Narrative and photographs by Meredith Stephens
We are regular visitors to Kangaroo Island, a nature-lovers’ delight that lies 14 kilometres off the South Australian coast. Much of our time there is spent trying to atone for the environmental damage caused by our European forebears. Swathes of the vegetation have been cleared due to almost two centuries of European farming. Thousands of sheep have grazed on this cleared land for much of that time, and European crops have replaced much of the original flora. The crops have been fertilized for years, and now that we allow the land to remain fallow, noxious weeds take over, fueled by the remnant fertilizer in the soil. Our mission is revegetation, trying to reverse some of the damage from farming.
On our most recent visit, one of my jobs was to uproot the weeds. The task was impossible given that they sprawled across the land as far as the horizon, so we focused on a small fenced-off area. We dared not poison the weeds because they could be consumed by endangered bird species, such as the white-bellied sea eagles that nest nearby. For the same reason we never use rodent poison, but instead trap mice in buckets of water.
I donned my gardening gloves and grabbed the weeds by their roots, pitted my body weight against the plants, and uprooted them and before discarding them onto the weed pile.
Meanwhile my partner Alex was busying himself planting yet more trees. He was somewhat disgruntled because his boat was being repaired in Yaringa, near Melbourne, after being dismasted in Bass Strait. He gazed longingly out to sea, but seemed to regain a sense of contentment when he was planting trees. For him, planting trees was not a chore, but rather a consuming passion. He made deep holes in the rocky ground with his fencing crowbar, delicately coaxed the seedlings out of their containers, pushed the roots into the hole, pressed the soil back around the seedling, and made a berm around each plant to trap water. Then he drove stakes into the ground around each plant, and encircled them with either a corflute tree guard, or a wire cage, or both. These measures were necessary to protect them from marauding possums and kangaroos, which would otherwise devour the plants overnight.
There is only so much revegetation you can do without hankering for some relief. Alex was content to plant trees from dawn to dusk but I pressed him to take me on a day excursion. Besides, coming to Kangaroo Island was not just about our earnest efforts at revegetation; it was also meant to be a romantic getaway. Our first outing was to Seal Bay, where the attraction was not in fact seals but rather Australian sea lions. We drove there, now an official tourist destination, and entered through the park office. We walked along the boardwalk with the other tourists, many being international visitors, and gazed down at the sea lions enjoying lying in the sand in the sunshine.
Back at the revegetation site, we resumed our routine of weed-whacking and planting for the next few days, by which time we felt we deserved another outing. This time we chose to visit American River (named after visiting American sealers in 1803) known for its picturesque harbour and fresh seafood. But for me, American River was less about the view and the seafood than spotting sea lions. I had spied one on a previous visit and was hoping to see some again. I walked onto the boat ramp near the shed where the reconstruction of the Independence schooner was taking place. (The Independence was the first ship constructed in South Australia, in 1803, commissioned by a visiting American shipmaster and sealer, Isaac Pendleton.) I walked past the door to the boat shed, because as much as I would like to claim interest in the history of local shipbuilding, my real interest was in finding a sea lion.
I was not disappointed. Behind a ‘Resting Seal’ sign explaining that you were required to keep a thirty metre distance from the sea lion, we found what we were looking for.
I glanced into the lagoon, and spied the sea lion’s mate, proudly flipping his body around in the water, before he scrambled onto the shore to demonstrate his supremacy in this territory.
An American tourist next to us asked Alex, “How far is thirty meters?”
He replied, “About one hundred feet, which is twice the distance we are now!”
We all walked backwards trying to preserve the thirty-metre distance between the sea lion and ourselves.
It was mid-afternoon and there were still hours of daylight left, so we decided to visit the nearby eucalyptus distillery. Before entering the building our attention was arrested by young kangaroos, known as joeys, hopping freely around the outside of the building. We entered the premises and purchased some eucalyptus products, and as we left, approached one of the joeys.
Kangaroo Island, like many parts of Australia, has dead wallabies and kangaroos alongside its roads, victims of road-kill. Because kangaroos are marsupials, some of their young may be found alive inside their pouch, even after the mother has been killed. Those finding the road-kill may drag it safely away from the road, after ensuring that no approaching cars are in sight, and then remove the joey from its mother’s pouch. The joeys we came across had been rescued in this way, and hand reared. Unlike most kangaroos, they had no fear of humans. I knelt to pat one of the joeys, and then he gently raised his pointy face to my ear and whispered in it. Then he raised his lips to mine and brushed them against me.
“Don’t let him!” urged Alex. “You’ll get germs from a wild animal.”
I let the joey tickle my lips for a few more seconds, before heeding his urgings. I had been kissed by a kangaroo!
Meredith Stephens is an applied linguist from South Australia. Her work has appeared in Transnational Literature, The Muse, The Font – A Literary Journal for Language Teachers, The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, The Writers’ and Readers’ Magazine, Reading in a Foreign Language, and in chapters in anthologies published by Demeter Press, Canada.
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