When I was young I met a man whose arse bore the bite-mark of a Tasmanian tiger. David Fleay was one of Australia’s most respected naturalists, and he’d received his punctures while bending over to film the creature as it paced in its cage in a Hobart zoo. In my youthful imaginings that scar was the supreme stamp of Australian identity, a badge of honour that lay forever beyond my reach. That was because my eyes opened on the world in Melbourne nineteen years, three months and three weeks after the last tiger closed hers forever. My birthplace was a grand, European-style city of rumbling trams, and men in coats trudging plane-tree-lined streets past Victorian bluestone edifices. I dreamed of finding a thylacine, but by the time I was old enough to travel, even kangaroos and bandicoots had vanished from around Melbourne. So I was a rebellious young man—too angry to take a good look around me—who did not know my country.
Then again, how do you ever know your country? Had I not rejected what I’d been taught at school I might have remembered the sage words: “by their fruits you shall know them,” and perhaps even recollected the First Fruits of Australian Poetry, a work that in 1819 eulogised the kangaroo, hailing it as:
thou spirit of Australia,
that redeems from utter failure—
this fifth part of the Earth.
The author of that first-published volume of Australian poetry was Justice Barron Field of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. Perhaps only one whose days were spent judging colonial miscreants could have rhymed “Australia” with “failure.” Then again, I’ve always suspected that Australians are a self-deprecating people who, despite their penchant for scattering “Great” reefs, ranges and bights across the map, were ashamed of their country. Even our national symbol, the kangaroo, has been something of an embarrassment. Many people convert their national animal into haute cuisine—venison, wild boar or buffalo steak—but kangaroos are mostly fed to dogs.
The origins of the modern kangaroo industry illustrate how very low in the esteem of Australians the creature had fallen. It began in the 1960s when rabbit shooters, whose game had been ruined by myxomatosis, were forced to search for an alternative. Australians had long welcomed the flesh of the pestilential rabbit to their tables, but they would not touch the kangaroo. So the creatures were shot for skins and the pet-food industry in numbers—nearly nine million in 1966-67—sufficient to threaten them with extermination. The impact of the slaughter prompted naturalist Vincent Serventy to lament that “from the average person’s point of view the kangaroo is now extinct. Nowhere can the average person see a live kangaroo within convenient distance from urban areas.” In 1971, at the first meeting called to discuss the situation, the eminent zoologist Ronald Strahan captured the prevailing sentiment: “I believe that kangaroo meat is only of commercial interest because it is cheap. The moment we . . . put effort into its husbandry, we shall find that the game is not worth the candle.”
It astonishes me that such a wondrous creature as the “Spirit of Australia” could plummet so low in the nation’s affections, for our first published poet did not miss the mark in his eulogy. So breathtakingly different is the kangaroo that if it did not exist we’d be unable to imagine it: hopping being as marked a departure from running as the orbital engine is from piston and crankshaft, and every bit as efficient. Perhaps familiarity has bred contempt, for unlike the thylacine, whose extinction has endowed it with mythic status, large kangaroos are today so commonplace that most Australians have long ceased to wonder at them. Some even regard them as pests.
Yet they are, in my opinion, the most remarkable animals that ever lived, and the truest expression of my country—not because they appear on everything from the coat of arms to the national airline, but because they have been made by Australia. They are, in short, the continent’s most successful evolutionary product. Forged over eons by Australia’s distinctive environment, what was originally a tiny possum-like creature has endured a million genetic changes to become a kangaroo. In reading the animal’s history we should be able to discover, in distilled form, the story of our country.
In all of life’s tenure on Earth no other large creature has achieved the triumph of hopping. True, some rodents hop, but even the largest rodent hopper—South Africa’s springhare—is twenty times smaller than a grey kangaroo. Humans are proud of walking upright, but that is an accomplishment shared with many creatures. Hopping is an accomplishment more akin to the development of human language, for as with speaking it is a singular evolutionary achievement.
Yet hopping is only one aspect of a revolutionary design that has made the large kangaroos the most successful of Australia’s marsupials. In an age when so many of their relatives have become extinct they are true survivors, for despite centuries of hunting, persecution and competition from supposedly superior herbivores such as cattle, horses and sheep, today they are more abundant than ever. Aerial surveys reveal that there are at least 57 million individuals of the four largest species (red, the euro, and the eastern and western grey). But the success of kangaroos must also be measured by another yardstick—the diversity and breadth of adaptation of the family as a whole.
You might imagine that hopping is such a specialised trait that it has constrained their evolutionary development; after all, you cannot hop backwards. Yet the seventy-odd species of kangaroo, wallaby and rat-kangaroo that currently make up the kangaroo family (we are still counting because scientists keep discovering new ones) have made their homes in a staggering variety of habitats. At least ten species of tree-kangaroo inhabit the treetops of tropical rainforests where they eat fruit and leaves and live like monkeys do on other continents. Some rat-kangaroos excavate burrows under the Australian deserts where they pursue a rabbit-like existence (though their burrows are deeper and more complex), while others tough it out on the surface of some of the most hostile, arid and unpredictable wastelands of our planet. It is no exaggeration to say that every square kilometre of the enormous region stretching from Indonesia’s Wallace’s Line to Tasmania is, or was, occupied by at least one member of the kangaroo family. They are the chief herbivores of this expansive realm, and in the sheer exuberance of their evolutionary branchings they far outstrip the great mammalian success stories of other continents such as horses, deer or antelope.
Yet so uninteresting did these amazing creatures seem to most Australians that until 1963 no one had thought to ask how kangaroos hopped, or why. As late as 1970 no one knew that the grey kangaroos seen in paddocks from Perth to Cooktown were two distinct species—a discovery as startling as if scientists suddenly realised that two species of red deer roamed Britain, or that two species of bison lived on America’s Great Plains. And as late as 1980 no one had any idea about the early evolution of the family, for no fossils older than a few million years had been studied. The year 1995 brought the revelation that a black-and-white kangaroo resembling a small panda lives atop the highest mountains of Indonesia. And today the discoveries continue: in 2003 a banded hare wallaby from South Australia was named—the only surviving specimen having lain unrecognised in a European museum for 150 years, while at least two New Guinean tree-kangaroos are yet to be classified and receive their scientific binomen. So rich is the seam tapped by researchers of kangaroo biology that fundamental discoveries continue to emerge at a rapid rate, indicating that, despite all we have learned, we are still at the beginning of understanding these animals and the country that shaped them.
Although they are diverse, the living kangaroos are a mere shadow of the stupendous variety that once existed, for as recently as 50,000 years ago there were over 100 kangaroo species, including some true giants. I first became aware of these ancient behemoths in the early 1970s when, working as a teenage volunteer at the Museum of Victoria, I was entrusted with cleaning the fossilised skeletons of extinct kangaroos that were twice the size of any living species. My studies later broadened to become a quest in time and space aimed at understanding the entire evolution of the kangaroos, from their obscure beginnings to the monsters of the ice age—great flesh-eating kangaroos and kangaroos with ape-like faces—that seemed to have stepped out of a Grimm fairytale.
I’ve come to think of my work as piecing together an ever-changing jigsaw in which my fellow Australians—animals, plants and people—are all parts. I soon realised though, that most of the puzzle’s pieces remained undiscovered, and so I’ve searched for them in Australia’s deep history, wherein lie buried answers to fundamental questions such as where kangaroos come from, and why they hop. The fossils that shed light on these matters are often found in the remote outback, where floods fill Lake Eyre and droughts blight rangelands as extensive as western Europe. It’s a wondrous land—full of surprises and subtle beauty. Because the puzzle is still incomplete, the story I’m about to tell makes some leaps. But stick with me for the ride, even if it seems bumpy at times, for I’m sure you’ll find the journey worthwhile.
The story begins in Melbourne in 1975, when I could, had I got off my unpunctured arse and roamed the bush instead of dreaming about thylacines, have discovered my very own kangaroo species—right there in Victoria. This is no small matter, for ten million years of evolution have given us only seventy living species; so to claim one as your own is quite an achievement. Neil Armstrong might have walked on the moon by 1975, but East Gippsland’s long-footed potoroo (Potorous longipes) remained beyond human knowing. Indeed the creature was not formally described (by Victorian government scientists) until 1980. One of the first specimens discovered was lying dead on the side of a road just a few hours’ drive from 20 Rose Street, Sandringham, where I lay a-turning at night, a teenager restless for adventure.
A Failed Circumnavigation
Were it not for museums and their volunteer programs I probably would have become a schoolteacher, my year-12 scorecard having shattered my aspirations of a career in biology. La Trobe University, a newly established institution in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, accepted me to study humanities, and I enrolled in early 1974 because nothing else came to mind. I tried to fit some basic biology in alongside studies of Greek tragedy and the fate of the Portuguese seaborne empire, but the early starting times of science lectures proved a fatal impediment to an eighteen-year-old in his first year of independent living. Even withdrawing from the course proved beyond my organisational ability, and when I awoke on the day of the final Zoology 101 exams with the sun high in the sky, I knew that I had failed science with the lowest mark possible.
Specifically, it was a tall, blond Californian with a Mennonite-style beard named Dr Thomas Rich, who had just moved to Australia to take up a curatorship in vertebrate paleontology at the Museum of Victoria, who sustained my slender hopes for a career in science. I first met Tom while I was in high school, and he did not care that I was a failure in the formal curriculum, but instead gave me his time so that I could learn a little, informally, about paleontology. Early on he told me that, were I lucky enough to embark upon a career in palaeontology I had to have the will to fail, which was his way of saying that when all looks hopeless you just have to plough on. It was a valuable lesson, and without it I hate to think of where I would be today.
About this time Tom discovered that he had a problem. Some years earlier the museum had collected dozens of kangaroo skeletons preserved in cumbersome blocks of clay. Not only were they taking up valuable space in the overcrowded collection, but Tom had detected among them the plague of palaeontologists—pyrites disease. Iron pyrites form in specimens preserved in oxygen-less environments, and when such fossils come into contact with humid air the pyrites turn to sulphuric acid, causing the bones to decay to grey, puffy dust. Sometimes they even explode, creating chaos in museum dungeons. If the specimens were to be saved, the clay surrounding them had to be removed as soon as possible, and the bones coated to protect them from the air. Tom had no one to spare for the job, so he entrusted it to me.
Each Monday (a day I had no classes) I would arrive at the museum, then a grand, colonnaded Victorian edifice in the heart of Melbourne whose front entrance was watched over by a statue of Redmond Barry—the judge who ordered the execution of Ned Kelly. Tom would meet me in the echoing foyer wherein stood Phar Lap, clear me through security and usher me into the palaeontology collection. This inner sanctum was reached through creaking metal doors tall enough to admit a Tyrannosaurus rex, which opened onto a corridor containing an Egyptian mummy (long superannuated from display), and a gigantic hall filled with wonders—the cast of an Archaeopteryx, the skull of a giant Madagascan lemur, and an ichthyosaur from Germany. Tom’s office stood in a corner of this wonderland, and I would often spend an hour or so examining the eclectic specimens, many of them accumulated during Victoria’s golden age in the late nineteenth century, when money for acquisitions was no obstacle. But nothing interested me as much as the fossil kangaroos, and one in particular captured my imagination. Known as Propleopus, it was represented in that prodigious collection by just a few teeth. But what teeth they were! Shaped like the blades of a miniature buzz-saw, it was hard to imagine how they worked in a kangaroo’s mouth. What that creature ate, how it lived and indeed when it lived, all seemed to be unknown. All I knew was that long ago one had most likely made its way up the Swanston Street hill and passed the site of the museum, for several of its teeth had been found near Melbourne. The rest was a great mystery—one that, despite my poor academic record, I harboured hopes of solving.
Having exercised my imagination in the collections, I would make my way to a tiny laboratory under the stairs in the museum’s dungeon, there to clean the fossil kangaroos, and thus occupied I could not have been happier, especially when Tom arrived each lunchtime to heat a can of beans and discuss fossils. Were it not for my university classes and a necessary part-time job, I would have been there seven days a week. But now the long summer vacation was looming, and I was growing increasingly indignant at the fact that even though I was native born I had never met an Aborigine nor seen the desert. So in late November 1975, at the start of the summer vacation, I temporarily set aside work at the museum, and set out to see my country. I was immensely proud of my beaten-up old Moto Guzzi 750 sportster. I’d heard that during World War II her V-twin engine had powered Italian light-armoured vehicles across the North African desert. In my eyes she was a fabulous-looking machine with wide, sweeping handlebars and heavy wraparound wheel guards, her low tank ornamented with a hand-painted eagle. Her sleek lines and allure, I desperately hoped, would enhance my thus far slender success with the beautiful girls who stood out like Venus on the half-shell everywhere I looked. Twelve years at an all-boys Catholic school can do that to you. And it sometimes worked. I briefly befriended a lass with all the allure of a Hawaiian princess who, when riding pillion, enjoyed controlling both bike and rider through masterful application of the joystick. The only trouble was that she loved speed and a winding road, and I soon had to choose between sex and survival. Perhaps such slender victories were enough to inspire my mate, Bill Ellis, to buy another, albeit better preserved, machine. Being tall, dark and strikingly handsome, Bill didn’t need a bike as much as I did, so perhaps it was a shared desire for adventure that motivated him. Whatever the case he proved to be an ideal travel partner—fearless, of few words, and remarkably tolerant of my eccentric ways. As we set off from Melbourne with a few dollars in our pockets, intent on circumnavigating the continent at the height of summer, we had no idea that we would never finish the journey.
I had decided to use the trip to collect specimens of comparative anatomy. To this end, and blissfully unaware of the need for a permit even to touch a native animal killed on the roadside, my bike was equipped with a small strap-on esky behind the pillion seat, inside of which rattled a large and gruesome-looking defleshing knife. I had thought far enough ahead to decide that I would donate any specimens collected to the museum, but more immediate issues had evaded consideration.
We headed west for Adelaide and then Perth, and it was only when we stopped, roadside, beside my first intended specimen—a splendid male western grey as large as myself—and set to work with my knife, that it occurred to me that other travellers in the South Australian outback might find such activities unsettling. Almost as soon as the thought formed in my mind the rumble of an approaching car was heard and, suddenly embarrassed at the spectacle I presented, I walked briskly away from the prone roo, whistling into the air and trying to hide the 50-centimetre-long knife behind my back. Ever tolerant, Bill agreed that we should camp nearby so I could perform the gruesome deed under the cover of darkness. After eating Irish stew from our billy I set out, parking my bike in front of the carcass with the headlight on so that I could see what I was doing. The job was made unduly difficult because I had neglected to sharpen my sabre, and after a long, bloodied struggle it became evident that to retrieve the all-important skull I would have to use the weight of the carcass to separate the neck muscles. Wet with blood and lurching under the full weight of the dead marsupial, I was so preoccupied that I did not hear the approaching rumble until it was too late. As the car accelerated past I glimpsed the family inside, horror-struck, mouths agape, staring at the frenzied bikie who was waltzing drunkenly with a disembowelled kangaroo on a lonely country road. As they disappeared into the distance I finally detached the head, after which I impinged on Bill’s good humour yet again by boiling it, to remove the flesh, in our all-purpose billy.
Although our route kept us close to the coast, the green fringe of the continent soon gave way to the muted colours of the interior. It is surprising how narrow that life-giving fringe is. Nowhere in Australia is far from the outback, and every centimetre of the country is touched at some time or other by its winds, dust and flies. The flat dry inland was an utterly unfamiliar landscape, and one for which we were ill-prepared, for the Guzzis were possibly the worst bikes to take on such a trip. Mine did not even have air-filters, instead sporting elegant bell-mouths on its carburettors. But we didn’t care. We were nineteen, and we were free.
On the Nullarbor, nothing among the low blue-tinged bushes stretching to the horizon stood higher than my knees. The sun baked our skin and the mirage ate up the distance, creating a sense of going nowhere. For hour after hour there was nothing but a road and a line of power poles stretching in both directions—a scar through the blue-green of the saltbush—with no sign of life.
But life there was, for the locusts were swarming. The first we came across were tiny and struck our legs like bullets—painful even beneath leather boots. The next swarm, still wingless, was larger and could leap a little higher, but their bodies were softer. The next lot had sprouted wings, and they struck anywhere. Driving into a locust cloud at 120 kilometres per hour was like driving into a living hailstorm. Any exposed skin was soon stinging with pain, and we struggled to see the highway ahead through visors smeared with the white and yellow fluid of squashed insects.
Then there was a sign: “Head of the Bight.” We followed the dirt track, fatigued as the heat and the still, stifling air caught up with us. We got off our bikes and walked a few metres to where the endless plain suddenly ceased, as if sliced by a sabre far sharper than my own. After days of unvarying flatness the terror of the crumbling vertical cliff at our feet was compounded by the Southern Ocean, which raged with such force at its base that I could feel the shock of the waves through my boots. Its booms made me stumble involuntarily backwards to the heat, flatness and still air of the inland.
As we rode on we discovered other living things in that seemingly desolate landscape: an emu with a stately stride, a red kangaroo lying in the shade of an insignificant bush. Close to the Western Australian border, mounds began to appear. They marked the burrows of southern hairy-nosed wombats, some of which were large enough to crawl down. I squeezed head-first into one, vainly hoping to spot a wombat, and was surprised at how cool it was inside. A chance to venture further underground soon arose. Cocklebiddy Cave is a huge cavern lying beneath the Nullarbor Plain a little to the north of the road. We parked our bikes before clambering down to a yawning pit. It was an awesome space, cool and gloomy as a cathedral, but what fascinated me most was the scattering of small bones, mostly of native mice and rats, which had become extinct on the Nullarbor only thirty or forty years earlier.
We paused just east of Kalgoorlie to admire the knotted, greasy trunks of the gimlet gums, and strode over the thin crust of dried moss and lichen, which along with the last flowers of springtime suggested that this could sometimes be a gentle land. But now it was flat and dusty, the mallee a maze of uniformity where you could easily get lost. Among the knotted trunks we saw lizards and birds, and more of that subtle beauty that is so characteristically Australian—a warty grey mallee-root, a gum tree shedding its old bark in flakes and fine strips. Then, in a small clearing, we stumbled upon an arrangement of mouldering sticks on the ground, and some sturdier branches still standing. It was the remains of an ancient gunyah, though how long the bough shelter had lain decaying there we could not tell, nor could we fathom why an Aborigine had chosen that obscure place to rest. Certainly it was of a size to allow one person only in its shade.
Over the years the vision of that gunyah has frequently returned to me, and I’ve imagined a solitary Aboriginal hunter returning to it with a catch of rabbit-sized marsupials, to spend the night in comfort. For someone who had never met an Aborigine, and who had spent their life amid the European grandeur of Melbourne, that gunyah came as a deep shock, for it put my society in context and made the Aboriginal occupation of Australia a palpable, recent reality. I was learning that in very recent times this land had been wrested, often violently, from its original owners. And that entire ecosystems had been destroyed by sheep, the axe and the plough.