26 December 2008
The worst part
“It must get hard,” people say, when I tell them I drive the night shift. “Don’t you have trouble with the drunks?”
Well, yes, sometimes, but I take the position that everyone is entitled to a few drinks with their friends, and after a few drinks, you can’t drive, it’s too far to walk, the buses stop running at midnight, and how else you gunna get home, hey?
I have very little trouble with drunks.
The crazies give me more bother, but there’s none too many insane people wandering the streets of Canberra, despite what the rest of the country thinks. A few on the fringe, but they are more entertaining than scary.
“Nah,” I say, “it’s not the drunks and it’s not the crazies. It’s the herbivores.”
And that’s a fact. The absolute worst part of this job is the kangaroos.
It was the middle of a prolonged drought when I began cabdriving, and after dark, or indeed at any time of the day or night, you could find kangaroos browsing on the few patches of green, mainly the grassy verges of the main roads, or in suburban gardens.
I’ve seen them in the Parliamentary Triangle in mid-afternoon, attempting to cross six lanes of rush hour traffic on Adelaide Avenue outside the Prime Minister’s Lodge, bounding across the top of Hindmarsh Drive before sunset, two unlucky cars ahead, and of course after dark, they flood in from the surrounding bushland, looming up suddenly, five metres high, as I round a suburban corner.
Other nations have sacred cows, or deer, or elephants wandering through the streets, but in Canberra, the bush capital, the roos rule the road.
They can be big creatures, somewhere between a dog and a horse in bulk and speed, about as clever as your average chook, and mainly distinguished form other creatures by their long muscular legs, top-heavy appearance, and curious bounding movement. They move at speed by making long jumps, using the muscles and sinews in their legs to store energy as they land and then taking off again.
At full speed, they can appear out of a dark nowhere, up around windscreen height, in the space of an eyeblink. They don’t pause on the side of the road to peer nervously left and right, oh no, they jump across at full speed. And where there is one kangaroo, there is usually a mob of them. You can go in a heartbeat from being alone on a night road, your headlights picking out nothing but the white lines, to being surrounded by hurtling herbivores.
Kangaroos scare me. When you get down to it, they are just a big ball of muscle with sharp claws on the ends, and the thought of one of them crashing through the windscreen and thrashing around in the front seat is what gives me nightmares. People die from kangaroos: torn up behind the wheel, driving off the road or into other cars, or just from a heavy body suddenly demolishing the front end of the car.
Driving along at night, I see other creatures. Cats scamper across streets, foxes look up and down the road before picking their moment, and cows are big enough and slow enough to be seen from a safe distance.
But kangaroos are right there in front of you without warning. Twice I’ve had them jump out from roadside vegetation into my path and there was nothing I could do to avoid them.
The first one bounced off my passenger side quarter, taking out the headlight and half the bumper. The second one went under the car, taking out a headlight and half the bumper before demolishing various bits of the underneath machinery.
Both times, I was at the end of my shift, able to limp home on a single headlight with a surprise for the day driver. I was lucky to drive away.
“Bloody things!” I say to my passengers when they ask me about the worst part of my job. “Bloody kangaroos give me the screaming nightmares.”
That’s why I drive tense, hunched over the wheel and peering nervously into the dark, flipping on high beam whenever I can. My fellow human beings might be mad as cut snakes, sick up in the back seat, or run off without paying, but they are saints and angels compared to those bloody bounding kangaroos.