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

   

 

Hunter Valley wine tourism tips for self-drivers

 

David Whitley looks at how to do a day out wine tasting without going over the drink drive limit

The appeal of going to a major international wine region and going round all day sampling wines is fairly obvious, and few places do the wine tourism thing better than the Hunter Valley.

This is partly due to its proximity to Sydney – it’s two to two-and-a-half hours’ drive out of the big city, which ensures a steady stream of people on short breaks and the infrastructure to cater for them. 

The major problem, however, is that the Hunter is not well served by public transport – both in terms of getting there and getting around the sprawling vineyard area. And this means that, without military style planning, you’re probably going to have to go there by car.

There’s an obvious flaw to this – if you want to go round tasting wine, then you’re very quickly going to be over the drink driving limit. 

The easy way to deal with this problem is to take the car, park it up and go out tasting on a tour. There are numerous tours available, and the general rule is that the bigger the bus, the more bog standard the wineries you’ll go to. Going for smaller local operators who have relationships with the wineries is more rewarding. The Hunter Valley YHA does its own tours for from $55 – usually with small groups, visiting the smaller wineries.

Splashing out a bit more (think $400 per couple), Aussie Wine Tours will take you round in a private car, tailoring the wineries visited to your tastes. 

But if going it alone, it’s that selectiveness that is key. One of the Hunter’s great selling points is that there’s very little wine snobbery. The wineries know that the whole gamut will walk in through their doors – from serious wine buyers to people who basically know it’s made out of grapes and nothing else. The people at the cellar doors will happily guide you through the best ways to taste, and point you in the direction of the sorts of wines that’ll suit your palate.

As a general rule, you’ll get to taste five (roughly) 20ml samples at each winery. That comes out at approximately one standard drink. So for drivers, a rule of thumb is that men can get away with two full tastings, and women one. Add an extra one if you spread it over a few hours and eat in between. 

So you can’t go OTT, but you can still do a few tastings while driving yourself round.

The key is in picking the right wineries. I dropped into the tourist information centre on the way in and asked which wineries do the big, gutsy reds I prefer and which do unusual varietals – such as Zinfandel and Viognier. The woman recommended Piggs Peake, Ivanhoe and Peterson’s – which proved to be spot-on choices. 

 

 

It’s worth asking similar questions at the wineries themselves. Most cellar door workers will happily make suggestions for the best of the rest.

The other, and probably rather obvious tactic, is to extend the day by limiting the number of wines you sample at each winery. 

Three wines at five wineries will give you a better sample (and day out) than five wines at three wineries. Narrow it down to the ones you’re most likely to buy or enjoy – if you’re not a white wine drinker, just stick to the reds for expediency’s sake. Similarly, there’s no point trying ones that are out of your price range if you’re narrowing down which to buy. It’s also worth asking the person serving them which three in particular they’d recommend trying.

And, if you want to extend beyond the drink driving limit, check which wineries are within walking distance of your accommodation. Tackle them last, after you’ve visited wineries further afield and parked the car up, on foot. 

 

Handily, you can get Australia included as a stopover on a Navigator RTW

We also sell breaks in the Hunter Valley

by David Whitley

  

An Australian menu: Decoded

 

After eating well in Australia, David Whitley has nobly decided to help you do so as well…

In terms of gap between perception and reality, few countries are more misjudged for their food than Australia. In fact, there’s a strong argument to say that Australia has the best food scene in the world – particularly when it comes down to sheer variety of what’s available. But to the uninitiated, Australian menus can throw up a few curiosities. Here are a few things to look out for…

Burger/ sandwich

These basically act as burgers or sandwiches do pretty much anywhere, apart from one key ingredient, which is often slipped on matter-of-factly despite not being mentioned in the menu description. This ingredient is the beetroot slice and it’s guaranteed to ruin the taste of whatever you’re eating with such totality that the addition of it is technically illegal under the Geneva Convention.

Meat pie

Australian pies, when compared to their grotesque British chip shop counterparts, are usually of pretty good quality. They’re a national source of pride, but the occasional duffer slips in. The secret to picking a good one is to look at how specific the description is. If specifies the meat, it’ll probably be lovely. If it just says “meat”, stay well away – you probably don’t want to know what’s in there.

Barramundi

It’s a big, meaty fish from the north of the country and it is almost uniformly excellent. Tick VG, just do it OK.

Sourdough

Australia operates a couple of years behind the rest of the world when it comes to trends, but once it spots one, it embraces it with such desperately pathetic enthusiasm that nothing else gets a look-in. Currently, therefore, absolutely everything comes “on sourdough”. Any café displaying an item not “on sourdough” is immediately shut down by the ultra-needy food fashion police.

 

 

“Smashed”

These same menus seem to be written by the Incredible Hulk. Everything in your breakfast, it seems, has to be “smashed”. That’s smashed eggs, smashed avocado, smashed potatoes, even “smashed browns”. Ask what it means, and you’ll be met with a sheepish shrug that basically means: “Something we’ve just broken up a bit.” Expect this to escalate in the coming years to “bludgeoned”, “hammered to fuck” and “annihilated”.

Golden Gaytime

Any Australian who claims not to love these biscuit-covered ice creams is probably an impostor. The name might elicit a double take, but no day with a Golden Gaytime consumed has been a bad day.

Sharing plates

Perhaps the most annoying over-embraced obsession is the complete takeover of “sharing plates”. To all intents and purposes, this means tapas but slightly bigger. The issue is that how much bigger is never really stated.

It can sometimes mean that a dish is half the size of a normal main course (but two-thirds the price) or it’s two-thirds the size of a main course (and exactly the same price as a main). So if you don’t actually want to share, you either end up getting the right amount of food (and paying one third more for it) or 50% more food than you really want at double the price.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the concept (apart from you end up paying more), but the utter domination of menus is incredibly tiresome. Sometimes you’ll have to go past five or six restaurants to find one that will give you what you want – one thing, done well, at a fair price.

 

by David Whitley

  

  

 

You can get the Australia included as a stopover on a Navigator round the world

 

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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