My six days with the small tour group in Tasmania usually involved an early start from whatever dorm we’d stayed in the night before, a quick break within the first hour, then alternating between drives and stops, including a trip to a supermarket. Days ended at a hostel in a new town.
I’d spent the year travelling solo through West Africa and then Asia, and rested a month in Bali. I’d flown into Hobart from Western Australia after driving around a rental car and staying in a tent. But when Australian friends had warned me about the unpredictable weather of Cradle Mountain, I’d given up on tenting in Tasmania and decided to give a budget tour a shot.
I was somewhat apprehensive about group travel after so many days and nights travelling solo. On my first MariesWorldTour.com in 2001, when I’d gone around the world by public transport in the other direction, I’d gone along with a few groups. But a decade had passed and since then, I’d become less patient with group dynamics.
My group consisted of about 20 people, some from Europe, some from Japan, and some from Korea. Over our first three days, we'd seen the World Heritage Port Arthur convict settlement, the historic towns of Ross and Richmond, the rugged coastline of Freycinet National Park and Wineglass Bay, the Bay of Fires, and assorted waterfalls and roadside attractions such as the Tasmanian Devil Conservation Centre, an oyster farm, a penguin rookery, a chocolate factory and a cheese factory.
Sometimes, I was doing all right with the group and just glad I didn’t have to drive. Other times, I became bored and wished I had my own car, so that I could go investigate something besides what was on our official schedule. Sharing a small space with several others, all competing for a few power points and a couple of bathrooms, wasn’t ideal, but the price had been right. Sometimes I was fine with it. Others, I was crawling out of my skin with all the full-on companionship.
But then, in the parking lot near Wineglass Bay, our guide showed up we could pet a wild wallaby that hung around looking for snacks.
I lived in rural northern New South Wales on-and-off for two years in 2002-2003. I had a wallaby friend who lives in the yard with her joey. Sometimes I left guinea pig food out for her.
But she never let me get anywhere near her.
If the trade-off for touring in close quarters to others was petting a wallaby, I thought, I could get through this.
A day later, we got to Cradle Mountain.
Our driver and guide left us there, and a new guide took over.
The new guy had a few nice touches – in the mornings, for example, at Cradle Mountain, he got up at six and laid out our breakfast foods. But then he also provided constant commentary on the PA in the bus, musing endlessly on about whatever crossed his mind while interspersing this with actual details we needed. The chatter went something like this:
"The man who owns that farms still makes those Dutch shoes – what are they called – clogs, today. Does anyone here wear clogs? Oh look, the sky ahead is blue. So maybe it isn't snowing tomorrow. We need to leave at eight but just to go down to the visitor's centre where you can catch the shuttle bus. You know, no one can make you feel inferior. It's your own choice to feel inferior. Think about that."
"You can be quiet," suggested an older Catalonian woman on our first morning with the new guide.
"I have to provide three hours of commentary a day at my job in Darwin," our guide explained.
Our group was fairly polite, so no one pointed out we weren’t in Darwin.
At Cradle Mountain, we were set loose to take the local shuttles to various hikes. The others all went off to hike, but I went wombat-seeking in a place called Wombat Hill.
I saw three in the first ten minutes, including a baby wombat. I did hike after that near the Interpretive Centre, but the hike I chose was the height of wimpiness. And after my hike, I caught the shuttle bus back to camp.
On Sunday, I headed to a nearby resort to something called the "Wilderness Gallery". I'd seen billboards and brochures advertising a Tasmanian tiger exhibit.
And I love Tasmanian tigers.
The first time my Aussie ex had told me about Tasmanian tigers, I accused him of putting me on. He was always saying silly things, and I barely believed him about the giant-sized kangaroos and emus that had once inhabited Australia (these mega-fauna were confirmed by a museum in Queensland within the month). Why would I believe there had been a tiger in Tasmania?
Because there wasn't, not really. The Tassie tiger wasn't really a tiger, not like the tigers in Nepal or India. They were more like lean dogs, or small marsupial wolves, but with striped lower backs.
I remember going to the slow dial-up Internet in our mountain home to search for proof of the Tasmanian tiger.
And it turned out he hadn't been lying to me after all. There really had been an animal commonly called the Tasmanian tiger. And European settlers in Tasmania had driven it to extinction in the 1930s.
Our tour guide recommended the Wilderness Gallery, and was excited enough about my interest in Tasmanian tigers to drive me to the venue and drop me off before taking the rest of our group of tourists hiking.
Opening time was ten AM, so I had nearly two hours to slowly sip a flat white (closest to what’s called a "regular" back home in New York) in the resort cafe while waiting.
Admission was seven dollars and the exhibit was informative but depressing. The Tasmanian tiger had been blamed with excessive killing of livestock, perhaps unfairly so as domestic dogs held a share of the guilt. Fearing what they didn't understand, people trapped and killed the tiger as they also did the Tassie devil back then, and a bounty was offered for bringing in tiger tails.
The last Tasmanian tiger was alone in a zoo in the 30s, where he died, the last of his species. I remember a news story that the Tassie tiger DNA had been extracted a few years ago. Maybe they can make a new one.
Some people occasionally claim to have seen a Tassie tiger in the wild, but no one seems to have been able to snap a photo so I don't really believe they're secretly out there and neither did either of my guides.
But an old man on a tour bus that came in while I was waiting for my group to fetch me believes they're out there.
"I've seen four of them in my time," he started up when the other old men on his bus stopped near him to wait for their guide.
"He was gone in a flash... but I saw the stripes and the tail."
The other old men all nodded sagely. Surely they too had seen Tasmanian tigers.
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