Kangaroos Under the Pyramids

article by by Philippa Werry , illustrated by Marjorie Crosby-Fairall

When the Australian troops set off for World War One, they often took mascots for good luck. People brought animals into the training camps, or the soldiers put out appeals through the newspapers, asking for people to donate kangaroos or wallabies. The animals provided entertainment and interest during the long sea voyages. In Egypt, the troops bought other mascots for a handful of coins in the bazaars.

Zoos far away

There were many different mascots in the camp sites, some so tame that they wandered anywhere they liked around the camp. As well as kangaroos, there were dogs, cats, wallabies, opossums, donkeys and monkeys. Kookaburras could be heard laughing around the tents. There was even mention of a koala and a Tasmanian devil. New South Wales troops made a burrow for their colony of rabbits and surrounded it with a map of Australia, marked out with white stones. The rabbits were very quiet and never tried to leave.

The camp sites were dry and barren, so the soldiers grew patches of grass to feed the rabbits and kangaroos. On windy days, clouds of dust rolled over the camp sites and smothered everything in sand. Sometimes the sandstorms brought clouds of locusts, about five centimetres long and like big, brown grasshoppers, and the soldiers could not help thinking what havoc they would cause to an Australian wheat crop, back home.

A new world

For young men who might never have been out of their own country before, Egypt was an enthralling place, full of ancient sites and fascinating new experiences. On their days off , the soldiers took the tram into the city of Cairo and explored the markets, mosques and museums. They sailed on boats on the Nile River, rode camels and donkeys to the Sphinx and climbed to the tops of the pyramids. Another popular trip was to the Cairo Zoo.

The zoo was set among trees and greenery, which must have been a welcome change from the endless sand of the desert. Its paths were paved with coloured or black-and-white stones set in different patterns, and there were caves, waterfalls and an artificial lake. A band played music in a rotunda and there was a garden with tables and chairs set out for lunches or afternoon teas.

We know what the zoo looked like from soldiers’ letters. When soldiers wrote home during the war, their letters were often published in local newspapers, because other families with sons or brothers serving in the same units would be keen to know what they were doing. Driver Harold Malcolm described ‘the wonderful paths … worked into beautiful designs’ that wound through groves of banyan trees. ‘Everything is beautiful and green, and it takes one right back to the gardens in Adelaide,’ he wrote in 1915.

As well as the beautiful setting that reminded the soldiers of gardens back in Australia, the zoo had an amazing collection of animals: lions and tigers, elephants, giraffes, hippos, ostriches, baboons, monkeys, turtles, alligators, snakes and crocodiles. Surprisingly, it also housed kangaroos and cages of Australian birds. These were regimental mascots that had been donated to the zoo by Australian soldiers when their units had left Egypt for Gallipoli in Turkey.

Reminders of home

Lance Sergeant JW Kerr described the delight of the men as they watched ‘the silly antics of a youthful kangaroo’ or heard ‘the shrill call of the magpie, the chattering of a parrot or cockatoo, or the gee-haw of a kookaburra.’ He said these things helped the men to forget all about war for a few moments, and be transported briefly back to their homelands.

Egyptian people who had never seen kangaroos before were intrigued by them. For the Australian soldiers, the kangaroos were a happy reminder of home. ‘It made our faces glow when we saw them,’ Harold Malcolm wrote.

The kangaroos made a long journey to the other side of the world and, like many of the soldiers, they would never return. They didn’t ask to go to war, but as mascots, they helped to cheer up thousands of men who were far away from family, friends and familiar surroundings.