(page 8)

Expeditions and Searches - 1937 to Present-Day

© Rosemary Fleay-Thomson (2002)

    We were now down one helper, which made me the next in line to be father's assistant, so he introduced me to the wilderness country.  We tramped through button grass swamps which hid wet flats and peat bogs on the lower areas; the button grass and peat stained the creek and river water almost the colour of weak tea or coffee.  Jagged mountains, usually lost in swathes of cloud, reared snow-clad heads and the swift-running, icy mountain streams were difficult to cross.  They seemed too wide to jump, and one had to be very skillful or risk a very cold dunking.  The horizontal scrub was dense, borne down by its own constantly damp weight, and often we had to cross it by jumping onto the top and floundering across the mass of growth.

Sigrid, Rosemary, Robert and Stephen Fleay with prospector Jack Daley - King William Range
Peaks of the King William Range.  Sigrid Fleay with children Rosemary, Robert and Stephen accompany prospector Jack Daley across the button grass plains.

    The constantly wet forests were a dark, dripping tangle of scrub; mossy Beech trees, King William, Huon and Celery Pines.  Beautiful crimson Waratahs bloomed profusely and the moist, green, mossy-covered banks glimmered beautifully at night with the luminous phosphorescent 'fairy lights' of a myriad of tiny glow worms.  We were indeed fortunate to witness that spectacular wonder of the southern skies, the Aurora Australis which burst across the night sky like a brilliant fluctuating curtain of rainbow lights, reminding us that the Antarctic continent was not very far south of us.

    Younger brother Stephen became the man about the camp helping mother with the many chores while I assisted father in laying the bait trails and setting up the bulky 'catch-em'-alivo' traps; a much more exciting task as far as I was concerned.

    The bulky chain wire traps carried on the expedition unfolded to form a large rectangle with a hinged front door that dropped, locked, and trapped an animal unharmed after it had entered and tugged at the bacon bait on the hook.  Salted, cured bacon was used in preference to fresh meat because old bushmen had told father that the thylacine had sought it out in bush camps, and even licked frying pans used for frying bacon, presumably seeking the salt content.  Fly strike was an ever-present problem with fresh meat, while bacon was less likely to be attacked by the numerous blow flies in the South-West area.

    Father and his previous helpers, the Davie brothers, Roy Alderson, Gavan and Betty Crowl and Jack Daley had erected heavy wooden palisades behind these chain wire traps and live decoys such as sheep or Bennett's wallabies (Macropus rufogriseus) were contained there out of harm's way.  We were always picking grass at our roadside camp to feed these decoy animals to supplement their rations of grain.

    It was my task to lay miles of bait trails using meat singed over the camp fire then laced with the irresistible smelling oil of aniseed, which attracts most animals like 'bees to a honey pot'.  I dragged my lures on strings in every direction to and from the traps, and certainly covered miles each day.

Rosemary Fleay
Rosemary Fleay inspects a chain wire, box-type trap set on a dry knoll in south-west Tasmania.  Miles of scent trails were laid to the trap in the hope of attracting a thylacine.

    It was always exciting to leave home base very early each morning to inspect the traps; we always had high hopes that a thylacine just may be awaiting us in one of them, but we found that the little spotted Native Cats (or Quolls as the animals are now known by my father's popularisation of this more suitable Aboriginal name) practically queued up to sample the bacon and this meant that they set the traps off early in the night.  The larger, more fearsome Tiger Cats (Dasyurus maculatus) were also caught and often presented father with a problem when he attempted to extricate them from the trap.  Tasmanian Devils (Sarcophilus harrisii), those 'black hyenas' of the bush, would be found gnawing savagely at the chain wire of the traps; one had even managed to chew through the heavy gauge wire and escape.  We released these animals and often when we returned to view our results next day, would find the very same animals had been recaptured.  We were catching everything but the thylacine and father had quite a menagerie, bound for the Healesville Sanctuary, to feed and care for at the camp.  These animals required quite considerable time and effort when combined with his duties of scouting and trapping likely areas for the primary quarry.

    Our roadside camp near the Collingwood River consisted of the bare basics with a large canvas tent living and sleeping area.  A kitchen was made from a smaller tent; wooden duckboards were laid underfoot because of the mud and slush from persistent rain.  We were washed out three times from that campsite, spending hours huddled together in the back of the truck sheltering from the storms and freezing rain.  February and March weather conditions were extraordinary; it could be blazing hot one day and snowing the next, or it rained continuously for days on end.  However, father worked tirelessly and towards the end of our four months of trials and tribulations his perseverance very nearly paid off, when only a slight miscalculation on his part prevented him from returning triumphantly to Victoria with a live thylacine.

    As an added precaution father had taken to placing some heavily padded dog traps in front of the chain wire box traps.  He was certain that the tracks he had found in a wild area known as the 'Poverty Plain' were those of a thylacine; the plaster cast of a footprint fitted them perfectly.  Also, while camped in the area, father had previously heard thylacine calls during the night there.  These strange calls which he likened to 'the slow opening of a creaking door' had been verified by the old Tasmanian bushmen companions who had camped with him in that earlier stage of the expedition.

Sigrid, Stephen, Robert and Rosemary Fleay - King William Range
Sigrid Fleay with Stephen, Robert and Rosemary on the button grass plain near the peaks of the King William Range.

    This was a 'do or die' attempt.  Father had become worried about any possible harm being done to a thylacine with the number of padded traps he had set so he reduced the number.  This proved to be the unfortunate error of judgment which probably cost him success, for that very evening following heavy rain, and only ten days before we were due to leave Tasmania, the Poverty Plain thylacine approached the palisade containing a Bennett's wallaby.  Moving closer to the entrance of the box trap and the padded traps, the animal must have been cautiously moving forward in a crouching position, so it had been caught by an elbow instead of the paw.  In panic mode, the thylacine had managed to vigorously shake free of the trap and make a break for freedom.

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