Australia: in search of kangaroos
Australia's Grampians provide travel columnist Lindsay Hawdon and her family with extraordinary landscapes and adventure… but will there be 'roos?
"We lie listening to the caterwaul of kookaburras and lorikeets calling while the sky fills up with stars, lit up like lights behind a moth-eaten blanket."
You would have thought that by now we would have seen the creature that lures all wide eyed, sun-stricken children to the outback of Australia – the infamous kangaroo. But alas, not a single sighting since our plane first touched down on the shimmering runway tarmac four days ago. Not even a glimpse of one in the golden savannah grasses of Victoria that we drove across the following day, or in the long bowing bullrushes that surrounded Lake Bellfield on our canoeing expedition, or even in the green and fertile forests of the Grampians where we now find ourselves, trekking as we are through the dappled shade of eucalyptus trees towards the camp where we are to spend the next three nights.
And in the absence of a sighting has come an endless stream of suspected sightings, of heightened hopes followed by increasingly bemoaned disappointments the moment it is discovered that the mound of red earth, the humped rugged rock or the log with two broken branches which look suspiciously like twitching ears from afar, are not in fact the kangaroos we mistook them for. Indeed Australia seems to be full of kangaroo mirages, set tantalizingly close enough to the landing plane, the passing car, or the floating canoe to invoke in the naÏve traveler a dream fulfilled. Or so it seems to the boys on this first trip, and my accounts of kangaroo troops grazing on the hilltops as the sun sets and the shadows lengthen, seem mere fabrications of their mother's sentimental esteem for the country.
Now as we trek through the bushland, led by Tony our guide, the boys seem to have given up on this particular quest with shrugs of despondency. The air is full of birdsong. Honeyeaters, fantails and whistlers flit between the branches. Yellow tailed black cockatoos shriek overhead. The Grampians ranges were formed millions of years ago when the sandy sediments lifted and tilted to form a landscape of steep cliffs on one side and gentle forest slopes on the other. The Aborigines call it Gariwerd, which means 'Mountain made of our gods'. Around us there is still evidence of the bushfires that devastated the area in 2006, blackened trunks and fallen trees, but the vegetation is recovering with abundant force and there is green growth everywhere.
It is hot and our water bottles are running low. The children are starting to moan. Up ahead I can hear the sound of rushing water and as we round the corner, MacKenzie Falls comes into view, clear and clean, and gushing over a precipice that stands about 70ft above us, disappearing into the porous limestone rock beneath.
Momentarily the squawking birdsong is drowned out by contented boys' screams. The boys rush to stand beneath the torrent, their clothes drenched and clinging to their skinny bodies, the mud of the day washed away.
"You can drink the water," Tony says, filling up our water bottles. He points to the long-stemmed plants surrounding us that curved upwards into a thick hairy stamen. "They're kangaroo tails. Does that count as a sighting?" The children are unimpressed.
We eventually reach our camp, which has been set up in a glade of ferns and tall eucalyptus trees. We come across it with much relief. It is simple and basic; one tent, three rolled-out mats, thick sleeping bags (the nights are very cold) and a billy to boil up hot drinks. The boys love it. We pull out an old log and turn it into a seat and open up our food box that is full of cheese rolls and juice drinks. Tony bids us farewell at this point, waving a hand in the air, and disappearing back into the bush.
Dusk falls. The air is cooling. The ticking of cicadas sounds loudly from the long dry grasses. We suddenly feel very alone. The boys are trying to find a small lizard that disappeared under a nearby rock. I heat up the billy on the small gas cooker and make us cups of hot chocolate. Rapidly the light is going, a sky of pastel pink darkening to deep vermillion.
"You know it's only the red bits that are heaven," says Orly, looking upwards.
"Is that so?"
"Yup," he says. "Papa told me."
Eventually we clamber into our tent, lying in the entrance with the flaps open so we can look up at the sky. It's winter here, but there is a gentleness to this night. It's not too cold. There is no wind. We lie listening to the caterwaul of kookaburras and lorikeets calling. The winter sun has long disappeared behind the dark shadow of the Grampian ranges and the sky is filling up with stars, lit up like lights behind a moth-eaten blanket.
The boys fall asleep quickly – star shaped across the canvas. I have Dow's foot in my neck and the sound of Orly's thumbsucking in my ear. The night air brings scents of eucalyptus. I look out into the bushland. Suddenly there is the silhouette of movement a few yards from our camp. My eyes struggle to focus in the dim light. A shadow shifts, then leaps. Then another. And another. A bounding flight of rhythmic motion. There is a whole troop of them. About 20 kangaroos in all, babies close beside their mothers, tiny joeys in pouches, moving through the shrub land that surrounds our camp in strong silent bounds. I nudge the boys.
"Kangaroos," I whisper loudly. "Kangaroos."
Orly cannot be woken. He is dead to the world. Dow grunts. "Kangaroos," he mumbles without opening his eyes. And then a small soft smile of contentment appears on his lips as the entire troop jumps right through our camp.
This article previously appeared in 'The Daily Telegraph'.
Lindsay Hawdon began traveling at the age of 18. She spent a year, after leaving school, driving across Europe on her own in a campervan.
The following two years she traveled around Africa and India, hitching rides and sleeping under canvas. This laid the foundation for her travel writing career.
Her column, 'An Englishwoman Abroad', began in The Sunday Telegraph in the year 2000 and ran for seven years. Throughout that time she experienced every continent, terrain and climate, writing stories about her journeys and the people that she encountered on the way.
Lindsay is currently writing a blog for The Sunday Times called Have Kids will Travel following a year's trip around the Far East with her two children.
Kangaroo Island, South Australia
The island's diverse landscape provides habitat for sea lions, fur seals, endemic kangaroos, koalas, echidnas, platypus, possums and bandicoots, and during the winter, whales pass by the coastline. Over 45 species of plant are only to be found here, and over 32% of the island is conserved. Other attractions include eucalyptus forests, white sandy beaches and endless red dirt roads.
Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia
The 280km long coral reef is home to 500 fish species that include warm temperate, sub-tropical and tropical species, some of which are found nowhere else on earth. The waters are home to marine life of a bigger scale too including the manta ray, the dugong and endangered loggerhead and green turtles. Largest of all however is the mighty whale shark, growing up to 12 meters in length – spot them between March and July.
Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory
This national park's woodlands, open forests, rivers, loodplains, mangroves and mudflats are home to 60 kinds of native mammals, over 50 kinds of freshwater fish, thousands of species of insect, and many reptiles – including the fearsome saltwater crocodile. Perhaps most impressive is the birdlife, with about one-third of Australia's bird species found in the park.
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