Fabulous Creatures From Down Under

SOME things are compelling to think about but distant enough so that logistics don't worry you, like a favorite dream to wander around in when you need a change. Australia had always been that way for me, with pictures lodged in the back of my mind from all the books I'd read over the years. There are actually 600 kinds of eucalyptus trees and all manner of flying, hopping, scurrying beasts with pouches, not to mention the extraordinary birds. I suppose it wasn't surprising that the idea of going there firmly eased in and replaced more economical plans I had made for a recent vacation. Though I could have wished for a longer stay Down Under, interest and enjoyment were so keen at moments that time really did seem suspended.

The ever-present eucalyptus or gum trees gave familiar landscapes a different, sometimes haunting quality. Bleached white ghost gums lined a road near Alice Springs; and along the coast, gray-green, crescent leaves framed the opal waters. Even flying over the vast interior with its chartreuse salt pans and hard, red earth, I could see the dark green of varieties that had adapted to survive the extreme dryness; they traced dry-bed veinings, dotted escarpments, and mountains.

Still more impressive were the animals.

I know kangaroos are often considered pests that sweep in like locusts and eat good sheep grass, but I think they are amazing and tried in vain to spot any in likely bush areas.

Eventually I found myself in a spacious sanctuary literally surrounded by bounding kangaroos. There was barely a handful of visitors at the time, so the park had somewhat the feel of the wild.

The 'roos were not the slightest bit shy. The late afternoon sun was luminous and made halos of light around those that were relaxing or poised alert on hind legs. Many were lying on their sides, resting on elbows or stretched out, rolling over, yawning dreamily. Small parties would suddenly jerk up to leap across to another group as if they had important news to relay.

I never tired of watching them bounce, using their strong rudder-balancing tails with expertise. Close inspection showed the large, digging claws of their short forepaws and powerfully muscular hind legs.

There are many kinds, but these were mostly grays, under 5 feet, with coarse, pleasantly textured fur, fawnish to light gray in color. When one of them first discovered I had corn, it nuzzled me, then held my hand steady with its front paws as it buried a soft nose in my palm to get the kernels.

Sometimes while a mother grazed, her joey would lean out of the pouch and nibble at the grass, too. Others were down in the pockets with feet or tails hanging out, making bizarre silhouettes.

There were also some little wallabies, with softer fur and white face stripes. They were shier and often stayed near groupings of eucalyptus.

It was a peaceful scene, and I was reluctantly pulled away by friends two hours later to make an evening flight. But not before I had the privilege of holding a large, grandfather koala with a dark spot on his light chest.

I wouldn't have bothered him, I tell myself, except he seemed oblivious, perhaps a result of the gum-leaf diet. He felt woolly to touch and had handsome, tufted ears and a sleepy face.

I had decided that swimming off the Great Barrier Reef would be like floating on a warm current of air surrounded by a million butterflies.

That wasn't too far off. I have never seen such a variety of fish as were milling about me in those clear waters: an elongated, neon-green one with a flared snout, blue angelfish, painted parrotfish with little beaky mouths, and scores of others.

At one point, when I was near the boat, someone threw bread overboard and fish zoomed in to feed.

Two large ones had comic character profiles with big, smiling mouths, large jaws, and stepped foreheads. Their bodies were slate-blue, with yellow-green rosette patterns.

They seemed curious as though wanting to be friendly, yet were too timid to let me touch them and would veer away at the last minute. I couldn't resist reaching out, diving down, and whirling after them as they slipped away. Then as soon as I turned, they would wheel around and follow me. I found out later that these intriguing fish, which kept me snorkeling long after I felt cold, were called hump-headed maoriwrasse.

Common birds were exotic to me.

In northern Queensland, I loved coming upon a whole field of white, sulfur-crested cockatoos hunting breakfast grubs in the furrows. Little rainbow lorikeets filled the palm fronds with animated color and shattered the heavy tropical air with raucous twittering. There were small pink cockatoos called galahs and mouse-colored crested pigeons. A singing honey-eater took sips of nectar from the grevillea blossoms on my porch at Yulara.

I never knew what I would find on this desert terrace each sunrise. Once it was a long, black, fantasy snake with formidable, white bristles. This turned out to be a bunch of caterpillars hooked together with a leader going walkabout by my doorstep.

As if I could forget my memories of this wonderful journey, a wooden lizard bought in Alice Springs revives them. A whimsical goanna about a foot long, markings burned in by hot wire, it was carved by an Aboriginal woman from the hard root of a river-red gum. She followed the natural curves of the wood with an eye observant to life and a sure sense of design.

I wish I could tell her how much I appreciate it.

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