Kangaroo Lost


Australia is much better the third time around, if not for the fact that you no longer get phased by the question "How ya goin?" can say "No worries" without batting an eye, and can call everyone "mate" even if you don't really like them, but for the fact that it becomes much easier to explore the country as a whole.

After a week in Sydney barely leaving my hotel room while recovering from a nasty bout with a Cambodian cold (and no, that's not a euphemism for an STD, though I can't say I didn't research the symptoms of malaria several times that week), I left for South Australia, hoping to go to Kangaroo Island. I wanted to see some wildlife -- koalas, platypuses, and possibly a kangaroo or two. I've been to the kangaroo capital of the planet six times, and the only kangaroo I had seen was the one on my plate the previous night. And boy, was he tasty.

Before you condemn me for eating something you probably think of as cute, remember that venison is quite cute before it gets served up medium rare, and Wilbur, Arnold, and Babe made people from all generations laugh, but that doesn't seem to stop anyone from enjoying a nice pork chop or some bacon now and then. Further, it's important to mention that certain species of kangaroo are the rats of Australia. The countryside is as overrun with kangaroos as this article is with fantastically brilliant analogies. (There's another! I hope you're keeping score.) Kangaroos destroy cars in Australia as much as deer destroy cars in the US. In fact, one of my friends at work told me "Why are you going to a national park to see a kangaroo? You can rent a car and see one locally. Just wait until nighttime and drive really fast down a curvy street and you'll get a nice, up close view of a kangaroo. He'll even stay still while you take pictures." Besides, kangaroo meat is lean, tasty, and quite healthy. Koala, on the other hand...

I felt it was time to get out of Sydney and explore off the beaten path. So I flew to Adelaide, about 2 hours from Sydney on the south coast of Australia in the appropriately named state of South Australia.

When I awoke in Adelaide on Saturday, I learned that the ferry to kangaroo island was full. My first clue that this was the case was something odd the concierge at the hotel said after he got off the phone with the ferry service. He said, "The ferry to Kangaroo Island is full." I suppose I could list my second, third, and fourth clues, but the net result would stay the same. My hopes were dashed. I had wanted to see some kangaroos. In the wild. That weren't roadkill. And I was stuck on the mainland.

I made the best use of my time, regardless, knowing that one of the world's greatest wine regions was only an hour or so away. I drove about an hour north of Adelaide to the Barossa Valley, a less pricey and far less pretentious Napa or Bordeaux. I had a nice though uneventful weekend of sampling wine and whining about missing out on Kangaroo Island. I had an occasional evil thought of exacting my revenge by having another tasty kangaroo later in the evening, but I eventually went with duck, which, as every pre-schooler knows, has plenty of potential for being ugly. I did manage to find my way to a national park where I did some hiking and saw many trees and plants, but not a single kangaroo or bloody dingo. Perhaps the following weekend would be different.


Initially, spending my second weekend in Australia somewhere in New South Wales exploring the rest of the state sounded like a great way to continue to get acquainted with this country. This was my plan Wednesday when I left for Melbourne. Now, before I go on, I'd like to say something about Melbourne. The proper pronunciation is "MEL-bun." It is not mel-born, mel-boon, mel-bwun, mel-bin, or melly-booney. It is simply mel-bun. Say the name of the guy that did all those Looney Tunes voices, then say the name of the thing your hamburger comes on. But bring a jacket, because it's a little cold this time of year.

To survive in Melbourne, you really need only remember one thing, aside from a jacket: The lights on the taxis are opposite from every other city in the world. In Melbourne, when a cab is available, the light will be off. When the cab is occupied, the light will be on. This makes it rather awkward when you open the door to the cab and find there is someone already inside. In fact, this rather ridiculous and counter-intuitive light situation is infamous throughout Australia, if not the world. Next time you're in Sydney, hop in a taxi and say "What's up with those cabs in Melbourne?" Pronounce the name of the city properly and you will surely get a diatribe about why on earth some idiot chose to implement the lights the exact opposite of the rest of the known universe. Aside from the taxi situation, however, Melbourne is a friendly, down to earth city, about which I would surely have more to say if I had only managed to stay there for longer than 48 hours.

Thursday in Melbourne, a co-worker of mine asked me why I wasn't leaving Sydney for the weekend to see, say, the Great Barrier Reef. After thinking about it, I realized this was a must-do while in Australia. The problem was that Cairns, the town from which most people leave to dive the reef, is very tropical and warm. But I had left most of my clothes at my office in Sydney. The only warm weather clothing I brought with me to Melbourne was a single t-shirt and a bathing suit. So I did what any traveler would do: I bought a ticket to Cairns anyway and bought clothes the next day after I arrived. Sure, that may not sound like extreme travel to you, but I'll wager you've never left home without carefully counting how many pairs of underwear you'll need to last you through your trip.

There is no question that the highlight of the weekend, aside from buying a new pair of shorts, was diving the Great Barrier Reef. Although I'm told it is not the best diving in the world and has drastically deteriorated over the last 20 years due to overfishing and other environmentally unfriendly practices that would give more than one of my readers a heart attack, it is still the Vail of scuba diving. Or perhaps Vail is the Great Barrier Reef of skiing. Both are large, expensive, difficult to get to, and not as good as they used to be because they are overcrowded and cater to many beginners and tourists. Sure, they have some differences. One place makes it incredibly easy to travel downward 130 feet and make yourself feel like you're stoned on every narcotic known to man, while the other is famous for scuba diving. Either way, diving the Great Barrier Reef may not be the best experience in the world, but it is somewhere you have to go and see.

It was incredible what I saw: Clown fish (aka, "Nemo"), a turtle swimming close to the surface -- apparently a rare sight, a Giant Clam the size of a 27" TV set, a small shrimp that almost crawled onto the dive instructor's pen, and a stingray. My visit to Cairns was shortly after Australia's beloved Steve Irwin was killed by a stingray, so the mention of seeing one always caused a noticeable pause in the conversation. The great thing about Aussies, though, is that no joke is off limits to them, and even they had a hard time resisting the temptation to make a joke that at the time was probably too soon to be completely funny, until they made an even more insensitive joke afterward.

But no matter what wildlife you do see, you just will not see any kangaroos at the reef.

For that, I had to go to a "habitat." It's a zoo, basically, but smaller, more expensive, and entirely too touristy for my tastes, but I was not going to leave Australia without seeing a kangaroo. The day before diving the reef, I took a gondola over the rainforest canopy to the village of Kuranda. Kuranda itself is a very touristy town that is less about the village itself and more about getting there. There are two stops along the gondola to Kuranda, both well below the rainforest canopy. I remember from my junior high social studies class that rainforests have many different layers where different species can thrive. The top of the canopy, where 100% of the sunlight is visible, is best for large trees. About halfway between the canopy and the ground is where birds like to live -- high above predators, but still under the protection of the canopy. But on the ground, where only 1% of sunlight makes it through the canopy, is where the most interesting stuff lives. It is a constant battle for plants and animals to get sunlight on the ground in the rainforest. Plants wind their way up trees using thorns to grip onto whatever they can latch onto. Banyan trees -- like the one from "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" -- grow literally around and through other trees.

But still, there was something missing from my weekend: Kangaroos and crocodiles. So when I got to Kuranda, I succumbed to the pressure and paid my way into a habitat. Exhibit One was the crocodile pen. That's right. A pen. Inside were 15 or so crocodiles, safely behind a fence with no shot in the world of attacking me or even so much as lunging at me close enough to make my heart palpitate. And really, seeing crocodiles that can't kill you is no different than seeing a kangaroo that can't possibly end up on your plate at night.

In case you aren't aware, crocodiles are some of the deadliest creatures known to man. And I don't mean deadly in the shark sense of the word. A shark will bite your leg, wait for you to bleed unconscious, and have you as an appetizer while he pre-heats the oven for your friend, the main course. I don't mean deadly even in the sense that a cone shell, commonly found along the Great Barrier Reef, can fire off harpoon-like stingers called radula, each of which carries enough venom to kill you and 11 of your closest friends in less than 30 minutes. Nor do I mean deadly in the sense that someone hiding out in a dark alley can pull a gun on you, demand your money, and if he doesn't like the way you look, decide the last song you get to hear is a tremendously out of tune version of "It's hard out here for a pimp." At least with all of these deadly creatures, you get a warning that you will soon be dead.

Crocodiles are beyond deadly. Stories abound of swimmers that saw a "V" in the water quickly moving toward their companions, only to see a companion disappear with a flash of green just seconds later. One famous story involves a group of people who took a boat onto a river. Knowing full well that crocodiles do not like to venture into the middle of a river, the crew parked the boat so that a few of the passengers could take a swim. The first one jumped in and never surfaced. Crocodiles attack without warning at a speed that rivals a bolt of lightning. If you see a crocodile, it most likely isn't about to kill you. When a crocodile wants to kill you, you'll never know it. You'll already be dead.

And that's why seeing all those crocodiles behind the fence disappointed me. The fence was so large. There was never even the most remote of chances that a crocodile could possibly climb over the fence, pull me inside, and drag me underwater to drown me as crocodiles do so well. I just sat there at the edge of the fence snapping pictures, completely unafraid of losing life or limb or of hearing pimp-related songs.

I feel so cheap for going there -- really. So, some day when I see some real crocodiles that have the potential of killing me, maybe I'll tell you what it's like to see one. For now, just pay the 20 bucks and go to the zoo.


Most of the other exhibits in the wildlife habitat really didn't matter much. The most interesting, aside from the least deadly crocodiles in the entire state of Queensland, were the "Photo with the Koala" and the "Feed the kangaroos" exhibits. It was perhaps at that point I realized there was no sense in even pretending anything other than that for the next 30 minutes, I was most definitely a tourist.

Resigned to this most undesirable of fates for a traveler like myself, I grabbed a handful of kangaroo feed and walked inside the pen. The kangaroos, not the least bit afraid of me, stood still while I took pictures, pet them, and tried to feed them. At first, not a single one of them even tried to eat the food I was offering. But finally, one kangaroo slowly shuffled his way over to me and ate a few pellets out of my hand. As I sat there holding his food in my hand, watching as my new kangaroo friend enjoyed the snack I happily provided, I thought, "Well, isn't this an interesting alteration of the food chain." I thought better of asking one of the zookeepers which kangaroo they thought would be best served rare with a nice shiraz and set on my way. My goal in life, or at least my goal on this particular trip to Australia, had finally been accomplished: I had seen a kangaroo. But it was an empty victory. I made a pledge to myself that some day, I will make it to Kangaroo Island to see a kangaroo in the wild. Or I'll do the car rental thing.

After a 90 minute scenic train ride through the rainforest, I ended up where any traveler would want to end his weekend of extreme adventure: in a bar with a group of complete strangers comparing notes on our views of each other's countries.

As I write this, it is now exactly 50 days since I began my eastward journey traveling around the globe, and it will be at least another 31 before I return home. On this particular trip, Australia marks the 12th country on the 4th continent that I've visited, and I'll be crossing the equator three more times before I finally settle in at home for a while.

I am now safely back in Sydney, ready to venture on to New Zealand's south island within the next two days. While New Zealand may not have the Great Barrier Reef or crocodiles, it does have one place that is found nowhere else on earth: Queenstown, the birthplace of bungee jumping.