google.com, pub-6663105814926378, DIRECT, f08c47fec0942fa0 GREAT SOUTHERN LAND 4289

GREAT SOUTHERN LAND

GREAT SOUTHERN LAND
Back in Australia, I celebrated with a few Coopers Vintage, Australia’s finest beer. In addition to saving up enough money to cover the next year’s expenses, I also had sufficient funds to buy a used Mazda 626 wagon in very good shape. On the front I rigged up six powerful spotlights in three rows of two, each pair at a particular angle to illuminate a certain perspective. Small geckos were in danger of disappearing in little tornados of smoke, and light seemed to be streaming from the ears of the kangaroos. The snake-spotting effectiveness was stellar, as the glossy snake scales reflected sharp waves of light back.
Flipping on Audioslave’s “I Am the Highway,” I hit the road for Melbourne, taking the coastal route at first to enjoy some nice beaches along the way and decompress after the stressful years in Singapore. Heading inland to the pleasant but boring Canberra presented the opportunity to see the beautiful radio array at Parkes that was the subject of the delightful Australian movie The Dish. Pushing on, I stayed the night at Bonnie Doon, the subject of another hilarious Australian move, The Castle. From there it was an easy drive to my new house in the Dandenong Ranges. I spent the next six weeks writing an application for an Australian Research Council postdoctoral fellowship. Once this was submitted in final form, I hit the road with Chris Hay to hunt for venomous snakes and to film a documentary.
We cut across Victoria, undertaking the incredibly boring drive to Adelaide, and then powered north from Adelaide at night across the gibber desert to stay in Coober Pedy for two nights. Hundreds of kangaroos were narrowly evaded. Unfortunately, some were not. Upon approach, groups of twenty or more would scatter in all directions, with one or two inevitably hopping straight at the car. If there was a joey in the pouch, upon impact with the vehicle it would become a detached meteoroid. We averaged one strike per night and we weren’t the only ones. We saw a road train clip a cow just behind the jaw and the head spin away like a David Beckham spot kick. The headless body geysered blood a distance of at least six feet and then did a slow-motion collapse like a building being leveled. The nerve-twitch muscular spasms persisted for over a minute, with the legs moving in small random directions. Another time, a massive road train coming from the opposite direction hit three sheep while going over ninety miles per hour. The sheep exploded like white furry water balloons and the insides became the outsides.
Just after leaving Coober Pedy to head for Alice Springs, we collected a bronze-back legless lizard, a very rare species thought to exist in only a very restricted range, well away from our location. It was also thought to need the most pristine of environments, but we caught it on the highway, with mining tailings littering the landscape in all directions like piles of dinosaur dung. It was contentedly munching on a small cockroach when we came upon it. We collected it to deposit later with Dr. Mark Hutchinson at the South Australian Museum, who was very happy and appreciative of our find. I must admit that I did not appreciate the full significance of this tiny animal, which looked like a smallish worm. Indeed, some parasitic worms I had crawl out of my butt while in the jungle were bigger than this thing.
Arriving in Alice Springs felt like entering a very special insane asylum, run by the inmates. This was seen in the oil and water interactions between the local indigenous population with whoever had just blown into town—for example, Scandinavian backpackers on a summer holiday who became all spiritual as they got stoned and made some dot painting art for the mall tourist-trap souvenir shops. They worked on machine-made didgeridoos, distinctive by their perfectly smooth insides as opposed to the random roughness of the authentic ones.
At night we would work the ranges outside of Alice Springs—very productive for various venomous snakes. Mostly brown snake variants, but also large mulga snakes. Mulgas are Australia’s heaviest venomous snakes and, at over six feet, the second longest after the coastal taipan. These mud-colored monsters are the “prison-wing shot-callers” of the Australian venomous snake world. While not holding a spot on Australia’s most-toxic hot list, they make up for it in sheer quantity of venom. Gargantuan venom yields of up to one gram of protein are delivered through thick fangs backed up by incredibly strong jaws. These can exert such pressure that the flesh being bitten is compressed, effectively driving the venom into deeper tissues than would be accomplished through the simple length of the fangs. We collected these snakes as our out-groups for the research we were conducting on the enigmatic pygmy mulga snakes, the smaller cousins that had only recently been discovered.
On our way north from Alice Springs, we came across Wycliffe Well in the Northern Territory—Australia’s answer to Roswell, New Mexico. The local gas station had constructed quite an elaborate alien memorabilia montage that included six-foot-tall plastic aliens. It is a popular place for many simpleton-style travelers to indulge in their recreational chemical of choice and have an amusing time wandering around the otherworldly exhibits. From there it was up to the Devils Marbles, the large, almost perfectly round boulders which in Aboriginal tradition are believed to be the fossilized eggs of the Rainbow Serpent.
We continued north and into the zone targeted by my current research, which concentrated on the unique evolution of the animals that occupy the escarpment country. These huge crumbling ribbons run across the top end of Australia from Weipa and Mt. Isa in Queensland, through Litchfield National Park in the Northern Territory, and up into the Kimberley in Western Australia. They are much like coral reefs in the ocean: an oasis of life in a lifeless desert. I was interested in how the animals changed across the range to adapt to the subtle differences in geology and vegetation. In particular, we were after death adders and pygmy mulga snakes. As the curse of the cane toads was spreading quickly across northern Australia, we had to work fast to establish the biodiversity and flag unique species in need of special breeding programs. The research also had important implications regarding the relative efficiency of antivenom.
As we arrived in the tropics, my heart sank as I saw that the dark tide of cane toads had already swept into Kakadu, drowning all before it in foul poison and leaving only bleached bones behind. Even ten-foot crocodiles are not immune, as a single toad contains enough poison to kill them. This was not because cane toads are inordinately toxic; rather, the reptiles in Australia had evolved in the absence of toads. Thus they were naive to the toxins. Much in the same way as the indigenous tribes of the Americas, when the Conquistadors first arrived, died in waves from viruses and ailments that were common and typically non-lethal in Europe. The Australian tropics are plentiful in frogs, so many predatory animals will readily ingest a cane toad, not realizing the difference. Death adders and goannas in particular were hit hard. We found many rotting corpses, with an equally dead cane toad in the mouth.
I felt impotent, despairing rage at the arrogance of the Australian government. Acting against scientific advice, and with maddening stupidity, they had released a nocturnal toad that does not jump to feed upon a beetle that is active during the daytime and roosts six feet above the ground at night. At the time of introduction into north-eastern Australia in the 1930s, there was already sufficient evidence that cane toads rapidly become a pest, with Guam and Samoa having been similarly afflicted once these Darwinian monsters were introduced there. In the absence of any effective predators, the toads had rapidly become a plague in Australia. They were an absolute cancer to the country’s fragile biodiversity. Even worse, the toads were adapting, becoming bigger and, more insidiously, longer-legged and faster with each successive generation, and had hit Kakadu years ahead of the most pessimistic of predictions.
Our primary targets at this section were the water snakes that inhabit Buffalo Creek. To catch these, we launched a small boat at night on the dropping tide as it exposed the dank mudflats. Shining flashlights, we would spot the water snakes in the shallows and net them out. But we were far from the only predators. This stretch of river was notorious for its plentiful “logs with teeth,” or crocodiles, as other people called them. We had to be ever vigilant for eyeshine. But that did not stop a very large croc from sneaking up on us from below. The fish finder was insisting that a fifteen-foot barramundi was beneath us as the leviathan stealthily made its way under the boat, taking up most of the space between the base of the hull and the river bottom less than six feet below. I let go of the branch I was holding and allowed the current to take us away to safety. Neither of us were breathing for the next few minutes before the pendulum swung and Chris and I started hyperventilating. To make it even more stressful, we were only fifty feet from the boat ramp. We had to pull up into the shallows and get out into the water in order to be able to hook the boat to the trailer. We looked for telltale bubbles or V-shaped disturbances in the water as we worked as quickly and quietly as we could.
Next stop was the Barkly Tableland, hitting it right at the peak of a biblical-level insect plague. It was fantastic for the rest of the food chain, but not so good for us one fateful night. After a routine high-speed skid, leaving long streaks on the road, we shot out of the car to chase a mulga snake, forgetting to close the doors. Hundreds of flying stink bugs were attracted to the interior dome light and they were crawling through all the car’s nooks and crannies for the rest of the evening. Out of reflex, when one would crawl up the neck, we would crush it like it was a fly, creating a fresh explosion of putrid chemicals. The next day the bugs all died in the heat, but the concentrated chemicals had been absorbed throughout the car, leaving a lingering putrid smell that persisted for the rest of the trip.
The following afternoon, Chris and I spotted rain clouds up near Cape Crawford, so we shot up that way, hoping the weather would bring out the massive local death adders—the same species that affected Chris’s muscles so badly years before. Instead, we ran into a flash flood. While the rains were not near us, we were in the lowest part of the giant floodplain, with all the water coming our way. By the time we noticed this, the water was already past us. The road was only slightly elevated relative to the floodplain. It was not enough. Water was soon coming over the road as far as the eye could see—conditions treacherous for any vehicle but even more so for a two-wheel-drive station wagon. We turned around and ploughed our way back. The floodwater had topped the wheels by the time we got through the worst of it. Once we were safely out of the floods, we stuck near them all night long. The snakes were plentiful, including the biggest curl snakes I have ever seen. We caught several of these spastic snakes, which were almost three feet long. They have small beady yellow eyes on a black head that abruptly transitions to an ochre-colored body. These were a key species for the research and one that we had specifically targeted for this trip. While nothing was known about their venom, these snakes had a very bad vibe. It was a case of the personality being so malignant that I just knew the venom would tear a person apart.
The following day we headed east across the Barkly Tableland toward our main destination: Mt. Isa. We were only halfway across when the engine temperature began to climb to a dangerous level. Stopping to check things out, we noticed that the radiator was covered with a copious layer of dead insects. We scraped them off as best we could, but it was a like trying to shave a week’s beard growth with a butter knife. We continued on, but ten miles later the engine temperature reached a critical level. One of the radiator hoses split, announcing itself with a geyser of superheated steam erupting from under the hood. We were now stuck in the middle of the desert in peak summer. The temperature was 120 degrees in the shade. Out in the sun, we felt like bugs on a sidewalk below the magnifying glass of a sadistic eight-year-old boy who has focused the sun into a death ray the likes of which Darth Vader would covet. In addition to the extreme hyperthermic risk to our own wellbeing, we also had a car full of very rare snakes. Luckily, thirty minutes earlier I had passed a white Kombi van. As we were on a road with no turn-offs, I knew he was still behind us somewhere. Fortune smiled on us—the guy turned out to be a mechanic from England who was driving around Australia for a few months. For travel money he had been fixing vehicles here and there. He had spare hoses with him and some sort of digestive spray that helped loosen the concrete layers of mummified insects. It took him no time at all to get us on our way again.
About halfway between Camooweal and Mt. Isa, we encountered a huge sandstorm. The approaching orange wall towered almost a mile high. We did a quick turnaround and accelerated away from it, but it consumed us despite the fact we were doing fifty miles an hour on the narrow, twisting road. We had to stop where we were and hope that a road train would not clean us up. It was such a fierce sight. The churning wind carried not just fine sand but larger, coarser pieces as well. This sand blasted the paint on the car, leaving countless tiny chips and dings. But, it had been purchased for reliability rather than stylish looks, and I was not terribly concerned about resale value since I knew that I would run it into the ground with all the field driving I planned on doing.
We arrived in Mt. Isa to act as co-hosts/guides/babysitters for a film shoot. Love at first sight just didn’t happen between us and the host of the program, whom I shall refer to only by the code name “Big Guy,” in that ironic manner in which one would call the big, muscular guy “Tiny.” This referred not just to stature but also experience and self-awareness. He was an epitome of the Dunning–Kruger effect: the inverse relationship between knowing a little and knowing a lot, in regard to how one assesses one’s own ability. The more one learns, the more one realizes how little one has learned. The know-it-alls are so often those who know the least. It can manifest itself in spectacular forms. In this case, it was a piece of white trash fronting an ambulance-chaser of a show built largely around him getting punished by all sorts of animals. He wasn’t in on the joke that was the essence of the show and instead walked around emanating an overwhelming sense of entitlement, since, in his mind’s eye, he was the Snake Saviour. Unsurprisingly, this could only end in tears.
It was readily apparent that he was as incompetent in snake handling as his tattoo master was in ink. His body art looked more like a child had drawn it on with a permanent pen. So we devised a plan to restrict his access to the snakes, partly for his own good. This plan was helpfully facilitated by an unseasonable cold snap that hit the night after we arrived, which meant that very few wild snakes were out at night. Just in case, I would quietly send Chris ahead of us in a separate vehicle to vacuum the roads for any available snakes; he only spotted a half dozen in total. The film crew was more than happy to fake scenes to get the shots they had written down on a clipboard. I would use the calmest snakes we had caught, but even so, I made sure that I was always the one who reached them first and “caught them” for the camera.
The last night of filming we were so thoroughly annoyed that we skipped having dinner with the crew. Right at nightfall, we came across the most gorgeous hatching black-headed python. A darling little thing with thick, clean cream bands alternating with narrow, crisp black bands, all offset by the ebony head. The film crew had been coveting a black-headed python all film shoot and had written an intricate scene involving one. Quite naturally, once the crew caught up with us we said nothing about it and drove the entire evening smirking to ourselves, as the snake remained unmolested in a bag we had specifically hidden under Big Guy’s seat. Chris and I felt the host and crew were not worthy of such a magnificent creature.
Around 10 p.m., we were almost done with the entire shoot and were getting ready to head back for the ninety-mile drive across the desert to Mt. Isa when we came across a wild curl snake crossing the road. I bolted out and got it under control quite quickly. Just as I was back in the car loading it into one of the wooden travel containers for safe transport, over my radio-microphone I heard Big Guy exclaim, “There’s another one!” I instantly had a sinking feeling in my chest. By the time I raced over, he seemingly had the curl snake under control, despite trying to pin it down on the gravel and grab it with a shaking hand from too far behind its head.
With haste, I divested him of the snake and secured it away. It was with great relief that we headed back to base camp. As we were unloading gear, while he stood to the side, stole oxygen and spewed out words of utter rubbish, I noticed a beer bottle slip from his grasp. I commented on this to Chris, since beers were usually held by this terminal alcoholic using the same sort of death-grip with which Gollum would grasp his “precious” in The Lord of the Rings.
Learning from Joe Slowinski’s death, Chris and I had abstained from alcohol all week. This was as much for safety purposes as it was for public relations in the event of things going wrong. With the snakes securely locked away in containers for which only Chris and I had the keys, the crew let down their hair. In addition to the several beers Big Guy vaporized like a man who has been lost in the desert for a week, he fired up a joint and adeptly turned it into a cinder.
Around 2 a.m., when it was just Chris, Big Guy, and I still up talking, I noticed that he was walking with a very hunched-over and goblin-like gait. He also seemed to have something on his mind that he desperately wanted to impart to us. Eventually, he dropped a bombshell that painted the walls with my brains: this bloody idiot had been bitten by the curl snake that he’d tried to catch nearly six hours earlier. My initial reaction was stunned disbelief as my heart seized up like the pistons of an overheated engine in a rental car being trashed by a field herpetologist. When I stood up to get emergency help, in his delirium Big Guy even more inexplicably tried to stop me from doing that by wrapping his arms around my legs to prevent me from walking, causing me to fall to the ground. With alacrity and agility, Chris was upon us and grappled with this moron until I was able to extract myself and sprint from the room.
Upon returning, I found Big Guy prone, and Chris holding his head on his lap. Chris had a look of pure horror on his face, which no doubt mirrored the one on my own. My first thought had been that he was dead. Apparently once I left the room all the fight had left him, his eyes rolled up into his head and he gave a shudder before going limp. I was so frantic that it took me the longest thirty seconds of my life to find a pulse. Having no luck getting one off his wrist, I managed to find a weak one in his neck. My second thought was that no one would believe us that this fuckwit had been bitten earlier and didn’t tell anyone. It was just too fantastic to accept. I just needed him to hang on long enough to regain consciousness and confirm the truth. He was then quite welcome to fuck off and die.
When help arrived, as expected none of the ambulance officers believed us that he was not only stupid enough to get bitten and not tell anyone, but that he followed this up with the consumption of alcohol and drugs. I was in an absolute fury, angrier than I had ever been in my life. Not because I cared about him—for all I cared the vultures could pick the bones from his rotting carcass if they could stomach the rancid meat. Rather, I was focused upon the potentially career-ending scandal that would certainly eventuate if he died without revealing the truth. The crew looked at Chris and me like we were devils incarnate. I didn’t need a trumpet up my ass to know this was one seriously fucked-up situation.
At the hospital, things became even more farcical. One of the attending nurses insisted that snakebite had not occurred because the snake venom detection kit (SVDK) did not come up with a positive in any of the wells. She was convinced it was a much more mundane event: an ordinary drug overdose. Through gritted teeth, I patiently tried to explain to her that the so-called venom detection kit was misnamed. Rather, it should be called the “snake antivenom-match kit” since it did not “detect” venom per se. In fact, it was an immunological sandwich-assay—whichever well gave a positive result indicated which antivenom would cross-react with the venom. There conceivably could be venoms that did not elicit a positive result, and thus might not be neutralized at all by any available antivenom. Indeed, this was the entire focus of the research upon species precisely like the curl snake. The Dunning–Kruger effect reared its ugly head again: she was too completely convinced of her own knowledge to give any ground on this. The doctor who came in next was much more amenable to reason and agreed to administer the polyvalent antivenom since by now Big Guy was displaying the classic effects of severe neurotoxicity and myotoxicity. Polyvalent antivenom is made against a mixture of venoms from a wide taxonomical assortment of Australian elapid snakes. If anything was going to work it would be this.
By this time Big Guy was in a world of hurt, but no more than he deserved. The myotoxins were tearing his muscles apart, while the neurotoxins had combined with the marijuana and alcohol to produce a very bad trip. I can only imagine it was quite a bit like the time I watched Scarface while on hallucinogenic mushrooms. Bad idea. Great movie while stoned. A bloody nightmare on mushrooms. If this was his world, it was one of his making. I wanted the seven stages of hell in an inferno for him.
He was delirious and in no shape to recount the truth about how events had transpired. So Chris and I had no sympathy whatsoever for his plight. Three vials of polyvalent antivenom later he was conscious again and made a full confession. Any lingering doubts about someone actually being this stupid and still remembering to breathe were blown away when, at 9 a.m., he checked himself out of the hospital against doctor’s orders and insisted that he was going to fly off with the crew.
By then Chris and I were already packed and ready to hit the road. My parting words to the shoot director were quite simply that if they allowed him on a plane against medical advice and anything adverse happened, they would quite rightfully be held liable under Queensland’s draconian workplace safety laws. Further, they would be demonstrating their complete negligence if they didn’t inform the airline of his medical condition, and no airline would let him fly without written doctor’s clearance. He should not be out of the hospital, let alone subjecting his body to the additional physiological stress of flight. Whatever they wanted to do was their problem now; we had washed our hands of the whole affair and wanted nothing more than to put as much desert between him and us in as short a time as possible.
This was the worst experience of my years of fieldwork. The sheer irresponsibility of it was something I could not comprehend. I was just thanking my lucky stars for the opportunity to emerge from it quietly, reputation intact. Chris flipped on Danzig’s song “Mother,” our dark moods matching the lyrics perfectly. If Big Guy wanted to find hell, we’d gladly show him what it was like until he was bleeding. We sped out of there relishing the release from his odious presence.
As we drove out, our moods blackened to the darkest of night when we heard the news that the US had just invaded Iraq in an ill-advised military venture that had absolutely nothing to do with the horrid events of 9/11 but was destined to become history’s greatest clarion call for disenfranchised Islamic young males to take up arms and become extremists.
The eventfulness of the trip was not yet over. As we cut down Queensland and into New South Wales on our way back to Melbourne, we were caught just outside Canberra in the giant bushfires that had erupted in the extreme summer heat. Several massive fires had merged into a super fire front that was hundreds of miles across. The heat was so intense that it was generating winds of sixty miles an hour, with burning embers landing over twelve miles ahead of the fire front. The heat and the wind combined to produce something that few people had heard of: fire tornados. The wind was swirling to such a degree and contained so much evaporated oil gas from the eucalyptus trees that it created a liquid fire vortex straight out of the furthest reaches of hell. It was so hot in some places that the road melted. We drove through Canberra right when things were at their worst, one of the last cars through before the highway to Melbourne was closed.
Back in the lab we investigated the genetics and venom profiles of the various death adder and mulga snake types that we had collected across the Top End. In collaboration with Wolfgang W?ster and David Williams, we compared the genetics to those of similar snakes found in New Guinea. Wolfgang is the most adept genetic taxonomist I have ever had the privilege of collaborating with, and David knows more about New Guinea snakes and their venoms than anyone in history. Much to our surprise, it transpired that there must have been multiple land bridges at various times during the evolutionary history. It was a fascinating genetic puzzle and unraveling it kept us happily occupied for many months. The death adders in the escarpment country were shown to be one wide-ranging species, while those on the intervening floodplains were another. The venom differences were also notable. While the escarpment death adder was classically neurotoxic in action, the floodplain species was consistently potently myotoxic, consistent with the aberrant effects that had occurred in the bite to Chris years ago. The death adder antivenom performed well against the neurotoxic effects, but less so against the myotoxic. In contrast, compared to other species of black snake, which are usually potently myotoxic (as occurred with my Butler’s snakebites), the pygmy mulga snakes we collected were much more neurotoxic. The black snake antivenom, however, worked quite well against both effects.
After completing the research in Melbourne, I was back to Canberra for the “Science Meets Parliament” event. This is an annual gathering where scientists try to convince politicians to look further than the ends of their noses, generally stuck in a food trough. They need to see the stark wisdom that long-term investment in science brings economic returns far in excess of the amount spent—something that should readily pass the bleeding obvious test but was in fact frustratingly hard to get the politicians to accept. This is particularly the case in Australia, which fancies itself as the “clever country” but is still largely dominated by short-sighted live-in-the-moment populist cowboys who would rather, for example, fire up easily accessible coal than invest in solar technology. I did, however, enjoy the opportunity to catch up with former Minister for Science Peter McGauran and have a good laugh about the spotted black snake near-miss that occurred during my halcyon PhD days.
The Australian Research Council grants and fellowships for that year were also announced during this event. The idea was that the politicians would then be on hand to be praised for their generosity. However, they did not consider the flip side of awarding only 20 percent of the applicants. This is not to say that only these few were worthy of funding—the vast majority of the remaining 80 percent were of sufficient standard. Some applicants used a ministerial computer to check if they were on the success list, only to find out they were not. It was somewhere between tragedy and farce for them to be weeping in a parliamentarian’s office. It was thus with mixed emotions that I found out that my fellowship application had been successful and that I had been awarded three years of funding and salary. This allowed me to take up the position of Deputy Director of the Australian Venom Research Unit. While I was filled with delight and enthusiasm, I had to temper my outward display out of respect for the unsuccessful majority wandering around with one-mile stares in their despairing eyes.

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