and Searches - 1937 to Present-Day
who accompanied her father on the 1945/46 expedition, has kindly written
the following memoir
for the Thylacine Museum.
SOME OF MY MEMORIES FROM THE 1945-46
DAVID FLEAY TASMANIAN TIGER EXPEDITION
© Rosemary Fleay-Thomson
"I find it hard to
believe that it is now fifty-seven years since my elder brother Robert,
younger brother Stephen, and I, accompanied our parents David and Sigrid
Fleay on an expedition to the rugged west coast region of the island state
of Tasmania. It was a last-ditch attempt to capture a pair of Tasmanian
Tigers (thylacines), so that our father David could study their life histories
and attempt to breed them in captivity at the Healesville Sanctuary in
the mainland state of Victoria.
My father David Fleay
was a trained scientist and zoologist who achieved much in his pioneering
work with Australian animals. He bred over 32 species for the first
time in captivity, including the temperamental platypus. Since 1933,
his dearest wish was to study the thylacine, about which precious little
Don Davie (left) David
Fleay (holding the pack horse's bridle) and Roy Alderson (right) on a survey
trip to the Jane River Goldfields. Cloud-capped Mt. Gell is visible
in the distance.
The opportunity to
travel to Tasmania and apply for the position of Director of the Tasmanian
Museum presented itself in 1933. However, disappointment was in store
when after his interview the Museum Board thanked him and told him that
although his credentials were excellent, at the age of 27 years, they considered
him far too young for the position. So, his hopes of studying the
thylacine in its native state were dashed, but while in Hobart he visited
the last captive thylacine, and was allowed to enter the animal's enclosure
and photograph him. I say him with certainty because father
was a trained scientist and his diary description of that encounter was
that the animal was a large male.
However, there are those today who dispute this fact and refer to 'Benjamin'
as a female.
While in 'Benjamin's'
enclosure, father, busy focusing on his subject with his head under a black
cloth, did not notice that the thylacine had padded softly around behind
him and without fear the animal soon gave him quite a sharp bite on the
bottom. This my father regarded as the highlight of his natural history
career and a compliment paid to him by an animal who must have been bored
with poor food and open, draughty, uninspiring housing; he had unwittingly
provided 'Benjamin' with a little light relief from his boredom!
In 1935, David Fleay
(who was now Curator of the Australian Section at the Melbourne Zoological
Gardens) was successful in applying for permits to secure a pair of thylacine
for study and breeding purposes, vowing to house them in a sympathetic
manner and give them natural food. However, the depression years
prevented funds being made available for his proposed expedition, so it
was not until ten years later that he could try again from his post as
Director of the Healesville Sanctuary in 1945.
We traveled to Tasmania
with father on the second stage of his search for the thylacine; he had
to return to Victoria at Christmas time 1945 to secure more equipment including
the promised ex-army truck. This essential vehicle, meant to carry
all our camping gear and the heavy metal pipe and chain wire traps, had
not arrived in Tasmania so father lost valuable time chasing it up.
Previously he had searched the Jane River Goldfield country on foot, the
only way to access most of the rough terrain of Tasmania's South-West country,
which is surely the most inaccessible and ruggedly beautiful part of Australia.
Left to right: Robert,
Sigrid, Stephen and Rosemary Fleay beside the expedition's ex-army truck,
in a snowstorm on the west coast of Tasmania in 1946.
After a very rough
crossing of the notorious Bass Strait on the old 'Nairana', we set off
for this untamed south-western region of Tasmania. Our first destination
was marked on the map as the township of Derwent Bridge, where father had
set up his headquarters. No township awaited us, just a small hotel
which was an important stop for travelers about to embark on their way
through the isolated grandeur of the west coast road.
This road, opened
in 1932, is a tribute to those involved in negotiating the well-nigh impossible
terrain, but ultimately proved the undoing of the thylacine when hitherto
inaccessible areas were opened up for trappers who used springer
snares to catch animals for the fur trade. Many thylacines
met a miserable fate in these snares, which were sometimes left unattended
for weeks on end.
Not long after we
set up camp near a crossing on the Collingwood River, my elder brother
Robert suffered horrible burns on his legs when he attempted to lift a
can of boiling water from the fire. He was placed in hospital in
Queenstown, a rip-roaring copper mining town which was set in what looked
like a lunar landscape, caused by the fumes from the copper smelter burning
all the vegetation for miles around.