Fun with fauna Down Under

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 August, 2012, 6:25pm

Air and food pollution were reasons to flee Beijing after living there for seven years. We also worried about the children being hit by a car as the volume of traffic increased.

In Australia we're still worrying, but about very different things. We've swapped man-made issues for the Mother Nature factor, fretting about crocodiles, sharks and even huge flightless birds called cassowaries, which can be taller than us and run faster. A tourist was badly injured recently after being attacked by dingoes on Fraser Island.

On day one of our three-month stay Down Under, we pulled up in our camper van at a campsite halfway between Darwin and Kakadu National Park. There was a sign alerting visitors to saltwater crocodiles; they can be found in the sea and river estuaries. So despite the heat and enticing cool, blue water, you shouldn't swim in certain areas unless you have a death wish, and should be really careful when fishing.

The campsite manager explained matter-of-factly - as if she was giving us directions to the supermarket - that we should keep three metres from the water's edge as that would give us the chance to outrun the aggressive reptile if it chose to attack.

On a riverboat trip the next day, during which we saw countless crocs, our Aboriginal guide laughed heartily as he told us the creatures were fast runners as well as excellent swimmers. A human should be able to outrun a croc; it's the element of surprise that can turn us into dinner.

Needless to say, when we did take a walk near the river it was hard to relax despite the beautiful surroundings. Five-year-old Tilly, binoculars glued to her eyes, kept asking when we would see a crocodile. I already felt as if I'd seen enough of them for a lifetime, a feeling reinforced when we were told that a fisherman had his head ripped off by a crocodile a few years ago.

Wallabies are different, though. You can relax around these small marsupials. We very quickly felt we really were in Australia, seeing them bouncing along by the side of the road. Many young ones snuffle around campsites, making the kids (and me) a little nervous when we walked to the toilet in the dark. Was that noise in the bushes a wallaby or something more sinister?

In the daylight they look cute, freeze when you get close and have a tendency to stare into space. The poor creatures also have a tendency to get run over. Perhaps that's why we saw wallaby tails for sale in the supermarket freezers. I couldn't bring myself to eat a joey, though, nor could I eat crocodile meat, which was on the menu at our Cairns hostel's barbecue night.

Just a few hours into our stay at Hervey Bay, north of Brisbane on Australia's east coast, we discovered that some people unintentionally catch sharks, just by fishing on a small pier on the beach. "After I caught it I had to kill it, which wasn't too pleasant," one elderly woman told eight-year-old Sam. "But then I fried it up and it was good."

She advised us not to swim in the sea at dusk. Few sharks attack people, but, she said: "My friend and his fiancée were messing around and he threw her in the water. She was killed and he lost an arm."

Sometimes, however, if you want to see the loveliest parts of Australia, you have to take the plunge. In the Daintree Rainforest, north of Cairns, we learned about the cassowary from a large sign before beginning our walk. We'd never even heard of this bird before. Now we were reading how, if we encountered one, we should back away, while holding up an object in front of us in case it kicked out; it has sharp claws on its three-toed feet.

We must be becoming immune to the dangers of Australia because we were all rather disappointed not to see a wild cassowary.