The weather at Cradle is notoriously unpredictable, but we woke up to scattered clouds and a beautiful, golden sunrise, so we had high hopes for our hike and summiting Cradle Mountain. Our drive towards the park did little to sustain those hopes, though, as the clouds became denser and rain began to fall harder the closer we got to the national park. Our arrival at the park proved us to be two of very few optimistic souls, since the parking lot – typically full enough to necessitate a shuttle bus ride from the visitor’s center – was empty. We waited for a little while, but the rain showed no signs of passing and the buffeting winds – forecast to be 50 kph at the car park – shook the car relentlessly.
After bundling up in almost all of the warm clothing we owned, we set off around Dove Lake, figuring we could take at least see part of the park. The path up to Marion’s Lookout looked too inviting to pass, though, so we started up towards the summit track. The rain and wind were steady when an Australian couple coming down paused near us. “I heard it’s sunny and calm up there, right?” I joked. “No, we turned back from the trail,” he responded, unenthusiastically (throughout the trip we’ve had some issues with Australians understanding sarcasm).
The moment we got up past the sheltered track and onto the spine of Mt. Marion, the wind started howling with a ferocity that I’ve rarely experienced. The gusts were strong enough to knock me sideways and Jenn, weighing substantially less, was literally getting pushed several feet when the stronger blasts came through. After persevering to the overlook, we were greeted with a dense bank of grey clouds, hanging over the lake below and encasing the surrounding peaks in an impenetrable fog. We snapped some photos when the gale-force winds managed to create some small openings in the gloom surrounding us.
Being gluttons for punishment, we pressed on briefly towards the summit track, but as we were pushed back half a step for every one we took we quickly realized that summiting in this weather would be dangerous during the exposed rocky sections near the top. After catching a couple glimpses of Cradle’s summit through the clouds, we turned down a trail that wound its way past Crater Lake and down to a small pond called Wombat Pool. Small patches of blue sky opened up during our hike, but a glance back at the peak showed us that these respites at the lower elevations were not mirrored at the summit. Despite our disappointment in not attaining the summit, the trails around the park were beautiful – full of bird life and impressive, tea-colored lakes which take their hue from the huge amount of tannins in the water. The Bennett’s wallaby that call the park home braved the weather as well, to enjoy some choice grasses in a nearby field at the end of the day.
Total Distance: 4.1 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,426 feet
One of my top things to see in Tasmania was the infamous Tasmanian devil. These well-known scavengers are the world’s largest carnivorous marsupials and have the strongest jaw strength relative to their body mass of any animal. Unfortunately, their population is in massive decline thanks to a contagious facial cancer (known as devil facial tumor disease, or DFTD) that was first identified in 1996, and has since cut their population by more than 80% across the island. This cancer is spread by the devils’ natural social interaction which often involves biting the faces of other devils. Due to their relatively low genetic diversity, the cancer can be spread to virtually the entire devil population, as it’s not rejected by the animals’ immune system. Unfortunately, it has a 100% mortality rate, as the growths prevent the devils from eating. Despite this poor outlook, there is reason for optimism as an ostensibly effective vaccine has been developed. In September 2015, 19 devils were treated with the experimental vaccine and released back into the wild. To date, none have developed the cancer.
Devils@Cradle is a sanctuary located inside Cradle Mountain National Park that is helping to preserve the Tasmanian devil. All privately funded through tours and donations, they are working with 40+ other organizations throughout Tasmania on a breeding program to increase the numbers and genetic diversity of the devils. They hope that promoting a more diverse gene pool will help to prevent diseases like DFTD from cutting through such huge swaths of the population. Additionally, if the vaccine is proven successful, the caretakers will be vaccinating the breeding populations prior to release.
In addition to the rehabilitation and breeding work they do, the sanctuary is home to a number of permanent residents. Among these are not just Tasmanian devils, but two types of quolls – spotted-tail quolls and Eastern quolls – another type of carnivorous marsupial whose populations are suffering from invasive species and habitat destruction. Quolls are small, intelligent hunters, who are known for their ability to take down prey several times their size by dropping from tree branches and giving a paralyzing bite to the prey’s neck.
We arrived at the sanctuary at the end of the day so we could watch the evening feeding of the animals. Moments after the keeper pinned down their evening meal, the devils started their trademark vocalizations – howling and shrieking. Most of these are not aggressive noises and are simply their way of socializing and communicating, but it is easy to see why early settlers, hearing these noises in the dark, named them “devils.” They feed socially, gathering around a kill to eat, howl and bite at each other. We enjoyed watching their antics – awkwardly running, stealing food and squabbling over the remains. We also got to watch the quolls being fed, who are much more family-oriented and will happily share their meal with several other residents of their enclosure. Jenn especially loved the rodent-like quolls who are inquisitive and playful, curiously inspecting visitors, scampering around their tree limbs and socializing with others in their enclosures.
Sanctuaries such as Devils@Cradle are critical for the survival of endangered species like the devils and quolls, whose populations are currently estimated to be 20-30,000 and 5,000, respectively. Without the help and dedication of these caretakers, such animals might be lost forever.