous and he was obviously well fed. ‘‘He’s full. Now he’s just topping up,’’ King whispered. ‘‘A devil never knows when he or she will feed next and so they gorge themselves whenever the opportunity presents itself.’’
An hour and a half later, Scarface finally retreated into the darkness. Geoff King soon joined him, leaving me alone. I watched the lights of his ute cut through the night. It was now raining, the wind blowing off the sea forcing the raindrops into diagonal stripes of light.
King had told me to turn off the spotlight when I went to bed, to save battery life for the next night. This involved leaving the comfort of the main room of the shack to enter a passageway outside where the spotlight was connected by a metal clamp. As I opened the door a cold draught swept across the hut’s room and the candle flickered maniacally. I didn’t want it to blow out. I placed a box of matches strategically close by, where I could feel for them if the candle went out, and then braved the cold to unplug the spotlight.
I needed a pee and ventured outside into the darkness. The rain, now fine like mist, glistened on my jumper in the light of my torch. The wind murmured among the rocks. I could just make out the boulders in the near darkness, against a backdrop of the roaring, crashing ocean.
Back inside the hut, I stoked the fire and checked the length of the candle still to burn. I felt bereft and lonesome for the first time. The initial shock of realising I was on my own, after seeing King’s ute lights vanish, slowly subsided and I urged myself to get a grip. I was determined to enjoy this experience, an experience of my own making. After another slug of bourbon, I retired to bed where I lay thinking of devils and thinking of the night.
Pulling my head out of my sleeping bag, I hear a pucker and an exhausted whoosh and the candle flickers, leaving behind a red glow for just a few seconds.
Darkness, solitude, a sense of fear that gives me a dry mouth. A slug of bourbon comes to hand. I lay on my back searching through the window for sources of light. Nothing but glimpses of a lonely distant star through mist being swept across the sky. I reach for the torch and make my way into the main room and in the silence I can hear a crunching sound coming from outside, where the devil theatre is situated. I pull the curtains back and peer outside, shining the torch beam on the theatre of screams. And there is another devil, a small one this time, with the beautiful white markings on the chest and sides that appeared to be absent in the other animals I had seen. The light causes the animal to blink and rear its head. It backs off and retreats into the sedge out of sight, so I switch off the torch and wait a while. The devil returns and I point the beam away from it, slowly moving it in the devil’s direction and this somehow reassures it and does not prompt it to flee.
I watch the devil for a further 10 minutes before it backs off and retreats into the darkness. Back in bed, focusing on that distant star, I finally drift off into sleep.
When I awake the star has vanished and the window is filled with a soft light, not yet bright enough to illuminate the hut. It is dawn and I get up to look through the window. The sea is a pale grey and I can see hints of blue sky above it.
A sooty oystercatcher is piping from the rocks and a forest raven calls from above, the familiar wake-up call I have at home in the suburbs of Hobart. I feel relieved that the night is gone and the familiar call of the raven is at hand. Only one more night to go and I will be able to hear the raven caw from my own bed.
Out on the beach, I clamber among the rocks looking for birds. A small party of white-fronted chats searches for invertebrates in a carpet of kelp and, in inlets between the rocks, rafts of chestnut teals ride the ocean.
Last night Geoff King reminded me that this coastline is rich in Aboriginal sites, and he told me what to look for on walks south and north of the hut. I head south, for no other reason than the sun is rising from the south-east. I am feeling the chill and the sun’s rays will give me warmth.
I head for two specific locations about a kilometre from the hut. King has told me of a wide expanse of white rounded rocks at the seashore, in which there are clearly defined depressions. This is where Aboriginal hunters would lie in wait for seals coming out of the water to sunbathe on the rocky beach. The Aborigines would have covered themselves in kelp, and when the seals were close enough, they would have leapt up to club them. King tells of local folklore that suggested Aboriginal women actually laid down with the seals, the seals oblivious to the dangers.
I wander across the first expanse of rocks I come to and see depressions clearly created by something other than the tide. And close to the depressions are the thick grooves of the tyres of a four-wheel drive vehicle, which has deviated from the track I am walking on and onto the stone beach.
I press further on, looking for raised areas close to shore in which King says there is evidence of Aboriginal hut hollows. Again, without King pointing them out as he planned to do later in the day, I find them and marvel at how such a relic, even if it is only a hollow in the ground, has survived for so long. Where land had met sea, just above the high-tide mark, the Aborigines dug out an area about a metre deep and three metres wide so they could anchor a hut of bent tea-tree branches and wallaby hides. The location offered a view of the surrounding rocks and ocean from where the Aborigines could watch their children at play, and watch for enemies. Close by I find a midden and flint tools and a Boag’s draught beer can.
The Aborigines, thlyacine and devils trod the same lonely path along this coast, the Aborigines and Tasmanian tiger to a rapid extinction once the white settlers had arrived. Another vital thread to the fabric of this corner of the planet, the wedge-tailed eagle, hangs on like the devil, defying brutal winds of change as over the eons it has learned to defy storm and hurricane blowing in off the Southern Ocean. As I continued south along the coastal track, towards the mouth of theArthurRiverin the far distance, I was soon joined by an eagle companion on my early-morning adventure. I turned after watching sooty oystercatchers on russet, lichen-covered rocks to see the wedge-tailed eagle appear as if from nowhere.
I had not seen it in the sky, or on the horizon and suddenly there it was, heading straight for me with slow, deliberate flaps of the wings, its eyes firmly fixed on mine. I expected it to merely fly by, rising high over my head, but as it reached me it splayed out its wings, the outer feathers like long, delicate fingers trembling in the wind.
The eagle, coming from the direction of the rising, weak and mellow sun, cast its shadow over me. Two metres of wingspan and a ferocious beak just above my head.
When I see eagles passing over my home inHobartthey are always escorted by angry ravens, trying to send them on their way. Although there were ravens on the beach this morning, they were clearly giving the eagle a wide berth. They knew that this was an eagle that meant business; a mean, hungry killing-machine, and I knew it too. The eagle appeared motionless, save for a slight correction of wing pitch, quivering outer feathers and the blink of an eye. It caught the wind rising off the ocean and rode the gusts of salty air. It was now only about 10 metres above my head, bending its neck to view my every move. Not that I was moving. I was still rooted to sand and shingle.
King explained later, when I asked him if he fed eagles, that this magnificent creature of the winds was using me to flush wallabies and pademelons from the undergrowth so it could pounce.
I was looking for connections and here I was connected in time and place to a wedge-tailed eagle, symbolic of wild places. It was not just the sight of the eagle but the setting, a vista that would not have changed in tens of thousands of years.
One thing was missing, though: the ancient Aboriginal hunters. And instead of following them, the eagle now chose me, drawing on a knowledge implanted in its consciousness over a period of 40,000 years; that tramping, running, hunting humans can represent a meal, even if indirectly. So the feeling there was a connection, a bond between us was not misplaced.
With no evidence of humans, save for a discarded beer can and four-wheel drive tracks, I sit on a rock and watch the eagle riding the wind coming off the seas, and listen to the chattering of white-fronted chats and the piping of the oystercatcher beyond the rocks.
The Aboriginal people hunting these shores would have heard the same bird sounds and been familiar with them. Did the twittering of the welcome swallow tell them that spring had arrived? That there would be fresh grass for the wallabies to feed on, and new hunting grounds? Did the monotonous chiming of the striated pardalote also signal spring for the Aborigines, as it did for farmer Geoff King and his forebears?
Birdsong is our immediate link with the past. The melodies, the chimes, the tweets, the clucks, the coos, the caws and screeches; they echo through history. These calls predate the Aborigines, the Dutch and French explorers, the settlers from theBritish Empire, men and women who drove cattle, men who came in search of minerals to mine, and now a visitor looking for his connection to the wild. Not only have we lost our connection with wild places, we have lost our connection with our past.
Humans need wild places. From the time humans first stood up and learned to walk on two legs, the distant horizon has challenged our mobility, urged us to go forward to explore what lies over the hill. We look to mountains and want to climb them, look to forests and jungles and want to know what secrets they conceal. We cast our eyes across great oceans and want to cross them, to set foot on the other side.
At first nature had to be tamed, mountains conquered, oceans charted. We have moved on from that, and now we look at forests and mountains and sweeping vistas for what they are: Mother Nature’s handiwork; beautiful, restorative, calming. Wild places tell us from where we have come and where we are going. Wild animals and their habitants tell us that we are animals ourselves, just one species out of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions if all life forms are taken into account.
But still the mantra ‘‘If it moves, shoot it; if it grows, cut it down,’’ prevails. For many, wildlife has lost its value because we’ve lost our connection with wild places and the animals and birds that live there. We and nature are symbiotic, although it is one-sided in nature’s favour. We can’t live without all the other species that inhabit the earth. We need them more than they need us.
Devils, an eagle and now another player from nature’s A-list of stars – the tiger snake – was to take its place in the theatre of screams, if only in an unseen, supporting role.
When I return to the hut, I tidy up the detritus and debris from the previous evening, washing glasses, cups and binning empty cans. Clearing molten and congealed candle wax from the mantelpiece over the fire, I see a large glass jar with a rolled-up snake skin in it.
When King arrives I ask him about the skin. He tells me that a guest one summer had seen a large tiger snake leaving the back of the hut, by way of a water tank that collects water off the roof. King checked the ceiling and discovered the skin shed by the snake. Clearly the snake lived in the cavity between ceiling and roof that summer, explaining perhaps why possums had steered clear of the roof.
‘‘Don’t worry,’’ King said, sensing my agitation that there might be a snake above my head. ‘‘It’s coming into Winter and all the snakes will be hibernating.’’
As if loneliness and disconnection had not been enough to feed my anxiety the previous evening, now my mind was focused on snakes. I kept my fear of snakes to myself as King and I set up the spotlight for another night’s devil spotting. As we shared another bourbon, I listened intently for a continuous slow movement, not the scurrying of a rodent, that King said indicated there was a snake about.
Scarface was back just after sunset. He gorged himself again but there was a surprise. Instead of another devil arriving to challenge him on the roadkill, it was a spotted-tailed quoll. The quoll, a big male, approached the devil, eyed him off, and no doubt encouraged him to flee, but the quoll had picked on the wrong animal. The devil grunted and showed the quoll a set of ferocious teeth. The devil stood his ground and the quoll was soon on its way.
After Scarface left, replete, another devil turned up. It was raining again and the spots of rain fell on its black coat, sparkling like diamonds sprinkled in the night. The second devil, another male, possibly the same one Scarface had chased off last night, was next to settle on the rapidly diminishing carcass.
After I put out the spotlight a third devil arrived, a small female this time. The carcass had been staked into the ground so it could not be pulled away form the light, but she managed to pull it free. Instead of pulling the remaining carcass, just skin and bone and tail, into the darkness, the devil pulled it towards the hut and through a hole in the side of the building. Its path was clearly defined. For the rest of the evening I could hear it crunching on the bones, letting out growls and shrieks when other devils, smelling the carcass, tried to come under the hut.
Lying in bed on the second night I’m feeling a little easier and confident now. King brought me some extra candles to keep the dark at bay. It’s nearly winter, so there won’t be snakes in the ceiling.
In this context, the crunching of devil on pademelon bones has become strangely reassuring. I venture outside the hut and the rain and mist of the past few days has cleared and there is a magnificent sky, the Milky Way weaving through it like a giant star-spangled snake. A shooting star streaks across the sky, falling to the north and I when I get back to the hut the candle has blown out. I don’t bother to light it. The sky and one particular distant star is providing plenty of light to ease the darkness.
And I’ve finally remembered that song. It’s called ‘‘Lonestar’’.
*This article first appeared in the spring, 2012, edition of Island magazine, Island 130.