Our next destination was Katherine in the Northern Territory and we set off through the Kimberly range in the morning, planning to stop at Kununurra for a couple of nights along the way. The trip was once again a feast for the eyes as we wound our way through the mountains, eventually emerging onto flatter terrain. This stretch of road was more heavily forested than anywhere we had been so far with swathes of gum trees either side of us, creaking in the still afternoon sunlight. Their bark looked like the peeling white paint on an old shed door. Greys, browns and whites smearing their gnarled trunks, leading them to appear as timeless as the ancient landscape upon which they stood.
Accompanying the increasingly verdant scenery were more bush creatures than we had so far seen. Wallabies hopped among the trees. A family of emus stood in the road ahead of us, not caring that we wanted to pass them by. An echidna scurried urgently across the asphalt in front of the van.
Echidnas are also known as spiny anteaters and are monotremes meaning that they belong to the order of egg-laying mammals. There are four species which along with the platypus, are the only surviving members of that order and are the only mammals that lay eggs. Although their diet consists largely of ants and termites that is about all that they have in common with anteaters. They are no more closely related to the anteaters of the Americas than to dogs, human beings, or indeed any other placental mammal.
Unique to Australia and a few of its surrounding islands, monotremes are one of the many unusual species which have been isolated on the island continent for a vast period of time. This isolation from their ancestral peers has led to the monotremes forming a wholly new and very different branch on the evolutionary tree.
To show just how different an echidna is from the hedgehog that it resembles, I will outline a few of its more interesting traits.
They are covered with hair and spines. Their snout doubles up as a mouth and a nose. The tip of their snout is covered with electrosensory nerves allowing them to sense nerve impulses, static electricity and magnetic fields. A male echidna has four penises. Four. Penises. Two of these he uses to fertilise the female egg, inserting them into her double barrel vagina. I’m not making this up. The female will then lay the fertilised egg directly into her pouch where it is incubated until her puggle is born. A puggle is a baby echidna. As if they needed a stupid name like puggle when they already have quadratic bell-ends. During its infancy the puggle is weaned on its mothers milk patches. Pedictably, echidnas don’t have nipples, instead they have two areas of skin which “sweat” milk until the puggle is old enough to fend for itself.
After almost a days drive, we arrived on the edge of Kununurra, a relatively large town made prosperous by the surrounding fruit farms. We found a campsite and settled ourselves down beneath the lengthening shadow of a baobab tree.
The great wide trunked and spindly branched baobab tree, although an iconic image of Western and Northern Australia, is thought not to be a native Australian species. Mainly found in East Africa there are two prevailing theories as to how it arrived there. The first is that boabab nuts, the sweet smelling fruit of the boabab tree, were washed over from Africa across the Indian Ocean. This kind of migratory seeding is know to have happened elsewhere in the world, for example in the seeding of the volcanic pacific islands. However the distance involved seems far too great for this to be a plausible explanation. The second, and in my opinion more plausible theory is that the fruits were brought over to Australia by the Dutch, who traded them with the local aboriginal people before the continent was officially discovered by Captain James Cook on 19 April 1770.
Evidence of the Dutch discovering the continent is visible in the form of sixteenth century maps which appear to accurately depict the coastline of North and Western Australia. More tangibly it can be seen in the form of the blonde haired aborigines in the same region. Where did that gene come from, I wonder?! For a more detailed and scientific argument for and against this theory, try this page.
Many highly publicised theories abound as to ancient civilisations discovering, then forgetting about this land aeons ago. Egyptians, Arabians, Sumerians, Romans, Greeks, Libyans, Phoenicians, Asian Indians, Chinese, American Indians, Mayans, Vikings and Polynesians have all been suggested. The continent again appears on a number of maps left behind by these cultures.
As the sun set behind the hills, we sat drinking cold lager from the electric refrigerator we had purchased in Broome and eating pasta. Kangaroos and wallabies, feeling bolder with the descent of dusk begun to hop silently around the campsite and we watched them until the darkness and the beer clouded our vision and we retired to bed in the back of the van.
In the morning we popped in to town to buy some food and supplies. The town was pleasant, prosperous but unspectacular and so after a lunch of hand made sandwiches from the bakery we returned to the campsite where we could relax under the baobab tree or take a swim in the pool.
Having gotten thirsty in the afternoon sun, Faye decided to drink from one of the stand pipes dotted around the campsite. Putting her head beneath the tap she opened her mouth and twisted the valve. Nothing happened. Then with a scream she leaped away as a huge huntsman spider dragged his bulging, bulbous, thorax out of the tap and scuttled off across the grass, instantly unblocking the opening, allowing the water to flow forth.
Male huntsmen can attain a legspan of 10-12 inches although this only applies to certain species and is by no means the norm. As with all spiders, they use venom to demobilise or digest prey, but they are not deadly to healthy humans and are even said to be notably affectionate pets. They do bite but only if provoked, which can be said about a lot of people in my local pub. The victim will suffer only minor swelling and localised pain, and will recover in a day or two. Sometimes resembling the tarantulas of the americas, huntsman spiders can generally be identified by the shape and directionality of their legs, which, rather than being jointed vertically relative to the body, are twisted in such a way that they extend forward in a fashion more commonly seen in crustaceans. Most huntsman spiders are dull shades of brown or grey and their legs are covered with fairly prominent spines, but the rest of their bodies appear smooth. They are usually found in sheds, garages and other infrequently-disturbed places.
After a dip in the pool we sat and watched the stunningly beautiful cockatoos. The common white ones were there, ubiquitous as always to the Australian landscape, but this time they were joined by jet black ones with flashes of scarlet in their tail.
As we sipped on a couple more cold beers and watched the sun slide behind the green hill in front of our camping spot, we sat, watching and waiting for the wallabies and kangaroos of the night before to come quietly out of the bush and begin their nocturnal grazing once again.