(page 7)

Expeditions and Searches - 1937 to Present-Day

    Rosemary Fleay-Thomson, who accompanied her father on the 1945/46 expedition, has kindly written the following memoir for the Thylacine Museum. 

© Rosemary Fleay-Thomson (2002)

    "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 was known.

Don Davie, David Fleay and Roy Alderson - Jane River Goldfields
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 'Benjamin' 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.

Robert, Sigrid, Stephen and Rosemary Fleay - west coast of Tasmania
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.

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