Summer in Australia: bushfires, brown snakes, blowflies and bogans.
Summer in Australia.
Bushfires, brown snakes, blowflies
On Wednesday evening returning from our trip for supplies to Mansfield, our nearest decent sized town, we just missed running over what looked at first like a long light brown leather belt. Or was it a thin blackened twisty tree branch or perhaps a piece of rope?
We knew it was none of these. It was of course a snake, a fully grown, healthy looking and probably very venomous one. The debate in the car was over the species and thus its level of toxicity. The hot dry summer has brought them out and our neighbour’s dog had a few weeks earlier attacked one, begun a convulsing mouth frothing reaction to the venom, and saving it cost her owners a $1300 vet bill.
Back at our house, where we had come to pull down the decorations still in place from Christmas, we were compelled to spend most of the following day inside with curtains drawn and with fans and evaporative coolers going full blast. Outside the thermometer was touching 40 degrees and we were managing to keep the inside a bearable 31.
If you do go outside on days like this, you notice few birds flying around. They are exhausted by the heat and many seek shade in dense shrubs. I came across a pair of young king parrots their wings drooping and their beaks open panting. I could have touched them they were so lethargic.
Flies usually drive you nuts in summer, but on days like this they too seem to have dropped from the sky.
Since mid morning on Thursday Jill had been monitoring, courtesy of her new smartphone and its Country Fire Authority app, a bushfire that had started 60 to 70 kilometres south east of here. By late afternoon when we did stick our heads out into the heat, we could see what had begun possibly from a camper’s fire at a place called Donnelly’s Creek, was now a very large blaze sending huge plumes of smoke into the air.
That evening the TV news had little about this fire preferring to concentrate on smaller ones nearer the city, But at midnight we could see it’s infernal glow in the distance and with the strong forecast winds knew it would not be ignored the next day.
Sure enough it was threatening towns to the south and burning houses and had claimed one life. By mid afternoon this camper’s carelessness had spread to 50,000 hectares and was totally out of control. The news crews were paying attention now and calling it a firestorm. Then the weather cooled and by Saturday morning a strong southerly wind was bringing the fire’s smoke to us.
We like coming to our little house, with its wildlife and views over the waters of Lake Eilldon (except during the 15 year drought when there was nearly no water). The lake is usually favoured by well heeled bogans who blast around in their jetskis and big powerboats but the heat even appears to have defeated them as well.
It is not so easy to make yourself cool in summer though and although we haven’t yet succumbed to getting air-conditioning like most of our neighbours, it does seem tempting. We noticed in our recent trip to Europe how many of the places we visited were being built with thick insulation and triple window glazing to keep out the cold.
We also noticed how this did little to keep out the heat in an increasingly warmed world. One of our hottest and most uncomfortable nights was in the Finnish town of Jyvaskyla at latitude 65, it should be a lot colder than here where Melbourne is latitude 37. But with daytime temperatures more than 30 and the sun low on the horizon it blasted straight through those layers of glass making our hotel room a triple glazed hothouse. The locals seemed as perplexed about what to do about the heat as we were.
One thing they don’t seem to do in Europe yet is the winter burn-off, probably because with all the snow, nothing would burn. They are doing it here though to get rid of the combustible undergrowth, a bit like the aborigines used to. It is something of a political issue with the Greens and their allies generally opposing it and the conservatives supporting it. Last year they burnt the national park on the opposite side of the lake from us and given that a fire in eucalyptus forest can send burning embers many kilometres ahead of the fire front, possibly straight to our little town, I am glad.
Having a house in a place like this, and facing more fires due to global warming, you always wonder how many years it can survive. Of course there are threats to it that are not just incendiary. One of them is airborne, the size of a small chicken and armed with a beak a like bolt cutters. Sulphur crested cockatoos are also noisy, sociable, intelligent and like teenagers when bored enjoy nothing more than a bout of destruction- often the window frames, weatherboards, deck and railing timbers of a wooden house like ours.
In one attack in the early 1990s they got stuck into our house and chewed holes in weatherboards you could stick two fists in. Many boards were replaced and frames capped with aluminium to try to deter them, but they recently destroyed a flyscreen door.
The problem is we are also visited by other bird species such as magpies, some of the young ones so tame they tap on the window glass when they want a feed. Then there are the spectacularly coloured king parrots, including one that sometimes sits on my lawn mower handle. And yes, we like to encourage these other birds by feeding them seed which is the same diet the cockatoos fancy.
Yes, it is a bit mean exercising this form of avian apartheid or species discrimination, but the cockies have form and we have a case to chase them away. But our efforts doesn’t stop up to 30 of them sitting in a nearby tree waiting for our backs to be turned. The other morning the only way I could get rid of this lot was to hit the base of the tree with the back of an axe. The vibrations sent them screeching into the air.
Returning to the car and the disagreement about the snake.
I thought it was brown, Jill thought it was black. I was sure I had run over its head, so I turned the car around the have a look. Alas I had missed and it was gone. If Jill was right about the color, an untreated bite from it would make an adult quite sick, but probably kill a small child.
If I was right, it would be an eastern brown, a rather aggressive snake whose venom is said to be the world’s second most toxic after Australia’s inland taipan. To put this in perspective for any overseas readers, on the lineup of the world’s deadliest snake venom, India’s king cobra only makes it to number 10.
Still only two Australians died last year from snakebite, but the brown is one of the main culprits because it likes farmland in the most highly populated parts of the country. It has been calculated that of the 41 snakebite deaths since 1980, 24 had been from the brown.
A report two years ago found that in India, the official annual snakebite fatalities of 2000 were under reporting by a factor of 23. The real figure was about 46,000, mostly from the two species of Indian cobra. The reasons apart from substandard medical care and a severe shortage of anti-venom is that cobras have a tendency to deliver an enormous amount of venom when they bite: up to an extraordinary 7ml from an adult king cobra.
Australian snakes by contrast are a bit less generous with their toxins. If it is any comfort being bitten by the world’s second most deadly means there is only a 20 to 40 per cent chance they will bother to squirt any of that venom into you. It seems they sometimes just hit you with a warning strike.
Best get to a hospital. But if you’re really worried, don’t go bush in summer.