NOTES ON AUSTRALIA – KANGAROOS
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 about kangaroos in his diary:
“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:
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!
And they boxed!
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)
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
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!
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.
But all too soon as we drove up King’s Highway, we saw another, and grimmer, reality – dead kangaroos, killed by vehicles
My wife reckons that we saw more dead kangaroos along the side of the road than live ones. I think she’s right.
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
Kangaroos boxing: http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7050/6843889051_d1e4ea5e91_z.jpg
Dead kangaroos: http://yaldapashai.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/dsc0191.jpg
remaining picture: mine