By Mary Ann Anderson
RISMEDIA, June 19, 2009-(MCT)-The North Georgia Mountains are well-known for a number of things, especially their incredible beauty with walls of splashily vibrant rhododendron, towering forests, and innumerable rushing waterfalls. The first gold rush in America was here in 1828 in Dahlonega. (Ha! Bet you didn’t know that!), and it’s the setting for James Dickey’s “Deliverance,” the movie that managed to incongruously put Georgia on the map. Once notorious for moonshine and mayhem, now it’s renowned for great vineyards and wine.
And then there are the kangaroos. Yes, by crikey! Kangaroos. It’s fair dinkum that the Outback has come to Georgia.
The Kangaroo Conservation Center in Dawson County, in the heart of the mountains about an hour’s drive north of Atlanta, is home to about 300 kangaroos that live a nice, quiet existence among 87 acres lolling through the lofty peaks of the Blue Ridge.
Now that’s a ‘roo with a view.
After stepping through one of the most colorful gift shops I’ve ever seen and onto a mat covered with disinfectant – “It’s to keep the kangaroos from getting any of our human diseases,” explains Nicole Brown, my guide for the day – I stopped in my tracks.
Inside a protective fence that keeps out predators like coyotes and an occasional feral dog, mobs of mammoth marsupials were everywhere leaping and bounding across wide stretches of meadows. Others looked clumsily oafish as they “penta-pedaled” around, using their thick tails as a fifth leg as a means of locomotion. While the penta-pedaling gait looks as if it might be painful, I’m assured by Nicole that it isn’t. Those that weren’t hopping or penta-pedaling were sprawled lazily in the midday sun, catching a few rays and looking fat and happy down in Georgia.
Outside of Australia, you won’t find a larger concentration of kangaroos anywhere else on the planet. Founded by Roger and Debbie Nelson in the early 1980s in nearby Alpharetta as a private wildlife sanctuary and exotic animal breeding facility, the couple later moved the operation to Dawsonville, where it evolved into an educational center focusing on the protection and conservation of kangaroos.
Eight species make up those 300 hundred hippity-hoppin’ ‘roos, including the western, eastern, and even red kangaroos, who blend in easily with the Georgia clay. Closer to the ground are the potoroo and brush-tailed bettong, tiny rat kangaroos but kangaroos nonetheless. The rest of the species are rounded out with the agile, Dama, and Bennett’s wallabies, smaller cousins of the kangaroo. Bennett’s wallaby is also known as the red-necked wallaby, not because it drinks lots of cold beer, drives a pickup truck, and live in Georgia but because it has reddish fur on its back and shoulders.
Here are a few basics on kangaroos I learned during my visit on that grey, misty morning that soon gave way to brilliant sunshine. A group of kangaroos is known as a troop, a herd, or a mob. Some even call them a court of kangaroos (get it?). A female is called a jill, a doe, or a flyer, while their male counterparts are bucks, boomers, or jacks. The little ones are joeys, and yes, they frequently hide out in their mamas’s pouch. ‘Roos can high-jump about 12 feet and when they’re in a hurry can spring-sproing to speeds of up to 55 miles per hour.
“They’re sociable with us and one another,” explains Nicole, before telling us that each animal is named – there’s Bindi, Amaroo, Sugar, Oliver, Soleil, among the kangaroo court – and most employees have learned to identify each animal by sight.
The center also hosts an odd collection of “Australasian” animals and birds that live in Australia and the southeastern corner of Asia including the smattering of islands between the two continents. My favorite was the blue-wing kookaburra – you have to love it that their babies are kooklets – just because of its size and bright sapphire plumage, but the assortment also contains other avian beauties like the blue-crowned and Nicobar pigeons.
Some of the more unusual reptiles and mammals in residence are the bearded dragon, ridge-tailed monitor, and the tiny sugar glider that seems to have the DNA of ‘possums, squirrels, and monkeys all wrapped neatly together.
Tours of the “outback” are either self-guided or held in the bed of a 1968 “deuce and a half” safari-style truck called the KangaRanger. With the focus highly on education of the species, the center also hosts presentations like Kookaburra Talks, Animals of the Outback, and Boomerang Exhibition.
After spending a day during your walkabout at the Kangaroo Conservation Center, there are other sights in Dawson County to see within just a few miles. Nearby Amicalola Falls State Park encompasses the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi River, a rustic mountaintop lodge with trillion-dollar views of the Blue Ridge, and a home-style restaurant with good ol’ country cookin’. An eight-mile approach trail leads from the park to Springer Mountain and the start of the Appalachian Trail.
Dawsonville is probably the only place in the world where you can say kangaroos NASCAR in the same sentence. Dawsonville, the moonshine capital of the world, is the hometown of Bill Elliott and the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame. NASCAR was born of moonshiners in their hopped-up cars outrunning “revenoo-ers,” and the museum, an impressive display of cars and racing and movie memorabilia is Daytona, Indianapolis, Thunder Road, White Lightning, and Smoky & the Bandit all rolled into one. Although I’m a Georgian, I’m not much of a racing fan (loud gasps here, I’m sure), but even I was bedazzled by the Hall of Fame.
Dawson County is like a treasure chest, and you’ll have a g’day, mate, finding little jewels here and there, like the whimsical Around Back at Rocky’s Place, a unique shop featuring folk art, pottery, whirly-gigs, jewelry, and more from the South’s best folk artists including Cornbread and R.A. Miller.
We flipped for the made-from-scratch “Bully Burgers” and cheese-covered fries at Dawsonville Pool Hall that’s filled with more racing memorabilia. Don’t worry about the calories. Just hike them off at Amicalola Falls or find your way out of the twelve acres and four miles of trails of Uncle Shuck’s Corn Maze and Pumpkin Patch.
Besides the lodge at Amicalola Falls State Park, there are other unusual places to stay around Dawsonville. For those who like roughing it, the Len Foote Hike Inn is accessible only by taking a moderately challenging five-mile hike to the lodge (and five miles out, too). The inn stays booked up, so reservations are required. Prefer a spa and the privacy of luxury mountain cabins amid a spectacular forest setting? Head for the hills of the serene Forrest Hills Lodge.
“You would never know there was such a thing as kangaroos in Georgia,” intoned Elisa O’Brien, who was visiting from Tennessee with her two children. As they watched kangaroos lazing in the sun, she added. “I haven’t been to Australia, but now it feels like I have. That’s pretty remarkable, isn’t it?”
Kangaroos, Southern-style. I’d say it is.
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© 2009, McClatchy-Tribune News Service.
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