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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Land Of Oz


Stepping carefully into Australia


Bill Hatcher’s new Australian backyard is a far cry from the suburban sprawl we often encounter in the U.S.

I’m writing this column at the start of yet another big adventure. I recently moved from my home of 25 years in the sparsely populated and arid Colorado Plateau in the American Southwest to a new home on the outskirts of Sydney, Australia. The tropical landscape of Sydney is on every level the antithesis of America’s desert Southwest. Sydney’s population is 4.4 million, the region receives a whopping 47 inches of rain a year, and the surrounding forest, called “the bush” in Australia, is teeming with otherworldly wildlife, many of them venomous and potentially deadly to the unsuspecting visitor—namely me. I plan to be living in Australia for a few years, so I’m busy learning all I can about my new home.

My biggest question, as a photographer who often goes off the beaten path to shoot photos, is just how dangerous is the Australian countryside? Will I be able to let down my guard in a land that prides itself on being home to a prolific number of venomous snakes, spiders and ocean life? How concerned should I be that 11 of the world’s 15 most venomous snakes reside in Australia, including the brown, taipan and sea snake? While tromping around shooting photos in the bush or the ocean, just how concerned do I need to be about venomous snakes, spiders or something called a box jellyfish?

The Australian Outback is mostly desert, but coastal Sydney is a verdant landscape with many rivers, national parks and other green spaces. Close to my house are Lane Cove National Park, Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park and Berowra Valley Regional Park. When my wife and I moved into our new home, I didn’t expect that my backyard would be as exotic a place as any Amazon jungle, and yet this is Sydney! The adventurer’s rule to watch where you step applies even here in an Australian suburb. But I’m a photographer, so looking where I step isn’t always the first thing on my mind.

A few years ago, I was on a photo shoot in Panama. I was with ornithologist Dr. George Angehr from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and we were photographing hummingbirds in a remote tract of jungle. Suddenly, George yelled for me to stop! Then with a swoosh, down came his machete, barely missing my head. I thought he had lost his mind, but I looked down to see George had pinned an eyelash viper to the ground with his machete. As we were a couple of days’ travel from the nearest medical facility, a bite from this snake would have been very bad. The snake’s bright yellow coloring didn’t prevent me from stepping on it. I wonder how often I’ll get that lucky in Australia when I’m out shooting photos or stepping out of the house to hang laundry on the line.

Stories of dangerous Australian wildlife are rife. Within the first few days in Sydney, we heard our first local’s story about the deadly bush. Our driver from the rental car agency regaled us with a story about his recent weekend outing to a secret fishing spot in nearby Royal National Park. A shortcut through the bush brought our intrepid driver face to face with a “green cobra.” To make things worse, the day’s catch was an eel and a poisonous lionfish. I looked up this cobra and lionfish later and discovered that the lionfish, with its toxic spines and beautiful coloring, is a popular fish-tank variety. The cobra was probably a nonvenomous green tree snake; it flares its neck, giving it the appearance of a cobra. (I don’t mean to disparage Australia’s venomous creature reputation!) Our intrepid fisherman is lucky he didn’t hook a box jellyfish, the chirodropid Chironex fleckeri, which delivers a poison so potent that it has killed 5,568 people worldwide since 1954. In Australia, there have been 64 deaths due to encounters with the box jellyfish. Our fisherman also could have bumped into a tiger snake or an Eastern brown snake, both common in the Sydney area.

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