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.


The northeastern coastline of Australia in Queensland is stunning, the beautiful blue-green Coral Sea lapping gently onto curving white-sand beaches shaded by graceful palms bordering dense rainforests that climb the mountains as they rise above the sea.  The water here at 18 degrees south of the equator is 83°F, and it absolutely begs you to plunge in….. well, not so fast.

Lois and I had encountered an Australian couple in Assisi (Italy) who had mentioned that on the beaches of northern Queensland, one does have to be careful to avoid “stingers.”  Gradually we realized that these were neither bees, scorpions, nor scam artists, but rather jellyfish, and not just any jellyfish, but a special species called box jellyfish that inhabits these waters.  I’d already received a pair of four-inch-long vertical jellyfish tattoos on my torso while snorkeling near Menjangan Island off of the northwest coast of Bali.

Jellyfish Food

So, shortly after our arrival in Australia, we drove to the tourist information office to get advice about the location of the best and safest swimming beaches. The tourist office was near a beautiful promenade on the Cairns Harbor.

At Cairns Harbor — There are some really beautiful women in Australia.

Outside of the office a man was giving advice to inquiring tourists.  When we asked him about stingers, he said that sections of most public beaches have stinger nets that keep the jellyfish out.  Then he looked us over carefully and said, “No worries…..the loikes of you should be ible to swim anywheah.  Yer in foine shipe.  Yeea, it moight be the most excruciatin’ paine yuv evah felt, and occayysionally some overwight, retired bloke gets nicked by one of the buggahs and drops dead of cahdiac arrest on the spot, but the two of you should be foine.”

Our confidence renewed, we drove to a beach about an hour north of Cairns in Port Douglas called Four Mile Beach, a long, gorgeous crescent of white-sand paradise.

Four Mile Beach

The approach to the beach was posted with stinger warning signs showing a crude depiction of a jellyfish the size of a giant squid wrapping its tentacles around the thighs of a suitably horrified, unsuspecting bather.  One helpful guidebook advises what to do if attacked by one of these creatures: “Do not attempt to remove the tentacles.”  So I guess they leave the tentacles (which are up to 10 feet long) dangling from your sorry ass as a sort of souvenir of your visit.  Underneath each stinger-warning sign at the beach was a bottle of vinegar.  Apparently even severed stinger tentacles will continue injecting agonizing toxins into your nervous system unless you pickle the damn things.  What to do if you can’t find a handy container of vinegar?  Locals suggest that you have a buddy urinate on the affected area.  The only drawback to this is that scientific studies show that urination has absolutely no beneficial effect on the victim of box jellyfish stings and may actually exacerbate the pain, in which case you suffer not only greater agony from the sting, but also the humiliation of having been pissed on.

Although Four Mile Beach is nearly as long as its name suggests, not a soul entered the water anywhere except for the 50 x 50 meter area bordered by the stinger net.  I have to admit, I was disappointed.  This is the land of Crocodile Dundee and Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin.  You’d think that there must be at least someone out there with the gumption to do a little stinger wrasslin’….. especially after a few beers.  By the way, I forgot to mention that box jellyfish are transparent and therefore pretty much invisible.  OK, so maybe more than just a few beers.