By Joan Larsen
Still young and very adventurous on our first month-long journey to Australia – travelling on unpaved dusty roads to be one of the first to discover the wild places of the country’s Top End – had been dreamed about for years. It was a bit more rugged than we had been told — with trailers from the 1940s the only motel rooms in this jungle. (It is very modern now !) Huge water buffaloes roamed in groups – well, wherever they wanted. Kangaroos by the hundreds no doubt laughed as they bounced about our trailers with high abandon every night.
Strange and exotic birds that ranged to the huge size, salt water crocs in the 18 foot range lolled on the sides of the close-in Yellow River lagoon, sliding into the water for a quick meal – well – whenever they chose to. They were prehistoric predators and probably the most menacing. Of the 364 species of birds we saw in a single day, take a glimpse of my favorite, a large but very dainty thing called the Jesus bird because it actually could walk on water. As Oz’s Dorothy said: “Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore”.
We were young but not crazy. It was not safe to be travelling except in small groups with a very experienced guide. Dying there was not on our agenda! On our last day, the first of our two vans had already vanished, heading for Darwin. We picked the driver who dawdled, his long finger picking out the small reptiles we could have missed.
With a jolt, our van stopped, and the native driver jumped out with no word – no word at all – and ran into the jungle and began climbing a very tall tree, legs around the trunk, moving like a member of the Cirque de Soleil cast in Vegas. He had spotted a huge reptile living in that tree. Knowing it was our only chance to see the most exotic large dragon in Australia, he wrestled it down. It was a 3 foot long frilled lizard that was brought into our van, making our total passenger count now move to 7.
It would be only fair to have those in the first van not miss this. I have to tell you that this dragon was a sight to see. We were going to drive with it until we caught up with the others.
I don’t remember raising my hand to say that I would be one of two strong people to hold it down for 20 miles – but this guy was all muscle and had put up his frill now – as you can see. “Frightening” was an understatement as the frill was huge and his mouth with the sharp teeth and the hissing noise he had perfected told me I could be in BIG trouble.
However, the driver – who we had to believe but didn’t quite – told us that when the dragon’s frill was raised, his wide jaws locked open and he was all bluff. His stance said otherwise. His stance said that if I didn’t let him go, he would kill me. He was already memorizing my face — and I knew it.
Remember how you have heard said: it was a struggle between man and beast? Now I know what THAT means!!! Those 6 in the other van ohhed and ahhed over it, standing yards away, while the dragon put on the show of his life, extending his frill to such an extreme that he would have won at any international show of dragons. Somehow, I still ended up as one of the two showing him off! I was beginning to feel proud to be honest.
There is a rule in nature that you never put your animal down in a new location and leave him. How would you like to be left in Pittsburgh when your home is in San Francisco? It was the unwritten natural rule that we now must drive 20 miles back through jungle on dirt roads. The driver guide then hopped out and actually brought what I now thought proudly as“ MY DRAGON” and placed it on the tree where it lives.
I had taken to him by this time . . . though I never got the feeling that he thought we would ever be best friends. I actually wondered if his teeth did not work – well, how sharp were those claws as they weren’t what we would call “dainty”?
This lizard was a magician, transforming himself at will to the most ferocious adversary I had ever seen. We won’t mention that at heart he was a coward, content to munch on a diet of small insects up in that tree.
I was able to find a short video of my friend in action on the road. I love his little legs and how they moved as he showed his ferocious side, don’t you? Cute. And now we knew that his jaws were locked when he was in his full terror mode so he was all bluff. He could turn in a flash if we didn’t fall for his act, allow his frill to disappear at his side, and dash for his home in his very own tree.
It somehow reminded me of some people I know. I am betting you know some as well that are all show and no action. People and animals are sometimes not all that different.
A last thought: Australia is one of the most wonderful places to visit on earth. If you have an opportunity, you will have the greatest of times, see things you cannot even dream of and love them all, and – as I am sure you are like me – find that one journey to this wonderful country isn’t enough.
Writer Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth. But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again. She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home.”