Nothing can be quintessentially more Australian than the sight of a man in a cork hat and grubby white singlet riding a kangaroo to work. Apart from a man on a kangaroo in a cork hat and grubby white singlet hopping over lethal spiders and snakes while fleeing a bushfire with a rescued koala, only to get to the safety of the beach and discovering a shark infested bay peppered with box jellyfish, causing a bunch of boofheads to gingerly enter the water in thongs to retrieve their cricket ball with one hand because the other is grasping onto a stubby of VB like it is the last bottle of insipid but undoubtedly cold beer in the world.

Of course, all of that is nonsense [1], lest I be sued by VB which is a popular and well-loved beer in certain areas and so well-loved it appears on the shirts of the Australian cricket team, which perhaps speaks for itself in so many ways. What is undeniable is that the kangaroo is an icon, so much so that it appears on the national airline and encourages you to buy home grown products. If you ask someone overseas to mention the three things that come to mind when they think of Australia, they will most likely say beaches, kangaroos, and punitive policies for people fleeing persecution and seeking asylum, dressed up as a concern for their safety and not really about winning votes from a cluster of the population who have an underlying xenophobia stemming from their own challenges in paying the mortgage on a home which is unnecessarily big for their needs and encountering traffic on the way to Kmart, thus displacing the blame for this onto others who are widely vilified and helpless to stand up for themselves [2]. Still, we have nice beaches and lots of open space for kangaroos, so it’s worth defending right?

The kangaroo was here long before the first boat people arrived to overrun the country and its culture. A popular myth is that ‘kangaroo’ meant something like ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I don’t understand’ when Cook, Banks et al enquired of local Aboriginals what on earth this peculiar creature was. Like all good myths it has subsequently been debunked [3] but you can understand why it still does the rounds. It’s a convenient story that encapsulates the sense of the bizarre, the other-worldly, the weirdness of the flora and fauna that was encountered by the first boat people. A befuddlement that continues to this day as more people spill, primarily, out of international airport terminals and come face to face with Australia.

Initially you could be forgiven for thinking that Australia is a sunnier, newer, even happier [4] version of the UK, with a US touch of the gargantuan about it. But what sets it apart as wholly unique, exquisitely exotic is its flora and fauna. The kangaroo, perhaps in conjunction with wily white Eucalypt trees and shrieking cockatoos, is the readily available, easily accessible face of the Australian bush, and a long, long way from distant, familiar lands. Perhaps that is why, even after seven years, the sight of a kangaroo bounding out of the trees and across golden grasslands brings a smile to my face and, still, a sense of wonder.

I cannot write about these experiences and this topic without covering time on Red Hill, Canberra. I may have written about this place before. I came across it three days into arrival in Australia, fighting a fight against deep afternoon jetlag driven sleep. Determined not to fall into a coma and then awake all night, I set out along charming suburban streets on one of those beautiful, clear, warming late winter afternoons. It could have almost been an old English summer. Gradually climbing in altitude and property price, the streets ended abruptly as the very richest backed their way onto the grassland and steeply rising bush of Red Hill Reserve. Without intricate knowledge of paths and trails I headed straight up, short and steep to the lookout cafe. Here I viewed Canberra from high for the first time, had a coffee and saw a handful of Eastern Grey Kangaroos milling about without much of a care in the world (much like myself really).

Since that day I almost always saw kangaroos at Red Hill, particularly as I was wont to wander there of an evening. Huge mobs would gather in the grassier patches at the bottom while others would linger along the ridge up high. Mothers and their kids would eye me with suspicion or, perhaps, familiarity. A stand-off ensued, one waiting for the other to move on. But I often emerged the victor in these early days, because I would have my camera with me, and everyone knows that as soon as you bring your camera up to your eye to take a picture of some wildlife, the wildlife flees.

K_kangaroos

Certainly it was hard to restrain myself from taking a picture every time I saw a kangaroo. It was a natural reaction because back then it was all so extraordinary and therefore entirely warranted. Increasing familiarity has restrained my picture-taking compulsion since. In fact, I don’t tend to take my camera up Red Hill anymore…hell…I don’t even go up Red Hill anymore, since I am presently 3,000 kilometres west and it is a trifle inconvenient. However, frequently armed with camera elsewhere a kangaroo or dozen have popped into view. They emerge within the context of a wider landscape, as natural as, well, a man in a cork hat and grubby white singlet. They undoubtedly add something to the mood, grounding the scene in something that is so very obviously Australian. And thus, still, so very exciting.

————————————————-

Kosciuszko National Park is one of Australia’s great national parks, taking in vast swathes of upland country and river valleys in New South Wales. In winter the highest parts are caked in snow, in summer all parts are swathed in flies. It’s a fairly unique environment for Australia, which is mostly dry, brown and flat. Termed alpine, it is not so in the sense of being blessed with gigantic peaks and glaciers; instead ridges and clumpy mounts offer a scene more akin to the rounded peaks of northern and western Britain [5]. It is an ecosystem that is all-encompassing, from rare possums and miniature toads in the boggy bare stretches high up, to common wombats and kangaroos and all of their derivatives [6] in the bush and plains further down. 

Kosciuszko is not so far from Canberra but on one occasion, having spent some time working in the town of Albury, I approached it from the west. It was a long weekend of high country meandering, through the northeast of Victoria and into New South Wales before crossing the Main Range and ploughing on more familiar roads back to Canberra. Approaching the end of March the landscape was in a state of transition, from the dry, warm summer to freezing cold winter nights and winds and rains and occasional snows. The hairpin drive up Mount Buffalo – the closest thing Australia has to an Alpe d’Huez – came with freezing fog that cleared to warm sunshine. The valley town of Bright was commencing its ascent into blushing autumn saturation and wood-fired air. And the trudge along an endless ridge towards Mount Feathertop was blanketed in cloud, a stark contrast to the clear fresh vale below.

Crossing into New South Wales and finally into Kosciuszko National Park, there is eventually a sense that these are proper mountains and not big hills, as the highest points of the Main Range, glowing in the sun above the tree line, rise up more dramatically from this western vantage. The road on this side twists and turns along a narrowing river valley, the dense green bushland plummeting down the hillsides occasionally broken by huge pipes belonging to the mammoth Snowy River Hydro scheme. At some point the road rises and crosses the range at the evocatively named Dead Horse Gap, but before this tortuous ascent, there is respite at Geehi Flats.

Geehi Flats appears like some hidden valley idyll, where the opaque water of the Swampy Plains River broadens and a swathe of grassland punctures the dark green tangle of gum trees. A spacious area along the river offers rustic camp spots and opportunity to amble. At the northern end a couple of old wooden huts testify to exploration and discovery and, now abandoned, the harsh realities of surviving in the high country [7]. Within this clearing the afternoon sunshine illuminates the rise up to the Main Range and onwards to the white cotton wool clouds hovering above. And as I stare at the serenity, a large Eastern Grey kangaroo stares back. Suddenly I feel like the intruder.

K_kossyroo

On the face of it, it is nothing remarkable…a sighting of an animal that I have seen hundreds of times before and so common in an area where it is protected to thrive. But in the landscape, in the setting, in the primitive high country context it feels very special, like I am the first white man to see it and it is the first kangaroo to see a white man. It is so amazed that it even lingers while I take a photo. It’s a chunky unit, but it is meagre within the scale of the whole, minor against the vast wildness of the scene. Yet here it sits entirely natural, a perfect foreground marker within the larger composition of my vista. What lies before me is Australia and I am reminded at how fortunate I am to be a part of it. Still a land of untapped discovery, of boundless space and unknown potential, it is something to cherish, to protect, and to share. And while the kangaroo is perhaps the pinnacle of the adaptive powers of evolution, as Australians we can still be much, much better than this.


[1] Clearly we only ride kangaroos around on the weekends for leisure, duh. Else the ute wouldn’t get much use.

[2] See http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jul/22/captain-rudd-australia-depths-shame for just one well-written, reasoned commentary on Australian Government approaches to ‘boat people’.

[3] Not by the team at Mythbusters I hasten to add, but by (and I quote Wikipedia) linguist John B. Haviland in his research with the Guugu Yimithirr people.

[4] I am unsure about this at the current time of writing, with a UK heatwave and cricket team in the ascendancy.

[5] However, rising above 2000 metres it is far higher than anything in Britain, a boast many Australians like to boast about.

[6] By which I mean the whole raft of hopping marsupial type things like wallabies, wallaroos, euros, jackeroos, jillaroos, brucearoos, kangabies, roosabies, poosaloosaroos etc etc

[7] Like camping overnight, when the warm daytime temperature plummets quite dramatically and uncomfortably

Links

All you ever needed to know: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kangaroo

Everyone’s favourite: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uRQnrY5V-rY

Walk the hill: http://www.tams.act.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/390592/cnpmapredhill.pdf

Kosciuszko National Park:

http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/nationalparks/parkhome.aspx?id=n0018

Hi, country: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/2012/03/hi-country.html

Stop the votes: http://www.amnesty.org.au/refugees/comments/24019/

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