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Kangaroo Island, Australia | Hopping across Memory Isle

Kangaroo Island, Australia | Hopping across Memory Isle

This island filled with kangaroos and colourful birds brings back memories of a journey that began 20 years ago.

Lakshmi Sharath

Mint(Wall Street Journal India) – May 10, 2014

 

autralialead--621x414“They ate kangaroo meat,” Nikki says. “When British explorer Matthew Flinders and his crew came here in 1802, kangaroos were all they found here.” Nikki, our guide, opens her mouth to continue her story—but no words come out. Her eyes shift from my face to the road ahead of us. My eyes follow hers, but I lurch forward as the minibus brakes to a halt on the narrow stretch of road. Two kangaroos are hopping across the road, barely 5ft in front of our vehicle, almost as if they are impelled by pogo sticks. They pause for a moment to gaze at us, but disappear in a jiffy. Another kangaroo, unmindful of our presence, sits in the middle of a field brimming with wild yellow flowers, to our left. There are no other vehicles around for miles.

*****

This is not my first trip to Australia. Twenty years ago, as a gawky teenager, I had stepped outside the shores of India, gotten my passport stamped for the first time, and landed in Adelaide.

Memories came flooding back of my 1994 trip to the Cleland Wildlife Park on the outskirts of Adelaide, where I had posed with a kangaroo. I had sent postcards to myself, my parents and my brother from every destination I visited. I still have these postcards

Little did I know back then that my trip would sow the seeds of a career as a full-time traveller and writer. This trip, my first international expedition of the year, was stirring up so many memories.

*****

Kangaroo Island in Australia beckoned explorers, whalers and sealers in the 19th century, but today it attracts travellers like me who want to spot wildlife and rare birds. It is a 3-hour journey from Adelaide: a bus ride to Cape Jervis and then a ferry to Penneshaw, where I meet Nikki. Tourists from Scandinavia, Britain and Italy join us for an 8-hour safari into the wild. Our very first sighting is the pair of kangaroos leaping across the road.

We wait for about 5 minutes to see if there are more kangaroos around. Nikki sights a few peering at us from behind the rocks, about 20ft away. She suggests we walk towards them

“This is the typical habitat of the Australian bush,” whispers Nikki as we huddle around her and follow her gaze. Standing amid the rocks is a mob of about 10 kangaroos. They stand alert, watching our every step. A couple of female kangaroos have joeys sprouting from their pouches. The kangaroos are silent. All I hear is the click of camera-shutter buttons.

*****

“There is more to Kangaroo Island than kangaroos,” says Nikki as we resume our journey to see the other major highlight of the island: birds. Kangaroo Island is home to more than 200 species of birds, most of them endemic, Nikki says.

Nothing excites me more than sighting birds in the wild. Every time I hear a call from a treetop, I perk up. Every time I see a wing camouflaged in the leaves above me, I reach for my binoculars. As a birdwatcher for five years, I have travelled all over India looking for resident and endemic birds. But this is my first birdwatching experience abroad, and I’m excited about what I might discover. I don’t have to wait long. Sitting right on the road and feeding on the carcass of a kangaroo are two massive wedge-tailed eagles. They are more than 3ft in length, with a wingspan of 7ft. They are the largest birds of prey in Australia. This is the sighting I am waiting for—and, indeed, have come all the way for. Yet, before I can get my camera ready, these birds fly away.

*****

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We stop by a grove of eucalyptus trees where Rosalind, another guide, joins us. She points to a branch above our heads. Koalas, lots of them, are curled up in the branches, lost in a world of deep slumber.

“Don’t call them bears,” says Rosalind as we look upon the stout, rounded marsupial, with its fluffy ears and spoon-shaped mouth. One koala looks at me, its eyes half shut. It turns around and goes back to sleep. Clearly I’m nowhere as interesting to him as he is to me. Another is awake, and is tearing away at the leaves. But nearly all the others are enjoying siestas. Koalas sleep for over 20 hours a day, and are hardly dangerous. They are, however, endangered these days. Because of their slow gait and weak vision, they often fall prey to vehicles on the highways. I have cuddled a koala in a national park before, but this is my first sighting in the wild. I feel like reaching out and holding on to one of them like I would a stuffed toy.

*****

We stop for lunch—a table is set for us under the trees in the wild. As we munch our salad and burgers and dig into our dessert, I spot the Australian blue wren.

The little bird is the size of a sparrow, and wears its bright coat of blue. It hops around near us, foraging in the dry grass for its meal. One moment, it stands on the ground, the next, it hops on to a dry branch. Its female companion chirps aloud. It is not blue in colour—it wears a coat of grey. I am busy following the pair with my camera when Nikki taps my shoulder, asking me to follow her.

Camouflaged in the dry yellow grass, showing off its spines, is another endemic species: the echidna, or the spiny anteater. The echidna is one of three egg-laying mammals and a native of Australia. We move on tiptoes and stand silently at a distance. Nikki has warned us that the animal has electro sensors and can feel our vibrations. It buries its snout in the ground, looking for ants and termites, ignoring us. Yet I can’t help feeling that it is flaunting its spines to impress me, much like a peacock unfurls its feathers. I look at it from a distance, hardly breathing, for fear of disturbing it. It doesn’t notice me. I stay quiet—and grateful—for these sightings, which end up being unexpected surprises even for a seasoned traveller like me, cement my associations with a land where I had started a journey two decades ago.

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