The moss-covered trees and the narrow trail in the distance disappear in the mists of a small waterfall and the setting is like from some Brothers Grimm fairy tale.
Even more mysterious on this hike through the forests of Tasmania is a creature with big round eyes and a sleepy expression. Like the koala and the Tasmanian devil, it’s not exactly common hereabouts, but if you see something about the size of a dog, congratulations.
It is a wombat, a somewhat underestimated envoy of Australia’s animal kingdom. The fauna of Down Under is both fascinating and slightly scary. Tourists can watch kangaroos for hours, but shudder at poisonous snakes and spiders, voracious crocodiles and sharks.
The danger emanating from the animals of Tasmania, the island-state on Australia’s south-east tip, is somewhat different.
At Hobart Airport, a car rental agent has a word of warning: “Watch out when driving after dark that you don’t hit any animals. It can be expensive.” Then he gets down to specifics. Especially watch out for the wombats, which are four-legged nocturnal animals.
“They are like boulders, these bloody wombats.” Colliding with one is like ramming into a rock, he says, drily adding that this is something that would not end well for the animal or the car’s occupants. Or the car.
Tasmania comes to life when darkness descends. Tiny wallabys are the first to venture out of the bushes, seeming like hitch-hikers on the edge of the road. These mini kangaroos gaze at you cutely, but beware of dazzling them with the car’s headlights: they might suddenly jump out in front.
The same risk is there with the Tasmanian devils and the wombats.
Drivers are required by law to cut their speed by at least half while driving at night. Anything faster than 50 kilometers per hour would endanger animals. And driving with care is obligatory near the various national parks that cover over one-fifth of Tasmania’s surface.
It required some patience when driving one recent night to Cradle Mountain, Tasmania’s most famous peak, and the nearby Lake St Clair, Australia’s deepest lake.
Along with many wallabys on the road, a Tasmanian devil jumped out in front of the car and then ran out ahead in a zig-zag course. Wombats on this night were thankfully staying in the dense bush on the side of the road.
The party managed to make it to the overnight quarters without any accident.
The next morning, on entering Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, they encountered an echidna, or spiny anteater, waddling across the road. Echidnas can often be spotted while hiking the six-day Overland Track.
Wombats, by contrast, are only active at night and very rarely to be seen during daylight hours.
An exception to this, however, is the Enchanted Walk. Along the trail beneath the moss-covered trees, the noontime sun is nearly blocked out, making it seem like dusk. The wombats, evidently thinking it is night, can be spotted out and about.
The Enchanted Walk is a family-friendly trail, with signs along the way telling children’s stories about the forest’s various animals. The hike only requires about half an hour, unless one stops, enchanted, to watch the wombats.
“Wombats are my favourite animal,” a 10-year-old girl says, proudly adding that she knows everything about them.
For example that they are the closest living relation to the koalas and that they are the world’s largest burrowing mammals. And that the wombats’ baby-pouches are in the rear of their bodies, so that these don’t get dirty while digging.
The girl leaves no doubt that she’s the expert of the day about wombats. But then she sighs sadly.
A less-reverent tourist with a camera has squeezed his way past her to try to get closer to a wombat that had been standing just a metre away on the edge of the trail. In a flash, the wombat disappears into the bushes.