22 April 2016

Dangers

"It's not the danger I love. I know what I love. It is life itself."
-- Antoine de Saint-Exupery



If you didn't learn from the entries about the dolphins living in Shark Bay, Australia is an extremely deadly country.  Although also odd and beguiling, the flora, fauna and environment are inhospitable.  Often, the dangers are not as obvious as the east coast's notorious Great White Sharks. In Western Australia, many dangers lay in wait while others are invisible to the naked eye or naive foreigner.

***
Next time you plan a picnic in Australia, remember it is home to nearly 90 species of Bulldog Ants a.k.a. Bull Ants.  I was shocked by their size. These freakishly large ants -- similar in length to a kiwi fruit -- are confrontational and have a painful sting even to humans.  As if that's not bad enough, their stinger does not dislodge so they can continuously impale and poison their victim. 

***
Though a stunning national park to explore on foot, a few of Karijini's chasms are off limits to visitors thanks to an asbestos presence.  Hikers may enter Yampire & Wittenoom Gorge but are advised to stay off the rock to avoid blue asbestos.  I kept my hands off any rock that wasn't a natural, earth tone just to be safe.


***
A prepared swimmer should always expect rip tides in the open ocean, but you know an area is particularly perilous when signage has to be posted.  Such was the case at appropriately-named Turquoise Bay -- voted the country's second best beach.  As you can see, plenty of tourists still swam haphazardly. 



***
As a skydiver, comrades & I used to tell customers to have a safe drive home, since the act resulted in more annual fatalities than hurling oneself out of a flying plane. However, hitting the open road in WA involves a few more risks than driving in the U.S.A.  First, during The Wet a.k.a. summer plenty of highways flood (and remain inaccessible), which left one of my mates a.k.a. male friend unexpectedly trapped in a Pilbara town.  Second, fatigue sets in swiftly and easily as the kilometers seem to stretch through the deserts, Nullarbor and up the northwest coast to Broome. 

Third, there aren't a lot of encampments -- especially in the interior -- so plan accordingly.  Much to my dismay, I had to cut my time in Karijini National Park two days short. The campervan was running on fumes since I drove throughout the park to various gorges and the "nearest" petrol was 136 kilometers away in Tom Price.

Fourth,  distances on the map are quite deceiving.  What looks like a simple day-trip turns into an all-day haul into the blinding sun.  After referencing a map and its scale, I calculated the distance from Exmouth's peninsula to Karijini National Park as 5.5 hours.  In reality, it took a solid 7 hours -- that's how spread out encampments are in this state. 

Fifth, you still need to protect yourself from the searing WA sun!  On day 2 there was not a cloud in the sky.  It was a picturesque day for driving, but my right arm & right cheek were toasted pink.  As you can see in the video, Mom's face is quite flushed.

Sixth, being on the road in the range of 1 hour before sunset to 1 hour after dawn is not wise.  Granted, many Aussies drive at night without fuss, but that's in the city.  Meanwhile, the outback and already vacant highways transform into a wildlife gauntlet. On this continent, sheep outnumber people and the majority of farm animals roam freely. On a few occasions our Britz Hi-Top would pop over a hill at Mach 4 and my mom would instantly grab the Oh-shit-handle, yelling "COW!" or "'ROO!" Semi-trucks literally bulldoze through the marsupials all night and posted on billboards throughout the state are haunting reminders, such as the one outside of Narrogin that states "Killer 'roos. Belt up."

Another major obstacle facing WA drivers is the road train.  It is a foreign concept to Americans, but in essence, it is a bunch of freight trailers (ranging from 2 to -- I'd guess-- 5) strewn together so that only one employee has to cover the far-flung distances in Western Australia.  In reality, it is a monstrous chunk of metal, barreling down the road with so much velocity even if it wanted to stop abruptly it couldn't... hence the trail of dead wildlife.  Passing one proved to be quite the adrenaline rush.  Although there was considerably less vehicular traffic in WA than most developed nations, I still required the assistance of the spotter ute a.k.a. pick-up truck who radioed ahead to inquire about oncoming vehicles. Once, he/she received the all clear, I would be waved on.  At that point I would redline the Britz Hi-Top and drive in the wrong lane [for what felt like miles] before finally reaching the nose of the road train.  My mom's role was to stick her hand outside and wave in gratitude.


***
Repeatedly throughout Western Australia I noticed signs warning "1080 POISON RISK" with a bold, red exclamation mark. Totally unaware, I guessed it meant there was an underground mine in the area utilizing caustic chemicals so the water was non-potable.  In actuality, the signs referred to the country's poison pea bush whose synthetic pesticide number is ten-eighty.  The entire family of poisonous plants reside only on this island.  The Western Australian variety boasts bright yellow flowers with cherry red centers and a lethal dose of toxins responsible for killing millions of dollars worth of livestock every year.

Early farmers learned the hard way.  Cattle were dropping dead days after lounging at the station a.k.a. ranch.  Amazingly, fauna native to the continent have built a tolerance and are relatively unscathed when digesting the shrubs.  Therefore, rangers have used the plant to bait and control the feral cat, pig, and fox populations that were wrongfully introduced by foreign settlers.... Mother Nature's revenge.

***
The month before Mom & I flew across the Pacific, I jeered her for purchasing corny, $1 over-the-head bug nets in a camouflage print.  When worn, they resembled Jewish yarmulkes with an Army Green veil. My mother sported hers proudly, but I was too hip to be caught in one of them, so I waved the bugs away by hand and wiped myself with organic bug wipes.  That is, until, we crossed into Shark Bay's peninsula.

Outside the town of Denham, on an insouciant afternoon, the clouds reflected off the still water at Hamelin Pool.  The setting was wholly serene except for the swarm of inexorable flies.  I frantically scrambled in my backpack for the bug net while Mom unfussily waltzed ahead.  When we paused on the boardwalk to gaze at the humble Stromatolites more than two dozen of the little bastards also rested on Mom.
Further north on the peninsula, in Monkey Mia, the insects kept up their barrage.  They contaminated any food left unsealed, ruined lounging at the beach, and haunted us in the campervan by buzzing around all night trying to siphon blood.  Upon first arriving at Monkey Mia I was so incensed by the flies as they tickled my ears and landed on every millimeter of exposed skin.  However, by Day 4 I'd become less strung out by their exasperating swarms. I was unaware when they dangled off my upper lip; I no longer cared when they became ensnared in my eyelashes like Aeon Flux.  In fact, the one time I still furiously swatted the flies was when they breached my nostrils (and many did) because I feared they would venture up to my brain, although I do not know of a person in Western Australia -- or the continent -- who has died this way.  As Alfred Wallace perfectly detailed in the late 1800s, "...with the flies was enough to set one deranged... one might kill them in millions, yet other and hungrier millions would still come on, rejoicing in the death of their predecessors..."

***
In the southwest corner of the state near Yallingup, Ngilgi Cave a.k.a. cave in this spot was named for the Aboriginal benevolent god of the ocean who banished the maleficent god Wolgine from Yallingup. Wolgine fled through the roof of the cave, thus creating its only penetration point. Ngilgi, was an underground gem that housed both rare and odd crystals.  However, the deeper Mom & I delved into the cavern, the higher the CO2 levels rose.  The ranger suggested we move slowly or surface if breathing became arduous.


 ***
Let's not forget the behemoth Thaaka a.k.a. Tiger Shark I saw in Monkey Mia that was larger than the double-kayak.  While the cobalt Indian Ocean and its creatures are alluring, they are also unfettered and predators in a food chain.  While snorkeling in Ningaloo Reef, staff advised me to give the barracudas present plenty of distance.  Likewise, a Monkey Mia vollie a.k.a. volunteer spotted a Stonefish -- with its venomous spurs -- hanging out near the end of the jetty.

***
Most Americans wouldn't think much of hopping onto their bike for a relaxing, evening ride. However, in Western Australia that hobby assumes an entirely new risk! The scorching city of Exmouth posted signs along its trails, warning cyclists and pedestrians to beware of dingoes.  Driving back into the town after snorkeling with Whale Sharks I chanced upon a Dingo, in the middle of the day, in a dried up river bed, ironically, not far from one of the signs.

***
The picturesque Zuytdorp Cliffs vary from steep vertical faces to grooved inlets, stretching 200 kilometers up Western Australia's coast.  Yet for all their beauty, they were created from violence. The limestone formations -- like Natural Bridge and Island Rock -- are the result of being relentlessly smitten by the Indian Ocean.  This scarp has strong currents and enormous swells that explode against the headland and is so named because of the first ship it claimed, the Zuytdorp.

Because the coast consists of limestone, the edges are hazardous since one never knows when a chunk will fracture and fall into the depths.  Since I am a rock climber, I wanted a photograph of myself hanging from Kalbarri's red rock.  With a secure grip, I lifted my feet from the ground and immediately after my mother captured the shot, a piece of rock broke under my weight and I pile-drived it directly into my skull, nearly knocking myself unconscious.

 


***
The ramifications of not touching wildlife in Western Australia are twofold.  Specifically, with the Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins of Monkey Mia, human contact could pass along the common cold for which the animals could die since they lack immunity to the viral infection.  On the flipside, dolphins can transmit Tuberculosis to humans via their blowhole spray.  Unfortunately, I did not learn this fact until after being doused by a cranky Puck one day.


***
Everyone is aware the Box Jellyfish is the deadliest marine animal, but did you know another Australian animal gives it a run for its money?  At 2.5 centimeters long, Irukandji actually have the most lethal toxin which they inflict on humans with an internal pressure of 2,000 psi (compared to your car tires, filled to about 35 psi). Uncharacteristic of jellyfish, both their tentacles and bell can excrete the venom.  Not surprisingly, they are related to the Box Jellyfish.  These organisms were unknown until the 1950s since they were clear and minute.  Due to a potential presence in the Tropic of Capricorn, everyone who went on an excursion to Ningaloo Reef sported "stinger suits" to prevent their nasty whips.  The unflattering, stretchy suits transformed everyone into The Blue Man Group, but I would take that any day over a sting 100 times more powerful than a Cobra's!  Completely outfitted with snorkel gear, my only skin exposed were my insteps, cheeks and upper lip.


***
But by far, the most imposing threat in and to Western Australia are homo sapiens. They dump sewage into the ocean, improperly dispose of rubbish a.k.a. garbage which ends up killing marine life (whether by ingestion, suffocation, or strangulation), introduce foreign fauna which disrupt ecosystems, destroy forests for timber, strip the land of its natural resources, try to domesticate pelagic wildlife, and overfish.  This Earth Day my hope is that you'll take one tiny step to minimize your impact on this planet that so many of us love fiercely.