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Thursday, 28 July 2016

You don't have to be crazy to be a writer 2.

This follows on from my previous post.

In the first years of this century, I got a bee in my bonnet about Australian exploration. My school cohort were all taught that Lawson, Blaxland and Wentworth (that was the order in which Macquarie listed them) were the only ones wise enough to head “up the ridges” (meaning the spurs) to get to the top. We were also taught that explorers went out into trackless wastes.

As any fule kno, walking up the spur is always the easiest route, and any bushwalker looking at a mountain always runs an eye up the spur. More to the point, any wilderness walker knows there are traces of past feet out there, pads and tracks that show the way. The explorers knew this and followed “native roads”, especially when they sought water in an arid zone.

 Reading up on the old explorers, I came across Harry the Camel, who shot his owner, John Ainsworth Horrocks, and of course I had to Run and Find Out. In 1846, Horrocks had the only camel in Australia, and it looked as though Harry was badly managed, but the only way to test this was to go out with camels and learn the basics of camel management, how to make friends with them, how to hobble them, and so on.

(No, I won’t explain how Harry the Camel shot John Horrocks: look it up on Google, but as a side note, while checking that Google has the answers, I discovered that somebody at the Charles Sturt Memorial Museum had plagiarised seven pages on Horrocks from my Australia’s Pioneers, Heroes and Fools. I took two days off from writing this to teach them a harsh lesson. I do pro bono stuff like this for free, and I happily give my text to worthy causes like museums, but I equally happily burn thieves who take my text and slap their own copyright claim on it, which is what they did.)

While studying camels, I learned that scorpions circle a camp fire at a distance determined by the heat of the fire. Sleep across that circle, and you may get stung, as I have noted in two books, but I don’t think I have yet used what happened later the night I learned that: it was a full moon, and a pale and ghostly dingo came to visit me as I lay in my swag.

I would have used the story if I had been properly prepared. I should have had my digital camera on and ready, because the dingo had visited two others of the party in the previous 20 minutes, and I knew it would eventually visit me. Instead, when the pale face loomed up, I said certain stern words of dismissal, and missed taking the shot of a lifetime. I won’t make that mistake again.

With a science degree, I am always on the lookout for wildlife. I wear soft rubber shoes and walk silently, which can be alarming for the kangaroos I disturb, and not too good for my heart as they thump off into cover. That happened nine times, one day on Mount Exmouth in theWarrumbungles. None of them was a mean old man roo like this one on the right: you need to know the difference!

Some might call my actions that day crazy. I was out on my own, but I had survival gear, I was on a marked track, and I had filed a walk plan. Also, I expected other people to be on the mountain, but they weren’t any others.

All the same, there is crazy, and there is apparently crazy. If I wasn’t prepared for the dingo that came to visit, I am always prepared for troubles when I go bush, either on my own or in a small group. Like those writers of almost a century ago in their biographical notes, I work hard to deliver a good yarn, but I don’t really take risks.
While catching piranha in the headwaters of the Amazon, a few months ago, I proposed doing a Rex Hunt and kiss the fish before releasing it, and that thought may seep into my writing one day — but my blood never seeped into the Amazon.

 On Thursday Island, we found ourselves in crocodile territory, where we had gone to examine a dugong jaw, because when William Dampier found one in a shark’s belly, he mistook it for a hippopotamus jaw.

Luckily, saltwater crocodile cannot "gallop" like the smaller and less aggressive freshwater crocodile. Salties can reach speeds of 10 or 11 km/h when they "belly run". They go faster if they are sliding down muddy tidal riverbanks — a sort of a crocodilian toboggan with teeth, but that is downhill on mud.

Uphill and on dry land, the saltwater crocodile, Crocodylus porosus, has no chance of catching an active human. In water, it is another matter. The "salties" can swim faster than us, at up to 15 km/hr, though they rely mainly on being able to surge out of hiding and to grab their prey on the water’s edge.

We stayed away from the water, and kept an eye on the sparse vegetation behind the mud, and I assured my wife that if your hand is already inside its jaws, the trick is to reach down for the palatal valve that stops water running into their throats and drowning them. Grabbing this floods their lungs and leaves them unable to continue the attack.

She looked me in the eye. “I'd like to shake the remaining hand of whoever came up with that one!” she told me, as we proceeded cautiously.

Like me, she is a biologist, and she stands happily by, pulling ferns aside so I can get a better shot of a tarantula, or holds still as an anaconda slithers over our gum-boots.

She also wrangles leeches for me, but she drew the line once at poking a funnel-web with a stick to make it rear up and show its fangs, and she mostly leaves the mountains to me.

So back to my Warrumbungle mountain, a wedge-tailed eagle was there that day, and it swooped me repeatedly as I worked around a difficult rock face, and I elected not to get the camera out until I was safe. As soon as I got past the hard bit, it moved away of course, but when I was on the peak, it circled me, always staying in the sun, casting its shadow near or over me and preventing a shot.

Animals are often uncooperative, so plants and rocks are often easier, though when the plants are poisonous, you can still get into trouble. London’s Chelsea Physic Garden has many poisonous plants, but I drew odd looks when I asked where they were in 2006. I have written several books on poisons and poisoners and I have been translated into a number of other languages. When I explained my background as a poisons specialist, and mentioned how Jo in Little Women, while seeking material for stories,
“…excited the suspicions of public librarians by asking for works on poisons…”, the severe expressions eased.

To be continued....

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