From its wild landscapes to the creatures that inhabit them, Australia is full of things that can hurt you. But, argues Taryn Stenvei, we shouldn’t be put off getting to know the sharp-toothed, venom-soaked, scorching hot Outback. Quite the opposite.
In the photo, a carpet python lowers the front half of its sizeable body from a light fixture in the ceiling. It has burst through the heat lamps in someone’s bathroom, and seems curious about the strange place it’s found itself in. Text imposed on top of the image reads ‘Meanwhile in Australia’. This is one in a series of similar memes that suggest Australia is full of things that are out to get you, and that to live here is to laugh in the face of such risk.
I, for one, don’t laugh in the face of this danger. I don’t even smirk. I’ve lived here for 30 years, with numerous adventures into both the Outback and the scrubby sections of land known as the ‘bush’ (which, by the way, means pretty much anywhere that’s not a city…). And if that has taught me anything, it’s this—it’s OK to be afraid of Australian nature.
There’s an overabundance of things with the potential to kill you in Australia. They include (but aren’t limited to) the following: the unforgiving expanse of the Outback. Swooping birds that haunt the suburbs. Summer temperatures of up to 49°C. Nearly all of the world’s most venomous snakes (21 out of 25). And don’t even get me started on the inherent dangers lurking in the water—crocodiles, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, Great White Sharks. Hell, even rip tides.
There is an evolution of these dangers too. Australia—already parched, sweltering and flammable—will be left especially vulnerable as the effects of global warming heat the earth. Bushfires and drought are increasing in the wake of climate change, and the notorious harshness of the sun has turned skin cancer into our national disease.
Any journey into the uncertainty of the Australian wilderness is a reminder that nature wasn’t made to be tamed.
The harshness of the country is a clear testament to the power, resilience and resourcefulness of Indigenous Australians, who lived inextricably linked to the land, its flora and its fauna, for tens of thousands of years. Despite the hostility of the environment, the only real danger and threat to their existence came from invasion and colonization.
I admit the promotion of Australia as a place where only the tough survive is somewhat overstated, but it really is a land of extremes. The danger is certainly real; it’s the likelihood of coming across it that’s exaggerated. If you stick to the cities, you’re more than likely to avoid peril (well, most of the time). But sticking to the cities means you miss out on the Australian wilderness, and that’s a real shame. Because the beauty delivers back on the risk tenfold.
While our social and political climate has eroded my sense of patriotism, I can’t help but love Australia, the country. The blonde native grass fields; the cracked dry plains, regularly flooded by thundering rains; how just one meter from the hiking trail, the tangle of scrub obstructs any possibility of entry; the strips of dried bark shedding off tall native trees; the muted, sun-bleached hues of green and brown; cockatoos and magpies and kookaburras bawling overhead as the sun sets. The Kimberley. Tasmania. The Reef. Uluru. And my favorite part: the hallucinatory drives through the vast swathes of burnt orange dirt that make up the Outback. It’s mysteriously moving. It’s awesome. And yes, it’s terrifying.
Beauty without anything beneath it feels flimsy.
But it’s a terror that will bring you back to the world. There’s something about the shadow of danger, the acute awareness of your surroundings, the casting-off of the promise of safety—together, they allow you to achieve some form of mindfulness, which has been shown to work wonders for modern minds. When you’re in the bush or the Outback, the distance exposes you, and the scale can help you overcome yourself. You start to realize that feeling vulnerable is synonymous with feeling alive.
Any journey into the uncertainty of the Australian wilderness is a reminder that nature wasn’t made to be tamed. That as much as we try to deny it, we’re at the mercy of the world. It reminds us of the indifference of nature, that it treats us how it would any other animal. That we are meant to be outside. Not just outside our houses, but outside our minds, outside ourselves. We don’t just live here. We are one and the same. We should respect it, and we should be in awe of it. It’s a fear that humbles us. It’s a terror that sets us free.
Beauty without anything beneath it feels flimsy. Australian nature isn’t lovely or gentle or accommodating. Instead, it’s powerful, extraordinary, paramount, and yes, extremely beautiful.
Her beauty and her terror? Well, they’re one and the same.
Writer, editor, and sometimes music manager, Taryn Stenvei previously edited Beat Magazine and was the founding editor of travel title AWOL. She now freelances from home in Melbourne, turning records over and talking to her dog.