On the Tiger Trail in Tasmania’s Mole Creek

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Oct 26, 2016

It’s an area of untouched wild beauty – and may also be Tasmanian-tiger territory, writes Sue Williams. Photography by Adam Gibson.

Twenty years have passed since one of the most important encounters of Ramona Westbrook’s life but her voice quivers as she recounts the events of that day. “It was like I’d seen a ghost,” she says. “My heart was thumping and the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. It was the strangest experience. I’d never felt anything like it before – or felt it since.”

As Ramona was driving home one early evening, close to the tiny town of Mole Creek in Tasmania’s central-north, she saw something that turned her blood to ice. It was a Tasmanian tiger crossing the road directly in front of her.

She immediately recognised the wolf-like animal by its gait – more like a kangaroo than a dog – its long, stiff tail and pointed face, with a jaw that can open to 120 degrees to crush the skull of its prey. But the puzzle was that the fearless nocturnal predator, right at the top of the Tasmanian food chain, had been considered extinct since 1936, when the last captive tiger (official name, thylacine) died in Hobart Zoo.

“But I know what I saw,” insists Ramona. “It was definitely a Tasmanian tiger. And so many other people have seen them, too. We absolutely believe there are still some out there...”

Ramona’s husband, Doug, puts his arm around her shoulders. Since 2008, when the couple took over the local pub in Mole Creek, an hour west of Launceston, he’s heard similar stories over the bar from many of the locals. More than 4000 sightings have been reported since the 1930s – and they didn’t stop after the tiger was officially declared extinct in 1986.

An evangelical minister’s wife confided a few years ago that her husband had spotted one – and he’d never told a lie in his life – while close friends have also confessed to glimpses. Furthermore, farmers have found livestock ripped apart with such savagery that they say it could only have been the carnivorous marsupial.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that they still exist,” says Doug. He’s sitting in the back bar of the Mole Creek Hotel, where the walls are adorned with newspaper cuttings about thylacines, old black-and-white photos of the animal, paintings, a leadlight window with a tiger design and a fake pelt made of felt. A wooden carving of a tiger stands above the bar and there are Tassie tiger T-shirts and caps for sale, Tiger pies on the menu and Tassie Tiger Ale on tap.

“We’ve certainly become the centre for the Tasmanian tiger,” he says. “We have overseas camera crews visiting to make films and produce news stories about them all the time. Some people say it’s like Scotland with the Loch Ness Monster. But this is different; the Tasmanian tiger actually exists.”

Tiny Mole Creek, named after a tributary of the Mersey River that flows underground but keeps popping up overground and looks straight up at the rugged escarpment of the Great Western Tiers, has today become the centre of a titanic Tassie-tiger cult. The “Welcome to Mole Creek” signs as you enter and leave the town have just been adorned with a drawing of a thylacine and the words “Tiger Country”.

But there’s much more here than any town of this size – population 230 with another 380 living on the outskirts – has a reasonable right to. For starters, it’s built over a limestone network of more than 300 caves in Mole Creek Karst National Park. Only one, King Solomons Cave, is open to the public after heavy rainfall earlier in the year triggered surging floodwaters that also temporarily closed access to another major tourist attraction nearby: the Walls of Jerusalem National Park.  

King Solomons Cave displays a rich treasure-trove of thousands of cascading stalactites and magnificent stalagmites in extraordinary shades of amber, pink and red, with the calcite on every surface sparkling as if encrusted with a million tiny diamonds. “It’s a gloriously pretty cave,” says Haydn Stedman of Tasmania’s Parks & Wildlife Service. “It was discovered in 1906 when a dog chased a wallaby down a hole and its owners followed. It first opened to the public in 1908. That day, 300 people turned up to see it, riding along the rough gravel road with their horses and drays and motorcars.”

A former Sydney teacher, Stedman moved to Mole Creek in 1993 and ended up running a guesthouse before becoming a guide. “It’s a great community, with lots of characters and everyone supporting each other,” he says. “But while I’m very settled here, I can’t call myself a local. You have to be here for three generations before you can make a claim to that title!”

Another man who’s made his mark on the town is Androo “Roo” Kelly, who runs Trowunna Wildlife Park, an animal sanctuary, rehab and conservation centre, world-renowned for its landmark breeding program of the thylacine’s closest cousin, the Tasmanian devil. Roo has raised 16 generations of devils since the project started there in 1985 – a third of Australia’s entire devil population – and oversees the longest continuous breeding program of any Australian marsupial species.

“At the moment, we have 60 devils here, 21 wombats, nearly 100 friendly kangaroos and wallabies, and a number of eastern quolls and spotted-tailed quolls, all in our very natural, rustic environment,” says Roo, a former youth worker who started work at the park as a keeper in 1986 and bought the place in 1993. “Ten years ago, there were predictions the devil would become extinct in 15 years but all the signs are that they’ve come back in numbers. I’m now very optimistic about their future.”

The park’s devil residents – from tiny babies nursed in beanies by volunteers to older animals who are either released back into the wild or sent to sanctuaries around the world – are all free of the cancerous facial tumours that have been threatening the species. About the size of a small bear, they look incredibly cute... until feeding time, when they rip apart an animal carcass with the blood-curdling shrieks that earned them their name.    

Food is never far from the minds of humans in Mole Creek, either. The town plays a proud role in the region’s standing as a gourmet food producer, with old honey factory R. Stephens Tasmanian Honey on the main street, the 41° South salmon and ginseng farm nearby, as well as a raspberry orchard and Tasmanian Truffles, producer of Australia’s first homegrown black truffle.

Mole Creek is also home to the picturesque Springfield Deer Farm, which hosts more than 600 deer. Owner Michal Frydrych is a comparative newcomer to town, having bought the organic, free-range farm four years ago. “Mole Creek is such a beautiful place,” says Michal, who has a cottage for visitors to stay among the deer and wildlife, such as echidnas. “You can go walking to the top of the Tiers and the fishing is fantastic. But you have to work hard to stay on the map – you can be forgotten here.”

Yet back at the pub, everyone’s working together to make sure that won’t ever happen. Doug, pulling a schooner of Tassie Tiger Ale with tap handles fashioned from a pair of Michal’s deer antlers, grins: “And as soon as we manage to take a photo of a Tasmanian tiger...” 

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