The raspberry-colored sun dips below sandstone cliffs as I rush toward my campsite near the banks of Curracurrang Creek. Patches of wildflowers close their blossoms to pollinating insects. Goannas–large, fork-tongued lizards–search for warmth between solar-heated rocks. I drop my pack to don a long-sleeve shirt for the last mile.
Before I can pull the shirt over my head, fanged brown snakes and glossy black spiders emerge from their sandy dens beneath my backpack. I’ve stumbled into a nest of venomous beasts within the scrubby bushlands of Australia. The predators surround me like a pack of hungry hyenas. Any sudden movement, and a strike is certain. Milky venom will pound through my nervous system, turning me into a frothing, quivering mass of dingo chow. Sweat rains down my forehead as a brown snake creeps closer. It goes for my calf, and…
I wake with a jerk out of the nightmare that’s surfaced every night I’ve spent alone in the “down under” backcountry of Australia’s Royal National Park. Just south of Sydney, Royal is second only to Yellowstone as the world’s oldest national park, but it’s better known as home to highly venomous brown snakes and
funnel-web and redback spiders. As a country boy, I’ve never been fearful of creepy-crawlers, but dark warnings from guidebooks and locals have triggered new phobias.
I relax a bit and gaze at the stars through my mesh-ceiling tent. Unfamiliar constellations remind me I’m a stranger to the Southern Hemisphere. As the melodic lapping of the nearby Tasman Sea lulls me back to sleep, I recall the day’s journey.
I’d set off from Port Hacking Point on the northeast tip of Royal and bushwhacked south toward the Coast Track trailhead, following in the footsteps of the Aboriginal Dharawal tribe. Mounds of discarded shells, stone tools, and occasional rock engravings hinted of the extinct native culture.
Several trails approach the Coast Track, but from Port Hacking I savored a wild mix of swamps, subtropical forests, and brushy heathlands. I also sampled the wildness of my imagination. The slightest swish of my boots against the scrubby vegetation sounded like the faint hiss of a beefy brown snake.
Soon the dense vegetation gave way, and I followed the Coast Track to a rocky precipice 200 feet above the sea. In the distance, a waterfall collided with the sea’s powerful winds, creating a misty cloud framed by a Technicolor rainbow.
Spur trails to the sea let me descend for a breezy beach walk and a closer look at the pastel seashells lining the shore. I followed the trail back up the cliff, crossing paths with a spiny-coated echidna (at right), an egg-laying mammal that has survived here since prehistoric times.
As darkness drifted in from the sea, I’d found my campsite at Curracurrang Creek, eaten dinner, and settled into my sleeping bag, keenly aware of the creatures lurking beyond my tent’s door.