Tiger trek 2013-1

First published as a Facebook note - June 7, 2013 at 1:54pm

Did I hear a tiger?

Fresh back in Sydney :) Halfway through Day 1 of Plan A, toting a 35kg pack I calculated I would not make it to the place I really wanted to get to: the pack weight was just a bit too unsafe, my pace was slower than I'd like and once I got to see some of the scrub "on the ground" I realised there was no way I was bush-bashing through to where I needed to go, let alone with my pack.

Although a secondary goal was to get really remote and spend at least 5 days "out there" I had to concede my primary goal was to try and obtain evidence for the tiger - and halfway to my intended destination was not tiger country, so halfway wouldn't be good enough. Decision made: pull out of Plan A. That's why I bought 10 topo maps and had a Plan B.

Day 1 was no picnic though - I fell four times - once on my left hip, once on my right hip, once face down into water (and the pack was too heavy for me to move as I tried with one arm to keep my expensive SLR, slung around my neck, above water, and with my second arm keep my face above the water, conceding the water can have its way and slowly fill my glove, my raincoat sleeve, my rain pants, my boot), and once on my face. In fact, if I hadn't have had the SLR camera bag at my front, my face would have smashed into some solid ground and it would probably have been broken cheekbones, especially with all that weight on my back.

So Day 2 was spent re-organising. Found a campsite with a roof and a concrete floor, and even better, a fireplace. Hung out all my wet gear to dry while I prepared for Plan B. Decided to have that afternoon off and drive through some new areas and just enjoy the scenery (my mind always thinking, evaluating, could this be tiger country? How would they reach here? From where?). Camped that night close to my Plan B kick-off point and I tell you what, the silence is astounding out there. In fact, when I got back to Hobart right at the end and visited my favourite bookshop I found a Tasmanian wilderness photography book titled just that - something about how quiet it is in the Tasmanian wilderness.

Day 3 = time to kick off. Thought I'd do a quick little video showing how hard it was to get my pack on... and it was lighter now than on Day 1! But ultimately I carried more weight into Plan B - something like 40 kilos. The trick was a couple tote bags - cloth, with rope cords - one in each hand. That put a lot of the weight on the end of my arms, using no muscle strength to hold. It reduced the weight in my backpack, making me more stable on my feet, and if I was to slip again I could just let go of the tote bags to drop extra weight.

I had a goal. Still ambitious - quite a hike into a remote valley. My other goal was to deploy some cameras. For Plan A I already conceded the weight for 20 was unachievable, so dropped my numbers to 10. As I wrapped up filming the short video clip I noted - 10 cameras to go, but then after I thought nah... I came all this way... let's make it 20. Hence the 40kg.

Off I hiked. Got 5 cams into the field that day and reached the top of a ridge-line which was before the valley I wanted to enter, and there was that darn thick vegetation again. I decided not to chance an attempt at entering the valley that afternoon - night comes really early and fast down there: you want to be starting to set up camp by 4pm to make sure you're done before dark, which is about 5. I'm glad I decided to stay on top of the ridge because yes, it did get dark real quick.

Day 4, my goal was to climb some of the peaks along this ridge line. It was a strategic spot, actually placed between two prospective tiger habitat locations. My goal was to try and get at least 10 cams out that day. Originally I wanted to make an attempt into the valley but I realised with all my gear and the thick vegetatation I wouldn't be leaving myself enough time to get back out. (That, and I probably wouldn't be getting very far).

I succeeded in climbing the peaks and that gave me an excellent view in all directions. I also got about 10 cameras out which was perfect - including one down in the forest of the valley I wanted to explore further. So, so dark and quiet in there. The temperatures during the day had been around the 6 to 8 degrees mark. Each day had some rain, so I was pretty much wet all the time. The rain pants and raincoat did such a good job of sealing against water that they pretty much guaranteed I was constantly wet underneath all that. But I made sure to have warm dry clothes for bed each night, so bedtime was always like a bonus or reward at the end of the day. Getting into wet clothes the next morning, well, sucked.

But here's where it gets really interesting. Having done my day's work, and there still being a little bit of light left, I was sitting near my tent just admiring this gorgeous valley that I wanted to see more of, and munching on a muesli bar when all of a sudden I heard it - an animal call, sounding like it came from a long way away - but from the valley. It was a double note. Remember I said the wilderness is deathly quiet? When something makes a noise, you notice. But regardless, I was chomping my snack before it registered and I thought hang on a sec...

So I stopped eating and it came again - two calls; two more; then a single.

From my journal, which I wrote immediately:

"I just heard what could potentially have been a thylacine yip. 3 pairs of yips, then a single yip. Heard from base camp while eating muesli bar. Didn't sound like any bird I'd hear[d] yet, which excludes currawong/raven, and green rosella. It was the closest to a dog's bark I've heard yet. I've just taken a photo 15:45 with finger pointing in direction of call - that will give location and weather. I can't be sure if it was 3 pairs or 2 pairs of yips first [because] I was chewing when I noticed a sound, then I paid attention and noticed the call came in pairs. I'm estimating three based on duration. I will record it now."

(I then made a voice recording immitating the call I heard).

Journal continues:

"15:55 didn't match an eagle. Not devil. It was quite distant, or so it seemed. I can hear a bird warble now - not like that either. It was distinct pairings of "tiu tiu" or "tew tew". If I consider the warbling bird and it's [sic] volume from where I sit and it's likely volume based on song, I could put that at furthest at the tree line. But this sounded like it came from further, hence a larger animal or more powerful call. I guess what made it distinctive - and prospective - was the pairing of the "yips".

"... 14;02 [sic - should be 16:02] ok, I just heard a bird double chirp - tiup tiup or teeup teeup (basically chirp chirp) - but that was slightly clearer at the start (and accompanied by other warbles). The double yip was more like chiew chiew in comparison - the leading edge of the sound was like "tiu" but the "t" had some "ch" in it. In all honesty, it's the nearest to a dog call I've heard and I'd agree it was like a small dog.

"16:39 almost spat out. I know they say coughed but I'd say almost spat. I had this thought before but only writing it down now.

"... 16:43 yay, I managed to record a bird which has a similar pitch. Earlier call was more tchyer tchyer / dog like / spat out, but that bird was similar in pitch/tone/note/duration. Bird was clearer - the "ch" at the start [of the unidentified call was] as [described] before. Hearing currawong/raven again. Not that at all.

"... 17:43 ... Did I obtain evidence today? A vocalisation? I know what the skeptics would say - it's not evidence. That's all well and good - but I wonder if any other animal matches the call? Because if so, then great, I can write it off too. But if not, then what? I'm glad I recorded the bird because that was the nearest sound, though in single bursts and etc per earlier descriptions of differences. Are there still tigers out there? I wonder what a fox bark sounds like?"

Before hitting the sack I also covered some earlier ground and found fresh carnivore scat which I collected. Some of the most amazing memories of this trip were the scenery atop those ridge peaks - truly awe inspiring, (not to mention the sense of accomplishment of getting out there, climbing them and getting the job done), some of the lichens and fungi in those remote places, exploring rock caves and crevices for signs of inhabitants, and of course, hearing that mystifying call.

Day 5 was to be my exit day for Plan B. My gear now considerably lighter, for lack of about 15 cameras, yet heavier for all the water in everything, including the tent, the return trek proved to be at a much faster pace. Originally I thought I'd done enough - I'd just lug the last cameras out and take them home - but from the ridge-top I'd spotted new areas in the valley below that I thought would make good prospective camera locations, so given I was ahead of schedule, I detoured into new realms again. Got the last of the cameras deployed and started out of there at a cracking pace.

And that's when I saw the footprint. Ok, here we go.. I do all this hiking and find this on the home stretch? As you might expect, many photographs taken - context, other tracks in the line, etc (and don't forget, GPS readings on all cameras, now, for the footprint, on scat sample locations). What's more, the print was right near some fantastic fallen timber - several trees in a row making a series of potential shelters, complete with a variety of ferns. (Thylacines seemed to line their dens with bracken/fern). Another mini detour to climb under all the fallen trees and take photos. No signs of animals sheltering there though. Now after lugging the weight of all those cameras for days, I find a footprint, and do you think I have a camera spare to deploy here? No.

I must say at this point though, having since spent a bit of time examining the print, that it might also match a large devil. I need to pull out some reference material and see. However soon afterward I found some wombat prints with a similar stride length, and the foot size of a wombat, for a similar stride length, was far larger than for this prospective thylacine match. Additionally, the claws were evident in the wombat tracks, as well as the long heels, and the mud was of similar texture - everything you would expect. I say this because I still can't get my MQ footprint out of my head - that one lacked any other indication of it being wombat, despite the majority of professionals saying it was a wombat track.

Whatever. I agree with the skeptics - need harder evidence than that, and an unidentified call in any case.

Quickened the pace because I knew I now had to get in touch with the museum: I forgot to mention, I also collected 4 bone samples, and I wasn't going to fly with those (indeed, I think that's illegal). Fifty metres before the end there was a whopping great big carnivore scat (hair in the sample), in association with some older scats that were filled with hair. The thing to note about large carnivore scats is devils, being scavengers, often consume bone - their scats often (but not always) have crushed bone tissue in them. So when you find a large scat containing hair but no bone, you start to wonder whether it's thylacine scat, because their reported eating pattern was to have a "clean kill", meaning no ripping up of the body, eating only soft tissue and not really damaging the bones.

Ok, that's what I'm here for, and I still have one spare sample jar. Photo time again, measurements, collection, GPS, labels, etc. My goal was to reach the car by 3pm because I knew it would take me 1 to 2 hours to drive to mobile reception range and try and contact the museum. I walked out at 3:01 :)

So bones went to the museum, scats I hope will be DNA analysed in a few months' time, and I scored myself a bonus night in Hobart before repacking all my gear again for the flight home the next day. (And the flight after that on the following day too after we were unexpectedly diverted to Melbourne overnight! :/  ).

And there you have it. Photos in due course.