I do not like koalas. They are nasty, cross, stupid creatures without a friendly bone in their bodies. Their social habits are appalling - the males are always beating their fellows up and stealing their females. They have disgusting defensive mechanisms. Lice infest their fur. They snore. Their resemblance to cuddly toys is a base deceit. There is nothing to commend them.
On top of all that, a koala once tried to do me a very nasty mischief.
A small island named Kudulana about ten kilometres off the coast of Tasmania used to maintain a large population of koalas. Then somebody introduced sheep to the island, cleared too many trees, and suddenly there weren't enough of the right sort of gum leaves and the koalas were in danger of dying out.
A National Parks and Wildlife field officer named Mary Anne Locher was appointed to the task of rounding up the koalas and shipping them to greener pastures on the mainland. She invited me to help her, and on the grounds that there is a story in everything, I accepted.
Mary Anne Locher was rather like a koala herself in appearance. She was short, fat and round and had fluffy brown hair which she wore quite short, and her ears stuck out through it. I suppose she was about fifty at the time, a little older than I.
She always wore brown overalls and these, aided by the effect of her button nose and bright brown eyes, increased her similarity to a koala. Her voice was soft and slightly sibilant and she gave the impression that if you poked her tummy she would squeak. Unlike a koala, she was very pleasant and gentle.
At that stage I was not as corpulent as I am now, but nevertheless I was a well-fleshed man. That is to say, I could tie up my own shoelaces without much difficulty, but I was not athletic.
The unkind might have thought that Mary Anne and I were a slightly comical-looking pair as we left the ferry at Kudulana, one tall and round and bearded, the other short and round and fluffy-haired, each carrying a large, long-handled net and wearing identical brown overalls, for I had borrowed a departmental pair to wear on the job. As the ferry driver unloaded the wooden-slatted cages that were to hold our catch, he went so far as to suggest that our task would be made easy because the koalas would fall out of the trees laughing.
To catch a koala, all you do is startle it so that it jumps or falls off its branch, and then you entrap it in your net. At any rate that's what Mary Anne told me. She didn't mention that it only works with co-operative koalas.
We stacked our gear, camping equipment, medical kit and the cages near the wharf and went koala hunting.
The trees on Kudulana are all very small and spindly and we had no trouble locating the koalas. There were only twelve, and they were in a grove of eucalypts around a large deep pool surrounded by ferns. They were all nestled in forked branches at the tops of the trees. But the trees were only three or four metres high, so the koalas were well within reach of our long-handled nets.
All Mary Anne and I had to do was get them loose, catch them in our nets, then transfer them to the wooden-slatted cages. In theory.
The koalas, furry balls with their heads tucked into their stomachs, didn't seem remotely interested in our presence.
'OK, we'll try that fellow first,' said Mary Anne briskly, pointing to a largeish koala nestling in a fork not much higher than I could reach. 'You frighten him and I'll catch him.'
She raised her net so that the mouth was just under the koala and stood poised, waiting to see which way the koala would jump. I held my net ready as a backup.
The koala seemed to be asleep, and I wondered for the first time just how one went about startling such a lethargic creature.
'Should I poke it with my net?' I asked Mary Anne.
'No, that'll just make it hang on. Shout.'
I had no idea in what terms one shouted at koalas, but I did my best.
'Boo!' I cried.
The koala didn't stir.
'Boo! Boo!' I shouted, as loudly as I could.
The koala opened one eye. Surprisingly, it was bloodshot. It looked at me for a long level moment, then wearily dosed its eye again.
'It doesn't startle easily,' I said.
'No,' said Mary Anne. 'Try shaking the tree.'
I laid down my net, grasped the tree which was very slender, no more than a sapling, really - and shook it violently.
The koala opened both its red-rimmed eyes and looked down on me malevolently. Then it applied a defensive device common to most arboreal marsupials. My hair, beard, face and shoulders were drenched with foully acrid fluid.
'Oh, sorry,' said Mary Anne, 'I should have warned you about that.'
I did my best with a handkerchief while the koala, apparently satisfied with its work, dosed its eyes and went back to sleep.
'Why don't we push the bloody thing off the branch with our nets and catch it on the ground?' I said when I was more or less dry, but still smelling vile.
'You can't dislodge a koala once it's got a hold on something. They've got a grip of iron.'
'Well, what are we going to do? Nothing short of a bomb is going to startle that creature.'
Mary Anne thought. 'Could you climb that tree?'
I looked at the tree. It wasn't very big, but it would hold my weight and the koala wasn't far up.
'Yes,' I said, 'I think so.'
'Then go up and shout in its ear. Don't touch it. It'll probably jump when you get near.'
With considerable effort I hauled myself to the base of the branch in which the koala was snuggling. I wasn't much more than my own height above the ground, and I could have reached out and touched the koala, which was not far from my head. I kept my head carefully away from the little beast.
'Boo!' I shouted.
The koala took no notice. I edged closer along the branch.
The branch broke. Branch, koala and I dropped abruptly into the thick ferns below.
The koala landed on its back. I landed spreadeagled on the koala. The koala was out of sight beneath my considerable bulk, but I knew it was there because it was growling and snorting and trying to dig its way to freedom through my yielding flesh.
It was an extraordinary experience down in those ferns, winded, able to see nothing but fern fronds, half-stunned so that I couldn't co-ordinate myself, with that hard-muscled, surprisingly large fur-covered length of malevolence trying to disembowel me.
Where the hell was Mary Anne?
In fact she was running around to the other side of the patch of ferns to catch the koala when it came out.
Now, koalas have another protective device, apart from the one they use on you from a great height. They cling to the belly of their oppressor and simply hang on with tooth and claw. It's a mechanism probably designed to work on dingoes. Once the koala is dinging to the dog's underside, the dog can't get at it with its jaws. I gather that in these circumstances the koala is quite prepared to hang on until the dingo collapses.
I didn't know this at the time. It wouldn't have helped if I had.
The koala evidently gave up all hope of escape and decided on the anti-dingo defense. It was upside down in relation to me and its back claws grasped my chest and dug in. Its front claws grasped my thighs and dug in. Its head went between my legs and its teeth dug into my crotch.
Fortunately a koala's mouth isn't very big. But it's big enough.
'What's happened?' called Mary Anne, out of sight.
'It's got me!' I bellowed, rolling over on my back and clawing at the koala with both hands. It rolled with me and clamped its hold tighter - all its holds.
I screamed again and started pummeling the brute with my fists. It was like pummeling fur-covered wood and made as much impression. The thing had muscles fashioned from some substance far harder than any animal tissue ought to be.
Again I screamed and I could hear Mary Anne crashing through the ferns towards me.
The koala, presumably thinking I had reinforcements coming, gripped harder still at all points.
It was growling like something demented, which it was, of course, and its backside was almost in my face even my peril in no way diminished the frightful stench of the creature.
Mary Anne's head came in sight over the ferns. I was thrashing and clawing in a tangle of fern fronds and she couldn't see exactly what was going on beyond the fact that I had the koala and the koala had me.
'Careful you don't hurt it,' she called. I would have laughed in different circumstances.
'Get it off!' I gasped.
'Never get him off now,' she said vexedly, 'I'll have to sedate him.' And the bloody woman trotted off to the wharf to get her medical kit.
'Won't be a minute,' I heard her call as she disappeared through the ferns. 'Just lie still - don't worry, he won't let go now.'
That wasn't my worry at all. 'Mary Anne!' I roared, 'The brute has got me by the . . .' but she didn't hear me.
There was no way I could lie there until she came back, with that creature vigorously trying to desex me.
I struggled to my feet complete with koala and tried to run after her.
Ever tried to run with a koala's claws in your chest and thighs and its teeth in your crotch? It's not possible.
I was very dose to tears of rage, pain and frustration. I floundered through the ferns and tried barging into a tree, koala first. All I did was drive tooth and claw further in. I tried falling on the damned thing. I winded myself.
On all fours now and near collapse, my disintegrating mind suddenly grasped the fact that I was on the edge of the pool in the centre of the koala-haunted grove of trees.
With a manic cry of hope I scuttled forward, took a deep breath and flung myself in, complete with koala.
The water was blessedly deep and we went down like stones.
I didn't know how long a koala could hold its breath but as far as I was concerned we were both staying down until the koala let go or we both drowned.
Unfortunately, it seems that koalas can hold their breath indefinitely.
The koala was a dead weight holding me down and we stayed in those brown dark depths for what seemed like half an eternity. The pain in my bursting lungs began to equal my other pains.
Eventually, I realised that there was no need for me to have my head under water. It may seem I was slow in reaching an obvious conclusion but if you've never been submerged in a bush pool in the clutches of a furious koala, you can't appreciate how difficult it is to think clearly in the circumstances.
I struck for the surface, got my head out, breathed deeply and gratefully and set about trying to throttle the koala.
Koalas are very hard to throttle, particularly when they have the sort of grip on you this one had on me. But I tried hard, completely disregarding the fact that it was a member of a protected species.
The koala seemed determined to die under water with my fingers around its neck. That was all right by me, as long as it died quickly.
Then, even through my pain, I had the terrible worry that a dead koala might not loosen its grip. Would I need surgery to detach me from this malign beast?
Then the beast gave up - a good twenty minutes, I swear, after it was first submerged, although Mary Anne has claimed she was away less than a minute. Time is, of course, relative.
The koala let go and surfaced near my face. Its toy features were expressionless, but it coughed and growled viciously and I backed away fearfully.
A gleam of contempt seemed to appear in its bloodshot eyes and it turned and swam expertly to the edge of the pool, clambered out, trundled across to a tree, climbed it, looked down at me bleakly, and went to sleep, dripping water.
I climbed out of the pool.
Mary Anne came back and expressed surprise that the koala had let go and asked why I was all wet.
I said I would explain later and went off into the bush to examine my person.
The overalls I was wearing were of very thick cloth and no serious damage had been done. No thanks to the koala.
Mary Anne and I eventually caught all the koalas on the island and set them free on the mainland, but I didn't carry out the task with good grace. I'll never go to the aid of the brutes again.
I do not like koalas.