The Gunn Log: Wild in Tasmania
Editor’s note: This is one in a series of journal entries from Rick Gunn, a South Lake Tahoe photographer, detailing his three-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way, he is soliciting donations for The Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org. To read his complete “Wish Tour” journal, go to rickgunnphotography.com.
I was halfway across Tasmania’s Western Highlands when I came across the beast – a dark, lifeless shape slumped on the side of the road. As I approached, I recognized what it was: a Tasmanian Devil.
I set down my bike to get a closer look. Half biologist, half morbid voyeur, I crouched over the dead animal and studied its form. After my eyes were done journeying over its rippled musculature, it occurred to me just how wrong the cartoonist had gotten it: the brown fur, the bushy gray eyebrows, the thin arms and legs – all wrong.
The devil was black – jet-black – with a V-stripe dashed across its chest like fresh white spray paint. Its brawny body was not much larger than that of an oversized housecat. Just above its shoulders, where the head met the body, all feline similarities ended. The devil’s head was large, disproportionately large, like that of a pitbull. Its anvil-shaped jaw appeared entirely capable of snapping through cold steel.
Leaning in close, I noticed no wounds, no blood, no signs of trauma. Perhaps, I thought, it was merely asleep.
Then, in my mind’s eye, came an image of the beast’s jaws shearing through the sinew of my lower leg. Reflexively, I jumped back. I shook my head and rode away.
Two days later, I had happened upon a pair of devils as they were meant to be: crashing through the brush at high-speeds, alive, wild – free.
I had arrived in Tasmania the previous week.
Following the shimmering waters of the Mersey River from the Devonport Harbor, I pedaled through a tangle of farm roads, over a small bridge, through the tiny town of DeLoraine, then up a curvy ribbon of blacktop, where the road twisted and stepladdered 3,000 vertical feet over Tasmania’s Great Western Tier.
Intermittently engulfed by a thick blanket of eucalyptus forest, I slipped into a peaceful cadence, taking in the blue-green puffs of foliage, their repeating pastel trunks looking like single, zenlike brushstrokes.
The road lifted and dipped over the saddle of a rocky crest until the pavement slimmed, then disappeared altogether. Rolling over a lonely rattle of washboard, I crossed a dozen single-lane bridges – stopping at each, peering for a moment into the trout-filled streams, tracing their paths as they braided and branched in silvery strands across Tasmania’s remote Central Plateau.
For six hours, I pedaled within those isolated environs, existing as a singular stirring of dust upon the horizon. It was exactly these kinds of empty landscapes that spurred endless sandstorms of thought. And although, in the midst of this thought, I was entirely capable of launching fleets of tall ships, building castles – creating and destroying entire civilizations – that afternoon, I returned to the thoughts of the day before, and the day before. A reoccurring thought that reflected infinity, like the image of a mirror within a mirror.
And once again, a feeling surged. One that welled up from my heart to my head. The one that reminded me just how long I had been alone; how long I had stuffed away, avoided or otherwise denied that most basic human need to be close to another.
Inevitably came the memory of a girl. The one back home with the kryptonite eyes – her handful of careless words: “I care about you … I want to see you.” She had written some time ago. Secretly, almost compulsively, I carried those words. Carried them through the hours, the days, the months. Carried them until they were replaced by another set of words. The ones that stated: “I’ve thought of you, too, but I have a boyfriend now. … I’m in relationship.”
Collecting those thoughts like shards of broken glass, I stuffed them all back inside, only to be brought back out again tomorrow. Then I did what I do best: dropped my head, turned my cranks and pedaled through it all.
Near dusk, the Great Lakes road delivered me to a desolate expanse of scrub, the Tasmanian equivalent to the middle of nowhere. I turned at a fork, then coasted into the town of Miena. Slowly, I rolled through the abandoned fishing village, my fading shadow casting a dim outline against a half-dozen tumbledown shacks, an empty gas station, then a backwoods bar.
Desperately in need of supplies, I parked my bike and made for the tavern door. As I entered, all heads turned. Scattered around the room sat a handful of flannel-clad, hard-smoking, hard-drinking hunter types. Surrounding them were the predictable icons of redneck decor: pine-paneled walls, taxidermied trout, six-point deer heads and beer posters adorned with scantily-clad women.
Ignoring their hostile eyes, I made my way to an area that held a small variety of staples, where I began checking prices. A can of beans was $5, a small carton of milk, $4; a bottle of beer, $7. I decided to do without. Still, I needed water. I approached the bar, smiled at the bartender and said hello. The man scowled.
“Uh … any chance you could fill these up?” I asked, setting my water bottles down on the bar.
The question seemed to dumbfound the man. He stood silent for a moment, then shot me an evil glare. During that silence, I studied a photo hanging behind the bar. It was a photo of the same man that stood before me, standing in the exact same spot, with the exact same scowl – only he was shirtless, wearing a bra and spiked dog collar.
He filled the bottles, set them back on the bar, then said, “That’ll be $3 each.”
“Really?” I replied sheepishly.
The man guffawed, then tilted his head back and let loose with a toothless, opened-mouthed belly laugh. This seemed to set off the entire room of Tasmanian hillbillies. Soon, they all joined in the open-mouthed laughter – with not an entire set of teeth among the group of them.
Grabbing my bottles and making quickly for the door, I felt as though I had somehow landed myself in a remake of the film “The Hills Have Eyes,” casted entirely by rejects from a Michigan hunting club.
Bouncing along a decline of loose dirt, I pedaled on, braking hard down a succession of backcountry farm roads. Picking up speed, I railed past the verdant-green blur of cattle pastures, paddocks and sheep fields, back onto the pavement of the southern lowlands, then through the gates of Mount Field National Park. Parking my bike, I quickly set afoot on the Russell Falls Trail.
Moments later, I was enshrouded in the cathedral-like silence of a temperate forest as I wandered contemplatively through a temple of greenery. Traipsing along carpets of extravagant mosses, I peered up at the skyscraping Swamp Gums, the myrtle trees and the giant ferns soaring 18 feet into the air.
Thriving within that wooded silence was a unique variety of Tasmanian wildlife that included the Tasmanian Devil, the long-tailed mouse, the ring-tailed possum and the spotted-tailed quoll. Bird life included the black currawong, the green rosella, the olive whistler and the grey goshawk. Joining those creatures were the Tasmanian tree frog, tiger snakes and the Macleay’s swallowtail butterfly – all these species protected within the boundaries of the park.
But just down the road, in the heart of the Styx Forest, many of these same creatures were not as lucky.
I soon learned that one of Tasmania’s largest logging companies (ironically, named Gunn’s Ltd.) was getting ready to cut down one of the last remaining stands of unprotected eucalyptus regnan. It’s the world’s tallest hardwood tree, second only in size to the world-famous Californian redwoods. If the company has its way, this 450-year-old stand of eucalyptus regnans will be clear-cut, then ground into low-value woodchips.
A report by Ecologist magazine describes the process as follows: “When the loggers have done their bit, the helicopters will come. From above the forest, they will drop incendiary chemicals, similar to napalm, on the myrtles, the eucalypts, the cockatoos, the whipbirds, the banners, the tree ferns. … The remains of the forest will burn for days. When the fire stops, (the forest) will be a charred mass of blackened stumps and white, ashen ground. Finally, the loggers will return. They will lace the area with carrots, implanted with a nerve-attacking poison known as 1080. Everything that eats it – wombats, possums, wallabies, bandicoots – will die. Cleared of potentially destructive wildlife, the area will then be planted with lines of fast-growing, non-native trees, which will provide the loggers with a means of producing woodchips in a way which is much more economically efficient than the old-growth forests of the Styx valley ever were.”
Greenpeace adds that of the wood logged in Tasmania, 90 percent is converted into woodchips for the Asian paper industry and sold at around $15 per ton. In 2000, the Australian Bureau of Statistics calculated that 5.5 million tons were converted to woodchips.
“Importers should source woodchips from plantations, not ancient forests,” Australia Campaigns Manager Danny Kennedy recently informed the press.
His words echoed in my head until I reached the city of Hobart.
Rarely comfortable of late in the heart of a major city, I sought out a quiet cafe, where I nervously drank coffee. Picking up a copy of the local paper, I learned that one of my favorite books had been made into a film.
“Into the Wild,” based on the best-selling book by author Jon Krakauer, tells the true story of Chris McCandless, an idealistic young man who cut all ties with his dysfunctional family after graduating from college. After giving away his $20,000 savings to charity, McCandless sets off for the Alaskan wilderness.
Eventually, however, McCandless is found dead – starved to death – inside an abandoned bus after a failed attempt to live his dream of living off the land.
Near the bottom of the paper was a review of the film by Roger Ebert. It read: “For those who have read Thoreau’s Walden, there comes a time, maybe only lasting a few hours or a day, when the notion of living alone in a tiny cabin beside a pond and planting some beans seems strangely seductive. (To) certain young men, of which I was one … such a life of purity and denial makes perfect sense. Christopher McCandless did not outgrow this phase.”
I sat in that cafe that morning and contemplated Ebert’s word’s for some time, then studied the host of long faces that surrounded me until my mind spilled over in thought.
I began to think of all those I had come across in this lifetime who had attained all they needed but somehow wanted more. I thought of those who went to work each day, not out of love for what they do nor to improve the world, but to compete – to beat someone out – for power or resources, upper-management positions, traffic lanes and parking spaces.
I thought of all those I had met who had attempted to buy themselves into a life of eternal comfort. Those who had long since traded their lives, their souls, their gods, for things: immense boxes of sheet rock, expensive metal machines, extravagant meals, rare stones, endless rows of glittering fabric.
As if through the attainment of these things, they would liberate themselves – free themselves somehow from their inevitable return to the earth, the trees and the wind. As if through these things they would somehow sever themselves once and for all from that inseparable something “wild” that resides within us all.
Like McCandless, I decided long ago that I would rather live a thousand deaths of starvation within abandoned Alaskan buses than a single soul-starved, material-bound life of dreamless inaction. Moreover, that the most important thing in this life was not what I could get, but what I could give.
I spent the last of my days in Tasmania among the forests and surf, the clouds and the rain – and as I did, I felt as if I, too, was growing wild.
Even the food I caught or collected was wild: fresh oysters, flathead fish, mussels and scallops, all sautéed over my camp stove in white wine and Tasmania’s infamous King Island Cream.
Synchronized with the rhythms of my surroundings, a quietness washed over my mind and body, and I began to simply listen.
I listened to the birdsong in the morning, the gentle patter of leaves in the rain in the afternoon. On any given night, I took my rest listening to the soft murmurs of bubbling streams or the rhythmic roar of the crashing waves.
And as I became all listener, I felt as though something ancient and sacred had returned to my life: That something that has been robbed from each of us in this so-called “civilized society.”
It was like a part of me had returned to the wild – as if something inside had been set free.