Wildlife Among the Gumtrees

Give me a home among the gumtrees, with lots of plum trees, a sheep or two, a kangaroo, a  clothesline out the back, verandah out the front, and an old rocking chair’  – John Williamson

Craggy Peaks. An old golf course at the foot of Ben Lomond that has been reconditioned as a holiday camp, containing fifteen self-contained cabins nestled among the trees, overlooking Mistletoe Creek. No plums, sheep or rocking chairs, unfortunately, but gallons of gumtrees and a plethora of native Australian animals.

We have taken a somewhat circuitous route to get here, around the rim of the Ben Lomond National Park, and along miles of dirt tracks, but you can always choose the rather smoother route on bitumen roads through farmland, wooded hills and the old mining town of Rossarden that ensure an easy and attractive ninety minute drive from Launceston.

The trees are full of birds – kookaburras, a family of tawny frogmouth, and many others that remain out of sight, but make lots of noise – and the surrounding woods are alive with wallabies, wombats and quolls. And, strangely, deer, that were introduced into the area, wander freely through the nearby town of Rossarden, where they are much loved and protected. The gushing, rushing creek hurtles down the hill and across the middle of the property. The wind soughs through the trees like the Whispering Woods of Enid Blyton’s imagination. Frogs chortle around the rim of the dam, invisible among the bulrushes. The craggy outline of Ben Lomond looms above us, cast in shadows as we pour our first G&T and relax on the deck. And we are soothed to sleep by the sound of rain on the tin roof.

We have been advised to bring everything we needed in the way of food and drink, as the nearest supermarket is in Campbelltown, 60kms away. But once we were settled, there seemed little need to wander so far. Strenuous hikes up Stacks Bluff or gentle strolls through the bush, sunny days and cool nights, fresh air, space and the scent of eucalyptus… what more could a girl want? It is blissfully relaxing and a welcome escape from tv and the internet, phones and newspapers, with the added joy of spotting the local wildlife.

One night, we leave some ham on the deck and watch with fascination as two quolls pop in for a bite to eat. The quolls are smaller than I had imagined. Knowing them to be carnivorous, I have expected something the size of a fox, but these are only the size of small cats.

The quoll – once known as the tiger cat despite the fact that it is spotted, not striped and not much like a cat at all, apart from its bushy tail – is nocturnal, and will build itself a nest underground, in a crevice in the rock, or under a fallen log. Some can also climb trees. Its soft, thick fur comes in a range of colours from strawberry blond to dark chocolate brown, spotted with neat white dots. Bush Heritage Australia explains that quolls have up to eight pups per litter, which spend the first weeks of their lives in a pouch. They have a limited life span in the wild – even without our help – of two to four years.

Once prolific across the continent of Australia, new Australians have unfortunately had a huge impact on quoll populations. Cars, trapping and loss of habitat, not to mention species we have carelessly introduced, have wiped out quoll populations everywhere. Apparently cane toads have decimated the Northern quoll population, and the Eastern quoll is now extinct on mainland Australia, thanks to feral cats and foxes. It is surviving in Tasmania by the skin of its sharp, pointy teeth. It uses those same teeth to keep down the population of rabbits, mice and rats, and also likes to munch on spiders, cockroaches and grasshoppers. As this helps to maintain a natural balance in the ecosystem, there is good reason to ensure that we don’t eliminate them entirely. Many wildlife charities are working hard to preserve the ones we have left and boost their numbers.

Then there is the possum, also a marsupial, also nocturnal. In the wild, he can be appealingly cheeky – unless protecting young – but possums are generally unpopular in towns, and considered a pest for their tendency to get into one’s roof space and demolish your fruit trees. Actually, I find them appealing, even in suburbia. They have big, dark eyes and soft, woolly fur, and an ability to hold onto things with an almost human grip. The common brushtail possums eat flowers, fruits and seeds, and occasionally grubs, birds eggs and even fledglings. They spend most of their time in trees – if they are not clattering about on your roof!  Supposedly somewhat solitary, they nonetheless communicate in a very noisy fashion,  using hisses and grunts, alarming screeches, chattering, and deep, guttural coughs. In. the wild, minus a busy road, they can live up to thirteen years

A couple leap onto our deck one night, with heavy thumps, just as we are falling asleep. Startled to see us peering through the window, they quickly retreat, but the following night, a braver – and larger – male arrives, who vacuums up all the ham we have left out with the alacrity of a drug addict snorting cocaine. Before long, he has worked his way along the deck to the sliding door, and is peering through the glass, obviously keen for more. The One & Only carves up an apple, offering him a piece at a time, which he grabs firmly with both hands. Apparently, this was insufficient to quell a rumbling stomach, and our uninvited guest clambers onto the railing, to peer in through the door that we have left open just a crack. We know if we invite him in, he’ll soon be sitting at the table, demanding dessert. So we don’t.

Down by the creek, wallabies drop by at twilight, knowing the staff are happy to provide sundowner nibbles. Deborah, who has worked here for a couple of years, tells us there are five friendly wombats who occasionally waddle through the camp to say hello, but sadly, we don’t get to meet them this time. Pademelons and potoroos are also abundant, but I have yet to learn the difference. So, for now, they are all wallabies!

While it rains every night in this temperate forest, the days are glorious: clear and sunny and warm, and the clouds are cotton puffs of lightness. Yet, in winter, the pond freezes over, the grass glistens with frost, and there is snow on Ben Lomond, which brings cross-country skiers and toboggans to the national park. I am keen to come back in winter – armed with Ugg boots and thermal underwear, and tyre chains of course. Oh, to see a wallaby in the snow!

*With thanks to the One & Only for his lovely photos.

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