Seeing the world, one country at the time

Canberra to Melbourne via Bemboka

After no sleep, we had to rest a few hours in a rest stop outside of Canberra, before continuing our trip to Melbourne. We enter the Snowy Mountains, which come straight out of the movie. There are browned, open fields and hills. It’s all empty space with “stations”, or ranches, scattered here and there. Again, I’m reminded of eastern Washington, where I went to school. This is such a change from the last time I was in Canberra in 1985, when they had the worst flooding of the century and we were stuck on the freeway for eight hours, missing most of Canberra and a performance at the Sydney Opera House.

This is the kind of road trip I wanted in the US, but you can’t get now because it is so densely populated. They say that the US has a lot of empty, wide-open space, but that’s a leftover from the pioneering days. There isn’t, and what is empty is fenced off by a rancher or is a national park. Even when it is wide-open, you’re bound to come upon gas stations and stores regularly. Here you aren’t bombarded with strip malls every fifteen miles, and we’re not even in the Outback yet. This is a main highway from the Capital of the country to the coast, on a holiday weekend. Yet you can drive for a long time without a light, a public convenience or even a car.

We drive through Nimmitabel, signifying “dividing of the waters” or “where the waters meet” in aboriginal. It was founded in 1830. We pass some men dressed in whites and white fedoras lawn bowling. This is the favorite sport of pensioners and lawn bowl clubs are prominent in any town. We stop to check them out. The men are even wearing their medals, not having taken them off after the ANZAC Dawn service. The town is totally quiet otherwise, with nobody around except those in the pub drinking beer (not Fosters, but the local VB, Victoria Bitter) and playing Two Up. Anzac Day is the only day when gambling is legal and all Australians head to the pub to try their luck, double or nothing, at Two-Up, a betting game, which consists of flipping coins and betting on heads or tails.

Continuing on toward the coast, we lose our way but keep driving. Mailboxes are made of milk cans and round gas cans. The countryside is boulder-strewn, with lots of trees. It turns into forestland. We keep passing dead wombats and wallabies and an occasional kangaroo and hope we aren’t surprised by one. I notice that creeks in NSW all name their destination. “Collector Creek, flows to Krowathunkooloong Lake”, or something similar. I love the idea that you aren’t just crossing an anonymous body of water, but you are able to imagine where it flows and follow its course. It is not an isolated body, but belongs to something bigger. We drive through the South East Forests National park full of dense foliage, tall trees and huge fern trees, which make me think of the age of dinosaurs.

As we’re driving through Bemboka, I notice the fanciful Bemboka Pie Shop with light paints filling the calligraphy letters of its name. Pies are the typical Australian fast food next to fish and chips and since we’re not on the coast, we avoid the seafood and stop for the pies. As I’m looking around the area, I notice the ANZAC war memorial and walk over. Lars spots kangaroos behind a fence farther down. We forget the pies in our excitement to see kangaroos up close. They are very nervous and stop what they are doing to stare at us from behind their chain-link fence. We lament that this kangaroo farm is probably going to feed restaurant patrons in bigger cities. Fortunately, we couldn’t be more wrong as we discover when we meet Jack Hobbs.

Jack Hobbs is walking up the street slowly as we gawp at the kangaroos, but stops when a man comes out of the house attached to the kangaroo farm. As they are chatting, Jack calls us over. He used to own the shop at the end of the road, but sold it and retired, and is now in charge of the ANZAC day celebration. He was just on his way to inspect some vandalism of a tree at the War Memorial. He introduces the other man as Ray Alcock. Ray is wearing shorts, a hat and big rubber boots. We talk about the weather and our travels. They warn us that a cyclone worse than Tracy, which hit in 1976 and devastated the city, may be hitting Darwin soon. We aren’t even going to Darwin, but that doesn’t preclude warning us about it. Jack tells us that Ray is raising the kangaroos we see, to protect them from others who would exploit or kill them.

Lars asks if he can photograph the kangaroos up close and Ray responds with an invitation into the farm. We follow him like children after an ice cream truck. Turns out, he is in charge of N.A.N.A., (Native Animal Network Association), an organization of voluntary wildlife carers that rescue and raise wildlife in NSW. He got started because he lived on a farm and came across kangaroo with kids and learned how to raise them and deal with them. He has about thirty kangaroos, or “roos” on the farm. As he is explaining the ins and outs of raising kangaroos, his wife Berice comes out to meet us. They let us feed a wallaby from our hands and pet a couple baby wallabies, who are new arrivals and hang in manmade pouches so they feel safe and at home.

The Alcocks take us over to feed the adults we’d been looking at before from the outside. The roos eat hay and old bread from the pie shop. We pass by their aviary filled with cockatoos, parrots, budgeries and galahs; a rainbow of fluttering color. A twenty-five year old cockatoo squawks at us as we pass. Roos growl when they’re scared. As I fed them, they’d hop over to grab hay and old bread out of my hand as they showed their gratitude by growling in a tone that said “don’t come closer!” I don’t understand kangaroo logic, but they are a very nervous and suspicious bunch. The roos are powerful creatures, but their arms are shorter and their paws are clumsier than their cousins’ the wallabies. Kangaroos fumble their food while the smaller wallabies handle their food with dexterity.

Now it’s time for the biggest thrill of the day, when Berice asks me to feed the kangaroo “joeys”, or babies, inside the house. Joeys cannot drink milk, as they’re lactose intolerant (like me!). They use a special milk made especially for kangaroos in captivity. The mixture they drink changes as the joeys grow older, so each jar of milk powder is labeled “3 months”, “6 months”, etc. Berice heats up the bottles and attaches a long rubber teat on the end. The teats are also custom-made for joeys, to resemble their mother’s natural form. Joeys enter the pouch upside down to feed, so Jack lets them climb in head first and then hands me one, lying on its back as a baby would. The teat goes down its throat and it guzzles eagerly at the bottle, grabbing it and scratching at it with its claws. After it downs its bottle, Ray hands me another one. I stare at them in fascination, feeling their warm heavy bodies through the pouch and watching its deep brown eyes look into mine.

After the feeding we talk about their work. Jack is licensed to raise all wild animals, but has to release them into the wild when he finds a safe haven for them. They are often shot by farmers and hunted by their dogs. While we sign their guest book, Berice insists we take some of her fresh cucumbers and tomatoes and fills a bag for our trip. Their generosity is again proven as Ray calls the pie shop, which we have not forgotten, and asks them to stay open until we get there. It is already six and we’ve been here over an hour. As we say goodbye to Berice, Ray hands us a N.A.N.A. pamphlet and tells us to check out any road kill to for live babies in the pouch. The idea of inspecting dead marsupials is noble but a bit repulsive. Besides, to check every road kill for offspring would mean stopping the car every ten minutes, sad as it may be. Nevertheless, we will keep it in mind as we drive around Australia and think of the Alcocks and the great work they do, every time we see a kangaroo or wallaby.

Ray walks us to the pie shop to make sure we are attended. He takes us through the staff entrance to meet Carol, who offers us a wide choice of homemade pies. He suggests we stay at the campground in town for six dollars and we should, but we want to move on. We bid Ray a warm farewell and proceed to pick out our pies; chicken curry, steak curry, chicken and apricot, and others for a little variety. Soon, another slim woman with short hair and a long braid walks in after having left for the night. Her name is Dawn and she used to work in the shop for seven years, before leaving to work with handicapped kids.

Three years ago her son bought the place from her former boss and now she runs it. She feels she works too much and needs a vacation. Ideally she wants to work longer hours on fewer days and focus on her five acres of land the other days. She reheats the pies for us and sticks a thermostat in to make sure they are warm enough before proceeding to fill a box with today’s bread that she is going to give away anyway. Suddenly we have a week’s worth of breakfast and lunch foods, from breakaway buns to flavored rolls to a large focaccia ring.

We say goodbye but sit in the car gorging on our pies until finally driving off after six toward the coast. It has been a long day and we make it as far as Cann River and park on the roadside to sleep. Though we missed much of the coast Felicity had recommended seeing, we don’t mind. This is the kind of place where lifelong memories are made and we feel that we have had a perfect start to our trip.