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Australia — Survival Down Under

How to stay alive in Australia.

December 20, 2004

How to stay alive in Australia.

Something you really don't learn about Australia is just how dangerous it is. The Aussies will never tell you — it's too commonplace to them.

Imagine this, just for starters: You are in your garden, weeding, right in the middle of Sydney. An ugly, hairy funnel-web spider — there are 40 species — the size of a yo-yo takes a bite out of your hand. If you are very young, that single bite is all it takes: You're dead.

If not, the bacteria these spiders carry on their fangs will cause your skin to die and your flesh to literally melt away. There is no known antidote.

Or the trap-door spider, the size of a 50 cent piece, feels the vibrations as you walk by, rushes out and takes a fatal bite out of you.

Or you are lucky and just meet the white-tail spider, which bites your hand and causes an ulcerous sore that lasts for months, then leaves a large hole (the bite works like gangrene). Your garden also contains the king brown snake, the most poisonous snake in the world, 40 times more venomous than our rattler.

Actually, Australia has a hundred poisonous snakes, about a dozen of which rank among the most poisonous on earth. You might step on what you think are some fallen leaves, but discover it is the tiny death adder. Can you guess why they call it that?

Equally venomous are taipans, or red-bellied black snakes. You may see 20 of them in half an hour's walk in the hills.

Should you foolishly decide you want to go swimming in Australia, beware the stonefish. It looks like a seaweed-covered stone, but it has a spike. Should you have the misfortune of stepping on it, you're history.

We went swimming in a mild-looking bay outside Cairns, where there was a small sign: BOX JELLYFISH. How bad could that be? I was used to swimming in Hawaii and had tangled with many a Portuguese man-of-war.

Ha! If the three-foot tentacles of a box jellyfish so much as touch you, the pain is so intense that you scream out of control. Not for long, however, for if you don't get to a hospital soon, you can die.

If somebody comes along to take it off you, she is attacked. This jellyfish is so transparent that it's more or less invisible. You don't see it, you just start screaming.

Australians would actually rather meet a seagoing saltwater crocodile, all 20 feet of him. These swim between New Guinea and Australia, but will also go 30 miles up a freshwater river. They attack and they kill.

Still, they're better than the blue-ringed octopus, common in rock tidal pools around Sydney. Smaller than your hand, when annoyed its blue rings become iridescent, attracting the unsuspecting child.

The bite does not hurt, but injects a venom that can lead to total muscular paralysis and the cessation of breathing within minutes.

It is the world's most lethal octopus. The problem is that they sometimes wash into the swimming pools that people have built right at the edge of the sea, which fill up with tidal water every day.

Total paralysis after the bite means the suffering person cannot speak, though fully conscious. One victim reported her horror at hearing the paramedics saying, "It doesn't look like she's going to make it."

Still, my favorite has got to be the amazing gympie gympie tree. Sound sweet? There are six species. Two grow to 130 feet. They are in Queensland. Don't go there.

The hollow plant hair easily breaks off in your skin, injecting a pain-causing toxin that can last for up to one year! Constant, unbearable pain — so extreme that one stricken soldier took his own gun and shot himself.

Horses die from the pain. One dried specimen, collected in 1910, is still active. Australian forestry workers carry gloves, antihistamine and a respirator.

The extreme shock of the pain can cause a heart attack and death. You don't even have to touch this tree. You can just be sitting beneath it minding your own business. Wham! You're dead.

Adapted from SLIPPING INTO PARADISE by Jeffrey Maoussaieff Masson. Copyright (c) 2004 by Jeffrey Maoussaieff Masson. By arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group.