Saturday, February 11, 2012
Animalistic in Australia
For the past couple of days I’ve had that silly children’s song about the kookaburra in my head. I don’t know why as a child growing up in Youngstown Ohio I had the occasion to sing a song about a bird in a gum tree on the other side of the world, but I did. The first couple of times it plays in your head, it’s a pleasant reminder of what certainly must have been a simpler time in your life. After about the fiftieth time it plays in your head, you’re ready to go on a kookaburra hunt while pondering what wine would pair nicely with some grilled kookaburra.
We didn’t have to hunt for the first kookaburra bird we saw, he found us. It was at the cottage we rented in the town of Lorne along the Great Ocean Road southwest of Melbourne. That’s where we saw a koala in the tree above the cottage when we first got there. The excitement over the koala sighting overshadowed the sight of the kookaburra, which was sitting low on a tree branch and didn’t flinch at all as we approached to get a good look at it. We didn’t know at the time that it was a kookaburra, or that it and others like it was responsible for the loud laughing sounds we would hear coming from high up in the forest in Lorne and in other places we stayed. Its identity was confirmed at a nature center later in our stay in Australia. The kookaburra has been a nice addition to our obsession with and study of koalas and kangaroos.
More than halfway into our 34-day stay in Australia, we haven’t seen quite as many kangaroo as I thought we would. The two places we’ve seen them the most have been in the coastal town of Lorne, and at the Gunnamatta Golf Course at St. Andrews Beach on the southern tip of the Mornington Peninsula. In Lorne, we would take about a ten minute walk from the cottage we rented up in the hills amongst the eucalyptus trees, and go to a field where we could see them from about 50 to 75 yards away. At the golf course, we got up close and personal with them, getting within about 25 to 30 feet away. We liked the golf course so much that we played it two days in a row. They’ve got a great $25 twilight rate and it was a quick drive from the cottage we were renting, plus being that it was late in the day, it gave us a better chance of seeing some wildlife. The roos were near the 8th green both days. The first day, there were two of them and they didn’t seem phased at all by our interest in them.
The second day we played there, their roo twosome had grown to a threesome, and this time they were lounging just off to the side of the green.
At one point, they all laid down, just kind of chilling as we played through. Then, when we teed off on number 9, one of them stood up on his hind legs, and started scratching his chest and belly like a man getting up from his towel on the beach. It was probably providing a great laugh for the other roos, as he was probably mocking the silly tourists, taking their pictures and shooting their videos. For those of us not accustomed to seeing kangaroos in such a setting, it was great fun. The kids got a big kick out of the pictures and videos and we took when we got back to the cottage.
Like animals letting their young get used to the wild, we’ve been allowing Ben and Marley to gain some independence during this trip. We pick our spots, making sure the situation is safe for a pair of 12-year olds. There have been about three or four times we have made them dinner in whatever hotel room or cottage we’ve booked and gone out to have a “date night.” They seem a little too happy to get rid of Mom and Dad for an hour or so, but that’s fine. We’ve also sent them on mini-field trips, just to get them used to fending for themselves in an area that’s new to them. In Akaroa near Christchurch, we gave them some money to go to the grocery store to get some microwave popcorn (a staple on this trip since every place we’ve stayed has had a microwave) and some drinks. Kind of like at home when we send them down to Madeira Mart for beer, smokes and lottery tickets. Just kidding, Annie quit smoking after all.
When we got to Cowes on Phillip Island and were getting settled into our hotel room, we sent the kids out on an exploratory mission. The center of the village was just around the corner, so we gave them some cash to get some snacks and about a half an hour later they returned with a bag of goodies and some change and a useful recon report on the town’s layout. They seem to enjoy the freedom it gives them and you can see them bonding even more.
The main reason we put Phillip Island on our itinerary was the Penguin Parade. On the southwestern tip of the small island, Little Penguins, the smallest type of penguin in the world, return from the ocean at dusk every night. They cross the beach and make their way up into the sandy, bush covered scrubland, finding their burrows for safe haven for the night. The park has boardwalks that make their way from the visitor center down to the beach, where two viewing stands are set up. The stands hold a total of about 3800 people, and light poles provide illumination for the flightless birds as they waddle ashore in groups of about a dozen or so at a time. They hesitate as they first emerge from the water, trying to gain the courage for the most threatening part of their daily routine. The penguins pause from time to time, but then when they are about halfway across the beach, they lower their heads, stick their little feathery butts out and waddle with great determination toward the safety of the bushes and trees that cover the land where they have dug out their burrows. This is where the real fun begins for the paying customers. The boardwalks wind their way through the bushes and the penguins waddle inland right beside them.
On the night we were there, which happened to be clear, giving us a great view of the full moon, we got very close to penguins several times. The park rangers make it very clear that no pictures are allowed and they also informed the crowd that any attempt to touch a penguin would probably meet with a sharp response from the furry little creatures that apparently sport sharp beaks that they aren’t afraid to use. Fortunately, on this occasion of human/penguin interaction, no beaks were deployed in anger, and no blood was shed. It was an experience for which we had great expectations, and those were exceeded.
Another encounter with a young animal species happened completely unexpectedly as we drove from the Mornington Peninsula toward Phillip Island. It was early afternoon and we were looking for some lunch when we came upon a café at a working dairy farm. It featured some animal enclosures where we saw a young lamb and a young cow. In keeping with the trend we’ve had on this trip that started on our flight from Los Angeles to Fiji, the baby child lamb was a noisy little fellow. He bleated more than baaed, pacing around his enclosure, noisily announcing his displeasure at something or someone, possibly me. After all, I had the lamb skewers for lunch, the night after grilling some delicious lamb cutlets at our cottage in St. Andrews Beach. I tried to assure him that it was nothing personal, but I’m not sure he bought it.
Koalas have been more elusive during our time in Australia than kangaroo have. We had the one that welcomed us to our cottage in Lorne, but the only other one we saw in that area was in some eucalyptus trees on the dirt road leading to our cottage. A few days later, we were driving on a rural road from the Great Ocean Road area toward the Mornington Peninsula when I spotted a furry creature scampering along the right side of the road. It was a koala, who scurried up a tree. I pulled over and we all got out to get a closer view.
It was somewhat surprising to see one so close to the road, but there are road signs instructing drivers what number to call when they see wounded or dead wildlife. We haven’t seen any koala road kill, but we have seen a few kangaroos. The ones we’ve seen near and on Phillip Island have had red x’s sprayed painted on them. My theory is that they are members of a kangaroo gang, and got caught up in a joey deal gone bad, or perhaps it’s more roo on roo crime. You hate to see that.
We love to see koalas and we saw our share at the Koala Conservation Centre on Phillip Island. The park featured boardwalks that rose 10-15 feet off the ground and got viewers up close and personal with koalas. Every single one of them is adorable and we could post picture after picture of them in various stages of sleeping and eating and moving about their tree habitat. The boardwalk was set up very ingeniously, allowing easy movement in and out of where the koalas were hanging out in the trees, sleeping or munching on eucalyptus leaves. It’s just fascinating to see them up close. The most frequent response we’ve gotten to pictures of koala that we’ve posted on is requests to bring one back with us. If there was a way to do that we would. For now, we’ll just have to settle for the many pictures and memories they have given us.