Australia

On the New South Wales Central Coast, David Whitley discovers the grizzly truth about where antivenom comes from

 

On the New South Wales Central Coast, David Whitley discovers the grizzly truth about where antivenom comes from

 The funnel web spider is clambering around a little too freely for my liking. It may be surrounded by a Perspex square that’s too smooth for it to climb up, but nonetheless, I’m not getting any closer than I have to.

Kayleen, however, seems considerably braver. One of the professional venom milkers at the Australian Reptile Park on the New South Wales Central Coast, she is prodding the tips of its legs with a pipette. It’s attached to a suction system, so she’s effectively using it like a vacuum cleaner, sucking up the venom.

The Sydney funnel web spider is not to be messed with. Kayleen says a bite can kill an adult human with 76 minutes, and a child within just 13. “But we’re pleased to say that there’s been a fatality rate of zero since we started our programme.”

That programme involves a roomful of highly dangerous spiders in plastic tubs being milked once a week. The venom is collected, then sent to a biopharmaceutical firm called CSL in Victoria, where it is used to make antivenom via the medium of rabbits.

Antivenoms, it turns out, are not made using chemistry sets. They come about via a six month process of injecting the poor bunnies with increasingly high doses of the milked venom. They gradually build up a resistance to it, and then their blood is centrifuged – the red blood cells go back into the rabbit, and the resistance-carrying white blood cells become the key ingredient in the antivenom that’s injected into humans. A similar process is used with snakes – although the taipans, tiger snakes, death adders, eastern browns and black snakes have their fangs pressed into plastic film covering a shot glass, and horses are used instead of rabbits.

The Australian Reptile Park has a substantial snake milking operation behind the scenes, but it’s the spider milking that’s on public view – they hold special displays every day that less arachnophobic visitors are welcome to gawp at.

 

 

The problem, however, is getting enough male spiders to milk. “We rely on people handing them in, but a lot of people are so terrified of them that they don’t get this far,” says Kayleen.

The males are smaller than the females, but six times more venomous – and that makes them better for milking. “But part of the problem is that they – and we – don’t know they’re males until they’re two-and-a-half years old. They only live for a year or two after that – and their life is spent hunting a female to mate with.”

So while the females are happily burrowed in the ground, the males are crawling around trying to find them. The boys, when they’ve found a likely sweetheart, will twang away at her web until she thinks she’s caught some prey in it. He’ll then hold back her fangs, do what grown-ups do when they love each other very much.

Once they finish, he’s stupid enough to walk away. She then attacks him, kills him and feeds him to her children. Who said romance was dead?

 

 

 

 

Handily, you can get Australia included as a stopover (plus get another 9 around the world) on a Navigator RTW We also love Australia (Go Aussies!) and sell very well priced breaks in Coastal New South Wales

 

by David Whitley

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The land of fire

 

David Whitley visits the bushfire-hit Blue Mountains to discover the extraordinary eco-system that such fires have created

“When I took my first tours through here, everything was black,” says Evan. “But there’s not been a fire for 14 years here. And you can tell.”

Evan Yanna Muru runs the Blue Mountains Walkabout tours through a patch of thick forest near Faulconbridge station. It feels a world away from modern life, but is surprisingly close to residential areas. The residents in those areas, of course, generally see fire as a bad thing.

But for the ecosystem of the area, fire is an essential ingredient, needed every four or five years. Evan points to the shrivelled fruit pods and lack of wildflowers. They’d be booming in the year after a fire, he says. The destruction is necessary for the regeneration. And when the regeneration happens, it does so with extraordinary energy.

The next day, heading down into the Megalong Valley on the way to a campsite breakfast among the kangaroos, Tim Tranter from Tread Lightly Eco-tours tells of the 2002 bush fires. They scourged the area we’re driving through, lasted weeks and covered Sydney’s Bondi Beach in a thick black cloud on Christmas Day. “Within a year, you couldn’t actually see what had been burned,” he says.

Nature works in truly remarkable ways in these parts. “You can walk through six different biospheres without changing altitude, he says. “You go from tall eucalyptus forest to ancient Gondwana rainforest from the Jurassic era just crossing the road.” Trees don’t lose their leaves every year – they lose their bark. It’s the only country in the world where you smell the leaves rather than the flowers – the oils in the eucalyptus leaves have that distinctive nose-clearing scent.

But much of it wouldn’t be there without fire.

The Blue Mountains aren’t mountains at all – the area’s made up of a series of plateaus created through an uplifting of the ocean floor 150 million years ago. Over time, rich layers of iron formed within that dominating sandstone. And the iron brings lightning.

“The area gets 100,000 to 200,000 lightning strikes a year,” says Tim. “And 100 million years ago, there was so much lightning that a new genus of tree was born.  This is the birthplace of the eucalyptus, of which there are thought to be 103 different varieties in the Blue Mountains alone.

 

The oils in those leaves, which give the area its blue haze and clear up colds throughout the world, are highly volatile. They go up in flame terrifyingly quickly, spreading the fire through the canopy. This is evolution in progress. For the tree, fire could mean death. So having leaves that pass the fire on as quickly as possible is simply a survival strategy. The bark falling off is much the same thing. When it goes, the tree trunk is smooth and it’s much harder for the fire to take hold on it.

But the tree must reproduce leaves remarkably quickly to be able to survive. It needs them for photosynthesis. And within 100 days, you’d hardly know they’d gone in the first place.

Australian nature logic doesn’t fit that of the rest of the world. People assume that once a fire rips through, an area will be a blackened ruin for years. It’s an assumption that’s been made with the 2013 Blue Mountains bushfires (which didn’t affect any of the main tourist areas anyway), and visitors have stayed away. But this is land that needs fire, and thrives on fire. The acres that burned are already on the way back to being far more vibrant and beautiful than they have been for years.

After the burn comes the birth.

Handily, on a round the world ticket you can get Australia included as a stopover (plus get another 9 around the world) on a Navigator. We also love Australia (Go Aussies!) and sell very well priced tours in The Blue Mountains

 

by David Whitley

   

 

It’s not so grim up north

  

The kestrel soars on the updraft, slightly frantic wings betraying a sense of cool. Suddenly it dives down, presumably having spotted a skink on the rocks. Bad luck and RIP, little lizard.

Theoretically, we’re standing on the Long Reef headland looking for whales. They migrate up the coast in June and July, coming back between August and October. But in the absence of the big boys, it becomes clear how much wildlife there is, sneaking into the gaps between the flash seaside houses of Sydney’s northern beaches.

For most visitors to Sydney, there is no real call to head north of the harbour. Perhaps the ferry to Manly, then back again in the evening. Or an afternoon outing to Taronga Zoo. Beyond such tickboxes, there’s little apparent reason to venture upwards. It’s not just visitors either – the harbour provides such a natural barrier that those living south of it tend to regard northern Sydney residents as “living overseas�?.

Damien McClellan, who runs Eco Treasures Tours, is Northern Beaches born-and-bred, however. And he makes a living of showing off the bits that many people don’t bother to go to. The beaches themselves are clankingly obvious – anyone with a functioning pair of eyes can see they’re better than the more lauded ones in the eastern suburbs – but it’s what’s in-between that proves to be more interesting.

 

 

The Long Reef headland is a mini-nature reserve, and an excellent indication of how the coast works around here. It is not one of the more dramatic headlands – it offers a relatively gentle, tapered slope down to the crashing Tasman Sea. Brown sediment in the water shows how the rock is weathered away. It’s a gradual, relatively smooth process, due to the type of rock. The big sandstone cliffs on other headlands work differently – they’re cut away at from underneath and eventually the overhangs crash into the water.

“The indigenous people of the area divided the year up into seven seasons,�? says Damien, reaching for the wattle plant. “When it flowers in September, for example, it usually coincides with mullet fish running. It’s a good indicator of a change of season - and plentiful food.�?

Looking down towards Dee Why beach, Damien explains how the rhythms of nature affect the entrance to the small lagoon lying behind it. “Small waves gradually build up sand and close the gap. Then a storm comes along and knocks it down again.�?

He’s a man who spends a lot of time studying waves. Surfing is his real love, and the Northern Beaches has a strong surfing scene. Narrabeen is arguably the most beloved hotspot, but the best breaks can vary from day to day.

The surest sign of dedication is when someone prefers to surf. Logic would dictate that the summer months and warmer water are the best bet, but McLellan spends more time on his board in the winter. The prevailing winds are more conducive to consistent breaks, and if that means donning a wetsuit, so be it.

Being close to the sea is a fundamental part of Northern Beaches life. The inconveniences of getting into the city are happily traded off for the chance to hear the waves crashing. The further up the coast you go, the more detached from the rest of Sydney it feels. There are fewer commuters and more self-employed businesspeople working from home. The houses, some bought by rich blow-ins, others passed down through the family from the days where this was a cheap place to live, get ever more spectacular.

It all ends at Palm Beach, better known to international audiences as Summer Bay, the fictional setting of Home And Away. The gloriously long stretch of sand goes up to the lighthouse on the Barrenjoey Headland, while the Bouddi National Park on the Central Coast can be found on the horizon.

The place has a smug contentment about it, the knowledge that it’s about as far from hardship as it’s possible to get without entering the world of private helicopters and superyachts. Novice surfers attack the waves at the relatively tame southern end of the beach, dozens of dogs walk their owners and residents with seemingly not much to perturb them graze on flat whites and eggs benedict.

It is at the same time very separate from Sydney and the absolute embodiment of it. If you’ve got the money, the Northern Beaches have the dream. Well, unless you’re a soon-to-be devoured skink, anyway.

 

 by David Whitley

 

 

The best town in Australia?

David Whitley takes a detour on the road north to find the surfers’ magical fantasy land that is Yamba

It doesn’t take long after veering off the Pacific Highway to realise that there’s something a little bit special. Sugar cane fields appear, interspersed with cobalt blue channels branching from the Clarence River’s fabulously messy delta. Enormous pelicans glide along the water, unaware of how marvellously ridiculous they look.

And at the end, as the Clarence finally meets the sea, is Yamba. It has long been a sleepy little surf town, with basic cabin and holiday park accommodation along the river shore, but in the last five years or so, people have begun to take notice. In 2009, Australian Traveller Magazine named it the best town in Australia, and since then more upscale restaurants have opened, while backpackers have started to trickle in.

Shane Henwood, who co-owns and manages the Yamba YHA with his family, says he initially came to the town for the surfing. He’s not the only one – Angourie Point is one of the world’s most feared and salivated-over surfing breaks, while the founder of the Billabong surfwear empire has a huge mansion on the hilltop.

Big waves make Yamba a key surf spot, but having ten beaches rather helps too. Four of them can be reached within a fifteen minute walk of the main street, and the crucial thing is that they’re all facing in different directions.

“Locals call Yamba the Byron Bay of 20 years ago, or the real Surfer’s Paradise,” says Shane. “And we’re proud to say that we get the longest stays out of any YHA in Australia.”

Many of those long-stayers are people who get bitten by the surf bug, but Yamba does have that magical traveller gravitas to it. Not everyone has head of it, it’s not quite on the obvious backpacker trail, living is relatively cheap once there and it’s just hard enough to get to for visitor numbers to stay relatively low.

For the newcomers, however, there is the rather jolting introduction of Shane’s ‘legendary’ $15 tour of the area, which includes feeding fish and – more pertinently – cliff-jumping. The man is rather unnerving, largely because he has far, far too much energy. “I never, ever get sick of pushing people off cliffs,” he says with excitable zeal. “But if someone cries, they ban me from the Red Bull for a few days.

“Yamba is a relaxing place, unless you’re hanging with me and I’ve had Red Bull. I do stupid stuff when I’ve had Red Bull.”

This becomes apparent when he spots a snake. “If it’s a brown, it can kill you within 47 minutes. If it’s a red-bellied black snake, you’ve got a day.” He then throws himself into a little cavelet, Steve Irwin-style, to see if he can catch it.

It would be fair to say that the tour is far more about what isn’t advertised than what is. At the first cliff, a relative tiddler, he’s absolved from pushing anyone off. Everyone’s game enough to take the heels-first plunge into the pool created long ago when townsfolk quarried out the rock to make breakwaters.

 

 

When it gets to the 12 and 18 metre cliff jumps, however, it’s an altogether different story. Without adding spoilers, let’s just say things don’t quite go as billed.

On the way back, we stop by the waterside tavern to feed bread to fish – “Clarence River piranhas”, Shane says not altogether convincingly – and drop by the golf course. Forget the water traps and bunkers – there’s an altogether more Australian hazard for Yamba’s golfers. The course is absolutely riddled with kangaroos, and they’ve frankly no intention of moving on the cry of “fore”.

They’re not the only locals that are difficult to budge either. The residents of Yamba seem, almost universally, to know they’re on to a good thing. The mission now is to stop the entire world finding out about it.

  

by David Whitley 

Disclosure: David stayed at the Yamba YHA as a guest of YHA Australia. 

   

  

  

You can get the Australia included as a stopover on a Navigator RTW

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Australia’s most incredible sick bay

On the North Head of Sydney Harbour, David Whitley discovers the Quarantine Station that thousands would have passed through on their way to a new life

The shower block is gigantic, and feels industrial. This was the nice one, for first class passengers only, with barriers erected for privacy. The steerage passengers wouldn’t get such treats – they’d just be herded through and forced to scrub publically in water infused with heavy doses of carbolic acid. I don’t want to say where it reminds me of, but the guide steps in.

She says: “Some people coming here had come from the concentration camps in Germany and Poland. They would see people going into this huge shower block, smell the awful unnatural smell of the carbolic acid, and then not see the people again because they left through the back.

“It was like they had been sent back to what they had escaped from.�?

The Quarantine Station on Sydney Harbour’s North Head is a remarkable place. Bandicoots, kookaburras and cockatoos pretty much have the run of the place, the harbour views are exceptional and most of the old buildings there have been cleverly converted into hotel rooms. But the place is riddled with history. This is Australia’s equivalent of Ellis Island in New York – it’s the place where first convicts and then free-settling immigrants would have to pass through before starting their new life.

Only one person on a ship needed to be sick for everyone else on it to be quarantined. Most people staying here were healthy when they disembarked, but they had to stay healthy for 21 days. You could be in for 20 days, then come down with the mild sniffles – something hard to avoid in the overcrowded conditions. The clock would be reset – it’d be another 21 days before you could rejoin the wider world.

The burden of proof was on the passenger, who had to prove he or she was free of disease. This usually involved being methodically checked over for smallpox rashes and other such indignities.

In 1918, there was panic over the Spanish influenza pandemic, and the solution was to send 40 people at a time into an ‘inhalation chamber’. To all intents and purposes, it’s an empty room that would be pumped full of steam laced with zinc sulphate. It was designed to cleanse the throat and airways, but given that zinc sulphate is now used as an emetic, it’s no surprise to learn that the treatment made more people sick than it cured.

  

Another building contains the autoclaves. They’re huge, industrial oven-like machines, connected to the boilerhouse by pipes. Steam would come through, and trolleys full of luggage, bedding and other belongings would be dumped inside for a high temperature steaming. Given that a lot of the luggage was essentially cardboard, many people had vital documents, photographs and clothing destroyed.

Only about 580 boats ever came here. The idea was to not let disease on board at the point of embarkation in the first place. There are no accurate numbers for the number of people who stayed at the Quarantine Station, but it is known that at least 572 died here. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a lot of ghost stories. And during the evening ghost tours, that shower block is the creepiest place of the lot.

 

Disclosure: David stayed at and visited the Quarantine Station as a guest of Tourism Australia.

 

by David Whitley

  

  

 

You can get the Australia included as a stopover on a Navigator RTW