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Kangaroos – The 100 Days Project: Day 66 [35]

Kangaroos in the Kimberley

      …an historical record

‘There was another rather humorous sketch (Number 4) which represented a native in the act of carrying a kangaroo; the height of the man being three feet. The number of drawings in the cave could not altogether have been less than from fifty to sixty, but the majority of them consisted of men, kangaroos, etc.’

Now that we’ve got to the point where people are writing to the ABC to ask why there are no kangaroos in the Kimberley and the indigenous population of the neighbouring Pilbara are having to truck in their dead kangaroo flesh for ceremonies, I thought we might see if we could get some sense of the kangaroo population in the area before white occupation. I.E. have ‘we’ driven them (perhaps) almost to the point of a regional extinction, or were they not there in what we fondly call ‘the first place’?

As a young man, George Grey (1812-98), who would later become, amongst many other posts, Governor of South Australia, Governor of New Zealand (twice) and Governor of Cape Colony (South Africa), volunteered, with others, to explore the far northern coast of Western Australia, in the hope of finding a major river that gave into the Indian Ocean and might sustain a colony.

George Grey in 1861, as Governor of New Zealand

Each of his two expeditions (in 1837/8 and again in 1839) was, well, disastrous, though (speared, shipwrecked, etc.) he managed to survive and, quite swiftly, to prepare for publication his Journal of Two Expeditions of Discovery in North-West and Western Australia During the Years 1837, 38, and 39 (London, 1841), one of the numerous high points of which is his account and illustration of the discovery of the now famous, and haunting, rock paintings of the Wanjina.

His expeditions, all this is to say, were into areas at the heart of what we now know as the Kimberley, and if anyone can give us an indication as to the presence or absence of kangaroos at the time of first white exploration of the area, it will be he.

Thankfully the Journal is available on line, in readily searchable form. In terms of the kangaroo in the Kimberley region, and in the indigenous culture of the time – a particular interest of Grey’s – it makes for fascinating reading.

This is just some of what one finds:

kangaroo bones were also plentifully strewed about (from shortly after arrival at Hanover Bay, expedition 1)

we saw occasionally the forms of the timid kangaroos, who stole fearfully away (ditto)


kangaroos were more plentiful (December 20, 1837)

We this day saw the tracks of an emu, and of several large dogs, and kangaroos (March 3, 1838, on the Glenelg River)

we also saw many kangaroos (March 24)

The vegetation was luxuriant beyond description; and it was ludicrous to see the heavy-tailed kangaroos leaping and floundering about in the long grass when they had quitted their beaten pathways and were suddenly disturbed by our approach. (March 25)

It was clothed with the richest grass [and] abounded in kangaroos (March 28)

kangaroos were abundant (April 3)

Perhaps you get the picture. Though I don’t mean to exaggerate. There are just as many passages where Grey comments upon the scarcity of quadrupeds in the country he is passing through, but my sense is that that is largely a matter of terrain: he sees then, as one would expect, on the grassy plains, not in the inhospitable hills and gorges. The impression one gets, overall, is of a much-lived-in landscape, where the kangaroo has long been a staple of the aboriginal diet, and that the indigenous population have little difficulty in supplying themselves.

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