WE had a day to get to Melbourne. We could have taken the highway: It looked faster, and would ensure that we'd be in time to catch a match of Australian Football at the Melbourne Cricket Club - Australia's national game at its most celebrated stadium.
But we didn't want to leave Australia without seeing at least one kangaroo that wasn't behind bars. Zoo kangaroos just didn't have the spirit we'd associated with Australia's national symbol. So we turned off the highway and headed down back roads.
Kangaroos are supposed to be everywhere in Australia. Some 40 million of them are on the continent. But they have 3.5 million square miles in which to hide, and so far they had managed to hide from us very well.
Our technique for kangaroo spotting was perfected from years of vacations looking for elk, bear, and big-horned sheep in and around America's national parks: Drive slowly, stop often, and always watch the edge of the forest. In our watching this time, we'd missed one or two key turns.
The point at which we became decisively lost was just outside of Tarrawingee, in Victoria. We turned down a gravel road, rolled down the window, and asked for directions.
''We're on our way to Melbourne,'' we explained. ''We were looking for kangaroos, and now we're lost.''
''You don't really want to go to Melbourne, and kangaroos are nocturnal, so why don't you just stay here and watch a game of Aussie Rules football?'' said Peter Byrne, president of the Tarrawingee Football Club Inc. ''We won't even charge you for parking - just go on in.''
The game was well under way when we took up positions leaning on a rail. The Melbourne Cricket Grounds it wasn't. The almost-oval field was outlined with chalk, with an outer ring of picnic coolers and plastic lounge chairs. The home crowd made room for us. In between withering, high-volume commentary on the game, our fellow spectators tried to explain what was happening on the field.
To the uninitiated, Aussie Rules football, or ''footy,'' appears to be one long, rough, fumble. You can run with the ball, kick it, grab it, bat it, bounce it, punch it, jump for it, hand it off, ''smother'' it, or just wrench it out from under a pile of bodies. There are two teams of 18 players on the field, two replacements on the sidelines per team, lots of physical contact, no helmets or pads, no timeouts, and an audience that seems every bit as tough as the players. Maybe tougher. Especially the women. ''Hand ball it off!'' cried one in a voice that could etch glass. ''Come on, Mick! Get up and sock 'im one!''
''We're here to scream,'' she quietly explained. The players have no names, only nicknames: ''Senior Mick,'' ''Mogie,'' ''Bugs.'' These are brothers, sons, uncles, cousins, neighbors, friends. All are locals except No. 36, Chris Long, an aborigine from Darwin whose two brothers had lit up the scoring end of the field before it was his turn to play. Chris (no nickname, lots of respect) kicks a six-pointer at an implausibly tight angle at our end of the field.
''He's just magic. I told you they've got a gift,'' says Reg Carmody of Chris. Mr. Carmody played on the team himself for 12 years. He loves the game. It's ''good matesmanship,'' he says.
His daughter, Julie Carey, came down from Dawington Point, some six hours away by car, after a week of marking lambs at a remote sheep station. It's a long drive, but worth it for the chance to see friends, family, and the team, she says.
''In winter, football is the main thing in town,'' Carmody says. ''Duck shooting is a close second.'' The rural footy season runs from mid-March through September, every Saturday. During intermission, children and a handful of adults run onto the field kicking their own blunt-ended leather balls. Others stock up on hotdogs and meat pies and replenish coolers.
By the third-quarter break, it is clear that the home team will win the day. Still, all conversations break off as the coach calls the home team to the edge of the field for the traditional last-quarter pep talk.
''Gotta go,'' says Carmody as he joins most of the male spectators in a huddle around coach and players. Listening to the coach's last words going into the final 25-minute period is for many a highlight of the game. ''It's a religion,'' says Thomas Lizoreitz, a local cook who is due in the restaurant any minute but wants to see the end of the game. ''It's what you grow up with in this country. There's a bit of roughhousing, but it's what keeps the spirit in the game. There's no better way to spend a Saturday afternoon.''
''It's not like the NFL [in America],'' says ''Maca,'' who prefers to use his footy nickname. ''Here, it's man against man, not pad against pad.''
''It's the best game on earth. It sure beats your game [American football],'' says Graeme Duke. ''You are the Americans who have never seen a kangaroo?'' he asks rhetorically. ''I know where they are. Get into my car, I'll take you.''
We could not refuse.
''Every time the kids get cranky, we put them in the truck and take them out to see 'roos,'' he explained, turning down a dirt road onto a golf course. ''Then they forget all about what they were fighting about.''
This time, the 'roos weren't at the golf course, where they usually come down out of the hills at dusk to drink at the water hazards. But a camper at the edge of the course had seen them pass by a half hour earlier. Perhaps they had moved over the ridge.
''I know that, too,'' said Mr. Duke. ''Get back into the car. We can head them off.''
As dusk turned into dark, the yellow station wagon skidded around on single-track dirt roads at a clip that would have done a Hollywood action film proud. We stopped in a large field.
''The 'roos just passed by,'' said another group of campers. ''You can catch them if you move fast.''
There, at the edge of a wood, a dozen kangaroos hopped in and out of the shadows. They were smaller than we'd expected, quick, and clearly uneasy with the new company. The largest moved on, and the others followed. All but one. She looked at us and leaned forward for a last bite of grass. Through binoculars, we could see the joey in her pouch take a bite of its own.
Our guide drove us to our car, and another 10 miles out of his way to guide us to the main road.
We found Melbourne. We missed the big match at the Cricket grounds. It didn't matter.