SURVIVING AUSTRALIA'S OUTBACK
The Australian wilderness can be magnificent and ferocious
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
Avoid swimming in waterholes, rivers, and coastal areas in Australia's
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.
Swim only between the flags at all beaches (protected by Australia's famous
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
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.
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
Australia has nine of the world's 10 most venomous snakes, and they're
all found in North Queensland.
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.
Immobilize the bitten limb, clean the wound, apply pressure and if possible,
a cold pack of some type. Always seek urgent medical attention.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Identify them early and avoid walking through rain forest regions where
they are common. If stung, do not rub.
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.
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
For more information:
Wilderness First Aid Consultants
Tel: 011 612 6457 2339
© Jeff Lancaster May 2003
Qantas (800-227-4500; www.qantas.com)
Air New Zealand (888-426-7388; www.airnz.com)
and United Airlines (1800-864-8331; www.united.com)
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; www.tnq.org.au).
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)
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
Journeys in Hacktreks
all rights reserved