For our second HelpX experience we stayed with Renata and Don, wildlife carers that live on a gorgeous big property about 15 minutes from Lismore. It’s in the northernmost part of NSW, so it’s quite warm all year round. Don is an ex-timber worker and crazy good craftsman (he used to make custom rocking horses), so pretty much their whole house has been built by him out of trees that he felled himself. The house is all open air and as it’s in a valley, is surrounded by trees, hills, a little creek, and lots of wildlife. The perfect place to raise wallabies, really. I was so jealous of their outdoor deck because it had some of those hanging egg-shaped chairs I’ve always wanted.
They also had a big outdoor garden, where we spent a couple afternoons planting little seedlings. As a reward we took a pumpkin which we made into pumpkin fries and roasted seeds.
However, the best part of Renata and Don’s house was that is was also inhabited by six little-ish rescue dogs who were all very adorable and always excited to see us.
Lily was the bounciest and friendliest, and always wanted to be in someone’s lap. She would be a naughty dog if she wasn’t so small.
Charlie was “a little bit autistic” according to Don and didn’t really like hanging out with people or other dogs, although he occasionally gave in and let you pet him.
Ochre had the biggest ears ever and liked to give the other dogs kisses, much to their annoyance. His favourite was Sprocket, who always got growly when Ochre insisted on licking him on the mouth (they were in a bit of a “homoerotic relationship”, said Don). Ochre also became terrified whenever Don used his power tools, and would often manage to somehow escape from the yard to avoid the sound. We tried a couple times to set “an Ochre trap”, i.e. putting him in the yard and then having Renata go outside and call him, and see if he could escape. We thought maybe we found and fixed his escape route, until we caught him wandering around outside again hours later. We think maybe his fear of tools gives him a spurt of adrenaline that allows him to leap over the fence or something.
Sprocket was Ochre’s best buddy (in Ochre’s opinion) and the most polite of all the dogs. He loved to sit in your lap and get cuddles, but he always patiently waited for his turn.
Bonaparte was the oldest one, at 18 years. He was pretty spry for an old man dog though!
DB (Or Deebee? Unsure…) was the biggest one and also the most hilarious. He would drag his pillow in front of the fireplace and then bring you pieces of wood to let you know he wanted a fire. He had an “interesting way of communicating”, said Don. He would also roll around playing with any tiny sticks that blew onto the deck.
Renata and Don specialize in wallabies from the furred joey stage and older. They are part of WIRES (the NSW Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service), which is a volunteer organization that fields calls from people who find injured wildlife and organizes the rescue and relocation of said wildlife to the appropriate carer. Renata and Don are actually certified for almost all of the different types of Australian wildlife, but obviously it’s much easier and more efficient for people to specialize in different species. We actually went out on a call with Renata one day, from a community that had found a wallaby killed by a dog and seen the joey hopping around, but alas, we could not find it.
The wallaby “kindergarten” on their property is an enclosure for their smallest wallabies. They are furred and though they spend most of their time in their pouches, they are also able to hop around a bit and test out their legs if they want. This is probably the most adorable age because they haven’t quite grown into their legs yet so their hopping always seems a bit tipsy and out of control.
The two joeys that were there when we arrived were named Sku (which is Danish for cloud) and Jed, and they were both red-necked wallabies. They needed to be fed little bottles of milk every 6 hours, so we fed them at 7am, 1pm, and 7pm (Renata and Don did the 1am feeding, since we weren’t on a wildlife carer’s sleep schedule haha).
Sku and Jed were BFFs who preferred to share a single pouch and sleep in a tangle of legs and tails. Sku was a bit bigger and braver, so I was in charge of feeding him, since he was less bothered by new people. Jed was a bit finicky so Renata usually fed him. Sku actually graduated from being fed in his pouch to being fed standing up while we were here, which was quite exciting!
Less exciting was the part where we had to “toilet” the wallabies after feeding them. Joeys don’t know how to relieve themselves, so in the wild the mother licks them to stimulate them. We used tissues instead. Chris quickly learned that you have to be quick and on the ball with the tissues, or end you end up with wallaby pee on your pants haha.
Iggy (or Mr. Pop, as Don called him) was a young swamp wallaby who was also in the kindergarten enclosure when he arrived. Iggy was actually big enough to be in an outdoor enclosure and didn’t sleep in a pouch anymore, however he had gotten overexcited and broken his foot when he was initially moved into the outdoor enclosure so he was back here recovering. Chris was in charge of feeding Iggy; he enjoyed this because no toileting was needed.
Iggy was a pretty hilarious character, he liked to tear around the room sometimes and would often come to greet us at the door when we came to feed him.
On our last day, Renata decided Iggy was looking well enough to move him back to the outdoor “primary school” enclosure (he was also getting a bit rambunctious and kept running over poor little Sku). We took him to the new enclosure together and then Chris and I babysat him for a bit to make sure he didn’t hurt himself. He seemed pleased to have so many bushes and so much grass to himself. Swamp wallabies like to eat many different types of leaves and flowers in addition to grass, unlike the red-neck wallabies that eat pretty much only grass.
Wallaby Primary School
When we first arrived, the “primary school” enclosure was home to six wallabies: Cassie, Puck, Pebble, Cadagi, Lickity, and Split. Don was really the only one who could tell them all apart. These wallabies were getting pretty independent, and spent a lot of time hopping around and eating grass, although they did still like to go back to their pouches to sleep (sometimes on top on one another).
These wallabies were fed milk three times a day, in addition to some pellets and all the grass they could eat in the enclosure. They were often all waiting for us at the gate when we arrived with the milk and were pretty adorable.
Wallaby High School
The “high school” enclosure was basically the same as the primary school one, just bigger. It was empty when we arrived but partway through our stay we slowly transitioned the six primary school joeys over. This mainly involved moving their pouches over and feeding them in the bigger enclosure until they figured out where their new home was.
Renata and Don soft release all their wallabies. This means that once they’re independent enough, they are basically just let out of their enclosure into the yard. They are still able to come back for a bit of milk or pellets, depending on how old they are. The newly released wallabies tend to live on the property and come back often for snacks, and as time goes on they get brave and eventually move on to different areas. The lovely part about this soft release method is that there were always lots of friendly wallabies roaming around the property. A frequent visitor was Ruby, the first wallaby they ever released. Ruby was on her fourth beautiful baby when we were there. Don had named the baby “Raby”, an amalgamation of “Ruby” and “Baby”, which Renata did not approve of. Apparently he had named the last one “Buby”.
We were bottling milk one morning (something we are pros at now) when Don got called out to pick up a rescued joey. He returned with an adorable pinky! The pinky was small but not too small (if they are too small they usually don’t survive, as they haven’t developed enough). Good thing we had just cleaned up the hospital room a couple days before! Since he was still a little pinky he was put in a special incubator they have just for this purpose.
Renata said we should name the joey, perhaps with something Canadian? We decided on Gordie, in honour of Gordie Howe, who had passed away the week before.
We only kept the pinky for a day before passing him onto a lady who specialized in caring for pinkies. As we have learnt, when caring for multiple joeys it is much easier if they are all around the same age, since joeys at different ages have different feeding schedules and require different formulations of milk (younger joeys need milk with more glucose, whereas older ones need more fat). However, in exchange for the pinky, the other carer gave us another older joey in return! This one was named Mickey, and was furred but a bit smaller than Sku and Jed. He wasn’t quite big enough to try getting out of his pouch and hopping around with them. That didn’t stop them from trying to snuggle their way into his pouch though. We eventually had to clip it closed so they didn’t squish little Mickey when we weren’t looking.
Renata and Don have also rescued and released a few possums. One of them has taken to occasionally taking up residence in Don’s work shed. During these times Don says he can’t do any work since it would disrupt her.
They have raised a number of other types of mammals here, including flying foxes, sugar gliders, and occasionally birds and reptiles.
There were also a bunch of rescued chickens (for laying eggs, not eating) residing on the property. Hilariously the roof of their coop was a laminated puzzle version of the Sistine Chapel, because it had taken Renata and Don so long to complete they decided to never take it apart.
One of the chickens was new, and they had gotten her just a couple days before we arrived. We suspect she may have been a pet chicken or something before because she didn’t get along with the other chooks (I think the rooster may have bullied her) and liked to sleep on top of the washing machine instead of in the coop. We noticed her hanging around our cabin a bunch so I threw her a few handfuls of granola, and we became best friends. It was pretty funny watching her come running whenever we walked past. We had to start being extra careful however, because she would wander into our cabin whenever we left the door open.
As it was winter, there were an abundance of little mice trying to sneak into the warmth of our cabin. They were so adorable and tiny I couldn’t even be mad about it. Chris devised a makeshift non-lethal trap by balancing a toilet paper tube on the steps next to a bucket, and putting some crumbs of rocky road into it. So when the mouse went into the tube it would tip into the bucket. It actually worked surprisingly well! Too well, almost, based on the number of treks we had to make to release the mice in the bushes far from the cabin.
Lismore, the nearest town, was a place we mainly visited for groceries. One rainy morning we went to what they call a “car boot market” there. From what I can tell it is a market that happens in the parking lot (in this case a covered parkade, which was why we went on a rainy day). We had some pretty delicious snacks there.
Ah, Nimbin. What a place indeed. Renata had to run errands one day so we got to take that day off and go on a bit of a road trip. Nimbin is a nearby town that is famous for being “the drug capital of Australia”. It’s a very hippy kind of town that is home to a lot of alternative lifestyles and environmental initiatives. During the hour we spent wandering around the town looking at hemp products and genie pants, four different people offered to sell us marijuana in broad daylight on the main street sidewalk. It’s that kind of place. After observing several locals, Chris also decided that Nimbin would be the worst place to open a bra store. Although, perhaps if they had easier access…?
They also have a bit of a famous handmade candle workshop, and a renewable energy company called The Rainbow Power Company, which has the cutest logo ever.
We resisted the urge to buy any pot brownies, and instead took a scenic drive and hike out to Protestors Falls. They were named for the protestors that were part of the Rainforest War, a conflict involving activists against the logging of the rainforest. They won against the loggers and many still live in the area.
We were pretty sad to say goodbye to all our wallaby (and puppy and chicken) friends at the end of the week. However, it was time to get ready to head to China!