First time I saw a Guruman he was skinned, gutted and cut up in a bucket. I was serving a young man, with Aboriginal paint-marks on his face, a piece of chocolate cake and a cup of chai, and I asked him how his day had been. As I spotted the long and powerful tail hanging out of his bucket, he replied; “ah, great mate, we just went hunting and caught a roo, yes please two sugars.”
That evening I had my first taste of kangaroo meat (splendid taste!) before I’d even seen a live one. I am not sure how that fits into the Aboriginal practice of taking on the spirit of Guruman – as he is called among the Aboriginals of New South Wales – but for what it’s worth I had a wonderful spring night.
To the Aboriginals, guruman is a powerful creature and a much revered and respected ancestor. But apparently a dead guruman isn’t above the need for food as they have been eating roos since they first threw spears. More interestingly, perhaps, they also used to stuff the scrotum (ball-sack) of the male guruman and play football with it!
It was the famous explorer James Cook who, in 1770, first recorded the name “kangooroo” and legend has it that when he pointed to one of these large hopping creatures and asked an aboriginal man what it was called, the man replied “kangooroo” which apparently meant “I don’t have a clue what you are saying mate”. In any case, the name caught on and in the typical Asutralian fashion of abbreviating nearly every word, this magnificent animal is now commonly known as a “roo”.
For the first two weeks I was looking everywhere for guruman with no luck. Not even on the long drive to remote Tabulam did I see one and I was getting really impatient. I guess I had thought they would be hopping around on the tarmac already as I got out of the airplane, knowing that guruman is an endemic species on the continent. Alas, there were only uptight customs officers to greet me, also an endemic species according to some of the travellers I have met here.
Roos live in flocks also known as “mobs” or “troops” with 10 or more individuals in them. This provides safety for some of the weaker members of the mob, for instance the little ones which are known as “joeys”. A grown female guruman is called a “doe”, a “flyer” or a “jill” while a male guruman can be called a “buck”, a “boomer”, a “jack” or simply “old man”. As we say in Denmark; “cherished children have many names…”
It wasn’t until the third morning of my stay here in Ponyland (a newly formed community near Nimbin of which you will hear more later) that I saw the next guruman. I was slumbering in my tent in the wee hours of budding daylight when I felt the earth beneath me vibrate from the impact of large feet. Still not quite used to the extravagant assortment of wildlife in Australia, I admit that I was a bit worried despite my half-conscious, half-sleeping state of mind. The thundering thuds ended abruptly right in front of my tent, but before I could even spell the word panic, I heard a friendly voice call out; “Cornelius, come and join us in the shed, we’re skinning a roo, you’ll love it!”
It was Dave, the multi-talented and incredibly energetic guy who is a founding member of the Pony-Club. He had just returned from Sydney and late in the evening as he was approaching home, he’d found a dead roo on the road. Roadkill, as they call it. True to his conservationist ideals, he’d thrown it in the back of his car and as soon as the sun shone on the land he got up to rip the skin off of the unfortunate bugger and proceeded to separate the good meat from the bad. He’d been hopping out of joy over his find when he went to get me so I could wittness the butchering. It seemed a bit early for me to have my first lesson in skinning a roo, but hey, how often do you get that kind of opportunity? I immediately got up and had a go at ripping the furry skin off with a sharp knife.
Dave the Butcher
When we got to the tricky part around the anus, however, I left it for Dave to finish the job while I cooked up a healthy porridge, just as my soul mate Isabelle has taught me. But even the lovely smell of cinnamon and cardamom couldn’t mask the pungent odour that the dead animal gave off as the process of decay slowly kicked in. I always fancied myself as a would-be hunter and butcher if the need arose, but as I helped Dave with the skinning and gutting, I started to have my doubts as my porridge began edging its way back up through my throat…
Truth be told, it wasn’t even a real roo, but a specimen of guruman’s smaller cousin, the wallaby. Wallabys look very much like kangaroos, and for every practical aspect of the animal, the two are almost identical if not for the difference in size. So the following morning, when I awoke to finally see what I thought was a real living guruman hopping about on the cow-field where I have pitched my modest tent, it was merely a local wallaby in pursuit of whatever food it could find. Beautiful as it was, and impressed as I was, it still wasn’t the real deal. I wanted to see a genuine (or as they say here; “fair dinkum”) guruman, and I still do.
The wallaby I had seen was little more than a meter tall and it was rather scared of me as I rose from my bedding in the metallic-grey igloo, so out of place in the natural setting. A real guruman wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at my strange appearance; they grow to be 2 metres tall and weigh up to 90 kg. Throw in some pretty good boxing skills, a maximum speed of 70 km/h and the ability to swim, and you have one mean opponent staring you right in the face. Maybe it’s a good thing that I haven’t seen one up close yet..?
The first Europeans to describe a guruman explained that it was an animal with the head of a deer (without the antlers) which stood upright like a man, jumped like a frog and sometimes had a second head sticking out of the belly. Needless to say, no one believed in these crazy tales from the end of the world. Of course, the head on the belly is just a tiny guruman in his/her mother’s pouch into which they crawl immediately after birth to continue growing until they can do the jumping by themselves. Possibly one of the cutest images from the animal kingdom if you ask me. Most of us know about the “baby in the bag” but I was quite surprised to find out that a female guruman can put her pregnancy on pause if the first joey hasn’t left the sack yet or if there isn’t enough food or water to grow the embryo. The wonders of nature…
In this day and age the guruman has become subject of a very curious study; how to eliminate the methane gasses released into the atmsophere by farting cows, thus posing a threat to our life-sustaining atmosphere. Thing is, roos don’t fart! Instead they have a bacteria in their intestines which breaks down the methane and converts it into more energy for jumping around. This is of great interests to a group of dedicated scientists, who wants to introduce guruman’s helpful bacterias into the stomachs of cows all over the world. Oh science… At this point my frantic imagination is feeding my mind with some great images of jumping cows and supermarket shelves stocked with kangaroo-milk.
I’d better stop here before it all gets too strange. Thank you for showing interest in guruman, Australia’s finest national animal, found on everything from coins and emblems to the twisted bull-bars of roaring road-trains, plowing through mobs of roos in the desolate deserts of this weird and wonderful country. I hope that I get to see a real and living guruman some day, and I promise that I will take a picture of him and show it to you as soon as I do!