Having a wild time in Tasmania
Best known as the home of the Tasmanian devil, the Australian island is also home to wombats, wallabies, and outdoor adventure.
The puns are coming fast and furious. What the devil is that? The devil is in the details. The devil made me do it.
We groan and titter at the same time, enjoying the cool midnight air. After more than an hour of waiting, things have disintegrated into silliness.
Here's the situation: A small group of Tasmanian first-timers are gathered inside a safari tent, two telescopes pointed off into the distance. Our eyes occasionally wander back to the road-killed wallaby that has been propped up as bait.
We're hunting Tasmanian devils, or should I say: We're waiting for them to hunt. The point of this little experiment is to lure the devils out into the open for a little marsupial dinner theater.
We wait a bit longer, make a few more jokes, and then we hear it. That high-pitched wailing-screeching-growling sound that a Tasmanian devil makes when it begins to feed.
Our Australian guide explains that they are not trying to scare off other devils; rather, this is their way of greeting one another.
But since the black-and-white striped beast is somewhat uncouth in its manner and has difficulty controlling its volume, the guide explains, this is how the greeting arrives: "GOODAY MATE! NICE TO SEE YA!"
I laugh hysterically at this because I can relate. Whenever my family, a k a The Loud Family, gets together, it's a similar shouting match. We are not angry or upset, mind you. Simply so glad to be together that we must holler at each other.
So you see, as I sit in this uncomfortable plastic chair, I'm more than amused by the odd circumstances in which I find myself. I'm feeling a strange kinship with the Tasmanian devil, which I have crossed 10,000 miles of ocean to see.
That's when it hits me: I'm having a devil of a good time in Tasmania (oh, groan). I came for a week-long trip to this wild island in search of adventure, and I have definitely found some.
In case you've forgotten from fifth-grade geography (as I had), Tasmania is one of Australia's six states and two territories. It is a short flight from Melbourne to either Hobart, the capital city, or Launceston in the north, which, after Sydney, are the country's second- and third-oldest cities.
Neither is very big, but that's part of the charm. The island is known for its rolling green hills and relaxed country atmosphere. If it weren't for the weirdest looking animals you've ever seen, you'd think you were on Martha's Vineyard.
Even though Tasmania is relatively small - about the size of Ireland - there is plenty to do and see.
For those who want to bum around one of the first convict colonies in Australia, historic Port Arthur is the place.
Those who want to unwind in a garden-enveloped B&B, eating and drinking along the way, head for the Midlands.
But for those who want to get back to nature in its most pristine state, there's no better place than Lake St. Clair National Park in the heart of this heart-shape island.
Me, I love hiking, or bushwalking, as it's called here. So while I'm enjoying the variety of experiences on the island, I'm just biding my time until we hit the trails. And there are plenty of them. More than one-third of its landmass is protected in national parks and reserves, spreading from the mountains to the coasts.
In fact, the majority of people who come to Tasmania come for the outdoor adventures: everything from rock climbing to kayaking to scuba diving. And everywhere you go, you're going to run into unusual creatures: kangaroos, pademelons, wallabies, and wombats.
We stay at the Cradle Mountain Lodge at the north end of the 158,000-acre park. It is a perfect "base camp" for day hikes and other outdoor adventures, including canoeing, horseback riding, mountain biking, fly-fishing, and four-wheeling.
Each of the cozy pencil-pine cabins has a log fireplace, and many have goose-down comforters for snuggling under after a long, hard day. Tasmania is so far south that it can get chilly and rainy even during summer, so you'll appreciate these added amenities. Treat yourself to a spa cabin if you're able. It's worth it.
Not ready for any of these luxuries yet, I throw my stuff on the bed and head out the door. There are loads of hikes to be had, and they vary in length and difficulty. One of the most spectacular in all of Tasmania is near the lodge. It's called the Dove Lake Circuit. The easy four-mile walk winds around the picturesque lake and under the towering spires of Cradle Mountain, giving you a glimpse at the temperate rain forests that are typical of the area.
Much of Tasmania's wilderness is lined with duckboard, or boardwalk, to keep you on track, and it makes walking much easier. Even the famed Overland Track is inlaid with duckboard for much of the way.
The Overland Track, a five-day, 50-mile hike, is the most popular, best-known bushwalk in Australia, and visitors come from all over the world to tackle it. It starts at Cradle Mountain and winds around to Lake St. Clair, a 600-foot-deep glacial lake, reputedly the deepest in the Southern Hemisphere.
I'm jealous of the groups I see shouldering their hefty backpacks filled with five days' worth of food and other supplies. If I had an extra week in Tasmania, I would be right beside them. Next time, I promise myself.
Since I want to make the most of the time I do have, however, a friend and I set off the following morning for an all-day hike up to the summit of Cradle Mountain, through the Ballroom Forest, and around to Crater Lake - an eight-mile hike.
An extensive bushwalk like this will give you a flavor for the isolated and wild character still alive in much of Tasmania. Declares one Australian bushwalking and camping website: "Tasmania is renowned for some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world. The western half of the island has been left virtually untouched since the last Ice Age when massive glaciers rolled throughout the land coaxing the soft rock into a startling array of beautiful mountains and valleys. The lakes and rivers are the purest in the world unrivaled in their crystal depths. You can't honestly call yourself a serious bushwalker if you've never visited this part of the nation."
Indeed, the scenery is magnificent. But what's even more impressive is how diverse it is. As we ascend and descend the rugged terrain, the vegetation changes dramatically in just a short distance: from vast button-grass plains and alpine herb meadows to the low-lying rain forests, which house the native King Billy pine. The pines' size alone is humbling, but some of these trees are more than 1,000 years old.
I see more of these giants as I near my cabin. I'm wiped out (though mentally reenergized), and am ready for a spa and massage, both of which I can get at the lodge. The sun is setting in the mountains I've just conquered, and from the forest's edge, I see a wombat shuffling out into the open.
Tasmania, I think, is about as wild a time as you can have.