We’re driving to Canberra. One of my oldest friends, and me. I don’t drive so I’m keeping her company, letting her talk so she doesn’t fall asleep at the wheel. It’s a thirty-eight degree day and from Melbourne to Canberra is a nearly seven-hundred kilometre drive. It’s two days before Christmas; we’re going to our families.
There are Kangaroos everywhere: lying dead and brutalised on the sides of the highway, their bodies sometimes as soft and tranquil as a toy animal but more often their flesh and blood and bones torn and shattered and smeared on the rough bitumen. Sometimes Australian Ravens (Corvus coronoides) flap listlessly from the corpses but more often the dead animals are alone. There are so many; too many even for scavengers to make use of. As my friend and I joke about the numerous kayaks and jet-skis and trailbikes we see being towed up and down the highway we barely mention the marsupial slaughter that constantly confronts us. They say travel is as much about the journey as the destination but we just want the journey over with.
The Hume Highway is flat and direct, and only Holbrook with its famous submarine is now left unbypassed. Cars promenade along its main street in both directions; just outside town witches hats mark the starting point of new road works. Other towns pass as merely names on exit signs, optimistic arrows off the highway: Wodonga; Tarcutta; Thurmoola. When we arrive in Canberra at last we pull over so my friend can take a phone call. I stare out the passenger-side window, trying not to listen. In the trees is a shape and it might be a kangaroo or it might be just a pile of sacks and sticks. If it’s flesh it is so long dead that its form has disappeared into the waving golden grass. Cars rush past us, their wheels juddering on the small white humps that stud the road, warning of the approach of one of Canberra’s notorious roundabouts. The shapeless thing in the grass is left abandoned and unnoticed.
On Boxing Day I go with my parents to their holiday house, on the Brogo River near Bega. With us are two of their oldest friends, visiting from the UK. They’ve never seen Brogo before; I think at first that they have but I soon learn that I’m wrong. I spend time with them, and with my parents, but I haven’t been here for months so I spend time alone, too, re-exploring old paths. Walking up the road from the house to the gate on the morning of the first day I stumble upon a small but healthy group of Kangaroos gathered around an old dam. On the second night, after everyone’s gone to bed, I hear Boobook Owls (Ninox novaeseelandiae) hooting mo-poke in the full moon and I go searching for them. I find two; as I approach the first one I disturb an unseen Kangaroo whose thudding footfalls in the scrub panic the owl into flight. The second owl is not so cautious, and I stare at it for minutes on end. Its eyes shine dazzlingly bright in the beam of my torch. As I stare it defecates on the branch below it, a long white spatter, and as a response to my intrusion I can’t fault it. The next morning I leave the breakfast table when I hear a Superb Lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae) calling in the gully; I expect it to hear me stumbling towards it and to run shrieking down the hill, but instead it allows me to watch it scratching in the dirt beneath a fig tree. I almost stop breathing when I see its long, plumed tail trailing behind it. Usually Lyrebird songs are resonantly loud and accompanied by a dance, the shimmering of that long tail, but this morning, practicing outside the winter breeding season, the bird sings softly to itself as it forages, like somebody whistling while they work.
Our friends from the UK have only a few weeks in Australia so I try to find as many animals as I can for them, but it seems as though every creature I spot is gone by the time I can point it out. King Parrots (Alisterus scapularis), Spotted Pardalotes (Pardalotus punctatus), Satin Bowerbirds (Ptilonorhynchus violaceus), all fly away. The two Wedge-tailed Eagles (Aquila audax) that have circled the valley in front of the house for years never appear. After two days, though, our luck changes: it begins in Bermagui, with two enormous Stingrays (Myliobatoidei) that are patrolling the waterfront where a fisherman is throwing freshly caught fish into the water. Tourists point and laugh as the man’s small dog tiptoes along the wharf and barks excitedly at the pack of Great Cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo) and Australian Pelicans (Pelecanus conspicillatus) that scrabble for each scrap of flesh. That evening, driving back to the house well after dark, we stop for an Eastern Grey Kangaroo that is standing in the middle of the left lane of the road, directly in front of us; it lollops unhurriedly into the bush. Moments later I spy another standing like a ghost just outside the beam of the headlights – “Kangaroo on the left” I say, hoping to alert our friends, but when my father reacts by immediately pressing the car’s brakes I remember all the dead kangaroos on the side of the Hume; I remember that Eastern Grey Kangaroos are the main cause of traffic accidents back in Canberra. I watch the edges of the road all the way back to the house.
We all drive back to Canberra the next day; the day after that my old friend and I drive back home. Back to Melbourne. My brother is with us now, too. We notice that the road is new; we see, for the first time, that a week earlier we’d been driving on the old tarmac, and that to double the size of the Hume Highway the government has simply laid down two bright new lanes alongside the old ones. Now the old road that went in two directions only goes in one; now it’s only the old road that goes to Canberra.
The Kangaroos die as readily on the new road as on the old: their corpses punctuate the long drive once more. Red Foxes (Vulpes vulpes), too. We wonder if perhaps there are so many dead animals on the road because there are also, out there in the bush, so many ones that are newly alive. I recall the scores of Grey Fantails (Rhipidura albiscapa) and other small insectivorous birds I’d seen at Brogo; I recall the recent rain and think, we are in a time of plenty.
Image sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org