There’s a fine line between adventure and stupid – my mantra when traveling. And particularly so when traveling alone with the kids. Yet somehow, no matter how hard I try, I all too often find myself teetering there, wondering how the hell I managed to do it again.
Such was the case driving back to Penneshaw from far western Kangaroo Island tonight. We’d known it would be a long day, taking the southern highway to the far end of the island to see the Remarkable Rocks. “They’re indeed remarkable,” our friend and local host promised. “You’ll surely remark,” he snarked.
Of course, he also advised against driving all the way out there, recommending instead that we take one of the coach tours. Our aversion to bus tours, however – except in Iceland where they do them brilliantly – sent that suggestion whistling in the breeze.
The rocks were, indeed, remarkable, a moon like landscape perched by the sea, eroded by hundreds of years of wind and waves. As, too, were the seal colonies we visited, the koalas stoned on eucalyptus hanging on to the tippy top branches of massive trees, and the sand dunes that stretched for miles along the coast.
“Driving all the way back to Penneshaw tonight?” the park ranger asked as we headed into Flinders Chase National Park. “Be careful. Drive slow. You have no idea how many creatures there are on the highway at night.” We’d heard the warning before, and nodded dutifully, then sped off down the track towards the rocks.
It came out of nowhere. That’s what they always say, but now we know why. It really did come from nowhere, a blur of furriness as it dashed in front then under the car. Thu-thump. The wallaby’s eyes were still looking back at us as its little body was flung to the far side of the road, lifeless.
Yikes. And it’s not even dark yet. And that was a cute little wallaby, not a 6 foot tall, couple hundred pound kangaroo.
I’ve driven through oceans of fog; I’ve driven on fuel fumes through the back roads of Maine in the middle of the night; I’ve driven through mud tracks under the moonlight in Mississippi soybean fields, having sneaked out after curfew and worrying that I’d be caught. But never have I driven as I did tonight. 160 kilometers of inky black roads and Australian bush. My toes cramped; my thighs ached; my lower back screamed, and my eyes darted constantly left to right, right to left, then straight, repeatedly, until they ached too. And all of this on the wrong side of the road, as though it mattered, given only us and the creatures wandered the night.
Quickly proficient at spotting the wallabies, we weaved, bobbed and braked through their midst. They seemed almost suicidal, waiting in the brush until our lights were upon them, then darting across the road in front of us. There’s an entire island here they can roam, and only three roads. Do they have to claim the roads too? Apparently, they do. Our favorite, an albino wallaby, shot across in front of us just a few kilometers out of the park. “Albino ones are really rare,” Austin shared from the back seat. “Well then, glad we didn’t kill that one,” Emmi and I replied in unison.
It was the kangaroos that were most daunting. They say the kangaroos are bigger and burlier on Kangaroo Island than throughout the rest of the country. While no experts on the subject, Emmi and I can attest that the ones lumbering along the road, gathering in groups as though plotting our demise, were the biggest we’ve ever seen.
Yeah, I know. Kangaroos are cute and funny, hopping and carrying their joey in the pouch. They aren’t scary, right? That’s what I thought, too. Until tonight.
Just as we’d settled into the 60km/hr pace, daring to pick up a bit of speed on the longer stretches, a massive ‘roo stood us down, right in the center of the road. The bright lights illuminated his muscular frame, his eyes staring straight at us. Emmi and I both gasped loudly, and I think she yelled something. All I could absorb were its eyes, staring at me and owning the road. They say the car lights blind them momentarily – which I’m sure must be true – but to me, we’d locked eyes and were in a face off. And the kangaroo was winning.
I swerved hard right (the blessing of an open road), then back again, barely correcting before careening off the other side. The menacing ‘roo stood in place, watching, then with a snail’s urgency, hopped off to the left, seemingly irritated we’d cost him his coveted spot in the middle of the road. Our road, I wanted to remind him.
Finally breathing again, we took our place on the wrong side of the road, resumed our plodding 60 km/hr pace, and continued the trek. It was still dark; I still ached; and Emmi still stood guard from the co-pilot’s seat.
Then there were the mice. Tiny, quick little buggahs, these guys also darted across the road in the beam of our lights. They deserved it, I reasoned. No braking or swerving for them.
Half way home, we’d settled into some sort of rhythm. My toes cramped and back ached and Emmi stared at the road pointing out every possible creature as well as the inevitable bush-a-roo that seemed so daunting in the night shadows. It wasn’t fun, per se, but it was our rhythm.
Then she saw something else. I saw it too. Small, furry, and sauntering about the middle of the road, seeming dazed and confused. “Holy crap! It’s a koala!” she yelled. It seemed vaguely aware of our imminent arrival, but completely unphased. Koalas live on eucalyptus, which is a mind-altering substance of sorts, so truth be known they spend their entire lives totally stoned. It wasn’t surprising it just wandered. I slowed to a crawl. He took a couple more twirls in the middle of the road, and eventually sauntered off towards the bush. “A koala!” she yelled again. “I can’t believe we saw a koala in the middle of the road!”
Austin, seemingly mostly oblivious to our front seat piloting since the albino wallaby, piped up. “It was a possum.” Then he was quiet again, almost as though he had not spoken at all.
“We’re in the front seat, and it was a koala,” I declared. I’m the mom. I get to make declarations like that. Particularly when my toes are cramping, my bright lights can’t possibly be bright enough, and there’s 75 kilometers more of black road in front of us. A koala siting was what we needed to get us home.
Austin quieted back down again, seeming to know he stood no chance against two women in the front seat. Emmi continued her expert piloting, and I pressed on. Somewhere at the end of this black track was a cold bottle of chardonnay. I was determined to get to it without a dead kangaroo as my hood ornament.
The wine’s never tasted so good.