Robert Forsyth takes a road trip across Tasmania and finds hidden in the lost valley of Loongana in the north west, a haven for humans and devils alike…
“It’s a big place, if you laid it out end to end”, Tasmanians regaled us with this gnomic homily wherever we travelled.
Five hours into our three-hour drive from the east coast to Mountain Valley Wilderness, weaving and bobbing in solitary along highland tracks under a bull-black night sky, I finally began to see its sense.
“So, we’re really the only guests?” my wife Laura asks. I detect nervousness in her voice. She probably detects likewise in my driving, plunging into the darkness ahead, giggling maniacally as we somehow manage to dodge wombats and wallabies.
Once arrived, however, anxieties about the place being a front for a family of backwoods face-eaters vanish. Our cabin prompts contented sighs: a four-poster bed faces a log fire, a decanter of port abuts local guidebooks, a pair of difficult-to-leave armchairs sit expectantly.
Within half an hour, our hosts have helped us unpack, served and recharged our port glasses and produced baskets brimming with flavour: homemade steak pie, squash and salad from the kitchen garden, a frankly legendary peach cobbler. I feel like we’re visiting a particularly doting aunt and uncle.
The food scoffed, it’s time for a close-up encounter with the star attractions. “Wait by the window” we’re told. Lights are extinguished, the fire quieted. The night grows cold, our cabin illuminated by the porch light, spreading its glow on a surreal, quietly repellent scene: a perfectly tended lawn of Tasmanian velvet green, strewn with meat.
Several baited-breath minutes later – largely occupied with mutterings about romantic breaks not routinely involving eyeballing carrion – the entertainment begins. From the shadows they waddle, ten devils, then fifteen, no more than a metre or two from us, all swiftly fussing and fighting like it’s Christmas.
A noisy, snorting rabble, by turns engrossed in their own bone-cracking meal then ill-temperedly spitting and arguing over other choice cuts, warily guarding their booty and looking for opportunities to capture more. They stare down one other, ceaselessly wheel around, crash into each other like dodgems, fill the air with rasps and hissed threats. Scavengers they may be, but what these knotted balls of anger and muscle could do to an intruding human is chilling.
Half an hour later, the bloodlust subsides, the animals’ personalities now apparent. Scarface is the bedraggled old-stager lurking in the wings, his fighting days written across his limping frame and wretched features. Roadrunner works on speed, snatching then scarfing chunks on the hoof while evading snarls and snaps. The Boss, meanwhile, is an enorma-devil; at one point he sallies window-side and fixes us with a belittling sneer worthy of a James Bond heavy. The message is clear: I own this land, you’re just passing guests.
Habituated they may be, but these are, thrillingly, wild animals. Everytime they feast here means one fewer trip scavenging on roads and risking becoming victims themselves.
More importantly Loongana Valley is a haven, enclosed by encircling mountains the devils here have a rare fighting chance. Elsewhere, the devil population has been decimated by a disease ripped from the pages of science-fiction: Devil Facial Tumour Disease – a parasitic cancer contracted by touch, deforming the face so that eating becomes impossible, reducing viscerally powerful creatures to starved, disfigured corpses. Here in Mountain Valley, for now, they’re safe. What’s more, they’ve got resident humans well-trained – guests are asked to monitor the animals and report suspicious-looking lesions.
The following day, we wake to a gin-clear morning. The Leven River glides past us to the north, beyond hills stand heavy with woods. To our south squats Black Bluff, the area’s alpha-male peak. All around, trails wend through forests, glades and gullies in green and gold. A soothing landscape, and one about as far removed from the Red Centre as you could conjure.
We follow gentle tracks, tackling our gigantic packed lunch at the ‘Devil’s Elbow’, a vicious, cackling u-turn in the river overlooked by limestone cliffs several hundred feet. Nearby Cradle Mountain may be tourist-trodden, but here in Leven Canyon, a glorious B-list celebrity of Tasmania, we are alone.
Later, as the sun retires, we linger riverside, studying the water’s darkening blue. And then – a rustle among reeds, the flicking tail of a dive, a bobbing body. A duck-billed platypus, nature’s most far-fetched experiment, sashays over. Its beaver-tailed silhouette startlingly close as it busily electrolocates its dinner.
We return to the cabin, eagerly anticipating the evening’s feast – both ours and the devils’. Forget about laying out Tasmania end-to-end. Here, beyond a dead-end gravelled road, where mountains hide a valley from the world and natural oddities quietly abound, where equal shots wilderness and warm welcome are artfully blended, Tasmania is a big country just the way it is.
// Robert Forsyth is a member of our Virtual Internship Program. If you’re a photographer or writer looking to break into travel journalism, we’re here to help you get a leg up. To find out more, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org