A Vulnerable Land

Lois and I have been amazed by the scale of things in Australia.  We spent our entire time in the state of Queensland on the eastern coast.  Although Queensland is one of Australia’s smaller states, if we had tried to drive from our place in Cairns to our next destination on the “Sunshine Coast” near Brisbane (both in the state of Queensland), it would have taken us twenty hours, longer than a drive from San Francisco to Denver.  Even after spending six weeks in Australia, the parts that we experienced did not even begin to give us a sense of the whole of the country.

We began our stay in Australia in the Tropic of Capricorn, just 17 degrees south of the equator.  When we  moved to Australia’s Sunshine Coast, we were 27 degrees south of the equator.  The ocean was still a beautiful turquoise color, framed by crescents of white-sand beach, but it was decidedly cooler, and unmenaced by the stingers and crocs of northern Queensland.

IMG_9628Rainbow beach, Sunshine Coast

Every other day Lois and I would run for 30 or 40 minutes along the beach promenade in Mooloolaba or Noosa (two wonderful Sunshine Coast beaches) in the late afternoon, and then cool off by swimming in the ocean as the sun set, showing those Aussie blokes a thing or two about California-style body surfing, which included spectacular tumbling exhibitions and face plants.

IMG_9306 Mooloolaba Beach

On the Sunshine Coast south of the tropics, there are still wonderful forests.  Our favorite was at Noosa Heads, where koalas snooze in forests that seem to run right into the sea.

Sleeping koala at Noosa National Park

Sleeping koala at Noosa Heads National Park

Noosa Heads Beach

Noosa Heads Beach

 

To an American, Australian forests are as exotic and unfamiliar as its animals.  Even to a person familiar with every native tree in America, few native Australian trees would be recognizable.   Although Australia is, culturally speaking, more like America than any other country we’ve visited, its natural environment is utterly unlike America’s environment.

Daintree Rainforest

Daintree Rainforest

 

Although the idea of national parks was actually born in America, I got the sense (in Queensland, at least) that Australia is currently more committed to maintaining and expanding its parks than America.  This is something of a surprise, given the politics of Queensland during the height of the American environmental movement.  From 1968-1987, Queensland was led (paradoxically) by a ruthless self-proclaimed pious Christian governor, Johannes Bjelke-Petersen, who was described by the Australian prime minister in 1975 as a “Bible-bashing bastard.”  This was an episode in Australian politics that contemporary Americans would find distressingly familiar.  Bjelke-Petersen was fiercely anti-environmental, so much so that even when Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was declared a World Heritage Site, he nonetheless opposed giving it national-park status, because he was still trying to find ways to drill for oil there.  Over the past 15 years, Lois and I have snorkeled in some of the world’s most famous coral beds, but the Great Barrier Reef is the most spectacular.  The corals are breathtaking and the diversity of sea life is absolutely astonishing.

Great Barrier Reef as it appears from the surface

Great Barrier Reef as it appears from the surface

In one day of snorkeling there, Lois and I spotted white-tipped reef sharks (harmless, they say, but still….crikey!), sea turtles, sting rays, and tropical fish of every description, as well as some that are simply beyond description.  Many divers consider the Great Barrier Reef the best dive location in the world.  It stretches for 1200 miles down the eastern coast of Australia, so huge that it’s visible from space.

Its northern tip is near Cape Tribulation (so named by Captain Cook because one of his ships ran aground there), where the amazing Daintree Rainforest National Park now connects with the Great Barrier Reef to form a huge protected region of land and sea.

Cape Tribulation

Cape Tribulation

Fortunately for the reef and for the Australian environment, Bjelke-Petersen became mired in scandal in the mid to late 1980’s, falling out of favor….and power.  Since that time, national parks have proliferated in Queensland; currently there are approximately 200 of them, five of these Unesco World Heritage Sites.  Unfortunately, however, the prospects for the Great Barrier Reef are dim, according to biologists.  As a result of the warming of the oceans, many are predicting that the Great Barrier Reef corals will die out by 2050.

Like America, Australia has struggled with the tension between economic development and environmental protection.  Australia currently has a stronger economy than America, strong enough that Lois and I have encountered a number of immigrants to Australia from Ireland and Italy who reported that Australia rather than America is the place with the job opportunities these days.   The unemployment rate in Australia has remained below 5.5% throughout 2012; whereas the U.S. unemployment rate has been above 8% for most of the year.  This has had a very tangible impact on Lois’ and my children, one of whom was laid off when his employer moved overseas (he remains unemployed) and two of whom left the U.S. for better job opportunities abroad.   Economists attribute Australia’s ability to avoid the most serious consequences of the world recession to a variety of causes, one of which is the strength of its mining industry, particularly its exports of iron, coal and natural gas to China.  Despite the proliferation of national parks in Australia, its mining and energy policies contribute to the problems that not only threaten the Great Barrier Reef, but that also make Australia one of the most environmentally vulnerable of all developed nations.  Although other developed nations, including the U.S., face similar problems, given the geological isolation of Australia and its unique evolutionary history, its life forms have much more of what environmental philosophers refer to as “scarcity value.”  Australia has some very difficult decisions to make.

My son would like to visit Australia.  As Lois and I hiked through her exotic and unique rainforests, encountered her delightfully strange animal life, and snorkeled her spectacular coral reefs, I wanted to encourage him not to wait for retirement before traveling there.

Christmas Boat Parade

In order to get in the Christmas spirit, we attended a local event on Australia’s Sunshine Coast called the Christmas Boat Parade. Local families gathered at the Mooloolaba Harbour at around 6 pm, decked out in their Christmas finery.Christmasy kids

Barbecues (and sparklers) were lit

DSCF9331

The boats began making their first rounds, even before the sun went down. Children waived frantically to every Santa that came by, even the plastic ones…

Plastic santa

Mother nature was the first to show off her lights…Sunset at Mooloolaba DSCF9330 DSCF9325

And then the boats began to light up the night. DSCF9340

These little ones were among my favorites.DSCF9339 DSCF9346 DSCF9352

This one had a mechanical device that allowed Santa (below) to send up a “match” to light the candle. When it reached the top, the flame came on and waved around. Amazing. DSCF9357

Lighted candle 

This one had a rock band on board that provided the soundtrack for the evening’s festivities.DSCF9354

The lights were inspiring and beautiful, and by night’s end I had a better feel for the unique possibilities offered by a summer Christmas.

Australia’s softer side

Of all the countries we have visited so far, Australia is most like America with its wide roads, big cars, huge shopping malls and the bombardment of advertising. Being a relatively “young” country, there aren’t cathedrals and castles to visit. Its primary attraction is the great outdoors. Before coming to Australia, I pictured it as an arid landscape with vast, harsh deserts on the interior and scrubby, dry areas nearer to the oceans. This might actually be true of parts of Australia, but not the parts we have visited. I have been delighted and surprised by the lush and gorgeous rain forests, the tropical plants, the stunning tropical birds and fish. I’ve always considered it my own little dirty secret that I love tropical plants, birds, and fish. In California, these things are exotics or invasives and to be avoided. But everything is native to somewhere and I’ve been completely “wowed” by the lush, verdant, and colorful world around me here in coastal Queensland.

As George pointed out, all this beauty comes at the price of a little danger, but Australia has its softer side, too. Every bit as iconic as the saltwater crocodile is Australia’s indigenous teddy bear, the koala.

These furry little marsupials are as soft as they look.

These furry little marsupials are in no way related to bears and they are as soft as they look.

Today we spotted one in the wild. It was in a tree near the visitor’s center at Noosa National Park on the Sunshine Coast. Somehow, the fact that it was right near the parking lot felt a little cheap, but at least it wasn’t because it has become habituated to human food. Koalas eat only eucalyptus leaves which are very low in calories, and consequently they spend most of their day sleeping because they don’t have energy to do anything else. We were hoping this would mean we would see dozens of them snoozing away in the trees, but today we only saw the one.

Female cassowary, about 6 feet tall.

Female cassowary, about 6 feet tall.

IMG_9433

Wombat

We still haven’t seen a kangaroo or a cassowary (human sized bird found in the tropics – see George’s previous post) in the wild, but we did see them at the Australia Zoo the other day.

I’m usually not a fan of zoos, but I thought this one was quite well done. The zoo was begun by the parents of Steve Irwin (the Crocodile Hunter) as a small wildlife park in the 1970s. Steve took over the park in the 1990s and changed the name to the Australia Zoo. When Steve began filming the Crocodile Hunter series, he and his wife, Terri, decided to put all the money from filming and merchandise back into the zoo and wildlife conservation. Many of the enclosures at the zoo aren’t really enclosed, like a lot of the bird habitat, so some of the animals are hard to spot. Staff regularly walk around with animals that you can meet and possibly even touch such as small freshwater crocodiles, wombats, and eagles.

Red kangaroo roaming through "roo heaven" at the Australia Zoo.

Red kangaroo roaming through “roo heaven” at the Australia Zoo.

You can pet a koala and feed a kangaroo. Rather than having kangaroos in cages, they have a huge walk-through kangaroo area where you can just wander around with over 14 different species of ‘roos and wallabies.

The zoo mostly focuses on Australian wildlife, but they also have an African and Asian section where you can see bengal tigers, rhinoceros, giraffes, elephants and zebras. The bengal tiger was the highlight of the day for me. I think they are perhaps the most gorgeous animals in the world.

 

A black-tipped reef shark floats above us in the tunnel at the aquarium.

A black-tipped reef shark floats above us in the tunnel at the aquarium.

We spent the next day at Underwater World, the Sunshine Coast Aquarium and Oceanarium. Definitely the highlight there was the enormous shark and stingray “tube” where you can walk through with beautiful sharks and rays swimming around and above you. We learned that out of the 360 shark species, there are only 4 species of shark that will attack humans unprovoked – great whites, tiger sharks, bull sharks and the oceanic white tip. Fatalities are rare. In fact, on average, fewer than 2 people per year dies from shark attack worldwide. If you go to the beach, you are far more likely to drown than to be attacked by a shark.  Over 100 million sharks are killed by people each year though, mostly to supply the shark fin product trade. Sometimes sharks fins are cut off and then the still living shark is dumped back in the water where it can no longer swim, so it sinks to the bottom of the ocean and drowns. While we were snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef we felt so incredibly privileged to see White Tip Reef sharks. These beauties were about 5 feet long and so graceful. They are a little shy, but we managed to enjoy watching them cruise slowly through their natural habitat. At the aquarium, we also learned that 30% of shark species lay eggs, while the other 70% give birth to live young. I did not know that before.

We don’t even have to go out to see great wildlife, though. The home exchange we are doing here on the Sunshine Coast has a beautiful deck overlooking a flora and fauna preserve. We get to see the most fantastic bird life. Between this spot and the back yard at our home in Cairns, we have seen so many gorgeous birds hanging out nearby and serenading us with their songs, calls, and whistles. Yesterday a flock of rainbow lorikeets flew by. We spotted some really large owls in a neighboring tree, and we’ve seen a few cockatoos. We recently spotted a kookaburra in a tree near the driveway, though, we have been hearing them “laughing” in the trees for a couple weeks now.

Kookaburra

Kookaburra. Their call really does sound like maniacal laughter.

At the house in Cairns, a playful pair of sunbirds darted all around our deck area, landing on any brightly colored thing and looking very much like hummingbirds as they hovered and checked it out. We’re still trying to identify some birds that we are hearing but not seeing, especially one that starts up in the early morning and sounds like someone cracking a whip. Maybe that’s just our neighbors getting a little feisty, though.

Green sea turtle with tropical fish (not my photo, but I wish it was!)

Green sea turtle with tropical fish (not my photo, but I wish it was!)

And then, of course, there are the stunningly beautiful and completely harmless tropical fish, coral, and other marine life that congregate along Australia’s shores. Six of the seven species of sea turtles in the world are found in Australia’s waters. These slow moving, peaceful amphibians move languidly through the water, practically asking you to follow along and enjoy the slower pace of life. All seven species are endangered, some of them critically so.

And lastly, there are the peaceful and fun-loving Aussies themselves. Their most frequent refrain seems to be, “No worries” and they really seem to mean it. George has enthusiastically picked up this turn of phrase and uses it at every opportunity. We have found them to be friendly and helpful, kind and generous.

Although we are only going to see a tiny little slice of this vast country (this time around), I have loved getting to know this area that feels a little like home, but in other ways still feels exotic and wild and enticing… in a very sweet way.

Australian Armageddon


We’ve had several friends email us about Australia’s reputation for deadly life forms.  With the exception of certain television nature adventurers who have made a habit of pestering Australian critters into a frenzy to prove how aggressive they are, Australians don’t really make a big deal about the natural world that menaces them from all sides.  In my last post I mentioned the box jellyfish, the danger of which Australians downplay by referring to them as ‘stingers.’  It is true that Queenslanders avoid swimming in the northern beaches during stinger season, but unlike me, they don’t seem to see it as cosmically unfair that they can’t swim in the world’s most beautiful waters because of a damn jellyfish.

IMG_9085

Stinger net - Palm Cove Beach

Stinger net – Palm Cove Beach

Australia is well known for its array of weird and venomous reptiles.  I’ll begin with a few that pose relatively little threat to humans.  It’s not uncommon to see a five-foot-long monitor lizard slither across rainforest roads.  Lois and I have seen two or three.

Lace Monitor we saw near the beach at Mooloolaba

Small Lace Monitor We Saw Near the Beach at Mooloolaba

Although this isn't my photo, this is what they look like when they grow up

Not my photo, but this is what they look like when they grow up

We recently traveled 1000 miles south of Cairns down the Australian coast to a beautiful home where we are now staying in Buderim (to pronounce this, think of what you’d do to a stack of pancakes).  It’s about an hour north of Brisbane.  In a note about various features of the property, the owner informed us casually that a dragon roamed the front garden area of the house.  This is a two-foot long prehistoric looking creature that tends to lounge around on tree branches — a water dragon.  Although I’m informed that neither the monitor lizard nor the water dragon is venomous, neither is likely to be a popular attraction at a petting zoo either.

Eastern Water Dragon

Not our photo — we haven’t spotted him yet.

Another non-venomous reptile that inhabits the Australian rainforest is the tree python.  It frequently snoozes in basket ferns, which often encircle the trunks high up in palm trees.  Experts insist that, although it is a constrictor, it’s not large enough to pose a danger to humans.  Of course that’s not considering the number of heart attack deaths suffered by coconut harvesters who ascend a tree and unexpectedly discover a tree python draped around their throats.  By the way, the home where we are staying in Buderim comes with an adorable little Pomeranian, and when we asked the owners whether the dog should be allowed out to roam around the grounds at night, they advised us to look carefully in the branches of the trees on the property.  We did; and we found two snakeskins draped over the branches of a tree near the pool, one of them over six-feet long.  We’re thinking about using them in place of tinsel on our Christmas tree.

Snakeskin

Snakeskin in a tree at our place in Buderim

Of course, then there is the highly publicized matter of Australia’s venomous snakes.  The majority of Australia’s snake species are poisonous.  In fact, the six species of snake with the most deadly venom in the world are all found in Australia.  We were at Daintree National Park in northern Queensland, the world’s oldest rainforest, when the person at the desk mentioned casually that a venomous snake had just honored them by coiling up just outside the entryway to the Visitor Center.  She offered to show us.  We took her up on her offer, and sure enough a deadly red-bellied black snake was coiled tranquilly in the flowerbed.  Having worked for a few years as a park ranger, I found this astonishing.  In the U.S., park administrators would find this absolutely unacceptable.  Every day thousands of people walk within six feet of this poisonous reptile, which could easily spring from its lair among the peace lillies and fasten its fangs on the jugular of an innocent, paying park visitor. Not that park administrators would worry too much about the victim; it’s the lawsuits that would concern them.  When I asked the Daintree park employee whether she was at all bothered by the proximity of the deadly snake to so many park visitors, she said, “Nobody would ever look to see that it’s there.  Besides it’s only the 20th most venomous snake in the world……no worries.”

Red-bellied Black Snake

Again, not my photo

Speaking of poisonous venom, in Australia it’s not confined to the animal kingdom.  In many Queensland rainforest parks there are signs posted warning about the “stinging tree” whose leaves look very much like our stinging nettle; it’s just that they deliver an excruciating venom which has caused fatalities for humans and even horses, and for which there is no known antidote.  Like so many Australian species names, the name ‘stinging tree’ simply does not do this organism justice.  Contact with this tree doesn’t simply ‘sting.’  It delivers a neuro-toxin that can convert the affected area into a red, swollen mass that remains intensely painful for months, if you’re fortunate enough to live that long.  Some of Australia’s plants seem downright evil.  Take, for example, the strangler fig.  A fig seed is dropped by some creature onto a branch of, let’s say, a beautiful mahogany tree.  The fig seed then sends long roots down to the ground to root itself.  The roots eventually proliferate until the mahogany tree is completely covered with the fig roots, which show their gratitude to the gracious host mahogany tree by choking it out, depriving its leaves of sunlight.  The host tree for the strangler fig in this photo is long dead and disintegrated.  All that remains is the strangler fig.

Strangler Fig Tree

Strangler Fig Tree

Then of course there are the carnivorous plants; Australia has nearly 200 species of them.  There’s the cheerily named ‘sundew’ whose tiny tentacles secrete a sticky goo that traps insects, which are then slowly digested.  The elegant Australian pitcher plant features a slippery flower spout leading to a deep pocket with a pool of water that drowns the insect. Fun.

Sundew(not my photo)

Sundew
(not my photo)

Australia has such unique life forms because it is an island that has been separated from the other continents for so long (geologically speaking) that in many ways it has taken its own evolutionary path.  The platypus is a good example of this.  A bizarre creature that looks like a combination of a beaver and a duck, it’s one of the few animals that lays eggs and suckles its young.

Platypus(Not my photo- these guys are difficult to spot)

Platypus
(Not my photo- these guys are difficult to spot)

Given that it’s an Australian life form, it goes without saying that it has venomous stingers on its hind feet that can cause humans extreme pain.  In fact, it’s one of the few venomous mammals in the world.  It is such an odd creature that in the late 18th Century, even after an Australian governor sent a platypus carcass to England, British zoologists still considered it a hoax.  Of course, fun-loving Australians have been known to capitalize on the reputation of their country for weird and dangerous critters by perpetrating hoaxes.  Currently a myth is circulating about bloodthirsty koalas (called ‘drop bears’) that leap out of eucalyptus trees devouring unsuspecting American tourists.  Even the Australian Museum seems to be complicit in perpetuating this hoax, proving that scientists can actually have a sense of humor.

For these reasons, I had doubts when I started seeing signs in the Daintree rainforest warning of the presence of a creature I’d never heard of — the cassowary, allegedly a flightless, human-sized bird that regularly crossed rainforest roads.  As a young boy scout I’d been duped into participating in snipe hunts, and besides, the road signs made the cassowary look suspiciously like Big Bird.

Cassowary sign

Cassowary sign

So I wasn’t having any of it – until Lois and I hiked a very overgrown trail to see some particularly large rainforest trees, and returned to the car with a kilo or so of cassowary dung dripping from the soles of our shoes.  We still haven’t seen one of these giant birds, despite looking carefully along rainforest creek beds, but now I realize that the spiritualists are right.  Sometimes you just have to have faith in that which you can’t see – especially if you’ve had an excremental experience.

Sculpture of the elusive cassowary

Sculpture of the elusive cassowary

By the way, we learned that female cassowaries are quite a bit larger than the males, and after laying the eggs they abandon the nest, leaving the males to nurture the chicks while the females go off to seek new sexual adventures.  Lois delights in this example of gender role reversal just enough to make me a tad uncomfortable.  So from now on she gets to kill the giant tropical cockroaches in the bathroom at night.

As the sun sets on the Cairns Harbor each evening, a cacaphony of piercing shrieks erupts from several of the larger trees flanking the harbor promenade.  The sound is made by a swarm of black flying foxes.  Although when they take to the air, they are thought by most people strolling along the boardwalk to be a flock of large ravens, they are actually a form of “megabat” whose closest relative is a species scientists call pteropus vampyrus.  (See below for a photo of this bat that appeared in my post on Bali.)  I’m convinced that if word got out that these winged creatures swooping overhead were actually bats with a wingspan of over four feet, the Cairns Harbor promenade would be pretty much tourist free by 5 p.m.

Black Flying Fox(Also called "Fruit Bat")

Black Flying Fox
(Also called “Fruit Bat”)

The animal we most associate with Australia is, of course, the kangaroo.  There are actually many types of kangaroo in Australia, even one type that, believe it or not, inhabits trees in the rainforests we visited.  Still, Lois and I have seen only one species of kangaroo – wallabies.  They congregate by the hundreds in a field near Cairns. Technically I should say we’ve seen a mob of wallabies.  The official term for any group of kangaroos is “mob,” although you won’t find gangs of kangaroos bounding through the Australian hood roughing up humans.  Like koalas, kangaroos seems to be among the few Australian creatures that lack venomous defense powers. They do, however seem to have a good deal of animosity for Australian SUV’s, into which they hop headlong so frequently that most Australians outfit their SUVs with ‘roo bars.’

Roo Bars

Roo Bars

To return to water creatures for a moment, there’s something I didn’t mention about why Australians are reluctant to go into the water at the beach.  It turns out that it’s not just the stingers.  There is also the matter of the saltwater crocodiles that prowl around the mouths of rivers and in nearby ocean waters.  (By the way, Aussies fondly refer to the twenty-foot long beasts as “salties.”)   This means that even if you don a “stinger suit” and are successful warding off the box jellyfish, you could still be snatched off of your surfboard whilst hanging ten and be torn limb from limb by a prehistoric-sized amphibian.  Something about this just seems excessive to me.

Waiting for Dinner(Not my photo)

Waiting for Dinner
(Not my photo)

For a moment I was tempted into thinking that maybe it’s safer just to swim in rivers where you have only one deadly creature to menace you.  This thought was put right out of my mind, however, when we went on a guided boat tour of the Daintree River, where we spotted two small adult crocodiles (10-12 feet long) as well as a number of their offspring.  (Sorry but the adults didn’t want to be photographed.)

You just know there have got to be crocodiles here.

Tributary of the Daintree River — swimming not advised here.
Baby croc on a tributary of the Daintree River

Baby croc on a tributary of the Daintree River

I was stunned when our guide told us,  “Yeeah, but if ya fell into these watahs, the crocs aren’t even the worst of yuh problems, mite.”

I took the bait.  “OK, what is the worst of your problems, then?”

“It’s the bull shahhks.  They attack in packs…..teah ya to shreds.”

“Bull sharks!!  You’re kidding!  In rivers?  But sharks are ocean dwellers.”

“Naa, not bull shahhks.  They do foine in fresh watah.  They’ll come quoite a waiys up this rivah.”

“How big are they?”

“Aah, in these pahhts, they get to around three, neahly faw meetahs .”

“Four meters….that’s 12 feet long!”

“Yeeah, the bull shahhk is the most aggrissive of all the shahhks.  They saiy it was the inspiraytion for movie Jawrs.”

Bull Shark

Bull Shark — (Not my Photo)

Something seems deeply wrong about all of this, in a biblical sense.  Monstrous, scaly, freshwater creatures invading saltwater habitats; terrifying, toothy saltwater creatures wreaking havoc in freshwater rivers; beavers growing duckbills and laying eggs; gigantic jellyfish herding swimmers on beaches into netted enclosures; megabats the size of eagles taking over the harbors; docile, vegetarian koalas turning into carnivorous man-eaters; plants strangling each other; mobs of kangaroos hurling themselves into oncoming traffic.  I even noticed the other day that the water is going down the drain backwards.  Figuring it was time to schedule a flight out of this place, I checked the cool calendar on the personal digital organizer I found a few years back in our travels through the ancient city of Tulum in southern Mexico, but the calendar seems to end two weeks from Friday.