Two and a half weeks. That’s how long I lasted in Australia before something tried to kill me.
That it happened at all was not, perhaps, a surprise; a quick Google search is all it takes to end up deep in a rabbit hole of articles detailing the continent’s deadliest predators—the U.S. Department of Defense’s Living Hazards Database, a compilation of more than 500 species worldwide reported to cause “serious injury or death of humans,” lists 66 in Australia alone, third-most of any country. I had read about most of them before embarking on this adventure: a six-week trip with an old friend travelling from Melbourne to Cairns, climbing the country’s east coast. It was to be the trip of a lifetime.
The surprise, rather, came in the delivery method—one that left me questioning whether anywhere was truly safe on this massive island continent. It wasn’t the spiders or snakes, their fangs laden with lethal poison. It wasn’t the sharks or crocodiles, their jaws capable of crunching bones and tearing through flesh. It wasn’t even the jellyfish, their toxin-tipped tentacles stretching up to six feet.
It was the birds. Plain, ordinary birds.
Australia is home to a dizzying array of feathered fliers, from the laughing kookaburras to the colossal cassowaries. In any given moment, you’re just as likely to see a lone brush-turkey running past as you are a company of cockatoos perched overhead. It’s part of the allure of visiting the country: behold, the land of wilderness. They just don’t mention in the visitor guides that some of those colourful characters come with a mean streak.
The warning signs were there all along. Arriving in Port Macquarie, a laid-back, sun-drenched town of some 45,000 where the Hastings River meets the Tasman Sea, my friend and I spied the bicycle helmets with long spikes jutting out of their plastic protective shells. Everywhere you went, cyclists were wearing them—a town full of two-wheeled Hellraisers.
That’s odd, we thought. Australian fashion sure is different. If only we’d known the truth of the matter.
We were in town to take in Port Macquarie’s beautiful coastal walk, a nine-kilometre one-way trek through beach and rainforest. From May to November, humpback whales splash playfully in the warm waters offshore as they continue their migration from the feeding grounds of the Antarctic to their breeding grounds farther north. Along the trail—spanning eight beaches in total—1.5 metre-long goannas bask in the warmth of the sun, scurrying to the safety of the forest upon your approach. High up in the trees, koalas munch lazily on eucalyptus leaves. It’s the kind of place you’d imagine Steve Irwin must have loved.
Legs tired and stomachs hungry after a day of sightseeing, we were walking back to our hostel when danger reared its head. It was innocuous enough at first: two masked lapwings taking flight in the distance. A mixture of brown and white, with black heads and yellow wattles, the birds are seldom larger than a seagull, but are known for being fiercely territorial of their nesting grounds—and like the clueless tourists we were, we had walked right into one. Lambs to the slaughter.
The birds shrieked and squawked. Their eyes spelled murder. Death was in the air.
Like tandem kamikaze pilots, the lapwings dive-bombed the two of us in a series of attacks. We ducked and ran for cover, Hitchcock’s sixties thriller come to life. Human screams and bird calls became indistinguishable in the fray, one chorus of chaos building to a crescendo. As we made it to relative safety, heartbeats thumping in our ears, we realized one thing was missing: our sunglasses. They lay tantalizingly close in the grass, prisoners of our feathered foes. We tried edging closer, only to endure one winged assault after another.
They weren’t going to make it easy.
In an act of equal parts folly and courage, my friend let out a primal scream and made a mad dash into the fray, scooping up his shades. Mine were nowhere to be seen. I tried looking a few more times, to no avail—each time, being greeted with an aerial attack. I plotted my moves like an in-his-prime Barry Sanders evading tacklers, juking and pirouetting through the grass, eyes fixed on the ground for any glint of reflected sunlight. By the end, I was ready to give up and call it a day. To the victors go the spoils, as they say.
As we prepared to leave, we heard the sounds of laughter from across the street. A woman watching from the apartment building nearby walked over, still chuckling, and plucked my sunglasses from the ground, handing them to me. She said she’d finished having a good laugh and decided to put me out of my misery.
I walked away with my sunglasses that day, but my pride is still somewhere in the grass. All the more reason to go back.
This column appeared in the Calgary Herald on Saturday, May 12th, 2018.