It is an Australian tradition that when overseas, we should talk up the dangers of our home continent. We are given lectures on this when we apply for our passports, and reminded at customs each time we exit the country.
We consider it good for the image of our wild and sunburnt country that the rest of the world should both suffer from illusions about the way we live, and should consider it a miracle that any of us survive to adulthood. We have the distinct advantage of being a long way away from almost everyone else so until recently, very few people had actually been to Australia except Australians. We could say whatever we liked.
So as a refresher for all Australians, here are some of the terrors we need to talk up when abroad.
1. Sharks. Australia is a continent surrounded by man-eating white pointer sharks. And they are hungry. While they take the occasional Australian, what they really want is a tasty tourist wrapped in a wet-suit.
2. Box Jellyfish. Seawaters that are not infested with sharks, are infested with Box Jellyfish. Some waters even have both. Box Jellyfish have long invisible tentacles which the lay about in the waters and stong any human flesh that comes near. Incredibly painful by all accounts, the stings can be eased with the application of urine, but CPR may be required (seriously).
3. Stone-fish, scorpion fish, stingrays. All those pretty and friendly fish that want to play with snorkellers on the reefs. Stonefish look like rocks on the bottom of the sea, until you tread on them. Sharp spines delivering agonising poison. Ditto scorpion fish. And stingrays of course have sharp spines on their tails which they can flick around and stab you with.
Does that just about cover the waterways and beaches? Rule of thumb – a vacant beach is probably vacant for a reason. Read the signs and ask the locals before going near the water.
4. Crocodiles. So having covered seawater with sharks, jellyfish, scorpion and stone-fish, there are also the hazards of the inland waters. Crocodiles. They lie in wait in muddy waters, looking for all the world like a partially submerged log until an unwary toe is dipped in the water. Sometimes they even come up on land to chase their prey. There are also salt-water crocodiles that go into the sea and onto the beaches. Crocodile Dundee and Crocodile Hunter made this Australian native famous. And yes, we all talk like that.
5. Spiders. Australia has the very venomous Funnel-web spider, and also the red-back spider. Neither are much fun to encounter. Australians take them so flippantly that there is a song dedicated to one “Redback on the Toilet Seat“. He ends up in hospital.
6. Snakes. Especially terrifying to our friends from New Zealand and Ireland, where they don’t have snakes. Australia has serious snakes, and lots of them. Seven of the world’s ten most deadly snakes are Australian. And they like urban areas. Australians know not to walk through long grass, and if they do, to wear thick boots and make sure they walk slowly making a large amount of noise to scare off any snakes. (It is actually the tremors in the ground that scare them because snakes don’t have a strong sense of hearing.)
7. Blue-ring Octopus. A cute little octopus that develops blue rings on its skin when angry. Likes to live in small containers – shells, discarded bottles and cans etc. Has a sharp beak on its underside with which it can deliver a poison-laden bite. Seek help immediately.
8. Drop-bear. What list would be complete without the drop-bear? One of the lesser-known marsupials, the drop bear lives in forested areas and sits quietly high up in trees. When an unsuspecting tourist walks underneath they drop noiselessly from above and crack their skulls with their weight. No drop-bears have ever been captured, but every Australian knows they are out there.
9. Bunyip. An Aboriginal legend, Bunyips live in billabongs (waterholes) and make gurgling growling noises as they emerge and submerge. Aboriginal parents told their children that if they wandered away from the campsite at night, the bunyip would steal them away.
So there it is, the refresher course on the less-cuddly and fluffy Australian animals. Australian tourists are advised to memorise the list, add in any current details (say, something from recent newspapers) and spread the word.
The final word to our overseas compatriates – if you think the animals are dangerous, wait ’til you meet the humans!
LATE BREAKING UPDATE: On the news tonight (17 November 2011) US President Barack Obama said that Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard had spent the journey to their press conference telling him about all the animals that could kill him in the Northern Territory. No word on whether that included Drop bears and Bunyips. Excellent job, Julia, keeping up our end!