It was ten years ago, almost to the week, that I first went to Kangaroo Island. Overnight on the sleeper train from Melbourne, with the car on a flatbed somewhere behind us. We had real beds, with crisp white linen. There was a dining car with metal cutlery, real glass glasses and a wine list. There was an old lady in the cabin next to us wearing a tweed twin set, and a short, but elegant, string of pearls. She may have been waiting for a murder to solve. Or she may have just been going to Adelaide.
There were three of us in our cabin. Me on the top bunk and my wife on the lower one. She had an onboard passenger at the time – but only we really knew this. Not so much a bump and as slight hillock. If we were to repeat the journey today there would be four of us in the cabin. The onboard passenger left his accommodation as planned (more or less!) and now stands as tall as my shoulder. He was joined a few years later by his sister, my daughter. So, H has been to Kangaroo Island before, although he was blissfully unaware of the adventure, and it’s the first time for P. It’s been an interesting ten years, a turbulent decade. A time when things seemed to dull into darkness and the way forward was hidden from me. The trip to the island feels like it happened in the evening half light of the last day of summer, before the storms of winter came early and I had to wait and wait and wait for the new spring. I remember a house on a headland, a long drive from anywhere, with wallabies in the garden and the sound of the waves in the morning. Koalas by the road, lizards on the road, fishing from the pier in the evening. I wonder what else I will remember.
The holiday dates are controlled by the tyranny of school terms. My first trip to Kangaroo Island was during the school holidays because I was a teacher, and now this trip is at the same time because I am the parent of schools aged kids. I’ve switched sides of the fence, and for once the grass is greener on the new side. The flight is at a reasonable hour, the house is booked – all we have to do is get there.
The flight has none of the normal hassles, we glide through check in at Melbourne and our bags emerge delightfully early at Adelaide. I notice that the baggage carousel is labelled “Baggage Reclaim” – as if we need reminding that its function is to allow us to get our own luggage back, rather than claim a suit case simply because it looks attractive. I wonder if it marks a decline in trust. We walk past a wall display celebrating a cricketer, collect the car, and drive away on a road named after the same player. There are probably churches dedicated to him along the way, but I miss them. Sainthood lingers around the corner. The road changes name and we head south on Main South Road. We drive through industrial feeling suburbs that encourage forgetfulness rather than memory.As we drive and drive I try to remember, but I can’t. And then I remember that we would have driven a different way ten years ago. We stop for lunch in a small town with a few buildings on either side of the road. The cafe produces milk shakes in real metal beakers, silver slicked with condensation. The sausage rolls are less good. Eventually something sparks and along a section of road with the rocky seashore as a border the neurones connect. I know I would have wanted to walk on that beach rolling over stones looking for whatever was there. Then memory goes haywire. The hills behind the road, rocky and dry, remind me of the limestone of Lancashire – although the similarity is more in my mind’s eye than in geology. As I keep on driving I think more and more about memory, about how stress robs us of the capacity to remember and how in depression the thing I needed most was a memory of a lighter time – but it was the one thing I could not find.
A decade earlier we had stayed a short, but otherwise lost, distance from the ferry. Our combined memory said it was on a hill, round a corner. It had a high and thinning Cyprus pine hedge, in which pale, washed out looking, rosellas fed. When we rounded the last corner and rolled down the hill, there it was. Hedge still looking raggle-taggled by age and drought, the bend in the road just so. We both recognised it even though we could hardly remember it. There were bright patches of light on the sea and a comically light wind. The ferry was waiting, with buses, trucks and family cars parked in neat rows. As I wait to drive on – thankful that I don’t have to reverse – I can’t help but think. Is it a memory of landscape that helps me remember, or are the things I recall controlled by the landscape of memory? It’s a question that I will return to again and again over the next week.
We come ashore at Penneshaw, shop and head for the house. A hard left at the apex of a long sweeping left-hander, marked by two old fishing buoys hanging by the side of the road, takes us off the main road and out into the coastal dunes. Grass grows through the pale dust, scratchy bushes push in from the side, the wild seems to be closing in on the car. The best part of a kilometre later we arrive at the house, and are greeted by a sublime openness. No mains electricity. No mains water. No mains sewage. No mobile. No net. Wonderfully off the grid. A place to sit, look and wait. Solid stone floors, with rust stained timbers over the doors and holding up the roof. Huge windows, looking south to the sea. That evening we walk down to the beach, the low sun lights up the cliffs to the west of us, the muffled crumpled rush of waves fills the air, and as the light fades a huge sky out over the southern ocean point sparkles into the life. The air moves, the sea moves the sky and stars move. To our south is the pole, one of the two fixed points around which the Earth and sky move and move and move. That night sleep comes easy to all of us. Kangaroo Island is the same general shape as an eight spot Lego brick, only considerably larger. It lies east west, so it has a long sheltered northern shore that looks back to the mainland, and a windy southern face that looks out to towards the chill of Antarctica. The east end of the island is nipped in by two bays, destroying the Lego brick shape. Where the two bays almost meet the island is narrow and time, erosion and the creep of sea level may eventually drive the land apart. It is here, around the sheltered river mouths and little inlets of the north east part of the island, where most people live. Our house for the week is on the open southern coast.
The roadside vegetation is typically mixed, but the carnage is not, it’s uniformly heavy. A kind of gothic, post apocalypse feel holds over the roadsides, with skulls and piles of bones common. Kangaroo Island has avoided the plague fox, dog and rabbit problems of the mainland, so small marsupials are still common. It’s strange that the marker of ecosystem health here is the number of dead animals by the side of the road. Not that this is an entirely natural system either; a number of species have been introduced, using the island as an ark to protect against the privations of the mainland. But whatever the case, the possums, wallabies and roos that make up the road kill speak of a greater (and possibly wiser) population hidden in the bushes and long grass.
A Heath Goanna, well over a meter long, and looking exactly like a Ray Harryhausen special effects dinosaur, tucks into a roadside snack. Even from within the car we can tell the wallaby did not die the night before and when we step outside this fact is even clearer. If smell could have a volume this would be red lining the speakers. We move in for a closer look. The goanna is eviscerating the wallaby with methodical power. As it pulls and pulls the gut slowly slips into view, pale and almost see through. The food that made up the wallabies last but one meal can be seen in clear pellets. The whole thing bears an uncomfortable resemblance to a link of sausages. The lizard keeps pulling, something within the carcass of the wallaby gives a little and the lizard staggers backwards. We stagger backwards too as the smell volume reaches a new, almost indescribable, peak. The kids pinch their noses, complain loudly and ask to move closer. With a violent head shake the goanna drops its alimentary meal, wipes its face in the dirt and turns towards the bushes. With a slow backward glance at its fetid dinner it moves off into the bushes. It’s a few minutes before it feels safe to start breathing through my nose.
Even the sharp southern wind can’t hide the smell on the beach, and the artfully arranged bones of a long dead whale add to the sense of change and movement. This seems to be a place about the memory of change, where only the most astute and patient could see the difference between today and yesterday. Ten years is too long to remember – and once I’m on the beach it could have been yesterday and the sea lions the same ones. Each wash of the waves brings a new beach. Each move of the bold young males, each resigned shuffle from the tired and harassed females, changes the animals on the beach. This is too fluid for memory really. I leave thinking that the real memory of a place may lie somewhere deeper, somewhere less moulded by the here and now.