A favourite passage in travel literature comes from Bill Bryson’s book about his journey around Australia – In a Sunburned Country – where he writes:
“[Australia] has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. Of the world’s ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of its creatures – the funnel web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick, and stonefish – are the most lethal of their type in the world. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you but actually sometimes go for you. … If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback. It’s a tough place.”
This common image of Australia is reinforced with glee in newspapers, and on the evening news. Like when you hear of someone being swept out to sea in a rip, never to return. Or a grandma in her underwear staring down a raging bushfire in her backyard (yes, this actually happened). Or a shark attack at one of the country’s beaches, where the human victim turns around and fights the shark back (yes, this actually happened, too).
But sensational news stories aside, the reality is quite different.
Take, for example, the chance of being killed by a shark in Australia. Since 1791, there have been about 650 recorded share attacks in the country, of which fewer than 200 have been fatal. In 2020 so far, there have been 19 recorded shark incidents – 6 of which were fatal, 7 of which resulted in injury, and 6 of which basically involved a shark swimming too close to a human. This, in the context of a nation of 25 million people, huddled along a huge coastline, and where almost everyone spends large part of their summer frolicking, swimming and surfing in the ocean.
By contrast, 13 people were killed in the past year from vending machines falling onto them (although to be fair, this is a global statistic, not just Australia). Or another example: several dozen people are reported to have died last year while trying to take selfies, and 24 people died last year (again, a worldwide statistic) from being hit in the face by an exploding champagne cork. There is thus more chance of being killed at a wedding by an over-zealous bottle opener, than there is of being eaten by any shark in any Australian sea.
No, the real wildlife perils of Australia are, as I have lately discovered, considerably more mundane.
You see, owing to Covid-19, I have had to trade in my frequent flyer status for that of frequent cycler. Meaning that in the past couple of months, whilst I have not been able to board a single plane, I have managed to undertake several long cycling trips in my home state of New South Wales (the borders between most individual Australian states and territories are presently shut, so whilst I am allowed to go anywhere inside of NSW, that is the full extent of my current travel universe). And during which expeditions I have learned that Australia’s wildlife is actually less likely to kill you than it is to cause you to throw up. Or to give you a grazed knee, a sprained wrist, a dented bike, or a near heart attack.
If I have to be completely honest with you, most of the wildlife you will encounter while travelling around Australia is not even alive. This is because Australia is a place teeming with animal life, and often that animal life will “intersect” with humans in a most unpleasant way. Such that by the side of every country road in Australia you will see the remains of various creatures that met their unfortunate end while trying to avoid the passing traffic.
But that is not the half of it.
You see, inside of a speeding car you will only get to see the very largest examples of what we Aussies refer to as “roadkill”. Whereas on a bike, careening slowly down small country lanes, you will get to see it all – not just the big animals but the endless squashed snakes, mice, rats, birds, lizards and wombats. You will also get to hear it all – the buzz of happy bugs feasting on the bodies, and the caw of crows swooping in to pick at the carcasses. And you will get to smell it all – the awful, putrid stench of rotting flesh baking in the hot Australian sun.
Trust me when I say that witnessing the “circle of life” in action, up and close and personal, isn’t nearly as romantic as The Lion King makes it out to be. Mainly it just makes you want to vomit in your own mouth.
The two animals for which Australia is most famous are the cute and cuddly koala, and the equally cute and cuddly kangaroo. Although in reality neither of these are cute, or even cuddly.
Koalas, to begin with, are incredibly slothful animals that spend almost all of their time asleep in a tree, stoned on eucalyptus leaves. Except, that is, when they are invited to participate in a tourist petting exercise. At which time (as I can attest from first-hand experience with my kids, about five years ago in Queensland) they are anything but slothful. Never mind what the supposedly expert handler at the “koala experience” has to say, they can be quite aggressive little fuckers, with sharp nails and an ability to gouge at you in a way that creates deep, seeping, painful welts. Not to mention, as I have previously written about on this blog, they are also riddled with chlamydia (read here). All in all, not exactly the stuff that cute and cuddly teddy-bears are supposed to be made of.
That said, I have not seen any koalas in the wild on my recent travels (as noted, in their natural habitat they tend to be asleep 95% of the time). But I have seen plenty of kangaroos (and wallabies – the kangaroos’ smaller cousin), because kangaroos and wallabies are everywhere in Australia. Travel through any rural part of the country for any amount of time, and you will almost certainly get to see these animals grazing peacefully in a field, staring wistfully into the distance, or hopping majestically through a grove of trees.
But what no-one will tell you is that a full-grown kangaroo (or even wallaby) can also be a weapon of mass destruction waiting to happen.
Rainwater runoff often causes grass to grow most prolifically at the side of country roads. And kangaroos like to eat grass. Ergo, at dawn and dusk, when kangaroos are at their hungriest, they will often come out to the side of the road to feed. If you happen to be driving past at this time, they may start bounding alongside your car. And, if the ‘roo finds you to be especially interesting, it might even go bat-shit kamikaze cray-cray on you, and jump right out in front of your car.
At which point, a few competing factors will immediately come into play. (A) If a kangaroo jumps in front of you unexpectedly, you are best advised to brake hard in a straight line, don’t swerve. It is said to be better to hit a kangaroo head on than to risk rolling your car. But (B), hitting a kangaroo head on in this way may not just result in a dead kangaroo, but also a destroyed car.
This is not as insane scenario as it may sound. According to an Aussie insurance company report released in June 2019, more than 7000 drivers are involved in kangaroo collisions in Australia, every year. And 15% of the vehicles (so, more than 1000) involved in these kangaroo collisions are damaged so badly they are written off completely. That is a damn sight more worrying that the miniscule chance of a run in with a shark ….
Although here’s the thing: at least, in a car, you have some protection. And, if you do wind up smashing into a kangaroo, you have insurance to cover the cost of the damage. None of which privileges are afforded to you when you happen to be cruising on your bike along a remote country road, in the middle of the morning, and an over-sized wallaby comes bounding fearlessly out of the bush, cutting right in front you as you cycle by.
I had no choice but to slam on my brakes, real hard, and swerve violently to avoid a collision. The bike slid out from underneath me, and I landed pretty hard on my left wrist, which has been aching ever since. Meanwhile my shiny new mountain bike got romantically entwined with a nearby tree, and now has the dent to prove it.
As for the culprit wallaby? He was unharmed, and hopped away like nothing had happened. The asshole didn’t even stop to exchange numbers.
Australia is fly central. It is basically impossible to go anywhere in Australia – especially in summer – without encountering flies by the millions, if not the billions. To the extent that in Aussie slang there is a term – “the Australian salute” – which refers to the repeated action made when swooshing flies away from in front of your face.
These flying menaces are impossibly annoying, and also relentless. There is almost nothing you can do to get rid of them, apart from simply succumbing. Once, on a hike around Uluru, I spent the first hour futilely trying to swat and swipe at the flies. Eventually I gave up. Five minutes later, someone took a photo from behind me. Literally, my white t-shirt was covered in so many flies it looked like a pool of black ink was spreading across my back.
And that is just the regular, run-of-the-mill flies. Because the minute you move into the more tropical, less urban parts of Australia, you also have to start worrying about the really nasty members of the fly family – specifically, the biting flies and the mosquitos (mosquito means “little fly” in Spanish). If you turn in for the night without some form of protection (spray, net, etc), you are liable to wake up with arms and legs so covered in bites it will look like you have been attacked by miniature vampires in your sleep.
But, as I discovered a few days ago near Byron Bay, even flies and mosquitoes can be child’s play compared to gnats.
During the spring and summer, these tiny little winged creatures engage in an airborne form of mating. The female gnats take off, secrete a sex hormone, and the males swarm around them. The result is a dense, fast-moving bug cloud.
This swarming behaviour is, it turns out, the whole point of the gnat’s otherwise rather pointless (and short) existence. Because once done with their mating the swarm dissipates, eggs are laid, and then both the male and female gnats slink off and die. In other words, if you happen to encounter a gnat swarm, you are in the presence of what is really the bug world’s equivalent of a snuff-orgy.
Which, no doubt, you would find to be an amusing factoid. Unless, say, you happen to have also unexpectedly cycled directly into said cloud of swarming gnats while pedalling along a dirt road through a magnificent section of old growth rainforest.
Seriously, one moment I was enjoying the bright sunshine and glorious scenery, and in the next it was as if I had suddenly got caught in a heavy sandstorm, only where each grain of sand was a buzzing insect taking direct aim at any available orifice. In a split-second I went from being a happy and carefree cycler to being someone with gnats in my ears, gnats in my nostrils, and gnats in my mouth. Not to mention that the swarm completely blinded me for about the three seconds it took me to pass through it. Just long enough to hit a hole in the road, wobble, come off my bike, and badly graze my knee.
Meaning I now have the indignity of having to explain to friends that not only did I sprain my wrist avoiding a leaping wallaby, but I then subsequently did my knee in during a gnat attack. Even for me this is a whole new low-water mark when it comes to the embarrassing ways in which I have injured myself ….
So, I was cycling on a busy road on the NSW South Coast, along a stretch of gorgeous coastline between the towns of Gerringong and Gerroa, minding my own business. Suddenly, without warning, I felt a huge hit to the side of my helmet – hard enough that it made me wobble, and almost topple over. I steadied myself and looked up, only to see a magpie banking sharply in the air above my head, before cawing loudly and launching itself into a repeat dive, right at me. WTF?
It turns out that magpies – a bird ubiquitous across Australian – breed each year between late July and October. And, from the time when the new eggs are laid until the time when the new little chicks leave the nest, the male magpie will stand guard over his brood, determined to keep any threat – real or perceived – away. This includes not just joggers and pedestrians but also other birds, dogs, and most especially, those weird half-human looking creatures with two wheels and shiny heads.
To protect their offspring, when anything considered to be a threat comes near the male magpies will make noises, flap their wings, swoop down low above the threat, and even go so far as to make direct contact. The swooping can be so intense as to cause injury – especially to the head and eyes. And very often the swooping can cause cyclists to come off their bikes – leading to grazes, broken bones, and traffic accidents. In 2017, for example, there were about 3,250 recorded magpie attacks in Australia and over 500 resulting injuries – the majority of which were to cyclists. Aggressive swooping is such a common occurrence that there are even whole websites devoted to tracking magpie incidents across the country.
There are, supposedly, ways to deal with all this. Firstly, and most obviously, the advice is to not go near a magpie’s nest in nesting season. Because it is said that a magpie will only swoop a cyclist within 150 metres of the nest – so if you know a nest is close, change your route. Although this advice is not of much help if you are peddling in a strange location, and there is only one road to get you from Point A to Point B.
Other tactics – almost completely useless when on a solo bike riding expedition – include travelling in a group (supposedly the swooping birds only target individuals), painting or sticking large “eyes” on the back of your hat or helmet (but for some reason this is said to work only for pedestrians but not for cyclists), waving a stick in the air (kind of impractical when on a bike), and carrying an open umbrella above your head (also kind of impractical when on a bike).
And then there is the anti-magpie tactic that sounds especially odd: get to know the magpie. Look at them directly, show them your face, and display no fear. Why? Because magpies, it seems, are not just aggressive, but smart. Like really, really smart. To the point that they go back to the same spot each year to make their nest, and they somehow remember the faces of people they meet there – friends and foes – year in and year out.
Meaning that if you pass by a magpie nest and get swooped this year, you are likely to be classified as an enemy and thus get swooped again same time, same place, next year. (For exactly this reason 2020 is proving to be quite horrendous in the magpie swooping arena: what with everyone wearing Covid-19 masks, the magpies reportedly can’t recognise familiar faces anymore and so are going nuts, swooping just about everyone).
In any event, I didn’t even have to wait a year to learn all about the subject of magpie memory. Rather, after escaping from my first ever magpie attack and enjoying a quiet coffee in Gerroa (during which time I read up on the subject of magpie swooping) I made my way back toward Gerringong. Passing by the exact same place, the exact same magpie took to the air and dive-bombed me, yet again. Clearly, he did not like the cut of my gib. And then, when I tried to implement my newly acquired knowledge and introduce myself, it just seemed to piss Mr. Magpie off, because he proceeded to rush at me twice more, screeching after me like crazy until I had pedalled myself well out of his turf.
Suffice it to say, I won’t be riding that stretch of road again any time soon. Knowing that you have wound up on an angry magpie’s hitlist is – let me tell you – a slightly disconcerting feeling.
Anyway, there you have them: a collection of tales from my recent, real-life run-ins with Australia’s fabled wildlife. And unlike the popular stereotypes, there was not a single poisonous snake, or hungry crocodile, or fearsome spider anywhere to be seen.
In fact, the only thing I have recently encountered in Australia that has flat out wanted to kill me was that most ferocious of all Aussie animals: the surfer-dude. Because even though I am a very amateur and completely crap surfer (read here for a description of my attempts at surfing in Morocco), the fellow I encountered near Byron Bay, with skin like brown leather and muscles like Shwarzenegger, showed absolutely no mercy when I unwittingly dropped in on his wave.
“Mate, if you fucking cut my wave again, I will fucking cut you!” he snarled, with a deadly intent that seemed a lot more frightening than any shark ever could be. Frankly, I’d rather deal with a rotting animal carcass, a darting wallaby, a swarm of gnats, or a swooping magpie, any day.