Where on earth did that big lizard go? It was just too big to disappear like that. I was sure it crossed the road about here in front of our 4WD. We'd slammed to a stop after seeing a huge monitor type reptile stalk across the Gibb River Road, Western Australia, and I'd grabbed a camera and ran back to try for a picture, but it had disappeared. Once it got into the knee-high grass it must have shot off so quickly. Must have been nearly 2 metres long.
Then I see diamonds at my feet in the grass. Beautiful yellow and black diamonds seeming to sparkle in the early morning sunlight, lying scattered in the long grass along a deep dark, scaly, greenish body, and as my eyes follow the diamond trail my mind is just starting to recognise the outline of that huge Bungarra so perfectly camouflaged in the grass just centimetres from my boots. I flick my camera to video. Then I kick it's tail....
Whooosh, that Bungarra takes off so fast before I realised I hadn't even turned the camera on!
Doug, our driver had warned me they can take to you and leave a nasty bite. But I hadn't given that a thought. It was just such an unusual event for any Kiwi out in the Australian Bush, and seeing such an incredibly beautiful reptile overrode any sense of caution I should have used.
I often had to stop and think about that lack of caution, because here in New Zealand we grow up in a country that has no dangerous animals, and very few toxic plants either. Our original natural biosystem had no land mammals apart from native bats and seals. Oh, sure there is our Katipo spider that may give you a nasty poisonous nip but very rarely encountered. But no bears in our woods, no crocs in our rivers and lakes, no snakes in our fields. We have such a safe environment for the hiker or even that family picnic at some riverside. So in my travels, I have had to consciously be very aware that I am in another country, and I cannot just go haring off into their veld or forests without learning about the dangers that may be waiting-no matter how low the actual risk- because the unexpected encounter can happen.
I've just been discussing with my wife this concept of being ignorant of other countries wildlife. She reminded me of a friend's story about their business-sponsored family trip to Zambia many years ago. Hot and sweaty, the river's edge seemed like a great spot to cool off for her and her toddler child. While she was reading her book on the bank, she was shocked to look up to see a native walk out of the high grass and down to the river and abduct her child! She was about to scream for help when the child was brought to her in his arms, and placed before her.
"Crocodiles, Madam. No play by river, Madam".
And I'm reminded of one of the scariest moments I have ever had.
In the desert in Damaraland, Namibia, on a volunteer project with Elephant-Human Relations Aid, EHRA, building a rock wall around a farm well. We'd camped in a dry riverbed near our work site, cooked over a campfire, thrown our sleeping bags on the ground, slept in the open under our billion-star hotel, and woken before dawn to make an early start. Around midday, I go wandering off seeking privacy around a bend in the dry river bed to answer call of nature. That mound of leaves blown into a pile under the bank looked just the perfect spot. Squatting and just about to go in Nature's bathroom when the pile of leaves rustled so unexpectedly...as if something was moving through the leaf pile rapidly. Right beneath my exposed rear!
This Kiwi jumped up and made the fastest dash out of there! Who knows what it was. Snake or lizard? Gee, that was one heck of a shock! Heart thumping stuff!
And this moment I wrote about here- Elephant behind me!
These encounters may be rare but they can happen, so now I like to do a little research before a new journey just so I'm aware of how I need to react when something surprises me again. And so when my friend mentions he'd like to walk part of the Appalachian Trail or in that general area, while in the USA visiting relations, I thought I'd Google around for info for him. He's not all that computer savvy. But he's another dumb Kiwi with no knowledge of wildlife in the area, no sense of caution and I just can't let him get chased by a bear in those woods, can I?
Observing wildlife, however dangerous it may be, is one of the true delights in hiking backwoods areas. And I'm sure he'll be overjoyed if he is lucky enough to come across a black bear, but whether he's got enough nouse to know how to handle the situation is another matter. According to this report, bear sightings are slim but becoming more frequent- Bear sighting report -a sign of a growing population hopefully. As that report says,they're hardly likely to be seen and just as unlikely to attack. And like most wild animals, unless cornered, they'll want to avoid you. I read that hikers are encouraged to make noise as they hike when in bear areas, to give them a chance to avoid you. And that is where we Kiwis need to learn about where we are hiking because, back home, we would normally hike in silence so as not to scare wildlife away, and to be able to listen to our birdlife. So we need to adapt to where we are. We Kiwis can be very rowdy at times! I'm sure he will be.
And then there are snakes, bobcats, and coyotes, etc, all part of that wonder of Nature. And we are lucky if we do see them. But usually they'll slink away silently soon as they hear or even smell you coming.
I'm sure the Hocking Hills trails of southern Ohio will be a delight for him to walk, and even more delightful would be the experience should he do have a chance encounter with bears. Getting back to Nature is what draws a lot of people to hiking any wilderness areas, wherever they are. And dangerous animals are just a part of that natural wonder. Without them,the experience would be lacking. We shouldn't be put off walking these trails because of our fears, but we can learn to understand nature and embrace it.
Umm... but don't embrace bears !