A lot of overseas visitors to Australia are scared stiff about our dangerous, and potentially fatal animals. We have the ten most venomous land snakes in the world, one of the most poisonous spiders, the deadliest jelly fish, and the most lethal octopus. I could also mention sharks, crocodiles and stone fish. Karen and I grew up around the northern beaches of Sydney, an area known for snakes, funnel-web spiders, blue-ringed octopuses and sharks, and like most Australians, while we have a healthy respect for these animals, we do not let them rule our lives. Anywhere we go in this country, we always have to be aware that there might be something living close by that could kill us. We always keep an eye out for bities, and we have been rewarded with many sightings, especially snakes.
Already on our travels Karen and I had had a couple of encounters with snakes. We had almost ridden over a red-bellied black snake as it slithered across the road near Bellingen. We saw snakes mating on the road in Cape York, and recently Karen had almost stepped on a four foot black snake as we walked by torchlight along a track at Lawn Hill. A couple of days after that we saw a snake climb up into the ranger truck we used every day, and not come out! We never did find out where that one had gotten to, but our fondest snake encounter, also from Lawn Hill, is of an olive python we called Ollie.
As I have mentioned, our duties as volunteer rangers included almost everything done by normal rangers, including the cleaning of the amenities block. When I say the amenities block, what I really mean is the showers and the dunnies. One morning we were met outside the block by a couple of campers who warned us about a rather large snake that had taken up residence inside. Karen and I checked it out, and sure enough, curled up at the base of the men's number one toilet, was a four metre olive python, delighting in the cool of the concrete and porcelain.
"You can clean the toilets today," I told Karen quickly.
After consulting with the rangers, we erected a cardboard sign on the toilet door. It read - "Quiet Please! Harmless olive python resting inside cubicle number 1. Please use next toilet."
We later added the word "relatively" in front of the word "harmless", as pythons can inflict a non-venomous bite if provoked. Ollie became an instant celebrity. Every man, woman and child in the campground visited the men's toilet for a peek and a photo. We learned that a lot of people had actually made his acquaintance on his way up from the creek to the amenities block. One female British backpacker had been awakened during the night by something moving around between the side of her tent and the tent fly. She had called out to her girlfriend in the next tent who had shone a torch in the direction of the disturbance and seen Ollie.
"What is it!?" the girl in the tent asked anxiously, unable to see what was out there.
"You don't want to know," her friend had answered. "Stay where you are."
The head ranger and his wife, on their way back from Adel's Grove had seen Ollie in their headlights as he crossed the road. They later recognised him - by a scar behind his head - as the same snake that had camped on their back porch a year or two previously.
A minute after the rangers had noticed him, Ollie had reached the amenities block where he headed for the men's. He was then almost trodden on by a man who was headed for the same destination. The man took one look at the huge python, and nearly went to the toilet on the spot. Amazingly, he maintained his composure, and decided to use the ladies' amenities instead.
Ollie stayed with us for ten days. On about the fourth day he shifted to a position midway between cubicle number one and cubicle number two. For the next few days the only toilet we had to clean was in cubicle number three. After a week, Ollie tried out the ladies amenities, finding a nice spot in a shower recess that had been closed due to the diminishing number of visitors to the park late in the season.
When we were cleaning in the cubicle next door, separated by two feet of space and a wall that started a foot above the floor, Ollie would watch every move we made. Not surprisingly, we were watching every move he made too. Occasionally he would be hit by a splash of water from the hose, and would flex his coils and writhe around a little, but it seemed as though he was merely stretching, like a cat, then settling down into a more comfortable position.
The campers treated Ollie with respect, giving him a wide berth, but we feared for his safety when the meeting of the local aboriginal land council was due to be held at the park. For better or worse, aboriginal people have the right to kill animals in National Parks, and a big olive python would be just another meal to them. On the morning of the day they were due to arrive, Karen and I and the rangers were preparing to physically re-locate Ollie to a safer location, when a passing camper informed us that the snake had returned to the scrub by the creek earlier that morning. Why had he chosen that particular morning to move? One day later, and he would have been dead meat. Perhaps he had a premonition of his impending fate. Perhaps ripples of his death had escaped from the future and permeated down through the cracks of time to prompt him to leave. Perhaps the rainbow serpent, the creator of all things, had whispered in his ear that it was time for him to move on. Or perhaps it was just a coincidence.
Speaking of coincidences, Karen and I were not immune from them while we were at Lawn Hill. Two weeks after returning from Mount Isa, we were speaking to a guy who was servicing the fire extinguishers in the ranger's office. When discussing the rock walls of the gorge, we discovered that he was a rock climber, and had climbed regularly with the husband of Adrien, the girl we had stayed with in Mount Isa. A small world?
In the course of a standard "where are you from?" conversation with Colin, the Lawn Hill head ranger, we found out that he had attended the same high school as me - the Forest High School in French's Forest in Sydney. A check of our ages ascertained that Colin was a few years older than me, but we calculated that we had both been at the Forest Hight at the same time for at least a year, and possibly two. Colin also mentioned knowing a girl named Sheree, whom he had thought was very attractive. Sheree had been my next door neighbour!
An even stranger occurrence was to follow. Karen and I were talking to a young couple in the camping ground who told us they were both physiotherapists. After discovering that all of us were from the northern beaches area of Sydney, the girl said that I looked very familiar to her, and asked if I had ever had any back problems. For twelve months before I left Roche, I had suffered from sciatica. I had tried a physiotherapist, a chiropractor and an osteopath but none of them had helped me find any relief from the pain. The osteopath, however, had been the first person to recommend that I have a set of x-rays taken. Upon examination of the results, he had told me I had no structural problems, and the pain must have been muscle related. He recommended I do a lot of stretching, and had shown me a few exercises and positions he thought would help. One position I was shown by the osteopath involved lying on my left side, twisting my back and bringing one leg up towards my chest. It was almost a mirror image of the position I sleep in, as I have always slept predominantly on my right side. I had swapped sides of the bed with Karen, and within a week the worst of the back pain was gone.
The girl physiotherapist asked me which osteopath I had consulted. I told her I could not remember his name, but he had worked in Dee Why and was very short. Not only did she know him, but she had worked for him, and had been often called in to massage his patients while he attended to others in different rooms. While I had been face down on the massage table, she had given me a massage! I still wonder what part of me she recognised.
But the story gets even weirder! While relating the medical history of my back, I mentioned that I had had no problems since Karen and I started travelling, explaining that we were only working at the national park temporarily as part of a cycling trip around Australia. The male physiotherapist then said that a patient of his had mentioned that her boss was quitting work to travel around Australia on a pushbike. After a brief run-through of the names of the girls in Karen's department at Coca-Cola, we discovered that Karen was the boss who had been talked about, and that the patient had been Rhonda, one of Karen's closest workmates!
What were the odds of that happening?