I used to be a musician. My fabulously successful 13 year career (if you’ve never heard of me it’s because I was so amazing I performed only for the most select audiences) began in outback Australia in 1995, and finished on February 27, 2008 at an English-language theme park in Paju, South Korea. Not long prior to this I had contributed to the making of a baby and then a marriage, which were the best things that ever happened to me (by which of course I mean the baby herself, rather than the making of her – though that was pretty good too).
I decided that ‘Professor of English’ was a better job for a family man (luckily this is a profession I was qualified for in South Korea because I am quite adept at speaking my own language). Yep, ‘Professor’ had a nice ring to it… better than ‘That Alcoholic Keyboard Player’, which was just one of the titles I had previously been known by. My career as a musician also ended at this time, coincidentally enough, because I used the word “Bullshit” to express my thoughts about some things said by one of my Korean bosses at a staff meeting. As I am older than this particular woman, such behaviour would be perfectly acceptable, if I were a Korean man, but I’m not, and was somewhat gracelessly informed that my services would not be required beyond completion of my current contract. I did end up becoming a ‘Professor of English’ at one of the most prestigious universities in its neighbourhood in Northern Seoul, and would subsequently come to realize that I had inadvertently uttered the most fortuitous utterance of the word “Bullshit” of my life. Anyway, I used to be a musician.
One night in 1996, in the early stages of my stellar career, I was driving home with my then girlfriend and former high school teacher (different story) at 2am, from a widely acclaimed solo performance in the outback Queensland city of Jundah (population 93). It was to be a fairly long drive home from the gig, because the dirt road wasn’t in great condition, and my 1976 Kingswood station wagon wasn’t exactly in mint condition either.
There was (and still is) nothing between the outback city of Jundah (pop. 93) and home (the outback metropolis of Longreach, pop. 2,976) except the outback city of Stonehenge (pop. 30). Like most of the Australian outback, that particular 275 kilometres of dirt road remains about as densely populated as Greenland, or the moon.
The place known as the outback is a unique kind of place. I’ve always felt that people, and entire cultures, are shaped largely by population density. The outback would be the place to send a young Korean person, if you really despised them and were really evil. There’s no wireless there. There’s no anything there. It’s difficult to explain the immensity of the nothingness (but I’ll give it a go anyway).
Wiluna Shire, in the state of Western Australia, is almost twice the size of South Korea. Its 755 inhabitants each occupy, on average, 241 square kilometres of space (or… one Wiluna resident per 121,000 Koreans, or… one Wiluna resident per 4.1 million Seoul residents).
Australia’s Northern Territory is famous for Uluru (a really big, red rock) and not too much else. With its population of 200,000 it is bigger than France, Germany and the United Kingdom combined. Anna Creek Station in South Australia is the world’s largest farm. At 6 million acres it’s a bit smaller than Belgium. The farms out there don’t have boundary fences because the cows can’t walk that far. When the farmers do want to actually find their cows they use light aircraft. Anyway, you get the idea. Big. Flat. Empty.
There’s a place for everyone however, and everything, and whilst the outback is almost devoid of humans it is the preferred home for most of the country’s estimated 60 million kangaroos. On this particular dark night in 1996, half way between nowhere and very little else, I lessened the Australian kangaroo population by one. It wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last. This however was a Western Red Kangaroo (the largest of the species, known to grow up to 2m tall (about 6’8”)), and this one was big.
Kangaroos are funny creatures. They’re not goofy and playful like in cartoons. They’re more like enormous bouncing rats, but less intelligent, and when you hit a male Western Red with your car it offers slightly less resistance than a telegraph pole. I saw this one up ahead, just standing there in the middle of the road. I eased on the brakes, but not too much. I didn’t want to lose control of the car (what with the dirt road and my bald tyres… every year people die swerving violently to avoid kangaroos). These dumb animals are notoriously unpredictable, and the rule of thumb in the outback is to hit the brakes, hold your line, and if you hit it, you hit it… I hit it.
My girlfriend and I were fine of course, largely becuase when we had crossed paths with the kangaroo we were surrounded by a tonne and a half of metal (because in the 1970s cars were constructed of such material). Proof of the amazing toughness of the giant kangaroo, in what also was an awfully sad, and not un-disturbing scene was the fact that the kangaroo didn’t die. At least, not immediately. The poor creature took over an hour to pass away painfully. We knew this because my 1976 Holden Kingswood station wagon, on the other hand, had been killed instantly. The monstrous marsupial had somehow taken out both headlights, smashed the radiator and basically buckled the entire front end of what had been a very solidly built vehicle. We sat there uncomfortably in the dark, listening to the creature screaming in agony next to the car and there was nothing we could do.
“Get out and beat it to death!” my girlfriend pleaded with me, which actually would have been the most humane thing to do (we didn’t have a gun in the car).
Unfortunately for a couple of reasons, I couldn’t do anything to put the roo out of its misery. I explained that I did not habitually carry instruments for beating things to death with… at least not with me in the front of the car. I could also not safely get out of the car.
The kangaroo was very close to my door – we could hear it in the total darkness of the moonless night, and if I got out of the car there remained a slight possibility that the dying animal might, in fright and desperation, still have enough strength to lash out and kill me (these things have claws like razors and can kick with the force of ten Mike Tysons – I have an uncle who once rescued a baby kangaroo after its mother lost a fight with a car. He raised it as a pet until one day it turned on him for no reason and put him in the Intensive Care Unit with a bunch of broken ribs). Anyway, we spent a few very long, very sad hours sitting there in the dark that night.
With the first light of dawn I looked out to where the deceased kangaroo lay… except it didn’t. I stepped out of the car, walked around it twice, and found nothing. I was perplexed. I was also extremely glad I hadn’t given in to my girlfriend’s pleas to get out of the car three hours earlier. There was no way that kangaroo could have survived (?)… Apparently however its screams were, in some part, extreme anger as well as pain, because it still had the strength to drag itself away into the scrub to die. There is little to obstruct one’s view in the outback but I couldn’t find it anywhere.
The mystery of the disappearing dead kangaroo was indeed baffling. The search didn’t continue for too long though, because with the sun came the sudden awareness that we were in the middle of nowhere with a dead car, and no food or water. The crisis we faced was not life threatening because we were stranded on what passes for a main road in those parts, so someone was bound to drive past within an hour or two. It was vitally important we got out of there and back to town as quickly as possible however. I realised the crisis would become potentially life threatening quite soon. My girlfriend was by now not a happy camper, and we were almost out of cigarettes.
To be continued…