My fixation with Australia began as a small child. I was convinced that the land down under was magical and filled with color, excitement, and amazing animals (we can thank to The Rescuers Down Under and Fern Gully for this). My mother also had a beautiful set of Australian Opals, so that helped fuel my imagination. A land where fairy rainforests meet the red outback, full of giant birds you can ride and brimming with sparkly gems? I was in.
As fantastical my childhood obsession had been, I never quite let go of my dreams of Australia. So when I started working as a travel agent, my goal was to experience the continent for myself. I came close to nabbing a free trip — industry stuff — but it never quite panned out. So my husband and I saved up our money and purchased two very expensive tickets to Sydney. I called in a few favors to get some discounted hotel rooms and booked a bunch of day tours to experience Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne wine country, and the Daintree Rainforest Gateway (as featured in Fern Gully—my dreams would be realized at last!). Our itinerary was set.
We didn’t do too much research beyond outlining our schedule, but I was prepared for a magical adventure, and I’m happy to report that Australia met my expectations. It was wonderful, truly.
What I was less prepared for was a country filled with things that wanted to kill me. Here they are, in no particular order.
Our first stop was in Sydney. It’s a great city but I quickly noticed an extreme emphasis on sun protection and skin cancer. Every street had at least one skin cancer clinic, and they were so very specific in that they treated skin cancer. There were even several televised PSAs warning of skin cancer. Every Sydney beach shop seemed to have a sun prevention kiosk selling the highest sunblock, UV protective shirts, and more. While this would seem relatively normal to most beach cities, the cumulative total of skin cancer awareness felt intense. But it was justifiable: Thanks to so many blue-sky days and its location near the equator, Australia’s got intense UV exposure. Ozone depletion has been higher in the southern hemisphere than the northern; there’s a gaping hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic and these extreme UV rays make it to Australia; Australia has one of the highest skin cancer rates in the world; and the risk of severe sunburns is particularly high when comes to pasty white tourists.
After slathering ourselves in the highest SPF we could find, we thought to go for a swim on one of Sydney’s great beaches, the best which can be reached via ferry. When we arrived on famous Manly Beach, we noticed a small area where most people were swimming. Turns out, they were swimming inside giant nets which are built to prevent attacks by Australia’s box jellyfish, one of the most deadly in the world. Their stings are so painful that it can cause shock and heart attacks, causing victims to drown. They also have a tiny jellyfish called the Irukandji, which is the smallest jellyfish in the world and also one of the most dangerous: Rather than causing pain with a regular ol’ jellyfish sting, the Irukandji go at you with actual venom. Irukandji are less common, thank God, but if they’re around…Molly, you in danger, girl.
Just West of Sydney is the beautiful Blue Mountains region, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a stunning landscape, named for the smoky blue hue that emanated by the Eucalyptus trees that blanket the peaks, plateaus, and valleys. These vistas, lovely as they were, also featured miles of dead trees and burnout. Fires are affecting the whole country thanks to an increasingly hot and dry climate; many people live in heavily forested areas that cannot be cleared of brush and debris. As of 2012, an average of 100 people died and 3,000 were injured in bushfires. Climatologists predict that temperatures will continue to rise—bringing with it an ongoing decrease in rainfall—which means the fire risk will be that much higher.
Eventually we found ourselves in northern Queensland, where we passed Australia’s famous sugarcane fields. Sugar was a huge industry in the North of Australia, especially around turn of the century. Those working the fields faced a decent likelihood of dying by snake bite. While Australia only has two venomous spiders, it’s host to 50 different types of venomous snakes—80% of bites come from the Eastern Brown snake, so definitely steer clear of that one. Not all of the venomous snakes are harmful to humans (phew?), and those that are tend to be reclusive. But make a wrong step when you’re walking in the bush, and you’re in for a very bad day.
When we arrived at our next site to go for a hike through the bush, I carefully looked at every place I put my feet, while simultaneously avoiding the Golden Orb spider webs that are everywhere. We stopped for a moment for our guide to point out a fascinating local plant called the Gympie-Gympie Tree, which is common in the rainforests of northeastern Australia—just the area we happened to be in. This awesome plant is covered in tiny hairs made of silica that act like little microscopic glass needles which deliver a neurotoxin. Brush against one and the pain is excruciating. The Gympie Gympie won’t kill you, but it will make your life hellish and horrifying; it can take years to recover while your skin slowly grows to push out the microscopic glass. (Bonus: About 1,000 species of plants found in Australia are known to be toxic to humans.)
Everyone knows crocodiles are dangerous, which is why we signed up to see them on a professional safari. I had no idea that meant boarding a boat right out of Disney’s Jungle cruise, with low sides that were only about three feet above the water line—the vessel just wasn’t what I imagined when I thought of the words “safe from crocs.” The skipper joked, “Just don’t fall in the water, this area is the greatest concentration of crocs in Queensland.” As the boat pulled away, we were given safety talk. Conveniently, my husband and I were squished against the side of the boat — great for viewing, sure, but as crocodiles can jump, it was also great for being killed. But we were during the winter, when most of these beast just chill on the bottom of a river, so we ourselves only saw one crocodile, a baby, and it was about 40 feet away. In an attempt to make up for the lacking sense of imminent danger, the skipper regaled us with gruesome details of how every year there are deaths in the summer time, and warned us that despite it being winter, crocs will happily wake up to snack on an unsuspecting swimmer. Noted.
Despite being constantly reminded by my guides that death was lurking around every corner, I truly loved Australia and would defiantly return. I was moved by the sheer enormity of its biodiversity — even if some of it will try to kill you, or at least maim you seriously.
Sunbathing and fire images via Getty; map, ocean, snake, and crocodile images via Shutterstock; plant image via CSIRO.
Georgia Kicklighter is a travel agent in California who still really loves Australia and can’t wait to go back.
Flygirl is Jezebel’s travel blog dedicated to adventures big and small, tips and tricks for navigation, and exploring the world at large. Have a story or an idea? We’re always taking submissions; email us with “Flygirl” AND your topic in the subject line. No pitches in the comments, please.