Like the Southern Lights in Tasmania, the Tasmanian tiger is legendary. This, I discover, on a visit to Mole Creek. “That’s got to be the most tattered shirt I’ve ever seen,” scoffs the barman pointing toward my upper torso which is crudely covered with one of my most prized possessions – a bright yellow t-shirt emblazoned with a faded image of a Tasmanian tiger (thylacine).
Admittedly, it does seem to have shrunk a couple of sizes since Santa dropped it down my chimney almost twenty years ago, but when deciding what to wear to the Mole Creek Pub, it was the obvious choice.
The pub is home to the ‘Tiger Bar’ — a shrine to the presumed-extinct Tasmanian tiger.
In fact, publican Doug Westbrook boasts that “from any bar stool you can count at least 266 photos, models, trinkets or other memorabilia relating to the thylacine.”
Hunting the Tasmanian tiger
This tiger-mad pub tucked away in Tasmania’s north-west is the perfect place to start a search for the ‘tiger’ (it’s actually a marsupial, but was nicknamed a tiger due to its stripes) – the last confirmed live specimen of which died in a Hobart zoo in 1936.
Next stop is the Tasmanian Tiger Exhibition situated at the Cradle Mountain Chateau which has on display a remarkable collection of artefacts, including the only footage in existence of the last tiger, a skeleton, and a rug made of Tasmanian tiger skins.
Early last century when tigers were prevalent, the rug was used for everything from a mat to a throw over a piano stool.
It is now priceless and, highlights how changing lifestyles and attitudes to conservation have altered the ways we view our natural and cultural heritage.
Armed with information garnered from the exhibition attendant on the location of more recent sightings, it’s clear that to maximise my slim (very!) chances of spotting a real thylacine I need drive along one of the state’s most isolated roads — a 200km-long rutted strip of dirt known as the Western Explorer.
No wonder the attendant reckons this god-forsaken country could be the last bastion of the thylacine — snaking through endless plains of button-grass plains surrounded by scrubby ranges this is prime tiger habitat.
Camera at the ready, at least twice I’m tricked into a possible sighting by dark shadows of a wallaby lurking on the side of the road.
Tasmania’s West Coast
After almost two hours without passing another car (even then it’s the ferryman begrudgingly driving down to his punt to take me across the Pieman River), the road eventually leads into the village of Strahan, where a never-ending tide of tourists flock from down south to explore the wilderness of the famed Franklin River.
The drive from Strahan across to Derwent Bridge, the location of the most number of tigers shot during the bounty scheme which operated between 1888 and 1909, is a spectacular journey through some of the largest remaining tracts of temperate rainforest in the world.
It was also near here that several years ago that a German tourist claimed to have snapped a photo of a tiger.
The controversial images fuelled increasing speculation that there is a hidden population surviving in this part of the state.
The tiger hunter
No journey on the trail of the Tasmanian tiger is complete without a visit to legendary ‘tiger hunter’ Col Bailey, who has dedicated the last 49 years of his life to searching for an elusive live specimen.
While crammed into his den, on the outskirts of Hobart, (laden with enough tiger paraphernalia to even give the Mole Creek Pub a run for its money), Col shows me a map of the state where he has pinpointed 4000 credible sightings since 1937.
“There’s got to be a few still out there,” says Col, who wistfully adds, “my dream is to study one in its natural habitat.”
Not surprisingly, in my three-day journey traversing the state from north to south, I didn’t spot any real Tassie tigers, but I get the feeling that, as long as there are true-believers like Col, the legend of the thylacine will live on.
The Tiger Bar: Mole Creek Hotel. 90 Pioneer Drive, Mole Creek. Ph: (03) 6363 1102.
The Tasmanian Tiger Exhibition: 3718 Cradle Mountain Rd, Cradle Mountain. Ph: 03 64921404.
Col Bailey’s Tiger Talks: For information on this tiger enthusiast’s educational talks, email:[email protected]