If you have not spoken to me over the past month - and with 6 billion people on the planet, that will be most of you - you will be unaware that I have decided to go to Australia. This is a bold move for a computer scientist, but before you start picturing me as a cross between Indiana Jones and Paul Hogan let me explain that this is a decision of opportunity. My mother and brother are heading off to Oz this summer, and offered to pay the airfare for me to go too. Being somewhat hesitant to spend 18 hours in a small metal box with these members of my immediate family, the sweetener of doing what I wanted out there was proffered. After asking several people what they thought I should do, and getting several responses along the lines of "Don't be a twat - embrace this opportunity," I duly accepted my mother's kind offer.
Thus I shall soon be exploring the land down under. Like most non-Aussies, I had very little idea what's actually there. I could tell you the names of some Australian cities and that the capital is Canberra (reputed to be immensely boring). As for tourist attractions, careful thought gave me four: the Sydney Opera House, Sydney Harbour Bridge, Ayer's Rock, and surfing. Beyond that, I was ignorant.
A little research soon showed me that Australia is a dangerous place. In fact, I am not convinced I'll make it out alive. The uninitiated here might presume that I'm talking about sweltering heat and psychopaths murdering backpackers, but I think it would be missing the point to focus on these. It would be like James Bond worrying about tetanus when the buzzsaw is about to bisect him. Given its habit of rising and setting on a regular basis, the sun can be anticipated and worked around. Likewise, everywhere has its lunatics and as long as you avoid places where they congregate - France, for example - you're going to be safe. No, it turns out that every plant and animal on that continent is out to get you.
You have the obvious examples, of course. The dangers of sharks and crocodiles are well-known, thanks to Hollywood and confectionery. Most people have a passing aquaintance with the kangaroo, which has a habit of bounding across roads and getting hit by cars much to the detriment of all concerned. You also have the wombat, a kind of armoured teddy bear with similar habits but the infuriating propensity to walk away unscathed from such collisions while your car gently smoulders and your insurance premiums skyrocket. There are snakes and spiders, too - given that the arachnid's diet is small insects, providing them with enough venom to drop a rhino seems a little OTT. Let me regale you with a couple of tales about lesser-known risks:
First up, we have a critter known as the box jellyfish. These live around the
northern coastlines of Australia, and are transparent - as are their 130-foot
long tentacles. If you get stung by one of these critters and are lucky, you
will have a red mark where you were stung for the rest of your life. If you're
unlucky, you die or go insane. One chap who got stung was screaming even while
sedated and unconcious. It's safe to say that these bastards hurt.
Next we have the Gympie-Gympie tree. This has big, heart-shaped leaves with lots of tiny strands on them similar to fibreglass. If you brush against one of these leaves, they break off and get under your skin where they excrete a rather toxic substance. Standard hospital policy is to sedate victims for four days to get them over the worst of it, and it takes 6 months for the fibres to work their way out of the body. You can feel them for those 6 months too.
Please remember that this is a country where people voluntarily settle. People decide that a life of checking the toilet for dunny spiders before evacuating their bowels and shaking out shoes is for them. There are risks in Australia that no-one even knows about - it's such a vast, unexplored country that no-one really knows what's in there. It is liberally spattered with small, clandestine ways to cause you immense pain and probable death. I am likely to spend my trip with an unhealthy dose of paranoia and it's possible I will spend all 7 weeks wimpering in the airport waiting for a flight home.
There is, however, a surprising amount to do in Australia. From what I've read, it does seem a fascinating country. For a start, lots and lots of things about it are unexplained. No-one really knows where the Aborigines came from. They are 60,000 years old (3 times as old as other homo sapiens). Australia has always been an island, and has no indigenous apes from which the Aborigines could evolve. The implication is clear - 60,000 years ago there was a seafaring civilisation while the rest of us plebs were trying to figure out how to bang rocks together. There are 12 foot earthworms, trees 18 metres in diameter, and random evolutionary oddities like the platypus. And no-one has the foggiest idea just why somewhere as hostile as Australia would be teeming with such things. It's as if it were God's scrapbook.
Aside from the fact that I'm going to die out there, I am looking forward to experiencing Australian life. I hear it's a very friendly country, and I plan to spend some five weeks backpacking around. The Australian attitude to Aborigines is somewhat odd, it seems - from what I've read they are basically ignored. Animals that would cause me to wet myself in fear are a fact of life over there. There are huge distances between places as well as a massive cultural diversity between different cities and states, and ever since the White Australia policy went away in the 70s the ethnic diversity has exploded too. As a teetotal vegan I expect to be regarded with some confusion - drinking seems integral to the antipodean culture, as well as a fondness for grilled meat. I'm hoping that the Aussies will see me as a mysterious foreign stranger, as opposed to yet another pasty-white Brit backpacker. Whether I am a sex symbol or a sex object (when I ask people for sex, they object) to the .au hotties remains to be seen.
In short, it should be rather interesting.