Down Under in Drop Bear Country

Down Under…

Let me divest you of any inkling that Australia is not anything other than a rock dropped into an isolated part of the Pacific Ocean. Approaching its eastern shore by air, as I have twice, one becomes bored with the constancy of water. For flights coming international—say, those that begin in California—the approach begins during a daylight hour. The ocean is uniform in its blue, and even cloud cover does little more than sketch darker blue shapes below. There is ocean and there is ocean and more ocean and then, simply, land. A massive, ever stretching plate of brown. Flat on flat on flat with a rise here or there. The size of the land and the stasis of its altitude prove some unstated Newton’s law of geography that for every massive sea there is an equal and opposite massive stretch of land.¹

To an extent, this approach is similar to what one would see approaching America’s west coast, another gigantic and dry continental shelf bordered by ocean. Or Mexico’s. Yet these other landmasses make subtle encroachments towards sea: islands stand as vanguards to announce their more substantial parents, the ocean’s color changes as its depth lessens. In San Diego, there is swell. Waves from deep-sea come to shore like long rolling pins kicked underneath thin silk. It hints that the ocean floor rises for an exposure.

Australia has no such signal.² Australia is not, then it is. Waves lapse over each other like herringbone, an ocean’s reaction to finding a continental shelf where it had expected water. The breaks happen so near the beach that the tawny sand looks hemmed with froth lace all the way to the horizon.

And then that land. During summer, descending over the state of Queensland into Brisbane, it looks oxidized. Rivers bloom with clay sediment. Trees are drab, the leaves sapped from heat and hanging like wrung out towelettes. Everything is as brown and withered and burned by sun as a worn strip of cowhide in Texas. Yet Brisbane exists. Its skyscrapers stick like a middle finger from the knuckle of river bank and near hills. Its westernmost suburbs are visible from the air, and this is the first time one senses the magnitude of land that Australian civilization is up against. Most of the nation’s population is huddled in the edges and corners of the continent’s cellar, giving way to the broiling center.

I landed, took a train to Roma Street Station, and exited into a parade. I mean that literally. A group of men with tomato colored faces and hands with tinnies sang, cajoled, and chanted until the arteries in their necks swelled like that spitting dinosaur in Jurassic Park. I had not been in Australia one hour and I’d already exceeded my tolerance for the Aussie bloke, ‘Straya’s answer to America’s Bro. A man wearing a pleated tartan skirt wailed on bagpipes, and these Aussie blokes took it as their challenge to match in volume and bellicosity the forceful whine of the drones.

The parade, it turns out, was just the audience for a sporting event making its way through closed streets to the stadium, which happened to be across from my hostel. Thus I joined the processional of families, friends, father-son duos, and Aussie blokes.

I liked Australia straight away. Part of me wonders if it is because I felt like it’d been there before. When I step onto an aircraft destined for another country, I expect to step off and see that its buildings are different, its shrubs are of a genus I’ve never seen, the language so extraordinarily alien that not even with a phonetic guide could I properly communicate. Australia is not this place. The cities are clean. The architectural recognizable. I didn’t retract from the sight or smell of any street food. And how I transported myself was neither ambiguous nor fraught with danger. People looked like me and, other than wide brim hats, dressed like me. This was nice: travel 9,000 miles from the U.S., skip a day in your life, and land in a place that makes you feel right at home.

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…In Drop Bear Country

Two friends of mine were living in Brisbane. Both are British, both I met in New Zealand. One is Tristan. Saying he is “a purveyor of antiquities” feels right since it imparts a learned gravitas to his style. He was a University of Queensland student on exchange from Edinburgh. He is destined to be a professor. I imagine at birth he emerged from the womb with a receding hairline and tweed jacket delivered caesarian, his grinning jaw to be of use when grinding out Latin phrases and old-time battle names. Other than a uni student’s style of dress and bank account, he is by all measures prepared for a lifetime of deciphering obtuse texts and then digesting and writing about them for the narrowest cadre of like-minded enthusiasts. None of the above is to suggest he’s dull. The contrary. Make some minor allusion about, say, Sabine women, and it incites his ability to recall a narrative and tell it with podcast worthy aplomb.

There is also Jess, connected to Tristan through geography rather than similar study. Also on exchange from Edinburgh, she studies biomedicine. Based on both her admission and general quietness, her comfort zone lies within a lab. She laughs at jokes and makes considered responses to questions after preceding them with “hmm.” She has a wonderful accent. They both do. Each possessive of a clear and cinematic elocution, ones familiar to Americans raised on Jude Law and Judi Dench. Tristan actually bears some physical resemblance to the former.

We met on Brisbane’s South Bank, which is across from Brisbane’s CBD. It’s been turned into a culture and recreation hub, South Bank has. Brisbane’s largest and most air-conditioned museums are here, as is an imitation beach complete with sand, umbrellas, and lifeguards who’ve zinc-ed their sniffers. The riverbank restaurants and bars have adopted that architectural quirk common in warm and humid climates and have just done away with walls. So we sit outside, knuckles deep in salted peanuts, our beers glasses sweating more profusely than our foreheads. The fan whirling above has no effect whatsoever and I take it is the bar management simply acknowledging that the night is warm.

Australia, initial thoughts, Tristan said.

I recount the above. That morning I’d joined a city walking tour that made the botanical garden its first stop. Most of the plants I recognized from home since San Diego, it turns out, is a botanical drop point, the center of a Venn diagram for Mediterranean, Antipodean, and South American plants. What differed here was pronunciation. For example “jacaranda” our guide pronounced so jowly I thought she’d mispronounced it—jaw-ca-ran-da. The San Diego pronunciation mimics the Spanish one: the J is dropped and subbed in is an H sound, similar to what you’d make exhaling onto a window—ha-kaw-ron-da. This mismatch of pronunciation, I have come to learn, is part of Australia’s fun. My favorite anecdote belongs to Kapil Dev, a former Indian cricketer, considered to be one of the best. He was just arrived in Australia for a tournament, surrounded by cricket fans, and an Aussie lady came to him and said, “Did you come here to die?” Bristled, he snapped back, “I have come here to live! I am not afraid of anyone.” Later someone pulled Kapil aside and explained Australians pronounce “today” as “to die.”

I tell Tristan and Jess that the idea of Australian wildlife scares me the most. New Zealand had pussified me. There you can drape yourself in spider webs without fear and can handle any sort of shelled crustacean without worrying you’ll be nipped and five minutes later paralyzed and twitching on the beach.

Australia’s dangerous wildlife does not need an explanatory rehash here. It is a trope and a Google search away. Type “most venomous snakes in the world” and learn that five of the ten are in Australia. You’ll read about stonefish, funnel web spiders (who call Sydney’s suburbs home), blue-ringed octopus, and box jellyfishes (the reason why many Queensland beaches are no-swim zones). Each is a gold medalist killer if the events are efficiency and pain. Also, there are sharks and crocodiles. I believe National Geographic devotes an entire webpage to what can kill you in Australia.

And the wildlife that is unlikely to kill you is unnerving if you’re unfamiliar with it. What makes Australia mind-blowing, in part, is that for how large and arid and desolate it is, there is a lot of wildlife. Each square mile is chock full of insects, birds, reptiles, and mammals. This hypothetical square is not just outside city limits either, developed areas count. On that first full day alone, as I whistled along a river path, multiple lizards the size of my leg suddenly lost their camouflage and waggled from me. Even as we sat at the bar, child size bats circled broadly around the river.

“It is different,” Tristan agreed, “But you need to be most worried about drop bears.”

“Come again?”

“Drop bears.” Tristan was being quite serious. “They’re a cousin of the koala, only much, much worse. You cannot look up at trees when you’re walking at night. If you make eye contact with one they’ll drop onto your face and claw you to shreds.”

“Nope, you’re fucking with me.” I looked to Jess for confirmation. She was no help, the sly smile always on her was there.

“I swear,” Tristan said, “Look it up.”

I Googled “Australian Drop Bear.” The first image was a large fanged koala with the demeanor of a cat on defense. No less reputable a source than the Australian Museum dot net—citing Australian Geographer v. 43 issue 4—gave me the details on this arboreal and highly carnivorous marsupial. 120kgs, 130cm long, 90cm at the shoulder, I’d be mincemeat. “Examination of kill sites,” I read, “and scats suggest mainly medium to large species of mammal make a substantial proportion of the animal’s diet. Often prey…are larger than the Drop Bear itself.”

Tristan was laughing.

On the way home, I stuck to well-lit roads and did not look up. There were no droppers. But there were bats: massive ornamental shapes that shuffled tree branches and scattered as I passed underneath. In my mind, I extended the possible ranges of crocs and taipans and chazzwazzers and feared them to be with me. Because drop bears this night or not, this is Australia, and terror is in the truth too.

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♦ ♦ ♦

¹ Weirdly, cartographers did believe a similar theory prior to Australia’s discovery by Western explorers. They posited the existence of a Terra Australis—an as of then hypothetical continent existing in the band of space occupied by Australia and Antartica—for no other reason than so much land existed in the globe’s northern hemisphere, it must be balanced by land in the southern. Aristotle, master logician, stated, “There must be a region bearing the same relation to the southern pole as the place we live in bears to our pole.” Thus exhibiting with a single instance both the pitfalls of logic and the first application of the idiom a broken clock is right twice a day.

Modern Australia, then, sources its name from this quirk of antiquity. Australis is Latin for “southern,” and it was English explorer Matt Flinders and his trusty cat Trim who brushed the dust off the name and applied it to their new discovery Australia in 1801. His rationale being, “There is no probability, that any other detached body of land, of nearly equal extent, will ever be found in a more southern latitude.”

² Unless one flies over the Great Barrier Reef.

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