In my years of travelling the bush I can recall a few unexpected close encounters with wildlife. Some of them were pleasant and some of them downright scary.
Isn’t it funny that such a small living thing could produce so much animosity towards it just because it is what it is. I must admit that I can live without the Arachnida Family. I don’t think it is a fear of but rather a revulsion that lurks somewhere in the human brain.
It was mid-winter in the Karoo, South Africa, and we were asleep in bed. It was bitterly cold outside, blowing gale and with a wind chill that brought the temp down to minus 10C. No wonder denizens of the night sought solace in the warmth of a brick house.
In a sleepy daze I told Judith to stop tickling my feet with her feet. She mumbled something indiscernible. And it happened two or three times during the night. In the morning however we got up and went to work as usual.
Later in the day our servant arrived and as it was a Monday, she stripped the bed. African women believe in all kinds of superstitions and spiders have some mystical relation to them…..all bad.
She screamed at the top of her lungs and ran from the house. A nearby gardener came to the rescue and dispatched the Baboon spider, which was the size of a person’s hand. Although not poisonous these spiders can inflict a nasty bite.
Baboon spiders or tarantulas, as they are known outside Africa, are the giants of the spider world. The last two leg segments resemble the finger of a baboon hence, the common name, baboon spiders.
Whilst still on spiders
I was driving the Toyota Landcruiser one night, while my long time school friend, Kierie, was on the look out for spiders’ eyes reflections on the tarmac. He used to collect the spiders for university serum laboratories, so that they in turn, could develop antivenene for spider bites.
Many people are unaware that those bright little objects reflected in the vehicles lights at night at road level are actually spider’s eyes.
This night we were driving along slowly on the tarmac and stopping frequently to catch a spider. A glass jar is placed over the spider, a light piece of cardboard is slid under the Arachnida and then the bottle is turned right way up and a perforated screw-top lid screwed on.
I am not quite sure what happened when we caught a Red Roman spider. Somehow the lid came loose as it was probably cross-threaded and rolled on its side. The Red Roman escaped, ran over my leg and disappeared under seat. Well, I managed to get out of the truck through the window without touching the sides, whilst the truck was still in motion. Kierie was laughing so much he forgot there was no driver and the truck ran off the road, albeit gently and stopped against a bush.
We searched with the torch for the runaway spider but to no avail. It was with great trepidation that I climbed back in behind the steering wheel to continue our search into the night and I was extremely glad to return home after we had filled each bottle with a specimen.
We never did find that Red Roman.
Goanna (Varanus Varius)
I was guiding a couple of birdwatchers on an off track adventure in Kakadu around 1980. They camped in a tent and I swagged it out in the open. The tropics can get cold in July, believe it or not, and sometime temps can drop down to 1 degree or lower. To stay warm I used to stoke the fire a bit, roll the swag out and camp within reach of the warm heat waves.
Some time in the dead of night I stirred. I felt as if the world had caved in on me. The fire was only a faint glow and there was a presence on my chest. I have been an asthmatic for the greater part of my life and thought at first that I was having an asthma attack. But then I discovered that I was breathing well.
I reached for my torch, as the night was pitch black, even with the twinkling stars above. The illumination revealed an Old Man Goanna of about a metre in length, lying across my lower chest. Now these Goanna’s have hellishly long claws, so any movement, to get away from potential hurt, has to be gradual. I started to roll on to my side ever so gently and Old Man Goanna slid off gently and sauntered off into the night. I did not sleep well after that!!!
Saltwater Crocodile (crocodylus porosus)
In my time in the Top End of Australia a number of encounters with the reptilian giants, made my blood turn as cold as that of a crocodile.
I had teamed up with another bloke and took tourists out on adventures on the South Alligator River. I had the 4×4 and tourist numbers and the partner had a 5 metre fishing boat powered by twin 80hp outboard engines. The boat was licensed to carry 9 passengers. We ran day trips from the South Alligator River Bridge on the Arnhem Highway, downstream some 20km, to a bird nesting area.
This day saw us in and around the bird sanctuary, marvelling at new life of Spoonbills, Egrets and Cormorants. After a while I told my passengers I would run them up an inlet to look for some of the fabled large goanna’s, which were seen on the plains occasionally. Here I made a small tactical error, as the tide was going out. Not taking too much notice of what was happening I pressed on upstream into this narrow mangrove inlet. Around a bend in the creek I saw a very large crocodile swimming towards us, obviously heading to the deeper waters of the river. There wasn’t going to be space for us to pass each other and I made a hasty decision to turn the boat around. But I had to reverse the boat to turn it around. By this time all passengers on board were well aware of what was happening. The inlet wasn’t wide enough and the boat got stuck sideways in the mud. The crocodile kept swimming towards us. It seemed that it was resolute to ram the boat but managed to dive underneath. Two young ladies on board screamed as the dorsal fins of the crocodile scraped against the hull of the boat. They leapt away to the other side of the boat and the other passengers followed suit. I yelled at them not to do that as the boat came close to rolling on to its side and a mate and I strained like mad on the other side using our weight to counter balance the boat to keep it upright. Everything happened in slow motion. The boat stayed on even keel and the crocodile wriggled away heading downstream
There we were, stuck fast in the mud with the tide receding rapidly. I asked my passengers to all go to the back of the boat so as to get weight away from the bow and without further notice jumped overboard and sank up to my thighs, into the black, mangrove ooze. I attempted to lift the bow to shift it around so that we could get some draught again. It was working, but not enough. So I yelled at my mate, George, who was along as a tourist for this day, to help. He wasn’t too keen to jump in to saurian infested waters. I insisted quite vehemently and in colourful language that he had better help me quickly, and luckily he had a change of heart, and jumped into the mud with me. This took more weight out of the boat and we were able to pivot the boat on its stern and slowly turn it around by rocking it so that the bow was back in the water. It was an extremely messy and smelly event as we churned in the decayed mangrove mud but within minutes we were afloat again. George and I scrambled on board and the boat drifted with the outgoing tide. It my haste to get on board I relinquished one of my shoes to the mud. I thought at that moment that maybe in a million years time some archaeologist would discover my shoe, preserved in rock in pristine condition!
I restarted the engines and tilted them to just below the surface of the water and on slow revs in the swirling black mud, we made our way back to the river.
Quite a number of cold ones were sunk at the South Alligator Pub later that arvo, with the tourists excitingly relating their stories of adventures to others in the bar. I wanted to hide somewhere as the regulars just shook their heads in disbelief and nodded in my direction.
Some time later I had another ‘experience’ at the same bird sanctuary. I had learned my lesson with going up inlets and was content to idle the boat within range of seeing the birds at their best. This time it was a rising tide. We normally made lunch at a mangrove island where there was some dry space to put the tables out for a spread. But the tide was still not high enough for easy access so I decided just to idle the boat in midstream and commandeered a tourist to hold on to steer the boat l while I organised a feed for everyone.
We were sitting there in mid-stream enjoying lunch and champagne when this crocodile surfaced right next to the boat. Now, I had seen many large crocodiles in the wild and in captivity, but this one was huge. A fleeting glance estimated it longer than the boat and about two metres wide. I took command of the Captain’s chair with haste and we sped away from the scene. The crocodile sank again out of sight and left us all very breathless.
Dingo (Canus Familiaris)
I was camped at Twin Falls in Kakadu with a mob of customers and enjoying the company and the tropical allure. We used to get everyone on to air mattresses and I would start a train by lying on my back and paddling with my hands whilst the others held on to the air mattress in front of them. This way they could get whatever sight of the gorge they wanted in a relaxed manner. The convoy would go up as far as the rocks near the falls and then each person would carry their air mattress to the pool below the falls where we would laze around for an hour or two. Even in the early 1980’s tourism was starting to make its impact in to Kakadu and there were regular incursions into places like Jim-Jim Falls and Twin Falls. Wildlife soon adapt themselves to these incursions and the local Dingoes learned all to quickly that there may just be free tucker to be had around the campfires. The Indigenes had not hunted in these areas for over a hundred years and the Dingoes were happy to find snacks left behind by tourists. They became so brazen that they would come up to a camp in broad daylight and raid any stray tuckerboxes or open tents, whilst the travellers were out enjoying themselves in the cool waters of the gorges. In the dead of night again, with the fire only embers and ash, I stirred to the feeling of something warm on my face and then something sounding like air escaping. Then something warm again. I opened an eye and looked straight up a Dingo’s nostril. Who got the bigger fright when I jumped up, I do not know, but the Dingo left for better pastures, in a hurry. Sleep evaded me after that. It was also time to start using my tent again.
Sleeping on a camp stretcher inside a two-man tent left little room for movement. I n the early days of camping I could never find a bed or stretcher long or big enough for my frame. But we had to put up with it. One night whilst camping in Kakadu I was lying with my arm hard against the side of the tent. I woke up during the night to find something clamped to my arm on the outside of the tent. I woke Judith up asked her shine the torch which revealed nothing offcourse. Once outside she saw that a small
Night-Owl had decided that my arm against the tent wall was a good place to rest after a night’s hunting.
I had read a story in Michael Terry’s book ‘A Land of Promise’ and how he visited Guldiva Soak in 1932 whilst driving his tracked Morris vehicle through that area. In his book he mentions that his party had startled a Barn Owl while they were looking at some rock art in a small cave. It was hard going for us getting from Well 50 to the Soak and the last kilometre had to be traversed on foot. As we approached the small cave a large Barn Owl flew out of it. The owl must have been the great, great, great grand child of the owl mentioned in the book. It perched in a tree nearby seemingly unafraid of our movements
In all my years travelling Australia I have had only a few encounters with snakes. I have had to remove pythons from washing machines or from road verges where they were in danger of being run over by other vehicles. One day on a trek back from Fogg Dam in the Top End I spied a ‘dead’ snake on the road verge. I had a busload of tourists on board and thought that I would impress them by picking the snake up to show them. The snake was brownish but I didn’t take all that much notice assuming that it was deceased. While I was parading the specimen for all camera enthusiasts to see, the King Brown woke up from its slumber and started curling its head and front body up to get at me. Luckily I had it by the tip of the tail and hastily dropped it down a nearby culvert. I was very fortuitous for me that the culvert was there or I would have been up the famous creek without a paddle.
Driving along the south Rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, USA, we spotted some Mule Deer. I stopped the car so that we could take some photos. The Mule Deer, who were grazing about fifty metres from the road, decided to come and say hello. We had some biscuits in the car and although it is not recommended feeding human food to the deer, we decided just a small biscuit would be OK. Hmmmm?. The deer seemed to be an old campaigner at this. I lowered the window and the deer walked over without stopping and stuck its head right into the cabin, across Judith’s lap and into the centre console looking for munchies. The expression on Judith’s face was priceless. The deer got its biscuit and removed its head and we drove off without delay fearing an ambush by more deer
Whilst touring in Oregon, USA we spied a sign off the road stating that there was a petrified forest to be seen some distance away. Being avid enthusiasts for prehistoric stuff, we immediately took off up this single lane tarred road. It was spring in the northern hemisphere but there was still a bit of snow lying about on the road verges. After about half an hour of driving the tarred road gave way to a gravel track and now snow was laying on the track surface.
My brother had kindly lent me his old Mercedes Benz diesel car, which drove well, and made for easy touring. It had large wheels and this made driving along snow filled tracks a lot better. As we were nearing our destination we came across a snowdrift and within second the Benz was stuck fast. We did not have snow chains at that time. Having an automatic transmission it was quite an effort to rock it backwards and forwards for a short while but I managed to extricate it towards the way we had come from. That was a relief! I found a place to park out of the snow, and we estimated that we could be no less than a kilometre from our destination. So we decided to walk the rest of the way. I led the way trundling and crunching through patches of snow and we were about two hundred metres from the car when I came across some very fresh bear paw-prints in the snow. I beckoned to Judith with hand gestures to stay quiet and to turn around and walk whence we had come from. I made a sign of something huge with big ears and she got the message. Immediately. Only when we were back in the car I explained what had happened. We decided that the Petrified Forest could wait until another time.
Frogs are such lovely creatures. They go about their life a placid way and provide lovely night sounds as they call for a mate to respond. Well, sometimes! When we built a house on acreage on the outskirts of Darwin, we had a hole dug near the building to have a swimming pool constructed at a later stage. This did not happen immediately and during the first wet season the frogs took residence in the hole, which was then filled with muddy rainwater. Our power supply to our house was by means of a diesel generator. The clunk-clunk-clunk rattle of the engine set the frogs off at night and they would continue on for an hour after the generator had been shut off before turning in for the night. No amount of remonstration on my behalf could keep them quiet. We just had to live with it.
Another Frog story
On our trek along the Canning Stock Route in Western Australia in 1994 we camped at Killigurra Gorge, which lies close to Durba Spring. It was quite a bumpy ride in to the gorge along a rock-strewn creek and there was only space for one campsite. We claimed that space for a few days. Killigurra Gorge offers crystal clear waters and peaceful surrounds along the narrow fissure through the Durba Hills. We stayed three nights. On our second night it was extremely quiet, except for a lonely cry of a Frogmouth Owl. We had turned in for the night when a slow monotone sound started up. It sounded like a didgeridoo being played in the distance. It became louder after a while. I got up out of the swag, grabbed the torch and we both went in search of this noise through the swampy creek. There under a ledge was a most beautiful Bullfrog calling patiently for a mate. We watched him for a few minutes and then left him in peace. We heard later that some campers before us had imagined that the Bullfrog sounds were that of a real didgeridoo and that the aboriginal spirits were calling up the ancients to protest against campers in their domain. The campers packed up in a hurry in the middle of the night and left that haunted place.
Frill Neck Lizard
In the early 1980’s I ran tours in Northern Australia. The majority of the journeys followed out along the Arnhem Highway, east from Darwin. Floodplains and billabongs abound. The tropical savannah woodland hosts a number of local animals and reptiles and including the well known Frill-Neck (Frilled) Lizards. The Frill-Neck is always an inquisitive lizard and will stand its ground most of the time when approached by humans or other would-be enemies. Then it would furtively look around for an escape route, rear up on its hind legs and run for its life to the nearest tree. Once there it would clamber up the tree for a short way and hide its body out of view behind the stem. I learned to use my hat to make the Frilly move away from its place of shelter and then grab it ever so gently when it came around to my side of the tree.
One day with some American tourists on board. I caught a Frilly. While holding the lizard by his back and gently placing him on my free hand, a tourist asked if I could loosen my grip on its back so that they could get a good photo. I did just that. The Frilly, realising that its captor had loosened the grip took off along my arm, to my shoulder, knocking my hat off my head. It then lodged itself on to the top of my head and jumped a couple of metres or so to a nearby tree. It then skittled up the tree and out of reach. Now, Frilly’s have very long claws, and this one left a trail of deep scratch marks on my arm and head. Blood was oozing out of the wounds in no time and I had to apply antiseptic fluid and bandages galore. The tourists were horrified and I had learned a painful lesson.
One day we were in Melbourne and looking for a place to camp. So we headed up into the Dandenong Ranges and Sherbrook Forest. In the late afternoon we decided to have a meal and went ahead cooking dinner on one of the barbecues provided in the park. There were a few other visitors around using tables provided and we had one near to the barbecue area. We had seen some Crimson Rosella’s in the trees above and were marvelling at their bright colours. Some flew down on to the ground not far away from us and cheekily strode around chattering to themselves. When our food was ready we sat down at the table to eat. It was at that moment, and as if a signal was given, that a whole flock of Rosellas descended upon us. They land on the table, on our heads, on our shoulders and climbed down our arms to get to our plates of pasta. No amount of shooing them away helped. They would hop to the end of the table and then strut back defiantly to the edge of the plate to grab at another piece of pasta. We only managed to eat a small amount of our tea as the rest of the time we were either shooing the birds away in a gentle manner or giving individual birds a piece of pasta each. We were laughing so much at this silly situation that we never had a chance to take photos. The birds eventually left us in peace to go after some other hapless visitors.