A wild first week in Tassie

A week ago I moved to Hobart, or nipaluna as it is known in palawa kani, the language of the First Nation’s people of lutruwita, Tasmania. It was a pleasantly sunny Saturday afternoon as I got off the airport bus by Constitution Dock. The brightly coloured fishing boats bobbed gently on the water, tourists filled the pier as they waited for fish and chips or a gelato from the floating shop barges. The restaurants and pubs located in the 19th century waterfront buildings were buzzing with music, talk and laughter. kunanyi/Mount Wellington rose silently above the activity, its distinctive dolerite cliff a stark grey against the surrounding greens and browns.

Franklin Wharf Hobart Waterfront

Tasmania has oft been the butt of many Australian jokes, and as someone from a part of the country that feels similarly maligned (whether it is or not is a different story), I felt a natural affinity with the islanders. I wanted to learn more about this place and its people, flora and fauna. I was fully prepared with an open mind, a sympathetic eye ready to observe in the most positive way possible. I wouldn’t join the rest of those east coasters making jokes about inbreeding and the backwards ways of Taswegians.

Despite all this, I had several encounters with Tasmanian wildlife this week, each one stranger than the last. As hard as I tried I could not discount the fact that these creatures were just, so weird, so, for want of a better word, Tasmanian.

My first mountain bike ride in Hobart was at Glenorchy Mountain Bike Park. Although it was a little  run down, there were still a few fun bits, including a winding climbing trail that rose steadily through the dense forest of eucalyptus, their straight grey trunks framing the rocky trail. As I neared the top, I spied two small furry grey critters. At first glance, I thought they were quokkas – which would be odd given those small marsupials are generally limited to the south western corner of Western Aus and Rottnest Island. They stared at me like they had never seen a person before, so still for a moment I thought they were sculptures, their furry grey forms so similar to the surrounding tree trunks. The spell broke and they rushed off into the dense undergrowth, bouncing away on their stocky hind limbs.

The rufous bellied Pademelon

A post ride google revealed them to be the Tasmanian Pademelon, a member of the macropod group along with kangaroos, wallabies and the quokka. They also hold the honour of having the weirdest name of all critters in this group.

Another ride in Hobart, this time at Meehan’s Range on the eastern side of the River Derwent, led to an encounter with probably my favourite Tasmanian local so far. As I was removing my bike from the rack, I heard some commotion from the corner of the carpark. Loud squawking, followed by bushes rustling. Looking over, I saw what appeared to be large olive coloured chickens with extra long legs, chasing each other through the undergrowth. Their bright orange eyes and yellow beaks stood out vividly against their drab feathers. They appeared to be fighting, long clawed toes lashing out against each other, flapping their rudimentary wings as the loud squawking continued. The crunch of gravel underfoot alerted them to my presence and they sprinted incredibly quickly into the neighbouring undergrowth and out of sight.

They reminded me of a mix between the leggy pukeko and the cheeky weka of Aotearoa/NZ. Another search of ‘Tasmanian chicken’ revealed this fascinating piece from the Tasmanian Times, appropriately entitled ‘The Turbo Chook’. Further research revealed this to be a common moniker for the speedy flightless bird, which has been clocked at up to 48km/hr.

Equal parental rights role model: The Tasmanian Native Hen

Aside from being ridiculous looking, noisy and incredibly speedy, the Tasmanian native hen has fascinating social behaviours. They live in groups of 5-10 birds, typically with only one dominant female mating with multiple males, either successively or simultaneously, a practice known as polyandry. A female turbo chook is able to raise 2 broods per year if food is sufficient, as her kind are excellent at sharing parental duties. Both the male and female partake in nest building, egg incubating and caring for the chicks once they are hatched. Turns out society could learn a lot from these odd looking feminist wild chickens.

On my first day in Hobart I was walking through town to get groceries. Along the way I saw a large sign advertising the Tasmanian JackJumpers, accompanied by the slogan #Defendtheisland. I looked them up, discovering they were the newest National Basketball League team. The logo was an ant with large pincer-like jaws. This seemed like an odd mascot for a sporting team, a bug that could be squished beneath the sole of a shoe hardly seemed threatening. I read further into these insects and discovered that I was very much mistaken.

The Jack jumper, an insect not to be underestimated

The Jack jumper ant is predominantly found in Tasmania and is known for its aggressive behaviour, particularly towards humans. They can jump 3 inches at a time, over 4x their own body length. Jack jumpers also have unusually good eyesight and are able to follow prey/humans from a metre away. They use their large mandibles to grip their prey while they inject them with venom from a sting at the rear of their bodies. They are excellent hunters, and killing other ants, spiders, bees and even will jump onto unsuspecting flies when they land. If this wasn’t terrifying enough, Jack jumper bites on average kill one Tasmanian every 4 years. Death results from a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis), as opposed to the toxicity of the venom itself. Jack jumpers are responsible for 90% of Australian ant venom allergies. In Tasmania, approximately 3% of the population are allergic to Jack Jumper venom, and half of these are at risk of anaphylactic shock if stung. This is double the rate of anaphylaxis to bees. Jack jumper anaphylaxis also appears to be very severe, with some patients requiring admission to hospital for adrenaline infusions, as a single dose from an EpiPen alone is insufficient. A pretty serious situation to find yourself in if you are enjoying some of Tasmania’s 16000 square kilometres of wilderness, which typically has difficult road access and a lack of phone service.

Exploring the trails of kunanyi/Mount Wellington

I am currently really enjoying this interesting island, despite now being too afraid to wear open toed shoes at any time. Stay tuned for more Tasmanian tidbits as I explore the beautiful country of lutruwita.

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