There was a time when I wanted to go to Australia. This was back when my travel experience included nothing more than a couple of drives up and down the east coast of the United States, where much of the scenery was dominated by billboards advertising pecan rolls and cheap cigarettes. From where I lived, the island continent was as far as a person could go without leaving the surface of the planet. It was where I wanted to be.
Some time later, I learned that Australia had great white sharks in its waters. Actually, first I had to learn that great white sharks existed. I knew about sharks in general, but had never considered the fact that there were different kinds. My exposure to them was limited to the menacing black fin sticking up out of the water in television shows like Sea Hunt and Flipper. Then the movie Jaws came out, and while I’ve never seen it, the film’s message was unavoidable: there are sharks the size of school buses, and sometimes they visit local beaches and eat the legs off swimmers and surfers, and even people who are standing in hip-deep water and minding their own business.
Okay, I thought. I’ll go to Australia, but stay out of the ocean. I’ll just make sure the hotel has a pool. With a little more research, I found out that sharks aren’t even their most dangerous marine animal. There’s something called a box jellyfish that, according to The Medical Journal of Australia, is armed with “the most explosive envenomation process that is presently known to humans.” I’m no genius, but any time the words explosive and venom are that close to each other, I’m smart enough to keep my distance. The box jellyfish can be ten feet long and have up to sixty tentacles, with each tentacle containing five thousand stinging cells. And unlike many of its sightless colleagues, the box jellyfish has clusters of eyes on each of its four sides. Clusters of eyes! I’d stay away from that even without the tentacles. And given its “explosive envenomation process,” a tiny amount of the poison will reduce your central nervous system to a conductor of agonizing pain, and not much else.
Then there’s the Irukandji, a jellyfish that has its own syndrome named after it. No more than an inch in diameter – and usually less – it’s considered to be the most venomous animal in the world. Because of its small size and transparency, and the nearly imperceptible pin-prick sensation of its sting, the Irukandji will have you in crisis before you’re aware there’s a problem. But thirty minutes later you’ll drop to your knees with a severe headache, followed by excruciating muscle cramps, chest tightness, sweating, nausea, soaring heart rate and blood pressure, and uncontrollable tremors.
In addition to great whites and jellyfish, Australia’s waters are also home to bull sharks, stinging stonefish, the Portuguese Man-of-War, and the blue-ringed octopus. And while people in other countries scrape snails off the bottom of their boats, or order them as an appetizer, Australia has the cone snail, whose sting contains enough venom to kill fifteen full-grown human beings.
Australia is big. It’s almost the size of the United States, and no doubt has plenty of enjoyable activities. There’s no urgent need, I realized, to go into the water, or even near it. My revised plan was to stay on dry land, roam around, and get to know the wildlife. The place is filled with playful creatures, such as the koala and the kangaroo.
Maybe. But it’s also home to the brown snake. Here’s an excerpt from a newspaper article that appeared two months ago in The Telegraph:
“A 26-year-old hockey player who was bitten by what he thought was a harmless python, and went for a jog in Australia, has died after it turned out to be a deadly brown snake…”
What jumped out at you while reading that quote? For me, it was the idea that in Australia, a python is considered harmless. Where I come from, the sighting of a python would be cause for mass hysteria and the evacuation of entire cities.
According to Australian Geographic, the Eastern brown is the “second most toxic of any snake in the world.” The most toxic, say many experts, is the Inland Taipan, an eight-foot snake whose single bite delivers enough poison to kill a quarter of a million mice. It’s found, of course, in remote parts of east-central Australia. There are also black snakes, tiger snakes, death adders, and copperheads. I’m sure there are others, too, but I couldn’t bear to look at any more of those photographs – especially the pictures of one snake eating another.
And don’t forget about Australia’s saltwater crocodile, which has the strongest bite of any animal. Crocodiles can grow to seventeen feet in length and more than a thousand pounds in weight, and can lunge and capture prey ten feet away in half a second. They eat sharks.
The duck-billed platypus has a friendly face. It also has spurs on its hind legs, from which it injects venom containing eighty different toxins. It lives Down Under, and nowhere else.
Harder to spot but just as menacing are Australia’s redback spiders, tarantulas, giant centipedes, scorpions, and bull ants. Tiniest of all is the paralysis tick, which introduces neurotoxins that immobilize its host. And as if the snake photos weren’t bad enough, while doing research for this part, I inadvertently looked at close-ups of a female tick engorged with blood, as well as an image of a male tick’s genitals, and its capitulum. I have no idea what a capitulum is, but I have a feeling I’m still going to have nightmares about all of it very soon. By the way, the paralysis tick lives in a thin band that stretches along the entire eastern coast of Australia – you know, where all the people are.
There’s danger in the air, too. The flying fox is a bat with a wingspan of three feet. And there are microbats, the size of your thumb, that carry a deadly virus. And honey bees. And eighty-four kinds of mosquitoes that transmit Ross River Fever, Dengue Fever, malaria, and encephalitis.
One more. The funnel web spider. Its body grows to more than two inches in length, produces a venom that is extremely toxic, and can live for twenty years. According to the website of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, this spider eats insects, lizards, and frogs. The website suggests wearing shoes when walking, and keeping tent flaps closed when camping.
Walking? Camping? If I ever do go to Australia, I’m heading straight for the tallest building in the country. You’ll find me on the top floor, curtains drawn and wearing one of those protective suits they use in nuclear power plants right after a meltdown.
Better yet, I might just take a drive down the east coast of the United States. I don’t smoke, but I kind of like those pecan rolls. Maybe I’ll visit the Everglades, too. I hear they have some exotic wildlife there.
* * * * *
My sincere apologies to Bruce, Mary, Charlotte, and any other Australian bloggers who may be waiting to pounce. I have no doubt it’s a wonderful place. (And I loved Finding Nemo.)