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Friday, January 18, 2013

65) Southern Brush-tailed Rock Wallaby

Petrogale penicillata

If you drive south from Canberra, through the neighbourhood of Weston Creek along Cotter Road, past the enormous antenna dishes of the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, past the village of Tharwa, you’ll get to a place called Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve.  Neither forest nor zoo, Tidbinbilla is a series of open-range enclosures and walking paths in a narrow valley between steep and heavily wooded hills.  In Tidbinbilla you’ll find all kinds of animals native to south-eastern Australia – those that are abundant in the wild, and those that are at or beyond the point of local extinction.  If the animals are not free to leave, they nonetheless appear to be utterly content, and walking through the fifty or so square kilometres of the reserve it’s possible to observe – or often, fail to observe – several species in what is, but for the fences, a natural habitat.

Tidbinbilla is more than just a tourist destination, though: its main and most important role is as a breeder of endangered animals.  Over many years the reserve has built up a store of expertise that has resulted in, for instance, 900 eggs of the endangered and spectacularly beautiful Northern Corroboree Frog (Pseudophryne pengilleyi) being laid in the breeding season of 2008-09 alone.

For anyone in Canberra with an interest in the bush – and in the “bush capital”, that’s most people – going to Tidbinbilla is an essential and familiar experience.  Whether it’s on a school excursion, or taking overseas visitors, or just for pleasure, Tidbinbilla is as much a part of Canberra – removed though it is – as the more familiar and clich├ęd sights of Parliament House, or the War Memorial, or the Mt Stromlo Observatory.

The reserve is particularly and justly proud of its success in breeding the at-risk Southern Brush-tailed Rock Wallaby. Through a system of cross-fostering – adopting baby Rock Wallabies out to more common species of Wallaby housed elsewhere in the reserve – Tidbinbilla has overseen the birth of dozens of the animals.  By necessity the Rock Wallabies are kept in a smaller, more forbiddingly fenced enclosure than the other animals: experts at hopping over vertical obstacles, they’re adept at escaping from captivity.  Although Brush-tailed Rock Wallabies are locally plentiful elsewhere, according to Tidbinbilla's website there are estimated to be fewer than 40 of the southern subspecies left in the wild.

The most recent information available from Tidbinbilla’s website announces that the reserve has supplied to the state of Victoria fourteen captive-bred Rock Wallabies which are now ready to be released into the wild.  The species is precariously balanced: once hunted nearly to extinction for their fur, they are now dependant on humans – or we have made ourselves, ironically, their guardians.  Without Tidbinbilla, the species would surely disappear forever, as have so many Australian animals before it.

I don’t know how many times I’ve sat in the back of my parents car as we’ve made the drive out to Tidbinbilla and back again.  When I was a child it must have been at least every couple of years.  But I know with certainty exactly how many times I’ve made the trip in the last decade: through Weston Creek, past the Mt Stromlo Observatory, out through Tharwa and across the Cotter River.  I’ve done it only once since the summer of 2003.

In 2003 Canberra was several years into a drought that would continue for several years more.  Under the clear, bleak sky the city seemed trapped in an eternal summer, and when in January the annual storms came they came without rain.  The eucalypt forests that surrounds Canberra, that everywhere infiltrate and sometimes seems to even engulf Canberra, became so dry that leaves turned to brittle dust underfoot.  When in early January 2003 a dry storm rolled over Namadgi, the National Park that makes up nearly half of the Australian Capital Territory, lightning struck a tree, and without rain to douse the flames a bushfire was started.

The fire was not a secret.  Everyone knew it was there.  But it was remote, and difficult to access, and summer in Australia is a time of fire so this particular one was not treated with undue alarm.  It burned out of control for two weeks, and then, on Saturday the eighteenth of January 2003, when the temperature reached forty degree Centigrade, a ferocious wind blew from behind the fires towards Canberra, and the flames began to move.

In Yarralumla, a long way from the fire-front, I was preparing for an uneventful weekend.  There were rumours of fire, so I had the radio on, but reports were muddled and confusing and so despite the smoke blowing over the city I remained unconcerned.  The family dog, a puppy, had urinated on a rug, so I took the rug outside and hung it on the clothesline and turned the hose on it.  I had no inkling that water might be a precious commodity that day, nor that outside might be a dangerous place to be.

I can’t remember when the first leaves fell, but by the time they began I’m sure it had become clear to everyone that this was not going to be a normal day; that the fires, wherever they were, were not just the grass fires that had burned close to the Australian Mint and the Governor General’s residence the previous summer.  My grandmother had been visiting us from Adelaide that year, and together we’d all – her, me, my brother, and my parents – gone down to Lake Burley Griffin, five minutes walk from my parents’ house, to watch helicopters scoop water up for the purposes of dousing the nearby flames.  That was Christmas, 2001, and we’d been tense but ultimately unconcerned.  On the eighteenth of January 2003, though, my parents were away, on holiday, and my brother was away, at the house of family friends at the other end of Yarralumla, and I was by myself, and worried, because the leaves were starting to fall.

I can remember the leaves vividly, which is strange, because though I know the sky was black with smoke I can barely remember that.  I can remember the sick yellow smoke that clung to the city like a winter fog for the next two weeks; I can remember picking through the remains of a friend’s house in the aftermath of the fires; and I can remember, always, the black leaves.  They fell out of the sky, the long lanceolate leaves of eucalypts: they fell constantly, carried by the wind from fires that were kilometres away, and every one of them was burnt black.  Somewhere in the city, a wildfire was rushing into streets and houses, through forests and woodlands, creating and then riding on cyclonic winds, and as it moved through the wooded areas it wrenched the leaves off the trees and scooped them into the air and hurled them across the city.  They were still hot when they landed.   The cinders of the same great, disjointed forest that we Canberrans embraced city-wide, and built our houses near, and welcomed into the heart of our city.

At some point my parents’ house lost power: in Yarralumla we were safe from the flames, but the electricity sub-station that serviced the suburb was closer to the front and was destroyed.  The same thing happened all over the city.  We were without power for days, I can’t remember how many days, and we had to throw out most of the contents of our fridge: meat, dairy, anything that we couldn’t fit into the medium-sized blue esky that we ate out of for most of the next week.  It was nearly impossible to replace anything: supermarket shelves were stripped bare, with food being bought in vast quantities to feed the many thousands of people taking refuge in various hastily-organised emergency shelters scattered throughout the city.  For several days after the fires there was not a loaf of bread to be found in Canberra; not a litre of milk; no cans or jars of food.  If it wasn’t at an emergency shelter, it was in somebody’s kitchen, feeding a family who had no idea how long they might be without power.

Without power, without television, back in those days before ubiquitous hand-held screens, we relied on the newspaper, the Canberra Times, to give us images of what had happened.  Humans understand an event through images most of all.  Yet the pictures that filled the newspaper on Sunday, the nineteenth, were impossible to comprehend: whole hillsides aglow with fire in the treetops; houses warped and buckled and destroyed; roads – our quiet roads, our empty pristine roads – choked with smoke and embers.  No more colour, anywhere, in our green city: just fearsome orange, and red, and black.  Mt Stromlo observatory was completely gutted, its priceless telescopes destroyed, years of data lost.  There were stories of near-misses – fire-fighters who’d abandoned their vehicle moments before it was consumed by flames; people found running down streets in a panic and bundled into fleeing cars.  Four people were killed as their houses burned around them – only four, astonishingly.  Only four.  Five-hundred houses were destroyed in a city of barely more than 300,000 people.  Most of the houses destroyed were in Weston Creek.

Among those houses were two belonging to families who were old friends of my family – people who were and are friends of mine.  A week after the fires I joined some of those friends at one of those houses – ruined, a scar, a void in the landscape – to try to salvage what we could.  All around us were the bricks and debris of flattened, incinerated houses.  Over the road a house still stood, but its roof was warped and buckled where the howling winds created by the firestorm had lifted the tiles and dropped them back down.  On the lawns in front of all the houses – Canberra’s famous nature strips – tiny daisies still flowered: they were so low to the ground that the fire had passed right over the top of them.

We didn’t find much.  There wasn’t much to find: only ruins.  Unrecognisable twists of metal that we surmised had once been a dishwasher.  A box of darning needles, family heirlooms, still intact.  A sheet of corrugated iron was wrapped like newspaper round a burned-out tree on the hill behind the house.

The other family, my other friends, found a new house, having lost everything they had.  In kindness their friends and acquaintances donated gifts of toys and clothes, chaotically rebuilding lives that had been chaotically destroyed.  The family was my piano teacher; his wife, a pianist; and their three young children.  The children had been carefully raised without television or video games or other impositions upon their imaginations.  When the fire took their house it took everything.  In pity and sympathy and nothing but good wishes, somebody gave them an old PlayStation.  Sometimes the life you’ve made is wrenched away from you.

Out in Tidbinbilla, when the firestorm came raging through the valley, the panicked shrieks of the animals must have been unbearable.  The fire destroyed the forest, and the buildings, and the fences – but too late, the fences.  Of all the countless animals at the reserve, only 25 survived.  In their enclosure, behind their high fence, in the cage that had kept them safe from predators and cars and extinction, all but six of Tidbinbilla’s Brush-tailed Rock Wallabies were killed.  One Koala, still alive but horrifically burned, became a mascot of the reserve in the aftermath of the fire: a sign of resilience; yet a nearly unbearable tragedy, as well.

If you go to the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve’s website today, you’ll see the following note:

Please be advised that due to a Total Fire Ban declared for the ACT tomorrow Friday 18th January 2013, Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve will be closed to the public.

Today, the 18th of January 2013, is the tenth anniversary of the Canberra bushfires.  For a few weeks in the summer of 2003 Australia stopped hating Canberra, stopped making it the butt of jokes, and remembered that it was a city full of people with lives no more or less meaningful than the lives of anybody else, no more or less prone to sudden catastrophe.  But eventually the nation moved on, and so did Canberra.  The fires are remembered – but they’re not as well-remembered as they should be.


Image sourced from http://www.abc.net.au/

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