Beware of snakes

When I moved to Australia, my biggest fear was snakes.

They’re unnerving creatures: just a head attached to a singular strip of scaly muscle. Their stealth, their absence of limbs, flickering forked tongues and slit-like pupils – they’re so utterly different to humans that it’s unsettling.

Plus, the ones in Australia can fucking kill you. The Inland Taipan has enough venom in one bite to kill 100 humans. The Death Adder has the quickest strike in the world: less than 0.15 seconds. A bite from a Brown Snake will make you bleed from your mouth, bladder and asshole while neurotoxins seep into your brain. 

I’m from New Zealand, and we don’t have dangerous creepy-crawlies. Deadly spiders don’t exist. There are no snakes lurking at your feet. In contrast, Australia is basically one big Fear Factor challenge, infested with things that slither, bite and sting. I was shit-scared.

You’ve got snakes at the beach (and swimming between the flags), snakes chilling at backyard barbecues, and snakes at the local footy match. There are snakes meaner than a racist bogan on a Sydney train, snakes who’ll bite you just for fun. I’d heard that snakes routinely skulk in toilet bowls – fuck, I wouldn’t even be safe taking a dump. Forget Snakes on a Plane – this whole country was one giant pit of serpentine horror.  

There are things you can do to avoid encounters, of course. Stamp your feet to send vibrations through the ground – an alert to nearby snakes to GTFO. Stick to wide paths with good visibility (so you can see your impending death). Always check the shitter before you plonk your arse on the seat.

But as the weeks and then months passed, the fervour of my precautionary measures waned. There were no snakes in the streets, nor even in the wild areas where I went hiking. I grew bolder. I started wearing shorts that bared my legs while hiking (long pants can make your legs sweat like hot cheese wrapped in plastic when it’s 35 degrees out). Sometimes, I’d march carefree through the scrubby gums and golden tussock, without the threat of snakebite making me second-guess each step.

But I never felt completely at ease. This niggling thought would always return eventually, Even though I can’t see them, those noodly assholes are here, watching me. Hissing spectres haunted every bush.

When I finally did encounter a snake, it wasn’t quite the horrifying confrontation I expected. I was chilling on a surf beach south of Sydney, sheltering from the sun in the shade of a cliff.

THUNK.

A dull thud startled me. I turned to see glossy black rope nestled in the sand. It was a red-bellied black snake and it had just fallen from the top of the cliff. It sat still for a second, and if I could interpret snake facial expressions, I’d guess this guy was as shocked and confused as I was. He was shimmering ebony with jet black eyes and I could see flecks of fierce red scales where his body touched the sand. He was sinister but beautiful; bewitching.  

As quickly as the thunk had hit, the snake slunk to the safety of a rocky overhang. “Wait,” I thought, “that’s it?!” No flattening of the neck. No baring of needle-like fangs. No angry hissing (snake-speak for “fuck off”). The only evidence of this peculiar meeting was a sinuous trail in the sand. I realised he was just as afraid of me as I was of him.

My relationship with snakes is now one of respect and wariness – and I reckon the feeling is mutual. Snakes don’t want trouble from some angry, spade-wielding fuckwit. They just wanna be left alone to sunbathe and scoff down tasty snacks. Sounds kinda like me tbh.

Since my first experience, I’ve come across snakes multiple times on my bush wanderings. I’ve seen huge thick brown snakes glide through the undergrowth, and a copperhead, coiled up like a dog turd, by the side of a trail. Each time, I’ve been alert with adrenaline and my bare ankles tingle. But the moment passes.

I think life is like that, sometimes. The things you build up and up to be scary and dramatic end up being nothing more than a confused snakey-dude wondering how on earth he ended up on a beach; a blip in an otherwise ordinary day.

 

Gallery shots

I don't consider myself a pro photographer by any means, but I do enjoy taking snaps of scenery and wildlife on my travels. Here are the deets behind the images in my homepage gallery.

Sandfly Bay, Otago Peninsula, New Zealand

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This stretch of beaut coastline, just 30 minutes from my home, is my favourite spot among the many wild beaches surrounding Dunedin. It is ~not~ named after the annoying biting insect, but rather the white sand that flies in the wind, forming tall tussock-covered dunes. Here you can spot New Zealand sea lions/rapoka, New Zealand fur seals/kekeno, and if you're lucky, a shy yellow-eyed penguin/hoiho. Then of course there are the usual suspects: various tern species and red-billed gulls/tarapunga. Sandfly Bay is a magical place to experience the wildlife and wilderness of southern New Zealand.

Weddell seal, Balleny Islands

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In January, I was part of an expedition that landed on Borradaile Island, part of the Balleny Islands archipelago in the Southern Ocean. This chunk of ice-covered, black volcanic rock was first visited by humans in 1839 – this was the first time humans set foot on land south of the Antarctic circle. We landed on a thin spit occupied by two penguins (one chinstrap, one Adélie) and a number of Weddell seals. This individual was sporting a stylish snow moustache.

Temperate rainforest, Haida Gwaii, Canada

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In 2015, I visited this rainforest-draped archipelago off the coast of northern British Columbia. I was captivated by the wildlife, lush scenery and fascinating culture here. I took this photo on a walk through the Damaxyaa Heritage Site and Conservancy, an area set aside for the people of the Haida Nation to continue their traditional activities.

King penguins, Macquarie Island 

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In January, I visited Sandy Bay on the subantarctic Macquarie Island. Here, I encountered thousands of king penguins lining the shore. These chubby chunks are the brightest of the penguins, with tropical sunset accents to their tuxedos.

Jungfraujoch, Switzerland

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A misty day at the Top of Europe in 2016.

Morton National Park, NSW, Australia

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One of my favourite places to explore in Australia are the mountains west and south of Sydney. Much of this area is protected in national parks, with stunning vistas from the tabletop mountains. I took this snap of Fitzroy Falls and, not long after, ran into a lyrebird scratching around in the bush!

Southern royal albatross, Campbell Island

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You don't realise just how big these birds are until you see them in the flesh. I was lucky enough to do just that on windswept Campbell Island in the subantarctic.

Antarctic petrels, East Antarctica

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While sailing towards the coastline of East Antarctica, we came across an iceberg with 4,000–6,000 Antarctic petrels sitting on top of it and swirling around it. This is an unusual sight that many veteran expeditioners had never seen before. It was spectacular to witness.

Danum Valley, Borneo

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In mid-2017, I spent two weeks in Malaysian Borneo. The highlight was visiting one of Malaysia's last primary lowland rainforests in Danum Valley, where I encountered orang-utans, gibbons, monkeys, hornbills and many other fabulous rainforest creatures.

I post photos regularly on Instagram – follow along for more nature-y goodness.

Finding nature in Sydney

First written in April 2015.

I’m not a big city person. The only two cities I’ve lived in have both had only a few hundred thousand people, and neither really has a city centre (Christchurch’s CBD was destroyed four years ago in an earthquake, and Canberra, the “bush capital,” is just weird). I find the crush of people on trains intimidating, the busy streets loud and overwhelming, plus towering concrete-and-glass is not really my aesthetic. Sydney is your typical “big city” – in fact it’s generic-ness is cited as one of the reasons The Matrix was filmed there – so you might guess it’d be the kind of place I’d loathe. I may not want to live in sprawling suburbia with mind-numbing commutes, nor do I have the means to live within the throbbing urban heart of this Aussie metropolis. But I’ve visited Sydney twice, and I will certainly be visiting again. Here’s a few reasons why.

Sydney: sorta okay for a big city.

Sydney: sorta okay for a big city.

Sydney has some cool nature vibes despite its urban-industrial atmosphere.

Simply walking through one of Sydney’s many green spaces, you’re bound to catch sight of cheeky rainbow lorikeets or raucous sulphur-crested cockatoos, or hear the flapping of flying foxes (fruit bats) at night. The Botanic Gardens are an excellent location to soak up some sunshine amongst some lush greenery, a living wall and a tropical glasshouse pyramid. We got around using ferries fairly often, which offered refreshing salty sea air and blue-on-blue sea-sky combos.

Feelin' lush in the rainforest pyramid.

Feelin' lush in the rainforest pyramid.

Sydney has a bloody awesome zoo.

Although there is a kinda commercial vibe to Taronga Zoo, it is on the better side when it comes to animal welfare and addressing wider conservation issues, like participating in the Corroboree Frog captive breeding and release programme.

Taronga has all the usual suspects: cheeky chimps and other mischievous apes, kangaroos (and a kangabro or two) and the big-ticket classics like elephants, tigers and giraffes. There’s a spectacular seal show that emphasises the importance of purchasing sustainable seafood (whether their message makes a tangible difference, I don’t know) and an awe-inspiring free-flight bird show. I’m a bit of a bird nerd (if you hadn’t already guessed, lol) and although I’d much prefer to see birds in their natural habitat, I got a real thrill giving a donation straight to the beak of Jasper the galah during my first visit, and to a Carnaby’s black cockatoo more recently.

Zoo classic: mama and baby elephant at Taronga Zoo.

Zoo classic: mama and baby elephant at Taronga Zoo.

Aside from these big attractions, I reckon it’s the lesser-known characters who make Taronga so fantastic. There’s gigantic stick insects, nocturnal Spinifex hopping mice, tiny bright black and yellow Corroboree frogs and impressive Andean condors. I loved making eye contact with a Tawny Frogmouth, spotting an Eclectus parrot in the rainforest aviary and getting up close and personal with a tree frog’s underbelly. We admired cassowaries, which are probably the closest thing to dinosaurs I’ve ever seen, and had great fun creating Goat simulator-esque scenarios involving the Barbary sheep and Himalayan tahr.

CRAZY GIANT STICK INSECT WOOAAHH

CRAZY GIANT STICK INSECT WOOAAHH

Beautiful female Eclectus parrot.

Beautiful female Eclectus parrot.

Sticky tree frog.

Sticky tree frog.

If you want to round out the full Sydney animal encounter, there is the Sea Life aquarium in the overtly touristy Darling Harbour. Next door to Madame Tussaud’s, the aquarium has a bit of a rip-off-the-sightseer feel, but is nonetheless home to a huge array of sealife: from big barramundi to tiny tropical fishies adorned with bright colours and crazy patterns. There were a tonne of little kids running amok but they didn’t detract too much from the fluttering, graceful stingrays and their mesmerising underwater flight. It was awesome to see sawfish and various sharks cruising overhead, and there’s a stonefish on display – one of the most venomous fishes in the world. Check out the video below from Smarter Everyday on its insane hypodermic spines.

The museums are treasure troves for the science-minded.

The Australian Museum is seriously great. With a mineral collection that would make Hank from Breaking Bad cry, to discovering the giant wombats and “demon ducks of doom” from Australia’s megafauna history, it’s easy to spend hours lost in the scientific and anthropological wonders housed in his beautiful historic building.

“THEY’RE MINERALS MARIE! JESUS!”

“THEY’RE MINERALS MARIE! JESUS!”

Diprotodon: giant wombat.

Diprotodon: giant wombat.

There’s also the Powerhouse Museum, formerly the Museum of Applied Art and Science. If you’re the kind of person who is in to technology or industrial design, then you’ll find it interesting. Personally, I found it a bit of a weird mix, with a fabulous jewellery exhibition but then also some machinery exhibits that really didn’t enthuse me. I was bemused to discover the laptop I’m typing on now featured in a computer design exhibit. You know your computer needs an upgrade when it’s in a museum…

A chilled out surf beach is only a ferry ride away.

Manly Beach: a long stretch of golden sand lined with Norfolk Pines, bustling with morning joggers and surfers. With a coffee in hand, this was the perfect place to sit and people watch, basking in the calm atmosphere after the “inner city pressure” of Sydney’s centre. A short stroll along Marine Parade is Shelly Beach: a cosy, sheltered bay dotted with sunbathers. Only one or two people were in the water despite the sunshine, perhaps due to the ominous sign warning of shark sightings. We walked through scraggly bush on the headland, which offered expansive views down Manly and out to the open ocean. The walk back was halted for a brief swim in a clear rock pool, and was followed up by some delicious Mexican at Chica Bonita.

Cities do have two things going for them: good coffee and food I can eat!

I am a sucker for a sweet café. There’s nothing better than food someone else prepared, especially when it’s tasty food accompanied by a quality caffeinated beverage. One excellent highlight was the serendipitous discovery of Greenheart Espresso, just a block or two back from Darling Harbour. Darling Harbour itself is populated by soulless steak-or-fishnchips restaurants touting themselves as “funky”, so why bother with the just-off-the-cruise-ship crap when Greenheart Espresso is so close by! This little espresso bar was a breath of fresh air, with a cabinet full of delicious sandwiches, fresh salads piled high on the counter and a selection of smoothies with super new-age ingredients like almond milk and cacao.

Another great find was The Fine Food Store in The Rocks, with an extensive menu of crazy delicious breakfast and proper iced coffee (with espresso ice cubes – none of that cream and ice cream shit).

Into the wild: On my own terms

First written March 2015.

I like to think of myself as a nature lovin’ character. I believe that a connection to wilderness is essential to human wellbeing and count Chris McCandless as one of my personal heroes. I was enthralled by Robyn Davidson’s stubborn slog across the outback in Tracks and I wished that Wild had more sweeping mountain scenery and less Reese Witherspoon getting it on with randoms in alleyways. I follow the adventures of Not A Chance and Carrot Quinn, badass ladies who have thru-hiked more than 24,000km of the Pacific Crest Trail between them. I daydream of trekking through the rich, sweaty depths of the Amazon and scaling the cloud-shrouded dome of Mt Kinabalu in Borneo.

It was with these wild aspirations in mind that I signed up for a volunteer tramping trip: five days in the NZ back country monitoring and catching kea. Despite my enthusiastically earthy self-image, I have only really undertaken day hikes, with just one overnight backpacking stint in the last five years. This lack of experience didn’t deter me, and I spent weeks preparing, acquiring a pack and practising pitching my tent. But soon after embarking, reality cut me down like a tree being logged and my expectations were splintered. The uphill struggle straight up a mountainside burned me out and wore me down. Suffering from heatstroke and with a nerve in my shoulder pinching, I decided to walk out and go home the next day. Since this disappointing experience, I have been wracked with doubt. I had built up these lofty expectations based on the exploits of others, without pausing to consider the extent of my own abilities and what I actually wanted out of the experience.

Halfway up the mountainside - Hawdon Valley, near Arthur's Pass.

Halfway up the mountainside - Hawdon Valley, near Arthur's Pass.

The struggle was real.  Photo by Tobi.

The struggle was real. Photo by Tobi.

There’s no doubt connection to the natural world is important to me – and indeed in the age of “nature deficit disorder” it should be a connection we all strive to strengthen. But I got addicted to the idea of nature – a flattened, two-dimensional version splashed across smartphone screens. I wanted to participate in this colourful world of sharp blue, green and brown pixels. But real nature isn’t just a pretty picture – it’s the afternoon sun beating down on the back of your neck, the cool river water tugging at your ankles with a deceptive strength and the wind charging down a mountain pass to rattle and pummel your tent. It’s invigorating, but not always comfortable. Combined with the pressure to maintain a certain pace with others of mountain-goat-ability, my wilderness sojourn was a shock to the system. But there were magical bits too: a low cloud slinking at the far end of the valley, the dark, weedy waters of a shooting cold tarn and of course the piercing cry of kea as they wheeled overhead. Maybe right now I can’t walk for weeks on end, but I can still delight in nature. It’s not about trudging so fast to your destination that the scenery, flora and fauna meld into a barely-remembered blur, nor is it obsessing over getting a spectacular scenery snap to show off to your friends. It’s stopping to admire a particularly perfect fern, or press your hand into a bed of soft moss. It’s sitting on a cool, smooth rock and smelling the earth after rain. It’s about a complete sensory experience.

River crossing.

River crossing.

Mountains, braided rivers and sneaky clouds.

Mountains, braided rivers and sneaky clouds.

Tarn near Walker Pass.

Tarn near Walker Pass.

I think each person has their own unique relationship with nature. For some it will mean detaching from modern madness for days or weeks, but for others it may mean a Sunday picnic by a lake. Both are valid, both can be restorative. But the essence of our enjoyment is not static – like nature itself, it is dynamic and complex, ever-changing and evolving. I can aim to live more authentically with my environmental values, and less vicariously through Instagram. While my planned 5 day break in nature may have come to an abrupt end, my connection to nature in all its beauty, paradox and power can only grow. We should all venture out to visit Mother Earth in person more often, on our own terms.

Holding a kea - the uphill slog was worth it just for this.  Photo by Peter.

Holding a kea - the uphill slog was worth it just for this. Photo by Peter.

Pteridophilia: A visual diary

First written in November 2015.

“Only spread a fern-frond over a man’s head and worldly cares are cast out, and freedom and beauty and peace come in.”

– John Muir

Image by  WWF Australia .

Image by WWF Australia.

One of my favourite things about walking in the bush is the thick carpet of ferns that often adorns the forest floor. Lush and green with a mesmerising symmetry – they add a certain aesthetic, a richness and depth to the layers of forest. As a celebration of this humble beauty, here are some recent fernlicious snaps.

50 shades of green

50 shades of green

Koru unfurling

Koru unfurling

New growth & light

New growth & light

I’ve been trying to learn more about New Zealand’s fabulous native flora – how to identify species, what they’re used for by Māori traditionally and in modern times, and what role they play in our forest ecosystem. There’s a lot to learn – NZ has about 200 fern species, and around 40% of them are found nowhere else in the world! This is unusual for a temperate country, as our ferny friends are typically found in tropical areas. New Zealand’s fern species range from towering mamaku, up to 20m high, down to delicate fronds only 20mm long.

Ferns are not just pretty either – they’re tasty too! Young fern fronds of two species, hen & chicken fern (Asplenium bulbiferum) and the common shield fern (Polystichum richardii), are eaten by Māori as a vegetable. The edible undeveloped fronds are referred to as pikopiko, and can be served as a relish (kinaki) for potato. Visit the Māori Plant Use database to learn more.

The silver fern, or ponga, is a national symbol of New Zealand – while the fronds of this tree fern are green on top, their underside is a beautiful silvery grey.

Sometimes, it’s the little wonders that set your heart alight.

Counting birds at Te Waihora

First written in February 2015.

Forget counting sheep, tallying our feathered friends is a surefire way to get to sleep – not because it’s boring, but rather exhausting.

Recently, I ventured out across the Canterbury Plains to Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere) to participate in a planning day for the Te Waihora Trust’s annual bird count. Despite its proximity to Christchurch, I had never visited this vast, 5000-year-old lagoon, whose Māori name means “spreading waters.” The lake has a fascinating history, both ecologically and culturally. It was formerly the mouth of the Waimakariri river and as our accompanying ranger explained, “The Waimak is like an out-of-control water hose. It’s only due to human intervention that it’s stayed put.” To the local Maori people, Ngai Tahu, the lake has long held significance as a mahinga kai (important site for food and other natural resources). For hundreds of years, they cleverly maintained the lake at an optimal level for the birdlife, an important food source, while eels and fish were abundant. Sadly, post-Pakeha settlement activities such as farming and commercial fishing have degraded the lake and the life it supported.

Satellite image of Banks Peninsula. Te Waihora is the murky green body of water at the bottom left.  Image by Jesse Allan/LANDSAT 7 via NASA/Earth Observatory.

Satellite image of Banks Peninsula. Te Waihora is the murky green body of water at the bottom left. Image by Jesse Allan/LANDSAT 7 via NASA/Earth Observatory.

Nonetheless, Te Waihora remains an important bird habitat, with as many as 98,000 birds present at any one time, and more than 150 species recorded. Its natural beauty is of the sweeping, sparse variety. Emerging from the surrounds of farm fields onto the vast Greenpark Sands reveals an extraordinary expanse of brown, red and dull green beneath a bowed grey sky. The ground is cracked and dry – a symptom of the ongoing drought in Canterbury.

Greenpark Sands.

Greenpark Sands.

Just a few days ago, a flock of around 600 banded dotterels were here, but today we can only find a few flocks of about ten, camouflaged in the glasswort and salt grass. The lake is the fifth largest in New Zealand, so there is lots of area for the birds to cover. My binoculars are heavy and difficult to keep steady, and with the birds constantly moving, it requires good concentration to count them. Just imagine counting hundreds, or thousands! We near the lake edge, which appears shimmering grey in the heat haze (even though it’s quite chilly). There are black swans, wrybills and pied stilts spied from binoculars. A tern soars overhead. The avid birders are excited to spot a lone red-necked stint amongst some dotterels, a species that migrates between the Arctic and Australasia. A couple of hours have passed as we have wound across the saltmarsh, stopping intermittently to watch and practice counting. It’s tiring work. I’m just an amateur keen to see beautiful birds and be outdoors, but some “twitchers” take their birds very, very seriously.

Banded dotterel.  Image by JJ Harrison (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Banded dotterel. Image by JJ Harrison (CC BY-SA 3.0).

I couldn’t make the actual count itself – but an impressive 48,000 birds were counted. You can visit the Waihora Ellesmere trust on Facebook to see pictures of the count.