Sadly, when we wake up we realise the weather has managed to chase us from Cradle Mountain. Its raining every so lightly and the wind is picking up, so I have to quickly rethink my wardrobe.
Our first stop is actually in Launceston – Cataract Gorge. It’s not too far from the city centre, and we’re given 45 minutes to walk around it. The water is pretty low this time of year, but it’s still pretty impressive.
Once you’ve walked along the river for a while, you enter a park area which is home to dozens of peacocks and a chair lift. We ignored the lift and coveted the peacocks, before crossing a suspension bridge to the other side. The gorge used to have 3 basins, but thanks to dams and construction, they’ve been altered and the first basin, the one directly below us, was the only one remaining untouched.
Our big stop this morning was the Bay of Fires. This area takes up nearly 100km of Tasmania’s shore, so we’d only get to see a very small part of it. Jerry told us she’d be taking us to a place called ‘Cosy Corner’ as it had a decent range of landscapes (beach, rocks, forest etc) and actually had toilets. First though, we stopped in the small town of Sheffield to grab some lunch.
Some of us had actually cooked something that morning so enjoyed that before wandering into town – Sheffield is a nice place, but very little to see or do. At least that was my initial impression, before wandering into the best chocolate store I’ve ever visited.
This woman loved her chocolate – she even let me sample the chocolate covered raspberries (which despite having been freeze dried, still tasted pretty fresh!), which Julia shrieked at the discovery of German chocolate. We all left considerably poorer with bags full of sweets (though not as bad as one girl who left with a significantly sized box!).
Sheffield is only about 15km from Cosy Corner, so we were there in a matter of minutes. The area is pretty beautiful, with orange rocks on one side, a light outcropping on the other, and pure clear water in the centre. We had two hours here, and I immediately head for the rocks.
People sometimes assume the Bay of Fires gets it’s name due to the lichen that grows on the rocks, giving them their orange colour, but they’re wrong. Although there are no longer any native Aboriginal’s in Tasmania, when the European’s first arrived they found fires being set in this area at night almost constantly. For the tribes living in this area, seafood was an important part of their diet, and keeping fires for cooking and warmth is very important.
The rocks are made from granite, but are constantly being eroded from the ocean, resulting in strange fragmentation and shapes in addition to the orange lichen covering. As such, navigating them was a pretty strategic game – you had to make sure that anywhere you climbed up would also have a way of coming down, not always the easiest thing to tell, and everyone had a few close calls. I, along with the new girl Gael, managed to make it almost to the next beach, further than anyone else, before we decided to call it quits and try to make our way back. It would have been a lot more fun had the wind not been so fierce – it made it hard to keep our balance on the higher rocks.
On the way back, the water looked so good I couldn’t help but remove my shoes and start walking along the shore. I walked the entire length of the beach until I reached the smaller set of rocks and washed my feet in a warm rock pool. There were a couple of people sunning themselves here, so I joined in until I had about 30 minutes left, and headed back to the bus. We left just in time, as it started to rain as we pulled out.
Sadly, the weather doesn’t get any better. By the time we arrive in our overnight stop – a town called Bicheno, the rain had died down but the wind had tripled. It was picked up sand and dirt and throwing it at us hard enough to scratch the skin, and had us fighting the current to get inside the hostel. Building was moving from the strain.
Most people wanted to stay inside, but several were going out for a group dinner, and all of us were heading out to do the Penguin Tour at 8:50. I wasn’t going to dinner, but did end up risking the weather to get something small to eat, then fled back inside to abuse the free and relatively unlimited (if slow) WiFi. Several hours later, we all layered up and headed out towards the meeting point.
The tour is run by a not for profit agency who protects the penguins breeding grounds. It costs $30 to go out, and that covers the guide’s wage and your bus out. Everything else goes towards the birds.
We had to wait until the sun went down (which this time of year, is pretty late) as the Little Penguins of Australia don’t return to their burrows until after dark. We also couldn’t bring phone’s, camera’s of video cameras, as the flash had been known to blind the bird. Instead we could send an email and get some professional photos after the tour.
These little guys are adorable! This is breeding season, so every burrow is filled with a couple of baby chicks, all the way from newborns to big fluffy brown lumps all the way to almost ready to swim moulters. Little penguins come to the same area to breed every year – many of them go to an island just offshore, but hundreds also come to this beach. A male stays in the same burrow every year, and comes back to pretty it up. His lady from the previous year will then return, and if the burrow meets her expectations, she’ll breed with him again. If it doesn’t, she’ll go looking for a new man. To make things easier for the younger penguins, the charity have also provided wooden nests (with removable tops so you can see in on the penguins during the tour) and a local school have created concrete igloos. This way there’s never a lack of tree roots, logs, rabbit burrows for the new ones to inhabit.
They never have more than 2 chicks, and in the beginning, the males go out to sea at sunrise and return at sunset while the mother stays with the chicks. One they start moulting the mother goes out too – and once the babies have gained their adult feathers, one day they’ll just stop coming back, forcing the babies into the water where they’ll have to learn how to swim and fish. If something happens to one of the parents, one the babies usually perishes, as one parent can’t feed both. Sometimes both will die because the surviving parent just wont come back, as they know they can’t support them. Thankfully the charity keeps an eye on the nests in case of such an event (there’s sadly one nest where it looks like one parent has died, so the remaining parent is struggling).
They don’t even reach our knee, and in order to make the long journey from the beach to the grass, they all huddle up together on the shore, preen and groom themselves to get rid of excess water, and once there’s enough of them, they waddle up home in a group to protect themselves. It’s a voluntary wild penguin parade – and although they don’t come up ‘close enough to touch’ they get pretty damn close.
The wind and rain sort of dampen the night, but it was a really great thing to see, especially thanks to the time of year. The little penguin is a squeaky little darling, with admittedly odd parenting habits, but so worth seeing. Was gonna go to Philip Island, but after this might not bother.