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Life at the Bottom of the Tropics
The fauna of Marimbula and Bingie
The boardwalk creaking slightly underfoot, the swish-swish of my polycotton chub rub shorts as my thighs slide past each other with each step, the quiet slap-click of my flip flops—these were the only human noises, modest and discreet amid the riot of early morning bird calls.
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The air was tolling at one-second intervals with a clear resonant sound like a high-pitched meditation gong: the bell miners were omnipresent. A sapling, adorned with its fronded crimson toilet-brush flowers (Callistemon speciosus), erupted in a self-important chock-a-chock, chock-a-chock as I passed: a slender pigeon-sized brindled bird with chocolate brown feathers tastefully piped in white (a Red Wattlebird) was fluffing himself up inside. There was a brief flash of olive and what sounded like a noisy intake of breath and then a piercing whistle, followed instantly by a toot-toot: these were the male and female Eastern Whipbirds—their call and response are as precisely timed as that of the most skilled pair of duetting flautists. There was a quiet trilling from the ground: a navy blue and cerulean Superb Fairy-wren was strutting about in front of two drab brown females. Fork-tailed Welcome Swallows darted through the air across my path. From above came the raucous chatter of the Sulphur-crested Cockatoos congregating in the tallest branches of the eucalyptus trees that line the shore. Against the soundscape of more melodious birdcalls, they sounded like partygoers, shouting to make their conversation heard over loud music, their voices hoarse from late nights and the smoke of shared joints.
To my left, a fringe of mangrove trees gave way to terracotta and grey rocks encrusted with a million oyster shells and the silvery expanse of the inlet, across which floated long lines of rectangular boxes, looking like a child’s train set or like tiny coffins in some conveyor belt version of the Ganges, miniature funeral pyres waiting to be set alight. But their inhabitants are very much alive: they contain the same delicately-flavoured oysters I had eaten the previous night, seasoned with lime juice and anointed with a single drop of wasabi butter each. What look like coots picked their way on scarlet anglepoise-lamp legs. As they passed, their breasts caught the light and flashed a surprising indigo (Australasian Swamphen). An orange-beaked Pied Oystercatcher was standing sentinel over the waterline. An Australian Pelican glided low across the water and then delicately unfolded his slender legs, inclined his rotund body backwards a little and hydroplaned into a graceful landing. Higher in the sky, I spotted the snub-nosed teddy-bear brown shape of a Whistling Kite circling above the bay.
To my right, the sour-smelling, salty grey gloop of the sand was pocked with tiny holes and, looking closer, I saw that it was scuttling with little grey crabs. As I bent over to try to photograph them, they were each seemingly whisked away laterally into their holes, as rapidly and smoothly if some puppetmaster had tugged on a hundred invisible subterranean strings.
I was in Merimbula, on Australia’s south coast, one of the southernmost places, to cling to the fringes of the subtropics: the weather is cool there, but the flora and fauna are endowed with the lush exuberance that characterises the life that encircles the bulging waistline of our planet. From the sea on a boat trip, I saw what lies beneath the surface of the place: candy cane striations of rock, buckled into curved fat stripes in alternating shades of nougat, salmon pink, bacon and cream: visible history, the floodplains and river beds of the Devonian. As we sailed, a White-bellied Sea-eagle soared above the headland and Australasian Gannets plummeted into the waves in perfect vertical dives. In the frothy shallows that mark the site of a shipwreck, we spotted first a sleek, bewhiskered nose and then a playful tail: a pair of brown fur seals were sporting in the waves. As we rounded a promontory, the pilot’s kelpie suddenly stiffened in excitement and rushed to the boat’s edge, barking as a elegant curve of grey flitted through the water beneath us and then broke the surface in a perfect arc: a bottlenose dolphin, scouting for food for its pod.
It was also in Merimbula that I saw my first kangaroos. I drew open the curtains one early morning to find a mother and child staring intently at me, as if they had been waiting for me to wake up. Then they turned to display the elegant inclined C-shape of their profiles and, a moment later, hopped away.
These were the first of many kangaroos I saw over the course of my weekend in the south. At Haycock Point, the summer air was abuzz with the sawing sound of cicadas; monarch butterflies fluttered across the path and a pondful of invisible frogs created a perfect Aristophanean chorus with their emphatic brekkekkexkoax koax, falling abruptly silent as we humans approached. There, a kangaroo squatted calmly, cropping the grass, silhouetted against the cobalt of the sea beyond. And then we spotted a family—the father lounging on his side, like a sunbather just waking from a nap; the mother and joey standing alert, tiny forearms dangling, delicate ears cupped. And then, from the bushes, we noticed that, as we watched the family, another individual was watching us, concealed by undergrowth up to his chest, eerily human looking with his erect stance and piercing eyes.
I saw many more over the next few days, in Bingie. They scrutinised us as our car crawled slowly up a dusty driveway, like a shy welcoming committee: many of them mothers with their young.
Once again, the first sight to greet me in the morning was a female and her joey grazing nearby. Everywhere I looked, it seemed they were watching me: each one poised as a sprinter on the starting blocks, ready to bound away in beautiful loping hops if I crossed the invisible boundary of their startle zone.
On the crest of a hill, we stopped by a wide field and took in a panorama that contained hundreds, dotting the fields and lining the horizon. And among the kangaroos, we also spotted a few of the the dark-furred, beanbag-shaped wallabies, steatopygic, fat and furtive, shooting glances at us from the verge of the scrublands, like grumpy misanthropic bachelors who just wanted to be left alone to drink beer and watch Formula 1 in peace.
Even though I have seen kangaroos many times in books and movies and both kangaroos and wallabies a few times in zoos, encountering them in their native habitat was different. I could sense at least a fraction of the wonder that the first Europeans must have felt—that perhaps the first men to set foot on this continent at all must have felt, that small band of men and women who crossed over from Asia, on routes later submerged beneath a tropical ocean, some 50,000 years ago—to find the place, perhaps, populated with gentle giants that walked the earth, the ancestors of the hopping marsupials of today.
Bell Miners (Manorina melanophrys)
Red Wattlebirds (Anthochaera carunculata)
Eastern Whipbirds (Psophodes olivaceus)
Superb Fairy-wrens (Malurus cyaneus)
Welcome Swallows (Hirundo neoxena)
Sulphur-crested Cockatoos (Cacatua galerita)
Purple Swamphens - now known as Australasian Swamphens (Porphyrio melanotus)
Australian Pied Oystercatchers (Haematopus longirostris)
Australian Pelicans (Pelecanus conspicillatus)
Whistling Kites (Haliastur sphenurus)
White-bellied Sea-Eagles (Haliaeetus leucogaster)
Australasian Gannets (Morus serrator)
Smooth Shore Crabs (Cyclograpsus audouinii)
Brown Fur Seals (Arctocephalus pusillus)
Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus)
Eastern Grey Kangaroos (Macropus giganteus)
Swamp Wallabies (Wallabia bicolor)
Hominids and Canids
Fiona & Martin, my hosts in Merimbula, and Pat, my host in Bingie (Homo sapiens sapiens)
Trigger and Roger, both Australian kelpies (Canis lupus familiaris)
If you enjoyed reading this post, you may enjoy this similar piece about the wildlife of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, also published here on my Substack.
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