article is reprinted with kind permission of
Brian Courtis, Editor, The Australian Way
and Qantas Airways Magazines and was
first published in The Australian Way,
the Qantas inflight magazine, in November 1992.
FACES IN THE MOB
What do we
really know about our kangaroos? Brian Courtis
looks at an extraordinary study in the wild by a
team of scientists and dedicated filmmakers.
Their work shows Australia’s best known symbol
‘in a startling new light.
One of my
great moments of disillusionment was to discover
that the click-clucking calls of Skippy the
Bush Kangaroo were the product of on
Olivetti typewriter and a shrewd television
then, the pleasure when film-makers Jan
Aldenhoven and Glen Carruthers reveal that the
real sounds of Eastern Grey kangaroos include a
cheerfully familiar tsk-tsking as well as some
memorably throaty coughs of respect.
Aldenhoven and Carruthers, both biologists as
well as wildlife film producers, are about to
create far greater sensations with their new
documentary Kangaroos: Faces In The Mob,
a film that takes us into the world of
our ‘supposedly primitive’ marsupials.
year-in-the-life study of a mob of about 60 wild
kangaroos living in the rough back paddocks of a
remote, misty valley on the east coast focuses
on the animals as individuals with unique
qualities and achievements.
It is an
immensely rewarding project on which they have
spent the past two and a half years, a project
that is sure to create controversy among natural
history film-makers, scientists,
conservationists and farmers.
The film, it
seems to me, is an extraordinary tribute to what
is the Australian equivalent of Jane Goodall’s
study of chimpanzees, or the famous Gorillas
In The Mist research of Dian Fossey in
To make it,
Aldenhoven and Carruthers joined Dr. Peter
Jarman’s Kangaroo Study Group from the
University of New England, a little publicised
unit that has been quietly researching this one
mob of kangaroos for the past 15 years.
Guided by the
scientists, and camping out in a rough, wind
battered hut day-in, day-out, they found
themselves startled to be recognising kangaroos
as individuals and understanding the true
richness of the animal’s society and family
“We had been filming for David Attenborough’s
Trials Of Life and had met up with these
scientists by chance,” explained Aldenhoven,
who, as well as co-producing and directing, was
the film’s writer, sound recordist and narrator.
“Later, on a
friendship basis, we joined them, had a look at
the kangaroos and I started seeing all sorts of
things which I didn’t really understand.”
perception of kangaroos, I think, had been
similar to those of many people.... you see them
lolling about like a lot of sheep, sleeping, and
I knew they boxed. But there was a lot more to
it than that.”
asking questions, making up my own answers,
which, it turned out, were invariably wrong.
And, as all this unfolded, I just thought, my
goodness, this is all happening here at home.”
“You see, I
had always thought the best thing we could do
eventually as wildlife filmmakers was, perhaps,
to go overseas and film a troupe of monkeys
because of the complexity of the society, their
relationships and how engaging they are....”
suddenly struck me, that maybe it was all here.”
also, in talking with researchers like Dr. Robyn
Stuart-Dick, they realised that their
impressions of individual ‘roos, making their
own decisions and having their own quirky ways,
were not so off-beam.
across most strongly with Robyn was how much she
loved those kangaroos.” Aldenhoven says.
about this one’s grandmother, this one’s cousin,
and had a depth of understanding of these
animals. It was almost as though they were an
extended family to her.”
scientific studies, ‘naming’ the subjects under
research is frowned upon. But individuals in
this mob had been given ‘non human’ names and,
after some soul searching, the filmmakers agreed
recognition of the characters best suited their
mistake, their film is no Skippy. The
camera follows the adventures, triumphs and
disasters of a specific group within the mob,
but reveals behaviour patterns never seen on
shows the birth of a kangaroo and its
miraculous, unassisted blind crawl through the
mother’s fur to the safety of the pouch.
how a mother kangaroo chooses the sex of her
kangaroo mothers teaching their joeys the art of
survival, allowing themselves to be kicked and
boxed around by their ‘teenage’ sons as part of
their growing up.
and Carruthers show us the differing ways in
which kangaroos signal and communicate how they
play, and how they deal with the potential
terrors of wind, fire, rains and dingo attacks.
We see the
cunning and mischief with which male and females
find the most appropriate partner with whom to
mate, and where it should all take place.
film provides an enthralling picture of the
strategies that the big male kangaroos employ to
gain control of the mob and all the females
The faces in
this mob include Cedar, the ageing patriarch who
must be prepared for a fight-to-the death from
young challengers like the younger but somewhat
There is the
rather careless, casual Columbine and her
battling, inquisitive son Jaffa; in contrast
there is also the aristocratic, careful Eucalypt
and her well-protected daughter Sunshade.
The drama in
which they all become immersed is more
engrossing than any Neighbours and a lot
film animals, you can start to get hooked into
the individual differences between them, but
it’s something science hasn’t talked much
about.” says Carruthers, who relentlessly
followed the mob with 40kg of camera equipment.
“But anybody who has a pet knows, their
dachshund is very different from Mrs. Bloggs’s
dachshund up the road temperament and so on.
“We wanted to do two things: one was the normal
in depth behaviour of kangaroos, the other was
in showing the individual differences. The
latter is where it became hard.”
films like this had not been done before, it was
difficult to work out how to actually do it, and
how to involve characters without it becoming
too confusing for those watching.” But the
more we got involved with the individuals, the
more we knew we wanted to do it.”
The shoot was
far from predictable. One ‘roo, for example,
that became a favourite was the young and
spirited El Nino, who fancied himself in
checking out the ladies.
There is a
strict protocol for such behaviour. First, says
Carruthers, the suitor should ascertain there
are no larger males within sight, for it is
extremely rude to forget your status in the mob.
And dangerous too.
been done, the male is expected to sidle up to
the female, clucking gently as though
introducing himself, while sniffing to check if
she is on heat.
On the ridge this particular day were five
kangaroos, all bent over feeding. Without
further ado, El Nino nosed straight under the
first. She was a little gruff, so he moved on
unabashed. And on. And on. Nose under,
sniff... no good.
Then, as Carruthers levelled the camera, El Nino
went for the last animal. It seemed a
the photographer recalls. “I started the camera,
but what came into frame was not the female
cloaca we had both expected but a large and
pendulous pair of testicles. I last saw El
Nino disappearing over a far hilltop with an
enraged male in hot pursuit.”
Aldenhoven and Glen Carruthers met while
studying biology at university and turned to
wildlife film-making ten years ago. They founded
Green Cape Wildlife Films.
complete documentary was the remarkable, award
winning Kingdom Of The Crabs, a film
about the annual mass migration of red land
crabs on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.
Kangaroos: Faces In The Mob, which will
be screened by ABC TV in Australia later this
month (November 1992 Ed.) and by National
Geographic elsewhere around the world, is their
second major film.
Although it holds together like a well
constructed drama, they insist they went to
extraordinary lengths to ensure it was ‘a true
story’ and that many shelves of inappropriate
and discarded, but often more dramatic footage,
bear witness to that.
One of the
most dramatic moments is a brutal boxing contest
for supremacy between Cedar and Ursid, a once
only fight that the scientists had told
Aldenhoven and Carruthers to expect.
fight is one shot, not edited; it suffers from
that.” says Carruthers. “That’s it, from the
first blow to the last. Normally, you might
include close-ups taken from other fights.
But not here.”
“As the cameraman, it’s quite embarrassing to
watch. But we felt it had to be true.”
Cedar, with Columbine, Jaffa and the others,
Aldenhoven and Carruthers quite naturally
developed an attachment.
wonder, what if we get the classic shot of a
dingo coming into the group - are we going to
just sit there, watch and film, or are we going
to try to save our loved ones?” Aldenhoven says.
question of interfering with nature is a dilemma
for every photographer and scientist.”
almost placing yourself as some sort of god that
knows better to step in and do something. And
the one thing we learned about the kangaroos was
how little we did know about their way of
line, however, was that they were involved in a
scientific study and the rule adopted was very
The only time
they broke the rule was to free joeys who had
been hooked up in barbed wire - a human
intrusion on the landscape. Had they not done
so the young ‘roos would have died.
to the mob brought both laughter and tears for
the pair. Every morning in the year, they
would go out, looking to see what might have
happened during the night.
“I guess the
one thing that starts to get to you is that you
are able to predict how they will behave, how
they will react in a crisis.” Carruthers says.
become part of their scene, when they start to
trust you, you do go out looking for them all.”
which will precede some undoubtedly
controversial academic reports from the
scientists, helps to show kangaroos in a unique,
“When we first went for it, we thought the film
might take two or three months to film.”
these animals on their own terrain took a lot
longer and gave us a lot more than we expected.
It would have to be the most enjoyable
experience of filming in Australia ever.”
Qantas inflight magazine The Australian Way)
who has not seen this film (it is available from
many sources on DVD/video including your nearest
ABC shop), I would strongly recommend you beg,
borrow or buy a copy. It is the most
fascinating piece of cinematography I have ever
seen. Anyone who has a love of kangaroos
cannot help but be moved by it!