Running wild in Tasmania

Rick Gunn/Special to the Appeal Great Lakes in Tasmania are one of the main attractions to visitors of this 26,200 square-mile island.

Rick Gunn/Special to the Appeal Great Lakes in Tasmania are one of the main attractions to visitors of this 26,200 square-mile island.

"Oh look at me, in my fancy car, and my bank account, oh how I wish I could take it all, down to my grave, God knows I'd save and save. Man, take a look again, take a look again, things you have collected. In the end it all piles up so tall, but one day nothing, one day nothing at all."

-Dave Matthews,"Seek Up"

"So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more dangerous to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man's living spirit is his passion for adventure.

The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun."

-Chris McCandless, from John Krakauer's book, "Into the Wild."

"And tell me people of Orphalese, what have you in these houses? Have you beauty that leads the heart from things fashioned of wood and stone, to the holy mountain ... or have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort. That stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host, and then a master ... aye, and with hook and scourge makes puppets of your larger desires. Though its hands are silken, its heart is of iron. It lulls you to sleep only to stand by your bed and jeer at the dignity of the flesh, it makes mock of your sound senses. Varily the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul."

-Kahlil Gibran, from the book, "The Prophet"

I was half way across Tasmania's Western Highlands when I came across the beast. A dark, lifeless shape slumped to the side of the road. As I approached, recognition - the Tasmanian Devil. I set down my bike to get a closer look.

Half biologist, half morbid voyeur, I crouched over the dead animal and studied its form. After my eyes were done journeying over its rippled musculature, it occurred to me just how wrong the cartoonist had gotten it. The brown fur, the bushy grey eye-brows, the thin arms and legs - all wrong.

The devil was black, jet-black, with a v-like stripe dashed across its chest like fresh-white spray paint. Its brawny body not much larger than that of an oversized house cat.

Just above its shoulders, where it's head met it's body, all similarities to Feline Domestica ended. The devil's head was large, disproportionately large, like that of a pit-bull. Its anvil-shaped jaw looking entirely capable of snapping through cold steel.

Leaning in close, I noticed no wounds, no blood, no signs of trauma. Perhaps, I thought, it was merely asleep. Then, in my mind's eye, an image: The beast's jaws sheering-through the sinew of my lower leg.

Reflexively I jumped back.

I shook my head, and rode away.

Two days later, I'd happened upon a pair of devils as they were meant to be: Crashing through the brush at high-speeds, alive, wild.

Free.

I'd arrived in Tasmania the week previous.

Following the shimmering waters of the Mersey River from the Devonport Harbor, I'd pedaled through a tangle of farm roads, over a small bridge, through the tiny town of DeLoraine, then up a curvy ribbon of blacktop, where the road twisted and step-laddered 3,000 vertical-feet over Tasmania's Great Western Tier.

Intermittently engulfed by a thick blanket of Eucalypt forest, I slipped into a peaceful cadence, taking in the blue-green puffs of foliage, their repeating pastel trunks of single zen-like brush strokes.

The road lifted and dipped, over the saddle of a rocky-crest, until the pavement slimmed, then disappeared altogether. Rolling over a lonely rattle of washboard, I crossed a dozen single-lane bridges, stopping amid each, peering for a moment into the trout-filled streams; tracing their paths as they braided and branched in silvery strands across Tasmania's remote Central Plateau.

For six hours I pedaled within those isolated environs, existing as a singular stirring of dust upon the horizon. It was exactly these kinds of empty landscapes that spurred endless sandstorms of thought.

Although, in the midst of this thought, I was entirely capable of launching fleets of tall ships, building castles, creating and destroying entire civilizations, that afternoon I'd returned to the thoughts of the day before, and the day before that. A reoccurring thought that reflected infinitum, like the image of a mirror within a mirror.

Once again a feeling surged. The one that welled up from my heart to my head. The one that reminded me just how long I'd been alone; how long I'd stuffed away, avoided, or otherwise denied that most basic human need to be close to another.

Inevitably came the memory of a girl. The one back home with the kryptonite eyes, her handful of careless words.

"I care about you ... I want to see you," she'd written some time ago.

Secretly, almost compulsively, I'd carried those words. Carrying them, through the hours, the days, the months. This until they were replaced by a another set of words. The ones that stated, "I've thought of you too, but I have a boyfriend now ... I'm in relationship."

Collecting those thoughts like shards of broken glass, I stuffed them all back inside, only to be brought back out again tommorow. Then I did what I do best - dropped my head, turned my cranks and pedaled through it all.

Near dusk, the great lakes road delivered me to a desolate expanse of scrub, the Tasmanian equivalent to the middle of nowhere. I turned at a fork, then coasted into the town of Miena. Slowly I rolled through the abandoned fishing village, my fading shadow casting a dim outline against a half-dozen tumble-down shacks, an empty gas station, then a backwoods bar.

Desperately in need of supplies, I parked my bike, and made for the tavern door.

As I entered, all heads turned.

Scattered around the room sat a handful of flannel-clad, hard-smoking, hard drinking hunter-types. Surrounding them, the predictable icons of redneck decor. There were pine-paneled walls, taxidermied trout, six-point dear heads and beer posters adorned with scantily-clad women.

Ignoring their hostile eyes, I pulled my bike shorts from where they had creeped, then made my way to an area that held a small variety of staples, where I began checking prices.

A can of beans: $5. A small carton of milk: $4. A bottle of beer: $7.

I decided to do without.

Still, I needed water.

I approached the bar, smiled at the bartender and said hello. The man scowled.

"Uh ... any chance you could fill these up," I asked, setting my water bottles down on the bar.

The question seemed to dumbfound the man. He stood silent for a moment, then shot me an evil glare.

During that silence I studied a photo hanging behind the bar. It was a photo of the same man that stood before me, standing in the exact same spot, with the exact same scowl, only he was shirtless and wearing a bra and spiked dog-collar. He filled the bottles, set them back on the bar, then said, "That'll be 3 dollars each."

"Really?" I replied sheepishly.

The man guffed, then tilted his head back and let loose with a toothless, opened-mouthed belly laugh. This seemed to set off the entire room of Tasmanian hillbillies.

For soon they all joined in the open-mouthed laughter, not an entire set of teeth among the group of them.

Grabbing my bottles and making quickly for the door, I felt as though I'd somehow landed myself in a remake of the film, "The Hills Have Eyes," casted entirely by rejects from a Michigan hunting club.

Bouncing along a decline of steep-loose dirt, I pedaled on, braking hard down a succession of back country farm roads. Picking up speed, I railed past the verdant-green blur of cattle pastures, paddocks, and sheep fields back onto the pavement of the southern lowlands then through the gates of Mt. Field National Park.

Parking my bike, I quickly set foot on the Russell Falls Trail.

Moments later, I was enshrouded in the cathedral-like silence of a temperate forest. I wandered contemplatively through a temple of greenery. Traipsing along carpets of extravagant mosses, I peered ever-upward at the sky-scraping Swamp Gums, the Myrtle trees, the giant ferns soaring 18-feet into the air.

Thriving within that wooded silence was a unique variety of Tasmanian wildlife that included the tasmanian devil, the long-tailed mouse, the ring-tailed possum, and spotted-tailed quoll.

Bird life here included the Black Currawong, Green Rosella, Olive Whistler and Grey Goshawk. Joining those creatures were the Tasmanian Tree frog, Tiger Snakes, and the Macleay's swallowtail butterfly; all of these species protected within the boundaries of the park.

But just down the road, in the heart of the Styx Forest, many of these same creatures were not as lucky.

I soon learned that one of Tasmania's Largest logging companies - ironically by the name of Gunn's Ltd. - was readying to down one of the last remaining stands of unprotected Eucalyptus Regnan.

E. Regnan is the world's tallest hardwood tree, second only in size to the world famous California redwoods. If the company has its way, this 450-year-old stand of Eucalyptus Regnans will be clear-cut, then ground into low-value woodchips.

A report by Ecologist magazine describes the process as follows:

"When the loggers have done their bit, the helicopters will come. From above the forest they will drop incendiary chemicals, similar to napalm, on the myrtles, the eucalypts, the cockatoos, the whipbirds, the banners, the tree ferns ...the remains of the forest will burn for days. When the fire stops, [the forest] will be a charred mass of blackened stumps and white, ashen ground. Finally, the loggers will return.

"They will lace the area with carrots, implanted with a nerve-attacking poison known as 1080. Everything that eats it, including wombats, possums, wallabies, bandicoots, will die.

"Cleared of potentially destructive wildlife, the area will then be planted with lines of fast-growing, nonnative trees, that will provide the loggers with a means of producing woodchips in a way that is much more economically efficient than the old-growth forests of the Styx valley ever were."

"Greenpeace adds that of the wood logged in Tasmania - 90 percent - is converted into woodchips for the Asian paper industry and sold at around $15 per ton. In 2000 the Australian Bureau of Statistics calculated that 5,498,654 tons were converted to woodchips. Importers should source woodchips from plantations, not ancient forests."

Australia Campaigns Manager Danny Kennedy recently informed the press.

His words echoed in my head until I reached the city of Hobart.

Rarely comfortable of late in the heart of a major city, I sought out a quiet cafe, where I nervously drank coffee.

Picking up a copy of the local paper, I learned that one of my favorite books had been made into a film.

"Into the Wild," based on the best-selling book by author Jon Krakauer, tells the true story of Chris McCandless, an idealistic young man who cut all ties with his dysfunctional family after graduating from college. After giving away his $20,000 savings to charity, McCandless sets off for the Alaskan wilderness.

Eventually, however, McCandless is found dead - starved to death - inside an abandoned bus, after a failed attempt to live his dream of living off the land.

Near the bottom of the paper was a review of the film by Roger Ebert.

"For those who have read Thoreau's Walden, there comes a time, maybe only lasting a few hours or a day, when the notion of living alone in a tiny cabin beside a pond and planting some beans seems strangely seductive. [To] certain young men, of which I was one ... such a life of purity and denial makes perfect sense. Christopher McCandless did not outgrow this phase."

I sat in that cafe that morning and contemplated Ebert's word's for some time, then studied the host of long faces that surrounded me. This until my mind spilled over in thought.

I began to think of all those I'd come across in this lifetime who'd attained all they'd needed, but somehow wanted more.

I thought of those who went to work each day, not out of love for what they do, nor to improve the world, but to compete - to beat someone out - for power or resources, upper-management positions, traffic lanes, parking spaces.

I thought of all those I'd met who'd attempted to buy themselves into a life of eternal comfort.

Those who'd long-since traded their lives, their souls, their Gods, for things, immense boxes of sheet rock, expensive metal machines, extravagant meals, rare stones and endless rows of glittering fabric.

As if through the attainment of these things, they would liberate themselves. Free themselves somehow from their inevitable return to the earth, the trees, the wind.

As if through these things they would somehow sever themselves, once and for all, from that inseparable something "wild" that resides within us all.

Like McCandless, I'd decided long ago that I would rather live a thousand deaths of starvation within abandoned Alaskan busses, than a single soul-starved, material-bound life of dreamless inaction.

Moreover, that the most important thing in this life was not what I could get, but what I could give. I spent the last of my days in Tasmania among the forests and surf, the clouds and the rain and as I did, I felt as if I too was growing wild.

Even the food I caught or collected was wild, the fresh oysters, flathead fish, mussels, scallops, all sautéed over my camp-stove in white wine and Tasmania's infamous King Island Cream.

Synchronized with the rhythms of my surroundings, a quietness washed over my mind and body, and I began to simply listen.

I listened to the bird song in the morning, the gentle patter of leaves in the rain in the afternoon.

On any given night I took my rest listening to the soft murmurs of bubbling streams, or the rhythmic roar of the crashing waves.

As I became all listener, I felt as though something ancient and sacred had returned to my life. That something that has been robbed from each of us in this so-called "civilized society."

It was like a part of me had returned to the wild.

As if something inside had been set free.

• Editors note: This is the latest in a series of journal entries written by former Nevada Appeal photographer Rick Gunn about his two-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way, he is raising awareness for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org.

To read more of his entries and see more photos go to rickgunnphotography.com, or nevadaappeal.com and click on the Wish Tour icon.

Where in the world is Rick Gunn?

WHERE: Devonport, Deloraine, Mienna, Ouze, Mt. Field National Park, New Norfolk, Hobart, Dunalley, Eagle-Hawk Neck, Orford, Dolphin Sands (Coles Bay), Bicheno, St.Helens, Scottsdale, Launceston

WHEN: Nov. 10-29, 2007

MILEAGE LOG: 21,600-22,200

ELEVATION: Sea level-4000 ft.

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