The day of the kangaroo
A childhood memory of a puzzling event at WA’s Fitzroy Crossing
IT is the Dry Season. Somewhere out the back of Noonkanbah. A couple of Toyota LandCruisers packed full of people shudder down the road. Dust reaches into the sky like smoke.
It’s the whitefellas who call this time the Dry Season. The time of year when the sun gets stronger, the rivers dry up, and the old road across the riverbed at [Western Australia’s] Fitzroy Crossing is used as a crossing and a diving platform. In the Dry Season, the water at the top of the river is warm. The swimmers seek out the pockets of cool water beneath the surface current. When the whitefellas came up here, it didn’t take them long to realise that the Kimberley is hot and dry.
The rain can come in only a couple of months in any year — or it might not come at all. The whitefellas discovered they became increasingly cranky in the weeks leading up to the time when the rain might fall. So they called this time the Dry Season and gave it capital letters to show how much they were looking forward to the Wet Season.
On this particular day in the Dry Season out the back of Noonkanbah, the mobs from Kurnangi and Gogo Station are going fishing. They have taken a couple of Toyotas, some nets and some lines. They have also taken along a kartiya family who have been living in Fitzroy for a few months. Although it was a long time ago, I remember that day very clearly. Every time I replay the scene in my mind, the frames are so distinct I can retrace the steps of each thought I had.
I was sitting behind the driver of the second Toyota, looking out the window at the column of dust rising from the car in front. A kartiya (white) boy; about 10 years old. I had just started going to school in Fitzroy Crossing. The car was full of excited people laughing and speaking in a language that I couldn’t understand. I was a little bit sleepy and I was daydreaming as I watched the shimmering haze around the spinifex. Through the window, the haze looked like a silvery halo. And then I would focus my eyes and see the spinifex that I knew — spiky and mean.
Thinking about the spinifex in that way made my legs tingle with recognition. And so a game began. Relax the eyes; see the silver. Concentrate, see the spikes and feel the tingle. The chain of LandCruisers came to a halt. Everybody was talking with excited voices and jabbering fingers. Kangaroo. ‘‘Over there, see ’im. You see ’im?’’
Across the road, nestled among a cluster of shrubs, a kangaroo stood in the shade of a large tree. Bending, chewing, grazing. Unhurried. Over on the passenger side of the car, a big fella — well over six feet — with a curly black beard and sleepy eyes, rolled quietly out of his seat and stood in the middle of the road. He began crossing the road very slowly, shuffling purposefully. His clothes were earth-coloured, and they had the colours of the earth on them. A loose, faded shirt that may have once been green, and battered cords smudged with dust. Even in whitefella clothes, he looked like part of the landscape. This fella had a rifle by his side . . . All our eyes rested on his back. Would the kangaroo see him? What would he do next?
The kangaroo pauses for a moment. Stops eating. Lifts up its head and looks around. It sees the hunter coming towards him. And the big fella keeps looking at the kangaroo. He keeps moving. Like a shadow, keeps moving closer.
As I watch, my mind is racing: What is happening? I don’t understand, there’s something wrong. Why doesn’t the kangaroo run away? I don’t think I’d ever seen a rifle before. I know I’d never been hunting. Apart from flies and mosquitoes, I’d never seen anything killed. And I knew that I was about to see the kangaroo die.
But that was not what was unsettling me. The kangaroo is tame, I thought, maybe he was somebody’s pet. This isn’t hunting. An image from a tin of shortbread, of men in red coats on horseback and packs of baying hounds, appears in my mind. I am angry, wanting to yell at the hunter: ‘‘The kangaroo doesn’t have a chance if you get so close. You’re supposed to give it a chance to get away.’’
Now the hunter is standing at the base of the tree. Out in the bush. They are still looking at each other. It looks to me as though he strokes the kangaroo’s shoulder with the back of his hand.
The rifle comes up slowly, and the kangaroo falls to the ground. And suddenly, it all gets incredibly noisy. Shrieks of excitement, laughter and congratulations greet the hunter as he returns to the car. He carries the kangaroo over his shoulder.
When the kangaroo is placed in the back of the LandCruiser, I notice its blood smeared against its skin, and how the blood causes patches of fur to clump together. The vehicles start up again and we continue out along the road towards the fishing spot. I go back to looking out the window.
I remember lots of talk about the kangaroo and the hunter. I overheard people in the car chattering about what had just happened — maybe in the Walmajarri and Kriol languages first, and then in English.
I’m sure that night, as the day was being digested around the campfire, people were still talking about the kangaroo.
And I was listening, ticking things over, letting things mingle with private thoughts.
Three decades have passed since that day out the back of Noonkanbah. But the memory of it remains strong. The memory of watching an Aboriginal man hunting a kangaroo in the bush, and having images of beagles chasing foxes flash through my mind. Of having no experience of hunting, but a clear sense of what proper hunting was.
I can’t be certain it was the big fella who I heard speaking in the car — or that I heard everything that was said, but it’s his face I see when I hear the voice explaining: ‘ ‘ I was singin’ to the kangaroo spirit. Tellin’ him who I am. Where I bin come from. I was sayin’ thank you for giving me his life.’’ Steve Gome lived in Fitzroy Crossing with his family during the 1970s. This is an extract from Kimberley Stories, edited by Sandy Toussaint (Fremantle Press, $24.95).