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You’ll Come a Wand’ring Down Under with Me
Rick Trebino Georgia Institute of Technology School of Physics Atlanta, GA 30332 firstname.lastname@example.org www.physics.gatech.edu/frog
After a lifetime as the boss of a vast eighteenth‐ century criminal empire, the notorious English mobster, Jonathan Wilde, was finally hanged in 1725. A few minutes afterward, Wilde’s hangman realized that his wallet was missing and Wilde’s back pocket was bulging suspiciously. It had become apparent that Wilde’s last act on earth had been to pickpocket his executioner. People just don’t change. In fact, it was in this belief in 1788 that England abandoned all efforts to rehabilitate its criminals and began transporting its growing convict population as far away as possible, that is, to Australia. And while, even today, social scientists debate whether criminals can change their evil ways, it’s generally agreed that criminal tendencies don’t survive into succeeding generations. Indeed, the modern descendants of these early Australian convicts have developed a genteel, delightful culture that places a high value on honesty and is known more for its opera houses than its jailhouses. Analogously, the United States was first settled by pilgrims, puritans, and other religious fanatics, and if, God forbid, American culture today remains dominated by such folks, may I burn in Hell for all Eternity. So it was to Australia that England sent its convicts. And it would be to Australia that I would take my wife Linda to celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary.
Actually, I was hoping to show that I could change. Specifically, my hope was that this anniversary celebration would be a much‐needed change from the previous year’s, which we spent stranded in a primitive unheated cabin in a remote region of Siberia as winter descended, and which was a tad low on the romance scale. It would also be a welcome change from our fifth anniversary, which occurred during a no‐one‐over‐age‐thirty‐allowed bus tour of Europe and which happened to fall on the tour’s wild evening in Amsterdam’s red‐light district. Again, romance was probably not the operative word. Now, Linda is a content person by nature, and she never complains about these trips. This is partly because of an infamous incident in her family in which her uncle actually bit her aunt during a heated argument on their twentieth anniversary over who had been the worse spouse during their troubled marriage. So Linda has always insisted that, as long as I don’t extract a chunk of her flesh on such days, she’s happy. In fact, her ideal anniversary celebration simply involves sleeping until noon, relaxing all afternoon, and then going out for a romantic dinner, perhaps with some close friends—something we do essentially every weekend. So I could easily ignore our anniversary and get away with it. However, studies show that women’s most common complaint about their men is that they never take them anywhere, so I decided to stick with the exotic anniversary trip approach. Nevertheless, it was clear that a little change in anniversary celebration style was probably not a bad idea. This year, there would be a little less adventure and a lot more romance. There would be no more reversions to the primitive state, as had happened in Siberia. And, unlike Amsterdam, well, there would be no more reversions to the primitive state. I would prove that people can change. I explained to Linda that, admittedly, most of our upcoming trip would be in the infamous Australian desert, the Outback, an environment so harsh that escapees from Australia’s eighteenth‐century prison colony who managed
to survive there for more than a few days generally returned to the prison, begging to be let back in. Okay, I didn’t actually mention that. But I did point out that, on the day of our anniversary, near the end of the tour, we’d have the most hostile part of the Outback well behind us, and we’d be staying in a luxury hotel at Kakadu National Park in northern Australia, a park famous for its exotic wildlife. Really cool species, like kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, duck‐ billed platipi, emus, wombats, echidnas, skinks, bearded dragons, and frill‐necked lizards. (Of course, the United States also has exotic species, but they’re mostly lower forms of life, like flesh‐eating bacteria and tobacco company presidents.) And it could be argued that a bevy of Australia’s cute little critters would add considerably to the romance to the day. So we envisioned sleeping until noon on this most romantic of days and then relaxing on the terrace, watching cute cuddly kangaroos and koalas frolicking about in the distance. And when we found that this hotel also featured a fine restaurant, we could almost see Linda’s ideal anniversary unfolding. So Linda agreed to go to Australia. She had committed no crime. Just in case we didn’t encounter a shopping mall in the Outback, we bought our anniversary presents in advance, so we’d be sure to have presents to exchange (yes, I could just feel the romance oozing out of every one of my pores). And I persuaded Linda to give me my present in advance. It was a pair of $120 all‐black Nike cross‐trainer shoes that I’d wanted specifically for this trip. The culmination of years of research into the foot‐ground interaction, these shoes were designed for running, hiking, walking, and climbing—in short, whatever trouble my feet could get into in the Outback. Indeed, I could even wear them during my talk to the world’s most distinguished laser scientists at the International Quantum Electronics Conference that would take place in Sydney after the tour at the end of the trip. After all, the shoes were entirely black, and, if I wore a suit and tie in addition, no one would suspect that lurking in the shadows beneath my pants cuffs
were anything but elegant dress shoes. As a result, there was no need to carry any other shoes with me. You’ve got to travel light in a place like the Outback. Certainly, those early Australian convicts, who had been packed away with only the clothes on their backs, traveled light. Not counting the shackles. * * * Arriving in Australia, we hiked a bit in the rain forest on Australia’s northeast coast before heading to the Outback. In response to our questions there, an Aussie guide explained that the Australian rain forest was one of the most wonderful places in the world, but that we should be careful not to touch anything because plants in Australia can be quite nasty. He gave no details. We wondered how a place could simultaneously be wonderful and nasty. Our guide instead lectured us on the numerous unfriendly plants native to the area. For example, just brushing up against a “Stinging Tree” gets you an agonizing sting that lasts for days. And the vicious “Wait Awhile” fern grows long sturdy tentacle‐like appendages with sharp barbs, which extend for many feet and are difficult to see as you hike. If you bump into one and fail to stop and remove it before continuing, it will cut a trench through your chest a quarter of an inch deep. Hence the name “Wait Awhile.” Indeed, cute critters were nowhere to be found, but Wait Awhiles criss‐crossed the trail in every direction. I failed to avoid one and tore my T‐shirt in several places but luckily drew only a little blood, which the T‐short absorbed. I became preoccupied with the ubiquitous Wait Awhiles and forgot that there might be other villains of the plant kingdom lurking about. It was then that I unknowingly brushed against one. That evening I noticed a naggingly itchy and quite ugly, bumpy red rash on my left ankle. When I asked an Aussie about it, he took a look at it and concluded that it could be due to one of two different poisonous plant species, and, depending on which one it was, it would either go away by itself in a few days or spread over my
whole body, and within a week I’d die a horrible, agonizing death. It was rapidly becoming apparent that Australians are not big on straight answers. It is said that Eskimos, for whom snow is the important issue, have nineteen different words for the frozen white stuff. Similarly, Australians have several expressions, not in other English‐speaking countries’ vocabularies, for “Honest, this time I’m really telling the truth.” One such expression is “fair dinkum,” as in: “Fair dinkum, the check’s in the mail.” Or “Fair dinkum, I do plan to pay my bar tab.” “I’d say you’ve got a fifty‐fifty chance,” the Aussie continued, “Fair dinkum.” As it happened, dealing with the rash would have wasted valuable sightseeing time, so I decided to ignore it and proceed into the desolate Outback, where medical care is virtually nonexistent. All you can do if you fall ill there is to wait until you’re near death and then call Australia’s famous Royal Flying Doctor Service, which will airlift you to a city a thousand miles away where you can spend your final moments connected to considerably more expensive equipment than is available in the Outback. The Outback is a blisteringly hot desert of deep orange‐red sand, punctuated by unsatisfying scrub and an infrequent Eucalyptus tree. But we learned that it’s actually full of life that has evolved to cope with its harsh conditions—but isn’t necessarily happy about it. Indeed, most life there is downright angry. The Outback hosts over twenty species of highly poisonous snakes, including the copperhead, the western brown, the tiger snake, the appropriately named death adder, and the taipan, in fact the world’s deadliest. It is also home to nearly 10,000 species of ants, most of which bite and don’t let go. Difficult to miss there are the world’s most voracious and destructive termites, which build hard‐as‐rock fort‐like mounds up to twenty feet high. Also thriving there is a huge array of ticks, mosquitoes, midges, leeches, scorpions, and biting mites, and, without question, the planet’s most irritating flies. And we shouldn’t forget the numerous highly poisonous spiders that also make their homes there.
The funnel web spider is the world’s most poisonous, and the red back spider likes to stalk its prey under toilet seats, making a bite from this fiend not only deadly, but also the source of cruel jokes at your funeral. Some spiders that we saw were so big that you suspect you’re watching a horror movie until they crawl at you and you realize that you’re not just watching it. Even turtles in the Outback are belligerent: the snake‐neck turtle projectile‐urinates at suspected predators up to several feet away. And the Australian wild dog, the dingo, is the mass‐murderer of the animal kingdom, killing for sport as often as for food. In fact, Australians have built a 3300‐mile‐long coast‐to‐coast fence to keep the dingoes away from the sheep ranches and heavily populated cities of southeastern Australia. This fence is electrified and poisoned and, so far, has successfully prevented packs of marauding dingoes from invading civilized Australia. Indeed, in the Outback, while the roads run straight for hundreds of miles because there’s nothing to go around, the one stop you need to make is at the dingo fence. I made a mental note not to forget to close the gate behind me; it wouldn’t look good on my record if I was the one responsible for destroying Australian civilization as we know it. The roads do make one detour from their linear paths, and that occurs at Ayer’s Rock, near the geographical center of Australia. This huge rock monolith extends from the flat, almost featureless desert to a height of a thousand feet and a width of three miles. As soon as you see it off in the distance, you can’t take your eyes off it; you could say it’s like a huge wart on the butt of the earth, but I always avoid such unpleasant and wildly inaccurate images, so I won’t. We flew to Ayer’s Rock, where, amazingly, there’s not only an airport, but also several luxury hotels, so everyone can see this beautiful sight from air‐conditioned rooms and with a belly‐full of gourmet food. We elected to see it up close, however, and our hotel arranged a tour for us by an Aborigine, one of the native people of Australia, who have inhabited the Outback for over forty thousand years.
The Aborigines know this arid landscape very well, hunting and gathering from the seemingly worthless land all the food and supplies they need to live on in a mere five hours a day. The rest of the day is spent at leisure, perfecting hunting skills, playing games, wandering off on their famed “walkabouts,” and having large parties, called “corroborees.” Aborigines are also very artistic, having painted Man’s first cave paintings, and they also have colorful names, such as Djajaradi Naganjirra, Nabardawayal Nadjonjarek, and Bardjiwada Nadjamjargorle. A woman introduced us to our Aborigine guide, a scruffy and bare‐foot, but jovial, very‐dark‐skinned fellow with a long uneven graying beard and rather fit physique for his age, which I estimated to be about fifty. She explained that he spoke no English, so she’d interpret for him. She also said his name was Reggie. Reggie the Aborigine. As we walked toward the rock, Reggie mumbled a few syllables that sounded like “ubba dubba.” The woman translated this into an incredibly detailed and interesting treatise on the creation myth of the local Aborigines, which involves numerous mythical creatures, such as the rainbow serpent, in which every detail of Ayer’s Rock (which Aborigines call Uluru) played some role. Meanwhile, Reggie lagged behind and admired some scantily clad female tourists off in the distance. The translation continued with fascinating details of how the Aborigines extract food from the local flora and fauna. For example, a major delicacy is the honey ant, a local ant with a large honey sack at its rear, which they pop into their mouths whole, like an M&M. Then Reggie emerged from his silence and uttered something that sounded like “klaatu barada nikto,” and the woman explained that the tour was over. We returned to our bus, and, as we drove off, I happened to look back and notice Reggie with the young women he’d been admiring and saying quite clearly, “Ladies, let me show you some of the rock’s secret places.” It was evident that Aborigines have adapted
beautifully to their harsh environment. They had workdays about half as long as ours, with none of the miseries of our lives, like traffic jams and bureaucracy (Reggie’s day seemed even shorter and was undoubtedly more satisfying). They did have to contend with things like spells, which an enemy tribe could cast on anyone at any time and for any reason, and it could take several days for the tribe medicine man to remove a particularly vengeful one. But dealing with a spell was significantly simpler and less expensive than the equivalent custom in our culture— the lawsuit. Aborigines have also had the wisdom to outlaw all communication between a man and his mother‐ in‐law. They’re rugged people who actually walk bare‐foot in this pebble‐infested land. Impressed, we decided to adopt some Aborigine customs, and, that evening, at our hotel’s all‐you‐can‐eat gourmet buffet, in a mere three hours, we hunted and gathered the available foods from the natural luxury‐hotel landscape: roast beef, almond‐encrusted salmon, various chicken and pasta dishes, numerous gourmet salads and soups, several fine wines, and a spectacular display of chocolate tortes, cakes, and pies. As we departed Ayer’s Rock to begin our journey northward through the Outback, I noticed that the rash had spread to my other ankle. But there was too much to see to worry about it, and, besides, what was I going to do about it in the middle of the Outback? Aside from the tourist village at Ayer’s Rock, there’s very little civilization in the Outback, just a small frontier town every two hundred miles or so and an occasional gas station. Well, not exactly a gas station. Actually a bar with a rusty old gas pump outside and numerous large full‐color signs advertising the various beers available in large supply inside and, almost as an afterthought, a small hand‐written cardboard sign that says meekly, “fuel: inquire at the bar.” Inside the bar, a wise‐cracking bartender with a scruffy beard and scruffier clothes makes sure that, no matter what time of day, everyone has a beer in his or her hand. Beer stains are everywhere, including the ceiling. And any requests for gas to be pumped have to wait until all drink
orders are filled, which, we were told, can take up to an hour on occasion. The interiors of such places are invariably wallpapered with women’s underwear of all sizes, colors, and styles. Our guide and driver, Sal, a heavily bearded, fifty‐year‐old version of Crocodile Dundee, said that, fair dinkum, one day he offered a beer to any woman who’d add her underwear to the walls, and he’d left the bar broke. Sal turned out to be an interesting fellow. He’d lived in the Outback for most of his life, herding cattle and roping camels (camels had been brought to the Outback when it was realized that horses couldn’t survive the climate). Sal had had numerous interesting experiences in his lifetime, none of which had actually happened. For example, he told us of the time that his cattle‐truck brakes failed on one of the few downhill sections of Outback road. When the transmission also failed, he realized he had only one possibility remaining. He cleverly broke the speedometer glass and manually dragged the needle back to zero. On another occasion, Sal mentioned that he had finally come up with a true story to tell us but then immediately forgot it. Further up the road, we visited a camel farm, where a rugged‐looking fellow, dressed like a cowboy, described camel ranching. In the middle of his spiel, he paused, pulled out a rifle, and took a shot at what he said was a dingo off in the distance. “Missed!” he exclaimed, cussing loudly. He talked affectionately about his camels, even kissing one, and then mentioned that camels were highly nutritious and low in saturated fat. We were prepared to eat camel for lunch but instead were served ham sandwiches. Then, for dessert, the cowboy mentioned that we’d be having something called “damper with cocky’s joy.” Still expecting camel meat, we asked the Australians nearby what this odd‐sounding dessert actually was, and they refused to tell us, simply asserting with smart‐alecky looks on their faces that, fair dinkum, we’d like it. Now, damper sounds a little too much like “diaper” for my tastes, and even I am too polite to speculate as to what part of a camel comprised “cocky’s joy.” So we decided to pass on
this Outback delicacy. Unfortunately, this was taken as a serious insult by the Australians sitting near us. Now, you can decline apple pie or hot dogs in the US and nobody minds. And we were even able to decline vodka in Russia without incident. But not so in Australia, where we’d been more than willing to drink the national beverage (beer), experience the national emotional state (the hangover), and taste the national slime mold (Vegemite). Well, damper with cocky’s joy turned out to be quite reasonable: a biscuit with whipped cream and treacle (syrup made from sugar cane) on it. But it was too late; by the time we’d found this out, we’d already offended everyone. Things got even worse later in the day, when we watched a documentary about the Japanese bombing of the northern‐most Australian city, Darwin, in World War II, during which an American soldier mentioned that, in the confusion, he’d been fired upon by Australians. At this point, one of the Australians said to me, “See, we didn’t like you even then.” And it didn’t help at all when I responded, “Luckily, you were lousy shots even then.” An international incident was clearly brewing. Fortunately, I suppressed the urge to mention another recent insightful observation I’d thought of, which was that, while it’s well‐known that Australia was first settled by criminals, it was actually only the ones dumb enough to get caught. Editor’s note: Linda has forced me, in the interest of maintaining reasonable international relations with the fine country of Australia, to include the following disclaimer. Social scientists believe that intelligence, like criminality, is not inherited. And, just in case that’s not sufficient, she has also suggested that I point out that, while I’m clearly a smart‐ass, some of my relatives are as‐dumb‐as‐dirt religious‐cult types, who believe every word of their crazed cult leaders and are waiting to be transported to space ships lurking behind comets. So things were starting to sour. And when I awoke the next morning, the rash had spread up both of my legs
and had reached my knees. Expecting no useful advice— and certainly no sympathy—I elected not to mention it to anyone. As we progressed northward, we hunted and gathered Aborigine art, purchasing some umbrellas with Aborigine paintings on them, an odd combination since it almost never rained in the Outback. I also purchased a didgeridoo, the native Aborigine musical instrument, which is simply a tree branch that has been hollowed out by termites (although, according to one Aborigine, an equally good didgeridoo is a piece of PVC pipe, which he then proceeded to produce and play quite nicely). I learned how to play my didgeridoo by blowing into it while making a raspberry sound (something that seemed to come quite naturally to me). I was able to successfully achieve the not‐ so‐elegant sound of a well‐tuned didgeridoo: something like the simultaneous digestive gurgles of an entire rugby team just after the big game celebration. In order to continue, however, I needed to learn “circular breathing,” which involves breathing in through the nose and simultaneously blowing out through the mouth into the didgeridoo. I failed to learn this technique and never learned to play more than one breath’s worth, which, coincidentally, is exactly how much of my didgeridoo‐ playing most people can tolerate. When I later asked an Australian about circular breathing, he told me that, fair dinkum, the trick is to breathe in through your ears. This fellow then explained to me that to truly have the Australian experience, I needed to learn to drink beer using a method he called “circular drinking,” which, well, I don’t think you want me to describe. As we drove through the Outback, we encountered very few of Australia’s interesting beasts in the wild. It had been a dry year, said an Aborigine we met, and most animals had migrated away toward the few waterholes. We wanted to see a goanna, a wallaby, a wombat, a duck‐ billed platypus, an echidna, a skink, a bearded dragon, and a frill‐necked lizard. We were also looking forward to meeting some koalas, which, we learned, are actually difficult to see in the wild due to their sedentary lifestyle—
evidently the result of a bad diet consisting entirely of not‐ particularly‐nutritious Eucalyptus tree leaves, the animal version of junk food. Not to mention the Eucalyptus tree leaves’ natural barbiturate (evidently, koalas are cranky because they’re hung over). We even saw very few kangaroos, which was odd because the kangaroo has thrived to the point that in some areas it’s classified as an agricultural pest (making Australia the only country in the world with an agricultural pest as the national symbol). Indeed, the kangaroo’s taste for lolling about on roads in the night makes it a nuisance to drivers as well. You might say that the kangaroo’s inability to change with the times and adjust to the development of the internal combustion engine has made it even more of a nuisance. It’s also made it lunch: kangaroo meat is widely available in Australia, and supermarkets routinely display at their meat counters whole kangaroo tails. On one occasion, however, we encountered a large colony of bats, all screaming loudly due to the presence of an eagle among them. When asked about the situation, the guide explained that the bats were seriously overreacting because eagles didn’t eat bats. At this point, Linda turned to me and said, “Hey, a straight answer from an Australian!” I had to agree. There wasn’t a trace of ambiguity in his statement. Just then the eagle grabbed one of the bats in his talons and flew off to eat it. Mainly, however, we saw flies—zillions of them. All day long, huge hordes of flies swarmed around us, frequently biting. In response, our Aussie co‐travelers all donned hats with numerous corks attached to the brims by short pieces of rawhide, which they claimed repelled the flies. (A better explanation appeared to be that the corks dangling in front of their eyes simply distracted them from the flies—and, in addition, from rational thought.) And when the sun went down each night, always audible, but never visible, were the ever‐present dingoes. Their sound was nothing like the familiar barking dog; it was more like an eerie high‐pitched cross between a howl
and a scream. As we traveled northward, we saw little more than flat uninhabited desert for hundreds of miles. Occasionally, a small hill or a valley would appear, and we learned that, in Australia, such pimples and dimples in the otherwise simple, featureless landscape are referred to as “National Parks,” evidently to break the boredom. We stopped at a few of these minor geographical wrinkles and hiked a bit, occasionally taking a few extra steps to climb a “mountain,” and on other occasions, being careful not to fall the several feet into a “gorge.” Eventually, the climate became wetter and more tropical, and the hordes of flies gave way to swarms of mosquitoes. When I proposed avoiding the voracious mosquitoes by spending as much time as possible under water, Sal lectured us on water safety in Australia. While he acknowledged that Australian air and land were both fraught with danger, he warned that, in Australia, it’s never safe to go into the water. Sharks, water snakes, moray eels, and stingrays patrol the ocean waters. And the highly poisonous box jelly fish, whose powerful neurotoxin induces paralysis and death in seconds, has taken more human lives than any other ocean predator and is responsible for a ban on ocean swimming for the warmer six months each year (and which nearly all Australians simply ignore). The puffer fish and blue‐ringed octopus are equally toxic. Even the lowly sea snail is a threat to life and limb: the cone‐shell sea snail actually fires a deadly poisonous dart that has killed numerous humans. And the stone fish is not only ugly, but it’s evidently bitter about it, having evolved toxins more deadly than any other fish known. The most dangerous water‐dweller, by far, however, is the salt‐water crocodile. It’s 2000 pounds of armor‐plated muscle and teeth, with jaws that can crush a skull like an egg shell. It even has particularly virulent bacteria in its saliva, so, if you somehow survive a croc attack, you’ll die anyway from the infection. And the safety of a boat is misleading; crocs frequently mistake small boats for rival
crocs and attack. Crocs also have a layer of light‐reflecting crystals at the back of the retina, which acts like an image‐ intensifier. As a result, crocs see you long before you see them. At night, you can tell there’s a crocodile nearby because, if you count your legs, you’ll have one less than you had when you awoke that day. Australian crocodile mating rituals are so violent that, in the battles for mates, male—and female—crocs can rip legs off bodies and jaws off skulls. Most baby crocs die at an early age—they’re eaten by bigger ones. Australia’s salt‐ water crocs are the largest crocodiles in the world, but, despite their size, they’re amazingly agile. They’ve even invaded the Australian city of Darwin, where there are now as many crocs as people. Each year hundreds of crocs must be removed from Darwin harbor. A visit to a crocodile farm showed us just how dangerous Australia’s infamous salt‐water crocs could be. Most were heavily scarred from battles with other crocs. At feeding time, someone would throw a dead chicken over the fence into the pen, and it would invariably land in the open mouth of one of these very quick reptiles, which would immediately swallow it whole and then, without delay, be ready for another. I noticed Linda cringing a bit every time one of these awesome animals lurched or chomped. These were indeed scary beasts, much fiercer than American alligators. For lunch, the snack bar served “crocodile croquettes,” a pair of small spherical objects, ostensibly derived from some part of the crocodile. When we asked the chef exactly which part of the crocodile was involved, he responded, “What part does it look like?” This triggered a lively, but still unresolved, discussion of crocodile reproductive anatomy, with the result that we turned down this Australian delicacy. This further offended our already irritated Australian co‐ travelers, one of whom made a crack about needing to eat crocodile to prove humans’ position on the top of the food chain. So I pointed out that, here in Australia, the species on top of the food chain was the mosquito. And then one bit him to facilitate his absorption of this important fact.
I soon noticed that the rashes on my left and right legs had both spread further upward, now reaching my hips and threatening to meet in an inconvenient spot. I began to experience precursor symptoms of the predicted horrible, agonizing death, such as a desire to try to figure out how our HMO deals with reimbursement for medical care in a foreign country. An Aussie pointed out that this was clear proof that I was already in the early phases of a death spiral, but that a few beers would pull me out of it. Further proof was the fact that I couldn’t decide whether this was a straight answer or not. A few miles down the road, I revived enough to go swimming with a hundred or so locals in a pond with two beautiful waterfalls cascading into it. I didn’t notice until afterward a rather small and unobtrusive sign warning that the pond was actually crocodile infested. It turns out that salt‐water crocodiles are misnamed; they also live—and thrive—in fresh water, such as this pond. I survived this brush with death, but Linda was starting to worry that, given the lack of warning signs, the tendency of tourists to steal the few existing signs for souvenirs (the signs show a human bottom and a croc biting it, the perfect artwork for any living room), and Australians’ general disregard for danger, crocodiles were going to be a serious problem on this trip. It was at this time that we learned that, in fact, the wildlife that Kakadu National Park is famous for is, not the cuddly types, but instead the seriously not cuddly salt‐water crocodiles. As I changed out of my bathing suit and into my clothes, I also noticed that my brand‐new Nike shoes were gone—evidently stolen. Despite the obvious human role in this theft, rumors immediately arose that they’d been eaten by a crocodile. And, of course, it now had my scent. Just to be on the safe side, Linda took this particularly seriously and got out of there fast, dragging me hobbling along barefoot after her. I didn’t have another pair of shoes. And since Aborigines didn’t wear shoes, it didn’t occur to them to make or sell them. Sure, they made umbrellas, which they
also didn’t need, but, unlike shoes, umbrellas made good canvases for painting. So I went barefoot and complained loudly every time my virgin urban feet stepped on a pebble. And it was then that I discovered that, if there was one quantity the Outback had in abundance, it was pebbles. The next day we visited an Aboriginal cultural center, one of the few commercial enterprises in the world you can actually visit barefoot. Indeed, the Aborigines there said that they preferred going entirely naked but wore clothes to accommodate westerners’ tastes. After learning to throw a boomerang, we watched an Aborigine medicine man demonstrating how Aborigines extracted medicines from plants. As this was undoubtedly the closest I would ever get to medical care in the Outback, and the bureaucracy involved was refreshingly nonexistent, I asked him what he could do for my rash. And I showed him the splotchy mess that the skin on my legs had become. “No worries,” he responded cheerfully as he reached for a blue‐green plant by his feet, which I could have sworn was the same one he’d demonstrated a few minutes earlier as a treatment for chronic constipation and which he’d called “thunder grass.” “This plant is called ‘blue tip,’” he said. “Mash it in your hand, and rub it on your legs. And cover nearby unaffected areas as well,” he continued, noticing that the rash continued up into my shorts and clearly knowing exactly what his instructions required. I wondered whether the plant was really called “blue tip” or whether this was an example of Aborigine humor. He would undoubtedly get big yucks with this story at the next corroboree. I did as told, watching for even the slightest chuckle or smile from this fellow. But he maintained a straight face, and the bottom half of my body evolved from a sickly red and white to a deathly blue‐green. The Aborigine tried to put a positive spin on the situation and pointed out that the blue‐green stuff had the additional advantage of repelling mosquitoes. Unfortunately, it also smelled like a dead skunk and so also repelled people. As we had proceeded northward, hotel quality had deteriorated significantly. By this time, they’d become little
more than shacks with beds. And somehow we had miscalculated; we wouldn’t arrive at the luxury hotel in Kakadu until the afternoon of our anniversary, rather than the day before, as we’d hoped. So, on the morning of our anniversary, we awoke in a hotel that might have been a converted animal shelter, but the general opinion was that no animal would have stood for it—even after the conversion. There was little more than a bed in the room, and the bathroom was a communal shack a considerable walk away on an unlit, unmarked path with numerous dingoes howling nearby. The floor of our room tilted at an angle, and the bed had its own tilt, so we kept falling off. Fortunately, we’d arrived after dark and were departing before sunrise, so we never got a good look at it. Sal awakened us at 3:30 AM, so we could take a dawn cruise down the Yellow River. We asked if the Yellow River was really yellow, and if so, why. He responded it didn’t really matter since one look at us told him that we’d be too tired to tell. While this was clearly intended to be anything but a straight answer, it turned out to be fairly accurate. We arrived at the Yellow River just before dawn, and Sal brought us over to a small shack on the edge of the river. We could just make out the words, “Rivr cruzs,” hand‐painted on it at an odd angle; the letter “s” was backwards. Large gashes of some sort scarred the shack’s surface on all sides up to a height of about three feet. A flimsy‐looking rusty motor boat, about the size of a large crocodile, lay nearby on the riverbank, near a make‐shift pier missing most of its planks. Sal introduced us to our guide, a heavily bearded, bare‐foot fellow, dressed in what appeared to be rags, named Murray, who, Sal proudly informed us, had been giving Yellow River tours since he was a small child. Even more proudly, Sal pointed out that Murray’s several missing fingers were the results of encounters with crocs, and the fact that they were all he’d lost was proof that Murray knew his stuff. Murray smiled, revealing several missing teeth, proof that Murray knew no dentists. Murray pushed the boat into the water and herded
Linda and me onto it. We glided for a few minutes in the quiet of the pre‐dawn morning. We waited for Murray to tell us all about the Yellow River and its wildlife, but Murray just quietly guided the old boat, saying nothing. I asked him what we should expect to see, and he just smiled and said, “Lots.” Linda asked him where he got his boat, and he responded simply, “Here.” It had become apparent that Murray was a man of few words—not because he was contemplative or thoughtful; he just didn’t seem to know that many. A few minutes later, after yawning several times, Murray uttered the longest sentence we would hear from him, pointing out that it was still too early for most animals to be up, but that we should see lots of crocodiles. Indeed, we could now see that the water was teeming with crocodiles, their jagged outlines ominously glowing yellow in the slowly rising sun. About a dozen of them eyed us hungrily and followed our little boat downstream. We asked Murray why the crocs were up so early when there was evidently nothing yet to eat. He responded, “There’s us.” The motor of the old boat struggled, and I worried that, even with the mild current, returning upstream might be a challenge for it. Worse, the boat had several leaks, and, when we pointed them out to Murray, he just shrugged, saying that it’d had them for years. As I struggled with the logic of his comment, Linda noticed that the holes that leaked resembled crocodile‐teeth impressions (and come to think of it, so did the gashes on the shack we’d seen earlier). She suggested with some conviction that we return to the pier, which seemed at least a marginally safer place. Murray ignored Linda’s suggestion, and instead proudly alerted us to several crocodiles approaching more closely, now fully encircling the flimsy boat, distracting us from the fact that the water level in the boat now approached the tops of our feet. As the sun rose, the glare dimmed, exposing a huge battle‐scarred crocodile, swimming beside us, its mouth wide open as if expecting a meal. Anticipating the obvious
question, Murray actually volunteered, “He’s just yawning.” We considered this “explanation.” We couldn’t recall ever hearing anything about crocodiles “yawning.” We only knew about crocodiles eating. Murray revved the pitiful engine and we gained a little speed, and, eventually, the croc backed down, allowing us to refocus our attention to the water in the boat, which by now had reached our ankles. Murray reversed the boat for the ride back upstream back through the crocs we’d temporarily left behind. Now struggling against the current, the engine sputtered and stopped for a few seconds before restarting. Murray remained oblivious to this and instead alerted us to an exciting event taking place on the other side of the boat. Two crocodiles were fighting, each croc’s huge jaws attempting to envelope the other, as they thrashed in the water. The violence of it was impressive. We excitedly watched this event while Murray explained its purpose, “The winner gets to eat us.” I took a quick glance at Linda, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so scared. Our flimsy boat wouldn’t stand a chance in the face of such massive violence. The croc fight continued and had the fortunate effect of distracting the other crocodiles as well, allowing us to float by, unnoticed by most of them. The boat engine continued to sputter, but we continued to make slow progress up stream. Water continued to pour into the boat through the holes, and, just as it reached our shins, we could see the pier from which we started. Our boat ride ended without serious incident, and we returned safely to the bus, having been eaten only by the usual hordes of mosquitoes. As we left, Murray nonchalantly baled the water from the boat, in preparation for his next tour. Sal then drove us toward the long‐awaited luxury hotel, the Gagadju Hotel. He also reminded us that this was still crocodile country—indeed, it was the center of it— and that crocs had frequently been seen wandering the streets in the area, so we should be careful. I then had to spend twenty minutes reassuring Linda that Sal was
probably just exaggerating again. A few minutes later, when Linda began to look a bit more relaxed, someone asked Sal what the Aborigine word “Kakadu” meant, and he responded “Jurassic.” I then had to spend another twenty minutes reassuring Linda. I finally promised Linda that, at the luxury Gagadju hotel, crocodiles would be the last thing on her mind. This helped and, when we arrived at the Gagadju Hotel, a couple of hours later, Linda had finally achieved a fairly calm state of mind. Unfortunately, it was precisely then that we discovered that the Gagadju Hotel is built precisely in the shape of a gigantic—what else—crocodile. We entered through the mouth. The check‐in desk was in the head. We maneuvered through the throat and its esophagus and down its digestive tract to our room, located, naturally, in its belly. We sat down to consider what had become of this anniversary. We’d awakened before dawn in a converted animal shelter after only three hours of sleep, so we could risk drowning and becoming breakfast for crocodiles. Worse, it turned out that I’d accidentally left the suitcases containing our clothes on the (now locked) bus and instead had grabbed two suitcases full of Aboriginal art that I’d purchased—mostly paintings of crocodiles. The present I’d bought Linda (an evening gown) remained locked in the bus, and my anniversary present—my shoes—had been stolen. The hotel restaurant didn’t allow barefoot diners, so the romantic dinner was out. I changed out of my sweaty T‐shirt, emblazoned with the logo, “Hard Croc Cafe,” (it’d seemed witty when I’d bought it at the croc farm) into the only other shirt available, the bloody T‐shirt that had been ripped to pieces by the Wait Awhiles, which I’d been using to wrap my didgeridoo. In addition, all the Australians on the tour disliked us, and a potentially deadly rash was taking over my body. The only “good” news was that I was under the care of an Aborigine witch doctor and, as a result, was blue‐green from the waist down and emanated the not so delicate scent of road‐kill. Always optimistic, however, Linda said, “At least,
this is better than our anniversary in Siberia,” clearly forgetting that, for all its flaws as a honeymoon resort, Siberia at least lacked large carnivorous reptiles roaming the streets. To find a restaurant for our anniversary dinner, we decided to take our chances in the streets, and, fortunately, were only eaten by the usual hoards of mosquitoes, which were even more voracious than usual, seemingly extracting large chunks of flesh with each bite. We found a shack nearby that turned out to be a pub that also served food. It was decorated in the usual women’s‐underwear décor, and that evening its patrons comprised mainly a motorcycle gang. I asked if a torn shirt and bare feet were okay, and the bartender said, “As long as you pay your tab, mate.” “Fair dinkum,” I responded. “You pay in advance,” the bartender decided. “Agreed,” I said, a bit distracted by the particularly uncomfortable‐looking crocodile‐skin crotchless panties decorating the wall by my head. We ordered the “Overlander Special,” a meal of traditional Australian foods eaten by “overlanders,” people who had braved the Outback long before the advent of even primitive hotels. The meal included such Outback favorites as camel bourguignon, emu stir fry, buffalo in plum sauce, crocodile a la king, and teriyaki kangaroo kebab. Some of these dishes, especially the last one, seemed a tad nontraditional, but asking about them didn’t seem a promising avenue for resolving the issue. “Happy anniversary,” I said to Linda between bites of crocodile a la king and toasting with a mug of native Australian beer, called “XXXX.” I noticed a tear in her eye, which I decided to interpret favorably, although, considering the day we’d had, I was well aware of an alternative explanation. Just then I noticed tears in the eyes of all the other patrons, also, but for a very different reason. The pub juke box was playing a favorite Australian folk song, a sad lament that never fails to bring tears to every Australian’s eyes, about an unfortunate fellow who walks “fifty flamin’
miles” to a pub, only to discover that it has no beer. As we prepared to leave the pub, another patron, a seasoned old biker in camouflage clothes and a black leather jacket, who’d clearly not seen a shower in weeks but, on the other hand, had clearly had seen the bottom of his beer mug more than a few times that evening, staggered over to our table. Drooling on it, he looked lasciviously at Linda and suggested that she contribute her underwear to the pub’s walls. Linda politely declined, but the old biker then leaned on the table a few inches from her face and reiterated his suggestion, this time offering his assistance. Thinking quickly, however, Linda reached into her purse, and, finding some dental floss, fashioned from the floss something she called a “California thong bikini,” and gave it to the fellow. As he pondered this exciting concept, we departed peacefully. Grateful for her quick escape, Linda once again demonstrated her optimistic side, pointing out, “At least this is better than our anniversary in Amsterdam,” evidently forgetting that similar outfits had been in abundance there, but that women had actually been wearing them (although we differed as to whether this represented an advantage or not). We found our way home through the usual haze of mosquitoes, but without meeting a single crocodile, and, after a short, but not particularly romantic, didgeridoo serenade by me, went to bed scratching our mosquito bites to the sound of the dingoes howling off in the distance. Without doubt, we had just spent another anniversary almost completely reverted to the primitive state. * * * The next day, we overslept our alarm, missing Sal’s dawn display of Aborigine food, consisting mainly of edible insect grubs, and we slept until noon. When I arose and showered, I noticed that, not only had the stench and sickly blue‐green color disappeared from the lower half of my body, but the rash was gone, too. Either the Aborigine
remedy had worked, or the rash had simply chosen this time to disappear. It didn’t really matter which. I retrieved our clothes from the bus, and Linda discovered a golf shop in the tail of the crocodile that was our hotel, which actually sold shoes, and she bought me a pair. They weren’t black, but instead a gaudy combination of white, blue, green, and turquoise (after all, it was a golf shop). But it didn’t matter (at least, that is, until a few days later when we visited a sanctuary for tropical butterflies, and several attempted to mate with them). When we met with the Australians on the tour, we told them about our meal the previous evening, most of whose dishes they’d never had. They were impressed. They also confessed that they had been completely unable to get themselves to taste the slimy grubs Sal had served up for breakfast. And now they couldn’t remember why they’d been such “drongoes” back at the camel farm. We all became lifelong friends and couldn’t imagine how we could have endangered the wonderful relationship between our two countries, so effectively consummated in film several years ago by Crocodile Dundee and his American reporter girlfriend. We all relaxed on the terrace (safely above the croc‐infested ground), watching the exotic birds that inhabited the area and telling stories that couldn’t possibly have happened. Later on, we and our new‐found Australian friends had dinner together at the hotel restaurant, with Linda wearing her new gown, and we all toasted to our anniversary, albeit a day late. As we prepared to turn in for the night, we turned on the TV, something we hadn’t done in a few days. Tuning to an American news broadcast, we watched a discussion of cloning, inspired by the recent breakthrough by Scottish researchers, who had cloned a sheep a few months earlier. Of course, the issue of the possible cloning of humans immediately arose. Most people are just not comfortable with the notion of identical human offspring; we like the inevitable change that occurs from generation to generation. Despite some important potential uses for cloning, powerful American religious leaders were quick to
condemn cloning, especially of humans, and they successfully lobbied for a presidential ban on such research. The news program continued with a minister explaining that a human clone could have no soul, because the DNA, and hence the soul, was already owned by the original individual. And when the interviewer pointed out that identical DNA is also shared by identical twins, the minister thought for a moment and then responded that this explains the well‐known phenomenon of the “evil twin.” The news broadcast concluded by casually mentioning the date, and we realized that, in the United States, it was a day earlier. Because the International Date Line separates Australia from the United States, it was the day after our anniversary in Australia, but it was actually still our anniversary in the United States. Indeed, our wedding had been in the evening, so the precise moment of our anniversary was actually the time we’d awakened at noon on this day—and not the previous day. We’d celebrated our anniversary on the wrong day. Like Phileas Fogg, who had actually gone around the world in just over 79 days—not 80—we’d forgotten to take the International Date Line into account in calculating a duration of time. More importantly, while the previous day had been disastrously unromantic, this day—our actual anniversary—coincidentally, had been precisely the ultra‐ romantic, 100%‐crocodile‐free anniversary celebration Linda had hoped for (with only the very minor exception that we happened to be living in the belly of one). It had been a miraculous recovery from the primitive state. * * * We flew to Sydney, I gave my talk at the conference, and no one noticed my colorful shoes. Using a new skill that I’d acquired in Australia, I was able to distract the audience with confusing, ambiguous answers to their questions. Despite the adverse circumstances surrounding our Overlander meal in the Outback, Linda had developed a
taste for kangaroo meat. That is, until the day in Sydney when the waitress arrived with Linda’s “roo burger,” saying, “Enjoy Skippy. We’ll miss him.” Also in Sydney, we found a restaurant that actually served damper with cocky’s joy (unusual for the city), so we ordered some. Overhearing our order, some urban Australians at the next table asked us about this Outback delicacy. When they wouldn’t order any without knowing its ingredients, we refused to describe it and just suggested that they instead order the quiche with white wine. Eventually, we managed to see all the cool, cute Australian critters: wallabies, koalas, duck‐billed platipi, emus, wombats, echidnas, skinks, bearded dragons, and frill‐necked lizards, to name a few. It was quite easy, actually. We went to a zoo. I suppose that makes sense: with all the vicious beasts running loose in Australia, the nice ones have to be kept behind bars, in protective custody. With our driveabout at an end, it was clear that I had learned nothing of what it had been like to be in the shoes of an eighteenth‐century Australian criminal. But, on the other hand, a twentieth‐century Australian criminal knew precisely what it was like to be in mine. Despite my brush with Australian petty crime, it must be emphasized that Australians are quite law‐abiding, and their crime rate is quite low. But maybe Australian culture—especially in the Outback—isn’t quite so genteel or delightful, and maybe Aussies have some fun being a bit misleading on occasion. After two hundred years, by God, Australians undoubtedly retain much of their ancestors’ wildness. At our last dinner down under, we ordered barramundi, a native Australian fish, which, at age six, changes its gender from male to female. We had to admit that this characteristic made the barramundi the undisputed Master of Change. This naturally raised the issue of human change on such short time scales. People can change, but usually only in response to a change in environment, just as species change in response to a change in theirs, albeit over a much
longer time scale. The eighteenth‐century Australian convicts had learned to co‐operate in order to survive. The Aborigines, having adapted beautifully to the harsh Outback, are now adapting to western culture. Even our short stay in the land down under had changed us (just ask me a question, any question...). Of course, the crocodile, having already achieved perfection for all possible environments, hasn’t changed in a hundred million years. But had I been able to change my anniversary celebration style from primitive to romantic? Well, I had changed time zones, and that had been enough. In fact, you can be sure that next year’s anniversary trip to the Amazon River jungle will be even more romantic. Fair dinkum. Epilog: I thought you’d want to know, so I asked my mother how she and my father celebrated their wedding anniversary, and she said, “You mean people celebrate that day?”
This story is one of about a dozen that will soon appear in a book by Rick Trebino, entitled, Supermodels in the Jungle and Other Ill‐Advised Adventures.
Supermodels in the Jungle and other ill-advised adventures
Rick Trebino is about as close as it gets to a real‐life Indiana Jones. He’s a scientist, professor, and adventurer, whose exciting—and very funny— accidental real‐life adventures include wandering a tropical jungle with a suitcase full of money, traversing a crocodile‐infested swamp in a rapidly sinking boat, nearly getting arrested for smuggling primitive blowguns into a nuclear weapons lab, sharing a small plane badly overloaded with the booty of a gold smuggler, and almost being forced to abandon his loving wife in an uninhabited region of Siberia as winter descends. These ill‐advised adventures are the result of a logical, civilized individual encountering the illogical, idiosyncratic, and utterly uncivilized world of such places as the Amazon River jungle, the Australian Outback, and Siberia. These are the stories of his adventures, told with a sense of humor that’s rare in popular literature today.
After receiving his B.A. from Harvard and Ph.D. from Stanford, Rick Trebino spent over twelve years as a research scientist at a top‐secret nuclear‐ weapons lab in Livermore, California. He is now a Professor of Physics at Georgia Tech.
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