The (Seriously, Truly, Very) Fatal Shore

Australia's full of things waiting to sting, prong, chomp, drown, or lay you out with a toxic nip. People go missing there all the time. But the beer is cold. The sun mostly shines. And the author figures if he can remember to never leave the asphalt, he just might make it back alive.

Jun 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
A week later, we lost all hope of ever getting to Cooktown, checked out of the Palm Cove, and boarded a flight to Darwin. We bounced into Darwin a couple of hours later through the outer strands of two minor cyclones that were bumping along the north coast, and acquired another rental car—a sleek Toyota sedan that looked as if it could cover the 932 miles to Alice Springs in a single rocketlike burst. We dubbed it the Testosterone.

The Northern Territory has always had something of a frontier mentality. Still does. In late 1998 its inhabitants were invited to become Australia's seventh state and roundly rejected the notion in a referendum. In consequence, an area of 523,000 square miles, or about one-fifth of the country, is in Australia but not entirely of it. (Technically Australia has six states and two territories, one of which is the Australian Capital Territory, which contains Canberra, the federal capital. The Northern Territory is the other.)

This throws up some interesting anomalies. All Australians over 18 are required by law to vote in federal elections. Those failing to vote are fined if they don't come up with an adequate excuse. The fine is nominal—A$20, or 12 bucks—but it's there, and the authorities do trek out to homes to serve nonvoters. (Suggest to an Australian that this enforced voting seems mildly fascist and he'll likely argue that given voter turnout in the United States, Americans have no business telling Australians how to run elections.)

But here's the thing: Mandatory voting applies to residents of the Northern Territory. However, since the Northern Territory is not a state, it has no seats in parliament. So the Territorians elect representatives who go to Canberra and attend sessions of parliament (at least that's what they say in their letters home) but don't always affect national policy. Even more interesting, during national referendums the citizens of the Northern
Territory are again required to vote, but no Australian I met, including a member of parliament, could explain how their votes are accounted for. As far as I can make out, their ballots are just put in a drawer or something. Seems a little odd to me, but the people seem content with the arrangement.

Darwin is in the steamy heart of the tropics, which to my mind imposes certain stylistic requirements—white buildings with verandas, louvered windows, potted palms, lazy ceiling fans, cool drinks in tall glasses presented by obsequious houseboys, men in white suits and panama hats, ladies in floral-print cotton dresses, a little mah-jongg to pass the sultry afternoons, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre in evidence somewhere looking hot and shifty. Anything that falls short of these simple ideals will always leave me disappointed, and Darwin failed in every respect.

To be fair, the place has been knocked about a good deal—it was bombed repeatedly by the Japanese in the Second World War and then devastated by Cyclone Tracy in 1974—and therefore much of it is necessarily new. The one small local peculiarity was that there seemed to be no one about of professional demeanor. Nearly every person on the streets was bearded and tattooed and scuffed along with a wino shuffle, as if some very large mission had just turned everyone out for the day. "It's like a fucking ZZ Top convention," Allan muttered darkly, but correctly, at the hotel bar that night.

We had breakfast the next morning in a small Italian café and then drove out to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory because I had read that it had a box jellyfish on display. I had expected the museum to be small and dusty and to detain us for no longer than it took to find the jellyfish display, but in fact it was sleek and modern and quite wonderful.

One area was devoted to Cyclone Tracy, while much of the rest of the museum was given over to cases of stuffed animals illustrating the Top End's extraordinary biological diversity. Pride of place was given to an enormous stuffed crocodile named Sweetheart. Sweetheart had had a passionate dislike for outboard engines and used to attack any boat that disturbed his peace, but he never attacked a person. In 1979, when it was feared that he would do himself serious harm—all those propellers—wildlife officials decided to move him somewhere safer. Unfortunately, the capture was botched and Sweetheart drowned and became a stuffer.

Perhaps the most admirable quality about the museum—and I suspect this is a real Northern Territory thing—is that it didn't mince words about the dangers of the world outside. Most museums in Australia are at pains to stress the unlikelihood of anything happening to you. Darwin's makes it quite obvious that if something does happen to you here, you are really going to regret it. This was most potently displayed in the aquatic creatures section—and here at last we saw a preserved box jellyfish, the deadliest creature on earth.

It was remarkably unprepossessing—a translucent box-shaped blob, six or eight inches high, with threadlike tentacles trailing off beneath it. As noted above, these tentacles carry enough wallop to kill several people, yet the box jellyfish lives exclusively on tiny krill-like shrimp, creatures that hardly require a great deal of violent subduing. As ever in the curious world of Australian biology, no one knows why the jellyfish evolved such extravagant toxicity.

While we were studying the display, a man, lavishly bearded in the Darwinian style, said g'day. He identified himself as Dr. Phil Alderslade, curator of coelenterates. "Jellyfish and corals," he added at once, seeing our expressions of frank ignorance. "I noticed you taking notes," he said. I told him of my devotion to box jellyfish and asked if he worked with them himself.

"Oh, sure."

"How do you keep from getting stung?"

"Basic precautions, really. You wear a wetsuit, of course, and rubber gloves, and you just take a good deal of care when handling them, because if even a tiny piece of tentacle is left on a glove and you accidentally touch it to bare skin—wiping sweat from your face or brushing away a fly or something—you can get a very nasty sting, believe me."

"So have you ever been stung?"

"Once. My glove slipped and a tentacle touched me just here." He showed us the soft underside of his wrist. It bore a faint scar about half an inch long. "Just touched me, but jeez it bloody hurt."

"What'd it feel like?" we asked together.

"The only thing I can compare it to is if you took a lit cigarette and held it to your skin—held it there a goodish long while, maybe 30 seconds. You get stung from time to time by various things in my line, and I can tell you I've never felt anything like it."

"So what would a couple of yards feel like?"

He shook his head at the thought of it. "If you tried to imagine the worst pain possible, it would be beyond that. You're dealing with pain of an order of magnitude well past anything most people have ever experienced."

He did something you don't often see a scientist do: He shivered. Then he smiled cheerfully through his extravagant facial hair and excused himself to get back to his corals.

We left the museum and headed out of town through Darwin's sunny suburbs and at the edge of town passed a sign: alice springs 1,479 kilometres. Ahead, along the lonely Stuart Highway, lay 900-plus miles of largely unrelieved emptiness all the way to Alice Springs, and beyond it, Uluru. We were on our way into the famous and forbidding Never Never, a land of dangerous heat and bone-white sunshine.


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