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The book is scheduled for release on 1 Feb 2019.
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I'm not sure whether I have Steven Spielberg to blame for my fear of sharks, but at least since his Jaws movie came out in the seventies, nightmare images have lurked somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind… Large, sharp teeth prowling with sinister intent beneath the waves as youngsters splash about, oblivious to the threat. A leg bitten off at the kneecap, arteries and veins dangling as it floats down to the sands below. Desperate cries, clawing for the shoreline, only to be yanked under and devoured in the murky depths, never to be seen or heard of again… And all, of course, against the backdrop of a menacing soundtrack.
Trouble is, once those images are implanted into your brain, they're hard to eradicate. And, unfortunately, that infamous shark-bait movie didn't end there. After it smashed the record for the highest-grossing film to date, another was made, then another (not all Spielberg's doing, I have to add). And if, by that time, you weren't frightened out of your wits by sharks, you could go and watch Jaws 3-D. Yikes! Of course, you could switch them off, boycott the movies, but such terrifying fiction is compelling – we can't force ourselves to look away.
Having moved back to the UK in the late nineties after a five-year stint in shark-infested Australia, my fears happily took a nosedive back into my deep subconscious. After all, in British waters, sharks known for carrying out unprovoked attacks aren't the norm… at least, they haven't been. Warmer seas due to climate change are set to alter that in the future, and there have already been a few reported sightings. Eek!
Up till now, we've generally only heard about the odd basking shark skulking about in England. So why don't I sound too alarmed about this? Well, let me put it in a nutshell for you…
Picture if you will a shark in front of you. Now imagine it's lost its set of false teeth. And there you'll have a basking shark. In the same way that some people prefer a fruit smoothie to a nice juicy steak, basking sharks are more interested in dining on plankton than chunky limbs. They may be the second largest fish in the world, but they just don't have the kind of killer bite that's called for in a spine-chilling movie. So if Spielberg (or one of his mates) made one featuring basking sharks, it would probably be called Gums – and it would be a massive flop.
Basically, no bite from the shark, no bite at the box office!
The only way around it would be to sell us on the idea that basking sharks are even more insidious than great whites because sucking the marrow out of their victims would be a slow and much more gruesome demise than a quick (and reportedly painless) chomp. But since basking sharks don't attack humans, the premise is flawed from the start.
Given the above, the topic of conversation has rarely ever come round to sharks whilst I've lived in England. But now that my partner Steve and I were on a plane to Australia, my secret phobia, as I've always thought of it, was reluctantly being dredged back up from the depths of my psyche and into the light of day. You see, this was Steve's first ever visit to the continent, so he was keen to know about all the nasties that might await him once we hit Aussie shores. Forewarned is forearmed, right?
"So, is it safe to go out in the sea, or are we likely to get a leg chomped off?" Steve asked as he sat back in his seat.
I wasn't sure what to say. Plenty of people went out swimming and surfing without undue hassle from sharks in Australia, and when I lived there, I'd gone out quite a few times myself. Thing was, once in a while, you'd hear about someone who'd had a limb bitten off – a stark reminder that the danger was ever-present.
Probably the most famous shark attack story features a Hawaiian-born surfer called Bethany Hamilton who, at the tender age of thirteen, went out on her board only to have her arm ripped off by a 4-metre tiger shark. But did she cower at the thought of ever going out again? No way! She jutted out her chin, picked up her board with her remaining arm and was back in the water – incredibly, just one month after her attack. And within two years, she'd scooped her first national surfing title.
Now, I might have been born in my mother's native Australia, where surfers are pretty broad-shouldered, but I was raised in my father's British homeland, a place which has a culture of being lily-livered about biting insects, let alone giant biting beasts. So if I were in Bethany's board shoes, I would've been a total scaredy-cat and far too anxious that one of the shark's relatives would come along looking to bite off my other arm. (I say 'relatives' there because they found and killed the shark that attacked her. It obviously hadn't brushed its teeth, because it still had bits of surfboard caught in its mouth.)
Anyway, despite 'dipping my toe' when I lived in Oz, I'd never felt comfortable going in the sea. But what should I say to Steve? Should I share my fears and put the poor guy off entirely?
"Err… Well, the odds of being attacked are incredibly low," I replied. "And they have shark nets in some places," I added, trying to soften the blow. I pulled a hat over my eyes and hunkered down into my seat, hoping that would be the end of it.
"So what about snakes?" Steve asked.
Crikey! Was there no let-up on this journey? Ever since the start of our flight in London, there'd been one thing after another, thwarting my attempts to doze off… The stewards coming round at odd times with meals and drinks… Restless legs from sitting down for so long… Being hauled on and off the plane for a two-hour stopover in Singapore… The constant drone of the engines… And the youngsters nearby who had been crying non-stop, their piercing shrieks cutting through my normally-trusty earplugs like a knife. On top of that, I'd slept badly the night before our flight, and we'd spent a day on the train just to get to London.
All in all, this was Sleep Deprivation Central. But now that the wailing had quietened down in Kiddie Corner, I was keen to take what was probably my only chance to catch forty winks before we touched down in Sydney.
I opened an eye and peeked at Steve from beneath my hat. Couldn't he read the signs? I'm trying to get some desperately-needed shut-eye here, mate.
"Are we likely to encounter any venomous snakes?" he continued to probe.
Jeez! He's like a terrier!
Leading up to our trip, I'd successfully dodged this avid line of questioning. I could tell that Steve was ever so slightly obsessed with the many nasties that can hurt, kill or otherwise pester you in Australia. But who wants to focus in on the fact that you're about to visit one of the deadliest places on the planet? Better to think of all the good things Australia has to offer. Like sunshine, koalas and hot beach hunks. Only trouble was, Steve now had me cornered, so I couldn't avoid answering him any more.
With a sigh of reluctance, I pulled the hat off my face and sat up. He wasn't going to leave me alone until I gave him a reply. But, once again, I was stumped. Truth be told, I figured we were much more likely to get bitten by a snake than a shark while we were Down Under, given that we'd be staying mostly in the bush. With lots of long grass around, there were plenty of hidey places for snakes, and therefore plenty of opportunities to step on one. And if you did that, it would probably be pretty pissed off and strike out – not good news.
"You know, not all snakes are venomous, Steve, and they're not normally aggressive without a reason," I said, side-stepping the issue somewhat. In any case, it was possible we wouldn't go walking in long grass at all. It was early spring in Oz right now, so the grass might still be short and shabby in places. It seemed to me that there was no need to fill Steve's pretty little head with the bothersome details. Like the fact that, if you got bitten by the wrong snake and it was left untreated, you could be dead within half an hour. No, better to keep quiet. Steve would just get anxious about things that might never happen otherwise.
It was obvious from the look on his face that he wasn't finished interrogating me. "Well, do you reckon there'll be lots of creepy-crawlies?" he asked next.
"Oh, don't worry about those!" I replied, brushing his concerns aside with the waft of a hand. "You soon get used to them." The part I missed out was that they'd probably drive him mad first.
To be honest, all of this was a bit 'old hat' to me. When I lived in Australia, the itchy, scratchy, bitey and life-threatening creatures tended to blend into the background after a while – they were just part of life. So such menaces were the last things that were on my mind as we neared our destination. In fact, in the run-up to leaving, I'd been obsessing about a few things myself – like whether I was going to survive without my comfy night-time pillows and strong English teabags. Yes, I know it's pathetic, but there are a few basic items – things which seem like luxuries when you're travelling – that make all the difference to the quality of your trip. And we were going to be away for a month, so you can see why I might be a little anxious. Besides, my obsessions – trivial as they may seem – weren't without solid foundation. A few years back now, Steve and I took a weekend break in a Torquay hotel – and the experience I had there formed the root of my current pillow fixation…
All weekend, we were kept awake at night by the reverberations of the guy in the next room, his lungs sounding like they were filled with something slimy and disgusting as he snored like rumbling thunder. Lying there awake at night, I'd wriggle about, trying to get comfortable on the spongy hotel pillows. I can only guess they were filled with some kind of super-foam, because it was like the pillows were actually rejecting my head and bouncing it back up. I'd pick other pillows from what was on offer, but to no avail. They were all like giant rubber marshmallows!
And so it was that, by the end of our thankfully short time in Torquay, I left bleary-eyed, feeling like I'd gone a few rounds with wrestler Giant Haystacks (God rest his soul). But the real kicker, the thing that has imprinted itself on my consciousness for all time, is the fact that I came away with a painfully-cricked neck that didn't right itself for weeks. If we were in America, someone would probably have encouraged me to sue, but the Brits don't like to make a fuss in public, do they? Better to suffer in silence then drive your partner mad moaning about it for weeks on end instead, eh?
Of course, what I suffer from is 'Pillow Paranoia', and if you haven't heard of it before, here's the official definition…
Pillow Paranoia Noun. A rare contemporary psychosis whereby sufferers have a foreboding sense that, whenever they stay away from home, they'll be lumbered with uncomfy pillows that may cause the neck to sustain agonising long-term injuries.
Well, that's the official definition according to Foley's Fictionary, anyway.
Perhaps I seem a trifle alarmist when it comes to pillows, but all over the internet, you can find evidence of the importance of getting the right pillow under your neck at night.
Take an article on the 3 News website, for example. Not only do they reiterate my point that "a bad pillow can cause serious neck and back pain", but they go on to claim that this "can shrink your brain and reduce your brain power."
Whoa! Brain shrinkage? I thought you only got that from pickling your brain in alcohol.
The article went on to say that neck pain can lead to lots of other health problems, including severe headache, nausea, dizziness, anxiety, depression and a feeling that you're always tired, even after sleeping all night.
Flippin' heck! And there I was thinking I was being a bit extreme! But it turns out I had just cause to have Pillow Paranoia. And if I didn't get a decent pillow to sleep on, I could feasibly be in a right state for the whole trip – depressed, anxious, dizzy and nauseous – and with a banging migraine to boot. Basically, it would be like having PMT for the entire month!
If all that wasn't enough to contend with, there was my tea obsession. Some people are addicted to coffee, but with me, it's tea. And my tea has to be strong – the colour I look for in a brew is that of a well-bronzed surfer on Sydney's Bondi Beach. Unfortunately, this is where we hit a snag, because when I lived in Australia around twenty years ago, the teabags on offer had no muscle to speak of (unlike the aforementioned Bondi surfer), and I'd need to use a couple of bags in order to have enough strength to satisfy my taste buds.
The brand I remember most was Lipton because they produced 'Jiggler' teabags which had a quaint little string attached for jiggling the bag in hot water. Unfortunately, as a consumer, I wasn't impressed, and it soon dawned on me why you'd need to jiggle the bag. It was because it took forever to coax any flavour out of the blighter. So you'd have to jiggle… and jiggle… and jiggle. For someone who likes their tea strong enough to stand a spoon up in it, it sadly didn't make the grade.
No strength, no flavour, no oomph!
Now, I don't want to sound like I'm picking on Lipton Jigglers – all the Aussie teas I came across were similarly weak. By the time the leaves had infused, the drink had cooled down (even on a warm day) and wasn't worth drinking unless you fancied turning it into a thinly-flavoured iced tea.
But who am I to judge the merits of such products? More recently, Hollywood actor Hugh Jackman featured in a Lipton advert where he demonstrated his fond affection for their ice tea through the medium of dance – and funky dance at that. In fact, he was so full of beans, I couldn't help wondering if the tea contained something a little stronger than caffeine. I might not have been impressed by the company's tea myself, but I doubt a huge celebrity like Hugh would endorse them if he didn't think it was a halfway decent brew – even if he was offered big bucks for doing so.
Regrettably, you can't take foodstuffs through customs, given that Australia is even more anally-retentive about that sort of thing than Britain, so I couldn't stock up and bring any teabags along for the ride.
Anything to declare, Miss?
Just a suitcase full of teabags, cobber.
No, on this trip, I'd really have to live on the edge, throw myself at the mercy of the Teabag God and pray he'd feel benevolent enough to bestow teabags of sufficient strength for the next month.
Come on! I thought. Let's look on the bright side! I'd lived through five years of weak teabags once before – and I'd survived. So what was a few weeks?
As for pillows, well it wasn't like we were visiting the hotel in Torquay again, was it? The manager there had probably furnished the rooms with pillows he'd bought in a bulk lot at a bargain basement price. But we'd be staying for a week with friends in rural Queensland, then go on to my sister's farm in northern New South Wales. So with any luck, I'd get some decent pillows and wouldn't knacker my neck after all.
I decided it was about time I pulled up my bootstraps and manned up (even though I'm a woman). I needed to put my first-world obsessions aside and think of Steve. After all, he was the one venturing into unknown territory here. And if I was too busy fixating on stuff that was effectively trivial and out of my control, I wouldn't be able to give him any support he might need.
Tiredness had got the better of me, that was all. As well as feeling wrung out from sleep-deprivation on the flight, I was still reeling from the pre-trip shenanigans – you know, like sorting passports and visas, hiring a car, booking trains to the airport – and, worst of all, fending off inane (and insane) questions from certain 'concerned' relatives. Here's the sort of thing I'm talking about…
QUESTION: Have you got any sunscreen yet?
What I was thinking:Err… You know, we're going to Australia – one of the sunniest countries in the world. I sent off for some sun cream the minute we booked the flippin' flight.
What I actually said:Ooh, you know what? It's a good job you reminded me. I'd better order some. And while I'm about it, I'll see if I can get hold of some anti-venom in case we get bitten by one of those deadly Australian snakes. (I didn't really say that last bit, but recommend lines like this if you really want to work up nosey relatives into a lather. All holiday long, they'd imagine you wrestling with dangerous creatures, wondering if you'd ever return home.)
QUESTION: You must be excited about your trip. What've you packed, then? (Note: this was asked a whole month before we left.)
Actual meaning: Are you sure you know how to go about packing? Australia's a long way, you know!
What I was thinking: Christ! Who packs a month before they leave? I mean, what's the rush? Oh, and by the way, you do know I've been around for a few decades, right? I've lost count of the number of times I've had to pack a suitcase. So if I haven't worked out how to do it by now, you might as well shoot me.
What I actually said: Oh, it's OK, I'm good. I'll just do what my dad does when he goes away and throw a few pairs of socks and knickers in a carrier bag before we leave. (This kind of response is guaranteed to rile up fuss-pot relatives. Anyway, why sit there listing all the items I might take on my trip? That's just boring. Use this kind of tactic if you really want to shift the energy and fire up the conversation, folks!)
It doesn't seem to matter how old you are, certain members of your family are destined to fuss over you and fret on your behalf.
For some, making plans to go to Australia, it seems, is like planning a trek in the Himalayas or venturing into the deepest and darkest recesses of the Amazon. It's at the other end of the earth – the Strange Unknown where anything might happen to you. There's little to no civilisation, you won't be able to find a store if you need supplies, and if you get stuck, you're completely alone, right?
I sometimes wonder what our lives have come to, given that we obsess so much about getting things right when preparing for a trip.
If someone came along and handed me a plane ticket to Australia that took off in just 12 hours, I could quickly throw some clothes together, hop on the plane, then buy anything else I needed at the other end – and it wouldn't be any great shakes. And if, for whatever reason, my luggage got lost with all my clothes in it, I would still manage fine. Stores are never far away from an airport!
As for my teabag and pillow obsessions? Well, if the situation called for it, obviously I'd just have to wing things, tough it out and trust that I'd survive through a few discomforts if they came my way.
By now, Steve's brain seemed to have stopped cogitating on Australia's deadly beasts, so I eased back into my seat again, trying to put my concerns aside. "Come on, let's see if we can get some sleep," I said. But a second later, the tonsil chorus started up again in Kiddie Corner.
I heaved a deep sigh. Good grief! Is it ever going to end? "Might as well watch a movie," I said. That might take our minds off things.
Steve nodded and started tapping the screen on the back of the seat in front of him. "Hey, look!" he said. "They've got that old movie, Jaws, on here!"
My head nearly snapped off as I spun round to take a look. No way!
But as I leaned over, I noticed Steve's smile. "Only kidding!"
I rolled my eyes and hit him playfully on the shoulder.
"No, actually," he said, "it's Snakes on a Plane."
Could Air Travel GET any Worse?
Adventures in an Australian Homeland
After twenty years off the mosquito menu,
the author returns to the Land Down Under.
But is it what she expected?
And what adventures does she get up to along the way?
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