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Woodend, Australia
Nov 28, 2003


As dusk approaches, our family borrows binoculars and the Trewella's car for a night tour at Hanging Rock, a place where five school girls went missing a hundred years ago. The place is a mecca for nature lovers, who flock to identify the dusky woodswallows, grey kurrawongs and 50 other indigenous bird species. Tonight, our guided tour hoists flashlights and tramps off in search of nocturnal creatures. (For those who've seen the movie, cue the ethereal Zamfir pipes.)

Hanging Rock is an oddly Australian hybrid--a creepy, ancient rock formation jutting warningly above the landscape... with a racetrack ovalled along its eastern flank. Horse racing possesses Australians. Every year in early November, the Melbourne Cup brings the country to a halt. Everyone bets on three races held over a week. Work stops.

While Hanging Rock's races are more modest, the centenarian racetrack is part of the Hanging Rock Recreation Reserve, protected along with "the best example of a volcanic plug or mamelon in the world." Ironically, the track's fences have effectively protected native grasses in the oval's centre.

But tonight we are primarily concerned with native fauna not flora. Under a black sky stabbed full of starlight, we amble beneath the eucalyptus trees, our flashlight beams roaming along their twisted branches. We're searching out the nocturnal marsupials of the area -- the possums and koalas.

In the meadows near the track, we spy a greater glider in a cluster of gum trees, then Emma spots another. An older cousin to the flying squirrel, the glider could be a big Cheshire cat staring down at us. A cat with a big fluffy tail larger than its body. None of the gliders we see tonight do any gliding. They can leap to another tree 100 metres away in search of the certain species of eucalyptus whose leaves they eat. There are so many kinds of eucalypts, with so many different forms of leaves, bark and branch, that it's difficult believing they're in the same family. As different as an oak from a weeping willow. Most marsupials feed on only certain kinds -- and can't travel far without eating -- so habitat destruction in Australia is a big problem.

Our walk takes us on a slow arc around the rock's base. We spot ringtail and brushtail possums. As we move up into more dense vegetation, black wallabies occasionally sproing down the slopes away from the searching flashlights. There's something eerie about the silent progress of our beams along the trunks and limbs of the parched trees. Our hushed group makes hardly a sound, and that great sky pivots above.

We finally spot the prize of the night, a koala nestled in a tree's high V. Less than two dozen of these archetypal marsupials live in the reserve so we count ourselves lucky. It's a wonderful night, but more than the furry shapes in the treetops, I'll remember stepping out from under the canopy of trees into a clearing, and the unfamiliar stars in a black sky. Julie and I stopped one time and let Emma lead the group on across the grasses. We just held hands and took in the strangeness of it all. The smells and language of a nighttime so far from home.