Wombat

 

 

David Whitley attempts to conquer the rapids in Kangaroo Valley, hoping he can add a wombat to his collection of goannas.

 

You have to admire the Australian attitude towards health and safety at times. Sat in a car park by the castle-like Hampden Bridge, I’m told that I shouldn’t take anything valuable in the kayak with me. “The bit at the back isn’t 100% waterproof,” I’m instructed. But what on earth should I do with my car keys? “Leave ‘em on top of the back tyre. No-one will nick it round here.”

 

It’s fitting that this advice comes from a man who’s about to rent me his kayak, let me head downriver for a few kilometres, battle the odd rapid and meet him at a camping ground at the other end. Anywhere else, I’d be asked if I’d used a kayak before, given some level of instruction and gently babied through the rapids by an experience guide. In Kangaroo Valley (a couple of hours south of Sydney), I’m allowed to pay when I return, and just go and enjoy myself.

 

Pushing off into the Kangaroo River, it becomes immediately clear what an excellent idea this is. The current will probably take me all the way to the designated meeting point without me lifting a finger. The paddle quickly becomes an object reserved for making sure I’m facing the right direction and the occasional guilt-prompted sliver of tokenistic exercise.

 

The river is just beautiful. Trees clamber up the steep hills to either side, and large boulders make incursions from the banks. They’re worth paying closer attention to. While there may not be any kangaroos living by the river, there are plenty of enormous lizards. I double-take as I see my first one – a chunky great goanna, sat with his head up in meerkat-ish alertness, basking in the sun’s warmth. I’m consumed with glee, thinking I’ve seen something special. It quickly turns out that I haven’t. There’s a big goanna on pretty much every rock as I paddle slowly downstream. There are some slightly - but not much – smaller lizards scuttling along the banks and there’s even the odd snake taking a swim in the water.

 

I appear to have entered a reptile wonderland, but the creature I’m really interested in is being rather elusive. Wombats – the tank-like furry pig-bears with a penchant for shuffling about and generally looking extremely clumsy – are nocturnal creatures. If you spot them during the day, they’re probably poorly or dead by the side of the road. But, from the river, the traces of them are easily identifiable. Wombats are the biggest burrowing animals on the planet, and their holes make sizable dents in the river bank. There are scores of them, tunnelled into the earth, and I keep pulling over to see if I can catch a glimpse of a wombat inside. On several occasions I think I may have got a peek at one having a sleep, but I’m never quite certain. I wish they’d come and swim alongside the kayak rather than the snakes...

 

Of course, it all gets rather more interesting when I hit the rapids. They’re only baby rapids but the water’s still flowing pretty fast, and there are all manner of rocks to crash into and scrape the bottom of the kayak along. It comes as something of a jolt. I’m going to have to paddle and steer hard to avoid coming a cropper. I splash away frantically, trying to forge some sort of safe course without clattering into an enormous boulder. It just about works, but that I’ve been allowed to tackle this through trial and error is astonishing.

 

It’s quite the experience, however. Sun out, wildlife on the banks, and a spot of adrenalin rolled into the tranquillity – I’d be hard-pushed to find a more perfect way to spend the morning.

 

 

 

By David Whitley

The Light


David Whitley heads east of Perth to view one of the world’s great engineering achievements, but finds himself wowed by one of Australia’s natural wonders 

Around 45 minutes east of Perth, there is a dam. A decent-sized, but unremarkable dam, if compared to enormous projects such as the Hoover Dam in the US, or the Aswan Dam in Egypt. But it is the pipes leading from Mundaring Weir that should inspire awe.

Before the 1890s, Western Australia was a bit of a struggling backwater. The Swan River Colony – as it was originally called – was only founded because the Dutch and French were snooping around the continent’s west coast and the British thought they should stick a flag down to stop the competition making a claim.

In 1829, Perth was founded. It’s an older city than Melbourne, Brisbane or Adelaide, but the other colonies grew a lot quicker than poor, bedraggled and forgotten Western Australia.

But in the 1890s, gold was found way inland at Kalgoorlie. There were fortunes to be made there, but many paid the ultimate price in trying to make them. It was desert, and you can’t drink gold. Many ambitious would-be miners didn’t even make it out there. There were no roads, and over half who attempted the 600km walk over dry bushland from Perth died of thirst.

Enter CY O’Connor, an Irishman with a reputation for handling massive infrastructure projects. He came to a tragic end, committing suicide under pressure from constant media carping about the costs of major achievements such as standardised rail gauges across the state and a new port at Fremantle.

He never got to see the finished version of the pipeline that would be, by any measure, one of the greatest engineering achievements in history. It runs for 560km from Mundaring Weir to the Kalgoorlie goldfields, uphill and through the desert. It required loans of what would now be billions of dollars, and what was then the largest single order of steel in history.

Stood on top of the dam, however, it’s not the engineering achievement that strikes. It’s something that’s hard to convey to anyone who has not visited Australia. It’s a stunning sight – the water of the lake created by the dam is a rich blue, whilst the rocks that make up the banks look gaspingly dry.

But the dazzling scene is made by the light. It’s the thing I missed the most when I returned to Britain after five years in Australia. Even on the sunniest days, Britain only ever gets a muted, hazy light. In Australia, however, the skies seem so much more vast, and the light so much more intense. There’s an invigorating, almost fearsome brightness during the day that turns into an enhancing, hugely flattering illumination at dawn and dusk. It’s only when you leave and lose it that you start to realise just how powerful and energy-giving it is.

On the way back from the weir, we decide to drive up to Kings Park, the giant 404 hectare green lung that overlooks the Swan River and central Perth. The road in – Fraser Avenue – is lined with tall gum trees. They’re striking at the best of times, gloriously pink-tinged white trunks soaring skywards with no branches on the lower levels to sully the majesty. But as the day draws to a close, the fading, marvellously complimentary light gives the honour guard of trees an entrancing, magical appearance.

And no man-made achievements will ever be able to top that.

Disclosure (and recommendation): For a great overview of Perth’s history and future, the two hour Perth Urban Adventure walking tour around the city with Two Feet And A Heartbeat (Twofeet.com.au) is an excellent choice. David did the Two Feet tour as a guest of Tourism Western Australia (Westernaustralia.com).


Queensland

A kangaroo on the beach: The Australian cliché jackpot

 

David Whitley stumbles upon a magical wildlife encounter at Cape Hillsborough in Queensland

It’s that magical period of dusk where the moon is forming a perfect white circle in the sky, and the range of orangey pinks are layering stripes over the top of the water on the horizon. This would be pretty marvellous any evening; the massive 6.5 metre tide at Cape Hillsborough is on its way in, covering the bobbles made in the sand made by burrowing soldier crabs earlier in the day. Wedge Island provides a perfect backdrop, and the arm of the cape itself protects the almost unnatural glimmer of the beach. 

But it’s not just any evening. I’ve got company. There are a few children still on the beach, plugging away with their buckets and spades, but it requires a double-take to realise that one of the outlines isn’t child-shaped. 

We have been joined on the beach by a very special lady. 

One with a pouch and a very long tail. An eastern grey kangaroo has come to enjoy the sunset as well. I start off observing from a distance. She sits still for a bit, then hops over to what she must regard as a much more exciting spot on the beach. I don’t want to scare her off, so I approach gradually. She seems remarkably unthreatened – I guess that comes from growing up near a holiday park full of families with young kids – and I find myself getting almost within touching distance. 

She fidgets, trying to get a sandfly off her leg, but unperturbed by me. I move around to the side so that I’ve got the coloured sky and Wedge Island behind her. And then I just sit there on the sand, watching night come in. She’s not exactly the ideal model – she has an uncanny habit of moving her head just as I think I’ve lined up the perfect photograph. But after a while, I put the camera away and just lie there entranced. To get so close to such a magnificent wild creature, one-on-one, for so long and in such an incredible setting is one of those memory of a lifetime moments. And then she moves – not to hop away, not to go and investigate something more interesting, but to lie down on the sand less than a metre away from me. It’s around 45 minutes before I can bring myself to leave. It’s almost totally dark. 

I turn round to see the children still absolutely focused on building their giant network of sand canals. Philistines.

 

Kalbarri

 

 

Rock-monkeying in Kalbarri National Park David Whitley ruins his trousers in one of Western Australia’s most rugged landscapes

There are many things that are designed to be done in brand, spanking new white trousers. Dancing to Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees is a prime example, as is rollerskating whilst on your period in tampon adverts. However, such clothing is not ideal in all circumstances, as I now know to my cost. For example, sitting around a campfire in a muddy field, getting progressively more tipsy. 

Believe it or not, the next day your lovely gleaming trousers turn a dirty shade of charcoal, and they absolutely stink. Seeing as they were completely buggered up from the previous night, I thought I may as well keep them on while we’re strolling around the Kalbarri National Park. Now I don’t know what everyone else thinks of when they hear the phrase “National Park", but I tend to think of a few relaxing walks, with maybe the odd hill. I was wrong, and if there was any chance of my proud new purchase washing clean after the campfire, then there wasn’t after a morning in the Kalbarri. 

This place is astonishing, as much for the history as the scenery. Millions of years ago, this was the bottom of the ocean. Now, we know more about the surface of the moon than the ocean floor. To put in perspective, the only time man has gone to the deepest depths of the planet was in 1960, when two men and a submersible went right into the Mariana Trench in the Pacific. They had tiny windows, nothing that enabled them to see in the dark and saw sweet FA. We’ve never been back since. That’s as mad as snakes, and thus walking through the Kalbarri is pretty special. You’re going back in time, and visiting a place that is a complete mystery to mankind at the same time. When I say walking, it’s a bit of a misnomer, unfortunately. Most of the time, we’re clambering up and down rocks, messing our clothes up big style. 

It’s all great fun and high adventure, but I really wish I’d put some kind of novelty Steve Irwin costume on beforehand. As we snake our way down through the dust, we encounter people who clearly believe in doing things these easy way – they’re abseiling. At the bottom, we arrive at the Murchison River, and after all that exercise, I’m having a swim. Everyone looks at me as if my brain has gone on holiday, and the river is, of course, freezing, but it’s remarkably refreshing after scrambling over rocks for the best part of two hours. From there, it’s a case of climbing all the way back up. It’s hard work with the sun beating out of a clear blue sky, but it’s worth it – the view is astonishing. The river carves its way through the surrounding landscape, and you’re perched on a ledge way above this ancient world. Let’s face it, I can always buy a new pair of trousers.

 

WA Wombats

 



David Whitley professes his undying love for the grumpy little pig-bear-tanks that seem to enchant most visitors at first site

One of the things Australia does very well is wildlife. In fact, it could be said that I’m marginally obsessed with Australian wildlife. Koalas are undeniably cute, kangaroos are just magnificently built, while other things cram the scale from odd to gorgeous. Kookaburras are funny-cute, rainbow lorikeets are beautiful, cockatoos are cheeky, quokkas are loveable and crocodiles are tremendously calculating and fearsome.

But, for me, one Australian creature has an absurd magnetism that the others just can’t compete with. The wombat somehow manages to get everything right by getting everything wrong.

For those unaware of the wombat’s majesty, imagine a small pig, cross-bred with a bear and a tank. They can occasionally look cute, but delightfully weird would be a better description. They’re adorable in the same way an unfortunately ugly puppy is adorable.

Elegance is not their forte either. They shuffle about with the wobbling waddle that comes from having a big body on tiny legs (although they can actually scarper quite quickly if they have to). They often have snuffly noses and can be found sleeping in the most ungainly manner imaginable. Look at one inside its hollowed-out log, and it’ll often be flat on its back, legs in the air.

However, it is impossible not to have enormous respect for any creature that utilises its substantial backside as its major weapon. If you’re a dingo trying to capture a wombat from its hole, expect to feel the full force of a peculiar arsenal. The wombat will back into the dingo’s face, using its unbelievably sturdy bum like a punching shield. It’ll then claw backwards – and the claws on those feet are mighty sharp.

As much as I really, really want my own wombat, I secretly know that they’d be appalling pets. They’re generally blessed with a curmudgeonly, grumpy disposition – as if they’ve permanently just woken up and really can’t be bothered with the niceties of keeping everyone happy. They’re also the world’s largest burrowing animal. And that means that give them a couple of days, and they’ll dig massive holes all across your garden.

But it’s not just me that wants one. When my wife first visited Australia, we went to a wildlife park, ostensibly to look at a few kangaroos and koalas. As we turned a corner, the cry went out: “What’s that? I WANT ONE.�?

It was, of course, a portly scuffling wombat.

Four years later, and in Perth, we had heard a rumour. There is, so legend has it, a place where you can cuddle a wombat. If ever there was a justification for hiring a car and taking a 40 minute detour out of the city centre, then this was it.

We pulled up outside the Caversham Wildlife Park almost panting with excitement. “Where can we cuddle the wombat?�? we asked at the ticket booth, more than prepared to skip everything else and rush over there.

“Well, you can’t exactly cuddle it,�? the woman at the counter announced to quickly crestfallen faces. “But you can get up close and touch it.�?

That’ll do. We charged past the enclosures of roos, dingos and exotic birds to what’s essentially a giant barn. And there was the magical queue.

At the end of it was a happily smiling member of staff, holding a giant hairy-nosed wombat. She weighed around 30 kilos, and she was lying back in his arms without a shred of dignity or shame. Her little paws were waving in the air, her eyes veered between sleep and dozy awakeness and her face bore what looked like a contented smile.

Her name was Big Bubs, and I got to sit next to her and stroke her tummy. Given even the faintest sniff of a chance, I’d have kidnapped her and taken her home.