February 15, 2011


I’d wanted to meet a koala since I was five years old, but hadn’t had much luck in the UK.

Spending six months in Australia seemed to increase my chances, but it turned out my natural habitat – Yoga Arts, Belongil Beach, The Byron Bay Cookie Company, was not that of a koala.

It was time for a new habitat; Palm Forest, 10 minutes drive from Bellingen, population 2,600.

Kevin, our portly guide, had launched his night time koala safari scheme to prove that koalas have an economic value above and beyond that set by the timber merchants who were mowing down their natural habitat.

This seemed a good idea until I worked out the koalanomics; the entire population of Bellingen would need to do the $15 walk fortnightly for a year to raise the million dollars the timber guys were making. And since a crowd this big might have about as much impact on the forest as felling it, the scheme seemed flawed.

There were other issues; the main one being the likelihood of spotting a koala…Two problems:

1. Not enough of us

I had imagined the need to tip toe around the forest. Far from it. Kevin told us to be as loud as the Super Bowl; the koala, which eschews activity of any kind, wouldn’t turn its head for anything less…and Kevin needed it to turn its head so that its nocturnal retina would reflect in his search light.

I looked nervously at my companion – an old lady with a hearing aid – and sighed. We weren’t going to raise so much as a koala’s eyebrow.

2. Not enough of them

Kevin informed us that there were 400 koalas in the forest.

‘And how big is the forest?’ I asked, idly watching the old lady adjust her hearing aid.

’15,000 acres’ said Kevin proudly, making a grand gesture with his hands.

‘That’s one koala per 37.5 acres’ cut in the old lady, tutting.

Kevin scratched his ear, pulling out a white tuft of fluff. He inspected it thoughtfully and puffed it off the palm of his hand.

Now directing his gaze towards the treetops, he spoke heavily. ‘In Victoria they tried to repopulate by bringing in koalas from other areas where there were too many–’

‘Like inner city kids evacuated to the country in the war?’ I butted in, attempting to lighten the mood.

‘Did it work?’ asked the old woman impatiently.

‘We’ll never know’ replied Kevin, shrugging helplessly, ‘they forgot to tag them.’

‘Looks like the koala isn’t the only one with space between its ears’ said the old lady, turning on her heels and marching back towards the truck, shoulders hunched.

Back at the Bellingen Backpackers Hostel I couldn’t help thinking that although the koala is the only creature whose brain doesn’t fill the cranial space available to it, at least it got to spend its days hanging out in eucalyptus trees silently chewing leaves, whilst I had spent mine debating what song a sunflower should sing, or whether the Green Giant should extend his vocabulary beyond ‘ho ho ho.’ It was a no brainer- I was the one with space between my ears.

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