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Warning:  This Continent May Be Hazardous To Your Health

(Reprint from News: March 25, 2002)

March 20, 2002


In my entry from Port Augusta a few weeks ago, I described a wonderfully humorous book about Australia called "In a Sunburned Country" written by the American travel author, Bill Bryson.  In his book, Bryson talked about some of the things that can kill you here in Australia, such as Taipan snakes, red-back spiders, salt-water crocodiles and Great White sharks.


I've had run-ins with a few other things here during the past month that Bryson didn't mention, including Red Gum Trees (see News: March 5, 2002) and a group of pushy kangaroos at Grampians National Park (see News: March 1, 2002).   By the way, if you're ever confronted by a surly kangaroo, be sure to look him straight in the eye and show him who's boss... and never, ever let him see you sweat.  That strategy seemed to work pretty well for me.


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Above:  Spinifex -- don't mess with it unless you like acupuncture



A few weeks later during my drive across the Outback, I had several close encounters with another nasty specimen:  spinifex.  I can't remember if Bryson mentioned spinifex, but it's an innocuous looking bush with green shoots similar to lawn grass.  Don't mess with spinifex though, because as I discovered, it's very pointy and can even draw blood -- and it hurts like heck.  Spinifex is pretty, but it's also like a stationary porcupine.


Now that I'm on the coast, I have to contend with another nasty critter:  the box jellyfish.  These things are a lot more venomous than their North American counterpart, the Portuguese man-of-war.  I have vivid memories of a Portuguese man-of-war, having stepped on one in Florida when I was four years old, an event that is permanently etched in my mind -- not to mention my foot.  Box jellyfish are even nastier and, from what I've heard, one tiny sting from a microscopic box jellyfish barb feels like a burning cigarette being pushed deep into your flesh.  Occasionally, a swimmer will get ensnared in the 10-foot long tentacles of a box jellyfish, which isn't a pretty thing to see -- or hear.


As I recall, Bryson discussed the box jellyfish, or "stinger," at great length in his book.  In fact, I believe it was during a visit to this very same city, Port Douglas.  There's a beach here about four miles long (which, not surprisingly, is called "Four Mile Beach"), but nobody goes swimming in the ocean between October and May because of the box jellyfishes which float around here during that time of year.  Actually, the one place you can swim on Four Mile Beach is within the "stinger net," a rope net enclosure with floats attached that extends out into the ocean, about 50 yards on a side, supposedly designed to keep out the box jellyfish.  I thought about swimming in it a few days ago but noticed that the high waves were easily crashing over the top of it, so I figured it probably wasn't doing a very good job of keeping the stingers out.  It wasn't doing a good job of keeping other nasty things out, either, because they caught a 3-foot long shark inside the stinger net yesterday!


As I learned last summer in South Dakota when I visited the world's only Vinegar Museum (see News: September 15, 2001), the best antidote for a box jellyfish sting is vinegar.  And sure enough, as I walked down the beach today and passed by the stinger net, I saw a big bottle of vinegar there with big red letters that said "VINEGAR."  If you're unlucky enough to get stung by a box jellyfish and don't happen to have vinegar handy, I understand that peeing on the afflicted area also works.  I could make some jokes about that, but then my website would lose its PG rating.


There was no swimming today in the ocean, though, because the stinger net was rolled up, waiting for repairs.  The lifeguards had posted a big sign on the beach saying "NO SWIMMING," so everyone, including myself, walked along the beach and kept a healthy distance from the water.  In amazement, though, I saw a guy who was about 20 years old walk towards the ocean, fling off his shirt, and dive in.  As he frolicked in the water, a small crowd gathered to watch him out of morbid curiosity -- including myself, I must admit.  Young Neptune was proving either his masculinity or his stupidity, I guess, but either way he provided us with 10 minutes of free entertainment after which he calmly emerged from the water, put on his shirt, and disappeared into the coconut grove.  That was a shame, because I really had to pee.


Box jellyfish, sharks, and crocodiles are enough to worry about in coastal Queensland, but last night I was reading in my Frommer's Guide about another deadly creature here:  the cassowary.  A cassowary is a small, cute, flightless bird, which looks like a peacock.  It's a distant relative of Australia's other much more ubiquitous and much larger flightless bird, the emu (which is pronounced either "e-moo" or "e-mew," depending on who you talk to).  Cassowaries are an endangered species which, based on what I read in Frommer's, may or may not be a bad thing.  That's because, according to Frommer's, these cute-looking cassowaries can and have killed humans with their powerful claws.  Here's Frommer's advice if you confront a cassowary:  "Back slowly away and hide behind a tree."  As I recall, they used that same strategy in "Jurassic Park" and look what happened.  


Actually, though, cassowaries are pretty, little birds -- at least, when they're not attacking with their killer claws.  I even hope to see a cassowary before I leave, although preferably when I'm standing near a tree.


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Above left:  You can see the stinger net here (near the bottom of the picture) on Four Mile Beach in Port Douglas.  

Above center:  The next day they took the stinger net down for repairs.  As the sign says, no swimming...

Above right:  ...and this is why.  You don't want to mess with a box jellyfish.  After reading this sign, I, um, decided to stay away from the water.


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