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This Is Spinal Tap

This Is Spinal Tap

An order to stay ahead of the cane toad toxic tide, my terrestrial field research in Australia was now concentrating on the Kimberley region of Western Australia. The target animals were those most vulnerable to the looming cane toad invasion and also occupying the most pivotal research position: death adders and monitor lizards. The death adders were undescribed and only a few had ever been captured. My hypothesis was that they were the same type as found in Mt. Isa and elsewhere on the crumbling rocks of the Australian North. The Kimberley was also thick with monitor lizards of tremendous interest to lizard venom researchers.
Iwan Hendrikx and I spent our days at Lake Kununurra stalking the water monitors—beautiful lizards that have olive bodies covered with black and yellow speckles. One of us would walk to about 160 feet away from a lizard and get its attention, then just stand there looking at it. It would typically freeze, relying upon its camouflage to protect it. With its long neck coming out from its body at a forty-five-degree angle and leading to a head held horizontal to the ground, it looked like a moss-covered branch. The other one of us would sneak toward it from a direction where it could not see us, twenty-foot surf pole at the ready, while being guided by the other person as to what angle to take and where to place the noose. As we were doing this at Lake Kununurra, the fishing pole did not stand out like it did when Chris Clemente and I were catching desert yellow-spotted goannas.
One time I had the attention of a large water monitor right at the edge of the lake. It could see me, I could see it. The lizard could not see Iwan, and all I could see of him were his head and shoulders. Iwan crept toward the lizard along the water’s edge, keeping a large tree between them. Suddenly, I heard a big splash. Iwan disappeared abruptly from view at the same time, so I figured he had fallen in. He came straight back up the embankment to the truck I was leaning against. I said, “The lizard’s still there. What’s up?” He replied with very wide eyes, “A big crocodile just attacked me!” He pulled up his pant leg and took off his boot and sock. A red line appeared on the outside of his leg and then his flesh parted like the Red Sea. It was as if a scalpel had been run down his leg, barely missing the big tendons that attach to the ankle.
The wounds could be from only one species: the freshwater crocodile. They have long, blade-like teeth for spearing fish, as opposed to the big, cone-shaped teeth of a saltwater crocodile. There were saltwater crocodiles in the nearby rivers and they occasionally walked the few hundred feet over to the lake. In fact, we had been stalking a ten-foot saltie for several days in this same spot, trying to nose it out, since it was hanging around the caravan park eyeing off the small children and dogs. But this cut was from a big, male, freshwater crocodile and we thought we knew which one: an eight-foot long-term resident male nicknamed George. Some Swedish tourists had been feeding him for the last two weeks before they were found out and kicked out of their accommodation. Their actions had predictably created a hazard. As it was also breeding season, this meant that George was fearless and territorial—a bad combination that could easily result in him becoming a handbag.
We knew that if we reported it, he would be shot for something that was not his fault. As freshwater crocodiles do not hunt large mammals, we knew he’d calm down once breeding season passed and people stopped feeding him fish skeletons, so we decided not to take Iwan to the hospital. Instead, we would attend to it using the large medical kit we had with us. It contained all that was needed for lacerations such as this, with local anaesthetic and the means for closing a wound, including Steri-Strips, stitches, and staples. Iwan applied pressure to the wound as I drove the couple of miles back to our bungalow. I helped him inside, dosed him up with painkillers, and applied antibiotics directly to the wound, while he took the first dose of a ten-day course of Augmentin. I then closed up the laceration using a combination of Steri-Strips and duct tape. Stitches and staples would have been better from a scar-prevention perspective, but as it was an animal bite we could not seal it. If we did, we ran the risk of anaerobic bacteria flourishing, as had happened to me when I was filming Komodo dragons with Kevin Grevioux and the doctor tightly stitched up my knee with shells and even a pebble still deep in my flesh.
Iwan had been wearing high-ankle, sturdy leather boots. The crocodile’s lower jaw had closed onto the boot and sole and did not penetrate his flesh there. The long teeth at the tip of its upper jaw had effortlessly sliced his flesh as they ran down his leg, but they stopped completely once they encountered the boots. If he had been barefoot, the damage would have been much more severe and almost certainly would have included severed tendons and nerve bundles—something beyond my skill to deal with. It would have resulted in a trip to the hospital and a lengthy recovery. As it was, Iwan got off very lightly, with just cool scars and a great story.
Not long after this, my friend and collaborator Stuart Parker was bitten by one of the unstudied death adders Iwan and I had collected together in Kununurra. We were keeping it at the Ballarat Wildlife Park, owned by Stuart’s father, Greg. I will never forget the day he rang. From the tone of his voice when he said “Hey, mate,” I could tell instantly that something was up. With us being us, my first thought was snakebite. Sure enough … It was particularly concerning since we had yet to investigate this venom in the laboratory, and had no idea if the antivenom would work. Luckily it did, and Stuart survived. After he was released from the hospital, he tried to describe the experience to a friend. His mate was from a Breaking Bad sort of area in Melbourne called Melton, and had zero experience with snakes. Stuart said, “All I knew was that I had some really bad stuff in me and the only question was how long would it take to kick in, how bad would it get, and how long would it last?” His mate digested this for a minute and then gave an understanding nod, saying in a thick bogan accent, “Yeah, I know what you mean. It sounds a lot like the first time I tried crystal meth!”
A few weeks later, back in Melbourne, I was woken with a start by the banshee screech of the smoke alarm announcing that my house had just turned into an inferno. I was having a snooze in front of the wood stove heater when I awoke to six-foot flames erupting from what used to be my roof. Something had gone wrong and the top of the chimney had set the roof on fire. I grabbed one of the fire extinguishers always on the ready near the reptile cages, rang triple-zero in an absolute panic, then emptied the other fire extinguisher. I raced up to the roof twice with buckets of water to pour on the flames. The second time, one leg went through the weakened roof, giving my leg a pretty nasty twist as I hung suspended above the floor below.
I was utterly out of my depth in a crisis for the first time in my life. I know where I stand with any venomous animal, but fire is the one thing that truly scares me. The flames were racing along the inside space between the roof and the ceiling. It had already spread from the lounge room to the computer room and the house was heating up real fast. A three-foot-thick blanket of smoke covered the ceiling all through the house. My dingoes were safe outside but absolutely out of their minds with fear.
As always, there was some unexpected humor. One of my neighbors, the only one I actually know in my part of the mountain, is also the Community Fire Association coordinator. She was away from the mountain at the time she saw the fire on her pager and realized it was the house next to hers. She rang the truck coordinator, asking them to make sure the dingoes were okay, and warning them about the electric fence and the large quantities of venomous snakes and large carnivorous lizards in the residence. A rather unusual call-out for them! The CFA crew were absolute legends. In less than five minutes, they were here in all their technicolor-lighted glory and tearing the roof apart from the inside to get to the internal fire. They put it out in no time, simultaneously rendering the house into a black swamp. Ash and extinguisher powder covered all available surfaces like a funeral shroud. I was on the phone with the insurance company while trying to calm down the absolutely freaked-out dingoes. Fire was their worst nightmare. Nothing scares an animal (or me) quite like it. The firemen checking out the lizard cages were asking, “Is there anything in there we need to worry about?” “Not really,” I ambiguously responded, while thinking that the degree you need to worry about them is directly proportional to how attached you are to your fingers.
Once the fire was out and the smoke had cleared, a postmortem was done. The CFA director said that if I hadn’t been so diligent about making sure I always have a fresh battery in the smoke detector, I would have certainly died of smoke inhalation. She also said that this type of fire, in between the ceiling and the roof, is the worst kind and usually the house is lost and, more often than not, they pull bodies out of the embers. Indeed, mine was the best outcome they’d ever had. Then again, they’d never been called out to a reptile keeper’s house. I have two fire extinguishers always pressure-tested and good to go—one in the house and one in the detached reptile housing building.
I was cleaning up until dawn, crashed for a few hours, then continued mopping. The combination of powder from the extinguishers, ash, and water is the worst mess to clean. I was leaving in eighteen hours and an already-insane schedule had just gotten phenomenally more complicated. I had a multi-country, Odyssean voyage ahead of me. As I cleaned the house frantically and sorted the gear, the dingoes were contentedly asleep, all forgotten, not a care in the world.
Considering the blackness of my house, it seemed only fitting that I was scheduled to be a VIP at the Megadeth/Slayer double-bill the following evening. The crowd was mostly male, unshaven, tattooed sorts, so I fit right in. The few women around were wearing the latest-and-greatest fashions from Biker Babe Weekly. Apparently, black was this season’s black. The opening act, the Australian band Double Dragon, did a workmanlike job of warming up the crowd, leading them on several drum-driven chants of Megadeth! and Slayer!
Then came Megadeth, or as they are more rightly known, “Dave Mustaine and Three Other Guys” (perhaps they should be renamed MegaDave!). While Dave’s vocal capacity spans the full range from A to B, he uses it with precision and devastating efficiency. Like the Pied Piper he led the crowd, in this case into a passionate pit. Peace might sell, but the crowd wasn’t buying that. They were, however, eagerly lapping up all that he put out to tender. By the time Megadeth finished their scorcher of a set, the front of stage was a holy war indeed.
Slayer then came on and the concert, unfortunately, descended into a true season in the abyss. The first song had sparing vocals but was the hardest wall of metal I have ever had the privilege to be assaulted by, wrapping the crowd up in its muscular arms just as one of guitarist Kerry King’s beloved pythons coiled around its prey. The drummer was hitting the frenetic pace that can only be fueled by enough energy drink to give an elephant a heart attack. After the first song, Tom Araya motioned for the crowd to be quiet and then informed everyone that his voice was shot and that there wasn’t going to be much singing.
Slayer then launched into a series of instrumentals. Not dreadful free-form jazz like in the movie Spinal Tap, but something much heavier. But in the absence of vocals, the pace could not be sustained and the band flagged. The rapport with the crowd was also lost when there were complete blackouts between songs lasting a minute or longer as roadies wandered around with flashlights, perhaps looking for Tom’s voice. So the band brought on random people from backstage to sing. They did it in good spirit and while the crowd were positive about the attempts, none of them had the power of Tom in full flight, when he has the voice of two mortals. The filler attempt reminded me too much of the movie Rock Star. I half-expected one of the walk-ons to launch into a spirited rendition of “Stand Up and Shout,” including the sustained high-pitched vocal note. Slayer finished their set abruptly and without the obligatory encore. I hoped Tom’s voice would hit its former glory and that this was not a harbinger of the tour to come. Nonetheless, the show was worth going to for Megadeth alone.
Backstage catching up with the equally snake-mad Kerry King, I drew for him on a beer-stained napkin a map to a good spot I knew in the mountain ranges outside Alice Springs for the gorgeous maroon-colored Bredl’s pythons. We then continued our discussion of the merits of different pythons in regard to their suitability to captivity. Kerry brought up a point I hadn’t considered: he said he stuck to the smallish types of carpet pythons because he was, quite rightly, worried about the tendon damage that could result from the teeth of a big species like a reticulated python. “This is why I stay well away from monitor lizards,” he commented, looking at the extensive scarring on my hands. Meanwhile, a leather-clad groupie was desperately and unsuccessfully trying to get his attention, all the while with the most confused look on her face. As amusing a culture clash as could be had!
On May 15, 2010, I woke to the news that the natural history museum at Instituto Butantan in S?o Paulo, Brazil, had burnt down in a devastating fire. Over eighty thousand reptile specimens had been lost, including some that were the only ones of their kind ever found. Equally important collections of spiders and scorpions were also destroyed. Each collection was the largest in the world for that type of animal. Absolutely irreplaceable. This was a loss to science that defied belief. I was stunned and deeply saddened that such a preventable catastrophe had occurred. The management had long been lobbying the government for a direly needed upgrade to the museum, including a modern fire-prevention system to avoid exactly this. But short-sighted politicians preferred to squander the country’s wealth on trivialities such as World Cup soccer, with corruption leeching away much of the remaining national funds. My grief was matched only by my anger.
The next day, I loaded up my Jeep Wrangler and the trailer to head up north for a film shoot about the coastal taipan for the European television channel ARTE. The trip commenced with the Red Hot Chili Peppers song “Road Trippin”’ blasting from the speakers. I cut up the coast to Cairns to link up with my mate, Aaron Hopper, and the film crew from France. They were typically French in being sarcastically good-humored and delightfully disorganized. My kind of people.
Cairns had been recently clipped by yet another cyclone, so the flooding was extensive and severe. We got some great footage of naive tourists trying to drive through floodwaters, only for their two-wheel-drive rent-a-bomb to submarine nose-down into the water, with steam erupting as the engine block cracked from the water inundation. We also filmed a variety of snakes, including taipans that had been flooded out from their burrows by the stormwaters. It was an easy film shoot, and one of my most chilled out.
I had the pleasure of watching yet another group of Europeans trying to drive through flooded Australian roads. One day, the director managed to get stuck in the mud twice in the space of two hours. First by trying to drive—for reasons unknown—up a creek bed; the second time through hitting a large puddle at high speed, slamming on the brakes in a blind panic, and yanking the steering wheel side-to-side in a frenzy, resulting in her careering off the road and into the thick vegetation. Tempting fate, at nightfall she said, “I can’t believe we haven’t seen a kangaroo yet this trip. I’ve always wanted to see a kangaroo.” These words were echoing in my head as Aaron accidentally clipped a kangaroo that hopped out of the bushes straight into our car, sending it spinning like a large, out-of-control furry tabletop toy back into the French crew’s car behind us, where it promptly caved in the front grill. Here’s your kangaroo!
After the film shoot, I cut across the Atherton Tablelands and then down the Kennedy Developmental Road, one of Australia’s roughest tracks. I had prepped the Jeep specifically for this part of the trip. It had been given a full tune-up, and was freshly modified for some pretty extreme off-road driving, including a lift kit and very large tires. Just in case, I also fitted a heavy-duty winch on to the front. The track lived up to its stellar reputation. Anything that was not tied down took flight when I hit the first massive bump. My bones were clattering against each other and my brain rattling in my skull like a pebble in an aluminum can.
I tore across the outback desert I knew so well, losing myself in the terrible beauty of the desolation. I would routinely climb up termite mounds to look for diggings from small goannas in the crumbly bit at the top. Then, one fateful day, the crumbly bit did what its name implied it would do: it crumbled, sending me into free fall from almost thirteen feet above the ground. I had enough time to think, “This is going to hurt!” And it did. Badly. I landed flat on my back on a smaller mound three feet off the ground. When the mounds reach that size, they practically become reinforced concrete. It hurt in a strange, jarring, electrical sort of way. Once I got my breath back, I took a big drink of water to wash down a handful of codeine and temazepam for the pain and muscle spasms. I had a series of film shoots one after the other for the next four months, and I could not afford to be out of action. So I took advantage of my unusual level of pain tolerance, sucked it up, and carried on. I did, however, have an inkling that I might have done something very severe to my back, once it started taking me three strong painkillers just to get out of bed each morning, and many more as the day continued.
Next stop was Singapore, for more filming with my best mate Iwan. The gig was Asia’s Deadliest Snakes for National Geographic International and for the Smithsonian Channel for the viewers in the United States. It was strange being in Asia again. It didn’t take me long to be infuriated yet again by the spasmodic gas pedal pushing of the average Singapore taxi driver. But then again, the food was bloody awesome. I decided I could put up with the toxic yin long enough to have a steaming hot dish of burnt-chilli-cooked yang.
First we filmed in the National Museum of Singapore with curator Kelvin Lim. The main sequence was me successfully completing the dissection of the spectacular venom glands from the blue long-glanded coral snake. As the name implies, this snake is characterized by having very unusual venom glands that extend to over 15 percent of the length of its body. A dental-floss-thick tube runs from the fang as usual, but keeps on going instead of meeting a muscularly compressed gland behind the eye, like in normal elapid snakes. This duct runs down the neck, turning gently to end up actually inside the ribs, where it meets a gland that looks like a teardrop being sucked into a black hole. Kelvin was generously letting me dissect one of the museum’s prize preserved specimens of this breathtakingly rare snake. Despite being Asia’s premier museum, especially for herpetology, even they had only a handful of specimens that came in at a rate of one every decade or two. It was an extremely intricate dissection, and one that had me tunnel-visioned with fascination. I had no idea what was going to be revealed, so it was a formalin-fixed Christmas present. Then we filmed a bit at my old stomping ground, the illustrious Singapore Zoo, with the always-cranky purple shore pit viper.
From Singapore we flew down to Bali to film banded sea kraits and reticulated pythons. Being weightless again in the water felt amazing. Floating free in the netherworld, I no longer felt like Atlas with the weight of the world upon my shoulders, and the pain in my back was gone. On the way back from filming the dive, I saw two trussed-up goats being transported through congested traffic on the back of a small motorcycle. Just when I thought I had seen it all!
Back on land, my back pain was worse than before. I was not as agile as usual while in the cage of a twenty-three-foot reticulated python at the Rimba Reptile Park. This led to a very close call, in which I was almost bitten in the face.
The next day, while hanging one-handed off a rafter from the high, open-air ceiling of a traditional Indonesian house, my back was bent like a horseshoe as I had a ten-foot-long reticulated python wrapped around the other hand and arm. I felt something shift. This time the pain went up to eleven. When I got down and ran my hand along my spine, I could actually feel a slight kink in the small of my back. My friend Jon Griffin gave me some kratom to ease the pain. This traditional Asian plant-based remedy did not dull my senses like opioids, but alleviated the pain even more effectively.
Next stop was Penang, Malaysia, to film World War II ruins at night, showing that the bomb bunkers were infested with temple vipers. These snakes look like tapestries spun of black, green, and yellow thread—one of the prettiest snakes I have ever encountered. The crumbling concrete of the bunkers is a Hilton Hotel for rats. And wherever there is abundant prey, there are predators. Iwan and I could easily catch six per room as they nestled among the branches of the trees which had started growing in the room and out the glassless windows. The snakes would be orientated to be close to the cracks of the broken wall, using their heat-seeking pits to accurately lock on to a rat, even on a pitch-black, moonless night.
During filming earlier in the day, the director John Ruthven had said, “Okay, walk over to that big bush at the cliff edge. It’ll look great in this late afternoon sunshine!” This particular bush just happened to be nicely framed for the camera, but we had been catching snakes exactly this way for the previous two hours—by looking on the sunshine side of bushes—so I had no hesitation about “faking” a scene that was just a cosmetically ideal recreation of something we had legitimately done. It was not like we were putting snakes into ice chests, to crudely induce a temperature-linked form of sedation. That sort of fakery does go on, and I don’t condone it. This shot was simply to get the wide angle, and then it would be linked to a close-up we had actually taken with several wild snakes. It was all about building the perfect sequence.
So off I went to the bush and struck a hero pose I knew would silhouette nicely against the sky and clouds behind the cliff. I looked down and nailed my mark perfectly, then exclaimed, “Hey, there’s a snake here!” They thought I was overacting a bit until I actually lifted up a snake at the end of my snake hook—a full-grown adult male. Less than half the size of a female, it retains the juvenile color pattern that is very different to that of the adult female. Males and juvenile females live on the thinner, smaller tree branch tips or in bushes. They are two-toned green to suit life at the branch endings—a darker green on the top, which, viewed from above, blends with a leaf’s chlorophyll-rich dark top surface. The belly is a much lighter green, to blend in with a leaf being viewed from below, as the sunlight glows through greenly. The large, stoutly built females live in the tree’s interior, in the darkness surrounding the larger branches. To camouflage against the pattern of fractured sunlight on the thicker branches, evolutionary selection pressure has resulted in the adult females being a lace tapestry of black, yellow, and green. The sexual and life-stage habitat partitioning has led to a fascinating morphological variation, one that I suspected would be paralleled in the venom composition.
The adaptability of their rodent prey to old buildings and the equal adaptability of these snakes, and their passive nature if left undisturbed, have led to these snakes being central to local indigenous religions. The Snake Temple in Penang was once one of the few buildings carved out of the jungle. The building attracted rodents, which in turn attracted the snakes. The nature-loving Eastern religion, a Taoism variant, worshipped the snakes as symbols for the beauty and power of nature. Over time, Penang has become very built up, with the snakes being persecuted and killed as their habitat is destroyed. Yet the snakes persist in the gardens of the Snake Temple, living their lives out on the grounds, with the population replenished by the annual birth of two-tone green, big-headed live young.
Next stop—getting muddy and sweaty in the Cameroon Highlands of Malaysia. When I milked an almost thirteen-foot-long king cobra, the pumpkin-orange head leading to a golden body with reticulated silver markings, I chalked it up as one of my all-time favorite field moments. I had long had a soft spot for these regal snakes, which are so remarkably intelligent. Like the Komodo dragon, king cobras are very long-lived and the biggest of their kind. They hunt by sight, using their excellent vision to spot rat snakes, their favorite prey items. Their ability to process visual information and respond accordingly inevitably leads to some sort of cold, predatory intelligence. They are relatively lithe for their length, being a fraction of the width of the massive reticulated pythons with which they share the forest. The gushing yellow liquid spurting from the short but strong fangs tells of the immense venom yield of these snakes, being more than equal to that of any other snake in the world, even the Australian champion in this regard, the mulga snake. The king cobra also rivals in venom yield the snake with the longest fangs in the world—the Gaboon viper in Africa, whose intricate geometric pastel pattern allows it to hide in plain sight among the dead leaves on the forest floor.
Then I achieved what I have to regard as my absolute pinnacle adrenaline moment. This included all previous moments, not just those that came while working with extremely dangerous venomous snakes, or even other venomous animals. It also topped other moments of lunacy, such as suicidally trying to surf big storm waves and almost ending up as the concluding scene in the movie Point Break. Those were all deeply satisfying and totally awesome adrenaline fixes, but this was something special: a live blue long-glanded coral snake. Something I had been after for over fifteen years. It was in the lush Malaysian rainforest of the Cameroon Highlands that Iwan and I finally came across one. We discovered it in the most incongruent manner: by zipping around a golf course in the early morning following a drenching storm the night before. We had targeted the golf course as it bordered intact rainforest, with the artificial lakes being a natural draw for all animals. This snake looked like no other. The preservative that made the tissue of the museum specimen turn to rubber had also washed out all the coloring. This snake was striped, with deep ocean blue intervening between electric blue and artery red. It was living color that also moved like electricity. My experience counted for naught, as this snake moved like it was a venom-tipped garden hose writhing from a strong jet of water. Despite being thin, it was a big snake. It gave the impression of a big snake cut in half lengthwise—the head was surprisingly long for the narrowness of the snake, and the body was deeper than it was wide.
This snake species was evolutionarily selected to be the apex predator in the specialized habitat that was the floor of the tropical rainforests. In the thick leaf litter, this animal reigned supreme. Even kraits lived in mortal terror of it. If you were a snake of any kind, you were food. It would eat snakes its own length, including juvenile king cobras. Rather than the straight-down fangs of a cobra, the fangs of this species were at a forty-five-degree angle and therefore much longer than I expected. It also moved like it was a sea snake underwater. Russian ballerinas would love this level of agility and body control. It was at the femme-fatale level of deadly beautiful. As nasty as a krait on a bad hair day—but every day was a bad hair day for this snake.
One close call was particularly tachycardia-inducing: when it struck from within the bag and almost got me. Fangs poked out of the bag, perfectly in line with my hand only an inch away, the head pushing the bag frighteningly close to my finger. In my research into what little was known about this species, I came across only three bite reports but two of the people bitten died and the survivor had his nerves torn apart in a really strange way. When feeding, these snakes need to immobilize their prey very quickly. And since it is the predator’s predator, it feeds on some snakes that are themselves adept predators of other snakes. On the forest floor, an agile, fast-moving snake could easily escape, so there is an extreme selection pressure acting upon the venom that is different from that exerted on any other snake. I had long sought this snake, as I viewed it as the ultimate venomous animal, and I could not wait to get stuck into the venom research. But I still had a long trip ahead of me, with months on the road before I was back in the lab.
By the time the film shoot was ready to fly to India, I was back to crunching painkillers like they were candy. The final leg of filming concentrated on Indian king cobras, kraits, and Russell’s vipers. James Haberfeld and Chip Cochran joined me on an epic quest across India, accompanied by Gerry Martin, Gowri Shankar, and Rom “The Dude” Whitaker. We commenced filming with the Irula snake tribe that Rom was working with to establish a co-op to supply essential venom for the production of life-saving antivenom. Irulas are an ethnic group of India. Traditionally, the main occupation of the Irulas has been snake- and rat-catching. These incredible aborigines had an unparalleled ability to find snakes based on even the subtlest of signs. We would come to one hole in the ground that looked just like any other hole in the ground. Not only would they say with absolute authority that there was a snake in it, but they would follow this with a statement of certainty as to what the species was. Russell’s viper. Check. Cobra. Check. Krait. Check. Rat snake. Check. One after another was spot-on. I was simultaneously humbled and awed by their seemingly supernatural abilities.
From there, we traveled to the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station in the Western Ghats region, a place as famous for its king cobras as it is infamous for its leeches. The same day that we did the most epic call-out to catch and remove a massive king cobra from a local residence, I had woken up with a leech on my eyeball. At least I wasn’t the one who got one on the scrotum while wading across a creek. For the rest of the day, as his white shorts turned conspicuously red, he was constantly greeted with “Congratulations! You are a woman now!”
During the time filming in India, there was one particularly shocking moment involving a local Green Cross snake catcher named Robinson. He had been bitten three weeks prior by a spectacled cobra, treated with antivenom to neutralize the neurotoxins and then released with a heavily bandaged hand. The film company wanted me to discuss with him the circumstances of his bite and to examine his wound. However, the same bandages had been on for three weeks and he had not had a single follow-up examination. I was deeply concerned about this and said to the film company that if we were going to film his case, then we had an ethical obligation to get involved with his care. To their credit, they readily agreed to pay for a visit to a private hospital.
As the bandages were unwound, the rank smell of decaying flesh made itself evident to even my snakebite-damaged sense of smell. Once the final bandage was taken off, a horror show was on display. There were two pronounced spots of extremely necrotic tissue that were displaying the insidious signs of gangrene. They were the green color of rotten cheese and smelled worse than a dead possum I once found in my pool filter upon returning from a long trip. It was absolutely revolting and extremely concerning. Untreated, such deep-seated infection could result in limb loss or even death. I was absolutely aghast at the shockingly poor treatment he had received and was quite angry that things had reached such a dire state when they could easily have been prevented. The necrosis and accompanying infection necessitated aggressive tissue debridement, with the dead material being cut out. By the time the surgeon was done, we could see exposed tendons and bone. But Robinson would keep his hand. In order to make sure that he received the proper follow-up care, the entire crew donated whatever money we had with us. A small stack of bills of all different sorts of currency was passed to Gerry, who graciously took control of it to ensure that the medical expenses were covered over the coming weeks and months. Once again, this reminded all of us what a dangerous game we played.
By the time we were done with this very long shoot, we had accumulated the footage that would ensure that it could be cut together to produce the documentary I had always wanted to make. It would be the most comprehensive, educational-yet-thrilling one of my career. Like all great career achievements, this one came at a considerable personal cost. By the time we finished filming, I was well and truly done for. With my back the way it was, getting upstairs was painful enough, let alone running across a marsh after a big male king cobra, as I had done in Agumbe. I took Gerry up on his generous offer to accompany him to the eco-station on Andaman Island. Once there, I just curled up in a hammock, smoked lots of Indian hash for the pain, and didn’t move for two weeks, while soaking up the healing atmosphere. My back muscles relaxed and so did my brain.
Semi-mobile again, I was off to film Komodo dragons for a BBC Natural World special on my research into their venom, called “Secrets of the Dragon.” I was taking child-like delight in this, since BBC Natural World produces the highest-quality natural-history films. Solidly based in fact, in fine British tradition, with David Attenborough the bedrock. To have that production company doing a special on my Komodo dragon venom research was a huge validation after such a long road. I was also particularly pleased since I knew they would be interviewing David Attenborough for it, with him reflecting upon his own travels to Komodo Island to launch his film career decades before. I was humbled that a man whom I had admired for so many years was aware of my research on an animal we both found to be absolutely magical.
The BBC team was coordinated by director and producer Stephen Dunleavy and cameraman Gavin Thurston, both of whom had worked with David Attenborough on several occasions, with Gavin being one of Attenborough’s favorite cameramen for many years. Iwan and Sean McCarthy were coming along too. On seeing me again, both were visibly shocked at my state. I was losing condition fast, due to the back injury. As my core muscles lost tone and mass, I was less able to support my spine and felt the injury more and more. By now I was tossing back up to a dozen Vicodin pills a day just to keep from trying to kill myself by smashing a hammer repeatedly into my skull. Most worryingly, I was starting to have episodes of tingling and weakness in both legs. This accentuated the already-dangerous situation, as I didn’t have any of my usual speed or agility. Luckily, Iwan and Sean were there to help with animal management and do the heavy lifting of the gear on Rinca Island. The filming went smoothly and uneventfully. Uneventfully, that is, except for the blinding pain that accompanied any twisting motion of my torso and the stumbling gait I assumed whenever the weird electrical tingling and numbness traveled down my legs. Hardly ideal for working with the world’s largest carnivorous lizard.
There was one event that did take my mind off things for a while. We acquired a mascot on the last day of filming. I saw a strange splashing in the distance while we were having breakfast on the top deck of the boat. Curious as to what it was, I took off in one of the dinghies attached to the main boat. Getting closer, I could see that it was an orange-headed fruit bat. I surmised it had fallen into the water while returning to the mangrove island that was half a mile away, after a long night of foraging. It must have been too exhausted to continue. So near, yet so far. The three-foot wingspan was inefficient for swimming and it was unable to take off from the water. Without help, it would certainly die.
There are dangers in handling fruit bats, since they harbor many types of viruses. In other parts of the world, rabies would be the main concern, as with the vampire bats I worked with in Mexico. In Australasia, the rabies-related lyssavirus is the worry. As I was immunized against rabies, I was equally protected against lyssavirus. In any case, I could not have let the bat drown. I took off my T-shirt, spread it between my two hands, leaned overboard, and wrapped the bat snugly in the shirt. On returning to the main boat, I took the bat up to the top deck and let it hang in one of the unused sails of the large, old, wooden yacht we were using this trip as our floating base camp. Fred, as we named him, hung around for several hours, resting and regaining his strength, before he flew with uncertain beats of his leathery wings back to his island home.
After the field filming, we were back to the Rimba Reptile Park to see my favorite animal in the world: Monty the Magic Dragon. I would like to think that there was some recognition in his eyes at the sight of me, leg intact this time, but back a wreck. Today we were going to milk him for his venom to demonstrate its powerful effect upon blood clotting. To do this, Sean rested his large frame on Monty’s back, while Iwan gently but firmly restrained his head. I ran my index finger along the outside of the lower jaw, from the rear to the front, depressing the hollow macaroni-like gland to squeeze out the liquid venom contained within. I watched it pool around the teeth as it came out and then quickly suctioned it up with a large pipette tip. Then came the fun part. My mate Jon Griffin used his phlebotomy skills, which any train-spotting junkie would love to have: he inserted a large-bore needle into the blue vein of my bulging left forearm. He drew 6 cc of my blood, which we quickly transferred into tubes. There were three each of two different types of tubes: the first each contained less than a teaspoon of venom, and the second set was the control, containing less than a teaspoon of pure water. One cc of blood went into each of the six tubes. And then we waited. Twenty minutes passed and the tubes containing blood and water were turned upside down. The blood was now like red jelly, semi-solid and immobile. The tubes containing the venom were still completely liquid—the venom had destroyed the ability of the blood to form a clot. I said to the camera: “This is my blood; this is my blood on venom. Any questions?”
The last leg of this very long and chaotic trip was a flight to Europe and the filming of the magnetic resonance imaging of Komodo dragon heads at the Leiden University Medical Center, to show their large and intricate venom glands. This was the last sequence for the BBC shoot; it went routinely and we wrapped up. I took some downtime to relax at my favorite Leiden coffee shop, the Coffeeshop Leidse Plein, but even marijuana was not alleviating my back pain.
I managed to pull myself together enough to be able to pop over to the United Kingdom with Iwan for the opening by my mate Luke Yeomans of his sanctuary devoted to king cobras. These magnificent creatures were in sharp decline in the wild. Areas I had been to years before had been destroyed by senseless logging. Whenever a habitat is disturbed to that degree, the first animals to disappear are large, slow-moving ones like king cobras. Luke’s heart was definitely in the right place. He wanted to demystify these misunderstood animals; to show them as intelligent, almost sentient, beings deserving of our utmost respect. To do this, he utilized a hands-on approach, forgoing the safety equipment (such as hooks or tongs) routinely used in my expeditions. While I appreciated the sentiment, the closeness gave me a spooky feeling of an inevitable disaster. I was far from alone in feeling such dark prescience.
I then traveled by rail to Germany to check up on my collaborative research with my friend Dessi Georgieva. I took a circuitous path to get there, stopping off in Zurich on the way. There, for the pain, I was given a 50 cc bottle of a liquid opium derivative and told that it was extremely powerful and to be very sparing in its use—no more than 0.5 cc at any given time. “But of course,” I blithely replied, while thinking to myself that if mere mortals were allowed but half a cc, I could tolerate a bit more. So I drank about 5 cc one afternoon in a Turkish restaurant, while in absolute agony.
As I gracelessly slid down the booth and on to the floor, with my body giving a limp sort of spasm, I thought to myself, “Hmmm … so this is what a drug overdose feels like. I thought it would be a lot more fun. It is exactly nothing like I thought it would be.” I bypassed fun entirely and went straight to extreme sweating and nausea. I had dosed myself well and truly. The staff quickly helped me up. I gave an honest account of what had happened and said I should be fine if I could just keep moving for about thirty minutes. As I had eaten at this restaurant several times in the preceding week, two of the staff had struck up a friendship with me. After the strongest Turkish coffee they could make in a hurry, two of them took me on a little speed walk around the block a few times until I could stagger under my own steam, and could continue forcing myself to be bipedal. The similarity to the premise for the movie Weekend at Bernie’s was not lost on me.
The next day my travel insurance had me on an emergency flight home. I was routed through Los Angeles and was to catch a flight on from there after resting for a day or two. Boarding a plane in a wheelchair was not how I’d envisioned things going, but here I was, partially paralyzed in both legs. After the flight from hell, my arrival in Los Angeles was followed by emergency transport to the Olympia Hospital, since things had degenerated from bad to worse during the flight. As my spinal cord was being pressed against the bone by one of the vertebra, at times my entire world would be consumed by pain and I would experience the purest of tortures. Acid-rain tears of frustration burnt down my face.
I soon was intimately acquainted with why this hospital was the favorite of Los Angeles’ rich and famous. I was quickly admitted, once the seriousness of my condition was conveyed. This was rapidly followed by an intravenous injection that caused the clouds to part and silent lucidity to fill my soul. There is but one true god and hydromorphone art thy name. Less than ten minutes later, while I was wrapped up in this great big chemical hug, another nurse came by and said, “Oh, you poor thing. Such a terrible injury. Here, let me give you a shot.” I tried to say, “It’s okay, I’ve already had one. Thank you, though. I’m feeling much better.” But she was faster, and all that came out as this second wave of heaven washed over me was “Ohhh yeeeeeaaaaaaaaahhh.” Take the best orgasm you’ve ever had. Multiply it by a thousand, and you’re still nowhere near this divine feeling.
Like Icarus, I had crashed back to earth after striving to ascend too high, flying too close to the sun. Subsequent magnetic resonance imaging and X-rays revealed that the spinal region of L4, L5, and S1 looked like a train wreck. The consulting Beverly Hills neurosurgeon Dr. Justin Paquette took one look at the results and slapped a no-fly sticker on me. As it happens, I had been traversing the globe these last four months with three completely obliterated discs and two fractures to my spine. Apparently if at any time over the last few months I had taken a hard fall, there was a very high probability that I could have ended up permanently paralyzed. Perhaps having a very high level of pain tolerance was not such a good thing after all. Then again, my extremely casual approach to self-medication with prescription painkillers was not such a bright idea either; I do have a rather addictive personality. By now, I was well and truly hooked on the pills. More direly, I had 35 percent paralysis in my right leg and 20 percent in my left. Which might, or might not, be repairable by surgery. There was no way of telling until they got in and starting cutting and that would not happen until a complex web of international insurance was navigated. Basically, I was as fucked up as a biology science fair project at the Young Earth Creationist High School.
In the meantime, I was parked in a hospital bed. Whenever I woke up, a ghost whisper would scratch across my soul: welcome to hell. Then the drug shot into my vein would hit me: a cold fire, delightful sort of pain. Immobilizing me, almost making me think I was dead. But I wanted a chance to use every drop of ambition still left in me. Sometimes I told myself, “Just let it breathe.” It was a calmness I’d long been searching for. Slipping down, so very elegantly wasted, under waves of molten amber, I would float weightless in a timeless netherworld, neither awake nor asleep; existing on another plane entirely.
Lying in the hospital bed, I wasn’t able to run a razor across my skull to maintain the skin job I had had for a hairdo for the last fifteen years. As my hair grew out, it was revealed that sometime during this last decade of decadence, my hair had started to turn grey. The first few had staked out territory around the temples, the vanguards of an inevitable invasion that would spread like cane toads. Combined with being bedridden with a broken back, this inevitably led to thoughts of my own transience and the certainty of the end of my mortal days. How we live our life is not how we end our life. Do I wait for the long, whimpering end, or do I seek out the blaze of glory? Do I just keep going as I am and leave my body to science fiction when I am done ruining it? I thought of the irony that no one is as careful as the elderly, when they have the least to lose, and no one is as careless as the young, when they have the most to lose.
The essential existential angst within us all is the knowledge of our own mortality. The betrayal by the flesh. The ultimate horror is the realization of a finite existence—something everyone must come to terms with in their own way. It is only by truly accepting mortality that a life can be fulfilled. Only then are great works possible through the pouring of the life-force into a new vessel. This is the motivation fundamental to all scientists—to make a discovery and ensure this knowledge is perpetuated beyond the life of the discoverer. Immortality achieved through discovery. It gave me great comfort knowing that my scientific legacy would persist long after my flesh.
We all want to hold on to the essence of youth, and this is, of course, the reason for the endurance of the vampire legends and other tales of immortality. But in a terminal, mortal existence, a less-intellectual form of immortality can be achieved through a different form of creation: that of life. Knowing that the genetic legacy continues with the perpetuation of the lineage and pedigree. To this end, I have already also achieved immortality by selling my sperm during my undergraduate years and thus having nineteen demon-spawn. But I would be an anonymous forefather, not someone of note in a family tree.
All my life I had been obsessed with venom in all its forms—however great or small. This obsession had been the fuel driving my ambition. It had come at no small physical cost, though, during my travels to over forty countries, including twenty-six snakebites and twenty-three broken bones incurred during a life lived in no small part within hospitals across the globe. Some of the ailments had been rather mundane, with some of the broken bones and stitches the result of me losing my balance at the wrong time as part of the permanent effects of my childhood spinal meningitis, but others were quite esoteric. I had long ago become used to waking up in a hospital bed as a teaching case, with a group of medical students viewing me as some kind of weird bug. But it also came at no small emotional cost, as I had missed out on everything else while living a Peter Pan life. I was lying in a hospital bed without a wife, kids, or even any hobbies to speak of. Did I want these things? I wasn’t sure. But I wanted the opportunity to find out. Is it truly better to burn out than to fade away? What about a third option? I reckoned I had a second book’s worth of adventures in me, but I needed to survive this in order to write that story.
In the meantime, each day stretched monotonously into an-other. When not zonked from the medication, I watched lots of television. I would start the morning with Metal Mayhem and then That Metal Show. It seemed rather fitting that Ozzy Osbourne’s latest video for the song “Scream” was on heavy rotation, since I’d start each day wanting to shriek to the heavens in frustration.
Once a bit of metal music had helped with my existential angst, I’d switch to watching random episodes of Friends. I was watching them on Direct TV, downloading from three different channels that were simultaneously running different years of the series. I’d pass out from the pain medications halfway through some random episode and wake to the year before, or years later. Matthew Perry’s weight would vary dramatically as the series skip-roped its way across his different stints in rehab for Vicodin addiction that was the result of pain treatment for his chronic pancreatitis. One minute Chandler Bing would be bloated; I’d take one very long blink and then he’d be looking drawn and haggard. That kept me entertained for a while, but then I started going out of my brain with boredom and frustration.
One bedridden day, while listening to Judas Priest’s “Painkiller,” I realized I’d had enough of wasting time doing nothing but being stoned on prescription opioids. So I started work on a book, going into exhaustive detail about the evolution of reptile venoms, the pathophysiology of envenomations, and the drug development potential of isolated toxins. But even this was not enough to keep me in bed while in a holding pattern for surgery.
My stubbornness had me out of bed on two occasions. Once was to give a pre-planned speech at Loma Linda University at the kind invitation of my mate Dr. Bill Hayes. Our research into Southern Pacific rattlesnake venom was driven by our desire to provide insights into the increasing fatalities from one of North America’s most dangerous snakes. Sensationalized news articles had claimed that their venom had undergone recent, rapid change, leading to unusual and highly toxic effects in patients which had left clinicians at a loss. My friend Sean Bush was at the vanguard as he was an emergency physician in the bite epicenter. He had observed more aberrant cases than anyone I knew. Our work showed that rather than changing rapidly, the venom varies dramatically between different populations of the snakes due to long-term adaptation to different environments.
These snakes live in habitats as diverse as isolated Catalina Island, the high-altitude San Jacinto Mountains, the grassy hills of Loma Linda, and the desert transition zone of Phelan. In a single hour’s drive from the desert floor to the top of the San Jacinto Mountains, the venom goes from destroying the blood to frying the nerves instead. Millions of years living in these very different habitats has led to specialized venom chemistry which needs to be understood to effectively treat snakebite patients. We hoped this study would help clinicians to treat bites that have had baffling effects on patients, as well as contributing to the knowledge of venom evolution.
Unfortunately, the sole American antivenom for this species, CroFab, has had poor effects in many cases, with patients dying despite receiving high doses of it. Sean had one patient die despite receiving sixty ampoules of this antivenom. There is emerging evidence that the Mexican antivenom, Antivipmyn, actually performs very well against the Southern Pacific rattlesnake venom, but the manufacturers of these two antivenoms are locked in a court battle over sales rights in the United States. This is a case of commercial interests being put above patient needs and it is leading to the loss of lives.
It was clear that reports of unusual effects were due to better record keeping and reporting, and changes in human behavior, rather than any recent changes to the venom. New housing estates are being built in what used to be remote areas, and people with low snake awareness are coming into close contact with Southern Pacific rattlesnakes. Many times when a patient presents at the hospital it is because they tried to kill the snake and were bitten in the process. I have a simple philosophy: if a person has enough time to go into their garage, get a shovel, try to kill the snake, and get bitten in the process, they have no right to throw themselves on their knees, raise their arms to the heavens and plaintively cry out, “Why meeeeeeeeeee?!” Because you didn’t call a registered snake removal service, that’s why. You tool.
The drive from LA to Loma Linda had me in so much pain that I was crunching a triple dose of Vicodin. My talk went okay. It was not the first time I had given a lecture heavily under the influence of strong drugs, so I was able to do a serviceable job. But it took a mighty toll. At the after-talk dinner, the dozen Vicodin I had taken in the previous four hours got their revenge. Vicodin in large enough doses triggers extreme nausea in me and I vomited harder than ever before. Even more than the time during my undergraduate years when I stage-dived at a Soundgarden concert, landing on someone’s head with my stomach, and two pitchers of Hefeweizen beer were instantly expelled onto the poor bastard. Only this time, spaghetti streamed out of my nostrils like a pair of mutant octopuses. Wrong meal to have before projectile vomiting out of mouth and nose.
After this little adventure, I quickly cycled through all the available pill painkillers. My pain ate them up for breakfast. My doctors finally put me back on to the intravenous big guns: hydromorphone—the sort of painkiller that stands on a rating scale of “this one goes to eleven.” It got a handle on the pain most of the time. However, at least once a day there was a time when the pain was so great that I tasted madness. It was always hanging over me like the sword of Damocles. It could come from something as simple as turning the wrong way in bed. I would become absolutely consumed with pain for up to an hour, or even longer. This was also when my legs would fail completely, as it was when the pressure was greatest on the nerves. If someone had told me at that point that this would be the quality of life I would have for the remainder of my days, I would have asked for a gun so that I could euthanize myself. This was no kind of life. This was true torture, on a scale that the Marquis de Sade would have envied.
Hydromorphone gave me such horrendous constipation that it was like trying to crap out a brick. I had to eat massive amounts of prunes to try and get things moving inside my intestines, but hydromorphone also killed my appetite. Medical marijuana gave me some appetite, but it mixed with the hydromorphone in a very unpleasant way and I stopped taking it. I would get auditory and visual hallucinations, and not the fun ones. More like the time I was bitten by the canebrake rattlesnake when I was a teenager, and less like the times doing psychedelic mushrooms in the Netherlands, or the indigenous hallucination ritual in the Amazon. The combination also produced some pretty nasty Parkinson’s-syndrome-like tremor effects. I was done with marijuana and back with the death of my appetite. As weeks passed, I was steadily losing weight until I eventually started looking skeletal and feeling extremely weak.
The second time I was out of bed was on November 30, 2010, to see Roger Waters perform The Wall at the Staples Center for my fortieth birthday. While I suspect I was not the only one at the concert extremely drugged on opioids, I suspect I was one of the very few doing so legally while wearing a very intricate, rigid back brace. I must say, this particular class of chemical certainly added to the experience. “Comfortably Numb” took on a whole new meaning. I was in a very good mood during the concert. Just as well, since one cannot listen to Pink Floyd while depressed without killing oneself. It is not just the drugs talking when I say it was far and away the most beautiful concert I had seen. I was then banished to bed under strict orders not to leave again. Surgery was scheduled for December 23. Two days before Christmas. Hopefully Santa would bring me a new spine and working legs!
I have never been so scared as when I was wheeled into the surgery theater. Cold terror gripped me. The anaesthesiologist told me it would be a little while before they started. “Would you like to read anything while waiting or would you prefer to be put out early?” Without hesitation, I asked to have my ass knocked out right away.
Dr. Paquette was a one-of-a-kind specialist, and did a magnificent job repairing my wrecked spine. If it had been done in Australia, they would have just had to lay down the concrete and fuse multiple vertebrae. That would have ruined my fieldwork forever. He was able to perform a procedure not available in Australia at the time, whereby he put cobalt-alloy end caps on three of the vertebrae, with artificial discs in between—the same procedure he was filmed performing on Schwarzenegger’s stunt double for a documentary. He also had a contract to repair the compressed backs of NFL running backs—obviously the caliber of person I wanted working on my precious spine!
Now that the surgery had been successfully undertaken and I had a Wolverine spine, the long and painful rehabilitation began. This included having to learn how to walk for the third time in my life—an extremely painful exercise. The neurons that hadn’t been in action for months were firing and atrophied leg muscles needed to be rebuilt and restretched. Being a former competitive swimmer, I was used to having to suck it up for training, but taking those first few steps was the most grueling and painful workout I had ever suffered. My sensory perception was warped. If I closed my eyes and described, without looking, the position of my right foot, I always estimated it as pointing much further outwards than it was. This meant that I was unconsciously walking with it pointing inward, in a pigeon-toed fashion. I had to concentrate on this and always force it out further than I felt it should be. If I got tired, it would steadily change position until it was pointing inward while I walked again.
Three weeks after surgery I filmed most of the episodes for season one of Monster Bug Wars while propped up on a special orthopaedic cushion arrangement. I remember none of it. In the footage my eyes are electric blue and my pupils are the size of pinpricks. Watching the show much later on, I concluded that the opioids were definitely a performance-enhancing substance since I was very much in sync with the rather out-there premise of the show, which was basically celebrity death matches between different arthropods. Considering how smashed the host was during filming, it was quite fitting that this show was eventually voted online as one of the best stoner shows ever.
Then it was time to take myself off the massive doses of hydromorphone I had been taking to remain sane in the last few months. I made a judgment call as to when I thought I could deal with the physical pain without the pills, and one day went cold turkey off this intravenously injected, long-acting opioid. No stepping down to a short-acting opioid and then tapering off. I felt I would be more likely to do it by taking a brutally abrupt approach—the chemical equivalent of jumping into icy cold water rather than going in slowly. While long-acting opioids do not come with the insidious cravings that the short-acting form do, there is no free lunch. The lack of acute addiction is paid for with dramatically more intense withdrawal effects.
I experienced agony and sickness like nothing I had ever felt before, and hope never to feel again. I bit down on towels to keep from screaming. Every neuron was raw and firing uncontrollably. My bones felt like they were rubbing together and even my freshly grown hair hurt. I understood now what heroin addicts say about not being able to stop despite desperately wanting to, because of the withdrawal sickness. It is just too much for them to take. I drenched the mattress due to the gallons of sweat bucketing out of my pores each day. Gradually I started feeling better and the mattress had to be thrown away since it was so saturated with my sickly-sweet-smelling sweat.
While killing time in the hospital, one day I saw a news report about biblical levels of rain and flooding occurring in Brisbane. The main river going through the city had busted its banks and large portions of the city were underwater. Skyscrapers poked out of the water like the world’s largest flood posts. There was even footage of bull sharks going into butcher shops to feed on the rotting meat. To add to the surrealism of it all, I received an email saying that my latest research fellowship application to the Australian Research Council, for a Future Fellowship this time, had been successful. This meant that once I was released from the hospital and was able to travel back to Australia, I was moving back up to the University of Queensland in Brisbane.

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