One of the first things that should strike any British visitor to Tasmania is the sheer number of wild mammals that inhabit the island. We’re not just talking the odd roe deer here or badger there, but a fecund overload of marsupials – possums, wallabies and wombats – that suggests there is more than just chlorophyll in the grass.
Although they are theoretically nocturnal, you will see them during the day and you won’t need binoculars. As a little girl I met at Cradle Mountain exclaimed about a wombat; “I even touched its bottom!”
As a wildlife writer, the Tasmanian devil was the one beast I simply had to see, but the species has fallen victim to a mysterious cancer called Devil Facial Tumour Disease that is mystifying conservationists. Devils on the eastern side of the island have been almost completely wiped out, and only a few areas remain disease free. Tasmania is, of course, the devil’s only home, and extinction is never far away for a species with such a narrow range; don’t be tempted to believe there are any Tasmanian tigers still out there, by the way, whatever you hear.
But if the devil is my prime target, there are plenty of sideshows to keep me entertained along the way. From Hobart, I head north to a remote valley the other side of Ben Lomond National Park where I meet Craig Williams, an Aussie bushman who runs the quirky quoll patrol.
The quoll is the devil’s smaller cousin, a weasel-like scavenger with a brown or black spotted coat and a taste for barbecued meat. Craig drives me out to a picturesque river valley and sends me off to look for platypus while he fires up the barbie. As the sun goes down, he hands me a glass of pinot noir and a powerful torch, and puts a few scraps of wallaby burger on the ground in front of us.
The quolls appear in no time at all and flit around us like fairy extras at a performance of a Midsummer Night’s Dream, scampering in to seize a scrap before disappearing into the night. They make little noise apart from endearing grunts of contentment as they bolt the laid-on feast.
We stay the night at a ramshackle but comfortable farmhouse and early next morning in a couple of irrigation ponds I find two platypuses patrolling the tannin-brown waters. After sitting very still on the edge of the pond for ten minutes, a platypus pops up to the surface so close that I can almost grab that remarkable eponymous beak.
All this wildlife hasn’t brought me any closer to wild devils, however, so I head west until I reach Marrawah, where Tasmania is transformed. While there is an air of familiarity about the farmsteads of the mid-north and alpine scenery of the uplands, the lichen-covered granite and translucent light of the west coast has a much wilder feel that suggests swing-doors and tumble weed.
My host Geoff King ties a dead possum to the back of his pick-up to make a scent trail, and drives me out along an undulating sandy track for several miles until we reach the ocean. The setting sun is casting a soft peachy light on the rocks as Geoff stakes out a roadkill wallaby on the ground outside a small hut.
As with the quolls, little time passes before another-worldly snarling noise comes over the baby monitor that Geoff uses to relay sounds outside the hut. He pulls back the curtain as if opening a new hit stage show, to reveal a muscular beast covered in threadbare black fur with its snout buried inside the wallaby’s stomach.
It’s a male, about five years old, which is more or less the devil’s three score years and ten, but the way this old boy is tucking into his dinner suggests he isn’t dropping down dead anytime soon. There are flashes of white as another sinew is ripped from the bone and a steady accumulation of blood and god-knows-what from around the devil’s jaws; so the Devil Restaurant (as Geoff calls it) is probably not for the squeamish. Devils are instinctively solitary beasts, but will feed together where necessary – researchers have seen 13 animals scoffing on a corpse together.
From Marrawah, I make my way back to Hobart, where my final stopping point is Bruny Island, and a suitably bizarre denouement. Just outside the caravan park in Adventure Bay, I come across a small group of white wallabies that look as if they had been set loose from behind the (Giant) Looking Glass. Not technically albinos but white ‘morphs’ of the red-necked wallaby, they survive their lack of camouflage because of the absence predators – though how they survive the ridicule from their grey-coated brethren, I m not really sure.
Editor’s Note: James Fair is the travel editor of BBC Wildlife Magazine. www.bbcwildlifemagazine.com