SHARYN MUNRO

Edging towards Tasmania

I have begun to leave my mountain for brief expeditions to find different wild edges, places other than my own where manicured or merely manipulated nature meets its match – its original self.
I have lived in environments ranging from totally manmade to barely man-touched; from inner city terrace to country village to small farm, to this remote 65 hectare mountain wildlife refuge. Eventually I needed to be on the edge of wilderness, to have at my back the solace of a world which ran its own life with no interference from man – a world which was truly natural.
My place is a frayed zig-zag of regenerating blue gum forest, its skirt deeply pleated by springfed rainforest gullies, its longwaisted bodice ruched horizontally into secret shelves where perched swamps wink at the sky, appliqued on my aerial maps like Indian mirror embroidery.
Its edges are uneven and everchanging. It swaps plants with the virgin brush it meets at the spine of our ridgetop ‘boundary’; here the virgin does some seducing of my once-civilised clearings and suddenly a new patch of brush is born, nursed by wild raspberries and nettles above which young stinging trees raise their warning flags.
The inhabitants see no boundary either, moving in and out as it suits them. All I have to do is leave them be; in return they permit me, the sole human, to co-exist with them, to watch and learn.
My lifestyle puzzles most people, sets them seeking boxes to contain me; the one I most cherish is ‘an authentic Australian ratbag’, bestowed upon me by Tasmanian immigrant, reviewer and publisher, Fred Baker. I have grown curious as to what other sorts of edges are used by those who need to stay in touch with the wild; they can’t all live as weirdly as I apparently do.
Due to spend two weeks of autumn in Tasmania for other research, I packed the tent, hoping for a chance to seek examples there. I knew this first visit could be only a taste of a very small part of a long-desired place that would call a mountain woman back. No time to go to the wild west, the main treat for nature lovers; and besides, I wanted the scraps, the untouristed edges.
I found that hilly and human-sized Hobart has a wild edge of its own, in bald Mt Wellington and its wooded foothills, but the suburbs are pushing the borders back all the time, creeping up the slopes and claiming views on fire-trap ridgetops.
There are older suburbs partway up Mt Wellington itself, reached by a steep road that winds past ice warning signs, tree-ferns and mossy banks, a world where the mysterious, damply bearded forest is always there, rising above what is human, in snap-freeze air. Do the residents of these lichen-dressed houses with their front yards of moss instead of lawn stay aware of the looming wild edges, or do they become blasé, as they daily commute on this hair-raising road?
My three spare days I allot to the Tasman Peninsula in the south-east; an easy drive from Hobart, small enough to get a feeling for its Nature – and because the Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park is there, at Taranna.
I needed to meet my resident Spotted-tailed Quoll’s equally bloodthirsty relatives: the Tasmanian Devil, and the Eastern Quoll, a closer cousin. Captive cousins aren’t as good as wild ones, but I doubted I’d meet the latter – unless as roadkill, of which there are astonishing and consistently large numbers in Tasmania.
The Tasman Peninsula is a ragged blob of land reached via a smaller blob, the Forestier Peninsula. The two peninsulas join at Eaglehawk Neck, where the coast is rugged and dramatic, but, outside of the national parks, the accessible bays are meekly dotted with small boats and their shorelines with cottages, none of which can be called 'shacks' anymore.
Tourists park their cars, make short treks through dense wind-combed banksia bushland to lean over fenced lookouts and digitally snap each spectacular feature, where the sea roars its untameability as it smashes into gorges and cliffs and surges up into blowholes. No mistaking where the wild edge is here.
It is the narrowness of this 'neck', 30 metres at its narrowest, that makes it a feasible place to try to hold the line against the southward spread of the facial tumours that are slashing the populations of the Devil. Since 1996, the disease has killed 80% of them. I had read this at home with dismay, but its meaning didn’t smite me as a blow to the soul until I came face-to-face with one.
I didn’t know this animal the way I ‘know’ the native animals in my wildlife refuge, including the carnivorous marsupials, from the tiny Antechinus to the Quoll. I was excited that this was about to change, even if only slightly and under artificial circumstances.
I hoped the light rain wouldn’t keep them inside their shelters of logs or rocks in their undulating open range ‘enclosures’, which mean no visible fences, only a deep ditch and sheer hidden walls to separate watcher from watched.
My first Devil appeared on the crest of a mound about two metres away from me, and above my eyelevel. It paused there, a dramatic silhouette.
I was shocked.
‘Oh my God, look at you!’ I gasped.
Shocked because he was so small. Heavier in places, but no bigger overall, so it seemed to me, than my male Spotted-tailed Quolls.
Shocked because he was such an odd shape. His parts were mismatched, with that big head and humped hindquarters. I didn’t say that out loud though.
He was rushing about, poking at leaf litter and logs, stopping now and then to raise his head, or stand upright like a mini grizzly bear, and sniff the news. His whiskers were extremely long. He didn’t appear to be bothered by me, my red umbrella, or my stream of muttered exclamations of wonder, my generalised ‘wow’s and small chuckles of disbelief, or my more specific addresses.
‘But what red ears you have!’ and as I zoomed in with the camera for a close-up of his face …
‘Oh! and what sharp teeth!’ for the two eyeteeth were protruding past his closed lips.
He had a black nose, unlike my Quoll’s pink one. Under the fine raindrops his fur was thick and black and looked as if it would feel soft, except for his tail, which was tufty, almost tatty, and tinged with brown. He did have a white bib streak under his chin, but no definite pale spots.
He and his fellow Devils galloped about their self-made paths with an odd rocking gait, perhaps because their front legs are slightly longer than the rear ones. In the wild they’d be nocturnal, but here they are diurnal, active in the daytime because that’s when they get fed – adaptable little devils.
Reluctantly I left my first-met Devil to hurry to a second enclosure where ‘Devil feeding’ was due. About a dozen damp tourists had already gathered there. The ranger arrived with a bucket of fur-edged chunks of wallaby flesh, which he tossed one at a time to the two females and one male. Naming them, he described their personalities, as individual as their markings.
He attempted to ensure each got its share, but they squealed and screeched and growled horribly as they chased each other – very fast – to fight for what they must have considered the best bits.
As I listened, I imagined a lone new settler, one dark night on the edge of a primeval Tassie forest, from whence was issuing those spine-chilling, hellish sounds, and in the fearful lantern glow, a glimpse of bared teeth, a flash of a creature as black as the devil.
Diabolic. But not in daylight, not here. And there is colour – the naked red ears? A means of communication, growing bright red with excitement or anger.
Loud crunching noises from a nearby female Devil exemplified that their teeth can chew through bone or nail or tough hide; they eat the lot. My Quoll’s scats are full of fur, but only Devil scats contain bits of bone.
Such indiscriminate scavengers clean up a lot of roadkill, but about 2,000 annually get killed in the process. After learning this, I would groan whenever I passed a splat that was red-and-black, rather than red-and-possum-grey. As if the cancers aren't enemy enough.
The tumours are fatal within five months, and highly contagious, passed between the Devils by biting during feeding and mating. That mating sounds worse even than what my female Quolls have to put up with.
The male drags a female off to a safe place like a cave and won’t let her leave until he’s sure she’s come on heat and been impregnated. As this only happens once a year, he has to maximise his chances. He might even hold more than one captive at a time. If he needs to go outside to defaecate, he drags the female(s) with him. I can’t imagine how he’d control two at once. Devil bondage? The females I saw being fed were not the submissive type.
Adaptable, unfussy eaters, strong, fast movers – they deserve to be survivors. They didn’t have dingoes to compete with in Tassie, and they don’t yet have foxes – but they do have humans. While the origin of the tumours is unknown or unproven, it is inconceivable that we play no role – and we do drive the vehicles.
The Devil is Australia's largest surviving native carnivore, if the Tasmanian Tiger, the Thylacine, is extinct, as is almost unanimously acknowledged. But I hadn’t known that the Devil is also the largest carnivorous marsupial still walking the face of the earth. Forget Tassie or Aussie pride – the Devil is globally significant.
Saving the Devil from extinction is critical, not just because they are iconic and unique and it would be internationally embarrassing if we lost it as well as the Thylacine, but because they have a right to a continued existence, to their place in the ecological chain.
And now that I’ve met them, it would be a heartfelt personal loss as well as a tragedy for the earth’s diminishing biodiversity.
But that day, I was soon distracted, by the joy of my visit to the Eastern Quolls in their netted cage. The state’s other main indigenous carnivorous marsupial, quolls climb too well to be kept in an open pen. The first one I saw was asleep in a hollow log, curled up and cosy in its white-spotted caramel coat. No spots on the tail – which is the easy differentiator from my Quoll.
‘Cute’, I thought, although its head being tucked in and upside down, I couldn’t really see its face. But then I noticed the other, very much awake quoll, standing upright and looking at me.
Small-cat-sized, black and white, alert and cheeky, lustrous dark eyes, pink nose and ears, dainty and elegant all in one. As at the first sight of a new grandchild, I melted. ‘Oh, wow. How beautiful are you!?’
I want to have some living with us in my refuge, despite knowing that they eat things I value, like nestlings and eggs and lizards, and that my Quoll might eat rather than greet its Tasmanian cousins.
Having seen these, I am sure that at least twice, years ago, I did see a brown Eastern Quoll on my place. I didn’t see the tail, but the stance and shape were unmistakable. Common down here, they are considered extinct on the mainland, but I’m not giving up hope that in a remote place like mine a few may survive.
Even seeing this one scoffing a lump of some dead animal didn't put vegetarian me off; after all, I have had relationships with carnivores before. I am still in love with the Eastern Quoll.

After Taranna, my heart full of new attachments, I headed towards what looked on the map to be a likely coastal campsite. It sent me along wet corrugated dirt roads between the uniform skylines and sterile denseness of tall eucalypt plantations.
I could see little beyond the roadsides; eucalypt plantations are as dark and uninviting as those of pine. Through narrow track openings to my right, on distant mountainsides I could see real eucalypt forests, the trees steeply stacked like celery on a greengrocer’s stand, only more vertical, the trunks pale and straight, the leaves thickly bunched at the tops.
But after about ten kilometres I was too depressed to continue; I didn’t believe this gamble would be a winner, that it would end in real bush with all its variety and life. I turned around, knowing this would mean a compromise, a night at the Port Arthur camping grounds; it was too late to seek ideals. By now I’d learnt how much shorter are the autumn days in these latitudes, how much later the morning sun and its warmth – and why Hobart folk don’t get up early.
The rain stopped as I reached my allotted site in the enormous campgrounds, with stainless steel camp kitchens and undercover meeting areas designed to cope with busloads. Off-season, there were few people, and below my site was a wide grass sward that sloped down to a fringe of tall trees through which I could see the bay – I could even hear its gentle shush on the rocks. Not too bad a compromise.
The always charming wrens hopped about me in their undress stage, and an inquisitive yellow parrot joined us – blue cheeks, subtly shaded and smartly edged blue and green wings and tail, and a bright red flush like a sunrise above its beak. A Green Rosella, I later learnt, Tasmania’s most common parrot. As twilight deepened, bandicoots began to poke around, a small Bennett’s wallaby grazed below, and more mid-sized marsupials ventured out from the treeline. I think they were Tasmanian Bettongs, reputedly common in the nearby national park.
In the night I heard noises, but not wild ones: engines – lots of boats, and what I’d swear was a train.
Next morning I clambered down through the strip of bush to the shore. The water was a transparent pale green, of a clarity I’d forgotten existed. The rocks were rough in texture yet rounded in shape, tumbled by southern seas, come to rest here as canvases for lichen – creams and limes and yellows and oranges in fine spatters, splotched here and there with bold and almost fleshy orange ‘flowers’ edged with bright yellow. A lurid dayglo green coated any washed-up and wedged branches and logs.
All around the bay, the bush came right down to the rocky fringe of the sea, on gentle inclines to sea-link fingers of points, webbed with small coves in between. In the next cove I found the source of the nocturnal engine noises; a boat ramp with a carpark in which I counted 36 (!) empty boat-trailers, parked behind their tow-vehicles. Reading the boating warning board, I found the other source; my train was the regular seaplane to Port Arthur.
I vowed to find a properly quiet camp site for tonight, my next gamble being Lime Bay State Reserve.
Heading northwest, I saw many historic farm cottages backed by green hills that rolled down to cute sandy bays with black swans bobbing and breathtaking views of islands and cliffs...
So many that I stopped marvelling, stopped taking photographs and playing the game of considering whether I could live there.
Although a mountain woman, I think I could become a sea woman, if I found a wild sea edge with rising bushland at its back instead of farmland or flat coastal strip.
As Roaring Beach had.
A dirt road wound up and down through thick mature coastal bushland to a small carpark for a conservation area. Only one parked car. Beyond that the road was a dead-end. I had seen occasional gateways so I knew people lived out here on bush blocks, but until I walked to the sea, wending my way around and up and over the silvery-grassed dunes and past the tea-coloured lagoon – I didn't realise how lucky they were.
The beach was broad and long, framed by house-free headlands, with a hump-backed island just offshore. A solitary surfer sat on his board beyond the waves. I could ignore him. The beach was empty.
At the edge of the dunes sat odd rounded slabs of light reddish-brown rock – the exact colour chocolate cakes used to be before they all became mud cakes – topped with small flat stones like monochrome Smarties. Similar stones were scattered sparsely over the beach, each separate and supported at an angle by a wind-drift of sculpted sand. I could imagine taking long and frequent walks here, finding new formations and fascinations. The sea was calm, but I could imagine it roaring; I’d like to be here when it was at its wildest.
As I left the carpark I spotted a quirky, vaguely gothic house, set far back against a bush-covered slope that rose to a ridge. No ordinary house, it looked like its owners knew how to make the most of their special wild edge position.
I could live there.
Lime Bay was reached by flat sandy tracks through erratic vegetation, too unfamiliar for me to tell how used or abused. The camping area was set on a tree-dotted grassy point, with enough humps and dips to promise privacy. I walked to the edge of the trees – high tide on the rocks, a crescent of white beach either side, a few black swans floating in stately formation close to shore. The wind-tangled bush closely backed the beaches; not a building or clearing in sight, and the opposite shores were far off. A winner this time.
There were composting toilets tucked well away on the rear tree edge; no showers, which ought to reduce the appeal, and it was late Saturday, with only three small and shyly well-separated campervans here. And me.
The tall skinny wattles became black filigree against a cool sunset as I collected sticks and firewood leftovers to set up camp in a hollow lined with soft flat pom-poms of grass, facing the Bay; no other campsite was visible, no voices audible. The southern stars dazzled me anew with their bright superabundance; they don't seem to twinkle – as if the cold sets them like diamonds.
Only the individual visits of two large and pushy possums disturbed my peace; ignoring my admonitions to ‘shoo!’, each kept waddling back into my firelight. The most persistent was a typically greyish brushtail, like my own accursed rose-eaters, but the other looked black. As I chastised them loudly I guessed my fellow campers might wonder at that.
Only on this trip have I realised how often I talk to non-humans; that morning a walker had caught me questioning an extremely heavily laden banksia tree – ‘Now why on earth would you need so many seed pods?!’
Later I learnt that the Tasmanian brushtail, while the same species as the mainland form, is bigger, and has a longer, thicker coat, no doubt to cope with the cold. Interestingly, it has three main colour variations: silver grey, black, and gold, of which I must have seen two. I wished I’d seen the pure golden type, a genetic mutation, but they don’t survive long in the wild – too conspicuous to predators.

Dawn. Cold. Too cold to get up? But I unzipped the tent enough to peep out and was greeted by a pen and wash artwork: black tracery of trees, a wash of peach sky and silver blue bay. Not too cold.
Multi-layered, hooded and gloved, I grabbed my camera and notebook and went to see the sea.
Low tide. The exposed sand was muddy, rippled, draped with thick khaki seaweed, poked through with the prows of rocks. I sat on a high ledge and watched the waterbirds. The black swans were there again, and three other mid-sized birds posed on a flung-up group of rocks, where they cheeped like chickens. Black silhouettes only, but from the shape of their bills, I thought they might be oystercatchers. A lone Pacific Gull kept watch on a patch of broken water.
As the sunrise slowly ripened, wide slashes of smooth water gleamed bronze amidst the overall steely ripples. The indigo sky still held only a peach rim on the dark skyline, but the peach was blushing deeper, a fireline, and the blue immediately above was growing brighter.
The bird trio shrilled suddenly and took off; the swans caught the panic, got in a flap, wings out, white petticoats showing, chasing each other as they scudded across the surface, dragging white lacy trains. Like eagles, whose tiny peepings belie their size and power, the harsh cries of excited swans do not match their usual demeanour of serenely ‘swanning about’.
The bush was gaining its daylight colours but the sky had changed little until the abrupt introduction of a lemon yellow glow behind the far point. The peach became tangerine, washed wider, and reached up to turn the blue to subtle purplish-brown; the water reflected the new palette, splitting it into wavering stripes as the ripples caught gold on their edges.
With the tide coming in, the small rocks were going under; a few concentric ripples, a mild plop of dismay – and goodbye dry world until tonight.
The lemon glow popped over the hill and became the unwatchable sun once more.
To the south the beach was tinted as orange as if by firelight.
Strange humps of seaweed, longhaired, like stranded marine Pekinese, had been left by the tide, all facing out to sea; past them ran rows of fine black seismographic frills recording each gentle ebbing. Not wanting to disturb their patterns, I kept to the water’s edge, crunching over the millions of tiny shells that are this beach.
While I can’t even begin to grasp what miracles a small patch of this might hold, at least living close to nature has taught me that they exist and that my comprehension or lack of it is irrelevant.
Further back towards the grass edge were deep banks of such shells. Was this why they called it Lime Bay? Did they burn shells here to make lime?
Five swans kept their heads busily looped into the shallow water, their vivid red beaks only briefly lifting above the surface. They talked to each other at close range –‘cree-au, cree-au’. In this light their plumage looked brown against water whose azure and olive reflections were shot with a soft mercurial silver. Another group of six swans were feeding in the little cove over which I had watched the sun rise. The solitary gull was still there.
I reached the far headland, where the rock shelves were geometrically cracked, tessellated like giant pine cones. Above them stumpy casuarinas hung by their toes along the low cliff of yellow clay, their drooping foliage flowering in chains of red-gold beads.
For variety, I walked back along the bush track, but the sun hadn’t reached the ground there and my feet grew numb through the soles of my boots. I was wearing ‘fingerless’ gloves – which do have fingers, but no tips; I could barely manage to re-tie my shoelace. Walking fast through the blue-cold bush, I yet noticed weird casuarinas whose ‘hands’ were held every which way, as if frozen in the middle of a hula.
When I got back it was 9.30, the camp was deserted, and quiet but for the magpies. I had Lime Bay to myself.
Breakfast was inordinately enjoyable – because solitary. The coffee was hot, the Bay sparkling, the air warm. Bliss.
Having spread the dew-soaked tent out to dry on flat rocks, and re-packed the car, I’d earnt the treat of a walk on the northern beach, an hour of time out with nothing to do but look. The tide was gently flapping at the sand, unfurling its fullness. A few swans still rode the ripples; the sole seagull now patrolled the water’s edge.
The water was so clear that I felt like weeping for its beauty, but blinked the surprising tears away. ‘Moved to tears’, I said to the seagull. ‘That’s a first; so it’s not just a cliché after all.’
I felt the water; no colder than a NSW sea can be in summer. I crunched along beside it, further round the crescent, to a log half-embedded in the sand; silvered by seawater, draped with seaweed. The seagull came too, keeping a silent distance by the end of the log.
The beach was empty except for the gull and me. At any moment it seemed likely that a group of slim dark people would emerge from the trees, perhaps to go fishing – laughing, talking – unafraid, natural. The shoreline had the unspoilt look of many early paintings of treelined sandy coves like this; a gentle wildness, from when ‘wild’ had no opposite, just degrees of human accessibility.
There was only the lulling of the water’s repeated soft ‘bur-lup, bur-lup’. I closed my eyes, took in the autumn sun’s warmth – and listened.
Is this the solace of a wild bay edge?

But back at camp, about to take my most reluctant leave of Lime Bay, I met two bushwalkers.
‘Stay here last night, did you?’ one asked.
I nodded, smiling, pleased with my good fortune to have done so, sorry for them that they didn’t.
“How was it? Not too wild, I hope. Can get pretty bad here when the bogans come out for a booze-up.’

So Lime Bay can be my ‘wild’ and theirs. My luck had included this rare morning’s solitude. I marvelled at the spirit of the place, that can hold itself so inviolate against the abuse it must often suffer.
My next brief foray was a few days later, roughly north, a zig-zag route back to get me and my car back to Devonport and the boat. Up and over Elephant Pass to St Marys and Fingal, in a fog that hid all but the roadsides. It was lifting as I drove out to Evercreech Forest Reserve to see the tallest White Gum, Eucalyptus viminalis, in the world. To reach it I had to pass through miles of tree plantations, as I was learning to expect in Tasmania when I saw the word ‘forest’.
This White Gum is thought to be 300 years old. I walked around the wooden platform at the giant’s base, looking up at its ninety-one metres. Awesome. But then I read its history, and the platform suddenly seemed more a collar imprisoning it, like a bear in a sideshow.
Twice it was saved from being felled, and neither time by altruism or respect. In the logging of the 1940s and ‘50s, it and its fellow 'White Knights', as they have dubbed them for the tourists, were too big for the bullock teams to take out. By the logging resurgence of the ‘70s, they had bulldozers, which brought the road to the very base of this tree.
One of the foresters, thinking it seemed exceptionally tall and might set a record, had it measured. So far above the known limit was its height that they then had to convince the world that it really was Eucalyptus viminalis. With such a trophy to show off, they reserved 52 hectares from logging, as a display case for it.
But … how many others, almost as big and as old, did fall to the dozers? This is tokenism; the saving of the tallest tree was an accident of egotism.
In low spirits I took the walk along the moss-bouldered creek, where the tree fern trunks are so thickly furred with moss that they bulge like bottle trees. This is an intensely green world – rocks, logs, trees, sticks, earth – all green. But the mossy ground was peppered with millions of tiny fallen leaves, shaped and shaded like roasted slivered almonds in their range of ambers, and bright colours from orange to burgundy intermittently called attention to clusters of fungi feeding on rotting logs.
My jeans became soaked as the track took me through waist-high ferns still dripping from earlier showers. I persevered to the promised waterfall, a dainty lacework train with a graceful bend, forever trailing down the shining dark slide of the rocks. Pretty. But I was cold and wet, and over ‘green’, as I wouldn’t be on a hot summer day.
I was glad to drive up into sunlight, the heater drying my jeans, but not looking forward to retracing my way through the other sort of forest.
Evercreech Forest Reserve is beautiful – if poignant. A reserve means a remnant; it reminds me of what is lost, the major part of a natural world that wasn’t reserved. An island of forest reserve in the midst of plantations has no wild edges.

In Tasmania I experienced new aspects of nature, and saw a determined nibbling at all its edges. Nature is not safe there.
Wild edges must respect the wild places just beyond, where we may never even go. It’s enough to know they are there, that the life within them is unaffected by our arrogance or ignorance. A glimpse of any such life beyond our own mismanaged one should be enough to put us in our humble place.
For now, the most memorable Tasmanian edge for me is the knife edge on which the wild Tasmanian Devils are balanced, the edge of extinction.
I hope, when I return to edge closer to understanding Tasmania's wild nature, that they’ll be back in force, triumphantly – devilishly – screaming at each other in the dark wild forests.

 

SHARYN MUNRO is a freelance writer, essayist, award-winning short-story writer - and environmental activist. Her three non-fiction books are The Woman on the Mountain (Exisle 2007), Mountain Tails [Exisle 2009) - both set in her mountain refuge - and Rich Land Wasteland: how coal is killing Australia'. This essay was written just after leaving Tassie, while on a writers’ residency at ‘Rosebank’ (mid-2010) courtesy of Mary Delahunty and the Victorian Writers’ Centre, partly for her online nature journal (www.sharynmunro. com)