Monthly Archives: July 2013
In my earlier mention of Australian wildlife, I didn’t even dare touch the sea. I didn’t go into the 4000 types of fish, the whales, dolphins, turtles, the 182 types of shark, 30 seagrass species, the 1700 species of coral. There are other worlds that lie out there in the Australian oceans.
I’m not a huge sea goer. I quite like being in the water, but I have to constantly put my thumb over my imagination as it drifts into, ‘I wonder what’s down there…’ I’m not the strongest swimmer. Fish kind of freak me out. They have weird eyes. And there are an alarming amount of things that can kill you in Australian seas: the box jellyfish; the sharks; the stinging stonefish; where just the pain of a sting is enough to kill you; the southern blue-lines octopus, which has one of the most toxic venoms on the planet; and probably a hundred other things I don’t even know about.
I was at the Great Barrier Reef. And adventures are all about pushing boundaries. Boundaries are like a muscle, if you don’t stretch them they become tighter, less efficient, and eventually constrain you.
I wanted to be outside of my comfort zone. I wanted to be thrown into the great unknown. I had become stale and dull. Boring and thus bored. I was letting my fatigue get in the way of my dreams. I was letting myself get in the way of myself. I wanted to see Australia. And there ain’t nowhere else in the world you can see the Great Barrier Reef.
So I went. I figure that if something scares you, it’s probably worth doing.
On the way out to the reef, a bumpy two hour trip, we ran through the diving course. I had made a last minute decision to try it, and as he began the safety instructions, was not entirely sure it had been a good one. He started talking about all the equipment we were going to be wearing, and how the breathing worked, and what could go wrong. And he talked about everything so lightly. I could feel my tummy turn as I tried not to feel sea sick. But I looked out the window and just kept breathing.
Finally the cruise liner pulled to a stop and a few divers jumped down to cordon off an area for us to swim in. We were in the middle of nowhere. Yet the waves were breaking over the edge of the reef as though there was a beach there.
Whilst listening to the diving talk, I had completely missed out on the snorkelling one. Presumably, most people who were diving had been snorkelling before. I was not one of these.
But I put my mask on and didn’t say anything. I got the gist, and the only problem I had was this fear that kept wriggling up inside my chest and trying to choke me. I just had to get in the water, then I’d be all right.
I sat on the edge of the boat for a little while, relieved that they weren’t making me go in backwards like the experienced ones were. Just after all the brave ones were in, I took the plunge. I flailed about in the water for a few moments before I remembered that I did actually know how to swim, and flippers and a mask weren’t going to change that.
Now, I have always had a fear of putting my head under the water. I hate it. I learnt to front crawl with some spasmodic method of tossing my head from side to side and never letting it sink below the surface. I never swim underwater. I jump in occasionally and always frantically haul myself back up to the surface as quickly as possible. I cannot dive. I have tried and tried but my body does not want my head underwater, and every reflex screams to pull it back where it can breathe.
But I immersed it now. And hey! How cool was this! I could see! I could breathe! What’s more, it was incredible! There were hundreds of bright fish and intricate fingers of coral. This whole world right beneath my feet. Then I took another breath, my mouth filled with water and I panicked, pulled up and began my flailing again.
This kept happening. Every few breaths my mouth would fill with water. This is the bit that scares me about being underwater. The lack of breath. Fairly reasonable I’d say – we all need breath. But I panic way before I actually need breath. Just the inability to draw one breath frightens the hell out of me. Even though my head was just below the surface, and all I had to do was pull it up, I still was gasping and flapping about every time my mouth filled with water.
I kept on it, over and over, thinking I would get it. But I was growing ever more frightened to put my head underwater. Eventually, I went to one of the lifeguards and asked for help. Said I didn’t know how to snorkel and I kept panicking. He looked at me kindly and said in a strong Chinese accent, “you are already a great snorkeller. You can float, and you are not scared of being in the sea.” I’m not sure how he deduced this lack of fear, because I think my heart was slipping out of my mouth at this point. But he sounded wise, and he took my mask and adjusted some parts of it.
After that, I got it. The water stopped going in my mouth so much, and when it did, I learnt to pull my head out and just drop it out. So I was free to roam this undersea world.
It was the sound that really stuck with me. Whatever was going on above the sea, you couldn’t hear it underneath. It was that great whirring underwater noise that I only really know from the bath; so serene, only the occasional sound of my own splashing about and the little clicks of fish as they gnawed on the coral.
After that, I knew I would be fine with the diving. I had one small moment of panic: I kept floating away from the group because I had different equipment to everyone else and was weighing totally different, and I couldn’t really see where they were because of the tunnel vision of my goggles. But then I gathered control of myself and started to love the feeling.
I think it’s hard to discern what is fear and what is your gut. If it’s your gut telling you not to do something, you ought to listen to that, but fear is the white noise that stops you hearing what it’s got to say. This was fear. Once I knew that it was OK. I may have had to sit on the deck in 28 degrees wrapped up in jumpers and towels and shaking from shock after, but I bloody well did it, and I bloody well enjoyed it. Ha, take that, fear, I’ll weaken you before you weaken me.
I put myself deep in the rainforest in the middle of the night, hoody zipped up and strings drawn tight over my head, so ‘things’ couldn’t fall down my top. Laced my shoes up until they were cutting off circulation, so nothing could sneak in there. Wore about half a bottle of bug spray.
We drove up rutted tracks, windscreen wipers pushing the bugs out of our way, and once we were out of the van, we turned all the torches off and stood in the pitch black, listening to the noises. And it was pitch black. That kind of darkness where you’re straining to see something, anything. You can feel your pupils at maximum dilation, but they still can’t settle on a single shape, not even the tour guide talking very softly to your left, or your hand if you stick it out in front of you. Your hearing retunes itself, pricked for the sound of anything that might be coming towards you. Amongst the animal sounds, you can hear a kind of buzz, as though there are currents in the air. The whole rainforest is out to play.
And then, in the nothing, in the black velvet that’s just been eating you up, there starts emerging shapes. Soft, glowing shapes all around you. This is glowing fungus. The longer you keep in the dark, the brighter these things become, until there are patches almost gleaming green they are so bright. We pick one of the lambent patches up and turn on a torch. It looks just like a regular stick. You can’t see anything on it at all, but without the torch on, you could read a book by it. Kindle would lose a fortune if these got famous.
We continue on into the rainforest in deathly hush, treading as softly as we could, listening and watching everything. You knew it was all alive, but the creatures in Australia are masters of disguise.
It began to rain. Not just regular rain. Pregnant droplets that have squeezed their way through the canopy and almost hurt as they touch you. This kind of eroded my plan against the spiders by noticing anything unfamiliar that touched me. My hand keeps jutting out, unasked, to swipe nervously at my head and back. I turn my torch up to the canopy, and the light grabs the edges of every drop and makes one side of them shine. They were coming towards me like laser beams; long, luminous slashes tearing at the black.
I am having great fun with the light. We stick it up the inside of a strangler fig. A strangler fig is a tree that hoists itself up by attaching to another tree. Eventually it strangles the host tree and stands alone, leaving a hollow web of roots all the way up to the rainforest canopy. It looks beautiful with a torch lighting up the middle and bursting out of all the holes.
At the end of the tour, we find peppermint stick insects. These creepy crawlies are exactly as the name suggests – the colour of peppermint. They also have blue sections to them, and they are so bright you wouldn’t believe it. We walk in on two of them having sex. After peering lewdly at them for a little while, the tour guide asks for a volunteer. Oh yes! I put my hand up, all teachers pet, all nerdy and desperate to get involved.
“Just squeeze the middle of the top one,” he says.
Yes sir. Squeeze away I did. Its defence mechanism is a thick, white substance that is released onto my hand.
“Now smell it,” says the tour guide.
It smells like peppermint. Exactly like peppermint. I pass my hand around and everyone has a good whiff.
It was only on the way home that I began thinking about what I had done. Squeezed an animal halfway through sex to have it squirt goo all over my hand, passed it around the group to smell, and wiped it off next to them.
My hand started smelling a bit iffy after that. Still pepperminty, but there was something a bit sordid mixed in there. It didn’t wash off either; I had to walk around sniffing a stick insect’s love juice for days.
29th June 2013
One of the main reasons I chose to go to the rainforest was for the wildlife. I’d been in Sydney for six months without even managing to see a kangaroo! Every time I went out to the bush, the people I was with would say, ‘there are always kangaroos here’, ‘you’re bound to see them where we’re going’, or some such NONSENSE. This has been frequently supported by, ‘I can’t believe you haven’t seen one yet!’ WELL, WHERE THE BLOODY HELL ARE THEY?
By the end of my stint in Sydney, I had managed to see a couple of dead kangaroos on the side of the road and a family of possums. I was really excited about the possums, even though they’re a pest and pretty hated. Same with the ibis. These huge, white birds are everywhere, and have a worse reputation than pigeons. But at least I had seen something!
Apart from the birds, of which there are aplenty, I was beginning to narrow my eyes suspiciously at anyone that started talking about Australian ‘wildlife’.
So, to the rainforest, thought I. Bound to see some animals there, right? I mean, it’s a bloody rainforest. You couldn’t ask for more abundance of life. Right? Er..
Australian wildlife is, to be optimistic about the whole thing, elusive. I realise this is a survival technique, the whole hiding quality, but COME ON.
Take the cassowary, a flightless bird of up to two metres tall, that weighs more than me, with a killer kick and a crown on their head that can surely only be a head-butting aid. Abounding in Far North Queensland. Apparently.
The journey to Cape Tribulation from Cairns was littered with huge yellow warning signs for them. There were speed bumps over the most prolific areas. Our tour guide told us to keep looking out because ‘five out the last eight times he had been up here, a cassowary had just wandered across the road.’ But not a leaf stirred. No over-sized bird. There appeared nothing.
Every tour guide I met had a story to tell. Unlikely places they had seen one, how big they were, how many… I met a lady who claimed to have spotted three cassowaries that week. Three! Everywhere I went were ‘recent cassowary sighting’ signs. ‘A cassowary inhabiting this area has been reported aggressive,’ one warned, and there were a plethora of posters with advice on what to do if you saw one.
Well, I walked and walked around the rainforest. I frequented plenty of places where ‘recent cassowary sightings’ were posted. I stared out the window of every car I was in. I researched and searched. I tried to stake one out and drove to Etty Bay, where a cassowary is said to live, and combed the beach at sunrise, which is the best time to spot them. Watching the sun cast its pink light over this stunning beach, listening to Mrs Jynx with, it seemed, no one else in the world, was magical. But cassowaries?
Nada. Nothing. Zilch.
Eventually, I decided hunting for cassowaries was much like hunting for Big Foot. If you’ve ever seen the programme, ‘Hunting For Bigfoot’, you’ll understand. It’s a bunch of stories, near sightings and other people who have seen them. There are signs and spoor and debris that the animal has made. But do you ever get a glimpse? Do you fuck.
(Actually, though, some time later I found myself caught in near dark at a waterfall and, while hurrying back along a track, suddenly realised that if a cassowary was to cross my way, I would probably poo my pants. So I’ve decided, for the sake of clean underwear, I’m not too upset about having missed them.)
I also tried to stake out tree kangaroos. I was in one of the best places in the world to see them… but I don’t think they exist anyway. Kangaroos that live in a TREE?! What’s next, eh? A spider that lives in an underground lair? A crocodile that lives in the sea? Sharks that live in a river?
I did see crocodiles. Including the mammoth pimp daddy of a whole section of The Daintree River. And dolphins, swimming right up close to the shore. And birds, birds, birds. And a turtle. And a platypus. Two actually. But I’m not sure of the plural, (is anyone?) and the second was a momentary sighting. I named the first one Brian, and he swam in front of me, snuffling and feeding, until it got too dark to see him any more.
And I now believe in kangaroos.
So it’s not like the wildlife doesn’t exist. But it is hugely exaggerated and oversold. I’ve come to the conclusion that 73% of it is a farce. It’s a ploy to pull tourists in, or a fairy tale to tell your kids. Of the other 17%, let’s call it 10% birds and insects, 10% fish, 2% brushturkeys, 5% ‘other’. Brushturkeys, by the way, are everywhere, they don’t seem fussed by humans and are annoyingly loud. Every time I heard a noise, stopped dead, and turned ever so quietly to spot whatever it was, I was confronted with this ugly black bird, crashing around so much it scared anything within half a mile.
A lot of the time, I just didn’t really understand what I was looking for. After Africa, where there was a never-ending list of animals to search for, I was slightly perturbed by this. I mean, really, what was I looking for? Spiders and snakes? Lizards? Were the only big animals crocodiles, cassowaries and kangaroos? Isn’t that bizarre, that in the great vastness of Australia there are no large animals? The lack of large mammals astounds me. There are dingoes (dogs with a stupid name), and various escaped domestic animals, like deer, pig and camel. Instead, there are marsupials. Kangaroos are all very well, but they’re kind of like big rabbits – pretty cool, but they aren’t going to make your mouth drop open with their amazingness. And yet, they have more venomous snakes than non-venomous snakes. More deadly snakes than anywhere in the world actually. Nine of the ten most poisonous snakes in existence live here.
And the spiders. The funnel web, one of the world’s most dangerous spiders; the redback; the mouse; the wolf; the black house… the list goes on.
The bees are killers. There are venomous ants, paralysing ticks, deadly centipedes.
Now, what I want to know, is WHY?
The inland taipan uses its poison to feed on rodents. Rodents?! The most poisonous snake in the world, where one bite could kill a hundred humans, uses its potency to kill rodents. Yeah, alright, they are Australian rodents, which means they are super sized versions of what we know and love. But still, does that not seem a little over the top? Why have animals with enough poison to sink an elephant, IF THERE AREN’T ANY ELEPHANTS?
On the 5th June I finished work in Sydney. I was sad to leave this job, being fairly settled. I know I’ve improved a lot since being there and I was working for someone I enjoy working for, with people I like working with, in a job I love doing. And the horses! I had become surprisingly attached to them. The turnover of horses is high, so this was quite unusual, especially for me, who has had quite enough of horses by the end of work, thank you very much. But I had grown to love checking over them at night, in their quiet solitude, and found they had all become my friends.
Sydney, however, had become stale for me. Whether this was due to my need of a break, the weather, the people, the way of life,the early starts, the tiny four walls I lodged in, the incessant use of sub-quality public transport, I don‘t know. But I was ready for a change, despite my reluctance to make it happen.
I set my new start date for three weeks after I finished, and planned an adventure. Well, when I say ‘planned’… I booked a flight. I boarded the plane with a hangover sufficient of my leaving night and landed in Cairns, where the mountains loomed, the sun shone, and tropical rainforest sprouted, green as you like, all around me.
I have much to say on this trip, but I just want to quickly summarise. I spent my time around Cape Tribulation frolicking in the Daintree Rainforest; sailing, snorkelling and diving on The Great Barrier Reef near Cairns; roadtripping around The Atherton Tablelands and Undara; generally stuffing as much into my time as I wanted. I came back to Sydney for a few days and then up to The Hunter Valley for a weekend of wine tasting, and here I am at my new job.
I built sandcastles until my knees turned all red and sore. Is that the best injury ever? I cruised down a river full of crocs. I saw paddocks jam packed with wallabies. I saw a rainbow so close you could put your hand through it. I saw an island in the shape of a crocodile. I saw where Steve Irwin met his stingray. I sang my heart out on a deserted beach. I tried to remember how to do cartwheels on another deserted beach. I saw fungus that glowed. I learnt where the Southern Cross and Scorpio was in a sky of crystal stars. I got hooked on sailing. I did some things that scare me. I wrote, I read, I was spoiled by sunsets and sunrises. I met an unbelievable amount of wonderful people, and a certain amount of interesting people. Saw some of the most incredible landscapes. I went to a factory that makes cheese AND chocolate (and ate as much as I could). I slept in my car, didn’t shower for, er, sometime, and remembered how much I love being a bum. I swam in hot water springs. I went to the outback (and got offered a job). I explored the world’s longest continuous lava tubes and hit my head searching for spiders (another great injury). I got woken up in my little car by dingoes howling. I danced behind the steering wheel while blasting music as loud as I wanted. I hunted for a great deal of wildlife. And saw a bit too. I dreamt a lot. I did enough thinking to help sort the old noggin out, and came to some realisations. I thought about some things I’ve never thought about before, did some things I’ve never done before, saw some things I’ve never seen before.
In short, I had an adventure. And I came back with this resounding in my head:
Oh, world! What have we done to deserve you?!