A Land Downunder

My husband Douglas asked me to marry him in the most romantic way imaginable. We had decided to travel around the world for as long as the money we’d saved would allow and were mapping out a tentative route when he turned to me and said,

“Hey, it just occurred to me – if we get married before we go we can hit the parents up for cash as a wedding gift and travel longer.”

Just the kind of gooey proposal every girl dreams of!

A few months and one civil ceremony later we hit the road with an extra 2 grand in the bank. We planned to circumnavigate the globe from west to east and our first stop was Fiji; an idyllic South Pacific island best known for its glorious climate, laid-back natives and gorgeous coral reefs. Douglas rented a snorkel and flippers from a kiosk on the beach the very day we got there and dove right in. I don’t like putting my head under water so I just waded for a while and then sat down on the sand. I was lazily scanning the horizon when Douglas suddenly popped up out of the surf. He turned and headed as quickly towards shore as the water and his gear would allow, his unwieldy gait reminiscent of John Cleese’s silly walk in Monty Python’s Flying Circus. He yanked his flippers off as soon as he hit the sand and headed straight for the rental hut which sat at the top of the beach in the shade of the tree line. I wasn’t sure he knew where I was sitting, but when he came abreast of me he briefly paused and with a whole-body shiver said, “sea snake.” That was the end of snorkeling in Fiji.

New Zealand was next on the itinerary and luckily Douglas had lots of family there so we always had a place to stay as we hitchhiked around the two islands. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful country and the people are extremely welcoming. After three lovely weeks in New Zealand we flew to Australia, where we had arranged to meet and mooch off of still more relatives. Our plan was to visit family in Sydney and Brisbane and then make our way northwest through the Outback before using the far northern city of Darwin as our jumping off point for Bali. Traffic through the Australian Outback can be pretty sparse and it commonly reaches 45° during the day. We simply couldn’t imagine hitching – possibly for hours at a time – in such intense heat. Consequently we bought a used VW combi van and put an inflatable double bed in the back, providing us with both transportation and shelter.

We made our way up the coast north of Brisbane towards the city of Cairns, stopping along the way to take a catamaran out to the Great Barrier Reef. Increased water temperatures caused by global warming are currently incrementally killing the reef – a process called bleaching because the coral turns white as it dies. I am grateful that no such ecological tragedy was happening at the time and that we got to see the reef while it was still teeming with life and so gloriously colourful that it looked like something out of an animated Disney film.

We parked our van in a beachside parking lot for the night after our visit to the reef and in the evening sat on the sand looking out to sea. Slowly an unfamiliar white light appeared on the far horizon. It caught our eyes as it gradually rose in the pitch black sky, growing in intensity and size. Douglas and I began to have serious concerns about what it was; could it be that New Zealand had just been nuked, or were we perhaps witnessing an extra-terrestrial invasion? The light eventually coalesced into a perfect sphere, with the familiar features of the Man in the Moon taking shape and calming our fears. I have since learned that there is something called a “supermoon” which occurs when the moon’s orbit brings it closest to the earth, and I’m sure that’s what we saw that night on the beach. Our initial fear at the strangeness of this burgeoning vision now turned to awe and delight at the brightness and clarity of the light it produced.

We may have been the only people on the beach sharing in this breathtaking moment, but there were other creatures lurking in the shadows. No sooner had the moon fully cleared the horizon than hundreds of tiny crabs seemed to magically appear. The exceptionally white moonbeams gave them a ghostly pallor, as if they were a rare species of albino crustaceans, and they began to frantically scurry about at the edge of the surf. I’m sure their movements were random, but at that moment it looked as though they were performing a choreographed celebratory lunar dance. Douglas and I sat entranced watching these tiny creatures manifest the unspoken joy and oneness with nature we both felt on that extraordinary night.

There are rest stops positioned periodically along the roads in the Outback, mostly to accommodate road trains (the Australian term for vehicles comprised of one truck cab pulling two or more trailers). Towns in the Outback are dependent on road trains for all of their supplies, and these mammoth vehicles ply the roads both night and day to meet the demand. There are numerous cattle stations in the Outback which are so enormous as to make fencing impossible, allowing the cows to freely range over the roads. Needless to say, cattle and road trains don’t mix. Any poor cow unfortunate enough to get hit dies on impact and is launched several feet to the side of the road. The Outback is consequently scattered with cow carcasses in various stages of decay – from newly dead through bloated beyond all recognition and finally to a small square of wrinkled leather resembling nothing so much as a discarded purse. The heat and dryness of the environment make short work of this entire process.

We had stopped for the night at an Outback rest stop when a group of truckers called us over to their fire. One of the men pulled a freezing cold Foster’s Lager out of his cooler and offered it to my husband, who gratefully accepted. It’s so arid in the Outback that you can drink all day and never need to pee. Very little fluid ends up in your bladder because the moisture in your skin is constantly being leached out by the dry air.

Douglas and I were wrung out from a long day’s drive, and as such were content to simply listen to the banter of the loud and boisterous truckers. At some point my attention wandered and my eyes turned upward. I was so shocked and disoriented by what I saw that I shot up out of my chair with a frightened yelp. All conversation stopped as the men turned and asked me what was wrong. At first I couldn’t articulate the problem, but as I caught my breath and calmed down I realized that the stars were all out of place. The night sky in the Southern Hemisphere looks completely different from ours, and it was very disconcerting and startling to look up into a firmament that didn’t contain Orion or The Big Dipper. I explained the reason for my outburst, and several of the men then took it upon themselves to teach me about their constellations. The only name I remember from that night is The Southern Cross, but I’ll never forget the moment an unfamiliar sky derailed my sense of reality.

We stopped at a beautiful oasis near a town called Katherine. It feels miraculous to come upon a watering hole with lush foliage all around after driving for days through an incredibly dry and barren landscape. Douglas and I bathed in the emerald green water for ages, luxuriating in the cool relief it offered our parched skin. I even put my head under! Afterwards we made our way back to the parking lot. Several groups of people were either getting ready to swim or, like us, were drying off and preparing to leave. There was tall green grass all around the parking lot along with a variety of ferns and some short palm trees. I noticed with some concern that a couple of frilled lizards, each about 2 feet long, were sunning themselves on the edge of the pavement just beyond our van. Frilled lizards are so called because they have a corrugated collar of skin around their necks which they puff out to make themselves look bigger when they are threatened. The movement of their front legs is impinged when the collar is unfurled, forcing them to run on their hind legs to escape predators.

Everything was calm and lovely until a noisy white van pulled in. I was still nervously eying the lizards at the time and saw them take on a defensive posture in response to the racket, frills half-cocked. A kindly Australian gentleman told me to stay calm and that the lizards would simply run into the bush if they became more spooked. The driver of the van then hopped out, resoundingly slammed his door, and opened the side of his vehicle. Out bounded a large dog, barking its head off at the sheer joy of being released. All hell broke loose.

Both lizards reacted with maximum alarm, fully fanning their collars and rising up on their hind legs. The same man as before told us both to stay perfectly still as the frill lizards are arboreal and if they still feel threatened after unfurling their collars, their second instinct is to climb to the relative safety of the highest object in the vicinity. In the split second it took us both to realize that Douglas was that object, the dog tore across the parking lot towards the lizards. One of them took off into the foliage as the man had predicted, but the other ran towards Douglas and scrambled up his side. It parked itself on the very top of his head, hissing at the frantically barking dog which was now circling Douglas’s feet.

My husband was the most fearless person I have ever known, but even he was petrified to have this large, angry reptile perched on his crown. He looked around helplessly as people sprang into action; two men grabbed the dog by its collar and began dragging it back towards the van while a couple of women started yelling at the dog’s owner. Within moments the dog was back in the van. In the silence that ensued we all just stood there – as still as statues – staring at Douglas. I don’t know how long it was before the lizard finally climbed down, but it seemed like hours. Douglas took a deep shuttering breath once the lizard had left and winced as he began to register the pain from the cuts it had inflicted while climbing up the side of his body. He reached up to the top of his head and brought his hand down with a look of horror and disgust on his face. In his palm was a hefty load of lizard poop – a parting gift from his reptilian visitor.

We had a full week in Darwin before leaving for Bali, and Douglas’s wounds healed perfectly with the help of an antiseptic cream recommended by a knowledgeable pharmacist. The “lizard incident”, as Douglas and I came to call it, could not sully an otherwise extraordinary trip to an extraordinary country. Australia is a diverse and beautiful place – jam-packed with deadly animals, but otherwise glorious. It has some of the most pristine and inviting beaches I have ever seen, and a wide variety of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Like everyone I was concerned and saddened by the massive fires which ravaged the country this past winter, and sincerely hope that we can ameliorate climate change quickly enough to ensure that this terrible ecological tragedy will not be repeated.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: