Jump start

Australia is a land filled with things that jump. From our jumped up, political grand poobahs who jump with the cat, to introduced bunnies and toads jumping about in plague proportions, there are a lot of things that jump I’d like to tell go jump. While in those cases this is a sad Downunder reality, there is another hopping creature of kinder repute, famous the world over for a built in Sporran and long tail. Take a walk along the Plenty River in Yallambie at the end of any day and you might even see it on occasion, that true Australian native and most recognized of all Aussie fauna, the kangaroo.

Bunny plague, from “The Illustrated Australian News for Home Readers”, 1867. (Source: State Library of Victoria)

“Kangaroo” is a generic term most usually applied to the larger species of the macropod family, the smaller being the “wallaroos” and “wallabies”. There is an apocryphal story told about how this furry, hopping, pouched animal got the name “kangaroo”. It’s said the word came from the first meetings of European explorers with Indigenous people on the east coast of Australia in 1770. Captain Cook was exploring up and down the eastern seaboard, discovering things left, right and centre and giving them names in the erroneous belief they didn’t have names. When it came to the animal that hopped though, Cook wasn’t so sure so with sudden insight he asked the locals if they had a word for it. Their reply, “kangaroo” is roughly thought to have translated as “get stuffed”, which is what Cook’s men did to the poor animal after catching it and sending it with Banks collection back to England, but whatever the truth of this story, the animal was unique to European eyes.

Josephine’s hubby, without the hat, (watercolour on ivory by J Parent).

To these European newcomers, Australia was a land full of strange things, especially the kangaroo. Matthew Flinders, a man who also liked to name things, named Australia’s third largest island, Kangaroo Island while he was charting the south coast in 1800, finding the island literally hopping with the animals. The French Baudin expedition which encountered Flinders at a place Flinders unimaginatively named Encounter Bay also found kangaroos. They even brought a few of the blighters alive back to France while leaving Baudin himself dead in Mauritius. The kangaroos were promptly let loose in the garden at Malmaison with a menagerie of other Australian animals, all for the amusement of the soon to be Empress Josephine whose husband was away at the time, conquering Europe in a funny hat.

The kangaroo to French eyes seemed evidence of just how odd life could be on the other side of the world, an idea some people have never really got past. The kangaroo soon hopped into the young Australian consciousness, becoming emblematic of this country and featuring on the national coat of arms, the one dollar coin, the tail planes of the national airline and, most memorable of all, the mast of a winning 12m yacht off Newport, Rhode Island.

A kangaroo photographed at the back of houses along the Plenty River in 2017.

There are a surprising number of kangaroos in suburbia but they are shy and not easy to photograph so you’ll have to take my word for it. I’ve seen them lost on Tarcoola Drive and Yallambie Road where they have probably wandered from the Simpson Barracks, but the day I struggled to overtake one in my car on Lower Plenty Rd as it jumped down the hill at just under the 70km road speed limit is something that literally leaps to mind. With the awarding of contracts last week for the North East Link Project, those roos might be advised to stay well clear of the roads. There ain’t that much headroom to jump in a tunnel, you know.

Kangaroos contemplating the tunnel site at Borlase Reserve, Yallambie, May, 2019.
A spiny anteater echidna seen on the Plenty River Trail at Yallambie, November, 2019.

If you live along the river here you might even find the occasional kangaroo, wombat or spiny anteater in your garden. A neighbour said to me that she had been looking across to our garden in the twilight one night and thought, ‘Oh, there’s Ian. He’s moving about pretty fast.’ Well, I’m not renowned particularly for my speed with a lawn mower and what she had seen was the swamp wallaby that seems to have taken up residence at the bottom of our garden. We see it off and on and I even managed to get these photographs of it earlier this year before it disappeared again down the escarpment.

Swamp wallaby in the garden at Yallambie, May, 2021.

The swamp, or black-tailed wallaby is a thick-set animal which moves with its head low and tail straight and it is thought that this behaviour, combined with the species’ dark, sometimes black, coat is one source of the panther legend of the eastern coast of Australia. There are many stories told of people seeing black panthers in the bush, supposedly the off spring of escaped circus animals or the mascots of visiting American service men in the Second War but whatever the truth of the legend, I’m thinking you are going to want to make a complaint to your optometrist should you mistake your resident giant mouse for a panther any time soon.

Halmaturus ualabatus, (swamp/black wallaby) by John Gould, from The Mammals of Australia, vol 2, 1863.
Louis de Rougemon “Turtle surfing,” illustration by Alfred Pearse, from Wide World Magazine, 1898.
“The Great Octopus,” illustration by Alfred Pearse, from Wide World Magazine, 1898.

It seems no matter how bizarre the animal, people are always trying to go one better. The Indigenous story of the bunyip was swallowed whole by credulous settlers wanting to believe in the presence of ever stranger sights just beyond their horizon. As late as the end of the 19th Century, Louis de Rougemont, known to history as “The Fabulist”, was telling spell bound London academics tall tales of flying wombats, giant octopus and surfing turtles in the Kimberley, even addressing the British Association for the Advancement of Science in a Baron von Munchausen style display. Perhaps the strangest thing about his unlikely stories really was that anyone believed them for an instant. Later de Rougemont entertained music halls where he was billed as “The greatest liar on earth,” which was perhaps the nearest thing to the truth he ever came.

Since the last Thylacine Tasmanian Tiger died sad and neglected in a Hobart zoo in 1936, people have wanted to believe in the continued existence of an exotic, striped furry animal with sharp teeth, lost in the wilds of deepest darkest Tasmania. There they see in every pet Labrador spotted momentarily wandering on a country road, an animal that became extinct more than 80 years ago. There are something over 700 specimens of Thylacine Tiger DNA preserved in museums all round the world and there have even been suggestions that one day the Tiger might be brought back from extinction using this material. Something like this has already been touted with the Wooly Mammoth on the melting Tundra of Siberia, using elephants as surrogate hosts and using CRISPR DNA technology. With the population of existing herds of elephants in decline in India and Africa though, we have to ask ourselves about the ethics of this and why anyone would try to resurrect an extinct species when we don’t seem to be able to look after the ones we do have.

Australia’s megafauna including giant kangaroos became extinct roughly around the time Indigenous people first arrived on the Australian mainland, about 60,000 years ago. This has caused considerable debate amongst the people who make a living arguing about such things. Did the megafauna become extinct because of the arrival of Indigenous people in Australia, or did this happen due to a changing climate at around roughly the same time, give or take about 10,000 years? The argument centres around the effect of humans on the environment, Indigenous peoples included and our contribution to the extinctions throughout recorded and pre-recorded history. It seems to be a rule of thumb that wherever the animals with opposing thumbs turn up, their presence is likely to harm other animals. This was not such an issue in pre-history when bare foot prints trod so lightly on the landscape, but today it is a different story.

Temperature gauge at 6PM in Lower Plenty, summer, 2019.

There is no doubt that the world is currently in the midst of another great extinction event, the sixth in world history. This one however is different in that it is widely accepted to be the result of the exploitation of the planet by humans and anthropogenic climate change. The common populations of kangaroos, wallabies and wallaroos are generally not endangered in Australia but there are hundreds of other species that could be in danger of joining the Tassie Tiger, and sooner than you might think. The fact is, Australia’s biodiversity is in decline with more than 1,700 species and ecological communities at risk and over 300 animals threatened with extinction, to add to those we have already lost. It is a complicated situation but as climate changes these problems are not going to go away and must be faced. A very important summit has just started over in Glasgow, seen as our last real chance of addressing the problems facing the planet that have been building since the dawn of the Industrial Age. The Australian Prime Minister initially refused to go to Glasgow until shamed into action by world opinion, jumping with the cat like a kangaroo with his tail between his legs all the way to the UK in what has been called a “barnacle removing” attempt to excise critics both here and abroad. There like Louis de Rougemont before him, he will be asked some uncomfortable questions regarding the perception of truth and his so called “Plan to Deliver Net Zero”, particularly in regard to the detail, or rather lack of it. I only hope they write down the PM’s answers and make sure he signs at the foot of the page in front of a dozen witnesses when he jumps. I wait, like much of the rest of Australia’s wildlife, on the result.

3 thoughts on “Jump start”

  1. A Swamp Wallaby in your back yard! That’s so cool! They are a funny creature. I imagined them to be a quiet stealthy creature, but when I come across them in the Plenty Gorge they always crash through the bush making a hell of a racket…

    Of jumping creatures I thought you might also make reference to the peculiar commencement of a game of Ausie Rules football. Bounce the ball and two guys jump. LOL What could be more Australian?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. And all players wear jumpers. I’ve met Americans who were bewildered by the (British) word for what they, the Americans, call a sweater. English as a language can be like that.

        Liked by 1 person

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