Hands up if you’ve ever seen little penguins in the wild! Keep them raised if you’ve ever seen those little penguins fight! And finally, keep those hands high in the air if you have seen those little penguins fighting each other on Christmas day…. Anybody? Just me then!
I was in Australia for Christmas and New Year a few years ago with my family. We had met some family in Perth for a few days then flew over to Melbourne for Christmas. Whilst we were there, we took the short drive (by Australian standards) to Phillip Island to spend Christmas day on the beach.
Christmas in Australia isn’t like Christmas in the UK or America. Christmas in Australia is subtle. There’s no rushing at the shops to buy last minute gifts or mountains of food. Shops are open and they are well stocked. You can tell if an expat is spending their first Christmas in Australia because their house is the only one covered in twinkling lights on the street and when Christmas day arrives, they’re stuck inside trying to roast a turkey whilst their neighbours are enjoying a few cold ones and a barbeque. Christmas in Australia lands slap bang in the middle of their summer – who wants a roast turkey when it’s thirty-five degrees Celsius outside?
Spending Christmas day in shorts and tee-shirt is a weird experience when your normal Christmas attire includes jeans, hoodies (with the hood up) and cold feet. However, we did as the locals did and went out for the day to enjoy the sunshine. Christmas dinner that day included sandwiches and crisps without a hint of turkey or cranberry sauce.
Phillip Island houses a fine race track, frequented by the Moto GP, as well as a nature reserve and the ‘world-famous’ Penguin Parade. The Penguin Parade is a daily event where you can watch the little penguins come ashore for the evening, but I’ll come to that in a minute.
The nature reserve hosts a koala sanctuary with kangaroos and other wildlife knocking about. That’s where we spent the day. There’s something mesmerising about koala bears; they don’t do very much and what they do manage happens in slow motion. However, over the years they have refined this and what they do, they do well. They do look cute and cuddly and I can see why some toilet roll companies use them in their advertising. Personally I think they all look like King Theoden from The Lord of the Rings films. Needless to say we watched them for quite some time doing nothing in the sunshine.
Whilst we were there, we refrained from getting our photograph taken holding a koala, but we did visit the gift shop. I picked up an Australia tee-shirt and started chatting to the cashier. He was an elderly gentleman who noticed that I wasn’t a local.
“That accent sounds familiar, where are you from?” he asked. I told him that I grew up in Blackpool. “I moved here from Blackpool when I was about your age” he said with a smile. “Do you know Bispham?” After a few minutes chatting, it turned out that I used to deliverer newspapers to his old house when I was a paperboy. That house was next door to a large white building that used to be owned and lived in by my great-grandparents. They could have been neighbours – it’s a small world. We wished each other a Merry Christmas and I went back to my family.
As the evening was drawing near, it was time to get to the beach and watch the Penguin Parade. Little penguins (or Eudyptula minor) are the smallest species of penguin in the world, standing at just over a foot tall. No-one was allowed on the beach and instead the reserve had built a series of raised walkways that allowed you to watch the penguins come ashore and subsequently enabled the penguins to run underneath you to get to their resting places. They’re quite funny to watch.
As it starts getting dark, the penguins come out of the sea in groups of about twenty and wait in the surf for a few minutes until they’re happy that there’s nothing around that could eat them. Being in Australia, there’s a lot to look out for. When they feel it is safe, they make a run across the sand for the bushes. I can’t quite explain how comical twenty little penguins running across a beach is, you have to see it. Sometimes they don’t quite make it to the bushes and turn around in a panic to run back to the safety of the sea. If there’s another group following them, little penguin skittles happens.
We watched them for ages and as it got darker their numbers grew. When they were all ashore, we went about the walkways and watched them pottering about, making penguin noises and smelling of fish. This is when I saw two penguins having a disagreement.
One penguin, let’s call him Bob, stood still and refused to move anymore. George (I think that was his name) wanted to get past but Bob was having none of it. As a result, George got angry so hit him across the back of the head with his flipper. Bob reacted by turning around and giving George a left hook. Then it all kicked off. There were flippers flying everywhere. Some of the other penguins started giving Bob and George a wide berth whilst they settled their differences. It didn’t last more than one round however, as George knocked Bob to the floor and then sat on his head.
Poor Bob, but a part of me thinks he deserved it…