Olympic Games takes place in Sydney. Bermuda resident and writer Andrew
different country from the one most tourists see. In the second of four excerpts from his travelogue to be printed in The Royal Gazette , the author examines the continent's amazing forest wildlife. Not able to get a seat on the post plane flying up to the York Peninsula, Cape Tribulation, is as far north of Cairns as I can get, by road. The air-conditioned mini-bus follows the winding coastal road that must be one of the most scenic I have seen anywhere, and hours later drops me off at a tented resort hidden in the thick of the coastal rain forest. I book myself on the nocturnal guided walk, find my tent on the outer edges of the resort, and collapse on the bed, the heat and humidity conspicuous after the air-conditioned bus ride up here. When night falls, terrifying primeval sounds echo in the steaming, dark, tropical lowland rainforest. The guide for our nocturnal walk resembles Hollywood's WC Fields. He has the same large purple nose, the same beer gut. "Everyone ready?'' he asks us. A desperate cry emanates scarily from the forest we are about to enter. WC's portly figure doesn't inspire confidence. We need a straight-talking Harrison Ford to lead us through this primeval jungle, not a wisecracking WC Fields. Twelve tourists assemble around him: Dutch parents with two young children, a young American, several British backpackers, a German couple, and myself. I glance at them and recognise the same worried looks on their faces. He equips each of us with a torch connected to a heavy battery, which we attach around our waists with a belt. 'When I show you something, you must all stop and watch me carefully. There are lots of dangerous things in this tropical lowland rainforest and you don't know about them, but I do.' We crowd around him a little tighter than before, glancing over our shoulders into the spooky darkness of the rainforest. "For example, this is the gympie-gympie or the stinging tree.' His beam of light is directed at a nearby bush. 'The leaves are covered in minute stiff hollow hairs each with a swollen base containing an irritant comprised of formic and acetic acids, histamine and at least one other unidentified pain-producing chemical,' WC rattles off by rote. 'When you brush against these leaves, the hairs, like slivers of glass, enter the skin and break off, injecting some of the irritant. At first,' he looks at the kids, 'you'll just feel an itching sensation. Then huge blisters will form, and then,' he opens his beady eyes wide at them, 'intense stabbing pain which can last several hours, days, weeks and even months. Affects kids much more than adults.' Not only does he look like WC Fields, he seems to have an aversion to kids as well. He bends over even further so that his red nose is almost level with their little faces.
'You're not as big as I am, and your little bodies can't absorb the poison and mine can. You'll be lucky not to die. So keep an eye out, and do exactly what I say.' We watch our footsteps carefully as we tread down a well-used path. No one says anything. "Within a hectare we have over one hundred and twenty different tree species, more than you will find on the entire European continent,' he says as he leads us into the dense Daintree rainforest. His torch beam cuts into the tangle of vegetation above us and with a theatrical wave of his shaft of light, he illuminates a long vine looping from one tree to another. 'That is a liana.' He shines the light beam up and down the trunk of a tree. 'Around the tree you can see a strangler fig.' He wipes the perspiration off his face with a soggy handkerchief. Despite the tropical heat, I wear jeans tucked into my boots. Others wear shorts and open sandals.
Shining their torches up and down their legs, they search for scorpions or giant centipedes crawling up their bare limbs. We continue along a path, light beams frantically probing the darkness so we can see the jungle creatures before they see us. Unidentified cries resonate in every direction. While we look out for the really big dangerous creatures, WC seems to have a peculiar fascination for 'crickets'. He identifies five different kinds of cricket and details their ho-hum genealogy. Just as we are being lulled by his commentary into a false sense of security he stops and yells, 'Look out!' He grabs a snake at his feet and shakes it in our faces. 'Ha ha,' he laughs, having scared us out of our wits. 'It's only a rubber one.' He hides it beside the tree trunk, coiled and ready for the next unsuspecting group. A lot more alert than before, when WC points out a cassowary plum tree, we bunch together for protection against his schoolboy wit. He says to the kids, 'The cassowary plum tree is poisonous to us, but not to the cassowary. Keep your eye out for those cassowaries, because this is one of the places they definitely still inhabit.
If you see one, they can be aggressive. They are bigger than you and the best thing to do is raise your hand above your head with something in it, like a camera, and make yourself look as tall and intimidating as possible.' The woman next to me removes her camera strap from around her neck and holds the camera in her hand, ready to raise above her head in case we come across Australia's version of Big Bird. We wait for WC to reach behind the cassowary plum tree to pull out a giant rubber cassowary, but he doesn't. Further down the path I see something about a metre in length, clinging to a vertical vine.
It looks like a brown iguana. 'Er, WC, there seems to be some kind of large lizard here,' I say, unsure what it is I am looking at. It could be made of rubber too. WC comments, `Ah yes, that's a Boyd's forest dragon.' We shine our torches into its eyes, transfixed by the odd reptile. We have empirical evidence now of how easily creatures can camouflage themselves, even dragons.
The American teenager is so enthusiastic about this nocturnal walk in the rainforest that he cannot restrain himself from asking a succession of questions. 'I'll tell you later,' WC replies so often the disappointed American remarks, 'That's an awful lot of things you are going to tell us later.' WC steps off the path again to lean against a small tree. As he explains some esoteric aspect of the rainforest, a giant spider the size of WC's head drops out of the forest canopy and bounces up and down in front of the two children. They recoil in terror. 'Ha ha,' WC laughs joyfully as the children scream, grabbing onto their parents' legs for protection. 'That's a bird-eating spider except it's made of rubber, like the snake. Ha ha.' He pulls on a string attached to the tree and hoists the rubber spider back up into the overhead branches, out of sight. 'Been giving these tours for years.
Got to keep myself amused somehow. Ha ha.' The guy is a certified lunatic.
Walking through the forest with this guide is like walking through a chamber of horrors. He was awarded some kind of eco-tourism award some years ago, apparently before he lost his marbles. He stops and puts a finger to his lips.
'Shhh.' We listen attentively to what sounds like a bird. 'Where's that sound come from?' he asks. We all point in different directions of the forest before he pulls out a little gadget from his pocket. 'Ha ha, it comes from my pocket.
Fooled ya.' A hundred metres further down the path, he spots a slender green tree snake in a bush above our heads. It's actually moving its head, so we can conclude it's real, unless it's a wind-up rubber one. 'That is a common tree snake. Actually, spotting these snakes is quite easy,' WC tells us. 'It's tying them up there that is bloody difficult.' He wipes his brow. He looks like he tied one on himself. 'Got stuck into some wed wine last night and I'm feeling the effects now,' he confirms. Continuing on the path, he informs us, 'Scientists have only identified ten percent of the rainforest flora. Maybe there are three million different plants and some of them are as rare as rocking horse manure. You see all these vines growing around the tree trunks? Notice anything about them?' The American boy replies, 'Yeah, all the vines grow anti-clockwise, unlike in the Northern Hemisphere where they all grow clockwise.' 'Why?' WC asks, ignoring the American who is clearly getting on his nerves, along with everyone else. The American explains with a Brooklyn accent, before WC can answer his own question. 'It's called the Coriolus effect. Water spiralling down the drain in the Northern Hemisphere goes down clockwise. Here it goes down anti-clockwise. It's caused by the rotation of the earth.' "How'd you know that?' I whisper to him. "I like reading about nature,' he replies. We head back to the tented resort. It's touch and go whether WC will make it, he looks terminally hung over. Walking at the back of the group, I think I see the tail of a snake disappearing into the undergrowth; it isn't more than a couple of metres away from the path and the others must have walked right by it. "Er, WC, I think I see a snake here,' I call out, not sure if I'm imagining this or not. Doesn't look like rubber and it's definitely progressing along the ground so it isn't tied up. The others freeze as if they had bumped into a glass wall. WC returns to the back of the line. 'Where?' he says, disbelievingly. I step off the path and into the undergrowth. The snake has disappeared but I know where it went. WC follows me. 'There!' I point at a middle section of the brown and yellow body with a filmy rainbow sheen, as it continues to slither away, not terribly fast. "Ah yes,' he proclaims, 'that will be an amethystine python. And it's a bloody big one too.' The snake slides into the bush until its head emerges into a clearing. To his credit, WC intercepts the snake, getting down on his hands and knees and makes as if to grab the reptile but doesn't quite manage to manoeuvre his corpulent body into just the right position. 'That must be a five, five-and-a-half metre snake,' WC emphasises as he leapfrogs the snake and ambushes the front end again as if to pluck it from the undergrowth. Still kneeling and breathing heavily, he tells us, 'Got to be careful. Even if it isn't venomous, it will bite if antagonised.' Seems to me that WC is both antagonising the slow moving python, and that he has lots of time to seize it.
"Keep the kids back. Snake like this could swallow them whole.' The kids grab onto their parents' legs. Meanwhile WC finds several excuses for not picking it the python each time he catches up with it. "Too muddy here, might slip.' Or, 'Oops, it's disappeared into the bush again.' Or, 'Oh-oh, wait-a-bit thorn, don't want to get tangled in that with a five-and-a-half metre python wrapped around me.' It's an impressive sight even if the corpulent WC doesn't manage to get the nerve up to actually grapple with the giant reptile. Don't blame him. Our encounter with this python is only ten metres away from my tent, on the outer edges of the resort compound. In less than twice its length, this impressive snake could poke its head into my tent and stick his tongue out at me. Being in a tent on a raised platform a metre above the ground doesn't help either. If I can climb up the stairs, so can the python.
'The amethystine python is Australia's largest snake, often frequenting areas inhabited by humans in search of food,' WC tells us, confirming my paranoia.
An alarming yodelling, I imagine like a cassowary being strangled with piano wire, rings through the forest. 'Ah, the orange-footed scrub fowl have woken up. We must have disturbed them,' WC tells us, wiping his brow once again. He can hardly wait to get back to camp and sit down and have a bite of the dog that bit him. Although I had shut my canvas tent tight against the mosaic-tailed rat, I've also gone against the advice of the manager and left half-a-dozen bananas in there. When I return, I see the bananas have been gnawed at, and the tube of mint-flavoured toothpaste is a gooey mess.
Fortunately, I don't have any cherry-flavoured lipstick, apple-scented shampoo, or strawberry-flavoured condoms. The little rats scurry around searching through the plastic bags of my backpack. Slumping into my swag, exhausted by the evening walk, I try to ignore the fact that if the rats got into my tent from the rainforest, so could the python. As I fall asleep, my hand flops over the edge of the bed, dangling like bait. PHOTO Wild frontier: Australia's forests are teaming with wildlife.