Since Derek the wombat hit international stardom, he’s been frantically busy. He’s an adolescent now and being a savvy business-wombat he has a new line of tea towels and t-shirts out. If that’s not enough to keep this Flinders Island local run off his paws, he’s the proud big brother of orphan-siblings April and May.
Derek rose to fame when captured on video frolicking across his local beach. It was a day like any other for the eight-month-old wombat joey. But those sandy tracks led him to worldwide celebrity when his high-paced canter went viral.
Since then, Derek has become Flinders Island’s global poster boy. He’s had to ask his new sisters to manage promotional wares, and requested a cameraman fly in to cover his official greeting with Justin Johnstone from Melbourne, the winner of Tourism Tasmania’s Chief Wombat Cuddler Competition. Arguably one of Australia’s most hotly contested positions for 2016, Derek knew he’d want to capture their inaugural meeting.
“He’s only a bit over a year old, but he’s like a teenage boy now,” describes competition winner Justin Johnstone. “So he’s still very cute, but he’s a bit of a tear-away – a bit of a rebel. And he likes to chew things…”
Derek is the first to admit that behind every successful rescue wombat is a good carer. For Derek, it’s his foster Mum, Kate Mooney (#loveyoumywombatlady). Coined the ‘Wombat Lady of Flinders Island’, Kate has nursed more than 100 wombats back to health over the past two decades for release back into the wild. Kate scooped up Derek after his mother was sadly hit by a car in December. Ever since, Derek’s been behaving like an only child, despite Kate’s numerous other ‘children’ on her 40-hectare property.
“Derek was only 720 grams when I got him, and he’d now weigh about three-and-a-half kilos,” explains Kate Mooney. “He was an only child for the first six months that I had him, so I guess he became rather spoilt.” Although he no longer has bottles and will eventually head out the pet door to join the ‘bigger kids’ and never come back, according to Kate he, “…just loves people.”
Why the interest in Derek specifically? “Wombats, in general, get to people. They tend to melt,” smiles Kate. “But Derek isn’t like the others. He’s adventurous and daring. Most don’t like to be out of the pouch, but he’s been a curious and cheeky little bloke since I found him. That makes him pretty special.”
But cuddling goes both ways. What did Derek think of Tourism Tasmania’s Chief Wombat Cuddler competition winner? According to his Mum, the two got on splendidly. “Derek took a real shine to him. At one point down at the shed Justin had seven wombats descend upon him, including Derek, who eagerly pushed to the front for attention. Justin has a real way with the animals.” Insightful words from the Mother Theresa of Flinders Island’s wombat world, who manages to juggle a background in agriculture with being a full-time carer for her ‘wombat flock.’
So what’s special about Flinders, other than it being the birthplace of Derek? This is one of Australia’s best kept island secrets, located in Bass Strait off Tasmania’s north east corner. It’s a little like Tasmania’s famous Bay of Fires neighbourhood – but on steroids. The rock lichen is flaming orange, sands are blindingly white, and clear-watered coves are often yours alone, bar wandering tracks from the multitude of wildlife on the island.
A hike to the peak of Mount Stzelecki (756m) rewards with views across the 75 kilometre long island and even over to ‘mainland’ Tasmania. This photographer’s mecca has a few hidden secrets including The Docks (don’t expect a big sign post, ask a local) and stunning Trouser’s Point Beach. Rumour has it this name celebrates the escape of one trouserless John Burgess from the wreck nearby of Sarah Anne Blanche back in 1871.
According to Kate, what makes Flinders Island special is “the beauty of the place and the spectacular scenery. It’s just magical with its white sands, turquoise waters and diverse coastline. It’s also the solitude. We have a saying here – if you see someone’s footprints in the sand, just go to another beach. What’s more, encounters with wildlife in their natural habitats are an almost inevitable highlight of travels around the island.”
While Justin diligently entered The Chief Wombat Cuddler Competition and also spent the day at Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary in Hobart, for an introduction to wildlife rescue and husbandry before meeting Derek, there’s a good chance anyone visiting Flinders Island island might encounter one of his furry kinsfolk.
Just don’t expect to get away without April flogging you a Derek tee and demanding to be paid upfront in wombat nibbles.