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The Land Of Oz
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.
The Eastern brown snake is the second most venomous snake in the world and is blamed for 60% of snake fatalities in Australia. Unlike most other snakes that flee when approached, the brown snake is more likely to stand its ground, making it very dangerous. Snake experts say that Australian snakes are generally reclusive and timid, and due to the ready access to antivenin, death from snakebites occurs only a few times a year in Australia. Records show most bites occur on the ankle, so in most encounters, the person simply didn’t see the snake in the dense undergrowth. Luckily, these snakes aren’t aggressive, unlike in Sri Lanka, where, on average, 84 people a day are bitten by the aggressive Russell’s viper.
Since living in Sydney, I’ve learned the words “venomous” and “deadly” aren’t synonymous. The confusion comes from how you define a venomous or deadly snake. Australia’s inland taipan Oxyuranus microlepidotus is considered the most venomous snake in the world. Its venom is the most toxic, but because it lives in unpopulated areas and is reclusive, humans rarely encounter this snake. There have been no reported cases of this inland viper being involved in a human fatality. However, snakes that are less venomous but that live near populated areas, and therefore are more likely to be encountered, are more deadly.
Mark O’Shea, author of Venomous Snakes of the World, explains the confusion people have between venomous and deadly snakes: “The most dangerous snake is not the most venomous. The most venomous snakes are taipans, brown snakes and sea snakes, but they have small venom yields and few snakebites to humans and few human fatalities in the scheme of things. Australia suffers two to three deaths a year, but around the world 40,000 to 100,000 people die of snakebite. Any highly venomous snake is dangerous if it bites you. Regardless of whether it is the most venomous or the one responsible for most deaths, only one bite matters at that time, the one you just received. So with that in mind I have encountered many dangerous snakes, from rattlers to cobras, sea snakes to desert vipers, but I regard the most dangerous snake I have encountered to be the Sri Lankan Russell’s viper, which featured in my film Venom.”
With this knowledge, my next adventure will be, in the short term, an exploration of my backyard. The photo included here captures the view from my balcony. On my next photo adventure, I’ll explore the trails, cliffs and oceans in the nearby parks. Wherever I walk, I’ll keep a close eye on my next step because I don’t want any of Australia’s venomous inhabitants to resort to deadly habits.
Bill Hatcher is a regular contributor to National Geographic and Outside. Visit www.billhatcher.com.