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put the camera down and step away from the wombat – Lonely Planet’s travel blog

put the camera down and step away from the wombat – Lonely Planet’s travel blog

Wonderings: rambles through and reflections on travel… this month, James Kay reflects on tourists behaving badly in the Antipodes © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet

Wombats. Wonderful creatures. I saw one once on the Overland Track, Tasmania. We were putting up our tent when it shuffled out of the undergrowth, unperturbed by our presence, as was much of the wildlife on that enchanted isle. Back then, my iPhone wasn’t capable of capturing a worthwhile image in the fast-fading twilight, so I didn’t bother taking a picture. But I can understand the desire to do so.

For those who haven’t had the pleasure, imagine if a guinea pig had impregnated a water vole (remember them, anyone?), and the odd couple raised their offspring on a diet of Domino’s pizza, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and anabolic steroids. Wombats are rotund, rodent-like marsupials that reach about a metre long, but despite their bulk, they still elicit a reaction of ‘aw, isn’t he cuuuute!’ from most people who encounter them.

That was then, this is now

If I had come nose to nose with that wombat in daylight, I’d have taken a snap (just as I did of the short-beaked echidna that ambled across our path the following morning, nonchalantly sniffing my boot before trundling on). But would I have interposed my mug in the frame, made a moue like a man who has just found a tiger snake in his trouser leg, and splayed my index and middle fingers in the inevitable peace sign as I did so? I hope not, dear reader. I hope not. And I didn’t see any of my fellow walkers bothering the beast in this way as it snuffled outside our tents – drawn there, no doubt, by the scent of rehydrated cheesecake. Or sweat-starched socks.

But as cult novelist S.E. Hinton once put it, that was then, this is now. Instagram was just a few months old when we walked the Overland Track, and although #selfie first appeared on Flickr back in 2004, the term didn’t enter mainstream consciousness until 2013. How things have changed. So much so, officials in Tasmania now feel the need to make tourists pledge not to stalk the wombats with their selfie sticks, mob the poor blighters or even, believe it or not, pick them up for a cuddle.

Wombat at Lesueur Point. Maria Island, Tasmania Don’t kid yourself, people – he doesn’t want a cuddle © Posnov / Getty Images

As so often, Google’s search results are like a murky window on the mind; for example, you’ll often see a short list of questions commonly asked in relation to your subject – my search for ‘wombat’ turned up the following:

  1. Can I get a wombat as a pet?
  2. Are wombats dangerous to humans?
  3. Do wombats have square buttholes?
  4. Are wombats cuddly?

Question one bespeaks of our species’ destructive desire to domesticate any animal that looks remotely like a children’s toy: red pandas; bush babies; slow lorises; bearded tamarins, mouse lemurs; three-toed sloths… nothing is safe, not even wombats. The urge to cuddle these creatures (question four) comes from the same tragic place in our hearts. As for question three, I draw no inferences.

Does question two suggest the presence of a more mature traveller, who approaches these wild animals with the respect, and even caution, they deserve – and, moreover, wants them to stay wild? Perhaps. But then again, it might just be the would-be wombat cuddlers googling to make sure before ordering one on eBay. If threatened, wombats might bite, scratch or even charge a human being at a push, but the most likely reaction to an onrushing horde of selfie-stick-wielding strangers is not fight but flight, any which way they can. And who can blame them? I’d be down my burrow faster than you can say ‘cheese’.

Shoplift like it’s Purge Night

The Maria Island Pledge (I’ll paraphrase it: don’t be an imbecile, please) has echoes of the Tiaki Promise, the New Zealand tourism industry’s attempt to encourage visitors to engage their brains, show some respect and look after the country.

The promise fell on deaf ears when it came to a group of tourists – English, I’m sad but not surprised to say – who have caused ‘six weeks of strife’ in the North Island, littering, threatening locals and shoplifting like it’s Purge Night. Never mind menacing the native fauna; these anti-social ambassadors have taught the Kiwis a thing or two about bad behaviour, scandalising the nation to such an extent that there is talk of deportation.

When reporters tracked them down, a member of this now-infamous clan said – without a trace of irony, it seems – that they’d come ‘to see the hobbits’. Good grief. If I were a hobbit, this is the last thing I’d want to see rock up at the border of the Shire. Instead of sending them back here on the first available plane, can I suggest Mordor instead? They’d fit right in.

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