Into the wild and untamed interior of the alluring Weld Valley
My second book, ‘Shadow of the Thylacine’ – having finally found a publisher – is due for release on May 1st.
And to coincide with its publication, I would like to enlarge on the circumstances surrounding my quest to locate the thylacine in the Weld Valley in March 1995.
Because of overall restrictions regarding word content there was insufficient room to include all details in the book text, and I feel it important to supplement my earlier account to this widely read electronic newspaper with an in-depth narrative of my entry into the south western section of the Weld Valley and that part which borders the South West National Park.
Surprisingly little has been written about this seldom visited part of Tasmania which is remarkable considering its alluring attraction, and as such it deserves commendable recognition. Despite road building and logging having since taken place to the east and north over the past 18 years, this particular area has to this point in time fortunately been spared such intrusion.
The south-western sector of the Weld Valley is one of the least visited tracts of back country in Tasmania, presenting any bushwalker prepared and equipped to tackle it with something of a genuine challenge.
It is blessed with pure, pristine wilderness; extremely remote, largely uncharted and seldom walked. There are no recognised tracks and it can at times be subjected to powerful weather extremes; rain hail, wind, snow and sleet, along with perfectly clear, sunny days thrown in for good measure. To venture into its mysterious depths is to chance whatever nature chooses to throw at you. Once in its clutches you are tempting fate and your life will never be quite the same again. You will rapidly fall under its spell, captivated by its magnificence, breathtaking beauty and enticing allurement to draw you back time and again. Bounded by the Jubilee and Snowy Ranges to the north and the Western Arthurs to the south, this valley of the Weld is a special place; a rare and wild expanse of untainted primordial splendour where it appears time has stood still.
To enter its depths, one requires a definite purpose; a self- motivated rationale to even consider such an undertaking, for this is most definitely not your basic Sunday afternoon stroll. It would be extremely reckless to enter such a challenging wilderness ill prepared and without an adequate sense of bushcraft.
In penetrating its depths in March 1995, I did so with an obvious premonition; an undeniable awareness of foreboding, that were anything to go wrong it could well prove to be my undoing, for if misfortune were to strike, it was unlikely I would ever be found. But it was a journey I had to make and I could find little solace until this exacting task had been accomplished.
It was a carefully planned and executed manoeuvre on my part; an unambiguous approach explicitly aimed at locating a thylacine presence in the Weld River hinterland. I was acting on counsel obtained from two elderly Tasmanian bushmen, one of whom had guaranteed that Tasmanian tigers were living and breeding back in there. Were this covert advice to be proven correct, it would lead me to my ultimate objective, and one that had to that point in time continued to both frustrate and elude me.
Travelling alone as I always do on such expeditions, I fully realised I was throwing caution to the wind considering I had little idea of what lay ahead. For where these men had entered from the east, I was attempting to infiltrate the area from the opposite direction. Other than scant advice obtained from numerous old bushmen, try as I may, I failed to locate a great deal of relevant information, either written or spoken, on the actual nature of the country I was about to confront. It was in reality a no man’s land and I was embarking on a journey that it appeared few had previously undertaken. Mercifully the weather would be kind to me; I could not have asked for better considering it was early autumn, relatively fine, mild and with a satisfactory outlook for the next few days at least.
Before embarking on such a journey it is always important to do one’s homework and significant research revealed that the upper reaches of the Snake River embrace noteworthy mineral deposits, while an earlier route blazed by track cutter, Phillip Schnell, about 100 years before, runs across its headwaters bordering the Western Arthur Range. I also ascertained that Schnell, in order to avoid the worst of the thickly forested country below had commenced his track to the east in a valley between Mt. Weld and the Gallagher Plateau, concluding it at Mt. Sarah Jane near the head of the Snake River where the richest deposits lay. Regardless, I could find precious little information about the Snake’s confluence with the Weld River. However, on the strength of Schnell’s report, I realised that I may well be in for a battle with the densely forested terrain I was contemplating tackling.
Where previously I had penetrated the Weld River Valley from the northern side, and from where my progress had been continually barred by dense stands of horizontal, I was now primarily tackling a far more diverse landscape. My original intentions were to trace the river from its headwaters under Mt Mueller, a task I found all but impossible. On several occasions I followed a blazed track that led to the river on the northern side, but on each occasion it was running a banker and far too dangerous to cross.
Having been assured that the thylacine periodically negotiated a wide area embracing the Snake River, previous experience told me the animal didn’t live specifically in a defined locale but constantly moved throughout the region on a regular traverse of its extensive home range. The essence of my contract therefore, was to attempt to be in the right place at the right time. It was an undertaking that, if successful, may well pay rich dividends.
My strategy was to enter the region under the shadow of Mt Anne and strike out for the Weld River as it skirted the escarpment far below. Once locating the river, I would make my way south until eventually reaching the Snake. On the map it looked uncomplicated, with everything appearing easily negotiable, but nothing could have been further from the truth. Initially the landscape continually rises and falls in a series of scrub covered hills and gullies. Although the gradients were more easily negotiated near the river, dense bush and rough terrain necessitated seeking the best path further inland to avoid the worst of it.
And then, out of the blue appeared a tree blaze; perhaps the possibility of a track? It appeared fortune was on my side, for it soon becoming apparent it was an early survey track, lying redundant and neglected for who knows how long? Later research revealed it may well have been connected with that blazed by one of the early explorers in the region. Could it possibly have been that of Thomas Frodsham who passed that way a century before?
According to Frodsham’s track notes, he had struck out across country from McPartlan’s South Gordon Track in atrocious weather and skirted Mt Bowes before linking up with the Weld River. Turning right at the Snake, he followed its main stream west before eventually meeting up with Schnell’s Track, first blazed in 1890. From there it took him through open button grass plains to the Huon River and McKay’s track which linked up with the track to the Huon which in turn went though to Port Davey. It must be remembered that many of these ‘tracks’ comprised no more than blazes on trees which acted as markers, and as such required a concentrated effort to retrace.
I soon discovered there was precious little left of the old track to follow, but whatever remained provided me with a reasonably traceable gradient, and in that type of country this was a considerable bonus.
The wild and untamed Weld River varies greatly in width over its long, rambling course, with rapids a common feature and huge boulders scattered along its banks, many no doubt the result of land slips from higher ground on the northern side. It is a most interesting and enchanting stream, with waterfalls occurring every so often to break its regularity including the aptly known Weld Arch, a large limestone portico through which the river briefly flows. Although not running a banker at the time, it was nevertheless a steady flow and to randomly cross it may have presented some difficulty. Every so often the watercourse squeezes between fissures in the rocks, and anyone contemplating canoeing this far upstream would have considerable portage to perform when confronting these obstacles. Log jams are another hazard frequently appearing along its flow. Numerous small steams flow across the escarpment before emptying into the Weld River including the larger White water Creek, and each could present considerable crossing problems if flowing fast at the time.
My objective though was a more demure watercourse fed by ample run off from the Mt Anne escarpment. Steadily making my way through the bush, I came upon patches of truly luxurious eucalypt growth, periodically intermingled with fierce stands of the challenging horizontal and cutting grass. Not surprisingly there was a profusion of wildlife, including an abundant wallaby population, this aspect alone giving emphasis to a possible thylacine presence in the area. The landscape was truly mind blowing; pristine wilderness splendour that had survived the so called ‘march of progress’ so evident to the north and east where logging roads had, over recent years bisected large tracts of this primeval terrain. Perhaps it may be asking too much in seeking infinite protection for this untouched part of an exceptionally magnificent valley, in an age when materialism and blatant environmental recklessness so often outweigh common logic. For to loose this absolute magnificence to some form of abject commercialism would amount to little more than premeditated vandalism, as such a treasure as this can never, ever be replaced.
The discovery of what I believed was a thylacine hide in the burnt out trunk of a large, ancient tree gave me some optimism as I paused to carefully examine it, noting recent use by an obviously large animal.
On reaching the Snake River, I found the bush to be a conglomeration of thick tea-tree copse intermingled with lush stands of ferns and various timbers. This river weaves a crazy path as it makes its way downwards from beneath Mt. Anne. In poorly drained sections, button grass plains flourished, providing perfect hunting grounds for any itinerant thylacines plying their vast territory. Following its convergence with the Snake, the Weld River appeared to open up somewhat, presenting a more negotiable stream as it makes its way towards the Huon.
Making camp at the edge of a bank of ferns adjoining the river, I bedded down to a cool, clear night. As I lay awake in my swag, that first distinct hunting call came in early morning hours. It was haunting!
Clear as a bell, the unmistakable high pitched double yip was followed some seconds later by a response – a hunting mother thylacine calling her brood to heal as they plied the button grass plains further up river. Some thirty minutes later that same clear resonance came again, only this time from further afield.
What followed shortly after dawn that morning was cause for great jubilation? Until then my quest had been largely unproductive; now I was in no doubt that at least one pocket of thylacine had survived. Coming face to face with the animal as I did later that morning dispelled any reservations I may have had concerning its continued existence. Despite seeing only the one animal, on the strength of what I heard earlier that day, I was in little doubt that there were others of its kind roaming the region.
Additional critical observance gathered over recent years has reinforced my belief that the thylacine has indeed survived, albeit in negligible numbers; there may be only a handful remaining. The possible answer to that bewildering and all important question is, as they say, ‘blowing in the wind’.
The Tasmanian tiger I observed that morning and those that I heard earlier would by now be long gone, for this animal’s lifespan in the wild would likely be no more than 7-10 years. One can only hope this colony continued to breed, thus prolonging their existence into the future.
During the course of my lengthy and challenging return journey, I earnestly pondered the question of whether or not to reveal to the world what I had seen back in there. I must admit it was sorely tempting, but after seriously weighing up the consequences, I decided that for the sake of the animal, it would be best to keep the lid firmly shut on my discovery. Should news of this momentous breakthrough have leaked out, the consequences for any thylacine in that neck of the woods may well have been dire, and that is something I was loath to see happen. It has not been easy to maintain my silence on this issue for so long, for there were times when, pressed for information I was sorely tempted to speak out, but only out of a deep and enduring respect for this exceptional animal was I able to resist such a temptation – until now. I reiterate, those particular animals would now be long gone and I can only hope their offspring survive still, although not necessarily in the same location.
I am only too aware that there will be those who, infected by eccentric theories, scientific hypothesis and mere supposition delight in ridiculing such claims. But as far as I am concerned, their philosophies are largely unproductive and sterile, often based on little more than misguided premise and unconfirmed conviction, for no one can put a precise date on extinction. The validity of the matter is obvious; I am in the box seat, having categorically seen the thylacine in the flesh. I was absolutely in no doubt as to what I saw that morning and that is of prime importance to me. Therefore, I am convinced there are others in Tasmania today that, having personally witnessed this animal irrefutably share my beliefs.
In my soon to be released book I magnify this event as well as many other aspects of my search I have never before spoken or written about. It is a tell-all account – well almost – of my 45 years search for the thylacine. I commend it to you as possibly the first biography of its type ever published.