Takeaway

In Australia — rain, rain, come again

Susmita Saha | Updated on January 31, 2020 Published on January 31, 2020

Mother and child: In Australia’s bushlands, forests and wildlife parks, kangaroos hop around the grasslands, their tiny joeys snug inside furry pouches   -  ALL IMAGES: VISIT VICTORIA

A prayer for wild Australia, the island continent that is home to 7-10 per cent of all species on Earth, as it limps back to normalcy after massive bushfires

Whenever there’s fresh news of rains in Australia, I find myself rejoicing thousands of miles away. Let there be more rain, dousing the last embers of the bushfires. Let the country’s amazing wildlife survive and flourish.

I was in that country weeks before the fires killed hundreds of thousands of animals and birds. As I join the rest of the world in prayers for the wellbeing of the beautiful continent and its inhabitants, my memory keeps rewinding to the spectacular sights of penguins, wombat, kangaroos and koalas that greeted me there.

*****

At quarter to eight in the evening, the sun was still flashing orange darts on the Western Port bay. Swells of all sizes crashed on the beach even as cold drafts from the ocean froze me to the bone.

Rangers, bundled up in thermals, ski jackets and fleece, were training their binoculars on the horizon, scanning the shoreline for any movement.

Watching on were the many seagulls wheeling through the sky, occasionally swooping down to gobble up scraps of fish and seafood left on the beach by bigger marine predators.

I was at Australia’s Phillip Island, right on the cusp of dusk, waiting to take in the homecoming of the Little Penguins, the tiniest of all penguin species, who waddle out of the ocean to roost in their burrows by nightfall. I had lined up with scores of visitors on wooden platforms propped up on the sand, hoping to catch the extraordinary sight of wild penguins, just 33cm tall, bobbing their way through the surf.

Mini wonder: Feet firmly planted on the beach, the Little Penguins pad around the sandy shores   -  ALL IMAGES: VISIT VICTORIA

 

Suddenly there was a flurry of activity on the beach. A wallaby — a smaller member of the kangaroo clan — trotted past, its head moving sideways as if nodding at the visitors. Above it, sea eagles formed a ring in the sky, some letting out deep-voiced calls to their comrades, squabbling for marine detritus below. And then, a raft of penguins edged into sight, flippers furiously propelling the water in order to make landfall. Feet firmly planted on the beach, they padded around the sandy shores, anxious about intruders camouflaged in the matted undergrowth.

Once reassured, the penguin rookeries shuffled along well-worn pathways to their burrows in the bushes, much like little men in tuxedos. This story plays out night after night. The memory of home always brings them back, the rangers said.

Sitting along the walkway, I was floored by the antics of these adorable seabirds. Hundreds of them tottered up the beach, almost brushing past my dangling legs, while racing to catch up with their more agile friends. Some of them fell face first into the sand, twirled around to dust themselves off and scurried away to feed their tiny fur-ball chicks.

Finally, as the stars slid into the inky sky, I made my way back along the elevated boardwalk. It was a magical experience peering into the penguin burrows alongside it, spying on parents regurgitating digested fish and squid into their beaks before transferring the mushy food into the mouths of their nestlings.

Australia’s ancient bushlands, tropical savannahs and deserts support multitudes of native plant and animal species. Every corner of the landscape can serve up a wildlife safari on its own, with a whole Noah’s ark of animals lurking in it.

*****

Port Campbell National Park is a 1,750-hectare coastal strip connecting the resort hamlets of Princetown and Peterborough, while clutching at the township of Port Campbell. Underpinning this extraordinary landscape are sheer cliffs, offshore islets, meringue-like rock stacks, gorges and blow-holes. I followed an army of tourists there to witness not only the theatre of geological wonders, including the towering limestone stacks called the Twelve Apostles, but also some serious wildlife spectacle.

All of us waited with bated breath to tick some items off our checklist: The tongue-flicking honeyeater bird, the white-as-seafoam Australasian gannet and the wondrous marsupial mouse known as the swamp antechinus. As I walked around the caramel-coloured heathland, I spotted a ball of spines lolling about in the grass. It was an echidna, a cocktail of diverse animal classes. The cute porcupine-like creature belongs to the monotreme family, the egg-laying mammals found ambling around only in Australia and New Guinea.

Spiky deal: Echidna, a cocktail of diverse animal classes, is an egg-laying mammal   -  ALL IMAGES: VISIT VICTORIA

 

By the time our eyes met across the wide sprawl of the grassland, its spines were erect like knitting needles stuck into a ball of wool. Peeking shyly from its grass thicket home, the hedgehog impersonator, with a bird-like beak and a kangaroo pouch, rewarded me with a close glimpse of its pouch, where females of the species lay a soft-shelled egg post mating. Once the puggle emerges from the egg, it is fed milk like all mammals. No matter how many echidna videos you may have seen on YouTube, nothing prepares you for the sheer thrill of a one-on-one encounter with the marsupial oddity.

It is easy to expand your wildlife checklist in Australia. The island continent boasts exceptional biodiversity. The Convention on Biological Diversity, a global treaty, estimates that Australia is home to 7-10 per cent of all species on Earth. About 85 per cent of flowering plants, 84 per cent of mammals and more than 45 per cent of birds are unique to Australia, according to its Department of the Environment and Energy website. It adds that the country has more than 140 species of marsupials.

Desperate to give a face to such mindboggling figures, I left the tawny grasslands behind to venture into the Ballarat Wildlife Park, named after the city perched on the Yarrowee River, which snakes its way around the Central Highlands of Victoria. Such privately owned parks are smaller in size, allowing visitors to observe the animals and their habits from close proximity, such as the feeding ritual of a rare carnivorous marsupial.

On entering, I found myself standing in the shade of a eucalyptus grove. It was, as is frequently the case in Australia, time for an animal sighting. A lone cassowary — a giant bird with a blue face, a pair of red flaps of skin called wattles dangling from the neck, and a helmet-like casque on its head — emerged from its hidden alcove. Often billed the world’s most dangerous bird for its dagger-like talons, the cassowary, ironically, lives on a predominantly fruit-based diet.

In an era of photoshopped travel brochures and hotel deals, Australia can come as a surprise. It is where prehistoric trees are silhouetted on the bushlands, seemingly off Google Maps. It is the place where you are never too far from unimaginably blue waters or unique animal encounters. Here the stories about the animals are the stories of Australia’s multiple geographies and its ancient people.

At the Ballarat Wildlife Park, a mob of kangaroos hops around the grasslands, the tiny joeys snug inside furry pouches. The slightly older joeys move in circles, trying to latch on to their nursing mothers. I stretched my palm brimming with grain pellets towards the open jaws of the roos, even as they fastened their forelegs onto my fingers to nibble at the food. It was a delight to make friends with the giant marsupials, straight out of the picture books of my childhood, where they thundered past a beige landscape in clouds of dust.

Nearby, the beady-eyed koalas were tucked into the crooks of eucalyptus trees, their jaws nipping and shredding the slim leaves relentlessly. Through the leaf canopy, the sun beat down on the fuzzy creatures, their grey-and-white fur glistening under the afternoon light. I longed to brush my fingers against their cute pug noses and cuddle up with the fluff-balls but then noticed their claws. “Koalas can sleep more than 18 hours a day, you know,” said one of the passing park rangers. “That’s why they are the public servants of the animal kingdom,” he guffawed.

Hunger pangs: Beady-eyed koalas can be found tucked into the crooks of eucalyptus trees, their jaws nipping and shredding the slim leaves relentlessly   -  ALL IMAGES: VISIT VICTORIA

 

Meanwhile, time was slipping by like sand through fingers. There were other Australian native animals in the park that I hadn’t said ‘hello’ to.

Turning a corner, I met the rotund wombat, another furry marsupial that comes out at night to feed on succulent grass stalks, barks and tender shrub roots. Highly industrious, the wombat can be mostly seen digging up the soil with its broad feet and flattened claws, perhaps recalling its earlier burrowing days.

The wondrous Australian wildlife can leave you wide-eyed. They add depth and resonance to any traveller’s journey across the continent, and are enduring icons of its primeval landscape. It is important to remember this today, more than any other moment in history. In what has been described as an Armageddon, Australia lost at least one billion creatures in the bushfires since September. Even as we pause to let that number sink in, we have to acknowledge that mammals, birds and reptiles found nowhere else in the world are hanging on by the thinnest of threads. And this may be the time to reflect on the precariousness of their existence and support them once the situation is under control.

Susmita Saha is a Delhi-based independent journalist and was in Australia at the invitation of Visit Victoria and Scoot Airlines

Published on January 31, 2020
  1. Comments will be moderated by The Hindu Business Line editorial team.
  2. Comments that are abusive, personal, incendiary or irrelevant cannot be published.
  3. Please write complete sentences. Do not type comments in all capital letters, or in all lower case letters, or using abbreviated text. (example: u cannot substitute for you, d is not 'the', n is not 'and').
  4. We may remove hyperlinks within comments.
  5. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name, to avoid rejection.