Friday, February 12, 2010

Kamikaze Kangaroos

When driving through the Australian outback, you’re surrounded by nothing. Barren, empty space fills a great majority of this country. You could go 800 kilometers without seeing a town, a grocery, a gas station, a place to get your tire puncture repaired, or a nozzle of drinking water. You could go for days upon days without seeing another human being.

But there’s one thing you will see constantly: Kangaroos.

They’re everywhere, both living and dead. The living ones bounce up and down across the fields, resembling giant hopping rats in search of their next meal. Once upon a time, seeing a kangaroo was a novelty; now it’s as common an event as seeing a squirrel.

It’s the dead kangaroos that bother me, the ones whose bodies litter the roadside like …. Well, like litter. Lots of it.

Seeing so much roadkill is a reminder that we have a high chance of knocking off a kangaroo as we drive. The roadkill – which has usually been festering in the desert heat for days – is an even more stark reminder than the dozens of warning signs posted along the highway that say: “Danger, Kangaroos!” or else just show an image of a kangaroo and assume you know that this means you should try to avoid killing one.

You should also try to avoid being killed by one, because perhaps one of the most violent ways to die on the Australian roads is by being kicked to death by a kangaroo. Here’s how it happens: Your car smashes into a kangaroo, whose badly-injured body flies through your front windshield and into your front seat. The terrified kangaroo starts thrashing about, kicking as hard as it can with its massive leg muscles, those muscles that make it so famous for jumping. Within a few minutes, you’ve been kicked to death by a kangaroo.

It’s a fate so scary that everyone in Australia drives around with “roo guards” on the front of their cars. The “roo guard,” which is similar to what Americans call a “bull bar,” is a set of steel tubes that stretch the length of the car’s front hood (or as Australians call it, the “front bonnet”), protecting the engine and radiator from kangaroo-related damages.

Our “roo guard” didn’t help when we hit a kangaroo. Well, really, the kangaroo hit us. We were driving down the main highway at night in Western Australia. Well, perhaps the words “main highway” are misleading – we were on the only highway, the only road. There is only one road that runs the length of Western Australia, north to south, and we were on it. In fact, we seemed to be the only people on it; we hadn’t seen another car for at least an hour. Such is the remoteness of Western Australia.

Despite the empty highway, we were driving quite slowly – about 60 kilometers per hour – in an effort to reduce our risk of roadkill. I was sitting in the front passengers seat, scanning the sides of the road for kamikaze kangaroos. We had devised a system of alert signals. Every few minutes, I’d call out “left incoming!” or “right steady!” to signify, for example, a kangaroo on the left side of the road hopping into the highway, or a kangaroo on the right side that was sitting still.

The kangaroo that hit us belonged to the “right steady” category, though I didn’t have to say anything because it wasn’t sitting by the roadside. It was squarely in the center of the right lane.

It sat there, in the middle of the street, completely still, just watching us as we pulled up. The driver immediately slowed us down further, to about 50 kilometers an hour, perhaps less, and we began to cruise by the kangaroo, which was still just sitting still. We had almost passed it when it decided to take a giant leap into the side of our car.

WHAP! We could hear its body crunch against the back passenger door at 50 km/hour, and I instinctively cringed harder than I’ve ever thought possible. My eyes squeezed tightly shit, my lips curled back, my breath sharply drew in, and I gave new definition to the word “cringed.”

But later we saw that there was no blood on the car, and when we circled around and drove by the same spot again the next morning, we didn’t find a body. It must have lived, though I imagine it didn’t have a very pleasant evening.

“I hope it had health insurance,” I said.

The closest call we’ve been in happened a few weeks later, when I was in my usual position in the front passanger seat, scanning the roads with intense concentration, looking for suicidal animals.

It was nighttime, and once again we were alone on an empty highway.

It was pitch-black dark outside, with no street lights or other traffic to illuminate the roads. Suddenly I saw something so immediate, so terrifying, that language failed me. I opened my mouth to talk, to give the driver an urgent warning, but all that came out was “WHHA WHA WHA WHA!!”

There, in the center of the highway, was an enormous jet-black cow. I am not joking.
It was massive, looking like it weighed at least 500 pounds, and about as tall as our car. You would NOT want to hit this thing.

And here it stood, in the middle of the road, jet-black in the dead of night.

The driver slammed on the brakes, and we narrowly avoided it. Everyone in the car was silent for a moment as we contemplated what being another few inches over and being a few seconds too late would have meant.

Finally someone spoke.

“How on earth did you see that thing?” the driver asked me. “It was so dark; it was hard to see even up-close.”

I nodded.

“It’s eyes,” I replied. “I could see its eyes.” Yellow in the reflection of the headlights.