Remember that movie “The Devil’s Advocate”, where we see an empty Manhattan? That’s how Melbourne looks on weekdays. Not for nothing it has often been voted the world’s most livable city – no traffic jams, great biking lanes and the world’s largest urban tramway network – all free in the CBD – what’s not to like about that?
I lived in New York City for many years, and one thing that was always there – daytime, nighttime, rain or snow – was the honking, the wailing of sirens, and the permanent drone of hundreds of thousands of air-conditioners. You get used to it, but it’s a pesky reminder that you share a small island with another 7 million humans.
There’s none of that in Melbourne. At most you’ll hear the streetcar bells and the unmistakable
sound of their brakes against the tracks. But you hear no cars. In fact I can hear birds outside my window in central Melbourne as I write this. Can’t hear this in Paris or Rome, unless you live way outside the metropolitan area, away from revving Vespa’s and honking Renaults.
I just came back from a short road trip. Not exactly the Great Australian Outback, but barely ten miles out of Melbourne the bush starts. I drove almost one thousand miles, along the coast, inland, mountains and shrub. A lot of shrub. And when I came back and looked at the map I realized that what I had driven was no more than a blip on the map. As if someone had spat on it: there, don’t you even go thinking that you went anywhere. This country teaches you something about distances.
And about emptiness.
Only slightly smaller than the US, Australia has a population of only 24 million – 14 times less than the US. Its population density is around 3 persons per square kilometer, leaving it in 236th position worldwide. In essence, it’s an empty country. The cities, the coast, the small towns – they’re big, with big buildings, vast oceans, wide-open skies, rambling country roads and never-ending fields where they grow God-knows-what, but definitely enough to keep everyone well-fed, because even the people are big. Everything is big, as if to fill up this vast space that taunts the minuscule humans living in it with its unending emptiness.
Yet there’s something uncanny about Australia’s emptiness that I did not find in the Sahara, Nevada or the Gobi Desert. Percy Reginald Stephensen, a contemporary and friend of Aldous Huxley and D.H. Lawrence, put it very succinctly:
“The blossoming of the waratah, the song of the lyrebird, typify the spirit of primitive loveliness in our continent; but the wail of the dingo, the gauntness of our tall trees by silent moonlight, can provide a shiver of terror to a newcomer (…) against background strangeness, of strange beasts and birds and plants, in a human emptiness of three million square miles…”
It’s that “human emptiness” that intrigues me. It’s all so ancient, almost as if it once were filled but everything has left since. A 19th century bushman reportedly once said: This is ”a queer country, so old that as you walk on and on, there’s a feeling comes over you that you are gone back to Genesis.”
It’s true that, as you walk or drive on, there is in fact little to hold on to – the trees are a different shade of green – paler, as if bleached through centuries of drought under an angry sun. When you stand in front of the vast Southern Ocean, with just a few surfers dotting the waves, you realize that there is nothing between you and the faraway South Pole – why would any boats pass by here?
It is often said that this is a young country, but in truth it is a place that probably, essentially, has not changed for hundreds of thousands of years. In fact, it is obscenely old, and the parched scrubland of the outback is a chilling reminder of how ancient this land really is, in spite of the few million coastal dwellers clinging to the illusion of a new country.
The great Australian poet Alec Derwent Hope wrote:
“They call her a young country, but they lie:
She is the last of lands, the emptiest,
A woman beyond her change of life, a breast
Still tender but within the womb is dry
Beautiful, isn’t it?
I also encountered tens of dead kangaroos. Not surprising perhaps, given that there are an estimated 50-60 million kangaroos in Australia –twice as many as there are cattle, and at least twice as many as there are people, so everyone might have their two personal boxing roo bodyguards. Sadly, some are bound to be hit by cars, as they hop and
leap at speeds of up to 70 km/h (43 mph). Contrary to what we might think, this fast method of travel did not evolve so they might escape predators (none other than humans, and now their cars of course), but because of the need to regularly cover large distances in search of food and water. Again amazing how this vast empty land forced the more successful species to adapt themselves. Another interesting fact I learned about kangaroos is that females are usually pregnant in permanence, except on the day she gives birth; Wikipedia adds that the mother
“has the ability to freeze the development of an embryo until the previous joey is able to leave the pouch. This is known as diapause, and will occur in times of drought and in areas with poor food sources. The composition of the milk produced by the mother varies according to the needs of the joey. In addition, the mother is able to produce two different kinds of milk simultaneously for the newborn and the older joey still in the pouch. And to top it all, the “during a dry period, males will not produce sperm, and females will only conceive if enough rain has fallen to produce a large quantity of green vegetation.”
How’s that for reproductive adaptability? Absolutely amazing. But it still is a sad sight to see a dead kangaroo by the side of the road. They look gentle, like deer, even in death. A curious cross between a rabbit and a deer. You wonder how, in this empty space, with so few cars passing through, it is possible for so many
kangaroos to be killed in road accidents. Mind you, the Australians do put up signs warning of crossing kangaroos, as well as phone numbers to call in case of injured wildlife. But I assume that few of them survive the clash between their own 70km/h hop and the 100km/h of a speeding car. Pretty graphic clip here: kangaroo road accident. In NSW alone, 7,000 animals are killed in traffic accidents every day, two-thirds of them involving kangaroos and wallabies. That’s millions each year. And yet the kangaroo population keeps growing at a healthy clip, not surprisingly perhaps if the females are permanently pregnant.
So there’s the tragedy: a vast empty country, and a highly-adaptable animal falling victim to collision by the millions. As the trailer of the fantastic movie Walkabout had it:
“There is a place where time stands still. Where nature is harsh and demanding. Where only the quick and the strong and the deadly can survive. This place is no place for civilised man. In this place, man is just another one of God’s creatures.”
And that goes for kangaroos, too.