Mountain Valley Wilderness is an off-the-beaten-track private nature reserve in northwest Tasmania. And it may just be the best place to see Australian animals in the wild. Fancy some Devils on your doorstep?
You’re the picture of snug. Cloaked in a doona and the crackling soundtrack of the open log fire some metres behind you.
And you’re on high alert.
Glued to the full-length window of your humble cabin, you half-crouch on the floor. Eyes scanning the cold, dark night outside for even the slightest hint of movement.
On the other side of the glass is the verandah, lined with strips of raw chicken. Beyond that, chunks of fresh roadkill are speckled across the lawn.
Further beyond, besides the few shadowy bushes and trees you can make out, the 61 hectares of the private wilderness reserve you’re calling home for the night are swathed in darkness and totally still. As though the place too is waiting.
And then, from somewhere in the black, you hear a strange noise. A throaty hiss. Movement. Maybe the crunching of bone. Pressing your face up to the window, you spot it. Your visitor has arrived. And he’s headed straight for your verandah.
Transfixed, you watch him plod up the stairs and along the verandah until he’s only a metre or so from you tops — almost close enough to touch, but for the window in the way. Silent but determined, he approaches your raw verandah chicken strips and wolfs them down one by one.
Absorbed in his sneaky late night feast (/technically, for him, 10pm breakfast), he’s totally oblivious to your presence on the other side of the glass.
Probs a good thing, too. For pretty small creatures, not much taller than Jack Russells — but squatter, black-furred, and with a dopey-looking expression — these guys can be fierce. If he so desired, his jaw could crunch through a human thighbone with ease.
Needless to say, this night-time bandit isn’t your usual guest: what you see before you, casually pigging out on some prime roadkill on the lawn below, is an iconic local species that is not only rare in the wild but endangered.
Meet the Tasmanian Devil. Right on your doorstep.
The best place to see Australian animals in the wild?
It’s not just Devils you’ll find here, either. Mountain Valley Wilderness, founded and run by husband-and-wife team Len and Pat, is arguably the best place to see Australian wildlife in the wild.* The setting is right, for one thing: it’s a little-known eco-retreat on a private nature reserve tucked away in a lost valley in Tasmania’s sleepy northwest, 2.5 hours from the nearest ‘big city’ of Launceston.
In the three nights we’ve spent on the property over two separate trips, we’ve seen seven different wild animal species, five of which were mammals.**
One was within 10 minutes of arrival on our very first stay — talk about good first impressions. Pat was just showing us into our room when she paused, staring at a spot out in the distance about 200m away from our little log cabin. A spot that was visibly wobbling. She led us closer*** to the spiky little critter who was quite nonchalantly going about his business around the grass, no doubt in search of ants and termites. First wild echidna spotted: tick.
Then there were the platypuses. Around twilight each evening, Len led us and other guests on an informal walk down to the creek, pointing out the subtle rings of water that denote these bizarre creatures’ underwater presence. As Len explained, the Tasmanian subspecies of platypus we saw is most likely an older evolutionary throwback than its cousin on the mainland. And, going against the usual grain of island dwarfism, the platypuses here are also on average 3kg to the mainland equivalents’ 1kg.
One night there, while Devil-watching, we even saw one of my faayyvourite animals: the spotted-tail quoll, Tasmania’s tiny, adorable yet motherf*cking fierce apex predator. (The Devil, though savage AF, is more a scavenger than a skilled hunter in its own right, though both are considered to share the title of ‘apex predator’ these days.) In a matter of seconds, the quoll darted out from hiding, quickly grabbed a treat from our lawn, and dashed away again before its Devil rivals could spot it (pun intended). Later, its head popped up above a bush, meerkat-style, for some quick recon. I squealed.
And of course there are also a miscellaneous array of adorable pademelons, possums and Tasmanian native hens casually pottering about the place. This is all I really have to say about why I love Mountain Valley. It’s a veritable wildlife lover’s paradise.
Sinkholes, glowworms and a baby Devil
So why is this place such a haven for wildlife? Mountain Valley is a registered private nature reserve with a perpetual conservation covenancy on the land. The effect? In their own words:
… the property can never be logged and the habitat can never be degraded.
Good news for the vulnerable white gum wet forest and cave systems here.
Because, yes, just in case this place wasn’t already awesome enough, it also boasts several caves on site — including a glow-worm cave set at the bottom of a sinkhole. Naturally.
We went there with Len one rainy day, sporting supplied ponchos and gumboots. The vaguely Pandora-like lushness of the bush on his property, all fern glades and moss, made the walk worthwhile even before we reached the cave.
The stormy weather had transformed the usual steep stairs leading down to the cave into a muddy mess of sludge, so we made the descent with the aid of ropes and Len’s guidance. It was rough going for someone as clumsy as yours truly. I absolutely fell on my ass. More than once. And all of our hands were so drenched in mud that taking photos was actually impossible.
And, once we made it down there and crouched our way into the cave, we found the rain and wind had washed away most of the glow-worms. A few flickering lights here and there were all that remained of the usual starry display. It was still a really cool experience though, as my first time in a non-commercial cave — and my first time sort of kind of abseiling down a diagonal wall of mud.
On our way back, both Len and my lucky-ass partner got to see a BABY TASMANIAN DEVIL in broad daylight (OK, technically twilight, heading towards darkness). It froze when it saw us, they reported, and quickly scrambled away into what we can only presume was its den. I don’t know how I missed it and, five-ish years on, am absolutely still mad at myself.
But, sure enough, that wasn’t the only Devil-spotting opportunity of the day, thanks to a mixture of luck and Len’s intervention. He lays the groundwork; the rest is up to Mother Nature.
This is how it works. Len collects any roadkill in the surrounding areas — sadly, Tasmania is basically the unofficial roadkill capital of the world — and chops it up (#dedication). Then, after dark, once the guests’ curfew has begun (for safety reasons; Devils are dangerous!), he sprinkles the meat around the lawn.
Come nightfall, after you’ve cooked,**** washed up, got the fire going and switched off the lights, you may just be in for a show. Of course, being wild animals, viewings can’t be guaranteed. It’s not a zoo after all, with animal-spotting on lock — hence the basis of its appeal, no? — but your odds are pretty good. We’ve seen Devils 3/3 nights we were there.
Guardians of the ecosystem
And here’s the thing: you may question just how wild the Devils here are given that food is being laid out for them, albeit unseen, on a regular basis. But these guys can eat up to 40% of their body weight in half an hour; the roadkill they get here is not enough for a full day’s meal, especially when shared with — willingly or not so much — other Devils.
What’s more, with the rise and rise of the deadly facial tumour disease among Devils, getting roadkill off the road is a good thing for their population: so aggressive are these little guys that often two or more will fight over roadkill by the side of the road and end up, sadly, becoming roadkill themselves. Plus, as Len explained, they have such a large span of territory that it’s very rare for Mountain Valley to get regular repeat visitors, except for the occasional sick or injured Devil for whom it represents support feeding.
They know this thanks to Devil observation charts stashed in each guest room ready for you to fill out — similar to an adult colouring page but instead of sticking between the lines you record any markings on the Devils you spot. It’s a nice low-tech ‘citizen science’ activity, encouraging you to pay close attention to the individual Devils that stop by. Getting to see them up close yet in the wild at once is awesome, and you’ll enjoy picking up their unique mannerisms, movements and frankly godawful sounds.
The thing about Len and Pat is they don’t only care about the wildlife in their immediate vicinity, either. On our last visit, we mentioned that we’d been to Maria Island and Len asked if we’d spotted any of the local wombats (yes!!) with the telltale signs of mange (also, sadly, yes). If every Australian cared as much about our wildlife as these guys we wouldn’t have the worst mammal extinction rate in the world.
Think about that when you think about Australia’s one-of-a-kind quirky wildlife; how many species have we already lost in the last 200-ish years alone (funny timing that, hey)? And how many more do we stand to lose?****
Before I spend the rest of the post on a greenie rant, allow me to take this moment to acknowledge the role that tourism can play in impacting animal species; it can be both a drawcard, a boon for local species’ survival (and tourism), but also the source of horrendous exploitation and endangerment.
Which is why it’s so important to DO YOUR DAMN RESEARCH whenever you’re looking into booking a wildlife attraction. And support the ones who actually care and do the right thing.
Like these guys.
Creatures vs creature comforts
So, enough gushing — the downsides? It’s all a matter of perspective.
The property is remote enough that you have to boil the tap water for three minutes before drinking it. And, being so far from shops or restaurants, it’s best you bring your own food and do your own cooking.*****
The last time I visited, there was neither WiFi nor phone service (though more recent TripAdvisor reviews suggest that it’s now got WiFi coverage, albeit weak).
If you’re a sightseeing-oriented type of traveller, there’s not a whole lot to do in the surrounding area. Cradle Mountain is about an-hour-and-a-quarter drive away from the property, though for what it’s worth I recommend staying within the national park itself rather than day-tripping there. There’s another mountain closer to Mountain Valley called Black Bluff — recurring bad weather means I’ve yet to experience it myself — and nearby Leven Canyon is quietly spectacular. But hiking, wildlife-watching and soaking up the wilderness really is the order of the day.
If you’re an insectophobe, be warned; you may find a bug or two around the place. But can we all just agree that it’s not realistic to expect amazing wilderness accommodation options to be as spotless and insect-free as you’d expect a city hotel to be?! Please? It drives me a little bit crazy hearing about tourists who whine about a harmless tiny skink being on the wall of their rainforest ecolodge.
And, with its shag pile carpet (coloured green in at least one room) and ’70s-style couches, it’s not exactly the most stylishly appointed place I’ve ever stayed. Retro log cabin chic may be an overly generous way to describe it — big on the ‘retro’, not so much the ‘chic’. It’s basic and dated, sure, but to be fair Vogue-style decor and private nature reserves don’t exactly go hand in hand, and I’d take the wilderness any day of the week.
All in all, the rooms are cosy, comfortable and homely. And what you lack in connectivity, creature comforts and Instagram-brag-worthy-luxury you gain in, surprise, surprise, cliché, cliché, inner peace and reflection something something — no, but really, it is one of the most serene places I’ve ever stayed. As well as one of the most memorable, thanks to our night-time visitors.
Mountain Valley Wilderness is not for everyone. But for wildlife-spotting opportunities alone, this place is special; for the opportunity to support two wildlife lovers who do such good work for Tasmania’s precious natural environment, it’s a must for any nature lover, and I for one plan to remain a repeat visitor.
Yup. If you a) are going to Tasmania, b) love wildlife, and c) would like to see some pretty special animals right on your doorstep — in a place where it’s humans, not animals, behind the glass — stay here. End of story.
* A big call. I know. Although I should note, being in northwest Tasmania, you won’t find any koalas or kangaroos here.
** This may not sound impressive but this was BEFORE I became a birder/all-round crazy bird lady so I’m confident the numbers would be far higher now.
*** But not too close of course; obviously, wild animals’ safety and comfort levels ALWAYS come first when wildlife-spotting.
**** ‘Lose’ is of course a euphemism; kill, or allow to die off thanks to feral species, habitat destruction and disease, a more accurate description.
***** Though it is self-catering, Pat also provides home-cooked dinners upon request ($25).