7. Tasmanian Devils, Holey Ground and a Barbie

Harriet with a Baby Wombat
Two birding friends of Steve’s who lived in Mole Creek, a small township north of Hobart, had invited us to a real Australian barbie—their version of a barbeque. Mole Creek is conveniently located not far from Cradle Mountain National Park, the final stop of our tour, so we headed north after one more night on Bruny Island.

The countryside on our four-hour drive to Mole Creek from the Bruny Island ferry reminded me of the Willamette Valley in Oregon with pastureland for sheep, dairy, and beef cattle along with a few small orchards and vegetable farms. On the approach to the northern part of Tasmania, waves of natural barriers stacked up west of the pastures. Forest-covered hills yielded to the rugged side of a mesa and on the horizon the peaks of the Great Western Tiers touched the sky. These granite mountains are snow-covered in the winter, but during November, summer in the southern hemisphere, only spots of snow hid in the valleys.


Holes in the Ground

Finally, the van turned onto an access road past a simple sign for “Mole Creek.” Colonists named the settlement Mole Creek because of a nearby cave system. A large commercial sign advertised tours of the Mole Creek Caves in Mole Creek National Park. A photo of stalagmites on the sign looked familiar. My family had visited the Oregon Caves several times when we spent the summers at my grandmother’s ranch in Southern Oregon. The inside of the caves fascinated me then with their narrow passages, enormous great caverns, and jaw dropping formations created when the water, saturated with dissolved limestone, dripped and slid through and out of the underground caverns. Over thousands of years, this dripping water creates relocated limestone in fanciful formations, some huge pillars. I wondered if the Mole Creek caves looked similar to the caves in Oregon.

In 1996, Tasmania established the Mole Creek Karst National Park, which includes protection of the unique and extensive caves, now a popular draw for tourists. Mole Creek itself disappears down one hole in the ground and reappears further downstream, only to disappear again. Not quite like the moles in my yard in Oregon, but Aussies can make a good story out of anything.


An Old Time Inn & Pub

When we arrived at Mole Creek, the van slowed to a crawl as we approached a cluster of deep-red stucco buildings. A sign on a neatly maintained two-story structure with a brick façade on the front announced “Mole Creek Hotel and Tassie Tiger Bar, Accommodation and Counter Meals Available. Established: 1953.” Frilly drapes dressed an old-fashioned, glass-paneled door with two slender windows—very Australian. I wondered how a macho American might react to those drapes as he headed in for a pint in this local pub. Above the doorframe, another sign informed guests “Stephen Thistlewaite, Licensee.” Two large replica cans of Boag’s Draught bracketed the entrance and in the window a simple sign read “Lounge.”

We crept forward to the far end of the building. Another sign announced the hotel, with the rooms on the second floor. I had already jumped to the conclusion that our nights could be raucous with the pub below us, but the pleasant sandy-haired man who checked us in assured us that the Tassie Tiger Pub was raucous only on weekends. Fortunately, we arrived on a Wednesday for two nights, so we would miss the late night revelers.

The basic rooms upstairs with the bathroom facilities down the hall suited me fine; clean and simple. Better yet, we were the only guests that night—or maybe this small hotel only had enough accommodations for our group of fourteen. The inn had a laid-back feel of an old, well-used and loved place where locals regularly gathered, but which tourists might pass by for a more upscale lodging.


An Australian Barbie

We did not tour the caves nor take the scheduled tour of the Mersey River to search for the elusive duck-billed platypus as originally planned. Though disappointed, I knew the odds were against us seeing that curious egg-laying mammal. It looks like a beaver with a duck’s bill glued to its face, a strange look, indeed. Carnivorous and weighing up to five pounds, the platypus feeds by scooping shellfish, worms, and insects from the river bottom, thus decreasing further our odds for a sighting of this rare and elusive animal. I wondered, Is anyone able to find a platypus in the wild?

In the mid-afternoon, we found Phil’s house for our barbie experience. The “r” is silent, so it is pronounced “bahby.” Phil’s backyard had been hacked out of the bush making a nice open space covered in tough, wiry grass. With the trees behind us, the setting for a good ol’ Australian barbecue felt inviting and private.

Phil piled chops, steaks, sausages, and prawns on his grill and the tang of roasting meat filled the air. “I held off on the emu steaks since your lot favors birds,” Phil quipped, “but emu meat is really good, almost as good as a prime beef.”

I appreciated Phil’s sensitivity.

We sat on lawn chairs and benches in a half-circle around the grill, the central feature of the backyard. Phil and Steve regaled us with their adventures of trying to find a Thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian tiger, another marsupial relative of the Tasmanian devil that had fascinated my father. Thylacines had been declared extinct in 1936 when the last one in captivity died, but Steve believed they were still around and he was not alone. Sightings abounded, all of which had proven false or inconclusive up to that point. Recent photos of what is believed to be a thylacine show a small, dog-sized animal with a slender body, a thick head, and stripes across the lower back. The reference for the thylacine is based on photos of the last known live thylacine in a zoo, which shows the characteristic stiff tail held straight behind the body.

“Thylacines really stink because their main food is carrion, rotten meat,” Steve told us. “I figured if we just could smell one, we could eventually find it, but I think we really needed a trained dog to pick up the scent.”

Phil pointed to his graying mutt flopped strategically near the grill, enjoying the warm evening. “We tried to get Roger over there to help, but he just sniffed everything without discernment. Hopeless.”

Poor Roger twitched his ear at the sound of his name, but ignored the laughter at his expense. Apparently, tales of the wild hunts for thylacines always ended with beer, charred meat, and lots of laughter, making the effort all worthwhile for the narrators.

When the meat was ready, Phil invited us to the picnic table loaded with potato salad, bean salad, bread, and more beverages to round it out. It all was food typically served at American barbecues, so I’m not certain what made this especially Australian. For me, the humorous stories of hunts for strange animals told with local accents, heaps of meat, salad sides, and a bottomless cooler of beer that lubricated the storytelling as the sun sank into the trees made it a delightful experience.

When we returned to the Mole Creek Hotel, the windows of the small restaurant glowed warmly. Families, neighbors, and singles chatted over and across tables. I learned that the lacey drapes along with the lounge sign meant that although liquor was served, it was a family place where women and children were welcome.


The Real Tasmanian Devil

The next day, we visited the Trowunna Wildlife Park in Mole Creek, a 65-acre private wildlife reserve. The sanctuary protects native Australian animals, some free-roaming and others in enclosures. I was eager to see if a live Tasmanian devil lived there and a sign at the entry answered my question. The park houses the greatest number of Tasmanian devils in the world. Trowunna Wildlife Park is part of a larger effort to preserve Tasmanian devil populations that are free of facial tumors.

The Tasmanian devil is the largest carnivorous marsupial in existence. They once roamed all of Australia, but now are only found in Tasmania. Although they breed easily and often, a facial tumor disease is devastating the population in the wild. The tumors occur around the mouth and interfere with feeding, so the animals eventually starve to death. The few remaining devils in the wild are secretive and nocturnal, and sightings usually occur on rural roads as they devour rotting road kill.

The devil I saw at the wildlife park paced in and out of the shrubs growing in his small enclosure. The four-foot-high stone barrier that separated it from me looked too short for my comfort, but I assumed the keepers knew what they were doing when they built it. This Tasmanian devil looked well fed and healthy with his shiny black coat, a swish of white on its chest, and a pointy face free of any tumors. The jaws were indeed massive and could quickly reduce the bones of even large prey to bite-sized chunks in no time. The fierce animal emitted no dreaded screeches because he had no reason to be vocal. The rest of them must have been in another area since only the one was on display.


Snuggly Wombat with Sharp Claws

Strolling through the wildlife park, I crossed paths with an animal caretaker walking a baby wombat, or rather, holding him in her arms while she walked around. “The staff is raising this orphan,” she said. “This little guy wants lots of cuddling. Want to take him for a while?”

Would I? I thought. What a great opportunity! Bear-like with thick brown fur, the baby wombat was just a warm, soft ball of fuzz, so I gladly offered my assistance. He weighed about 15 pounds and as I held the snuggly baby I noted the long, sharp claws that he would one day use as an adult to dig into rotted logs for food. Wombats are marsupials like kangaroos, but they have a most unusual pouch. The abdominal pouches of all other marsupials, such as kangaroos, open mid-belly, but because the wombat burrows to find food, the mouth of the pouch points toward the mother’s tail so that the baby is not suffocated with dirt while the mother digs for food—one of nature’s brilliant designs.

Another evolutionary wombat oddity is their cube-shaped feces. As a former biology teacher, when I first learned this I couldn’t figure out the purpose of this adaptation. Later, I learned that scientists believe those cuboid shapes could help keep the territory-marking feces in place so they don’t roll off rocks.

Still, I couldn’t make sense of what evolutionary quirk led to a wombat’s gut that can expel those unbelievable cubes. While researching this fact several years after meeting the baby wombat, I discovered I was not alone. In 2018 article in Science News, Patricia Yang, a post doctoral Fellow at Georgia Institute of Technology, reported on her study of the varied elasticity of the last third of the wombat gut. Its extra-stretchy longitudinal bands may be the answer to how wombats poop cubes that look a bit like the pressed alfalfa fed to horses.

A wide variety of unique and odd creatures like the wombat and Tasmanian devil evolved in Australia because of its isolation. Throughout Australia it was fascinating to see what each area offered as unique animals and birds. I looked forward to the final leg of our trip and what Cradle Mountain’s new anomalies might reveal.