Wednesday, 4 December 2013

close encounters

A few days ago, I was cycling through the former ‘closed area’, which was featured in The New Frontier. Traffic here is light, and because the area is both flat and open, it is easy to spot oncoming vehicles, so I wasn’t paying much attention to the road. However, as I rounded a sharp left-hand bend, I encountered something that immediately had my full attention.

At first, I thought that the object directly in front of me was a harmless rat snake, about 1.3 metres in length, but as I closed to within a metre or so, the snake reared up, and I saw immediately that it was a cobra. I don’t think I have ever swerved more violently to avoid a potential hazard, but my first move once I’d got myself out of harm’s way was to get out my camera.

Unfortunately, snakes are as afraid of humans as we humans are of snakes, so it was in retreat by the time I was ready to take a picture. It had probably been warming itself in the sun, and I’d been rude to interrupt. However, I include the following photographs as the only evidence of my close encounter.

Afterwards, I began to think about other life-threatening close encounters with nature’s creatures, and one in particular stands out in my memory, even though it occurred more than 43 years ago.

In 1970, I was the geologist in charge of a 15-man prospecting party operating around the town of Laverton in Western Australia. The climate of this area is semi-arid—the town lies on the western fringe of the Great Victoria Desert—so most of the vegetation is hardy scrub. Laverton was established in the late nineteenth century as a mining town, but the gold that originally drew prospectors there had long since run out by the time I arrived in the area.

Surprisingly, a few optimistic sheep farmers settled in the area surrounding the town, although the maximum stocking density possible was very low, partly because of the meagreness of the vegetation and partly because the scrub also supported kangaroos and a sizeable population of feral goats. This agricultural background is relevant to the story because the area was divided into huge ‘paddocks’ by rudimentary fences, which consisted of four lines of horizontal wire.

These fence lines often had tracks running along one side, and these were frequently the only way to get from one place to another, because the scrubby vegetation was usually surprisingly dense. It was quite common to find the carcasses of emus that had become trapped in the fences: I was warned that were I to come across a bird that was still alive, I should leave it, because it would not be grateful for being rescued. It would be more likely to kick me, and I didn’t fancy being kicked by a bird that is almost the size of an ostrich.

Because we had staked out several mineral claims scattered over a wide area, I used a Suzuki trail bike to get around to oversee the work being done. One day, I was riding along a fence line when an emu burst out of the scrub on my right, only inches in front of my front wheel. It cannoned into the fence with considerable force—these birds can reach 30mph—and rebounded, missing my rear wheel by a similar margin.

You could say that this was an example of perfect timing. Had I been travelling slightly slower, or slightly quicker, the emu would have hit me, either directly or on the rebound. But when I look back on this incident, I don’t dwell on this kind of ‘what if’. Nowadays, I take dozens of photographs every week, but when I worked in Australia all those years ago, I didn’t have a camera. This may explain why the memory of a chance encounter with a galloping bird remains so vivid that it might have happened just yesterday.

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