January of 2017 saw my third trip to Tasmania in search of the iconic flesh- eating marsupial known as the thylacine or Tasmanian wolf. I slept for most of the thirty-one-hour journey. Luckily, like Ralph Wiggum, sleep is where I’m a Viking.
I was once again teaming up with Mike Williams from the CFZ’s Australian office. We found that having fewer people on the expeditions was easier in terms of organization. We also made less noise in the bush. Again, some people requested anonymity and we must respect that.
Once more Toyota kindly assisted us by providing a car and fuel card that gave us unlimited petrol. This took a major financial burden away from us and allowed us to move right across the island.
On the first day Mike, had arranged an interview with a journalist in Launceston. We visited the offices of The Advocate and Mike spoke with the journalist involved. I have an inherent mistrust of media types who have misrepresented me in and my colleagues in the past. Therefore, I sat the interview out. Mike hoped that a newspaper story would turn up new witnesses and give us leads.
Later, we met up with Grenville Batty. Grenville was the nephew of Wilf Batty, the last man to shoot a wild thylacine on 6th of May 1930 at Mawbanna, a hamlet in the north west of Tasmania. He once believed that his family still had the gun that did the awful deed but apparently, he has since found out that the gun he has is not of an old enough make to have been one in the same as his uncle’s.
Grenville is an amiable chap in his early 70s. He has a keen interest in the Tasmanian wolf and thinks the animal may still exist. I had met and talked with him on a pervious trip. Grenville had told Mike of a farm where possible thylacine activity had taken place. In the 1990s the place was a sheep farm. The owner had some predator that was taking out sheep on a regular basis. The kills were quite distinct from the dog attacks. At the same time the distinctive thylacine call, a high- pitched triple yap was heard. One of the workers reported seeing a thylacine from a car in broad daylight. The farmer switched from rearing sheep to rearing cattle and the kills stopped. The calls however were still heard by the farmer and his workers.
Then just four years ago, the farmer himself had his own sighting. As with his employee the animal was seen from a car at the side of the road. It was lying in vegetation and at his approach stood up and walked calmly away. He got to within sixteen feet of the thylacine.
We had permission to camp on the farmland, so we drove up and set up some baited trail cams. We made camp then went for a night drive. As with previous trips, we utilized a crash cam, a windscreen mounted miniature camera that is constantly recording. We saw Bennett’s wallabies, red-bellied pademelons and a short beaked echidna. By the time we returned to camp it had started to rain heavily.
The following day we met up with Grenville again. He told us that whilst trapping possums in 1963 in the area, he had accidentally trapped a huge tiger quoll or spotted quoll. These are flesh eating marsupials related to the Tasmanian wolf. They have dog -like faces and bodies not unlike a cat but somewhat more robust. They are a fawn colour with distinctive cream coloured spots. The tiger quoll is generally the size of a large domestic cat at around seven lb. The creature Grenville had caught was much larger, comparable in size to an Australian cattle dog, a breed that weighs 33 to 49 lbs, similar in size to a Border Collie. Grenville indicated the height of the animal with his hands at around 18 inches.
This is not the first account of a giant-sized tiger quoll we have come across. On my first trip to Tasmania we interviewed a man who ran a market garden. We were mainly talking about a thylacine sighting he had in the 1990s, but he also told us that back in the 1960s he had shot a huge quoll. The animal had been killing his chickens. He said it was the size of a cattle dog with a thick bull neck. He raised his hand to indicate the length of the creature when hung up. It was around five feet long. We heard of another of similar size seen the Cradle Mountain area.
Grenville wanted to give the animal to a local zoo but was too scared to tackle the angry beast. He was only fifteen at the time. He told the farmer who’s land it was on and intimated that he should give it to the zoon. In an act of wanton cruelty, the farmer threw the quoll into a barn with four dogs that ripped it to shreds. Apparently, the dogs were also badly injured by the giant quoll’s teeth and claws.
It is possible that these outsized quolls represent a new species or, more likely, freakishly large individuals of the tiger quoll. The Queensland tiger is a cat-like marsupial the size of a puma reported from the tropical north of Australia. Some cryptozoologists have postulated that it could be a surviving form of Thylacoleo carnifex, a long extinct flesh- eating marsupial distantly related to the wombat. Perhaps some huge form of quoll is a more likely candidate is such a creature exists.
Grenville had also mentioned that he had a ‘shack’ in the area that we could use. Despite the fact that he told us that it had no electricity we jumped at the chance. Mike had been sleeping in the car and I in a tiny, one- man tent. I loathe camping despite having to do it at length on almost every expedition I ‘ve been on. I seldom get a good night’s sleep under canvas, finding it cramped, cold and uncomfortable.
Grenville took us to the aforementioned shack. Mike and I were expecting some malodorous shanty one step from a garden shed. In fact, the ‘shack’ was a four-bedroomed farmhouse with a kitchen, living room, shower and toilets. The only reason that it had no electricity is that Grenville had not yet turned it on. One flick and we had light and heating. We used the farm as a base whilst we stayed in the north.
After settling in we did a night drive seeing wallabies, possums and Tasmanian devils.
The one minor down side of our Toyota sponsorship was that the fuel the car could only be used with one specific company. All the garages in towns nearby had changed since our last trip and now the nearest garage of the company in question was many miles away in Wynyard. We brought some large fuel containers to stock up and save wasting time on too many long runs for petrol.
In a small museum in Wynyard we came across a pamphlet ‘The Tasmanian Tiger Trail’ by Colin Berry. It contained accounts of a number of sightings, some of which I had never heard. The publication had once come with a DVD that apparently contained an interview with the late Wilf Batty. The museum didn’t have a copy, but Mike wanted to try and track it down.
During a night drive, we took a wrong turn on the overgrown, labyrinthine tracks in the wilderness. We spent the better part of an hour lost and had to stop the car several times to pull logs, fallen trees and branches out of our way. We finally found the right path and made our way back.
Next day we returned to Wynyard for a meeting with a councillor who was, many years ago, involved in the publication of the thylacine pamphlet and the accompanying DVD. He could not find the disc in his archives and was sure that it was actually just an audio rather than film.
We met up with a man who had seen a thylacine on the farmland we had camped on. In 1990 he had been driving along a wooded road on the property with two passengers in his car. All of them saw a Tasmanian wolf emerge from the vegetation at the side of the road. It seemed like it had been resting there and got up when it heard the car approach. The animal looked at them before walking off into the forest. All of them had a clear and good view of the animal in broad daylight.
Mike’s interview had begun to attract callers with their own stories. One man, who claimed to be an experienced hunter, said he saw a thylacine in Queensland on mainland Australia many years ago. He said that he and some friends saw it emerge from some bushes. His description of the animal however, lacking stripes and having a moth-eaten look, was that of a dingo with mange, not a Tasmanian wolf.
We collected our camera traps. On the way to get one of them I heard a high-pitched yip. I froze in my tracks straining to hear. Nothing came. I move on again and once more the yip sounded. It was a single yip, not the triple yip associated with the thylacine but it still intrigued me. As I moved once more the yip was heard again, then I realized it was my boots squeaking! We checked the cameras. They showed Tasmanian devils, wallabies and quolls.
We drove down to the tiny village of Corinna. The place is named after the Tasmanian Aboriginal name for the thylacine. The drive was a long one through very wild territory on poor roads. The village itself is tiny consisting of a small pub come restaurant and a handful of houses. It is beside the Pieman River and was a former mining colony. Unfortunately, the ferry across the river was broken and we could go no further.
We moved on the Derwent Bridge and Mike had another contact, this one more promising than the last. The sighting had occurred when the witness was a boy in 1951. It was in the Central Highlands and at five in the morning when the witness was travelling with his father, a farmer. They saw a pair of eyes on the dark road ahead and thought it was a calf that had wandered out onto the road. As they drew alongside the creature the boy looked at it from a distance of only 3 feet from the car’s window. It was a dog-like animal with striped hind-quarters and a long, stiff looking tail.
The boy was later interviewed by Dr Eric Guiler, a zoologist from the University of Tasmania. Guiler dedicated much of his life to researching the Tasmania wolf. Guiler apparently believed that the boy and his father had indeed seen a thylacine.
Later we moved down to Derwent Bridge on the edge of the Franklin Gordon National Park.
A man called Roy told us of a man he knew that had an odd encounter in Wuthering Heights, a coastal plain near the Frankland River in north west Tasmania. Some years ago, the witness, a logger had been in camp with several friends. They heard a yip-yip-yip vocalization and a crashing in the undergrowth. Suddenly a wallaby exploded from the undergrowth and ran towards the men. The animal seemed exhausted and was panting. It actually hid behind the informant’s legs. It was obviously very scared, but the men never saw what was chasing it. He thought that it was being hunted by a thylacine.
More night drives revealed lots of wallabies but no devils or quolls. It seemed that these predators were lacking from this particular area.
We met up with Col Bailey, who I had been introduced to on the last trip. Col is unquestionably the greatest living thylacine hunter and as well as stalking the beast through the wilderness (an endeavour that rewarded him with a sighting in the 1990s) he also interviewed old bushmen, loggers, prospectors and hunters back in the 50s and 60s. These people had first-hand experience of thylacines in the Tasmanian wilderness during their official period of existence. They are now all dead and without Col efforts their knowledge and stories would be lost to the ages.
Col told us about his expedition into the far south west of Tasmania. The South West Conservation area is an uninhabited section of the island. A wilderness of windswept button grass it is seldom trodden by man and has only one rough track leading into it from an arm of the Macquarie Harbour, a large, shallow, natural inlet. The track peters out after a short while.
Col originally planned to go to the area by boat, but the swell was too great in the Southern Ocean. He ended up chartering a helicopter to drop him on the west coast of the area, an endeavour that cost him $5000 and today would be far costlier. Col spent a week at the ends of the earth trekking up and down the coast and venturing inland. He found possible tracks on a remote beach. He almost ran out of water and found that the creek near his camp was salty.
We stayed with Mike’s friends, a couple who ran a little goat farm near Bronte Lagoon. They had met a man in 1967 who was driving from Queenstown to Hobart. At one point, he said he had seen a dog-like animal with stripes. He had never heard of the Tasmanian Wolf and had no idea of the importance of his sighting. The couple’s daughter had also seen a thylacine in 1985. Whilst walking home from Deloraine she saw the creature in a meadow.
One of their friends had a strange encounter in 2006 but one not related to the Tasmanian wolf. The woman had been kayaking on the Mersey River. Some huge aquatic animal swam up to her kayak. Whatever it was the thing was pulling a large wake and disturbed the witness. He thought it could possibly be a giant eel.
The following day we met up with Lloyd and Maureen Poke. The couple used to have a farm in the north east of Tasmania. When they were there from the 70s to the early 90s it was still a wild place. Now the area has been swallowed up by farms that have sprung up all around. During their years on the farm they both claimed multiple sightings of the Tasmanian wolf.
Lloyd had his first encounter with the creatures as a boy in 1957 near the Ouse River. He watched a family of thylacines, a mother with three cubs, walking through the scrub. He decided not to tell anyone.
In 1986, the couple were driving along a road on their property when they saw a strange beast in the road ahead. Maureen said…
“I realized it had stripes and could not be a tiger quoll. It had to be a Tasmanian tiger.”
The creature was around 164 feet from the witnesses and had a striped back and stiff tail, a description that should be familiar by now!
The following year, Lloyd noticed that something was taking dead wallabies that he had shot on the property. He was using them for dog foot. Intrigued he brought one thousand feet of tough cotton and tied it to a wallaby carcass. Later, when the carcass had been taken, he followed the cotton like Theseus following his ball of twine in the labyrinth of the minotaur. The cotton lead him through the forest to a lair under an old tree stump. At the time, he had no camera, so he set up a tape recorder. He was rewarded by recordings of crunching noises and odd screams. Lloyd suspected that a Tasmanian wolf was responsible.
As it turned out he was correct. Sometime later he saw a thylacine chase a wallaby into the scrub. He found it biting into the wallaby’s chest. The predator stood up on its hind legs and gaped its formidable jaws in a classic thylacine threat display. Lloyd backed off immediately and left the animal to its meal.
Another time he was out with his dog and crawled into a wallaby trail in the bushes. He heard a snarling from further along the trail and retreated.
Lloyd’s closest encounter happened in 1990 after he had put in a new fence. He saw a Tasmanian wolf walking along the fence and managed to corner it. He tried to catch it by grabbing it.
“I grabbed at its neck thinking that there would be loose skin, but it was tight and muscular. I couldn’t hold onto it and it struggled free.”
Turning around it kicked out scratching Lloyd’s arms then leapt over the fence and disappeared.
The couple let the farm in the mid-1990s.
Each time I have returned to Tasmania I have had my conviction that the thylacine is still alive and well re-enforced. I have not revealed everything that happened on this last expedition. Suffice to say I have seen some convincing evidence about which I have been asked to keep quiet for the time being. If I were a betting man, I’d put good money on the survival of the Tasmanian wolf. I think it is just a matter of time until definitive proof of the creatures’ continued existence comes to light. Maybe, by the time you are reading this book, Tasmania’s most magnificent animal will have re-emerged from the shadows into official existence once again. Interestingly, shortly after I returned from my first search for the thylacine I came upon a very interesting book with a striking passage about the Tasmanian wolf. The Ocean Inside was written by Philip Hoare, Visiting Fellow at the University of Southampton and published by Fourth Estate in 2013. It consists of a number of essays on the world’s oceans and on certain islands. In the chapter on Tasmania, the author writes extensively on the thylacine and modern-day sightings. He finished the chapter with these words:
“What I do know is that in one institution I visit, a curator lets slip a quickly retracted remark, telling me it is not their secret to reveal. It is clear from what this person says, or does not say, that this strange half-life limbo of an animal which may or may not exist may soon be resolved, in its favour. That history is about to be reversed. That the thylacine is no longer extinct.
If it ever was.”