In the Northern Territory, Aborigines have their traditional dances. Hands behind their back, they mimic the animals around them. They pound their feet on the ground. They thrust their chests forward, stick out their bottoms and revere the wildlife in song and dance. At least, that’s what I’ve seen on the television.
But on a hike during a recent trip to The Territory, I discovered that there is more to the native fauna mimicry than a good show. The Top End is full of creatures big and small and equally deadly. Increasingly perturbed by the dangers at hand and willing to do anything to avoid them, I found myself dispensing with all dignity to imitate the witless waddle of a ruffled emu.
Phrase 1: Bend low and avoid the spiders.
The Mangarre bush track, Kakadu National Park. As I walked I had to keep my head cocked and my back bent. My nose almost dipped down to my knees. But walking this way was still preferable to the alternative.
Suspended every so often across the path were large wheel-shaped webs. They all appeared to be strung neatly at eye-level when I was standing upright. And inside each of these sturdy traps was a plump, malicious-looking Golden Orb Weaving spider.
We swatted away the webs with a fallen palm frond, but every time I slipped past with a hasty dash and a fearful quiver, I could almost feel the eight eyes of the reigning arachnids following my progress.
You have to admire the miniature beast, I suppose. Those yellow-banded legs and fat bodies the size of my pinkie were indeed an impressive sight. But I preferred to respect them from a distance.
Our first sighting of a Golden Orb web strung the beginning of the track should have been a tell-tale warning of what was to come. But we gave it little thought, swatting away the fine silk and bulldozing on through the bush.
Phrase 2: Lift knees high and avoid the slitherers.
At first the track was clear, a thin trail of dusty red amidst dense, messy woodlands. But the further we continued along the track, the more it began to meld with its surroundings. A tangle of rainforest vines, spiky Pandanus trees, Cabbage Palms and thick scrub began to grow over the path.
The wet season, fondly shortened to “The Wet” by locals, had only just ended. It had been an intense season and our surroundings gave a hint to its violence.
During The Wet, Mangarre Walk is beneath water. The current whips the twigs, vines, branches and grass into a murky soup. When the waters recede, the dregs are deposited across the woodlands like flotsam.
As we walked, branches, vines and shrubs were strewn higgledy-piggledy. It was hard to distinguish one plant from another, they were so intertwined. Occasionally, we were met with mishmash of flora so thick we could only proceed beneath the wreckage, shimmying through on hands and knees.
Back bent low to avoid Her Majesty the Golden Orb from above, I couldn’t forget the other peril beneath my feet. Amidst the post-Wet tangle, was a knee-high forest of yellow grass. And where there’s grass, every Aussie knows, there are snakes.
As a city girl dressed only in denim shorts and sandals, I did the only sensible thing to avoid attracting a deathly adder. I walked delicately, lifting my knees to my chest with each step (Disclaimer: in reality this is most likely a totally useless defence against a determined snake).
Phrase 3: Wave arms madly and avoid the suckers
Golden Orbs and snakes. But there was another, airborne nuisance. The mozzies (mosquitoes to the rest of you) were in town.
As we picked our way through dense undergrowth, we got deeper into no-man’s land. We were unwilling to turn back and re-acquaint ourselves every Golden Orb spider now riled up because their home had been ruined by marauding human beings.
But the going was tough and the weather balmy; our clothes were soon soaked through with sweat. And our tasty aroma beckoned a far peskier sucker than the Golden Orbs (who, it must be said, are famously shy around humans and whose bite causes at most a bit of painful swelling).
Swarms of mosquitoes began to peck at our skin. They buzzed provocatively around our ears and began to feast on our sweat-soaked backs. I tried to pick up my crouched-and-squatted walking pace and waved my arms hysterically to rid myself of these bloodsuckers.
Phrase 4: Whip head side to side and avoid the crocs!
The Mangarre Walk follows the East Alligator River along the border of Arnhem Land. Yes, Alligator River. Now, mistaken identity aside this river was indeed named for the menacing reptiles that lurk in its waters.
(Side note: the Alligator Rivers in the Northern Territory were named by Lieutenant Phillip Parker King in 1820, who clearly didn’t know the difference between crocodiles and alligators).
At particular points along the walk, we skirted close to the murky brown depths of the aforementioned river. With the knowledge of its inhabitants in mind, I grew particularly vigilant.
Saltwater Crocs, the Kings of the Top End, are known to stray from the waters edge quite happily, especially when witless human beings willingly stumble into its feeding grounds.
So my eyes, already sore from their endless hunt for Golden Orbs and sly snakes, began to dart backwards and forwards as well. To any observer, I would have looked like one of those head-bobbing dashboard figures.
Naturally, the path eventually petered into nothing. We found ourselves in a clearing. The woodland floor littered with a wet season’s worth of soggy detritus, we could have taken any of a number of potential dim pathways.
There was nothing for it.
We’d have to turn back.
But this time, we would go double speed.
My transformation was complete. I was walking like a bandy-legged, hunchbacked lunatic. Like a provoked emu with feathers ruffled.
I whipped through the forest, crouching low, lifting my knees high, and spinning my head madly. The creepy crawlies and the reptiles seemed less daunting when the forest was a blur.
Finally, we emerged back into the car park. With twigs in my hair, dirt on my faces and scratches on my arms, I stood up, straightened my clothes and tried to walk with a dignified air back to the car.
With a final glance back at that dreaded walk, my eye caught sight of a rusted sign deposited at the side of the track. Track closed, it said, due to excessive damage from the wet season.
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