NOTES ON AUSTRALIA – KANGAROOS

Beijing, 3 October 2013

If there is one thing which is as Australian as the eucalyptus (see my previous post), it has to be the kangaroo. In fact, it’s even more Australian! As I pointed out in the last post, a few eucalyptus species exist which are not native to Australia. On the other hand, no kangaroo species exist outside of Australia.

Not only are kangaroos very Australian, they are also pretty weird. The first Europeans to reach Australia immediately noticed them. How could they not? There was nothing like them anywhere else in the world. Here is the first entry that Joseph Banks, the botanist aboard James Cook’s HMS Enterprise, made in his diary about kangaroos:

“Quadrupeds we saw but few and were able to catch few of them that we did see. The largest was calld by the natives Kangooroo. It is different from any European and indeed any animal I have heard or read of except the Gerbua of Egypt, which is not larger than a rat when this is as large as a midling Lamb; the largest we shot weighd 84 lb. It may however be easily known from all other animals by the singular property of running or rather hopping upon only its hinder legs carrying its fore bent close to its breast; in this manner however it hops so fast that in the rocky bad ground where it is commonly found it easily beat my grey hound, who tho he was fairly started at several killd only one and that quite a young one.”

In his diary, James Cook was somewhat more prosaic:

“Saturday, 23rd June … One of the Men saw an Animal something less than a greyhound; it was of a Mouse Colour, very slender made, and swift of Foot. … Sunday, 24th June … I saw myself this morning, a little way from the Ship, one of the Animals before spoke off; it was of a light mouse Colour and the full size of a Grey Hound, and shaped in every respect like one, with a long tail, which it carried like a Grey hound; in short, I should have taken it for a wild dog but for its walking or running, in which it jumpd like a Hare or Deer. Another of them was seen to-day by some of our people, who saw the first; they described them as having very small Legs, and the print of the Feet like that of a Goat; but this I could not see myself because the ground the one I saw was upon was too hard, and the length of the Grass hindered my seeing its legs.”

Folk back home in Europe had only the vaguest of ideas of what this strange animal looked like. A few years after Cook’s visit to Australia, Joseph Banks requested George Stubbs, better known as the painter of rich men’s horses, to paint a kangaroo. This is what Stubbs came up with, on the basis of various skeletons, some rough sketches, some verbal descriptions, and a kangaroo skin which Banks had brought back to the UK:

The Kongouro from New Holland by George Stubbs

And this, through prints and other disseminations, was the only picture the Brits had for many years of the kangaroo.

Europeans found this animal weirdly fascinating. It didn’t walk or run, for Lord’s sake, but bounded along!  Like a hare. Or maybe a deer. Or actually more like a frog. And what was this story about some of them having two heads? Whoever was making these claims had either imbibed too much rum or was spinning tall tales (well, they were either convicts, or sailors, or soldiers: all dodgy types, right?). And then it became clear that the tale of two heads was actually true, but only because mothers carried their young in a pouch.  In a pouch, for Lord’s sake!

Kangaroo_and_joey

And they boxed!

kangaroos boxing

All this made the kangaroo even more fascinatingly weird.

Of course, we have the advantage of having grown up with the weirdness, which makes the strange familiar. Yeah, sure, the kangaroo bounds, so what’s the big deal? It boxes? Ho-hum. And its mothers have a pouch in which to put their kids? Sensible design idea, don’t we do that now? (I did)

snuggly pouch

But we definitely weren’t blasé about the idea of coming nose to nose with a kangaroo. Our interest was already heightened at the airport in Beijing when we were waiting to board our flight to Sydney. We started chatting to a couple of Australians who had just finished touring China, and when we told them we would be hiring a car they warned us to be careful about running into kangaroos, especially at dusk. Were they that common, we asked? Oh yes, they replied, and hitting them made a mess of your car. Ah.

So of course the first time we saw this sign on the side of the road as we drove out of Sydney

kangaroo sign

we began to scan the sides of the road with growing excitement. But it was only when we had crossed our fords and were wending our way to the King’s Highway to be on our way to Canberra that we saw our first kangaroos!

kangaroos 002

They saw us too and kept a wary eye on us. At some point, they started bounding off across the grass into the trees. Now, I’ve known all my life that kangaroos bound but let me tell you, nothing prepares you for the actual experience. You see this really quite big animal hunch over and start bouncing along just like a rubber ball, and with a very smooth motion. It’s lovely.

We saw kangaroos a number of other times over the rest of our trip, and always this wonderful sight of them bounding along.

bounding-kangaroos

But all too soon as we drove up King’s Highway, we saw another, and grimmer, reality – dead kangaroos, killed by vehicles

dead kangaroos

My wife reckons that we saw more dead kangaroos along the side of the road than live ones. I think she’s right.

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George Stubbs’s kangaroo: http://cdn.50up.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/The-Kongouro-from-New-Hol-010.jpg
Kangaroo and joey: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0d/Kangaroo_and_joey03.jpg
Snuggly pouch: http://img.diytrade.com/cdimg/863429/8193309/0/1236395200/snugli_baby_carriers_nojo_baby_carrier_baby_carrier_reviews.jpg
Kangaroos boxing: http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7050/6843889051_d1e4ea5e91_z.jpg
Kangaroo sign: http://aphs.worldnomads.com/kiwiaoraki/6858/Australia_Pictures_2_993.jpg
Bounding kangaroos: http://createwolstonpark.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/bounding-kangaroos.jpg?w=847
Dead kangaroos: http://yaldapashai.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/dsc0191.jpg
remaining picture: mine

NOTES ON AUSTRALIA – THE EUCALYPTUS

Beijing, 2 October 2013

In my previous post my wife and I were driving down the coast just south of Sydney. I should point out that during the drive, while we were keeping one eye on the sea to our left we had the other eye fixed on the forests of eucalyptus on our right. They clothe the upper reaches of the Great Dividing Range which runs parallel to the coast. Both of us found these forests of eucalyptus fascinating.

What is more Australian than the eucalyptus? My favourite source of information, Wikipedia, informs me that of the 700-plus species of eucalyptus, only 15 occur outside of Australia and only 9 of these do not also occur in Australia. So Australia is Eucalyptus-land. But we humans have carried it out of Australia.  The tree which destroyed my bed of nasturtiums when I was a child was a eucalyptus. This was in Eritrea, and the eucalyptus was brought there by the Italians when it was an Italian colony. One of my memories of that period was taking a walk with my English grandmother through a plantation of eucalyptuses. The crackling of the dry leaves on the ground as we walked over them, that typical scent of eucalyptus, my pulling off the bark hanging from the trees – all this I still, more than 50 years later, remember vividly. Since then, I’ve always had a fondness for the eucalyptus, even though its being taken out of its natural Australian ecosystems has been criticized: an “invasive water-sucker”, it’s been rudely called. All my life, I have seen it dotted around parks and along streets, the last time in Sausalito when we went to visit our son in San Francisco.

SF 097

So it was with pleasurable interest that I was finally meeting the eucalyptus on its home turf.

I mentioned in my last post our drive through Heathcote National Park. That was our first taste of a forest of eucalyptuses. But we wanted more. So when we decided to leave the coast for Canberra, I thought we could first swing through Brooman State Forest down to the Clyde River and then follow the river until we got to the King’s Highway, which would take us up to Canberra. Based on the maps I had, I thought we would be taking small but asphalted roads the whole way. Wrong! Almost immediately we found ourselves on a dirt road which given our little Micra made me somewhat nervous. My levels of nervousness increased geometrically as the road got progressively rougher. And then we arrived at an intersection not marked on my map. Which way to go? After a moment of hesitation, I indicated a direction to my wife. As we drove deeper into the forest, and as signs of human presence quickly disappeared, my wife became more cheerful while my forebodings grew. While she exclaimed at the beautiful things we were passing I began to mentally review various nightmare scenarios we could be facing: we would run out of petrol, we would run off the road, something under the car would break, a tree would fall on us … Then the road started running downwards and suddenly we found ourselves at a ford. We had to drive through the Clyde River! The ford was 50 metres long, at least!! I stared aghast; this was not among the nightmare scenarios I had envisioned. Could we get across? My wife got out, took off her shoes, and waded in. Yes, yes, she said, you can make it. I looked at the height of the water on her calves and hoped that she was right. After a short prayer I started driving across, leaving my wife to wade over behind me.

fording the river and creeks 006

fording the river and creeks 009

We made it, for me a huge relief, for my wife a huge enjoyment, with her merrily taking photos left and right as she waded across the river.

fording the river and creeks 010

fording the river and creeks 011

I thought that was it. But we had to ford three more streams feeding into the river! At the last, I really thought we had had it, the water was considerably deeper than even at the river.  But an angel was with us and we made it across. Thereafter, the road got better and I could relax and get into the mood of things. The road was a delight

fording the river and creeks 018

the river was lovely

fording the river and creeks 030

Gazing down on it I could almost imagine what this country must have looked like to the first European immigrants who arrived here, before they started changing the landscape to make it look more like what they knew back home.

We came across more eucalyptus forests as we crossed the Snowy Mountains after Canberra, and slowly a thought formed in both our minds. My wife put it very well when she said one day that eucalyptus trees look dusty. So true! The green of eucalyptuses is indeed a very dull green, the sort of green you see on trees lining a dirt road where passing cars throw up clouds of dust. I was pleased to see a comment in the museum we visited in Canberra, to the effect that the first European painters had been perplexed by the green of the local trees, which to their eyes was dull and quite unlike the bright greens of the trees they were used to in the UK (They were also perplexed by trees that didn’t shed their leaves but shed their bark. That doesn’t bother me so much; effects of globalization, I suppose).

Early painting

It’s nice to know that we had the same reaction in 2013 as a bunch of Brits 200 years ago did when also on their first visit to Australia.

Next post I’ll deal with another very Australian thing, the kangaroo.

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Early Australian art: http://www.myplace.edu.au/verve/_resources/Early_Colonial_Art_1830_page.jpg

Other pictures: mine and my wife’s

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NOTES ON AUSTRALIA – GRAND PACIFIC DRIVE

Beijing, 2 October 2013

Welcome back to these notes on the trip my wife and I made to Australia. Our stay in Sydney is covered in the previous post.

After Sydney we moved south. This meant hiring a car, and we got ourselves a bright red Micra

micraIt’s a snug little car which was just the right size for me, my wife, and three pieces of luggage (which ended up being five after we had bought things in the local supermarkets which we can’t get in Beijing). Initially, we faced the challenge of driving on the left-hand side of the road. This is one of the less useful things which Australia has inherited from the UK. I passed my driving test in Scotland and so started my driving life driving on the left, but the vast majority of my driving since then has been on the right. As for my wife, she’s never really driven on the left. So there was a bit of tension at the beginning, especially as we had to drive out of Sydney during a busy period. But we quickly got the hang of it and thereafter we had no problems – except for two things: we systematically put the windscreen wipers on when we wanted to signal a right or left turn (because the positions of the two levers were the reverse of their positions in “normal” cars); and when we turned right at an intersection we had a tendency of ending up on the right hand side of the road. But no worries! As you can see, we have survived to tell the tale.

Our initial plan was to drive down the coast towards Melbourne, along the Prince’s Highway, and then turn inland whenever it was time to start heading back to Sydney and its airport. I should explain why we chose to do this. Some five years ago, in a lodge located on a tributary to the Amazon River not too far from Manaus

juma lodge

we met an Australian and had one of those conversations you always have when meeting fellow-travellers: swapping notes on places travelled and things to see. The conversation inevitably turned to Australia, and he told us to go to Sydney and then drive along the coast. He wrote it all down on a paper napkin, which we carefully kept – but alas, that paper napkin is in storage in Vienna! When we were planning this trip we were trying to remember if he had told us to drive south or north from Sydney. For reasons which I cannot now remember, we plumped for going south. But this turned out to be not such a good idea. Contrary to what we had expected, we found the coast ho-hum. It was terribly built up, the sea-shores offered the usual sea-related touristy stuff, and most of the towns we passed through were suffering from ugly strip development. There were three bright spots in the gloom. The first was a highly enjoyable drive through Heathcote National Park just south of Sydney, where we saw massed Eucalyptus trees close up for the first time in our lives

eucalyptus-forest

After which we landed up on the Grand Pacific Drive. This road hugs the coast for some 20 kilometers, so we got wonderful views of the coast in the dying hours of the day.

pacific coast 006

The second bright spot was the few hours we spent on Jervis Bay, which has the most amazingly white sand (and very clear water – but bloody cold, at least when we were there).

Jervis bay

The third bright spot was our dinner at Batehaven, next to Bateman’s Bay. We had an excellent fish and chips (at a place called Berny’s – pass the word). In contrast to driving on the left, fish-’n-chips is one of the more useful things which Australia has inherited from the UK.

bernys

We ate it sitting at a table in the city park with the sea in front of us, lingeringly licked our fingers when it was all wolfed down, and then walked along the beach under a waning moon. Wonderful.

But all this was not enough to keep us from abandoning the coast. We decided on a rapid change of plan: make a brief trip to Canberra to visit a museum and then head for the Snowy Mountains. But before we did that, we went for a little ride through the Benandarah State Forest. This ride, and what we found there, will be the subject of my next post.

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Red Micra: http://images.cardekho.com/images/car-images/large/Nissan/nissan-micra/05-nissan-micra-brick-red.jpg
Lodge in the Amazon: http://www.jumalodge.com/gallery/2012/2.jpg
Eucalyptus forest: http://www.elrst.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/eucalyptus-forest.jpeg
The coast along the Grand Pacific Drive: my picture
Jervis bay: http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/01/70/a6/66/jervis-bay.jpg
Bernys: https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/-dRGLeO8Kuw8/UhBa4uMijTI/AAAAAAABGmQ/afHL9AEl4Qs/s0/DSC03108.JPG