It has now been over a month since I arrived here in Sydney and in a lot of ways I think I am lucky to be alive. My plane landed safely, I haven’t stepped out into traffic screaming towards me (thank God for the “LOOK RIGHT” warnings at crosswalks), and I’ve successfully avoided being trampled by a rampaging kangaroo. Actually, as far as I can tell, kangaroos are one of the few species of, well, anything here that does not actually pose an immediate threat to my personal well-being. Other than them and most of the birds, I do believe I am eligible prey for most anything else on this Island of Terror that decides to wander up and take a bite.
In some ways I find it shocking how many people want to travel to Australia. Not to say it isn’t an amazing, beautiful country full of wonderful people. But for North Americans and Europeans simply getting here involves a couple thousand dollars, a nightmarish 14-24 hours stuffed in a tiny seat, only to emerge in a land that the British saw fit to send its criminals to. Now at first that little piece of history seems rather odd. What kind of punishment is sending someone from grey, dreary England to a land an acquaintance of mine simply refers to as “Paradise”? Beautiful beaches, an agreeable climate, and all the land you could ever want. Well after my recent trip to the Australian Museum here in Sydney, I now know why the Brits decided Australia was a place fit for society’s undesirables.
The Australian Museum is an impressive looking building sitting just east of Hyde Park. It’s imposing exterior is dominated by large columns, which are only dwarfed by the Sperm Whale skeleton that awaits you in the lobby. Below the bewildering mass of bones a sign informs visitors that the dead whale had washed up on a beach in South Australia in the 1870s and it was quickly shuffled off to Sydney for display. Surely the sign of a young country when an animal carcass is immediately seen as an attraction.
Once I paid my ten dollars to the friendly cashier I ventured into the museum proper, filled with the joy of being in a museum on a weekday by myself. Unemployment has its benefits. The first floor is filled with skeletons and a somewhat disappointing display about Aboriginal culture. The display itself wasn’t terrible, but in a building called the Australian Museum I think I was expecting a bit more. The second floor I knew wouldn’t excite me as it contained minerals. And nothing but minerals. That said, there were a lot of cool looking rocks, so if that’s your thing, go nuts. I quickly made my way to the third floor, which was what had drawn me to the museum in the first place.
Upon reaching the top of the stairs I was greeted by a snake in a case, staring at me. It wasn’t too large, but it did look intimidating. I’m not too terrified of snakes, mainly because I know there isn’t too much of a chance of one of them crawling on me while I sleep in my bed. Australia, however, is making me rethink my stance on snakes. Most of the world’s most venomous snakes are found creeping around the bush of Australia. Some of them not too far away. They have snakes that will kill you in a field and snakes that will kill you in the water. They can drop from trees, they can jump from holes, and I was later informed by another display that there is even a snake that enjoys living in the attics and rafters of your home. Luckily this snake is not a poisonous one, but still, the thought of one of them slithering over my high school yearbooks looking for food doesn’t fill me with ease.
Snakes don’t bother you? What about the world’s largest species of crocodile? This thing is HUGE. Once I turned around from the Greeter Snake I was faced with a very large display case featuring the largest crocodile I have ever seen. And that includes any Peter Pan related films. I cannot stress to you how large it is. In the wild they can grow to 7 metres (about 21 feet I think). This stuffed one glaring at me was less than that and even it made me want to postpone any trips to Queensland. Oh yeah, they will eat humans too. The same case also featured some deadly snakes which I mentally noted for later reference in case of an encounter.
Now that my heart was racing I ventured into the Evolution/History of Earth portion of the museum. I was very pleased with this section. It was well done and explained in such a way that I could follow along. In the middle of this room a Stegosaurus skeleton was battling the newly found skeleton of a dinosaur that lived millions of years later. At least the display told me this info, rather than try to slip one by me. I’ve always been a dinosaur nut, so my moments of staring up at the skeletons brought me right back to my first elementary school library where I spent hours kneeling on the floor in front of the dinosaur books. I bet if they haven’t changed that library around, I could find them immediately. Sadly, I’m sure all the same books would still be waiting for me on the shelf with few new additions to the County Line collection.
While I love evolutionary history and the finer points of Home erectus (I really do), I left that part of the museum eager to see the Birds and Insects of Australia room. In addition to the dinosaurs and evolution bits, this was the reason I came to the museum. I needed to see what I am up against as a new resident of the Island of Terror. And my lord, I am up against some truly terrifying opponents.
The Bird and Insect room has not-so-scary (though often freakishly large) birds on the outer wall, and insects in smaller displays on the inner ring. Each insect display is about three feet long and dark. In a fit of unwarranted cruelty, the museum curators decided that the most effective way to show visitors their worst nightmares is to make them push a button on each display which, after a nail-biting two second delay, violently lights up the spiders you have chosen to look at. It really is quite unnerving to have a bright light suddenly forcing your eyes to gaze upon large, hairy, evil looking spiders. So, in addition to the world’s deadliest snakes and giant killer crocodiles, Australia is home to the world’s most lethal spiders. And these things aren’t opposed to showing up in your home unannounced.
There is one spider called the Sydney Funnel-Web Spider. I’m not going to try and scare you with my own hyperbolic writing. Instead, here is a quotation taken from Wikipedia:
The Sydney funnel-web spider, also called a funnel-web tarantula, is regarded by some to be the most dangerous spider in the world. Actually there are two related genera of very dangerous spiders, Hadronyche (which has the higher mortality rate) and Atrax (which has produced a higher number of serious bites).
Now I don’t know what words stand out to you, but “dangerous,” “mortality rate,” and “serious bites” jumped out at me. And that is only the opening paragraph of the article. A quick read of the article also reveals the following comforting words and phrases:
- “fatal bites to humans” (Yeah, I got that from your opening paragraph.)
- “the venom is known to cause death within a period ranging from one hour to three days” (Yes, I know.)
- “they frequently search for a place to nest under human dwellings” (Lovely.)
- “most active at night” (That works out well since that is when I am at my most vulnerable and when I can’t see.)
- “often found in swimming pools, yards, and garages” (How often????)
- “can move quickly across the ground” (Please tell me they can’t jump.)
- “their fangs have been known to penetrate fingernails and soft shoes” (You have got to be kidding me.)
- “often bite aggressively and repeatedly and may envenomate enthusiastically” (Enthusiastically???? Someone tell me this is a joke.)
I had saved the Bird and Insect Room for last. That was a mistake. I left the museum and made my way towards George Street to catch a bus back home. As I walked (rather quickly) through Hyde Park I carefully avoided trees and tried my best to be near someone who looked like they would be slower than me if we were both chased down by a Funnel-Web. As I crossed Elizabeth Street and looked back into the park I am pretty sure I saw a pack of tourists running from a giant crocodile only to be taken down by the world’s deadliest spider and a few agitated snakes. Maybe that was just my mind though.
On the bus ride home I started thinking about where you are actually safe in this country. The land is filled with spiders and snakes. The rivers and swamps have man-eating crocodiles. The ocean maybe? Surely Nature isn’t so cruel as to load the peaceful ocean surrounding the Island of Terror with deadly creatures right? Oh wait, that reminds me of a TV show I watched shortly after my visit with the spiders. It was called “Sharks on Trial.”