Kangaroos, Cockatoos, Pinnacles and Dunes: 1770 and 2017

Last weekend, 17th June 2017, I saw my first wild kangaroos, in the Nambung National Park of Western Australia.

On 22 June 1770, 247 years ago, crew members from Cook's ship Endeavour had their first encounters with kangaroos.

The diary entries of Joseph Banks, the onboard naturalist, record the sequence of events:

Joseph Banks Journal, 22nd June 1770:
"In the morn I saw her leak which was very large: in the middle was a hole large enough to have sunk a ship with twice our pumps but here providence had most visibly workd in our favour, for it was in great measure pluggd up by a stone which was as big as a mans fist: round the Edges of this stone had all the water come in which had so near overcome us, and here we found the wool and oakum or fothering which had releivd us in so unexpected a manner. The effects of the Coral rock upon her bottom is dificult to describe but more to beleive; it had cut through her plank and deep into one of her timbers, smoothing the gashes still before it so that the whole might easily be imagind to be cut with an axe. Myself employd all day in laying in Plants. The People who were sent to the other side of the water in order to shoot Pigeons saw an animal as large as a grey hound, of a mouse coulour and very swift; they also saw many Indian houses and a brook of fresh water."

Joseph Banks Journal, 23rd June 1770:
"Winds South Easterly, a fresh Gale and fair weather. Carpenters employed Shifting the Damaged planks as long as the tide would permit them to work. At low water P.M. we examined the Ship's bottom under the Starboard side, she being dry as far aft as the After-part of the Fore Chains; we could not find that she had received any other damage on this side but what has been mentioned. In the morning I sent 3 Men into the Country to shoot Pidgeons, as some of these birds had been seen flying about; in the evening they return'd with about 1/2 a Dozen. One of the Men saw an Animal something less than a greyhound; it was of a Mouse Colour, very slender made, and swift of Foot."

Joseph Banks Journal, 24th June 1770:
"Gathering plants and hearing descriptions of the animal which is now seen by every body. A seaman who had been out in the woods brought home the description of an animal he had seen composd in so Seamanlike a stile that I cannot help mentioning it: it was (says he) about as large and much like a one gallon cagg, as black as the Devil and had 2 horns on its head, it went but Slowly but I dard not touch it."

Joseph Banks Journal, 25th June 1770:
"In gathering plants today I myself had the good fortune to see the beast so much talkd of, tho but imperfectly; he was not only like a grey hound in size and running but had a long tail, as long as any grey hounds; what to liken him to I could not tell, nothing certainly that I have seen at all resembles him."

Banks's sense of bafflement is palpable. Back in the present, I was also amazed when the grey kangaroos of the Nambung set off on their hops with counterbalancing tail movements, even after having seen many images of kangaroos in photographs and films.

On the way north from Perth (with friends Bruce and Bunggie), we had found ourselves in a broad area decorated with Banksias, the spiked Xanthorrhoea plants and other trees and shrubs. At intervals, bright belts of white dune sands could be seen creeping across this landscape. Eventually, we turned off the road to visit the famous desert pinnacles (Lipar & Webb 2015) and this is where we met the kangaroos.

This is the view from the road of brilliant white dune sands in the Nambung National Park

The famous pinnacles in the park cast long morning shadows here.

A pair of rose-breasted (galah) cockatoos look out towards a field of pinnacles.

After a loop around the area of pinnacle karst we came across a pair of Western grey kangaroos (Macropus fuliginosus) and watched as they eventually bounced away into a field of pinnacles. Two rose-breasted (galah) cockatoos (Eolophus roseicapilla) looked on before they flew off cackling madly.

A small roo

Roo with pinnacles behind

Two rose-breasted (galah) cockatoos watched on as I took one step too close.

Two rose-breasted (galah) cockatoos (Eolophus roseicapilla) adorn a pinnacle.

I enjoyed reading about those first meeting between Europeans and kangaroos 247 years ago and looking at the two 1770 sketches by Sydney Parkinson and the later (1773) painting by George Stubbs. I also enjoyed sharing (though surely not to the same degree) the sense of amazement expressed by Banks and the crew of the Endeavour.


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