Sunday, March 8, 2009

I say! Is that a dinosaur in your tent?

Apologies that I haven't blogged in a couple of weeks. Sometimes life just gets in the way of everything else, including blogging.

We just got back from a fabulous weekend on North Stradbroke Island, which I'm not going to tell you about yet. First I want to tell you about last weekend, when we went camping.

Camping is a part of our lives. Sharon and I both grew up camping with our families, and we honeymooned in a tent. Before we had kids, we did some great back country canoe trips and hiking trips, and in the past few years we've spent at least two or three weeks of every summer camping in the tent trailer. All of which means one thing in Australia: we have a great supply of bear stories.

Australians, you see, are kind of freaked out by bears. It's the one animal guaranteed to come up in every conversation about life in the Canadian wilderness. They view bears the same way we view crocs and sharks -- as mysterious and exotic creatures that can eat you. (The difference is that there have been about six fatal bear attacks in Ontario in the past century. Sydney alone has seen three shark attacks in the last three weeks. None fatal, but still...)

For both bears and sharks, though, the response is similar: you learn to understand the creatures, and you do what you can to minimize the chance that you'll see them. The result is that Sharon and I have only once seen a bear in our campsite. That one sighting is a good story, though, and we've also got a few tales about what you need to do to keep bears from visiting. It makes for good campfire chatter.

So last weekend, Sharon's teaching partner Jackie and her husband Kadek invited us to join them, camping on the shores of Lake Cootharaba, a shallow lake which is only about 20 minutes from our house. Kadek and I took their son Josh and Isaiah out of school on Friday, and went to set up camp. The girls joined us on Friday night. We camped at Eulanda Point, which is a private campground on the shores of the lake. It's really just a big field, but it's cheap and cheerful, and at this time of year it wasn't overly crowded. We pitched our tents beneath a gum tree, swam, and just had a great afternoon. When Jackie arrived that night, she queried our choice of campsite -- it seems gums are known for dropping limbs on careless campers. We had a good excuse (Kadek is Balinese, and apparently they don't have gum trees there any more than they do in Canada), but we insisted we'd looked for dangerous branches before pitching the tent. And in fact we had done both those things, although not necessarily in that order.

That night, Sharon and I got our first camping surprise: you don't need to lock up the food in Australia! In Canada, we are meticulous about cleaning the site of all scraps before bed. If we're in the back country we hang the food pack in a tree to keep it from bears and raccoons; when car camping, everything that even smells edible goes in the car. In Australia, you just put a lid on the food box to keep the possums out, and go to bed. It's fantastic.

Sharon saw a couple of possums that night, because we had overlooked some fruit, but they're so cute and dainty that you really don't mind them pinching a few grapes.

Over the weekend, we watched some of the other wildlife. A kookaburra sat just a couple of metres away from the site, and waited for scraps. We didn't feed it -- they're really big birds, with a wicked looking bill, and we've heard tales of people getting their hands cut by kokaburras that are trying to snatch food from their hands. There was an enormous carpet python in the roots of a nearby fig tree, and kangaroos hopping through the fields. But the freakiest creatures were the goannas. They're big lizards -- monitor lizards, officially -- and the ones at this park are about a metre long. They've got enormous claws, and they're heavy-looking creatures, and when they walk they look just like the models for a cheesy cave-men-vs.-the-dinosaurs movie.

They're apparently harmless, but they also show little fear of humans, and it's impossible to watch one waddle past your chair without wondering what would happen if it decided to climb your leg. So when they decided to investigate our campsite a little closer than we wanted them to, we got more than a little freaked out. One of them even strolled through my tent, although not when I was in it. The Australians insisted that they are quite harmless, but we noticed that they too kept a close eye on the lizards. The only person I really believed was Kadek, who said goannas are considered quite tasty in Bali. Everyone else just seemed to be a little too forced in their calmness.

Still, we had a terrific weekend. So good, in fact, that Kadek and I decided to keep Charlotte and their daughter Indie at camp and stay up there for an extra night. Even though we went to the information office on Sunday, where I read about the sightings of bull sharks in Lake Cootharaba... Perhaps goannas and bears aren't so bad after all!

Banjo Patterson also had a few thoughts on the goanna. Enjoy:


by Andrew Barton [Banjo] Patterson

Down along the Snakebite River where the overlanders camp,

Where the serpents are in millions, all of the most deadly stamp,

Where the station cook in terror, nearly every time he bakes,

Mixes up among the doughboys half a dozen poisonous snakes.

Where the wily free selector walks in armour-plated pants;

and defies the stings of scorpions and the bites of bulldog ants,

Where the adder and the viper tear each other by the throat ---

There it was that William Johnson sought his snake-bite antidote.

Johnson was a free selector; and his brain went rather queer,

For the constant sight of serpents filled him with a deadly fear,

So he tramped his free selection, morning, noon and night,

Seeking for some great specific that would cure the serpent’s bite,

Till King Billy, of the Mooki, chieftain of the flour-bag head,

Told him, “Spos’n snake bite pfeller, pfeller mostly drop down dead,

Spos’n snake bite old goanna, then you watch a while you see

Old goanna cure himself with eating little pfeller tree.”

“That’s the cure,” said William Johnson, “point me out this plant sublime.”;

But King Billy, feeling lazy, said he’d go another time.

Thus it came to pass that Johnson, having got the tale by rote,

Followed every stray goanna seeking for the antidote.

Loafing once beside the river, while he thought his heart would break,

There he saw a big goanna fighting with a tiger snake.

In and out they wriggled, bit each other, heart and soul,

Till the valiant old goanna swallowed his opponent whole.

Breathless, Johnson sat and watched him, saw him struggle up the bank,

Saw him nibbling at the branches of some bushes, green and rank,

Saw him, happy and contented, lick his lips, as off he crept,

While the bulging of his stomach showed where his opponent slept.

Then a cheer of exultation burst aloud from Johnson’s throat,

“Luck at last,” said he, “I’ve struck it! ‘tis the famous antidote.”

“Here it is, the Grand Elixir, greatest blessing ever known --

Twenty thousand men in India die each year of snakes alone,

Think of all the foreign nations, Negro, Chow and Blackamoor,

Saved from sudden expiration by my wondrous snake-bite cure.

It will bring me fame and fortune! In the happy days to be

Scientific men in thousands, men of mark and note,

Rushing down the Mooki River, after Johnson’s Antidote.

It will cure delirium tremens when the patient’s eyeballs stare

At imaginary spiders, snakes which are not really there.

When he thinks he sees them wriggle, when he thinks he sees them bloat,

It will cure him just to think of Johnson’s Snake-bite Antidote.

Then he rushed to the museum, found a scientific man ---

“Trot me out a deadly serpent, just the deadliest you can.

I intend to let him bite me, all the risk I will endure,

Just to prove the sterling value of my wondrous snake-bite cure.

Even though and adder bit me, back to life I’d float.

Snakes are out of date I tell you, since I’ve found the antidote.”

Said the scientific person, “If you really want to die,

Go ahead – but, if you’re doubtful, let your sheep-dog have a try.

Get a pair of dogs and try it, let the snake give both a nip.

Give your dog the snake-bite mixture, let the other fellow rip.

If he dies and yours survives him then it proves the thing is good.

Will you fetch your dog and try it?” Johnson rather thought he would.

So he went and fetched his canine, hauled him forward by the throat.

“Stump, old man,” says he, “we’ll show them we’ve the genwine antidote.”

Both the dogs were duly loaded with the poison glands contents.

Johnson gave his dog the mixture, then sat down to wait events.

“Mark,” he said, “in twenty minutes Stump’ll be a-rushing round,

While the other wretched creature lies a corpse upon the ground.”

But, alas for William Johnson, ‘ere they watched a half-hour’s spell

Stumpy was as dead as mutton, t’other dog was live and well.

And the Scientific person hurried off with utmost speed,

Tested Johnson’s drug and found it was a deadly poison-weed.

Half a tumbler killed an Emu, half a spoonful killed a Goat ---

All the snakes on earth were harmless to that awful antidote.

Down along the Mooki River, on the overlander’s camp,

Where the serpents are in millions, all of the most deadly stamp,

Wanders, daily, William Johnson, down among those poisonous hordes,

Shooting every stray goanna, calls them “black and yaller frauds”.

And King Billy of the Mooki, cadging for the cast off coat,

Somehow seems to dodge the subject of the snakebite antidote.

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