Wildlife in Australia
I spent much of my time in Australia looking for koalas, but never saw one in the wild. Koalas sleep for up to 22 hours a day, so I guess my timing was always wrong. I did see a couple of them at Melbourne Zoo; one was slumped over a branch dozing and the other had his back to me. I eventually gave up hoping he would turn around.
There is a myth that koalas sleep a lot because they get high on eucalyptus leaves, but they are in fact conserving energy to digest their fibrous, low-nutrition diet. They get their name from an ancient Aboriginal word meaning “no drink” because the gum leaves provide them with most of the water they need. Eucalyptus leaves are toxic to most other animals, but the koala’s digestive system is especially adapted to detoxify the poisonous chemicals.
I may have missed out on koalas, but I did see plenty of wallabies, a few kangaroos, some possums, lots of fairy penguins, a couple of baby crocodiles, and a very impressive cassowary (a huge, flightless bird that is unpredictable and can be very dangerous if riled).
In the rainforests, the signs warn about cassowaries: “Back away slowly and put something like a tree or a backpack between yourself and the bird, and then let it go on its way.” I wasn’t sure that my backpack would survive a cassowary’s claws if the bird was hungry and aggressive, but the only one I saw was enjoying a feed from a fruit tree, and was unconcerned about the tourists who had stopped to take a photo.
At Uluru (Ayres Rock), signs tell you to beware of dingoes, but not to run away if you see any. Again, you’re told to put something between you and the animal, and, again, I wondered how that might work out in practice. I never saw a dingo and it was the rampant flies that occupied my mind more in the end. There had been more rain than is usual in summer and most tourists wore surreal-looking fly nets. I preferred to see where I was going, so, when the flies descended, I wrapped a scarf Tuareg-style around the parts of my face not protected by my sunglasses.
A trip to Australia is a true voyage into nature; whether that be the mangrove swamps of tropical north Queensland, the heart-stopping beauty of the Great Barrier Reef or the stark, imposing spectacle of Uluru. Even in the cities, you see possums, colourful birdlife, and gorgeous butterflies.
Australia’s birdlife really is spectacular; not just because of the gorgeous colours of the birds themselves, but because of the sounds they make. In the early evenings in Port Douglas, I felt like I was in a scene from the Hitchcock film The Birds as flocks of starlings swooped around the centre of town making the most incredible noise.
In the early hours of my first night in Australia, I heard a strange sound and thought it was a mobile phone ringtone. The next morning I heard the same noise again and realised it must be a bird. I still don’t know which bird that was, but I did learn to recognise the famous kookaburra, with its distinctive “laugh”.
I was in Port Douglas during the wet season, so wasn’t able to swim because of the stingers. Having read about the sometimes fatal effects of a sting from these jellyfish (there are detailed warning notices on the beaches), I even avoided the area cordoned off by a stinger net. In Port Douglas, the only stinger-free months of the year are June and July.
Spiders and snakes
Back on land, I was on the lookout for snakes, not out of curiosity, but in case I trod on one. I only saw one – at the Crystal Castle at Mullumbimby. The tiny brown creature, with a dangerous bite, had nestled in among some crystals, and was removed by a snake catcher. Most dangerous Australian snakes are shy and unaggressive and are responsible for relatively few human deaths. Statistically, you would be as likely to die from a snake bite in France as in Australia.
As for spiders, there are more than 2,000 species in Australia; just reading about them is stomach-churning. Female redbacks are responsible for more cases of serious envenomation in Australia than all the snakes and marine stingers put together. Thankfully, bites from Australia’s largest spider, the eastern tarantula (also known as the bird-eating, barking or whistling spider), are rare. The insect looks very scary, with its 16-centimetre leg span, but it isn’t aggressive.
Then there are the myriad dangerous plants, like the rainforest stinging tree, whose heart-shaped leaves are covered with fine, poisonous hairs, and the finger cherry, whose fruit can cause blindness. The tar tree can give you a ferocious rash. Its black resin can cause permanent blindness if rubbed in the eyes and its cashew-like fruit causes painful mouth ulcers if eaten. Watch out, too, for the “wait-a-while”, the lawyer vine whose hook-like spines will attach themselves to anything.
To cap it all, there are the crocodiles, and the stories of people they have eaten. On the Daintree River, I saw two baby crocs. The big ones were out of sight, but I still kept my arms and legs well inside the boat.
With such challenging flora and fauna, the rainforest can be daunting, but the rewards are priceless. Plants grow there that have existed for millions of years. The strangler fig is one of the most fascinating trees in the world. It entwines itself around a host tree, which eventually dies. Strangler figs give fruit all year round and provide food for birds and mammals when other nutrition is scarce.
Then there are the candle nuts that are toxic if eaten raw, but delicious roasted or in a sauce. Because of their high oil content, they burn with a smoky flame (hence their name) and you can even get a sound out of the husk.
The best way to experience the rainforest is to walk the trails with an Aboriginal guide. Walking with Roy Gibson at Mossman Gorge, I learned about bush tucker (forest food), Aboriginal legends and laws, and rainforest plants and animals.
I left the Australian wilderness virtually unscathed (with just a few bites from sandflies and mosquitos), and much wiser about the environment and how to respect it. In Australia, nature is more endangered by humans than vice versa. In Tasmania, I saw more animals killed on the roads than I have seen anywhere else in the world. That’s one of the rare downsides on an island whose scenery is wonderfully diverse. You can travel from rainforest to rolling fields to pristine beaches in one day, but it’s best to take your time. Australia’s southern island state is a place to relax and rejuvenate.
Cape Grim, at the north-western tip of Tasmania, is said to have the cleanest air on earth; it’s home to the Australian government’s Baseline Air Pollution Station, where samples are collected in an “air library” and provide a yardstick for scientists worldwide.
More than a third of the land in Tasmania has been set aside for national parks and reserves. One particularly stunning area is Cradle Mountain; the stillness of the lakes and the rugged beauty of the mountain peaks are truly breathtaking.
I didn’t make it to the Tasmanian Devil Sanctuary, but heard an interesting lecture about the devils on the ferry back to Melbourne. There are fears for the survival of the creatures, who are being ravaged by facial tumour disease. They have been declared an endangered species and the Australian and Tasmanian governments are working together on a programme to save them.
The koala is also a protected species, but since the time that white settlement began in Australia, roughly 80 percent of the creature’s habitat has been destroyed; the remainder is mostly on privately owned land and almost none of it is protected. About 4,000 koalas are killed by dogs and cars each year. Research carried out at Sydney University in 2008 showed that rising CO₂ levels in the atmosphere could further threaten the creatures by sapping nutrients from gum leaves and making them more toxic.
One koala who became internationally famous last year is Sam, who has been preserved as an exhibit at Melbourne Museum. Touching images of Sam drinking from a firefighter’s water bottle were published worldwide after the koala was injured during a backburning operation. The operation took place just before Black Saturday in 2009, when hundreds of bushfires raged across areas of Victoria. Sam’s burns healed, but she was badly affected by chlamydiosis, a bacterial disease common in koalas and exacerbated by loss of habitat. When it became clear that her condition was too advanced for treatment, she was euthanized.
It’s hoped the koala’s presence as an exhibit will remind visitors of the 2009 fires and help educate them about drought and bushfire and the effect of environmental change on flora and fauna.
Back home, I now have a koala as my screensaver; he makes make me smile, and reminds me how fragile nature is, and how important it is to protect it.
© Annette Gartland