The great wombat search

By | Category: Travel destinations

a close-up on of one wombat emerging to hunt food

Australia’s wildlife might mean kangaroos and koalas to most people but there are other creatures such as the emu, platypus, potoroo, numbat, Tasmanian devil, quoll and wombat.

Wombats are nocturnal, furry animals running around on all fours. They have a round hard pad towards the end of their backs so, when threatened, they bolt down their burrows head first leaving their backs facing the predator. They find it almost impossible to break through so wombats survive. Their biggest killer is the car and you are more likely to see dead ones at the side of the road rather than them waddling around.

There are two types of wombat, the Hairy-nosed wombat which is very rare and is the state faunal symbol of South Australia and the common variety. I would be happy just finding the common version which, to me, wasn’t that common at all!

When the first one arrived in the UK, it was dissected at the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and then largely forgotten.  When it finally was passed to a taxidermist the person concerned had no idea how to display it so chose a kangaroo type stance which is completely alien to how wombats walk. Today, that “achievement” can still be seen in the Hancock Museum in the city.

wombats easily merge into the background

They are often solitary creatures and, having seen wombats in the wild only once before despite having visited Australia at least a dozen times, on this visit I planned on going back to the same location since I was pretty sure they would still be easier to find there than elsewhere.

West of Sydney is the Blue Mountains, a favourite tourist attraction of both Australian and overseas visitors. Most head to Katoomba where they can see peaks known as the Three Sisters. Few people travel further north to Lithgow and then into Wollemi National Park on the western side and then on from Wallerawang to Newnes. About three hours’ drive from Sydney, the road to Newnes is tarmac until the Emirates resort called Wolgan Valley and then a dirt track from there. In the flat pasture land either side of the hills is where I hoped to see more wombats.

if disturbed when crossing a road, wombats have the unfortunate habit of freezing until they decide to move on

I planned to be there about an hour before dusk. Night falls rapidly in Australia unlike the UK so twilight is very short. You need about an hour to slowly drive this journey as you will probably not drive at more than 40kms per hour as you will be looking at the fields and paddocks. Against a rock strewn and scrub pasture, wombats can be hard to see and as the last drop of sunlight disappears it is easy to confuse a wombat with rock.

Approaching the Wolgan Valley Resort we saw a variety of different kangaroos and wallabies. In some places the pasture land was full of them. They were as nosy as I was and stood upright following the track of the car as we moved across their vision. In late August many had joeys (babies) peering from their pouches watching me as well.

As I arrived at the dirt section of the road I hadn’t gone more than a kilometre before I saw my first live wombat. Standing and unmoving to one side of the road in front of me was a full grown wombat with a mottled skin suggesting it had  seen better times. It let me get quite close before it decided that a human might be best avoided so he – or she – scuttled off into the bush. It was still only about 16.30pm so it was surprising to see a wombat out this early before dusk.

there were lots of kangaroos around and many carrying youngsters (joeys) in their pouches

Continuing on to the Newnes, a small place largely uninhabited now but which was once an important oil shale mining location, I was pretty sure that there should be an opportunity to see a wombat or two. The old buildings are still available for tourists to see as some of the railway wagons that used to haul material from the mines down to the mainline. I was more interested this time on the wombat burrows that I had seen on previous trips. It being about thirty minutes later towards dusk, I soon began to see one or two wombats. There is a leisure and parking area which is dominated by large almost sheer escarpment on one side, the top of which was bathed in evening sunshine. Down below where I was, it was darker and out came kangaroos, wallabies and wombats to begin their evening forage.

Heading back along the same road to Wallerawang, this time I saw not just dozens but hundreds of kangaroos and wallabies. But where were the wombats? So far I had counted four which, at any other time I would have been happy with for, after all, that is three more than I had seen before. But slowly the numbers rose In one field there were four and it still wasn’t dark! Another, by the side of the road didn’t seem to car in the slightest when the car slowed down for me to photograph him – or her.

here a wombat dwarves a wallaby. Wombats are smaller; this is just a quirk

The, in one field, a wallaby and wombat were close to each other, so close that I could get the two into one image. It was only later when I looked back at the photo I took that I realised that – somehow – the wombat seemed to be larger than the wallaby. I know that there are some small wallabies around like swamp wallabies but even then, my image makes the wombat look a lot bigger than they are.

The number was gradually growing. When the figure was nudging a dozen I considered that I had had a good day. But still we saw more.  It was getting quite dark and more were about. By now it was getting so dark that it was difficult to distinguish between wombats and the scrubland. The conclusion was that I was confident in having seen nineteen wombats during the day.

One word of warning. Driving at dusk can be hazardous. Drive slowly because hitting a kangaroo can write a car completely off and the things lack road sense. They can be bounding along the side of the road and they will suddenly swerve into your path. Wombats are likely to just suddenly stop in front of you and that is why so many are killed.

Back in Sydney suburbia, my tally of nineteen surprised some old timers who had not seen numbers as high. I suppose to those living in rural parts, nineteen was a paltry number but as far as I was concerned I had proven to myself that you could find wombats in the wild within am easy drive of Sydney and therefore every tourist could find them if they had a mid to go wombat searching.

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