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The lonely road

Life on land

"The old Australia is passing .. if the devastation which is worked to the flora and fauna could be assessed in terms of the value that future generations will put upon them, it might be found that wool clips and beef and timber trades have been dearly bought". H H Finlayson (1935)

Peter and Andrea Hylands

May 21, 2023

Sadly the world that the Australian conservationist, HH Finlayson, saw in Central Australia has gone forever and the fraction that remains is valued no more than it was in the 1930s otherwise things would be very different.

Journeys across Australia

The journeys listed here cover some 31,200 kilometers and were all made by car or 4WD. There were many more journeys and as time has passed these journeys have become increasingly shocking because of what is now missing from these landscapes. What is missing is the nature of Australia.

Some journeys were undertaken on more than one occasion. That is roughly a distance that is the equivalent of a trip from Melbourne to Vienna and back again. There were island trips too, off the coast of Arnhem Land and in the Torres Strait, and of course Tasmania. But we concentrate on the mainland here. There were many journeys by air, but it is by road that you really get to understand a place.

A lonely Koala, in a lonely tree amidst a shopping centre development in Portland, Victoria

Andrea and I made these journeys during Creative cowboy films projects, a couple were general research trips for social and economic projects. During these journeys we note the species we see alive, or sadly, as is mostly the case, as road kill, as it is called in Australia. Road kill does provide, albeit a gruesome one, some indication of species density and distribution. I have not covered all trips, particularly the more local ones, so the ones listed here can be regarded as special journeys.

What was very clear from all these journeys is that Kangaroo populations have not exploded as is claimed by Australian Governments and much of the Australian media. Most agricultural (cropping) landscapes on these journeys were completely devoid of Kangaroo species and with few exceptions, so were the cattle stations, we saw only an occasional living and solitary Kangaroo where cattle were present.

Generally speaking and in non-desert regions, dead Kangaroos on roads were associated with the edge of towns, remnant woodland or on roads adjoining State or National Parks, which are meant to be areas of conservation.

During the Gippsland fires of early 2020

There were very few dead Kangaroos on roads adjacent to cropping farmlands. In Victoria for example, our findings in terms of distribution pretty much concord with the 2018 Victorian Government Macropod survey which very clearly showed that in almost all cases these Kangaroos were associated with areas surrounding or in remnant woodlands or parks and are mostly absent from farmland.

I make this point, Australian Governments appear happy to fund their abhorrent and vast scale exclusion fences (Queensland is an example), along which and within which all wildlife is slaughtered, but appear to have precisely no interest in providing some kind of a special fencing to stop wildlife from National or State Parks from being run down on the roads that adjoin or dissect these parks. There are no safe wildlife crossing points on any of these journeys. Some thinking needs to occur in relation to these matters.

We have a strict rule that in the Australian outback we do not travel major highways at night to avoid accidents with wildlife and farm animals, the later tend to wander the outback roads, as most are unfenced.

The night journeys when they occur are usually with Aboriginal friends. Much of the trauma on these roads occurs at night. Road trains, often B-triples, cannot avoid cattle and sheep that wander onto the road, the same is the case for wildlife. We typically see a lot of dead cattle on outback roads. Cattle are the animals that dominate much of regional Australia, including in remote regions where cattle stations are of very large scale. Cattle breeds vary depending on geography and climate. Sheep without any shelter from the fierce sun, as all tree cover has been removed, are also prominent in these destroyed landscapes.

By far the majority (above 95 per cent) of all animals we see on our journeys are from somewhere else, they include Camels, large numbers of Horses, Donkeys, Deer, Pigs, Goats, Cats, Dogs, Buffalo, Foxes, Hares and increasingly more Rabbits, there were a lot in South Australia, a kind of Watership Down.

This environmental mess raises a number of ethical issues including the contribution of these introduced species to the broad scale and dramatic decline in Australia’s unique wildlife.  

Dead Kangaroos are removed from the road by individuals involved in animal rescue or are removed by councils or other organisations as dead Kangaroos may be a hazard to traffic, this is more common near urban areas or surrounding large country towns.

This is not so common on outback roads (we have seen individuals pulling dead Kangaroos off remote roads to make the carcasses safer for Wedge-tailed Eagles who often die on the roads as they feed on dead animals).

When we stay in a place, we take care to investigate what native animals might be present. Many Australian species are nocturnal so we look at night.

Night-time journeys, for example in Central Australia or Arnhem Land, are conducted with Aboriginal friends and are on small bush tracks on which travel speeds are low. Journeys across Owen Springs Reserve in Central Australia and from Baniyala to Dhuruputjpi in Eastern Arnhem Land are examples.

Melbourne to Alice Springs and back again

Melbourne to Alice Springs via Mildura, Renmark and Port Augusta – roughly 2,300 kilometers, October 2018. Melbourne to Mildura, two dead Kangaroos near Gisborne, we take the route through Castlemaine where Eastern Grey Kangaroos have made a comeback and exist in numbers that allow them to rebuild their family groups or mobs (increasingly uncommon). One dead Kangaroo on the road into Castlemaine. No signs of dead Kangaroos beyond that point.

The second leg of the journey takes us from Mildura to Port Augusta. As we get closer to the South Australian Border the road from Mildura to Renmark runs through the Murray-Sunset National Park. On this trip there were no dead Kangaroos until we reached the park, then six Red Kangaroos over a short distance. Emus were present one month earlier, none sighted this time. Once in South Australia the land becomes intensive cropping, large vineyards, various croplands and so on. No sign of Kangaroos at all, either dead or alive, until we leave the Murray Port town of Morgan, two dead Western Grey Kangaroos at the edge of town. Nothing then to Port Augusta.

The third stage of the journey is through desert country to the opal mining town of Coober Pedy, this is a stretch of about 550 kilometers. We pass by Woomera the largest missile, weapon testing range in the world, the area which is large at 120,000 plus square kilometers is a prohibited area.

On this leg of the journey we count around 110 dead Kangaroos (mostly Red Kangaroos), some have been on the roadside for a while, here also are six dead Wedge-tailed Eagles. There are large salt lakes in this region plus the usual cattle. Vistas are large and we can see for great distances across desert country. No live Kangaroos seen on this journey. 

The fourth stage of the journey is from Coober Pedy to Alice Springs, a distance of around 700 kilometres, apart from one dead Kangaroo just to the north of Coober Pedy, there is nothing else. Kangaroos appear to be entirely missing in this section. The surrounding landscapes are dominated by cattle stations, there are many cattle grids on the road and there is associated fencing. Closer to Alice Springs we pass by Owen Springs Reserve, a conservation park for the last ten years when it was destocked of Cattle, no dead Kangaroos on road in this section of highway. We find this deeply troubling.

Central Australia. In 2018 we have spent about six weeks in Central Australia (April / May and November). These journeys included the inner Mereenie Loop (now sealed and a busy tourist route) and very remote places not generally visited by non-indigenous people. Most travel this year has been to the west of Alice Springs, distances covered roughly around 1,500 kilometers. In the wild I have seen two Euros (Wallaroo) on a remote hillside.

There is a cluster of Macropods in Alice Springs around the Olive Pink Botanical Gardens, Euros and Black-footed Rock Wallabies, which we see frequently, although none were spotted on our last visit a few days ago. There were no dead animals at all, including Kangaroos on the now busy Mereenie Loop (entire loop about 380 kilometres).

A trip down the Finke River, travelling from Wallace Rockhole to Ilpurla Outstation and back, failed to reveal any Kangaroos, either dead or alive. There was cover in the extensive hills but while there was evidence of scats from introduced and invasive species, none from Kangaroos was evident with one exception near Ilpurla. These are places where you can travel for the whole day without seeing another person (or vehicle). Returning from Ilpurla to Wallace Rockhole we did a night crossing of Owen Springs on its sandy tracks, the only life we saw were two Nightjars, no evidence of Macropods in the headlights of the vehicle.

Alice Springs to Melbourne via Port Augusta, Adelaide and the Coorong (Policeman Point), late November 2018. Similar findings on return journey to Port Augusta, Kangaroos entirely missing on northern section of highway and surrounds north of Coober Pedy. Road kill begins South of Coober Pedy and similar numbers, we see one living Red Kangaroo in the bush. There were four dead Kangaroos just to the south of Port Augusta, the road runs along the western edge of the Flinders Ranges, an enormous area of wilderness.

There is nothing else until we reach Adelaide 300 kilometres to the south. The next bit is interesting and that is the journey to the Coorong. The Coorong National Park is a coastal strip of lagoons surrounded by ocean and native plant life. The park covers an area of 490 square kilometers. To the west of the lagoon the once great Murray River enters the sea.

The area to the north of the Coorong is farmland and has been extensively cleared as is the case for much of regional Australia. We spend two days here photographing the plant life.

There is no evidence of dead Kangaroos on the roads that take us to the Coorong. After spending a couple of days in the national park we see one set of Kangaroo footprints in the drying salt lake, no live sightings although we are in the bush and on our own. We see a number of Shingleback Lizards, adorable animals, we rescue one from the road.

We leave the Coorong via the back roads, unsealed, that take us north and east. Here there are numerous rabbits, at least ten in one group on the road in front of us. There are numerous Deer. There are dead foxes in the road. This is again cattle country. No evidence of dead Kangaroos on the road and we see a solitary Western Grey Kangaroo and then a mother with a joey. The bullet riddled signs a feature of all these journeys.

This is the beginning of a 600 kilometer journey to Melbourne. The way back from a town called Keith which leads us to the main highway is less eventful than when we travelled it a few weeks earlier on a trip to Adelaide directly from Melbourne. There were fewer dead animals this time, although there were a couple of signs of removal, blood stained roads (so species unknown). There were two dead Kangaroos near Dimboola, two more just before we reach Ararat and three more between Ararat and Ballarat, all the dead animals were associated with remnant woodland.

There was a Deer crossing sign about ten kilometers out from Ararat which describes the number of Deer now present in these landscapes. There has been a significant amount of shooting of Kangaroos in the regions to the west of Melbourne and it shows.

If you want to make comparisons with say 30 years ago, what is shocking is that on all these recent drives across a range of seasons the windscreens of the range of vehicles we were driving remained clean, hardly an insect on the windscreen. Not so long ago we would have stopped on numerous occasions each and every day to clean the windscreen of insects. All a bit grim, but at least we knew they were out there. Today there are virtually none and this is Australia we are talking about.

Selected journeys

Melbourne to Neds Corner, 650 kilometers;
Melbourne to Bungendore, 700 kilometers;
Canberra to Kerang through Murray country, 620 kilometers;
Melbourne to Kerang, 290 kilometers;
Cairns to Pormpuraaw, 680 kilometers;
Cairns to Karumba via Savannah Way, 790 kilometers;
Cairns to Yungaburra, 70 kilometers;
Darwin to Ramingining, 550 kilometers;
Ramingining to Peppimenarti, 850 kilometers;
Yungaburra to Normanton 630 kilometers;
Maningrida to Ankabadbirri, 40 kilometers;
Maningrida to Ramingining; 110 kilometers;
Melbourne to Clifton Beach via NSW and QLD outback, 3,300 kilometers;
Yirrkala to Baniyala, 180 kilometers;
Baniyala to Dhuruputjpi, 60 kilometers;
Melbourne to Adelaide, 750 kilometers;
Brisbane to Quilpie, 960 kilometers;
Melbourne to Bathurst, 800 kilometers;
Melbourne to Marlo, 390 kilometers; and
Perth to Karratha, 1,600 kilometers.

We hope these accounts will serve as a reference for future research and conservation efforts.