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Outback Adventure
The Australian wilderness can be magnificent and ferocious
Jeff Lancaster

About three o'clock in the morning something woke me, and I lay listening. A strange rumbling came from somewhere out in the night. "Are you awake?" Cristi whispered softly. I whispered back that I was. "There's something outside," she said.
The northern Australia night was stifling. Beneath our flimsy tent we had gone to sleep in the coolest possible costumes - nothing at all. Now I got to my feet and tiptoed to the entrance to the tent. Gently I pulled open the flaps an inch apart and peered out. It was pitch black, and I could see nothing. I parted the tent flaps a bit more. There, not twenty feet from the tent, was a large crocodile.
By now Cristi was up and standing next to me. We stood there, stone-like, with nothing but a thin sheet of canvas between us and a twenty-foot crocodile.
The rumbling continued. It came from the crocodile's stomach. It was tearing up the food we had left away from the campsite. It was a lesson of the Outback that I was happy to have learned: don't store your food near your campsite.
Slowly it worked its way through the food, ripping apart a barbecued chicken with uncomfortable ease. Then it scurried away, toward the Herbert River, silhouetted against the horizon, immense, its red eyes gleaming in the moonlight. Finally it left, and as we went back to bed, I recalled a sign we had seen along the roadside earlier in the day. It warned travelers succinctly: "Beware of Crocodiles."

Cristi and I were camped adjacent to Herbert River, in Australia's remote northeast, about 100 miles southwest of Cairns. We had come here because my wife wanted to experience some real adventure travel before the birth of our first child. I'd done Africa and South America but nothing said adventure to me like Australia.
In this part of the Australian wilderness, known as the Outback, the cards are stacked against human survival. The elements, the flora and fauna, and the rugged and unforgiving topography all combine to create an environment that is at once uncommonly beautiful and relentlessly hostile. From man-eating crocodiles to kick-boxing kangaroos, from deadly king brown snakes to venomous redback spiders, from blood-sucking leeches to the month-long sting of the gympie gympie (giant stinging tree). This region of Australia is a wilderness without equal on any other island on the planet. But it is also among the most magnificent territories on earth: wide,
meandering rivers that gracefully carre corridors through thick, ancient woodlands; a big sky that leaves Montana wanting; and a rainforest that is older than the Amazon. The aborigines call the Outback the soul of the world. The world has a beautiful soul.

Early next morning, when there was not yet light enough to see our way along the winding tracks that cut into the bush, the wilderness was already alive with sound. Twisting through the thick scrub, we drove down by a swamp where pink-flowered waterlilies were growing and tracks in the soft mud, bordering clear water, told the story of all the animals that had drunk during the night.

As we got out of the Land Rover, two cranes strutted by the water, and egrets flew with a flurry of white wings. We saw the deep skidding marks of crocodiles and the claw-prints of kangaroos in the mud.
Early dawn is the best time to see wildlife. It's rush hour in the animal world. Those that fed during the night were slaking their thirst at the water holes or seeking a shady spot to sleep, ad those that fed during the day were grazing or browsing from the trees before the sun was high.

Crocodiles, with their distinct lack of fear and ferocious beauty, are perhaps the most rewarding of all animals to observe. They are watchful of everything and everyone, regarding them perhaps as potential prey - which is not surprising, as they are responsible for more attacks annually than any other interior predator in Australia.
Later that morning we found a baby kangaroo, a joey, playing with an echidna (anteater). The joey paid no attention to us, even when we approached to within a few yards. We watched for half an hour as it tormented the patient echidna. Eventually, frustrated at the lack of response, the playful joey left and bounded gracefully into the bush.

At the close of day it grew quiet on the Koombooloomba Reservoir. The Herbert River's fluid skin turned from cobalt to coal, and the dark shadows spread and mingled until they were all one, and the night had fallen. Then the huge world of the wilderness changed. It became something of sound, rather than of sight. We lay back in our camp chairs, rested our eyes, and listened to the world that we had been watching.

The hush that followed sundown was broken by cicadas in the trees and above the bush. Their incessant whir formed a background to all other sounds coming from out on the plain, some far, some near, and whether from beast or bird, difficult to distinguish. Many we recognized - the staccato call of a kookaburra and the distinct "whoo-oo, whoo-oo" of a dingo; the dull moan of a crocodile; the cough-like bark of a kangaroo. This was nature's nocturnal choir, and we had the best seats in the house.

While we were having lunch on the third day, storm clouds gathered on the eastern horizon. Later, as we beat through the bush this way and that, the storm grew closer and we smelled the rain on the wind. The heat had reached an unbearable 130 degrees Fahrenheit. As the storm clouds got nearer, a light, refreshing breeze blew in from the plain. Within 45 minutes the temperature had dropped to below 80 degrees. The rain came hard and fast. The deluge was over in less than 10 minutes, but its aftermath would cause us all sorts of problems.
Unable to get to high, dry ground, we ended up slipping and sliding in the thick, wet soil. We decided to kick back and relax and wait for the ground to dry before moving on. Unfortunately we'd have to wait longer than we imagined. The one-ton Land Rover was too heavy for the soft, moist soil of the plains and slowly began to sink. Making good use of the winch and a sturdy gum tree, we managed to ease out of the bog and onto dryer ground.

By late afternoon we were ready to hit the track again. After half an hour of driving through the soft plains we reached the fringes of Lumholtz National Park. Princess Hills, at the northwestern end of the park, shelters the Herbert River at its widest point. About 10 miles east lies Wallaman Falls.

At just over 1,000 feet, Wallaman is the largest single-drop waterfall in Australia - and arguably the most scenic. Garlanded by thick, leafy ferns, the cobalt pool at the base of the falls is shrouded in a permanent mist of spray that creates hundreds of tiny rainbows. The temperature here is considerably cooler than in the huddled humidity of the surrounding rainforest.

Cristi and I glided over the calm, unruffled outer waters below the falls in a small white aluminum dinghy. Not far from us, sunning on the edge of the waterhole, rested two crocodiles. We stayed well clear of them. Within minutes Cristi noticed that they had gone. The tracks on the water's edge suggested they had entered the river.
Overhead, a flock of topknot pigeons broke cover and swirled in the sky. A large cassowary, standing nearly five feet tall, let out a hiss and thumped the ground to our left. Cassowaries are capable of striking lethal blows with their foot-long stiletto-like claws.

The bird life in this region of the Lumholtz National Park is teaming with pied curraways, golden whistlers, pale-headed rosellas, and tawny frogmouths. The local fauna is just as abundant, with green ringtail possums, fawn-footed melomys, long-nosed bandicoots, and pademelons coexisting in the rainforests and eucalypt woodlands.
We floated across the great pool below the falls and were awed by the rush of water and the primitive beauty of this place. Australia is an unforgiving land that throws up breathtaking vistas that are often hidden from sight like some secret prize.

We decided it was time to get back on to dry land and avoid any possible confrontation with the missing crocodiles. We left Wallaman Falls and made a slow return to Princess Hills as the sun slipped below the horizon.
As we made the sluggish journey back through the thick rainforest we saw an enormous cathedral fig tree, standing over 100 feet high with its exposed roots and branches extending in either direction for some 30 feet. These trees literally cover and consume all the vegetation around them, often growing to over 100 feet high and some 50 feet wide.

Darkness in the outback is as thick and sweet as molasses, broken only by the flickering of distant stars. As I sat at the campsite I was thankful for the solitude and the few small luxuries we had brought along with us: coffee, fresh water, insect repellent, and chocolate cookies. But it was the Australian Outback, huge, magnificent and unforgiving, that was our greatest indulgence.

Safety Tips
The world's smallest continent and largest island is staggeringly huge - almost three million square miles. It's home to some of the most primitive and dangerous species of flora and fauna on the planet. But surviving Down Under isn't a matter of luck. Here are some tips for your next trip Outback.
Crocodylus Porosus
Australia has two species of crocodile, 'freshies' (freshwater crocodiles) and 'salties' (saltwater crocodiles). The freshwater variety has narrower jaws, finer teeth, and is closer in size and temperament to North American alligators. The saltwater variety, though, can measure more than 23 feet and weigh more than a ton. There are close to 100,000 wild salties living in the tidal rivers and coastal waters of Northern Australia. In the last 25 years, 15 people have been killed and 32 seriously wounded by salties.
Survival Tips
Avoid swimming in waterholes, rivers, and coastal areas in Australia's Outback.
Don't fish or stand near riverbanks, shallow causeways, or boat ramps.
Do not expose any part of your body over the edge of a boat if in a river or coastal waters. According to Australia's Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin, poke the angry reptile in the eye. "Whatever you do, don't let them get you in their death roll."
Australia has six serious ocean predators: the Great White Pointer, the Tiger, Mako, Hammerhead, Bull and Grey Nurse. Australia has the highest rate of shark attacks on the planet, averaging nearly two deaths per year and dozens of attacks.
Survival Tips
Swim only between the flags at all beaches (protected by Australia's famous surf lifesavers).
Avoid diving in regions known for shark attacks.
Avoid diving alone.
If you encounter a shark while diving, stay calm and make certain you haven't cut off their escape route. According to Australian shark expert Rodney Fox, sharks hate being cornered, so always leave them with an escape route.
This gigantic bird, a cross between an oversized chicken and an ostrich, is potentially lethal. With three four-inch stiletto-like claws on each foot, these five-foot-tall birds have been known to kill and seriously injure human beings. The territorial cassowary lives in the tropical rainforests of North Queensland. They are fast, aggressive, and protective of their young and nests.
Survival Tips
If you do encounter a cassowary in the Outback, do not turn and run. Duck behind a tree or foliage until they pass, or climb a tree and wait until they leave.
Australia has nine of the world's 10 most venomous snakes, and they're all found in North Queensland.
Survival Tips
Always attempt to identify the snake by observing its color and size, but do not attempt to catch or kill it. Stabilize the victim. Do not cut the puncture site or attempt to suck out the poison. Apply a pressure bandage over the bite site and, if possible, all the way down the bitten limb. Use a makeshift splint, keeping the patient calm and lying down, with the bitten part at heart level. If conscious, have them drink small but frequent amounts of water and evacuate them to the nearest medical facility as soon as possible.
There are more than 2,000 species to contend with in Australia, including the 10 most venomous in the world. The ones to really watch out for though are the Funnel Web and the Redback. These are two of the deadliest spiders on the planet.
Survival Tips
Immobilize the bitten limb, clean the wound, apply pressure and if possible, a cold pack of some type. Always seek urgent medical attention.
Blue-ringed Octopus
Found on the Queensland coastline, predominantly in the far north. Small blue and purple colored octopus that is often found in tidal pools. The sting doesn't hurt but within five to 10 minutes your face and neck will go numb, you'll experience difficulty breathing, you will become nauseous and vomit. If medical treatment isn't administered immediately then death is likely to follow.
Survival Tips
Avoid swimming in coastal areas that are not protected by surf lifesavers. Do not touch or pick up octopus or any other sea creature. Administer EAR and CPR until the victim either regains consciousness or professional help arrives. There is no antivenin but it is possible for victims to make a full recovery.
Box Jellyfish
The deadliest jellyfish in the world, period. It's 95% water, has no bones, brains or eyes and is literally heartless. It's been around for 650 million years and can kill you in a matter of minutes. They are active in the waters of North Queensland during the Australian summer (November to April). They sting with their six-feet-long tentacles. Just brushing past one can be deadly.
Survival Tips
Swim only in the netted beaches in North Queensland. If stung, deactivate the tentacles by pouring vinegar all over the skin and jellyfish. Don't rub your skin, and get to a hospital as soon as possible. Vinegar is stored at all North Queensland patrolled beaches.
Every year in Australia, some 18,000 swimmers and surfers are treated for bluebottle stings on patrolled beaches. With a tiny blue bulb-like body, in the appearance small balloon, these small jellyfish are less likely to kill but they do leave a nasty sting and a red mark.
Survival Tips
If stung, do not rub the affected area. Douse the sting with vinegar (never fresh water) and pick off the remaining tentacles with tweezers or some other foreign object. If the pain is severe you can apply a local anaesthetic cream and take some aspirin.
Like most of the animal kingdom Down Under, this stonefish is the most dangerous venomous fish on the planet. They can be found in the coastal waters of Queensland and around the Top End of Australia. They bury themselves in sand or mud and are so well camouflaged, most victims mistake them for rocks and unwittingly step on them. They are the water world's equivalent of spiny anteaters in terms of spikes.
Survival Tips
Pain is immediate and escalating and the only way to relieve it is to plunge the affected limb into really hot water. Alternatively, Aborigines suggest urinating on the puncture wound. Either way, seek medical assistance as soon as possible.
Found throughout the Queensland Outback. Small parasites that often drop from foliage and imbed themselves into your flesh. Perhaps the most dangerous of all ticks on the planet is Queensland's Paralysis Tick. The disease can only be contracted from the venomous female. Symptoms typically take three to four days to show, and include lethargy, irritability, weakness in the legs, all progressively worsening until respiratory paralysis sets in.
Survival Tips
The only way to stop the paralysis is to remove the tick. Do not squeeze, but carefully remove the insect with tweezers, being careful not to leave the head buried beneath the skin. Seek medical attention.
Australia has 29 species of scorpion, with most residing in the northern part of Australia. They are only active at night and tend to conceal themselves in the shade of rocks and branches.
Survival Tips
Scorpions rarely cause serious injury. If stung, take an antihistamine tablet and if pain is severe, take some aspirin as well.
In North Queensland, these blood-sucking parasites can grow to the size of an adult male's pinky finger.
Survival Tips
Typically, placing salt or vinegar on the leech will remove them. Whatever you do, don't pull them off.
The tropical mosquitoes of North Queensland are the cause of Ross River Fever, a disease that can last six months or more, with symptoms that include fever, headaches, rashes, aching muscles and joints.
Survival Tips
Mosquitoes are active around dusk and the early evening. To avoid being bitten, wear light-colored clothes that limit body exposure and cover any bare bits of flesh with insect repellent.
Gympie Gympie
The Giant Stinging Tree, as it is called by the Aborigines, leaves its victims with a month-long sting for which there is no cure. They are mostly found in the rain forests of North Queensland.
Survival Tips
Identify them early and avoid walking through rain forest regions where they are common. If stung, do not rub.
Wait-a-While Vine
The aptly named vine clings to the skin or clothing of its victims, injecting tiny barbs into the flesh. The plant literally grabs you and it is often difficult to pull away without attracting dozens of spikes. The barbs become irritated after contact with the skin. The plant is often found in the tropical regions of North Queensland.
Survival Tips
Do not attempt to pull the barbs from the skin, and do not rub them. The best bet is to take a swim in a freshwater creek or take a bath. The water will open the pores and release the barbs.
Note: Always take a first aid kit on any trip to the Australian Outback, including extra water, supplies, radio, compass, and flares. Additionally, always advise the Australian National Parks and Wildlife of your tour plans (see Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service for reference). For more information on how to prepare a suitable first aid kit for the Australian Outback, contact Wilderness First Aid Consultants (see box).
served as a survival expert and tracker with the Queensland Police Service in the region where this story was written. (The safety tips that I provide in the article will be based on my survival experience in the Australian Outback).
For more information:
Wilderness First Aid Consultants
Tel: 011 612 6457 2339
© Jeff Lancaster May 2003
Getting There:
Qantas (800-227-4500; Air New Zealand (888-426-7388; and United Airlines (1800-864-8331; serve Australia from the West Coast. Round-trip fares start at around $1,000. To visit Australia you'll need a tourist visa, which can be arranged by your travel agent or airline.
Within Australia: Qantas and Virgin Blue fly daily from Sydney and Brisbane to Cairns, where Hertz rents 4WD vehicles. Supplies (and maps) are available in Cairns at the North Queensland Tourism Bureau offices (4051-3588; Basic lodging and camping is available within the region.
1) Outback Aussie Tours
The Ultimate Outback Experience; 10 day, all-inclusive tour from $875.
Tel: 1300 78 78 90 (toll free within Australia)
2) Gondwana Travel Company
Outback Experience Tour; 6 days, all-inclusive; contact for pricing information.
Tel: 011 615 00 555 354
3) Swagman Outback Safaris
Cape York Safari; 15 day, all-inclusive tour from $1350.
Tel: 011 613 5222 2855
Tel: 310-568-2060 (within the USA)
More information:
Australian Tourism Commission
Tel: 011 612 9369 111
Toursim Tropical North Queensland
Tel: 011 617 4051 3588
Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service
Tel: 011 617 3227 8187

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