We were on the last leg of a hitch-hiking journey to the north of South Australia.
In the distance, on our left, were the gaunt outlines of the Flinders Ranges, a series of cliffs and ridges once, long ago, higher than the Himalaya, but today, left behind by Time as a series of tired looking ridges and cliffs.
Time hung heavy on the land here and you didn’t need to be told that this was the oldest continent in the world; you could feel it.
Tired, worn down, worn-out.
During most of the day, when the harsh desert sun was at its strongest, the ranges looked monotonous and dull.
And that’s how they looked to us as we walked down the road, thumbs out.
No one had stopped to give us a lift, and we were just walking, walking.
On our right was a great emptiness: wide, flat plains. One of the most barren, dry, places in the world. Mind you, it had plenty of competition in that department; on the other side of the Flinders Ranges, extending a thousand kilometres west, was desert; and a hundred kilometres north, where the Flinders petered out, was what was colloquially known as the GAF: the Great Australian Fuck-All.
The Flinders Ranges, tired and worn down and worn out, was in fact a vein of cliffs and ridges and valleys, running deep into the most arid, barren area of land in the world. Hard to imagine but it was true: the Flinders Ranges was like an Ark for animal and bird life and once, for the aborigines, the world’s oldest people.
Sometimes, magic stalked this land. In the mornings and evenings, those tired looking ranges burst into a spectrum of colours, all the colours of the rainbow. It was hard to believe; it was as miraculous as the animal which lived in those ranges and had learnt to dress itself up in a coat of many colours – like the biblical Jacob – to merge into its environment: to survive and to thrive. This animal was the reason why we were hitch-hiking north.
The aborigines called the wondrous animal of many colours ‘andu’.
The white man called it ‘the yellow footed rock wallaby’.
There was a steady run of traffic, well, by the standards of the far north.
Mostly Japanese and Korean SUV’s (poor fellow my country: we dig up the iron and the coal and the aluminium, export it to Asia. They do the brain work and send it back to us as flat screen TVs, fridges….lots of stuff…and SUV’s).
None of them stopped for us; couldn’t blame them really. We had rucksacks, big ones. That would be enough to put off a lot of people. Hitch hiking was out of fashion anyway. People were scared of being murdered by a psychopath.
So we kept walking.
We did some calculations: if everything came to the worst, we’d reach Wilpena Pound by nightfall. Wilpena Pound was a vast natural amphitheatre. It was a part of the Flinders Ranges and a popular tourist destination. There was a large caravan park and a hotel just outside the Pound.
We’d get there. Perhaps not the nicest walk in the world but still, we’d make it.
Then a vehicle pulled over.
A new Range Rover. There was a couple in front, a man behind the steering wheel and a woman next to him.
‘Middle-aged couple on holiday’ I thought to myself.
It was strange what happened next: the woman got out and in heavily accented English, told us to put our rucksacks in the back.
When we’d finished doing that, she motioned for me to sit in the front with the man and Anya to get in the back with her.
Girls and boys separate eh?
Not that I was going to complain. By this time we’d given up all hope of getting a lift.
Inside, introductions got underway.
Ella and Sven; they were Danish.
Ella: shoulder length blond hair, blue eyes, a round, friendly looking face; in good shape and attractive for her age – easy to see that when she was younger, she was a ‘looker’.
Sven: aquiline nose, dark eyes, a lined but handsome face topped by a thick crop of wiry, black hair – probably dyed, I suspected given that the stubble on his face was grey. He was a big man and the wheel looked small in his hands.
We got going and Sven leaned over the pushed a button and then it came, miraculous, a gift from heaven: Mozart’s symphony 31 (The Haffner) softly playing on the obviously very expensive sound system.
I could hear the sounds of every instrument in the orchestra and yet the volume was quite low.
The four of us chatted for a while.
Ella did most of the talking.
She asked us where we were headed.
It was my job to do the explaining. This was a sort of de facto agreement Anya and I had made before we left Adelaide: it was my job to do the talking when people asked us where we were going and why or, in other words, to tell them about the yellow footed rock wallaby.
My job was not an easy one.
‘We’re heading to Angorichina and when we get there, then we’ll start walking ….with rugsacks and tent, following an established bush walking trail through the Flinders Ranges called the Heysen Trail…’
Then came the hard part.
Often in the past, when we’d had lifts I’d left this bit out. People didn’t want to be bored with some long spiel and it wasn’t easy to keep it short anyway. Yet somehow, I got the feeling that these people, being foreigners, might have wanted to hear about it. Maybe my own prejudices were involved too: an innate feeling of solidarity with people who listened to Mozart.
I took the risk.
‘There’s more involved actually than just walking. We’re hoping to see Australia’s most beautiful marsupial on the way…it’s called the ‘yellow footed rock wallaby’, though it’s often known colloquially ‘the yellow foot.’
Show me a word the Aussies hadn’t shortened.
Ella put the emphasis on ‘foot’; it amused me. In flat nasal Aussie it was one word: ‘yellowfoot’
Next step: I told them something about the yellow foot.
The problem was keeping it short.
“In the Australia before the white British appeared there was a menagerie of weird and wonderful animals. The oldest continent in the world was also its most isolated’ (shall I tell them that the oldest rock in the world was discovered in Murchison Western Australia and it was 4.3 billion years old?’ No, don’t!)
‘Flora and fauna developed in unique ways and had aeons of time to do it in. You know all about the kangaroo no doubt. Well, let me tell you this: originally there were 50 species of kangaroo-like marsupials, ranging from kangaroos two metres tall to a plethora of eerily beautiful, rabbit, rat and mouse sized hopping creatures. Weird and wonderful creatures! I wish I’d been there to see them. Today, in the case of most of these amazing creatures, they’re either extinct or endangered. With the arrival of the white Europeans, a merciless devastation was unleashed upon the aborigines – and with them, the native flora and fauna. The aborigines’ way of life was intricately related to the environment. Both were destroyed by the white people and their modern system of agriculture – er yes, along with the racism and the mindless campaigns of murder….’
(Don’t ride that hobby-horse mate, keep it short!)
‘The yellow foot was wiped out but oddly, managed to survive in the Adelaide Zoo. If it hadn’t been for the Adelaide Zoo, the yellow foot would have joined the ranks of all those other beautiful, amazing creatures which no longer exist.’
I was warming to my tale when Ella interjected with:
‘What does this yellow foot look like?’
Momentarily I lost my train of thought.
It was a perfectly logical question.
What could she, a visitor to the country, possibly know about the yellow footed rock wallaby?
‘A rock wallaby is like a kangaroo only smaller and with stronger, thicker forepaws for grabbing on to cliff faces. The yellow foot is blue-grey and its hind legs and fore paws are orange-yellow. Its chest is white and there is a white stripe along its body and its cheeks. Its long tail – it’s at least as long as the animal itself – is orange-yellow and banded in sections of black.’
Ella said: ‘I like to see this yellow foot. Sound…very beautiful.’
Yep, hit the nail on the head Ella.
The most beautiful of all the Australian marsupials and one of the most beautiful animals in the world (though I admit I’m prejudiced here).
‘The home of the yellow foot was the Flinders Ranges. It lived in the cliff faces, inside the deep crevices and caves of its rocky habitat. This provided it with protection from the heat, which in summers can reach 50 degrees Celsius. In an area of the world where rain only falls sporadically and then often in the form of infrequent and localised thunderstorms, the yellow foot was able to dart out of its hole quickly and drink up a large amount of water in a very short space of time. It had the remarkable ability to drink up to about 11% of its body weight (and the yellow foot was one of the largest of the rock wallaby family) in seven minutes. In times of drought, it could drink saline water from creek beds with a salinity level approaching that of sea water. The reproductive cycle of the animal was adapted to meet the fierce demands of it environment. Whilst other members of the kangaroo and wallaby species carried their joeys with them at all times, the yellow foot could leave her joey in a safe spot amongst the rocks whilst she went off to feed or drink water on her own. Back with her joey, the mother was then able to feed it by direct mouth to mouth transfer – something which is not seen in any other marsupial. When there was enough food and water, the species could breed all year long. When drought came, the female yellow foot would abandon her joey. If she became pregnant during a drought, the embryo would be ‘stalled’ in her system and would not start developing until the drought had passed.
There was no better example of the yellow foot’s perfect adaptation to its environment than its unique colouring. Only someone who has spent time in the outback regions of Australia realises that the very hills and ridges which during the day, in the pitiless, harsh light of the blasting sun, seem so monotonous, so devoid of subtle colourings, undergo a miraculous transformation at dawn and evening. At those two times of the day – when the yellow foot emerged from its cave to feed – the rocks and cliffs take on a pallet of hues which make them seem surrealistic, something conjured up from a dream.’
Ella: ‘I like that…a dream…’
‘Before the white British appeared, there were tens of thousands of yellow foots along the entire length of the Flinders Ranges and even down south in the Mt Lofty Ranges behind today’s Adelaide – some 400 kilometres.
By the turn of the century they were almost extinct.
In the last decade, the species has been reintroduced. It is not certain that they will survive in the long term. One problem is breeding an entire stock of animals from a limited gene pool (i.e., the Adelaide Zoo). The other is the feral animals in the bush especially the rabbits, which eat the yellow foots’ food and the foxes, which attack and eat the yellow foots (especially because thanks to the rabbits, the yellow foots have got to go further to find grasses and small plants). Widespread baiting programs have been introduced to cull fox numbers. Diseases have been introduced into the rabbit populations to thin them out too.’
I got the facts down as clearly and simply as I could. I did alright for myself. My captive audience was captivated.
Then came the most difficult part of my spiel: the ideals, the politics.
‘Reintroducing the yellow foot into its original natural habitat’ I explained was ‘symbolic for our attempt as a nation to redefine who we are. It is symbolic of our attempt to defeat the demons from our past; the sexism, the racism, the narrow-mindedness, the xenophobia, the smallness of spirit…’
Yeah, alright mate, take it easy here, don’t rave.
‘So as you can understand now, there are plenty of reasons why we want to see this animal in its natural environment. It isn’t just because it is alluringly beautiful, it’s also a symbol, a symbol of who we are and we need to be… ‘
In another reincarnation, I’m going to be a priest or a politician!
As we drove down a long straight stretch of road, big blue sky above us, two different conversations got under way; the women in the back and the men in the front.
The conversation in the back proceeded at a consistent tempo, without any perceptible pauses or stops; Anya and Ella seemed to hit it off. It was amusing to hear two women, one Dutch and the other Danish, speaking English with their accents.
The conversation in the front was a different matter.
The ‘boys’ were slow to break the ice as boys often are given their lack of social skills.
Sven’s English was quite good but he wasn’t a talker leastways not at the outset. When he spoke, each word was pronounced separately, slowly.
I learnt that he and Ella were planning on staying that night in the town of Leigh Creek and were driving there via Blinman; that was good news for us because ‘Angorichina’ lay between Blinman and Leigh Creek.
At one point, I commented on how wonderful the music was. Sven pointed at the glove box and said:
‘You has a look in there…. maybe you find something you will like’
So I ‘has a look in there’.
And amongst the CD’s, I found operas by Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini; the complete piano sonatas of Beethoven; Mozart’s string quartets and Haydn’s last ten symphonies.
Listening to my exclamations of delight, Sven said:
‘You come with us to Simpson Desert …. then you can hear all.’
‘The Simpson Desert?’