“First one to spot a kangaroo gets fifty cents”, my father promised.
I arrived, a pale eight-year-old pommy girl, fresh from the elegant and upright confinement of a Georgian townhouse, in Bristol. As a family we sold up, said goodbye to our beloved lurchers Frith and Fred, and rented a sprawling modern house on Gooseberry Hill, just east of Perth. It was a house without fences, the back garden boundlessly melting into the bush, which seemed to go on for miles and miles.
Australia expanded around me and blew my young senses wide open.
My brother and I made fast friends with neighbouring children and our days stretched into unfeasibly long hours out of doors, filled with barefoot wanderings into the bush. We would return from the creek with sun-scorched cheeks and blistered feet, feeling enriched as our grimy fingers clutched at our coveted jars of tadpoles.
Our time there was all too brief: a shining oasis in a childhood that was characterised by ever-shifting sands. We had left our toys behind. Favourite playthings were packed with furniture and household items into a shipping container, which lagged in our wake as we continued our travels, finally catching up with us years later.
Entertaining ourselves was not difficult in this sensory playground. We swam in the pool, built dens in the thick grass, grilled sausages on a camp fire and climbed the sticky rubber tree with its obligingly low spread branches.
I was fascinated by close-up inspections of the teeming fauna that presented on a novel scale: the alien bug-eyed praying mantis, monster centipedes, waxen witchetty grubs, inch-long bull ants with their powerful serrated mandibles, and bobtail lizards the length of a man’s foot. We would take turns daring each other to go into the shed, where huntsman spiders loitered, gimlet-eyed, in the crevices.
It wasn’t long before the hypothetical danger posed by some of Australia’s more fiendish inhabitants was swiftly transformed into a real threat. The red-back spider, the sand scorpion, and the sinister grey-black dugite snake, all graced us with social calls.
I was aware of the risks posed by some of the native wildlife, but I don’t remember being overly fazed. The potent newness held me far too much in thrall.
Within months we had travelled on, new terrains calling us. But nowhere else etched itself into my bones as deeply as Gooseberry Hill. How I long to return to this place which was so striking and exotic to me as a child. I yearn to see the liberal displays of summer-scented wattle, exuberant flowering firewood banksia, and velvety kangaroo paw wildflowers. I’d love to go back to breathe in the medicinal scent of the eucalyptus trees, and run my fingers once more over the spiny leaves of the ancient Yakka grass trees.
My most vivid memory from those days was the smell of the rain as it hit the sultry earth after a dry spell. We would have surprisingly heavy downpours of tepid rainwater with rivulets pouring down the driveway, washing away insects, gum nuts, bark and other garden debris. As quickly as the water came, it was gone again, burnt off in a vaporous haze, leaving behind only the distinctive aroma of hot dusty tarmac.
We chose from our own selection of oranges, grapefruits and lemons on the garden trees, puncturing the citrus skins with our thumbs, and averting our faces to avoid the sharp stinging oil spritzing into our eyes. Guzzling and slurping at the fruit, the sweet zingy juice ran down our arms, and we leaned forward laughing to avoid mussing our clothing.
The kookaburra looked on, cackling jovially from its perch in the old gum tree.
And throughout it all, I remained desperate to become the celebrated family member to make the first wild sighting of an honest-to-goodness kangaroo. Instead, I had to cede the fifty cent prize to my younger brother, who noticed the languorous creature bounding across the horizon … dammit … just seconds before I did.