Sunday 15 March 2015

On the Wallaby

[A Tasmanian pademelon, aka a rufous wallaby] 

Australia's a big country
An' Freedom's humping bluey,
An' Freedom's on the wallaby
Oh! don't you hear 'er cooey?

Henry Lawson’s 1891 poem, “Freedom on the Wallaby”, made famous an Australian saying that had already been around for half a century. It was the shearers’ strike of the 1890s that made going “on the wallaby” a commonplace. It meant travelling around the bush, carrying only your essential gear (“humping bluey”), looking for work.

It’s a notion that exerts a romantic pull on today’s overwhelmingly urban populace. While the original possibility of starvation might have been forgotten, the rest of the fantasy retains a strong hold on grey nomads and many other Australians. The freedom of the road; the ability to move on to wherever the weather or your fancy leads, has huge appeal.

But what about the actual wallaby from which the saying derives? Is there anything about the smaller relation of the kangaroo that we ought emulate or admire? For starters there’s its wonderfully warm, weather-proof coat. See one fluffed and hunched against the rain or snow of the Tasmanian highlands, and you see a creature perfectly adapted to its surroundings. Add its efficient mode of travel, its ability to find food and shelter almost anywhere, and its in-built load carrying pouch, and there’s much to envy.

[Bennetts wallabies in snow, Walls of Jerusalem National Park] 
Over the last few years our garden and local bush have given me ample opportunity to observe our two local wallaby species: the Bennetts wallaby (Macropus rufogriseus) and the Tasmanian pademelon (Thylogale billardierii). Both are abundant to the extent that we hear their foot-thumping and territorial coughing/growling during the night.

There’s joy enough in sharing our space with such wonderful creatures, but we also gain their services as grass removers. I could say lawnmowers, but that would imply that our bit of grass is lawn-like. They even re-process said grass in a pelletised form of manure. On the debit side we do lose the unprotected foliage of any tasty plants in our garden. They have even developed a taste for bay leaves and lemons. Still, overall we’re happy with the balance sheet between us.

[A tell-tale wallaby scat in the garden] 
Beyond our fence the bush is criss-crossed with wallaby tracks. They intersect with human bush tracks at various points, and reveal an instructive contrast. Where the human tracks tend to be linear, grid-like, the wallaby tracks (also called “pads”) at first appear rather random. But follow the pads for a while and you’ll often find they have a clever efficiency about them.

Where there is water to be found, the pads move neatly across the slope – diagonally where necessary – from shelter or food to the water source. Rarely are the tracks steeply straight up or down the slope. Often they are through, or close to, any sheltering foliage.

[A wallaby pad crosses a slope in our local bush] 
Bushwalking is my preferred form of going “on the wallaby”. My “bluey” is a backpack; my swag a sleeping bag and tent; my “toil” is to struggle up a mountain, around a lake or through a canyon. These places pay me back in a currency that can’t be counted.

In more remote parts of Tasmania I'll confess I've occasionally become confused between human tracks and animal pads, and have found myself literally on the wallaby (tracks). Given the multi-generational nature of animal movements, such animal pads can be a well-worn and efficient means of getting from one place to another. 

But there are a couple of caveats for following pads. Firstly I’ll want to know that the wallaby (or wombat, or whatever) was wanting to go the same way as I am. And secondly I’ll want to be sure I can actually, physically, follow their track. Wombats and pademelons in particular are very good at finding their way beneath and through thick bush. I’ve found to my cost that I’m next-to-useless at doing the same while wearing a large backpack. As Lawson could have told me, it's not always easy being on the wallaby.

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