WA Wombats


David Whitley professes his undying love for the grumpy little pig-bear-tanks that seem to enchant most visitors at first site

One of the things Australia does very well is wildlife. In fact, it could be said that I’m marginally obsessed with Australian wildlife. Koalas are undeniably cute, kangaroos are just magnificently built, while other things cram the scale from odd to gorgeous. Kookaburras are funny-cute, rainbow lorikeets are beautiful, cockatoos are cheeky, quokkas are loveable and crocodiles are tremendously calculating and fearsome.

But, for me, one Australian creature has an absurd magnetism that the others just can’t compete with. The wombat somehow manages to get everything right by getting everything wrong.

For those unaware of the wombat’s majesty, imagine a small pig, cross-bred with a bear and a tank. They can occasionally look cute, but delightfully weird would be a better description. They’re adorable in the same way an unfortunately ugly puppy is adorable.

Elegance is not their forte either. They shuffle about with the wobbling waddle that comes from having a big body on tiny legs (although they can actually scarper quite quickly if they have to). They often have snuffly noses and can be found sleeping in the most ungainly manner imaginable. Look at one inside its hollowed-out log, and it’ll often be flat on its back, legs in the air.

However, it is impossible not to have enormous respect for any creature that utilises its substantial backside as its major weapon. If you’re a dingo trying to capture a wombat from its hole, expect to feel the full force of a peculiar arsenal. The wombat will back into the dingo’s face, using its unbelievably sturdy bum like a punching shield. It’ll then claw backwards – and the claws on those feet are mighty sharp.

As much as I really, really want my own wombat, I secretly know that they’d be appalling pets. They’re generally blessed with a curmudgeonly, grumpy disposition – as if they’ve permanently just woken up and really can’t be bothered with the niceties of keeping everyone happy. They’re also the world’s largest burrowing animal. And that means that give them a couple of days, and they’ll dig massive holes all across your garden.

But it’s not just me that wants one. When my wife first visited Australia, we went to a wildlife park, ostensibly to look at a few kangaroos and koalas. As we turned a corner, the cry went out: “What’s that? I WANT ONE.�?

It was, of course, a portly scuffling wombat.

Four years later, and in Perth, we had heard a rumour. There is, so legend has it, a place where you can cuddle a wombat. If ever there was a justification for hiring a car and taking a 40 minute detour out of the city centre, then this was it.

We pulled up outside the Caversham Wildlife Park almost panting with excitement. “Where can we cuddle the wombat?�? we asked at the ticket booth, more than prepared to skip everything else and rush over there.

“Well, you can’t exactly cuddle it,�? the woman at the counter announced to quickly crestfallen faces. “But you can get up close and touch it.�?

That’ll do. We charged past the enclosures of roos, dingos and exotic birds to what’s essentially a giant barn. And there was the magical queue.

At the end of it was a happily smiling member of staff, holding a giant hairy-nosed wombat. She weighed around 30 kilos, and she was lying back in his arms without a shred of dignity or shame. Her little paws were waving in the air, her eyes veered between sleep and dozy awakeness and her face bore what looked like a contented smile.

Her name was Big Bubs, and I got to sit next to her and stroke her tummy. Given even the faintest sniff of a chance, I’d have kidnapped her and taken her home.