Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Dragons in Paradise: Part 1



[A stuffed Alaskan Brown Bear in the Juneau Museum. In the rest of the USA they're known as Grizzly Bears. You'd be grizzly too if you'd been stuffed!]

[I'm amazed and intrigued by our perceptions of things that bite, sting and sometimes devour ...]

Every Garden of Eden has its serpent, every paradise its dragons. So there will always be hazards in the wild. Few walkers on their home patch give these more than a respectful thought or two. They’re like the local road rules: you’re so accustomed to following them you do it almost automatically. In contrast the first time I drove in North America, there was nothing automatic about driving on the right side of the road.

So too when I first walk in a new area, I tend to pay the unfamiliar hazards a lot more heed. If you wanted to be heavily analytical about it, or if OH&S training was deeply ingrained, you could create a score-card of such hazards for your walking destinations, and assiduously eschew all hazards. In practice such an approach is a little more anal than most of us tend to be. Rather we listen to locals – sometimes filtering their words for blarney – and/or we read the guidebooks. We then take appropriate precautions.

But common sense doesn’t always prevail. I’ve found a certain tabloid-fuelled fear, especially among Europeans, of all biting and stinging things in Australia. Sometimes this fearfulness can not only rob you of enjoyment, it can even backfire. One poor German we heard about in New Zealand had avoided walking in Australia for fear of poisonous spiders (something I’ve never encountered while walking). He chose to tramp in New Zealand, because it had no snakes and few spiders. But on his first day in Fiordland he was besieged by sandflies. The bites, many on his face, became infected and he ended up almost incapacitated.

Of course even the most rigorous hazard chart will never tell the full story. As much as I like to think of Tasmania as a “green and pleasant land”, there are times when I’ve paused to wonder why the scrub has to be quite so spiteful. One Easter we came off the Traveller Range near Lake St Clair by means of a traditional off-track “scrub bash”. The term is the same in New Zealand, even if, in my opinion, the scrub is marginally less fearsome. In Alaska, where the bush has the added seasonal bonus of bearing deliciously edible fruit, they call it bushwhacking. Despite its apparent meaning, the phrase actually means getting from point A to point B without a track, and hopefully with the least possible damage from or to the vegetation.

As we dropped from the Travellers through thick scrub, the theory was that descending would be so much easier than ascending, whatever amount of knee wobbling it may induce. But knees proved to be the least of our worries. At regular intervals our progress was blocked by cutting grass (Gahnia grandis) ready to slice our grasping hands if we sought to use it to slow our inelegant stumbling. As we spiralled off that hazard we plummeted into a wall of scoparia. This stuff alone is enough to keep me from wearing shorts in the Tasmanian bush. That it bears flowers of great beauty and with an edible nectar every summer is, at the time, small compensation for the shredded skin and clothes that a serious exposure to its teak-tough, razor-sharp foliage produces. Add encounters with hakea (needle bush), banksia, and bauera and the theme of tough inflexibility is seared into your brain.

Yet as you level out this resistance army gives way to a smiling guard of honour, as a beautifully benign myrtle beech forest welcomes you back to the Overland Track near the so-called Bowling Green. It was probably named for its lawn-like appearance, at least from afar. It’s kept that way by a combination of browsing wombats and waterlogging.

… While the natural instinct might be to do a St George, most of these dragons actually have a rightful and useful place in the ecology of the areas we choose to visit. Rather than slaying them willy-nilly, we can learn to live with dragons, and can even develop a grudging admiration for their biting, stinging or blood-sucking genius. Failing that we can at least adapt our walking styles to their presence.

Walking with an awareness of “dragons” doesn’t always have to be as extreme as when we hiked in bear country in Alaska. There we took some early advice to wear bear bells on the trail. We felt more than slightly crazy wearing these “jingle bells” and clapping and singing to forewarn bears that we were around. But given that we did see our statutory 3 bears (a mother and her two cubs) we felt justified in our lunacy.

Afterwards some more savvy locals told us that bears refer to the bells as dinner bells. They then shared lots of not-very comforting bear mauling stories. They topped it off with the standard bear bell joke, which goes. Q: How do you know when a bear has eaten a tourist? A: From the bells in their droppings. When we went bushwhacking with locals on Baranof Island, and they saw our bells, they quietly offered us cans of pepper spray instead. They prefer to carry it as a last ditch weapon against an attacking bear. Some dragons have to be taken pretty seriously, especially 3 metre tall carnivorous ones.
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