Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Splash, Snake and Sting

Cooper's Creek was still flooding across the road (though not as deeply) when Rachel and I set off on our weekend to the Atherton Tablelands. After watching several other little cars of the same breed as ours bravely ford the waters, we summoned the courage to drive across ourselves. Well, actually I waded across on foot first so that I could take this photo of Rachel driving the causeway. As you can see the water was actually not very deep at all compared to two days earlier and five days later (but those are other stories...).

After a stop in Kuranda to visit the Butterfly Sanctuary, we carried on to Mareeba where we enjoyed what would prove to be the only sunshine of Rachel's entire six days in Far North Queensland, reinforcing Mareeba's town slogan of '300 days of sunshine per year'. However, we spent most of our allotment of sunshine inside Coffee World indulging in coffee, liqueurs and chocolates and admiring the hilarious museum of every coffee machine and pot ever made.

We spent much of the weekend driving around the Tablelands under grey skies and walking on muddy tracks through quite a different kind of rainforest than I'm used to at Cape Tribulation. Rachel saw a Lumholtz tree kangaroo. I saw three platypuses (I want to write platypii but the spell check says no!). We visited many many waterfalls, which are one of the main natural attractions on the Tablelands. But my favourite bit of landscape was the Mt Hypipimee Crater lake which is unbelievably deep and mysterious.

We also saw this red belly black snake. I've been going round for ages saying I wanted to see a snake, trying to spot them when I am in the rainforest, and hoping that I don't encounter one by stepping on it in the dark. I thought a big amethyst python would be a benign snake to see for my first FNQ snake encounter. But this sinister black snake was just sitting on a pile of dead wood right next to a fairly busy walking track. Though its eyes looked open it didn't move the whole time I stood at what I hoped was a safe distance and utilised my 12x optical zoom to take photos. It did change positions however, before Rachel saw it 20 or 30 minutes later. My new wildlife book says red belly blacks are 'potentially dangerous' but this sleepy specimen was all potential and no action thank goodness.

My actual encounter with venom was from flora not fauna. See these luscious berries? Don't they make your mouth water at the thought of their raspberry-inspired succulence?

See how when photographing the berries I didn't focus at all on the leaves? If I had paid attention to the shape of the leaves before I reached out my fingers to pluck a single juicy berry from the laden tree, I might, just might, have noticed and remembered that the notorious Stinging Tree*, along with its large heart shaped leaves, has pink raspberry-like berries. If you look closely at the stalk from which the berries are suspended you might notice (as I didn't) the many fine hairs covering it.

The hairs covering every part of the stinging tree are made out of silicon, and are in fact microscopic slivers of glass filled with neurotoxins which cause agonising pain which can last for up to six months. As soon as I had that pink berry between my fingers and felt the silica hairs dive into the pad of my thumb and the crease of my index finger I realised I had met the stinging tree, Dendrocnide moroides.

The pain of the stinging tree is just as excruciating as its reputation threatens. I could tell I was lucky to only have been pierced by the hairs on a very small area of my body, but the pain spread through much of my hand which swelled up and throbbed with varying degrees of intensity from preoccupyingly painful nettle rash (when still and dry) to being stabbed with white hot needles through the bone (when wet, pressured or moved).

All my remembered knowledge of the stinging tree (which I have been alert to, to the point of paranoia, since I first heard of it in FNQ until the very moment that I became mesmerised by the pink berries) churned through my mind, particularly the longevity of the pain and the utter lack of any traditional or modern antidote for the poison. I tried to imagine hurting this much for six months and felt feeble and defeated at having to soldier on through my life so bravely.

After a few hours of misery (more dismal waterfalls, a pretty good farmers/flea/craft market which I just couldn't really enjoy) we went back to our accommodation where the helpful staff suggested trying to extract the stingers with hair removal wax strips. Luckily one was found and applied and followed by applications of duct tape for good measure. All the attention and pressure on my poor hand reduced me to tears at that point but within an hour or two the pain had started to recede.

By the next morning I was ready for another bout of sightseeing. One track we visited had a sign near the start warning about the stinging trees. I wish that every track was so well informed.

I suspect I still have a slivers of toxic silicon broken off deep inside where fortunately they seem mostly impervious to water, which is the worst thing for most people who've been stung. Pressure or cold (I'm trying to remember to squeeze the toothpaste tube with my other hand) can still surprise me with a stab of deep awful pain, but mostly it doesn't hurt at all. In retrospect, it seems like I went into mild shock when I was stung and it took much longer for my mind to clear than for the pain to ease.

*This is such a good link to Stinging Tree info you really should check it out!

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