| 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.