Before I visited the outback, I imagined it to be arid desert with not much to see, except perhaps for a big red rock a few hundred kilometres southwest of Alice Springs.
When I had the opportunity to join Contiki’s Outback Adventure over Christmas, I discovered that it’s so much more diverse than that. There are creeks and canyons, rivers and waterfalls to explore and, on top of the natural beauty of the landscape, the Northern Territory is swarming with creatures that have adapted to the inhospitable temperatures and weather extremes.
It’s no secret that Australia is home to some of the world’s deadliest creatures, but what many people fail to realise is how remarkably few fatalities they actually cause. Still, it helps to know which to avoid so that you can ensure you don’t fall prey to their wily ways.
In this post, I bring you the good, the bad and the ugly of outback wildlife, with some tips on how not to let these critters spoil your holiday.
THE GOOD OUTBACK WILDLIFE
Blue-tongued lizards are popular as pets. They live up to 30 years in captivity and are very comfortable being handled. I even managed to encourage this one to stick out its bright blue tongue and give me a kiss on the cheek.
Another popular reptilian pet in Australia is the bearded dragon. They have spines running along their sides and, when threatened, will puff their bodies out to look more aggressive. The spines are just for show. They feel like rubber and would never actually do any damage.
I met this camel on a cattle station in King’s Creek on New Year’s Eve. In Australia, camels are bred for meet, and I later had the chance to try a camel sausage at the Overlander’s Steakhouse in Alice Springs, along with emu, kangaroo and crocodile. They were all great, but if you can’t stomach a camel sausage, there are companies in the Outback that will arrange for you to go on a camel ride – a unique way to explore the local landscape.
I bet you’re wondering why I put a crocodile in the ‘Good’ list. Australia has two kinds of croc: the freshwater variety (pictured) will likely swim in the opposite direction as soon as it senses your presence. It’s the saltwater crocs that will attack, drown you in a death roll and eat you for supper. To be on the safe side, don’t swim in the signposted danger zones.
GREEN TREE ANTS
Green tree ants are also known as lime ants, because they taste of lime. That’s not so bad is it? So, if you find yourself stranded in the Outback with no food source, these might help you stave off the hunger until help arrives.
This snake-necked darter bird was busy stretching its substantial wings on the yellow river in Kakadu National Park. To see them, you can take a cruise from Jim Jim Creek, through yellow water billabong and out into South Alligator river – so named because the explorer Lieutenant Phillip Parker King incorrectly identified the resident crocodiles as alligators.
COMMON BUSHTAIL POSSUM
Although considered a pest by some, as it is known to cause damage to pine plantations, regenerating forest, flowers, fruit trees and buildings, the common bushtail possum is actually protected in some Australian states. Its fur is considered valuable and has been harvested for clothing. To top it off, they’re kind of cute!
The sulphur-crested cockatoo is pretty numerous along the north, east and south coasts of Australia. It’s not uncommon to see them flying overhead in some of the country’s largest cities. While one of these will make a good pet, it’s important to realise that there’s a good chance it will outlive you, given that they can survive up to 70 years in captivity.
LITTLE RED FLYING FOX
When we stopped at the natural Mataranka Thermal Pools in Elsey National Park, I saw a sign with information on the little red flying fox and I thought to myself, ‘It would be pretty cool to see one of those.’ About 20 minutes later, when I finally glanced skyward, I realised that every single tree was full of them! These bats use their long tongues to get nectar and pollen from eucalyptus trees and help maintain the health of the forests. Some years, the area attracts over 200,000 individuals.
THE BAD OUTBACK WILDLIFE
There are many species of scorpion in Australia. Contrary to popular belief, none has a sting that appears to be capable of causing fatality in humans. You still wouldn’t want to risk it though. They cause severe pain for several hours. This nasty looking individual came into our bedroom at Ayers Rock. Petrified that it would take refuge in one of our backpacks or sting us in our sleep, we eventually killed it with what I’m coming to understand is the official weapon of choice for eliminating unwanted Aussie critters – the flip flop.
WESTERN BROWN SNAKE
Thankfully, this Western brown snake was safely concealed in a glass cage at the reptile centre in Alice Springs. There are several species of brown snake in Australia, and they have a venom that can quickly cause death in humans if the bite goes untreated. More deaths in Australia are attributable to the brown snake than to any other animal. The guide who introduced us to them had once been pronounced dead for 1.5 hours, but made a miraculous recovery. Watch where you put your feet in the bush and, if you notice one nearby, no matter how strong the temptation may be to run, stand perfectly still. They respond to rapid movement.
RED BACK SPIDER
The red back spider can be found all over the continent and is Australia’s most famous deadly spider. It has a neurotic venom that induces severe pain, but rarely causes death. While thousands of people are bitten by them, only approximately 20 per cent require treatment. Generally, the children and the elderly are the most vulnerable. I shared the dunnie with this one!
An unexpected leech attack occurred soon after I took a dip in the refreshingly cool waters of Florence Falls near Darwin. The good thing about leeches is that they’re not going to kill you, but this doesn’t help reduce the panic when you see blood pouring from between your toes or feel a lump the size of your little finger gorging itself on your inner thigh! If you’re unfortunate enough to pick one up, fire and salt are traditional ways to make them release their grip. Failing that, bug spray worked pretty well for us.
THE UGLY OUTBACK WILDLIFE
Not all Aussie spiders are dangerous, but few people would want to get up too close to any variety. It didn’t stop me developing an unhealthy obsession with photographing each one we found. They’re actually really fascinating when you study them in detail, but I can’t spend long looking at these pictures without shivering.
Another creature that tastes good as a sausage, the emu has an enigmatic and often evil expression. They always look as though they’re plotting something nasty. Commonly farmed for meat, oil and leather, you’re likely to see them in roadside enclosures at many of the gas stations you stop off at en route.
First prize for the ugliest Australian creature goes to the witchetty grub. On a bushtucker experience close to Alice Springs, our guide pulled apart a decaying branch to reveal this thumb-sized wriggling atrocity. For reasons unknown to me, one member of our group – a young American named Jack – jumped at the chance to eat it live. There wasn’t even a trace of disgust on his face. Each to their own, I guess!
Of course, there are many more species that live in the outback, but these are the ones I encountered during my trip. As you can see, the biggest section of all was ‘The Good’, so don’t listen to the horror stories. It’s an exciting adventure meeting so many interesting animals and, even if some of them make you cringe, at least you’ll have some great stories to tell.
BOOK YOUR OUTBACK ADVENTURE TODAY…
…AND HAVE NO REGRETS
My Outback Adventure was sponsored by Contiki. While they requested that I write about my trip, the choice of topics has been left entirely up to me. Any opinions expressed are a genuine reflection on how I felt about the experience.