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.
Morning breaks with the maniacal cackle of a laughing kookaburra perched in a tree above my tent. After a quick breakfast, I pull the tent poles from their sleeves, then spot a dark spider darting under my ground cloth. Silky threads radiate from a burrow near the tent's entrance. Funnel-web.
Frantic, I drop the tent and jump back, recalling the dire warnings: Funnel-web spider venom can cause profuse salivating, sweating, muscle spasms within minutes, even death.
I stand frozen, praying the Aussie arachnid will skitter far from camp. After 10 minutes, I sidestep cautiously to my tent and slowly fold back one corner. The enemy stands underneath. I reach for my walking stick and pull it back, ready to strike. But suddenly I'm distracted by the spider's closely grouped eyes and captivated by the curves of its shiny, plum-colored body. Hair covers its stout legs like a velvet carpet. I lay my walking stick back down. The spider scurries away into the brush.
The face-off reminds me how Aborigines adapted to this harsh land. Instead of fighting against it, they adapted their lifestyles, transforming their fears of snakes and spiders into magical stories. According to lore, the Rainbow Serpent emerged from the depths of the land to give birth to other sacred creatures like the goanna, wallaby, and wombat.
I realize that to be fearful is to reject the wonders of the wild. As I continue on my journey south to Garie Beach, the land speaks to me more forcefully. The clifftop views seem more spectacular. I hop more confidently from rock to rock along the shoreline. Brown heathlands fade to the green of fan ferns and damp, tropical trees near Palm Jungle. Through the cool sea mist I spot a lyrebird, its long tail plumes dragging behind as it forages for food.
That night, I make camp near Burning Palms, an area on the southern end of the park recovering from wildfire. I nibble on kangaroo jerky without concern for the creatures lurking in the bush. Darkness is now a welcome friend, and I fall asleep quickly, my fears drifting away with the outgoing tide.
Royal National Park, Australia Permits: Bush camping permits (required) are available at the park's main entrance, the Audley Visitor Centre, and the National Parks & Wildlife Service headquarters in Sydney. Permits are AU$3 per night for adults. Campfires are not allowed in the park; camp in designated areas. Route: The Coast Track can be walked in 2 or 3 days; schedule more time for bushwhacking and wildlife viewing. The author's route followed the coastline from Port Hacking Point to Otford. Access: To reach the northern Coast Track trailhead from Sydney, take a train to Cronulla, then a ferry to Bundeena, where approach trails lead to the Coast Track. Train service is also available at the southern trailhead in Otford. (See Contact for train and ferry information.) Season: All seasons are suitable for trekking. Summer temperatures can reach 100°F, and small creeks in the southern part are often dry. Carry extra water. Guides: The 1:30,000 topographic map Royal National Park offers plenty of detail and is available at the Audley Visitor Centre for AU$5.80. Treks in New South Wales, by Neil Paton (International Specialized Book Service, 800-944-6190; www.isbs.com; $12.95). Contact: Audley Visitor Center, Royal National Park, 011-61-29-02-9542-0648; www.npws.nsw.gov.au/ parks/metro/Met032.html.