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This story about the time I accidentally locked my keys in the car — in the middle of the Australian Outback — was published in the Travelers’ Tales anthology, The Thong Also Rises.
“I can’t believe you left them there,” Jim muttered as I squeezed the handle and pulled hard for a third time.
“What do you mean, you can’t believe it? You can see them as well as I can. You’re not going blind, are you?” The keys were clearly visible in the ignition. People were beginning to stare.
He walked around to my side of the car. “I knew this would happen if I let you drive.”
“It has nothing to do with my driving.” I circled to the passenger side to try that handle again. “My driving was fine. It’s not as though you’ve never locked keys in the car.” I wasn’t entirely certain he ever had, but was willing to gamble on it to make my point. I wanted desperately to defend myself, because I suspected my mistake would have serious consequences.
We had rented our Holden wagon in Darwin, 300 miles away. At first, the man at the A1 Car Rental company tried to give us an old beater: no radio, one broken window, lots of dents, the whole thing covered in powdery red dust. “Yir goin’ tuh Katherine? This’s yir car, mate!”
The salesman looked at us incredulously when we complained. After some verbal wrangling, my husband, who is large and can be quite persuasive, managed to get us a late model station wagon with intact windows and a weak-but-functioning air conditioner.
Knowing we were in for long expanses of empty highway, we stopped at the edge of town to top off the fuel tank. “What’s the speed limit, anyway?” Jim asked the attendant..
“What kin ya do, mate?’
“I said, ‘What’s the speed limit on the highway to Katherine?’” Jim repeated himself cheerfully. He meets strangers easily.
“What kin ya do?”
We hadn’t anticipated any troubles communicating with the locals on our trip Down Under, but that had been naïve. Their accents were difficult to understand, the rhyming slang was impossible to decipher, and the wry Aussie sense of humor kept me off balance. I had become resigned to the fact that I was clueless much of the time, but Jim liked to maintain a sense of control.
About an hour out of Darwin we stopped to take each other’s picture standing next to what the Aussies call “anthills.” These aren’t mere bumps of soft dirt, like American anthills. They are towering structures, sometimes as much as twenty feet high, built by termites out of their own saliva and feces. The resulting substance is so hard that the anthills were ground up and used instead of concrete to make airplane runways during World War II. Or so the Aussies said, and I believed them.
The instant we climbed out of the car, flies covered us both. Flies! Making themselves at home on my bare arms, crawling up my legs, doing their best to creep into my eyes and mouth. I tried desperately to shoo them away, but the flies were not deterred; they crawled over us with impunity. Billions of them live there – maybe trillions. I read that there are more than 650 separate species in Australia. The air was hot — easily 105F — and the land stretched out flat and dusty, with sparse vegetation and even fewer animals. I couldn’t imagine how such a lifeless expanse could possibly support those buzzing hordes. What did they eat, anyway, when there were no tourists around?
We snapped our anthill photos fast and hopped back into the car. Hundreds of flies came with us. After some frantic experimentation, involving swatting, speeding, swerving, and swearing, we discovered that the best way to get rid of flies was to open all the windows and drive slowly. Of course this rendered the air conditioner useless, and we were soon dripping with perspiration, which caused the red Outback dust to cake onto our bodies in a most unattractive way.
When I had exterminated all the flies but three, I climbed into the back seat and smashed the last survivors with our A1 rental papers. They left dry, brown smears across the part where we had signed up for extra insurance. Then we rolled up the windows and drove in silence, waiting for the car to cool off. It was too hot to talk.
As it turned out, there was, indeed, no official speed limit on the road to Katherine. Hundreds of miles of open road, dead straight, no highway patrol. The speed limit was whatever you could coax your car to do. I say “coax” because only a fool would take a high performance car on this road. When we stopped to get the camera, I discovered that the inside of the trunk was covered with fine red dust. The dust was also sucked into our luggage, and, inside that, into the plastic bag I use to protect the camera from dust. It gets into the engine, too, and the brakes. That was why the rental company had at first provided us with a beater for the trip. I began to feel guilty that we were ruining this A1 car for anything but Outback travel.
There were “speed limit” signs on the road: white rectangles with a big black zero in the center. (“What kin ya do?”) Jim took full advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and opened it up on the open road. When the speedometer hit 130 kilometers, I looked away. Mostly the trip was OK, and even seemed fairly safe, because there were no other vehicles on the road. A couple of times we hit potholes and bounced hard. Once there was a really loud noise, and when I looked in the mirror I thought I saw something fall off the bottom of the car. But it was getting late, and we kept driving until we got to Katherine.
The next morning, the car seemed fine, and we took a dirt road out to Glen Helen, which is an outpost in the middle of nowhere. It consists of one gasoline pump, two camels in a small corral, a permanent-looking “No Vacancy” sign, and a small motel-and-bar combination called the All Seasons Glen Helen Homestead.
There isn’t much to do in Glen Helen, except to take a hike up the gorge, which is a dramatic contrast to the rest of the Outback. It was fun at first: a small stream gurgled along the trail, there were a few hardy plants, and the steep canyon walls sheltered us from the sun. Here and there a gray lizard skittered out of our path, but other than that, it was dead quiet. After a while we were too hot even in the shade, and we were tired and hungry, so we walked back to the roadhouse.
This is when we discovered I had locked the keys in the car. We had left our wallets safely in the glove compartment, since we wouldn’t need them on the hike. (No need to carry any more than was necessary.) When we returned, we needed money to buy a couple of cold beers and some tucker (food). So there we were, circling the car, tugging the handles, arguing, hot and tired and hungry.
My clothes were sticking to my body. A fly landed on Jim’s face, and walked into his nose. Until you have witnessed it, you cannot imagine how intensely irritable it makes a person when a fly crawls into his nostril and refuses to be dislodged.
It was at this point that we had the conversation about my driving.
Several helpful folks wandered over to view the keys dangling from the ignition and offer advice. “Why donja jus use yir spair key, mate?” one asked.
“This woonda happened if you’da left yir windars open,” another offered.
The most practical of the lot suggested we simply throw a brick through the window, “She’ll be right, mate!” When you’re in the Outback, life seems fairly straightforward.
But there were no bricks to be had in Glen Helen, so I went inside, bummed some change, and phoned A1. It turned out the only spare key was in their Alice Springs office, more than 800 miles away. They said they’d send someone right over, as soon as they could round up an airplane. “No worries.”
Waiting for the car keys to be delivered, Jim chatted up the waitress at the All Seasons Glen Helen Homestead – as I recall, he was not speaking to me at that time – and expressed his disgust over the hundreds of flies crawling on the outside of the window.
“Awwr that’s nothin’, mate!” she responded. “In the summa they completely cuvah ervery winda, so no light comes in uh’tall. Keeps the place coolah that way.”
Hours passed. It was late afternoon, and I began to worry about where we would spend the night. There were no vacant rooms at the Homestead, and I was sure the Outback was at least as inhospitable at night as it was during the day. We couldn’t even sleep in the car. There was no one to hitch a ride back to Katherine with; the travelers who were not staying the night had long since left. It was beginning to look like Jim might spend the night with the waitress, but what about me? I tried to remember whether Bedouins or other desert people slept with their camels, but could only dredge up stories of mean-spirited animals that spit and kicked at humans.
I was in the middle of wondering whether lizards, which of course are cold-blooded, would be attracted to my body heat if I were sleeping in the desert, when a cheerful man in short shorts and an A1 shirt appeared and handed Jim the key, no worries. What did we owe him for this extravagant kindness? “Awwr, nothin’ mate.” He gave Jim a friendly slap on the back. “We’ll sen’ja the bill laytah.”
They did, too. Five months later a charge for $65 showed up on my credit card bill. Sixty-five dollars — not even enough to pay for the airplane fuel! The description said simply, “A1 key delivery.” Life is fairly straightforward in the Outback.
This story won the 2008 Solas Award bronze for the best “Bad Trip” story.
By Laurie McAndish King
Jim was hesitant right from the start.
“Cape Tribulation? Wilderness Area? No way!”
Our travel agent had provided a bright, glossy brochure of the Bunyip Lodge, and I talked my husband into going along to this eco-resort in northern Australia. “Eco-tourism” sounded so romantic: waking to the trill of morning birdsong, viewing exotic animals without binoculars, and falling asleep to the melodic sounds of the night forest. Who could resist two weeks in a pristine rainforest? I reminded my metro man that there was a resort in eco-resort, and assured him that any inconveniences would be minor. Besides, the brochure featured a photo of a sparkling swimming pool. If Jim decided against traipsing through the rainforest with me, he could always relax with a book by the pool.
I wanted to be one with the rainforest.
We traveled twelve thousand miles by air and bus, transferred to a treacherous wooden ferry to cross the Daintree River, and finished our trip in an eight-passenger minibus that rattled and shivered and shimmied along a deeply rutted road. So far, so good. But, arriving at the Bunyip Lodge that night, we began to discover the true meaning of “eco-tourism.” The minibus would not fit on the “resort’s” narrow, overgrown road, so the driver was forced to deposit us-rather unceremoniously, I thought-in the middle of a dense jungle. There were no lights at the drop-off point and, as the minibus quivered off to its next destination, we found ourselves standing alone with our luggage.
In complete darkness.
We hadn’t packed flashlights. Who would think we’d need a flashlight to get to the hotel lobby? Jim and I stood stupidly in place for a few minutes as our eyes adjusted to the darkness, and eventually discovered a path leading to a faint light. Leaving our luggage heaped in a pile, we stumbled down the bumpy, vine-tangled trail towards the resort.
The porters can retrieve it later, I thought.
Although there was no lobby, we did manage to track down the proprietor, an amiable fellow called Tony, who was unable to check us in because the computer was “down.”
“A bug?” I sympathized, remembering the last time my own computer had crashed.
“Nawr-it’s the bloody mice. They’ve chewed right through the wires again,” Tony explained. Ever helpful, he lent us a couple of flashlights so we could retrieve our luggage and carry it to the cabin.
There were no porters.
Jim and I were both dripping with sweat before we had walked the 100 yards from drop-off point to office. But we remained optimistic, and decided that although the weather and accommodations were not exactly what we had anticipated, it would be fine as long as there was air conditioning.
Of course, there was no air conditioning.
There were cracks in the walls wide enough for a small dog to pass through (surely these were not for wildlife viewing) and a narrow bed surrounded by alarming volumes of mosquito netting (never a good sign). There was also a permanent-looking sign in the room requesting that we leave the lights and ceiling fan on at all times to inhibit the encroachment of some sort of creeping jungle rot. And there was a super-sized red box of salt in the bathroom, with instructions for using it to remove leeches.
“Simply rub the salt over the attached leech….”
Jim and I both sat on the bed and turned to face each other. He beat me to the question: “Whose idea was this, anyway?”
It was time for some serious attitude adjustment. We ambled over to the open-air bar, sucked down gin and tonics, and flipped through a couple of natural history books we found lying around. I hoped to spot the rare buff-breasted paradise kingfisher. “It migrates all the way from New Guinea,” the guidebook said, “to breed only in this small area in North Queensland, and nests by burrowing into termite mounds.” I would also be on the lookout for the musky rat kangaroo and for the cassowary, an ostrich-like bird that can kick a person to death in self-defense. Now this was exciting.
Not wanting to be outdone, Jim studied up on the plants. “It says there’s something called the Gimpy Gimpy plant that causes horses to commit suicide.”
“Does not,” I countered. Surely he was kidding.
“Duh-zz. Page 137. The most terrifying plant in the area,” Jim read, “is the Gimpy Gimpy. When brushed against, its leaves release an extremely painful irritant. There is no known antidote, and the pain can last for months.”
“All right, but what about the horses….” I interrupted, catching him in what was surely a complete fabrication.
“Horses have been known to die from charging into trees after exposure to this plant,” he continued. “The leaves appear soft and fuzzy from a distance, and have been used, by some stunningly unfortunate explorers, as rainforest toilet paper.”
Over another round of gin and tonics, Jim and I anticipated the next day’s activities, which now revolved around avoiding the Gimpy Gimpy plant. “We might be lucky enough to spot a small, dusky-colored, rat-like kangaroo scampering about in the rainforest shadows,” I enthused. “It’s the world’s most primitive marsupial!”
“Yes, and we could also see a small brown bird covered with termites, or a large brown bird that could kick us to death,” Jim replied, with somewhat less enthusiasm. “These were the exotic native species you had dreamed of encountering?”
The next morning, the air remained thick. The shirts we had worn the day before and hung in front of the window to air out remained wet-not merely damp, but soaked through-with perspiration.
We tried to find dry clothes, but everything inside our suitcases was wet, too, so Jim used a hairdryer on our shorts and shirts. Then we headed for the lodge, where I scouted around for the inviting swimming pool that had been featured in the brochure. I was desperate to float in it. I imagined diving in, a brisk splash, then full-body relief.
The pool did not exist.
Oh, there was a tiny wading hole, similar in overall look, if not dimension, to the palatial pool featured in the brochure. The photographer had apparently taken the shot from ground level, and used an extremely wide-angle lens, in order to flatter the tiny pond and convince unsuspecting tourists to register at this eco, so-called resort. I was sorely tempted to call it quits, but we couldn’t go home. We were stuck for six more days in this purgatory of heat and humidity.
Tony was sympathetic and let us in on a secret. He suggested we spend the morning “cooling your inner core,” as the locals did, by soaking in Cooper’s Creek just down the hill. Also, he assured us that the leeches there were only small, the kind that bite you gently and then fall off.
“Just a little nibble, really. No worries.”
The photo-perfect swimming hole was clear and beautiful, surrounded by lush tropical vegetation, shaded by magnificent rainforest trees. And the water was cold, as Tony had promised.
Very, very cold.
I’m a bit of a baby about plunging my body into icy leech-filled streams, so it took me a good twenty minutes to submerge. My feet were easy, lower legs not so bad. Thighs difficult, waist nearly impossible. The water was unbearably cold, and I kept thinking about the leeches, and which of my body parts they would be most likely to attach themselves to. Did they prefer light or dark, cold or warmth, freedom to crawl around or a cozy nook or cranny…?
With my mind finally off the oppressive heat I relaxed, looked around, and began to think: Who would live in a place like this, anyway? Were they all insane? Had they been kicked out of other towns, or even other countries? Visions of early shiploads of convicts filled my mind. Perhaps the crazy ones had migrated to Queensland. An intense vibration interrupted my reverie, and I realized my teeth were chattering uncontrollably. After sitting in the numbingly-cold creek for more than an hour, we had induced hypothermia. This was the locals’ brilliant strategy for surviving in such a sweltering climate!
But we did finally feel better (especially after removing the small leech that clung tenderly to my right big toe). So much better, in fact, that we decided to take a nature walk. Tony drove us to a nearby nature reserve and introduced us to Helen, a stout, Hobbit-like creature with the air of someone who had spent too many years alone in the jungle. Although the sun was shining and the sky showed no signs of rain, she dressed in a bright yellow slicker and knee-high gumboots for our rainforest walk.
Jim grew bored quickly. “I think we’ve seen all 3,052 endemic species,” he muttered from behind me on the trail. “Now I only need to sit on a Gimpy Gimpy plant to make my trip complete.”
It was then we came upon what were clearly Helen’s favorites: ants crawling by the thousands along rough tree branches. Each ant was about a quarter of an inch long, and had a delicate, bright green abdomen that was grossly over-extended-filled with nectar the ant had collected-and looked as though it was about to burst. Helen gently pulled an extra-large-sized ant off a tree and extended it towards my face. “‘Ere ya go, then. Go ahead, lick its butt.”
Lick the ant’s butt?
I don’t know whether I was more afraid of the ant, with its horrifyingly engorged abdomen, or of Helen and her curiously insistent attitude. She touched the ant’s translucent bulge to her own confidently outstretched tongue, and I bravely followed suit. After it was clear I had not been poisoned, Jim licked his own ant, and his eyes shot open. The taste was like mixing the fizz of Alka Seltzer with lime sherbet, and then multiplying by a gazillion. Ziiiiingo!
Helen explained that the ants were great to have around, as they kept other bugs away. I was glad to hear this, because I’m always the first to know when mosquitoes are nearby: they apparently sense the sweetness of my blood, or the depth of my hatred for their species, and swarm about me without fail.
Despite the ants, today was no exception. The mosquitoes swarmed, they landed, and they sucked my blood mercilessly. I convinced Helen and Jim to turn back just as it began to rain. Venomous tree frogs sang a deafening chorus that echoed in every direction and disoriented me completely. Water gushed down in torrents. “It’s called a rainforest for a reason,” Jim replied with an irritating satisfaction the one time I dared to complain. Our feet sank into calf-deep mud, which splattered onto my legs and threatened my balance and oozed its way down to the very toes of my boots. My bare arms and legs itched wildly.
That’s when I realized my wish had been granted.
I had licked an ant’s butt, and I had provided nourishing blood for the local mosquitoes and leeches. I had melted in the heat and been numbed by the creek, been thrown off balance in mud and disoriented by echoing frogsong.
I had become one with the rainforest.
The next morning I counted more than 75 bites on the lower half of my left leg alone. I spent the following week suffering grievously, and experimenting with every imaginable remedy for itching, none of which was particularly effective. But this is the trip we will remember forever. When I reminded him of it several years later, Jim replied, “Let’s do it again!”
This story about feeling lost in downtown Melbourne was chosen as a Travelers’ Tales Editor’s Choice.
They say the Polynesians navigated by squatting low between the two hulls of their ocean-faring canoes, testicles dangling into the water. The combination of ultra-sensitive skin, keen attention to the subtleties of ocean swells, and nautical lore handed down from father to son enabled these ancient tribes to explore the uncharted waters of the South Pacific, and eventually to locate and populate the thousands of tiny islands there.
Yes, Australians speak English, and no, you will not understand everything they say. You’ll want at least a basic understanding of Aussie terminology before you visit:
Shorties: Many Aussie words are shortened from the original English to end in -y, -ie, or -o. This is undoubtedly just to make it difficult for us foreigners to keep up with the conversation.
For example, a grown man will take a tinnie (beer) to the footy (football game), save his mate (friend) a possie (position, as in space, spot, seat), and be aggro (aggravated) if someone tries to nick (steal) the seat.
Or you might be invited to a barby (barbeque) in the arvo (afternoon) after opening prezzies (presents) from the rellies or relos (relatives) on Chrissy (Christmas Day).
Rhyming Slang: It began with 18th-century cockney convicts transported Down Under, and over time morphed into a unique subsector of the language: descriptive rhymes substituting for words. For example, trouble and strife = wife, cheese and kisses = Mrs., and billy lids = kids.
If you’re asked to, “Pick up the Al Capone” it means, “Pick up the phone” and if someone suggests you wear a “bag of fruit,” she simply means you should put on a suit. If you’re “going it Pat Malone,” it means you’re alone.
There is no possible way to figure out Rhyming Slang; you must rely entirely on the kindness of your Aussie hosts to decipher it for you!
Aussie Battlers: Some Aussie expressions have grown out of the unique world view from Down Under. Aussie Battler, for example, is a complimentary term for the average working person who’s always trying to get ahead, but never quite making it, despite his or her courage or persistence.
A tall poppy is an achiever who becomes well-known in the process; it can be a derisive term implying arrogance or success at someone else’s expense. A dag is an untrendy or unsociable person; the term comes sheep dags (“dirt” caught in the fleece around sheep’s butts). And whilst an American might have “bats in the belfrey,” an Aussie could have “kangaroos in the top paddock.”
Danger Zone: Some Aussie words and phrases sound like American English, but mean something quite different. You’ll want to know the following to avoid embarassing miscommunications:
At the footy, you “barrack” for your favorite team rather than rooting, which has a sexual connotation. Likewise, if an Aussie tells someone to “get stuffed,” he is not talking about eating.
And please use the term “bum bag” rather than “fanny pack,” which would be quite a rude phrase Down Under.aggro
Here’s a glossary you might find helpful:
Al Capone (rhyming slang): phone
Aussie Rules: Australian Rules Football
Aussie battler, battler: hard-working underdog
Aussie salute: shooing away flies
back of beyond: way out in the middle of nowhere
bag of fruit (rhyming slang): suit
barrack: to cheer for a team
bug (Moreton Bay bug): lobster-like seafood
beaut!: great! (beautiful)
Bob’s your uncle!: Everything’s great!
bonnet (of a car): hood (car)
boot (of a car): trunk (car)
bot: borrow (or have)
capsicums: bell peppers
car park: parking lot
chewie: chewing gum
cuppa: a cup of (tea, coffee, etc.)
daggy: outdated, uncool
de facto: live-in boyfriend or girlfind
dead horse: rhyming slang for tomato sauce (ketchup)
dinky-di: true blue
fair dinkum: honest
fair go: fair chance
fairy floss: cotton candy
footy: Australian Rules Football
Good on ya!: Good job!
gridiron: American footall
littlies: little kids
loo: bathroom, toilet
lounge room: living room
mate: good friend (used by men and refers to men)
milk bar: small grocery store
muck things up: mess things up
the Never Never: the middle of nowhere
no worries: nothing to worry about
savories: hors d’oeuvres
septic tanks (rhyming slang): Yanks, Americans
She’s sweet!: Everything’s great!
She’s apples!: Everything’s great!
sheila: woman (used by a man; not particularly complimentary)
She’ll be right: It’ll be fine
shout: pay for someone’s drink, or for a round of drinks, as in: It’s my shout.
smoko: a break (at work; not necessarily for a cigarette)
spot on: exactly
squash: soda pop
squiz: quick look
sticky wicket: awkward situation
sticky beak: nosy person
‘Strine: Australian (as pronounced by an Australian)
take the mickey out: tease
takeaway: takeout food
tall poppy: high achiever (not a compliment)
tinny: can of beer
whinge: whine or complain
windcheater: windbreaker jacket
Sunny and warm, hilly and green, grown up around a huge bay with miles of coastline. . . Sydney sports world class restaurants, beaches, museums, shopping, you name it.
The Sydney Harbor Bridge connects the city’s central business district with its northern suburbs. When it was completed in 1932 it was the largest single-arch bridge in the world.
Things to see and do there are well-documented in guide books, and we didn’t spend enough time there to learn the “inside” activities, so you’re on your own. We especially enjoyed the harbor cruise.
Prue Hewett’s Cooper Creek Nature Reserve is a World Heritage Area with one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity on the planet. More than 3,000 plant species have been identified here, and more are being discovered each year.
It’s also home to some very rare plants, more than 40 of which occur here alone nowhere else in the world! Prue herself took us on a two-hour walk deep into the rainforest, and showed us many rare and wonderful things. For instance, the Cairns Birdwing Butterfly (left).
The green ant. Prue pulled several large ones off a tree, and invited us to “lick the butt” of the ant. She said it had a unique taste, and I wanted to try it, but was a little afraid, so I made her go first. (Well, we had just met her. The three of us were alone in the rainforest. For all I knew she could be crazy, and trying to poison us. I had heard about how poisonous frogs can be in the rainforest.) It was unique. The closest I can come to describing it is to say that it was a little like mixing alka seltzer (the fizz, not the salt) with lime sherbet, and then multiplying by one thousand. Ziiingo!! Prue explained that the ants nested in trees, and were great to have around as they kept other bugs away.
The “Gimpy Gimpy” plant (Dendrocnide moroides). Similar to stinging nettle: the leaves and stem are covered with hairs the plant manufactures out of silica. When brushed against, the tiny, glass-like tips break off, penetrate skin, and an extremely painful irritant poison is released. There is no known antidote, and the pain can last for weeks or months . . . and can be reactivated for up to several years by exposure to water or cold weather. Apparently horses have been known to commit suicide (well, it said “die,” but I DID read this in a book) by running into trees after exposure to this plant.
To make matters worse, the leaf is large and fuzzy, and looks like it would be an ideal, soft, rainforest substitute for toilet paper. Do NOT make this mistake! How to recognize: by large, heart-shaped leaf, with serrated edges. Stem enters from beneath (not edge of) leaf.
Giant Strangler Figs, which begin their lives when a seed is deposited (shat) high in a tree . . . the roots grow downward towards the earth, grasping and growing onto the host tree (and any other structural support they come across) until they finally reach land, sometimes hundreds of feet below.
We got to see the “Wait-Awhile” plant, also called Lawyer Cane … because once hooked by the thorns on this plant, one is as irretrievably entangled as if involved in the legal process. (I didn’t make this up.) It starts out looking like a small palm tree, then grows long, wiry “tendrils”which are decidedly not tender; they’re lined with rows of viciously sharp barbed hooks.
If you brush past one, it grabs your clothing and holds on tightly until you back up and remove it. The plant has even been known to pull people off horses and motorcycles as they ride by. Eventually, the long, barbed vine-like part grows to an inch or more in diameter, the thorns drop off, and the result is the rattan from which chairs were made in the 1970s. (I have no idea what they’ve done with rattan since the 70s.)
The rare Buff Breasted Paradise Kingfisher (Tanysiptera sylvia). “Undoubtedly our most spectacular kingfisher,” which migrates from New Guinea to breed in this small area in North Queensland, and nests by burrowing into termite mounds. (The termites simply wall off the invaded area and go on about their business.)
Boyd’s Rainforest Dragon (Gonocephalus boydii). A beautiful, “rarely-seen” slow-moving lizard found only in tropical North Queensland forests. We saw one! He was really pretty, with camouflage coloring and prehistoric-looking lumps and bumps. (Photo at left does not do him justice.)
The musky rat kangaroo, which is the world’s most primitive marsupial (looks like a rat) … Ryparosa javanica, the botanical evolutionary evidence that Australia was once joined with the Java land mass (about 15 million years ago, scientists think) … The primitive cycad (Lepidozamia hopeii), which grows about 1 meter every 100 years … Native bamboo, which grows the same amount overnight … tree ferns … orchids … countless wonderful species.
What we didn’t see but wish we had: The cassowary, a large, flightless bird that’s a member of the most primitive group of still-living birds including the ostrich, rhea, and kiwi. The male of this species incubates eggs and cares for the young. Adults have very powerful legs, and if they kick in self-defense can easily kill humans (and have). Cassowaries are in danger of becoming extinct because of habitat loss. Local experts say recent reports of increased cassowary population are significantly overstated.
Prue explained it can take 800 years for a regenerating rainforest to renew itself to a “mature” state after having been disturbed. So here’s my eco-schpiel: we’re losing an estimated 115,000 acres of tropical forest every day (according to the Rainforest Alliance), and with them, about one hundred species. That’s 36,500 species lost each year! In addition to extinction, of course, deforestation results in soil erosion, air and water pollution, accelerated greenhouse effect, water shortages, and flooding.
So please don’t buy tropical hardwoods, use less paper, eat less red meat, plant a tree, call or write your legislators, practice responsible ecotourism, and remember rainforests in your will. Your kids will be glad you did
Australia can be a rough country, and visitors, like residents, are expected to take responsibility for themselves. Common-sense precautions are generally all that’s required, but be aware of the following challenges:
Kangaroos: In southern Victoria you might find yourself golfing with a kangaroo. Fore! While golf partners themselves don’t constitute a hazard, inattention does. Remember to be aware of your surroundings at all times, even in the most “civilized” situations and locations.
Impact: This touring truck comes equipped with a “Roo Bar” for protecting passengers from sudden impact with a kangaroo, which can be a particular hazard when the creatures decide to cross major roads at night. When you’re driving fast, impact with a large animal can do serious damage to a car or truck — and its occupants — so be sure to hire a properly-equipped vehicle for Outback explorations.
Cliffs: Check out this sign, which vividly depicts a person falling off a crumbling cliff. In the U.S., we’d build big fences to protect ourselves from ourselves, but Down Under they feel that simply posting a reminder is quite adequate. You won’t find Aussies trying to sue each other for their own mistakes like we do in the States, either.
Crocodiles: freshwater, saltwater, in the water or out of the water, you just do not want to tangle with a croc. The “freshies” are supposedly safe, if you listen to the locals, and we did actually swim near some on a very hot day in Litchfield Park — but I don’t recommend it.
“Salties” or salt-water crocodiles should always be considered dangerous, and — despite their name — can be found in brackish coastal waters, tidal rivers, billabongs, swamps, and even up-river in fresh water, as well as offshore. Even large crocs eat mostly small prey, such as turtles, lizards, and shore birds, but occasionally buffalo, livestock, wallabies and the like fall victim, and some humans are injured and killed every year by salties because of foolhardiness or simple lack of awareness.
Box Jellyfish are carnivorous sea creatures, pale blue, transparent — almost invisible in the water — with highly toxic, fast-acting venom . . . made all the more dangerous by the fact that they swarm in shallow tropical waters during the late summer, which is their spawning season and our swimming season. Signs urge taking vinegar to pour onto a sting (vinegar deactivates the remaining stinging cells), but it is far better to avoid these creatures altogether, as contact can be excruitatingly painful, and can cause cardiac arrest within minutes.
Floodwater can arrive surprisingly quickly due to flash flooding and tides, rendering crossings impassable and autos inoperable, inundating steep gorges, and separating bushwalkers from their vehicles. Pay close attention to posted warning signs; they indicate serious danger.
Lack of water: While too much water, too quickly, can cause cause flooding, it’s also true that much of Australia suffers the hazard of too little water. Many people succumb to heat stress each year, and it’s important to be very well prepared before hiking in remote areas. Let others know where you’re going, carry a map, reduce your activity during the hottest part of the day, and don’t simply carry plenty of drinking water — you’ll need to actually drink it!
Cradle Mountain, in the northwestern part of Tasmania, is a magnificently beautiful and popular bushwalking area, but hikers are warned that the “risk of death from exposure is an ever-present hazard,” since the area is so remote and the weather is unpredictable. Mud, heavy rain, and snowfall can make the area impassable, even in summer months.
The “Wait-a-While” plant, also called Lawyers’ Cane — because once hooked by the thorns on this plant, one is as irretrievably entangled as if involved in the legal process — is only one of the treacherous plants that flourish in Queensland’s rainforest. It starts out looking like a small palm tree, then grows long, wiry “tendrils”which are decidedly not tender; they’re lined with rows of sharp barbs. If you brush past one, it grabs your clothing and holds on tightly until you back up and remove it. (This photo shows a plant in the intermediate stage between “tendrils” and “viciously sharp barbed hooks.”) The plant has even been known to snag and pull people off horses and motorcycles as they ride by.
The Yarra River may be famously muddy, but that doesn’t stop Melbournians from enjoying an outing at the city’s boathouses.
Here you can picnic, go for a row in the Yarra, bushwalk, or — my favorite — sit upstairs with friends and enjoy Devonshire Tea, including highly caloric but ever-so-delicious cream scones with jam.
Hello Up There! Camping, Aussie-style, is unbelievable; listen to this:
My first weekend here Vicki took me down to her family’s campsite in Rosebud. It’s in a big long strip of scrub along a lovely sandy beach, about an hour south of Melbourne. There are hundreds of campers packed together “so tightly that if the bloke in the next tent sneezes, you catch his cold.”
There’s a miles-long strip of vehicles and tents, and then a miles-long stretch of very shallow beach. You can walk out a hundred yards or more at low tide, and still only be in up to your knees. The water is warm and very blue.
Vicki’s mum and dad, and mum’s sister and her husband, had been at the campsite for about 6 weeks. Might sound a bit rough for grandparents, but actually it was quite comfortable. There was a big tent, maybe 400 square feet, with windows and a doorway. Over the doorway were hung those long, thick, heavy-plastic streamers like you sometimes see at a market, to keep the flies out. The whole inside was carpeted (I think there were three different rugs laid down), and quite a large area outside was carpeted, as well.
Outside there were tables and chairs set up, for reading, relaxing, drinking a beer, watching the kids on the beach, supervising the huge container ships far in the distance (heading up to the harbor), or just staring off into space. The kids from nearby camps were constantly running in and out of the campsite (but were very well-behaved). We played bocci, too.
Inside the tent were two full-sized refrigerators, a huge kitchen table with about ten chairs around it, a 4-burner camp-stove, and a make-shift sink. That’s in one half of the tent, actually. It was separated by floor-to-ceiling curtains from the other half, which was in turn split into two rooms with more curtains. In each of the rooms was a queen-sized bed, on a frame(!), and a wardrobe for hanging clothes.
They needed this much room because the kids/cousins and spouses and grandkids had been there, too, for much of the summer. The ones that work only come on the weekend, but the rest hang out for weeks. That’s where they celebrate Christmas.
The weather had been a bit rough the day before I arrived, and thousands (literally!) of tiny jellyfish — each only about 3 inches long — had washed up on the shore. Vicki’s mum (Nanna) was encouraging all the grandchildren to squish the jellyfish between their toes. (Yuck! It was fun, but very gross. Yes, they were already dead.)
One of the best parts of my day at the beach was Tea Time. This is tea (with milk and sugar) with a light meal at 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon. The day I was there, it was Vicki’s nephew’s fourth birthday, so we had chocolate cake, white sponge cake, and cupcakes, all heavily-decorated with gummy worms and other colorful candies.
And “chicken and salad” sandwiches. Sandwiches here are extreme: either very plain, or very complex. These were rolls with chicken and iceberg lettuce (that’s the “salad”). Simple, and good. The other kind of sandwich (which I have learned to avoid) is “with the lot,” which generally includes a fried egg, several kinds of meat, beetroot slices, several cheeses, tomato slices, sprouts, lettuce, plus butter and mayo.
We also had “Little Boys” for Tea. They’re boiled cocktail weiners, with ketchup for dipping, and they’re a staple for campers. Nanna told me she reckons the Big Boys flatter themselves by referring to these as “Little.”
I’ve never seen anything like this in the U.S. (although camping in the mountains when I was a kid definitely had the same spirit.) These days I think Americans mostly use campers, so don’t get to know each other so well.