Australian Wildlife Sanctuaries

By Kathleen Kemsley © 2021

The impulse to preserve its unique wildlife is evident all over Australia – rescue sanctuaries and protected grounds are everywhere.  The iconic native species of the country include koala bears and kangaroos and lizards and emus and platipuses and crocodiles and many more.  In Australia, there seems to be a rescue center for all of them.  I visited two, curious to see how these strange creatures are faring with the (so far) fairly slight impact of human beings to their world. 

The Horizons Kangaroo Sanctuary in Agnes Water, Queensland, only charged ten dollars to get in – very reasonable for a couple hours of close encounters with kangaroos.  The people who ran the sanctuary, Denise and Gary, began by rescuing joeys (baby kangaroos) when the mother was killed by a car on the highway.  Vehicle versus kangaroo accidents were apparently quite common in the rural areas of Queensland.  The joeys could survive for a maximum of a day or two after their mother (and source of food) has died, so rescuers got in the habit of cruising the roads looking for roadkill, then checking the pocket to see if a baby had survived.

When the joeys were brought to the sanctuary, they were bottle fed by hand.  It takes about four years for them to grow up, according to Gary.  They are free to go at any time – there are no fences around the Horizons Kangaroo Sanctuary – and all eventually wander off into the bush to live out their lives in the wild.  But many of them return as adults from time to time, often with a joey of their own in tow, for a free meal. 

A large portion of the population of Australia, surprisingly, looks at kangaroos as pests.  There is a move afoot in the country, said Gary, to eradicate kangaroos and replace them with cows, because people want more meat.  Kangaroo meat, while edible, is not as sought after as beef. The group of about ten of us visitors listened patiently to Gary’s spiel about the sanctuary, as well as some editorial comments about how bad our diet is, and how what we eat causes cancer, and if everyone ate like a kangaroo (a vegetarian, alkaline diet) we’d never get cancer. 

Finally, lecture completed, he handed us slices of raw sweet potatoes and allowed us to feed the kangaroos by hand.  The creatures, most of them half-grown adolescents, showed no fear at all.  I was able to pet several of them, as they patiently waited for another bite of potato.  I left feeling a great affinity to these gentle and friendly creatures.

In subsequent travels in Australia, I learned that the Horizons Kangaroo Sanctuary in Agnes Water is far from the only kangaroo rescue operation.  In fact, nearly every town of any size has a kangaroo sanctuary.  Some invite visitors, while others are strictly private.  But the practice of caring for the most iconic of creatures in Australia proved to be something of a common career path. 

In Alice Springs, in the red desert of central Australia, I encountered a different type of sanctuary.  There, the kangaroos (a giant species called red kangaroo which is taller and outweighs most grown men) seem to be holding their own.  But the creatures which needed protection more were the reptiles. 

Australia being an island nation, it has fostered the development of many unique species, a la Galapagos, and most of them had not evolved to fear humans.  The Alice Springs Reptile Center, located on the edge of town next to a couple other history museums, was built in 2000 to showcase the native reptile species of Northern Territories. 

Its star attraction was a ten-foot-long saltwater crocodile named “Terry.”  He was visible from above, or through a window that looked under the surface of the pond where he lived.  He seemed a little lonely all by himself in there, but I guess he got company when he was fed a couple times a day. 

The rest of the center was dedicated to displays both indoors and outdoors of some 60 species of reptiles.  They included frogs, geckos, lizards, snakes, turtles, skinks, and some very strange creatures called goannas and taipans.  There were also several species of dragons, truly throwbacks to the days when dinosaurs ruled the earth. 

After walking around looking at all the creatures – at least, those who wanted to be seen – I followed a handful of other people into a room off the main building where a demonstration was about to begin.  I walked in thinking that I’d never want to actually handle a snake or a dragon.  But once the naturalist started his spiel, I got caught up in it. 

He first pulled out a lizard, then a skink, then finally a dragon.  We passed the creatures down the line of benches gingerly, taking selfies with the strange cold-blooded animals and staring into their faces to try to discern what they were thinking.  The animals did not seem to mind being handled.  They did not bite, nor attempt to run away.  I suspect they knew they had a good gig at the Alice Springs Reptile Center; life was easy, and all they had to do was stare into everyone’s cameras. 

The Reptile Center put on three of these demos each day, plus extra shows for school groups.  In addition, they offered reptile removal services for homeowners; training courses for commercial businesses including the mining industry, and opportunities to photograph their many residents for film, television, and still photographs.  Knowing that they were competing with cuter species such as kangaroos and koalas in a country enamored of its endemic wildlife, they seemed to try a little harder to please the visitor.  I left with some great close-up pictures of strange reptiles, and a little better understanding of the wide variety of species lurking in the hot red desert of central Australia.   

Red Center

By Kathleen Kemsley, © 2021

After spending a couple weeks in tropical Queensland along the coast, I escaped the humidity by flying into the red center of Australia.  Having spent at least half my life in the American Southwest, I felt instantly at home in the desert of the Outback.  The rough frontier towns, reptilian wildlife, and intense blue skies were as familiar to me as my own back yard. 

I arrived in Alice Springs in late October, the start of the blazing heat of summer in the big empty in the middle of the island nation.  Many things that appear in the desert prove to be a mirage; my first understanding of Alice Springs was that its name was a double mirage.  The town was named for Alice Todd, wife the telegraph pioneer Sir Charles Todd; but she never set foot in the red center, having stayed safely ensconced in Adelaide.  And the springs?  Not springs at all – there are no springs anywhere nearby – only the Todd River, usually a dry arroyo, only flowing once in awhile during the rainy season. 

So – No Alice, No Springs.  It immediately brought to mind Lake Valley, a backcountry byway in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico.  We always called it No Lake, No Valley, named for wishful thinking rather than anything real.  Alice Springs marked an arbitrary spot in the endless roll of desert sands where enterprising British explorers in the 1870s ran a telegraph line, connecting Darwin to the southern coast, and bisecting the ancient grounds of the local indigenous people who had lived in the desert for millennia.

Walking around the small dusty settlement of Alice Springs, I saw knots of native residents, called Anangu, clustered in the shade of trees along the tourist plaza.  They spoke an unintelligible mumble and grunt of a language and didn’t meet my eyes.  I would learn more about them as I traveled in their world – into the wilderness where the legendary monuments of Kata Tjuda and Uluru rose unbidden into the deep blue sky. 

I joined a small group for transport to the main attractions of the desert.  During the five hour journey on a road straight as a ruler, we made pit stops at a camel ranch and an emu farm.  The camels were most definitely not indigenous to central Australia, but once upon a time, someone imported a few from Africa.  They promptly escaped, multiplied, and spread out into the empty desert, perfectly suited to this harsh land with little water.  Emus. on the other hand, were genuine locals, flightless birds four feet tall, seemingly a little out of step with the modern world, but singularly suited to life in the red center of the country. 

We reached Kata Tjuda in the afternoon.  Actually domed sandstone protrusions, these “mountains” were named the Olgas by explorer Earnest Giles in 1872 to honor some queen of Russia who, like Alice Todd, had never been to the Australian desert.  When the government restored ownership of this area to the aboriginal people in 1985, they reverted to the original name, Kata Tjuda, meaning “many heads.”  Legends about the origins and spiritual symbolism of the area were kept alive by the oral tradition of the native Anangu people, but they did not repeat the stories to us foreign tourists.  Many secrets were kept quiet in the orange folds of rock towering over the emptiness of the red center.

Before dawn the next morning, I caught a ride to the other famous rock extrusion in the area, Uluru.  Again, it had an English name as well as an indigenous name; in this case Ayers Rock was named for the then Chief Secretary of South Australia.  Henry Ayers made his fortune in mining, was chairman of the board of the South Australia Bank, and served on the council for the University of Adelaide.  True to form for this part of the country, there was no evidence in his biography to indicate he ever actually traveled to the monolith that bore his name.   

Uluru rose abruptly out of the flat desert sand.  In the pre-dawn chill, the huge rock outcrop bore an air of mystery and of mythology never spoken in English.  Obviously, the rock belonged not to us latecomers and interlopers, but to a far more ancient people who had dwelled in its shadow, hunting and gathering free of the influence of any other culture for at least ten thousand years. 

In the past century, about one-third of the tourists who visited Uluru climbed to the top of the rock.  The locals never climbed Uluru due to its spiritual significance – the route to the top supposedly crossed a sacred traditional route taken by creator-beings, according to the Anangu people’s legends of origin.  Australian officials finally capitulated and made climbing the rock illegal, but the deadline for closure of the track to the top was still a few months in the future when I was there.  I saw a handful of people head up the steep but well-worn path to the top. 

But, respectful of the wishes of the Aboriginal people, I did not climb the rock.  Instead I walked all the way around it, a distance of about twelve miles, watching as it emerged from darkness into dawn, glowing orange when the first rays of sun struck it.  Tucked within its walls were shrubs, hidden caves, and tiny springs of clear, cold water.  Rainfall flow off the top of the dome traced stripes down the sides of the massive rock, pooling at the base in deep ponds that served as natural water sources for a wide variety of creatures. 

The water, shade, and vegetation surrounding Uluru attracted a lot of creatures besides just tourists.  Resident animals include kangaroos, several species of wallabies, bats, possums, rats, moles, frogs, and 73 species of reptiles including snakes, lizards, and skinks.  I saw a few of the smaller reptiles, but many local creatures shied away from intruders, hanging in the shadows or sleeping underground during the day and emerging in the cover of night. 

Walking around the rock, by myself, I heard wind whistling through gaps in the solid rock face.  Finches, swallows, wrens, and red-capped robins flitted in the brush; the occasional falcon or kestrel soared overhead.  It was easy to imagine the Anangu people creeping through dense brush near the rock, plucking grubs, bush tomatoes, nuts, and the occasional lizard for dinner. For thousands of years, they drew maps on the walls of Uluru to direct others to precious water sources.  They utilized medicinal plants and practiced birth control, to prevent their society from overwhelming the scarce resources of the desert.  Maybe, I mused, these “primitive” people were more advanced in many ways than we seven billion “civilized” people, who have destroyed the natural world, altered the balance of nature, and crowded out so many species to extinction. 

I admired the tenacity of the strange-sounding people who had mysteriously arrived in Australia from the shores of distant Africa so long ago and had figured out how to live quietly and with dignity in the shadow of the powerful red rock extrusions in the desert. 

Of course, I too was an intruder, an alien visitor to this empty land.  But standing at the base of Uluru at dawn, I appreciated the clean, windswept ambiance of the land.  It was difficult to capture its grandeur with a camera lens, and even more difficult to put into words the power emanating from the massive red rocks.  But I could feel it, no question.  And in the moment the sun broke over the horizon, I understood a little of the allure of the place, to the Anangu who had lived in its shadow for so long.  They were the rightful owners; they would continue to be good stewards of this singularly beautiful spot. 

Cape Palmerston

By Kathleen Kemsley, (c) 2020

A friend recently asked me if I ever felt afraid when I camped alone.  The question drew my memory immediately to a place where I felt absolutely isolated.  Isolated, but not fearful.  And as it turned out, not alone either, for there were many wild creatures who made Cape Palmerston their home. 

Along the undeveloped east coast of Queensland, some 40 miles south of Mackey, I found my way from Ilbilbie to the Cape Palmerston Holiday Park.  I was hoping for a good night’s rest on my way to the Whitsunday Islands.  When I pulled in to the Holiday Park, the office was vacant.  I stood out front for a few minutes, noticing that there were no other campers parked on the sprawling grounds.  Were they even open?  I had already driven six hours, so did not want to think about searching out a different campsite farther up the road.

After a few minutes a man rode up on a four-wheeler to greet me.  “Are you open for camping?” I asked. 

“Oh yes, we’re open all year,” he said.  “Not too many people right now, on account of the coral spawn.”

“The what?” I had no idea what he was talking about.

“Coral spawn.  Coral is an animal, you see.  They release eggs and sperm once a year, depending on the moon and the water temperature.  Happens here in October, around the full moon.  It’s an underwater blizzard that is critical for coral reproduction.  Said to be an incredible phenomenon.  But the sad truth is, coral spawn also stinks to high heaven.”

“Sounds interesting,” I said.  After I paid for my campsite, he told me to park wherever I wanted.    

Needing to stretch my legs, I followed a faint trail through a dense forest.  As soon as I broke out of the trees at the coast, I smelled the coral spawn.  Beyond the sandy bluff, ankle high water covered some mud flats for at least a half mile out before the ocean began.  In the distance I could see milky surf, and indeed it did stink.  As far as scenic beaches or clear warm water, Cape Palmerston was a bust.

But in true bad news, good news fashion, when I returned to the campground, I discovered the upside of this deserted spot….it teemed with wildlife.  Movement caught my eye at the edge of the camping area. Drawing closer, I saw a knee-high creature that resembled a miniature kangaroo.  It had to be a wallaby!  I walked toward it, tugging at my camera, but the shy animal sensed my presence and hopped away. 

Into the silence, a strange bird called from the forest.  “Ooooo-ha-ha-ha,” it screamed.  Peering through tangled tree branches, I spotted the telltale chunky black beak of a Kookaburra, the iconic symbol of Australia.  I tried to imitate the laugh back to my vocal companion.  It humored me by calling a response. 

Farther down the hill in the forest, a flash of red caught my attention.  When I investigated, there appeared a large bird with a red head and yellow neck, standing nonchalantly on the ground.  It showed no fear as I approached closer to photograph it.  Later, when I had an internet connection, I identified it as an Australian Brushturkey, also known as Gweela. 

As the sun sank lower in the sky, I slowly walked toward the long grass beyond the edge of the campground, preparing to photograph the sunset.  Suddenly, in front of me, a group of wild kangaroos rose from beneath the shade trees and fanned out to look for dinner. 

Standing perfectly still, I watched six females, several with joeys in their pockets, travel gracefully through the field.  One large male, nearly six feet tall, stood behind them, glancing toward me to determine whether I was a threat to his harem.  I stayed silent.  After a few minutes, he dropped his guard and helped himself to some grass.    

The sky flared orange before darkness fell.  Returning to my camper, I made a sandwich for dinner and ate it sitting in a lawn chair.  As the moon rose, I tilted my head back to stare at an unfamiliar sky.  The Southern Cross was obvious, but I did not know names for the other constellations.  With no one to ask, I made their names up: Kangaroo, Wallaby, Gweela, Kookaburra. 

No other noisy campers broke the vast silence of the night.  I felt alone in Queensland – alone but not lonely, or fearful.  The local residents and the vast night sky kept me company.  In the camper van I slept a deep, dreamless sleep.

Lady Musgrave

By Kathleen Kemsley (c) 2020

The Great Barrier Reef!  My dreams of traveling to Australia focused on this place.  The largest living creature, visible from outer space, the reef shimmered with colorful fish and miles of coral in my imagination.  Now, four days into a solo trip to Australia, I was close to reaching the reef’s southern end.   

Several hours north of Hervey Bay, Queensland, I turned onto Fingerboard Road, a short cut to the coast posted with Kangaroo Crossing signs all along the way.  After scoring the last available site at a beachfront campground, I inquired about joining an excursion to the Great Barrier Reef.  The man at the desk kindly made some phone calls on my behalf to secure a space on a boat departing the next morning for Lady Musgrave Island. 

I awoke well before dawn, excited to finally meet this creature that I had traveled halfway around the world to see.  One of the unspoiled and least crowded places to visit the GBR (as it’s locally known) was from the Town of 1770, on the southern end of the reef.  The boat I boarded in the 1770 harbor carried 40 people on a straight shot about 90 minutes east.  A couple of blokes from Melbourne sat with me – one silent and the other talk-your-ear-off chatty.  The talkative one let me know right away that his marriage was on the rocks.  In no mood to listen to his domestic problems, I extracted myself from the one-sided conversation, went outside and climbed up to the railing on top of the cabin where the wind screaming past my ears precluded any further discussion. 

Upon arrival into a protected bay next to Lady Musgrave Island, we split into two groups.  Fortunately, the Brothers Melbourne were in the other group, which immediately went into the water to snorkel.  My group boarded a glass bottom boat to observe loggerhead turtles next to the reef.  They were giants compared to the turtles in my river at home – ancient silhouettes at least three feet long.  The man driving the boat, George, said they could hold their breath under water up to nine minutes at a time. 

I turned toward him as he continued talking about the life cycle of a sea turtle.  In contrast to the other four Millennials who crewed the boat, George was a sun-bleached, bearded older guy.  I estimated that he was about my age, 60 – which meant older than almost everyone else aboard.

On Lady Musgrave Island, a national park, I walked through a forest of Pisonia trees, whose branches sagged heavy with the weight of thousands of nesting white capped noddie birds.  The beach sand, so white it hurt my eyes, was home to bridled terns and silver gulls.  By the time I walked back around the edge of the island, George and the glass bottom boat had fetched the other half of the group and returned.  I rode with George back to the main boat for lunch, then finally it was time to meet the GBR. 

Immersed in the warm sea, I snorkeled up and down a section of reef near the island for an hour, peering at starfish, jelly fish, sea cucumbers, seahorses, and countless thousands of fish in every color of the rainbow.  The coolest creature was a box fish, Day-Glo yellow with black spots, shaped like a tennis ball with nearly invisible fins. 

That bit of reef itself was not so different from any other place in the world I’ve been snorkeling.  But the mind-boggling fact was the size of the GBR – more than a thousand miles long.  It was difficult to wrap my head around the idea of this organism – this animal – living just beneath the water’s surface, breathing and eating and growing, and trying to survive in the warming waters of the south Pacific Ocean. 

Exhausted, fingers pruned from extended exposure to salt water, I was the last one to climb aboard the boat.  As we started back toward land, I walked outside and perched on a plastic cushion against the stern.  George, the bearded crew member, appeared and sat beside me.  Just to say something, I asked him how long he had been doing this work, guiding tourists to the reef. 

“Up until five months ago, I spent my entire life as a commercial fisherman, he replied.  “Then one day I decided it was time for me to hang up my fishing license and begin to give back to the sea instead of taking from it.  Someone else isn’t using my license – no one is using it.  I still get to be on the sea, which I love, but I’m no longer extracting from it.”

“What brought on the change?” I asked him.   

“I was catching these fish that were 75 or 80 years old.  It occurred to me that they’re older than me.  How long would it take for the resource to replace them?  So I decided to stop killing them and instead share their beauty with people who want to see the sea creatures alive.”

He had a big voice and he shouted in my ear to be heard above the roar of the boat’s engine.  I tried to answer that as a retired resource manager of America’s national forests, I applauded his efforts at conservation.  But my voice failed; all I could do is cough and nod and smile at him. 

He went on to tell me about the kangaroo family that lived in his yard.  The old wooden sailboat he had rescued from the junk heap and was restoring.  And his daughter who had just escaped from an abusive spouse and was building a new life as a single mom in Darwin. 

At one point, George asked me where I was from, and I was able to get across that I was an original California girl, fifth generation, in fact, having grown up in Los Angeles.  He began to sing that awful Beach Boys song about California girls being the cutest girls in the world.  Well, that might have been accurate back in 1974, when I wore a puka shell necklace and a crop top to show off a flat, tan belly.  But for crying out loud, more than forty years had passed since then.  Now my skin was tarnished like leather, and I had long ago moved — first to Alaska, then to the desert. 

George didn’t know all that.  “I bet you’re spiritual, not religious,” he mused.  Another tired cliché that probably applied to any aging hippie from California.  I wanted to change the subject to something deeper.  Relate my experience with forest management, or maybe talk about ways to save the GBR.  But, since my voice was not cooperating, I just nodded and smiled some more. 

Out of the corner of my eye, the Town of 1770 appeared.  Reluctantly, George rose and jumped into action to help bring the boat to dock.  When I disembarked at the pier, the crew lined up to shake the hands of all the passengers.  At the end of the line was George.  He grabbed me in a bear hug. 

It occurred to me later that I probably could have wrangled an invitation to his homestead with kangaroos on the lawn if I had reached out and hugged him back.  But instead, I shrunk away and disappeared into my camper van parked across the street. 

A song by Tom O’dell played on my i-Pod during the drive back to the campground, expressing my feelings at that exact moment.  “I want to kiss you, make you feel all right, but I’m too tired to share my nights.  I want to cry, and I want to love, but all my tears have been used up.  On another love, another love.  All my tears have been used up.” 

This was my first solo international trip since my husband passed away.  As of yet, I didn’t have the hang of this traveling-woman-free-spirit persona.  Some other time, perhaps on the next trip, I might find the courage to go through with one of those traveler’s love affairs.  But this time, it was enough just to feel the warm glow of a shared connection with a man passionate about the Great Barrier Reef.    

Other Side of the Road

By Kathleen Kemsley, (c) 2020

Experienced globe trotters praise solo travel.  When journeying with a spouse or friend, they say, the two of you form a unit which appears impenetrable to outsiders.  When alone, however, you become both more self-sufficient and more open to strangers, as you ask for help or reach out to connect.  In the first few years after my husband passed away, I took international trips with several different friends.  But finally, in the fall of 2018, I decided to take the big step of setting forth to a foreign country all by myself. 

I picked an easy country to begin with: Australia.  At least they spoke English – sort of – and I could get myself around Queensland at my own pace in a rented camper van.  But my first night at a hotel near the airport in Brisbane, I awoke from nightmares about driving the wrong way on the road.  With no co-pilot, how would I navigate my way?  There was nothing to do but walk to the rental agency, claim the van I had reserved, and give it a try. 

It turned out that getting onto the freeway was fairly straightforward.  However, on the northern outskirts of Brisbane I saw a sign for Woolworth’s – the Australian equivalent of Whole Foods – so on a whim, I veered left at the exit.  What followed was a kaleidoscope of random turns, cars pulling in front of me, brakes squealing.  When I finally came to a stop, I was parked crookedly in a movie theatre lot on the wrong side of the freeway from the grocery store.  Hyperventilating, I killed the engine, grabbed a sticky note, and drew an arrow which I attached to the dashboard to remind me which side of the road to use. 

Escaping the multiple lane freeway farther north, I eased onto a two way country road lined with eucalyptus trees which bent to form a tunnel.  Intermittent signs warned of kangaroos crossing.  I pulled in to the exit driveway of a roadside strip mall, again parking sideways in the lot.  On foot I walked the length of the shopping center, then entered an IGA convenience store where I bought staple foods – fruit, bread, cheese, peanut butter, coffee, and chocolate.  Not Whole Foods, not even close, but the idea of healthy eating had gone out the window when I missed the Woolworths.  Asking the clerk for a recommendation for lunch, I was directed next door.  There I scored two hot meat pies, greasy and delicious, for $3 each.  A beverage store at the other end of the strip mall netted me bottles of cold lemonade and diet soda. 

Buoyed by food in my stomach and supplies in the van’s refrigerator, I continued northeast toward the Sunshine Coast – where, naturally, it had begun to rain.  I fumbled to find the windshield wipers, instead flicking the turn signal.  At a junction, without warning, I encountered my first roundabout.  Automatically, I started to veer right.  The oncoming driver laid on his horn.  “Sorry, sorry!” I shouted out the window.  “I’m American!”  His fist turned into an open-handed wave for me to go ahead. 

Another roadside stop to hyperventilate.  Another look at the map.  Another bite of chocolate. And a determination, spoken aloud, to get back onto the wrong side of the road.  “You can do this,” I told myself.  “Leftie bestie. Rightie wrongie.” 

Eventually I reached Coolum Beach, where I drove up and down the main street only three times before locating the turn into a large campground.  The kind woman at the front desk, seeing how frazzled I looked after a mere two hours of driving, assigned me to a site next to the beach front.  Moored at last!  Relieved, I turned the van off and began to set up the camper.  Before I could even finish, a friendly couple at the next campsite wandered over to talk.  The man helped me stretch the awning, while his wife figured out how to set up my portable table. 

The standard camper conversational opening, “Where ya from?” turned into an evening of visiting.  I learned about their home town (Balmain, a suburb of Sidney), their careers as commercial pilot and flight attendant, and their experience with camping in Australia – “there are campgrounds everywhere!”  They taught me the proper Australian word for a bathing suit – “Cossie,” as in, Bathing Costume. And they offered some “lollies,” Australian sweets.  My favorite was the TimTam, something like a KitKat, but better, especially when sharing with new friends.   

Was I lonely, traveling alone? Never.  I had company when I wanted it, and when I didn’t feel like socializing I could duck into the camper like it was my turtle shell.  Was I fearful? In the beginning, of course.  But by the end of the monthlong journey driving around in Australia, my confidence in solo travel soared.