Nine dead wombats

There are nine wombats on the road between Bega and Bemboka. Nine dead wombats. And it’s not even a bad season, a dry season, when what little rain we get runs off the roads and pools in the ditches beside them, creating green oases in a land of brown. Those oases bring the wombats to the roadsides in drought. But this time we’ve had plenty of rain, and still they come to the road. There they die bad deaths: deaths bouncing off bumpers, deaths crushed under wheels, deaths dragged by undercarriages until they’re just stains on the bitumen.

My friends Vicki and John hit a kangaroo once, on the Tanami Track, in the Tanami Desert. Didn’t kill it. But they got out and had a look, and it was clearly injured. No WIRES in the Tanami. They made a decision; who knows if it was the right one. What would you do? They decided to finish what they’d started.

Can you picture it? Here are Vicki and John, social worker and carpenter, empathetic listener, craftsman with timber, dragging the great, red, twitching, dusty beast back onto the road and laying it out. John gets behind the wheel, and Vicki directs him so that the front wheel of their Toyota ute rolls, crunch, over the kangaroo’s head. Both are crying, sobbing. Who knows what the kangaroo was feeling. All that pain and suffering. Three beings.

Nine dead wombats. No-one got out to check their injuries. At least, I don’t imagine so. There’s a dark shape ambling onto the road, a quick bump-bump before the reflexes kick in to swerve. A sickening feeling in the pit of the stomach, then the thoughts: it must be dead; neck must be broken. Couldn’t have survived. No point stopping.

Some people stop, like Vicki and John. I did once. It was on a car trip across to Perth in 1988, with two friends. It was my car, but I wasn’t driving. We came round a bend on the South Coast Highway in West Australia and there they were – two big grey kangaroos, one in each lane. I can still see them turning, in unison, to look at us.

We had to stop. The car stopped. The force of the impact, of steel colliding with fur, of radiator grill hitting organ and muscle and bone, knocked the engine block sideways. We stood there, the three of us and the kangaroo’s mate, looking at the long, bloody smear on the road, in the sudden West Australian south coast silence, scrub and sand and road and wind and sun, for a long, long time.

Then the mate seemed to gather itself, and turned and hopped away, great loping bounds south towards the coast. The three of us watched it go, then sat on the tailgate of the station wagon, smoking cigarettes. Two of us weren’t even smokers.

A car full of teenage boys came along eventually, all sucking on cans of beer, and two of us got a ride into Esperance where we found someone with a tow truck, and Sandy got on a bus back to Melbourne, and Sukh and I hitched out to Cape Le Grand National Park where we idled away ten days, perfecting damper made from seed meal and beer, bathing in the frigid turquoise waters of that coastline and photographing arrangements of beach flotsam – twiggy sea creatures and lengths of dark, knobbly weed – against the white, white sand. When the car had been fixed it looked as good as new, but I always had to rattle the bonnet a little to lift it.

There are nine dead wombats on the road between Bega and Bemboka.

First published in The Triangle community newspaper, September 2014

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