Diary from Australia's Natural States


Devils and the deep blue sea

Our previous day's visit to Melaleuca, one of Tasmania's wildest and most remote environments, produced one of the world's rarest birds, the Orange-bellied Parrot — which, on the face of it, would seem to be a fairly tough act to follow. However, the next few days promised to pass muster, as we were to make our way up the west coast of Tasmania, via the beautiful coastal community of Strahan (pronounced "Strawn") to the wild and woolly Tarkine region.

Tarkine is in the northwest of the island state and it is regarded, with full justification, by both residents and visitors as the ultimate wilderness. No wonder the early settlers named places after the visceral qualities of the region. Road signs for "End-of-the-earth Point", "Murder Gully" and "Gibbet's Point" are all part of the landscape here. After a rather choppy light aircraft flight from Hobart we touched down onto the quartzite of Strahan Airport, which is actually more of an airstrip that acts as the gateway to the northwest of the island.

Flight from Hobart to Strahan, Tasmania (Rob Jolliffe).

Our accommodation for the night was to be Risby Cove, a set of luxuriously renovated boat sheds on the banks of the estuary. We stayed one night and this proved just enough time to connect with our final Tasmanian endemic, the Black Currawong. We managed to locate the bird during a dawn walk in a beautiful mature wet forest close to our apartments.

Black Currawong, Strahan, Tasmania (Mike Unwin).

From Strahan, it was a long jag northwest to Marrawah in the midst of the Tarkine coastal wilderness. We arrived mid-afternoon and our base was to be the nicely appointed set of apartments overlooking the mouth of the Arthur River, which spills out into the Southern Ocean at the westernmost point of Tasmania. Looking out to sea at the gigantic swell, it was easy to imagine that the next stop is South America. Our objective was to spend two evenings on King's Run, a vast and remote reserve of dune scrub and coastal habitat operated by the charismatic Devil fanatic (sounds much worse than it is) Geoff King. Geoff bought a shack from a local fisherman and has turned into a viewing station for one of the most amazing experiences on offer to adventurous nature lovers anywhere in the world.

Geoff's shack is in the middle of Devil country. The wilderness surrounding the area is home to one the largest populations of wild Tasmanian Devils on the island. This area and the wider Tarkine region are also the last remaining strongholds untouched by the devastating effects of the Tasmanian Devil Facial Cancer that has ravaged populations in the south and east of the island. Geoff's shack is perched on the side of a craggy hill surrounded by granite outcrops, 100 metres from the raging spray of the southern ocean. The howling southwesterly on this particular evening brought in drizzly squalls between dark skies, casting an eerie, otherworldly light on the place and contributing all the more to the sense of wonderful isolation.

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Devils, we were assured by Geoff, are fully nocturnal, so in the fading light there was just enough time to enjoy again the spectacle of scores of Short-tailed Shearwaters, Shy Albatrosses and Common Diving Petrels banking and wheeling passed us just offshore over the swell.

Short-tailed Shearwaters, Kings Run, Tarkine, Tasmania (Mike Unwin).

Shy Albatross, Kings Run, Tarkine, Tasmania (Rob Jolliffe).

As the light faded, we retired to the shack for an incredible meal of home-made Bouillabaisse complete with Abalone caught from just offshore on a calmer day. After dinner, Geoff excused himself to set up the outside lights so that they were arranged to fall on the carcass of a Pademelon that Geoff had found as fresh roadkill earlier in the day. Geoff insists on ensuring that the activities of Kings Run do not interfere with the natural feeding cycles of the Devils, so bait consists entirely of roadkill, an all-too-common resource anyway in this area, and a staple for the Devils in the region. Closing the curtains on the huge window that is essentially an entire side of the shack, it was time to wait and see whether the Devils were out and about tonight.

It turned out that they were. Our first devil, an older female, nervously sauntered into the area of light to check out the carcass. She was quickly followed by another Devil, this time a younger female. Both animals seemed wary of one another but were seemingly completely unaware of the fact that they were being watched from behind a pane of glass not five feet away.

Tasmanian Devils, Kings Run, Tarkine, Tasmania (Rob Jolliffe)

After of few minutes of activity, with the females fractiously growling at one another, both animals quickly retreated into the shadows and a large male appeared on the scene, almost looking like a different species. You can see from this hulking, battle-scarred bruiser where the animators of the eponymous Warner Brothers cartoon character got their inspiration. After a few moments, the females plucked up the courage to join the male on the carcass and we were treated to the spectacle of three Devils feeding from less the five feet away. At just past midnight, the carcass had been devoured and the Devils dissolved into night, leaving us all feeling immensely privileged to have experienced this enigmatic species in such an up-close and personal setting.

The next day we were to journey north in search of Platypus, more Tasmanian endemics, and a visit to the "Serengeti of Tasmania": Narawntapu Park.

Written by: Rob Jolliffe