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Beware of Killer Gum Trees

(Reprint from News: March 5, 2002)

March 5, 2002


The American travel author Bill Bryson wrote a wonderfully humorous book about Australia a few years ago called “In A Sunburned Country,” and if you want a good idea of what the Land of Oz is like, I recommend reading it.  As I discovered while wandering through a Sydney bookstore a while back, though, Bryson’s book is called “Down Under” here in Australia – same book but different title.  I have no idea why they changed the title here, but then I haven’t figured out a lot of things about Australia yet.


Not to get off the subject of Bryson’s book, but why Australians and Americans call the same item by different names has been a source of constant amusement during my trip.  If nothing else, it keeps my mind occupied during those long drives around this very large country.  An obvious example of this is fuel:  what Americans call “gasoline” is what Australians call “petrol,” which I still haven’t gotten used to saying.  I caught on a lot faster to calling paved roads “sealed” and calling dirt roads “unsealed,” calling ketchup “tomato sauce” and a flashlight a “torch.”  I guess those alternative phrases are all fairly logical.  However, I still haven’t figured out why my favorite fast-food restaurant, “Burger King,” is called “Hungry Jacks” here (same logo, same Whopper, same Value Meals, but different name). 


Anyway, getting back to “In A Sunburned Country,” one of the passages that I remember in that book was when Bryson discussed the snake situation here.  As he put it, of the world’s 10 deadliest snakes, all 10 live here in Australia -- including the Taipan, which will kill you so fast that often the last words of someone who innocently approaches a Taipan is, “Hey, look at this sna…”.  End of sentence.


Bryson seemed obsessed with all the things down here that can kill you, like snakes and some of the world’s deadliest spiders.  Of course, north of here there are crocodiles to deal with.  As I learned from Bryson’s book, freshwater crocodiles, or “freshies," are harmless to humans but the saltwater variety, or “salties,” are definitely not.  In fact, salties will go out of their way to ruin your day, as the numerous tourists who get eaten each year find out.  Unfortunately, salties are found in freshwater as well as saltwater, so the only way to be safe from crocs, I guess, is to not go in the water… or near the water. 


As I’ve learned, it’s a good idea to stay at least 10 feet back from the edge of ponds because salties can -- and will -- jump out to snare unsuspecting tourists who stray a little too close to the water (remember that scene in “Crocodile Dundee”?).  I’ll take that advice to heart when I visit croc country in a few weeks.


Down here in southern Australia though, along with the snakes and spiders, I recently learned that I have to contend with another deadly menace and one that Bryson didn’t mention:  Red Gum Trees.  Red Gums are one of the many species of eucalyptus trees in Australia.  They’re quite large and stocky with stout, brittle branches that have a nasty habit of suddenly breaking off, even when there’s no breeze, and crashing to the ground.  Believe it or not, several people each year in Australia are injured or killed by Red Gum branches.  In fact, every National Park that I’ve visited so far has posted warning signs about the Red Gums, advising visitors not to linger or camp under Red Gum trees.  


The spiders and snakes don’t really bother me, but I’ve gotten a bit paranoid about the Red Gum trees, and every time I walk under one, I nervously glance upward and quicken my pace.  There are a lot of good ways to die, but getting killed by a tree isn’t one of them.


2-2514_Tree_Under_Gum_Tree.jpg (61118 bytes)  

Left:  Parking (a bit apprehensively) under a Red Gum tree in the Flinders Ranges.



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