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In Australia, Playing Chicken with a Koala

Megan Desperately Wanted to See a Koala. Just Not in Her Headlights.

At the Twelve Apostles limestone formations. These were happier, less stressful times, several days before we played chicken with a koala.

I was amazed at how dark it was. With no moon out, only the light from our headlamps jutted out in front of us, giving us a glimpse of just the pavement ahead and the roadside halves of the trees, as they zipped by on each side of the two-lane road.

We were driving later than we’d expected, as just a few hours before I’d booked our Airbnb stop for the night in the passenger seat as Megan drove. We found a room at a rural home in the remote Leongatha South area of Victoria, Australia, near the southernmost tip of mainland Australia. This was our seventh night of a 15-day trip that traversed from Sydney to Adelaide, including a drive along the Great Ocean Road.

It had been quite some time since I’d been on a drive in such a remote location. Even when I was growing up in rural Oklahoma, you could drive for 20 miles between towns, but the flat ground allowed you to see for miles around you — the lights from a farmhouse, an oil rig or a small town on the horizon ahead always helped provide your bearings.

But here, the black trees on each side loomed over the road, giving it a claustrophobic tunnel-like feel and blacking out sight of anything more than 10 feet in either direction. I had been wary of being on the roads at night ever since my teens, when a lone bovine tried to cross the road in front of my pickup, creating a collision that sent the animal flying through the night sky. I was fixated on the road ahead, expecting to see a kangaroo bounce in front the grill of our rental car.

We had a long list of experiences on our Australia to-do list. The beauty of the famous Great Ocean Road, the amazing Twelve Apostles karst formations jutting out of the ocean, humpback whales cresting over the water on their southern migration, the madness and excitement of the Melbourne Cup horse race, the serenity of Australian wine country, and the wild kangaroos bouncing across the savanna.

But on the top of Megan’s list was seeing a koala. Why wouldn’t it be? They are basically living teddy bears with big cuddly ears and noses, who give zero effs about anything except moving slow, eating leaves and taking naps in trees. For months ahead of the Australian leg of our One-year retirement trip Megan talked about how much she wanted to see a koala and how great it was going to be. A few days before in the Gippsland wine country, we had spotted a roadside koala house attraction, where you fork over cash to hold a koala and take a selfie. But in the parking lot we decided we didn’t like the feel of the place, nor did we like the thought of a koala being forced to hug an endless line of sweaty, goofy-grinned tourists. So Megan had accepted the possibility that her dream of seeing a koala might not happen after all.

As Megan drove us through the darkness, I saw something quickly enter the headlight beams ahead of us. A lumbering lump in the road suddenly became visible directly on the yellow line. “What the hell is that?” I asked.

“It’s a koala!” Megan shouted with equal parts fear and excitement, as we zipped by the animal, our front left wheel only inches away from its adorable koala butt.

We listened for the telltale thump, and thankfully heard nothing. With all her excited talk of seeing a koala, it would really mar our Australia experience if Megan’s first koala sighting included screeching tires in the darkness, a muffled squeal, and my attempt to remedy the situation by performing a hasty roadside version of marsupial last rites.

Luckily the little guy (or gal) was, for some reason, sauntering directly down the middle lane, instead of across the road. This saved the koala’s life, and our Australia trip.

We stopped the car, put it in reverse, and ran over the koala. Haha, just kidding! We backed up slowly to make sure he moved safely off the road. By the time we went back to the scene of the near-miss, he had scrambled up a nearby tree, safe and sound.

Another car approached from the other direction and we flashed our lights to warn them as they passed. “Be careful,” we said to the Australian couple, “there was a koala in the road!” They looked at us like we were wearing tinfoil hats, nodded and drove on. I think that’s like being in west Texas and saying, “Watch out! There’s an armadillo in the road!” Of course there was a koala in the road; this is Australia. They must have enjoyed a good laugh at the jittery Americans.

Megan got to realize her Australian dream, and thankfully no animals were harmed in the making of this blog post. And unlike the tourists who visited the roadside attraction, our sighting was in the actual Australian bush. We didn’t get a hug from our hitchhiking koala, but I think before we drove off I saw him give us a little thumbs up for not sending him to koala heaven.


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