Touched by an Emu

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 8, 2003

As the ferry from Cape Jervis nears the dock in the darkness of a Saturday night, the captain booms a warning over the intercom: "Please be careful driving, as many fairy penguins are on the road tonight."

I have come to Kangaroo Island, off the southern coast of Australia, to see koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, platypuses, echidnas, kookaburra, bandicoot, wallaroos, seals, sea lions, lorikeets, crimson rosellas and dolphins. The Aussies use so many peculiar idioms -- like "fair dinkum" to mean authentic -- that I briefly wonder if "fairy penguin" might be an Australianism for drunk driver.

That thought is erased as my husband, daughter and I step onto land and hear the noise of what could be millions of penguins, or perhaps thousands of cats in heat. A trip to the beach near our hotel reveals in the moonlight swarms of tiny grayish-blue penguins, unique to this area of the world. Some are flapping their flippers while strutting about in a mating dance; others are just busily going about their evening. People say that humor is cultural, but I can't imagine anyone failing to be amused by tuxedoed birds that ridiculously waddle so purposefully, as if they have important appointments and are running a bit late.

The 13-inch-tall fairy penguins were just one of the surprises Australia held for us. We came in search of wildlife and found ourselves enamored with the cities and towns as well. My primary goal was to swim with dolphins in the open sea, but my favorite pursuit turned out to be stalking Aboriginal art galleries.

Australia is a country at once strikingly familiar and strangely exotic. Just inland from the Great Barrier Reef lay lush plains evocative of the African veld. Suddenly you turn a corner to find towering volcanic mountains thick with vegetation, and if, like me, you have never visited Fiji, Tahiti or Bali, you're reminded of scenes from "South Pacific."

The British colonists and convicts who quickly overwhelmed the native Aboriginal tribes two centuries ago were clearly intent on transplanting the old country to this strange new land. The attempt is sometimes jarring. Rose bushes, for example, thrive so well that they're really rose trees, like something out of the Queen of Hearts' garden in "Alice in Wonderland."

The presence of so many English-speaking white people also strikes a discordant note in this exotic tropical setting so far below the equator. Equally jarring are the non sequitur responses I sometimes get to my questions and comments -- proof that while we share a language, our dialects are not always mutually intelligible. "Is there a pool in the hotel?" I ask a hotel desk clerk. "Yes, it is lovely, isn't it?" she answers.

Fully 80 percent of the plants and animals in Australia exist nowhere else on Earth. For my short time here, I've planned to see as much of the otherness as any human not hyped on drugs could possibly hope to manage.

Continent Hop

Planning a trip to this island that is also a nation and a continent is an exercise in eliminating choices.

I'm intent on seeing the wildlife and beaches of Kangaroo Island, a 2 1/2-hour trip by bus and ferry from Adelaide. Of course I can't miss my dream destination of a lifetime -- the Great Barrier Reef -- simply because it's on the opposite end of the continent.

Since we have to fly into Adelaide to catch a bus and then a ferry to Kangaroo Island, we might as well see South Australia's capital, even if we can't make it to the highly lauded wine country nearby. And my husband can't imagine going Down Under without seeing Sydney.

Once you're at the Great Barrier Reef -- every Aussie we talk to says -- you have to see the Daintree Rainforest, and once you've driven as far as the rain forest, you might as well spend a night inland at one of the small, charming towns -- the real Australia as it were. Try Yungaburra, one local tells me. Who could resist a name like that?

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