Wilderness & Wildlife
Tasmania is the size of a small European country – there's plenty of room for the island's unique flora and fauna to live, thrive and survive. A roll call of quirky species reinforces Tasmania’s unique appeal, and travellers have plenty of opportunities, both structured and spontaneous, to see a Tasmanian devil, a platypus, a Cape Barren goose… The backdrop to this animal hubbub is the state's amazing wilderness, comprising some of the planet’s most important natural-heritage areas.
The Tasmanian Wilderness
Adrift some 240km south of Victoria, across tumultuous Bass Strait, Tasmania is Australia’s only island state and also its smallest. Including its offshore islands, Tasmania’s surface area is 68,401 sq km – slightly smaller than Ireland and slightly larger than Sri Lanka. To the east is the Tasman Sea, separating Australia and New Zealand; to the south and west the Southern Ocean rolls nonstop to Antarctica. Most folks fly into Tasmania from mainland Australia in an hour or two at the most. It seems so accessible, but really, this island is a long way from anywhere. Walking through the Tasmanian wilderness, the sense of remoteness is palpable and utterly delicious.
Rugged But Beautiful
Welcome to Australia’s most compact yet diverse state. Unlike in much of mainland Australia, flat land is a rarity here. Tasmania’s highest mountain, Mt Ossa, peaks at just 1617m, but much of the island’s interior is extremely vertiginous. One indication of the lack of level ground is the proximity of central Hobart and Launceston to some rather impressive hills – life in the suburbs here often involves having steep driveways and strong leg muscles!
Tasmania’s intricate coastline is laced with coves and beaches, shallow bays and broad estuaries – the result of river valleys flooding as sea levels rose after the last ice age. By contrast, the island's Central Highlands were covered by a single ice sheet during that ice age. This bleak (but amazingly beautiful) landscape remains a harsh environment, dotted with lakes, dappled with winter snow and completely unsuitable for farming.
Showing the scars of recent glaciation, most of Tasmania’s west coast is a twisted nest of mountain ranges, ridges and formidable ocean beaches. The climate here is inhospitable: the coastline is pummelled by uncompromising seas and annual rainfall clocks in somewhere upwards of 3m. But on an overpopulated planet, this kind of wilderness is increasingly rare; the west’s cliffs, lakes, rainforests and wild rivers are among Tasmania’s greatest attractions and are irresistible temptations for walkers, adventurers and photographers.
By the time the rain clouds make it over to the east coast, they've usually dumped their contents out west and have become fluffy and benign rather than grey and menacing. The east coast is sunny and beachy, with a sequence of laid-back holiday towns and photogenic white-sand beaches.
The fertile plains of the Midlands area make up Tasmania's agricultural heartland – east of the harsh Central Highlands but not so far east that rainfall becomes an anomaly.
National Parks & Reserves
A greater percentage of land – around 40% – is allocated to national parks and reserves in Tasmania than in any other Australian state. The Tasmania Parks & Wildlife Service (PWS) manages around 800 reserves, including 19 national parks, covering over 27,000 sq km. More than 2000km of superb walking tracks, unique flora and abundant fauna combine to create a mecca for naturalists, bushwalkers, wildlife watchers, campers and photographers. Roughing it in the wild is always an option – trek through the inspiring natural beauty of the southwest, or escape civilisation on a raft down the free-flowing Franklin River – but guided walks, scenic flights and river cruises also open this world up to travellers seeking a gentler Tasmanian experience.
Tasmania’s reputation as clean and green comes primarily on the back of its 19 national parks, which cover around 21.5% of the state. Inside them you'll find incredible environmental diversity, from highland lakes and surging rivers to ocean-swept beaches, craggy coves, wildlife-rich islands, jagged ranges and lush temperate rainforest.
The parks are indisputably one of Tasmania's greatest attractions, protecting the likes of Cradle Mountain, Wineglass Bay and much of the southern half of Bruny Island. The golden rules in Tasmania's parks: don’t damage or alter the natural environment, and don’t feed wild animals. Most of the parks are easily accessed by vehicle, but two – Savage River in the heart of the takayna/Tarkine wilderness, and the island sprinkle of the Kent Group in Bass Strait – are virtually inaccessible. Walls of Jerusalem National Park has no direct road access, but there's a car park reached via a steep 30-minute walk down from the park boundary, and Maria Island National Park can only be reached by ferry or private boat.
When to Visit
Most people visit Tasmania's national parks during summer (December to February) to enjoy long days and warm weather (although Tasmania can receive snow in December!). Visiting outside these months sees smaller crowds and seasonal diversity: autumn features mild weather and the changing colours of deciduous beech forests; winter sees snow on the peaks; spring brings on a surge of wild flowers.
Visitor fees apply to all national parks, even when there’s no rangers' office or roaming ranger on duty. Funds from entry fees remain with the Parks & Wildlife Service and go towards constructing and improving walking tracks, camping grounds, toilets, lookouts and picnic facilities, as well as funding the popular summer ‘Discovery Ranger’ activities for younger visitors.
There are two main types of pass available for short-term visitors: 24-hour and holiday passes. A 24-hour pass costs $24 per vehicle (with up to eight people), or $12 per person if you arrive by bus, motorbike, bike or on foot. If you arrive without your own car at Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, a 24-hour pass costs $16.50/$8.25 per adult/child, but includes a ticket on the park shuttle service to Dove Lake. A holiday pass lasts for eight weeks and costs $60 per vehicle, or $30 per person if you don't have a vehicle. Annual passes ($96 per vehicle) and two-year passes ($123 per vehicle) are also available if you’re a frequent visitor. The one-year pass is discounted to $70 on renewal.
For most travellers, the eight-week holiday pass is the best bet. Passes are available at national park visitor centres, Service Tasmania outlets, aboard the Spirit of Tasmania ferries and online at http://passes.parks.tas.gov.au.
Access & Facilities
Information centres with walking information and history and ecology displays are at both ends of Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, as well as at Freycinet, Mt Field and Narawntapu National Parks.
The 16 most accessible parks (that is, not the Savage River, Kent Group and Walls of Jerusalem National Parks) all have short walking tracks, toilets, shelters and picnic areas for day visitors to use; many also have barbecues. The entire Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area and most national-park areas have been declared ‘fuel stove only’ to protect the natural environment – this means no campfires. Dogs are definitely not allowed in any of the national parks.
Established camp sites are available in all accessible parks, except for the Hartz Mountains, Mole Creek Karst and Rocky Cape National Parks. Some sites are free, while others have a small charge per person (generally $6 to $13 for an unpowered site) in addition to park entry fees. Ben Lomond, Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair, Freycinet, Maria Island and Mt Field National Parks also have accommodation options inside their boundaries, ranging from rustic huts to five-star resorts. Click on 'Recreation', then 'Camping’ on www.parks.tas.gov.au for detailed information for each park.
There are short walks suitable for wheelchair users and some prams at the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair, Freycinet, Mt Field, Tasman and Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Parks (though wheelchair users may require assistance on these walks).
Tasmania’s National Parks
Ben Lomond National Park
alpine flora, the state’s main ski field
walking, skiing, rock climbing
Best time to visit
Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park
moorlands, mountain peaks, the famed Overland Track, Australia’s deepest freshwater lake
walking, scenic flights, wildlife spotting
Best time to visit
Douglas-Apsley National Park
dry eucalypt forest, river gorges, waterfalls, wildlife, waterhole swimming
Best time to visit
Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park
two grand wilderness watercourses, deep river gorges, rainforest, Frenchmans Cap, Aboriginal sites
rafting, river cruises (from Strahan)
Best time to visit
Freycinet National Park
picturesque coastal scenery, Wineglass Bay, granite peaks, great beaches, walks
walking, abseiling, sea kayaking, scenic flights, fishing
Best time to visit
Hartz Mountains National Park
alpine heath, rainforest, glacial lakes, views of the southwest wilderness
walking, wild flowers
Best time to visit
Kent Group National Park
Bass Strait islets (mostly inaccessible), fur seals, seabirds, historical significance
Best time to visit
Maria Island National Park
traffic-free island with convict history, peaceful bays, fossil-filled cliffs
walking, mountain biking, swimming
Best time to visit
Mole Creek Karst National Park
more than 200 limestone caves & sinkholes, some open to the public
Best time to visit
Mt Field National Park
abundant flora & fauna, alpine scenery, high-country walks, Russell Falls, Mt Mawson ski field
walking, skiing, wildlife watching
Best time to visit
Mt William National Park
long sandy beaches, protected Forester kangaroos
walking, fishing, swimming
Best time to visit
Narawntapu National Park
north-coast lagoons, wetlands, tea-tree mazes, native wildlife
swimming, walking, wildlife watching
Best time to visit
Rocky Cape National Park
bushland, rocky headlands, Aboriginal caves, exceptional marine environment
swimming, fishing, walking
Best time to visit
Savage River National Park
cool temperate rainforest inside the Tarkine wilderness – utterly secluded, no road access
Best time to visit
South Bruny National Park
wild cliffs, surf & swimming beaches, heathlands, wildlife
walking, swimming, surfing, wildlife watching, eco-cruises
Best time to visit
Southwest National Park
vast multi-peaked wilderness, one of the world’s most pristine natural wonders
walking, swimming, scenic flights, mountaineering, sea kayaking
Best time to visit
Strzelecki National Park
mountainous slice of Flinders island, rare flora & fauna
walking, rock climbing, wildlife watching, swimming
Best time to visit
Tasman National Park
spectacular sea cliffs & rock formations, offshore islands, forests, bays & beaches, the new Three Capes Track
walking, diving, surfing, eco-cruises, fishing, sea kayaking
Best time to visit
Walls of Jerusalem National Park
spectacular, remote alpine & mountain wilderness, no road access
Best time to visit
World Heritage Area
The internationally significant Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area contains the state’s four largest national parks – Southwest, Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers, Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair and Walls of Jerusalem – plus the Hartz Mountains National Park, Central Plateau Conservation Area, Adamsfield Conservation Area, a section of Mole Creek Karst National Park, the Devils Gullet State Reserve and part of the Liffey Falls State Reserve. The area comprises a grand 15,840 sq km – around 20% of Tasmania.
Unesco granted the region World Heritage status in 1982, acknowledging that these parks make up one of the planet’s last great temperate-wilderness areas. An area nominated for World Heritage status must satisfy at least one of 10 criteria – the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area fulfilled seven categories, a record number at the time.
In 1997 the Macquarie Island World Heritage Area – a remote subantarctic island 1500km southeast of mainland Tasmania – was proclaimed for its outstanding geological and faunal significance.
Five of the 11 places that make up the Australian Convict Sites, granted World Heritage status in 2010, are in Tasmania: Port Arthur Historic Site, Coal Mines Historic Site, Cascades Female Factory, Darlington Probation Station, and Brickendon and Woolmers Estates.
Access & Tours
Most of the World Heritage area is managed by the Parks & Wildlife Service as a publicly accessible wilderness. Getting into the true heart of the area usually means trudging off on a long-range bushwalk with a tent and a week's supply of food – either independently or on a guided hike. For a considerably less demanding experience, scenic flights depart from Hobart, Strahan and Cradle Valley near Cradle Mountain.
Unless you have your own ocean-going vessel, the only realistic way to visit the Macquarie Island World Heritage Area is on a cruise.
Other Protected Areas
In addition to the national parks, the Parks & Wildlife Service manages nearly 800 other terrestrial reserves. This brings the sum total of Tasmanian land protected as one kind of reserve or another to 50.1%. Most reserves are established around a significant protected feature – often wildlife – but have fewer regulations than national parks, often allowing mining, farming, forestry or tourism development to occur. Many are small sites and include caves, waterfalls, historic sites and some coastal regions. Usually there are no entry fees for these areas, except where the government has actively restored or developed the area.
Categories of Reserve
Categories of reserve managed by the PWS include state reserves such as the Hastings Caves State Reserve in the southeast and the Liffey Falls State Reserve southwest of Launceston; conservation areas such as the Arthur Pieman Conservation Area in the state’s northwest and the Bay of Fires in the northeast; nature reserves; game reserves; regional reserves; historic sites such as the Richmond Gaol; and nature recreation areas such as Humbug Point Nature Recreation Area near St Helens in the northeast.
On small protected areas inside larger state forests, these reserves include waterfalls and picnic areas. During weekdays some forestry roads are closed to private vehicles. If the roads are open, drive slowly and give way to logging trucks.
The PWS also manages seven offshore marine reserves and 14 marine conservation areas, together covering 1351 sq km, or around 7.9% of Tasmania’s state coastal waters. Fishing or collecting living or dead material within Tasmanian marine reserves is illegal. Reserves include Tinderbox near Hobart, around the northern part of Maria Island, around Governor Island off the coast at Bicheno, at Port Davey and Bathurst Harbour in the southwest, and Macquarie Island. See www.parks.tas.gov.au for detailed information.
Many of the distinctive mammals of mainland Australia – the marsupials and monotremes isolated here for at least 45 million years – are also found in Tasmania. But the island's fauna is not as varied as that of the rest of Australia, and there are relatively few large mammals here – no koalas and few big kangaroos, for example. Smaller mammals proliferate but can be difficult to spot in the bush. Fortunately, there are plenty of wildlife parks around the state where you can get a good look at them. Also on view here are a dozen endemic bird species, some impressive snakes and creepy-crawlies, and whales cruising the coastline.
Tasmania has a wide variety of seabirds, parrots, cockatoos, honeyeaters, hawks, owls, falcons, eagles and wrens, flitting through the undergrowth, on the prowl at night and soaring around sea cliffs. There are 12 bird species endemic to Tasmania, including the forty-spotted pardalote, black currawong, Tasmanian thornbill, green rosella and Tasmanian native hen. If you’re a mad-keen twitcher, sign up for a comprehensive tour with Bruny Island’s Inala Nature Tours. Inala is also a driving force behind October’s annual Bruny Island Bird Festival.
The black currawong (Stepera fuliginosa), found only in Tasmania, lives primarily on plant matter and insects but will sometimes kill small mammals or bird hatchlings. You’ll often see this large, black, fearless bird goose-stepping around picnic areas.
The mutton bird is more correctly called the short-tailed shearwater (Puffinus tenuirostris). It lives in burrows in sand dunes and migrates annually to the northern hemisphere. These small birds fly in spectacular flocks on their way back to their burrows (the same ones every year) at dusk. They are still hunted by some Tasmanians, notably around Flinders Island, and there are certain places where you will occasionally see cooked mutton bird advertised for sale.
The little penguin (Eudyptula minor) is the smallest penguin in the world, and lives in burrows in Tasmania’s sand dunes. Penguin spotting is a drawcard activity for tourists and is particularly fun for kids. Visitors can see Tassie’s penguins waddle from the ocean to their nests just after sunset at Bruny Island, Burnie, Bicheno, Low Head and Penguin (naturally). Bring a picnic, settle in to watch the sun go down and (quietly and unobtrusively) enjoy the show.
Marsupial mammals give birth to partially developed young that they then protect and suckle in a pouch. The island's best-known marsupials are of course the Tasmanian tiger and Tasmanian devil.
Kangaroos & Wallabies
The kangaroo and wallaby species found in Tasmania are related to those found on the mainland, but they're generally smaller than their northern kin.
Tasmania's largest marsupial is the Forester kangaroo (Macropus giganteus). Following increasing pressure from the growth of farming, Narawntapu National Park in the state's north and Mt William National Park in the northeast have been set aside to preserve these impressive animals.
The Bennett's wallaby (Macropus rufogriseus) thrives in colder climates (Tasmania certainly fits the bill) and is often seen angling for food at Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair and Freycinet National Parks. They may seem cute, but please don’t feed them. Animals in the wild should be feeding themselves: giving them processed foods such as bread crusts or biscuits not only teaches them to rely on visitors as their main food source but also can cause a fatal disease called ‘lumpy jaw’. Bennett's wallabies are smaller than Forester kangaroos – just over 1m tall at the most – but like all native animals they can sometimes be aggressive. It is best to approach with caution.
There are several varieties of possum in Tasmania. The sugar glider (Petaurus breviceps) has developed impressive webs between its legs, enabling it to glide from tree to tree. The most common and boldest of the species is the brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula), which lives and sleeps in trees but descends to the ground in search of food. Brushtails show little fear of humans and regularly conduct late-night food heists at camping grounds (you’ve been warned!). Don’t forget to zip up your tent and carefully store leftover food, and don't panic if you hear something akin to an asthmatic Darth Vader roaming around outside your hut: possums hiss and growl at each another, particularly during mating season. A shyer (and much quieter) relative is the smaller ringtail possum (Pseudocheirus peregrinus).
Pademelons, Bettongs & Quolls
Like the Tasmanian devil, the Tasmanian pademelon (Thylogale billardierii, aka the rufous wallaby) is unique to the island – a small, rounded species sometimes seen hiding in forests. It’s a notoriously shy creature that you’ll be lucky to see in the wild – tread quietly if you do spot one.
Other endemic marsupials include the Tasmanian bettong (Bettongia gaimardi), found exclusively in the east of the state and growing only to a compact 2kg, and the carnivorous eastern quoll (Dasyurus viverrinus), approximately the size of a domestic cat. The eastern quoll was declared extinct on the Australian mainland in 1964 (the last known sighting was believed to be in Sydney’s exclusive eastern suburb of Vaucluse), but it's common and fully protected in Tasmania.
Weighing up to 35kg, Tasmania's subspecies of the common wombat (Vombatus ursinus tasmaniensis) is a very solid, powerfully built marsupial with a broad head and short, stumpy legs. Wombats live in underground burrows that they excavate, and are usually very casual, slow-moving characters, partly because they don’t have any natural predators to worry about. Maria Island and Cradle Mountain are good places to see them. Another subspecies, Vombatus ursinus ursinus, once lived on all the Bass Strait islands but is now only found on Flinders Island.
The platypus and echidna are the world's only two living monotremes (mammals that lay eggs).
Monotremes are often regarded as living fossils, and although they display some of the intriguing features of their reptile ancestors (egg laying, and that their reproductive, defecatory and urinary systems utilise a single outlet), they suckle their young on milk secreted from mammary glands.
Up to 50cm long, the platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) lives in fresh water and burrows into riverbanks. It has a leathery, duck-like bill, webbed feet and a beaverish body. You’re most likely to see one in a stream or lake, searching out food in the form of crustaceans, worms and tadpoles with its electro-sensitive bill. They're notoriously shy: if you want to spot one in the wild, look for telltale lines of small bubbles tracking across the surface of a waterway and sit very still! Latrobe in the northwest bills itself as the ‘Platypus Capital of the World’. Geeveston in the southeast is another likely spot to spy one.
The land-based echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) is totally different to the platypus. It looks similar to a porcupine, and is covered in impressively sharp spikes. Echidnas primarily eat ants and have powerful claws for unearthing their food and digging into the dirt to protect themselves when threatened. They’re common in Tasmania, but if you approach one all you’re likely to see up close is a brown, spiky ball. However, if you keep quiet and don’t move, you might be lucky – they have poor eyesight and will sometimes walk right past your feet.
If the thylacine is indeed no more, the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) is the largest carnivorous marsupial in the world. Devils mostly eat insects, small birds, rodents and carrion and can often be seen at night feasting on roadkill – a habit that unfortunately often leads to their becoming roadkill themselves. Mature devils grow up to about 75cm long, with short, stocky bodies covered in black fur with a white blaze across their chests.
Sadly, devil facial tumour disease (DFTD; a fatal, communicable cancer) infects up to 75% of the wild population. Quarantined populations have been established in places such as Maria Island off the east coast, but efforts to find a cure have thus far proved fruitless. Check out www.tassiedevil.com.au for more on DFTD and the efforts to eradicate it.
The story of the Tasmanian tiger (thylacine), a striped, nocturnal, dog-like predator once widespread in Tasmania and in parts of mainland Australia, has two different endings.
Version one says that thylacines were hunted to extinction in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with the last captive tiger dying in Hobart Zoo in 1936. Harangued, diseased and deeply misunderstood, the thylacine didn’t stand much of a chance once European interests started to encroach on its terrain. It was officially declared extinct in 1986, the requisite 50 years after that last, lonely thylacine died. No specimen, living or dead, has been conclusively discovered since then, despite hundreds of alleged sightings.
Version two maintains that thylacines continue a furtive existence deep in the Tasmanian wilderness. Scientists dismiss such ideas, suggesting that inbreeding among limited numbers of survivors would have put an end to the species just as readily as the hunters' rifles.
But such is the ongoing fascination with the thylacine that sightings still occasionally make the nightly news, however frustratingly unconfirmed they may be (no one ever seems to have their camera/phone handy…and if they do, digital images these days are all too easily doctored and debunked). The tantalising possibility of surviving tigers also makes them prime corporate fodder: Tasmanian companies plaster tiger imagery on everything from beer bottles to licence plates and record labels.
In recent years scientists at Sydney’s Australia Museum began scripting another possible ending to the tiger saga. Kicking off version three of the story, biologists managed to extract DNA from a thylacine pup preserved in alcohol since 1866. Their aim was to successfully replicate the DNA, with the long-term goal of cloning the species. Needless to say, there were many obstacles and the project drew criticism from those who would rather have seen the money spent on helping current endangered species. In 2005 the project was shelved due to the poor quality of the extracted DNA, but work done since by the University of Melbourne has raised the possibility of future success.
Snakes & Spiders
As in the rest of Australia, there are plenty of creatures in Tasmania that can do you a disservice.
There are three types of snake here, and they’re all poisonous. The largest and most venomous is the tiger snake (Notechis scutatus). There's also the copperhead (Austrelaps superbus) and the smaller white-lipped whip snake (Drysdalia coronoides). Bites are rare, as most snakes are shy and try to avoid humans. Tiger snakes can sometimes get a bit feisty, particularly in late summer and especially if you tread on one (watch your step when stepping over logs into sunny patches where they may be basking). If you are bitten, don’t try to catch the snake for identification, as there’s a common antivenin for all three species. Instead remain as still as possible, bandage the bite site firmly and get someone else to ship you to hospital for treatment.
An eight-legged local with a long reach (up to 18cm) is the Tasmanian cave spider (Hickmania troglodytes), which spins horizontal mesh-webs on the ceiling of a cave to catch insects such as cave crickets (it's harmless to humans). On the toxic side of the fence are the Tasmanian funnel-web, redback and white-tailed spiders. If you're bitten by a funnel web or redback, seek immediate medical attention. White-tailed spider bites aren't life-threatening but can be painful and sometimes cause ulceration.
Southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) migrate annually from Antarctica to southern Australia to give birth to their calves in shallow waters. So named because they were the ‘right’ whales to kill, they were hunted to the point of extinction around Tasmania while sustaining a lucrative industry. Numbers have recovered: they're now regularly seen migrating along the east coast (in November and December especially). Whales have also made a return to Hobart’s Derwent River estuary, where they were once so plentiful that locals joked that they could walk across the river on the whales' backs.
Long-finned pilot whales (Globicephala melas) are also common, and sadly are often involved in beach strandings around the Tasmanian coast.
The Impact of Humans
Since Europeans arrived, Tasmania has lost more than 30 species of plants and animals – most famously, the thylacine (Tasmanian tiger). Currently over 600 types of flora and fauna are listed under the state’s Threatened Species Protection Act.
Among Tasmania’s threatened birds are the forty-spotted pardalote, orange-bellied parrot (which breeds in Tasmania then wings it back to mainland Australia) and wedge-tailed eagle. Tasmania is also home to the largest invertebrate in the world: the giant freshwater crayfish, whose numbers have been so depleted by recreational fishing and habitat destruction that it’s now illegal to take any specimens from their natural habitat.
Introduced species are also having an impact. In 2001 it was reported that a fox had been spotted near Longford in the state’s north. Fox predation puts nearly 80 of the island’s indigenous land species at enormous risk because of their vulnerability to attack from an animal against which they have no defence. Subsequent reported sightings of the European red fox in other parts of the state confirmed that the animal had been deliberately introduced to Tasmania, probably for the purposes of hunting. The Fox Eradication Program was set up by the state government in 2006, and ran until 2014, when it was shut down after no credible fox evidence had been found for three years. But if you do see a fox, phone the Fox Hotline: 1300 369 688.
Tasmania’s myriad flora ranges from the dry forests of the east, through the alpine moorlands and buttongrass plains of the centre, to the temperate rainforests of the west. Many of the state’s plants are unlike those found in the rest of Australia, with ties to species that grew millions of years ago when the southern continents were joined at the hip as Gondwana. Similar plants are found in South America and fossilised in Antarctica.
The Parks & Wildlife Service website (www.parks.tas.gov.au) has comprehensive information on Tasmanian flora: click on 'Nature & Conservation' then 'Plants'.
Ancient & Unique Pines
Many of Tasmania’s trees are unique to the state, and the island’s native pines are particularly distinctive. The best known is the Huon pine, which can live for thousands of years. Other slow-growing island pines include the King Billy pine, celery-top pine and pencil pine, all of which exist commonly at higher altitudes and live for around 500 years. Some pencil pines on the Central Plateau have managed to hang in there for 1000 years, but they’re especially vulnerable to fire.
Beech & Eucalyptus
The dominant tree of the wetter forests is myrtle beech, similar to European beeches. Tasmania’s many flowering trees include the leatherwood, which is nondescript most of the year but erupts into bright flowers during summer. Its white and pale-pink blooms yield a uniquely fragrant honey.
Many of Tasmania’s eucalyptus trees also grow on the mainland, but down on the island they often grow ludicrously tall. The swamp gum (Eucalyptus regnans; known as mountain ash on the mainland) can grow to 100m in height and is the tallest flowering plant in the world. Look for it in the forests of the southwest, where you’ll also find the state’s floral emblem, the Tasmanian blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus).
In autumn you might catch an eyeful of the deciduous beech, the only truly deciduous native plant in Australia. It usually grows as a fairly straggly bush with bright green leaves. In autumn, however, the leaves become golden and sometimes red, adding a splash of colour to the forests. The easiest places to see this lovely autumnal display are the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair and Mt Field National Parks.
Challenging Plants for Bushwalkers
A notable component of the understorey in Tasmanian forests is the infamous horizontal scrub, a plant that can make life hell for bushwalkers if they veer off established tracks. More familiar (and considerably more benign) is buttongrass (Gymnoschoenus sphaerocephalus). Growing in thick clumps up to 1m high, this uniquely Tasmanian grass prefers broad, swampy areas like the many flat-bottomed valleys in the Central Highlands, pressed out by glacial action during ice ages. Buttongrass plains are usually muddy and unpleasant to walk through – in many places the Parks & Wildlife Service has incorporated sections of elevated boardwalk that enable hikers to steer clear of the mud.
Another interesting specimen is the cushion plant, which is found in alpine areas and at first sight resembles a green rock. In fact, it’s an extremely tough, short plant that grows into thick mats ideally suited to helping it cope with its severe living conditions. It’s not so tough, however, that it can tolerate footprints – stepping on one can destroy thousands of tiny leaves, which take decades to regenerate.
Endemic Tasmanian Plants
The skinny horizontal scrub (Anodopetalum biglandulosum) is a feature of the undergrowth in many parts of Tasmania’s southwest. It grows by sending up thin, vigorous stems whenever an opening appears in the forest canopy. The old branches soon become heavy and fall over, then put up shoots of their own. This continuous process of growth and collapse creates dense, tangled thickets – bushwalkers have been rumoured to completely disappear into it when venturing off the beaten track. You can see twisted examples of horizontal scrub in the southwest’s forests and in the Hartz Mountains.
Prized by shipwrights and furniture makers for its rich, golden hue, rot-resistant oils, fine grain and fragrance, Tasmania’s Huon pine (Lagarostrobos franklinii) is one of the slowest-growing and longest-living trees on the planet. Individual trees can take 2000 years to reach 30m in height and can live to 3000 years, a situation overlooked by 19th-century loggers and shipbuilders, who plundered the southwest forests in search of this ‘yellow gold’. Fortunately, it’s now a protected species. Most of the Huon pine furniture and timber work you’ll see around the state is recycled, or comes from dead trees salvaged from riverbeds and hydroelectric dams. Some older trees remain: one 2500-year-old beauty can be viewed during cruises on the Gordon River.
This member of the Proteaceae family has flowers similar to those of the grevillea, and grows in the wild in only one small part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. Studies of the plant’s chromosomes have revealed that it’s incapable of reproducing sexually, which is why it must rely on sending up shoots to create new plants. Further research has shown that there’s absolutely no genetic diversity within the population, which means that every king’s lomatia in existence is a clone. It’s the oldest known clone in the world, thought to have been around for at least 43,600 years.
Sidebar: Parks & Wildlife Service
The website of the Parks & Wildlife Service (www.parks.tas.gov.au) is an absolute goldmine of information on the Tasmanian wilderness and how best to access it. Download fact sheets on national parks, bushwalks, plants and wildlife, camping grounds within parks and loads more.
Sidebar: World Heritage Criteria
The Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area is one of only 206 natural World Heritage areas in the world. To find out what gives these places ‘outstanding universal value’, check out whc.unesco.org/en/criteria.
Sidebar: The Mammals of Australia
The Mammals of Australia, edited by Ron Strahan, is a complete survey of Australia’s somewhat offbeat mammal species. Every species is illustrated and much of what's known about them is covered in individual species accounts, written by the nation’s experts.
Feature: Commercial Harvest & Export of Brushtail Possums
In 2010 the Tasmanian state government developed a controversial Wildlife Trade Management Plan for the Commercial Harvest and Export of Brushtail Possums in Tasmania, under which 100,000 brushtail possums could be killed and processed for overseas sale each year until 2015. Despite substantial pressure from conservation groups, this plan was replaced by the similar Management Plan for the Commercial Harvest and Export of Brushtail Possums in Tasmania 2015–2020.
Sidebar: Taz the Tasmanian Devil
In 1964 the original cartoon series featuring 'Taz', the tempestuous Warner Bros Tasmanian devil character, lasted just five short episodes. Such was the cult status Taz achieved, however, that he was resurrected for three seasons of his own show in 1991.
Sidebar: The Tasmanian Tiger in Books & Films
See B&W footage of a Tasmanian tiger at Hobart's Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery. For an insightful read, pick up David Owen’s Thylacine (2011) or Col Bailey’s Shadow of the Thylacine (2013) or Lure of the Thylacine (2016). For a Hollywood spin, check out surly Willem Dafoe in The Hunter (2011).
Sidebar: A Wombat's Defence
If threatened, a wombat will often dive head first into one of its tunnels, blocking the entrance with its extremely tough rear end, which is clad in extra-thick skin.
Sidebar: National-Park Camping
There are myriad camping options within Tasmania's national parks – see www.parks.tas.gov.au for info. If you plan on camping in super-popular Freycinet National Park from 18 December to 10 February or over Easter, you’ll need to fill out a ballot entry online (drawn in early August).