“Remember, you can’t drive at night here”, said the man at the car hire desk, as he handed me the keys. “Round about sunset is when the kangaroos start to get active, so it’s too dangerous.” I nodded, and paid the additional fee to reduce the excess on my insurance. “This is a high-risk area”, he said.
This is Kangaroo Island, off the coast of southwest Australia, a three hour journey by coach and ferry from Adelaide. At 4,400 square kilometres, it is the third largest of this country’s islands, after Tasmania and Melville Island, and like much of this vast nation it is sparsely populated. At least by humans.
The wildlife of “KI”, as the locals call it, includes some of Australia’s most famous fauna (though koalas and duck-billed platypuses, which are both here, are not in fact native to the place). Given that many of these animals are nocturnal, crepuscular, or simply shy, the visitor is not guaranteed a sighting. But still, they cannot help but be aware of their abundance, for the roadsides are littered with bodies. Possums, bandicoots, wallabies, and, of course, kangaroos: mangled marsupials are everywhere.
KI’s roos are an endemic subspecies of the Western Grey Kangaroo. Standing a little over four foot tall, they are smaller than Red Kangaroos, the largest species, but are still bulky enough to put a serious dent in a car. (If these animals have a North American equivalent, it is surely the moose. Both creatures are perfectly adapted to their environments, and yet still, somehow, bizarre. Both, too, have evolved in such a way as to cause maximum damage upon impact with a vehicle.) As the man said, this is a high-risk area.
A week ago, I visited a kangaroo sanctuary, just outside of Adelaide. Run by one woman and her very tolerant daughters, the place was home to around 70 animals – some of them road accident orphans. The adults lived outside in a large field; the joeys stayed in the house with the family. With big ears and big eyes, and fur as sleek and soft as moleskin, these young ones are impossible to resist. I found myself cooing along with the rest of the visitors.
Roos don’t shed their appeal, though, as they grow older. Something about them remains extraordinarily endearing. Perhaps it is in part their very strangeness. Just as platypuses were once thought to be an elaborate taxonomical hoax, there is something unreal about these creatures. The way they move is so peculiar; the way they loll on their sides like couch-bound teenagers; the way they stand upright – two arms, two legs. Part donkey, part hare, part meerkat, part something else entirely: faced with a kangaroo, one cannot help but stare.
Here on the island there is little opportunity for staring. My sightings of the animals are mostly glimpses caught between trees – a grey head emerging from tall grass; a shape on a far-off hillside. But I am aware of them, always. The warnings have left me cautious. I drive well below the speed limit, allowing cars and ‘utes' to gallop up behind me and overtake.
These long drives are an inadequate way to experience the place. Hurtling (even cautiously hurtling) from one end of the island to the other, mile after mile, I see almost nothing. The bush encroaches on the road, rubs up against it, concealing the land beyond. On unsealed tracks, the eucalyptus trees lean inward, forming a tunnel, from which the sky is half hidden.
Every so often I find myself distracted, and my focus shifts. Gazing at the bare earth on the roadside – here, bone white; here, as red as leached iron – I see fairy-wrens and scarlet robins scuttling in the dust. A parrot or pink-chested galah bursts from the branches, and my eyes leap skyward. And then, again, I see another body, and my vigilance returns.
Only once do I come close to a collision, when I turn a corner and find a large roo crouched on the road just ahead, drinking from a puddle on the bitumen. I press the brakes, and slow the car to a crawl. The animal doesn’t look up, doesn’t move, it just carries on drinking. I inch forward, expecting it to respond, but nothing happens. I stop. Both of us stay put, then, and wait.
In the end, it is me who gives up first. I indicate, pointlessly, and drive around the kangaroo, lifting my hand in greeting as I go by. It is a peculiar instinct, perhaps, but I feel no need to fight it. This place belongs to the animal, after all. I am only passing through.
All Photographs by Malachy Tallack, except photograph of the author and friends by Jessie Burton.
Malachy Tallack is from Shetland, and currently lives in Glasgow. He is the author of Sixty Degrees North and The Un-Discovered Islands, and is contributing editor to The Island Review. malachytallack.com