A recurring theme in Australian humour is the deadliness of everything. Snakes, spiders, sharks, gum trees, octopuses – as Australians say "Be careful of that, it'll kill ya."
I used to think that this was said in jest, but no, most things that are not sheep will have a go at killing you. Indeed, on some country roads, even the sheep will join in.
Of course, the locals lie, and lie shamelessly. The beloved J and I were walking home one night last summer when we saw a young Englishman taking a photograph of an Orb Weaving spider who had spun a magnificent six foot web across the pedestrian laneway near here. "I'm trying to capture the colours, I think there's just enough light from the streetlamp," the man confessed as we watched him twiddling with his camera.
"Did it come out?" J asked, after the shot was taken.
"Yeah, not bad," the tourist said, showing the display. "These ones are safe, aren't they?"
J looked at the display and nodded. "Looks good." Then he looked up at the sweet, harmless spider, and said, in his most laconic drawl, "But you want to be careful of that, it'll kill ya."
The problem is that, sometimes when you think
they are lying, it is in fact true. As a little girl I had a much-loved copy of Seven Little Australians
, a classic children's novel of 19th-century Australia. In it, and I'm afraid it's a spoiler, the wonderful Judy is killed when a tree falls on her. As a young lass, I thought this was a plot device. Then I moved here and realised. Trees fall on people All The Time. Usually on German tourists. And I can tell you why this happens, since, during my stint working in a park, I had this conversation several times:
Me: And I strongly recommend that you stick to the official campgrounds, the amenities are better and they're cleared of trees.
German Tourist: But I enjoy pitching my tent under a tree.
Me: Yes, look, I understand that and I sympathise, the problem is that Australian trees are homicidal and they drop branches weighing tens of kilograms down on tents with startling regularity.
GT: That is fine, I will only pitch my tent under trees with healthy limbs.
Me: Alas, that won't help, they look perfectly fine and then BOOM! Split in half and crashing downwards.
GT: So really not under trees.
GT: Oak trees?
Me: If you can find one, they obey the normal rules.
GT: Thank you. Also, are Drop Bears real?
Me: No, do not believe that other parks employee, he is Australian and tells terrible lies.
The upshot of all this is that Australians grow up doing things like shaking out their shoes before they put them on, because in most major population centres there are at least two or three things that could well be lurking in there that will, at the very least, hospitalise you. I do this too. It's actually a very easy way to tell the difference between an Australian and a New Zealander if the accents confuse you. That and the fact that New Zealanders take wood from woodpiles without using a big stick or leather gloves, because the things that lurk in their woodpiles are usually cute and English, not angry and venomous.
And Australian warning signs tend to say things like "Do Not Swim In Waterhole. CROCODILES!! You WILL Die." They take their warning signs seriously over here.
The other notable thing is the lack of rain. Until last November, it had been about 11 years without a good stint of rain in New South Wales. The Sydney water catchment went down below 50%, below 40%, about 30%. The dam levels moved from being read out at the end of the agricultural program every Sunday, to being read out in the weather report every night. They were last full in 1998. But it's been raining this year, so much so that the dams approach 70% and we're actually allowed to wash cars again.
However, I think that Sydneysiders have forgotten how to function in rain, and have adopted a very Australian approach to it. This explains the announcement that rang out over the train station this morning, in elegant tones:
"Attention passengers, for your safety, please take extreme care. Surfaces may be slippery when wet."
And fair enough, it has been a long time and it's easy to forget. Though I suspect an average amount of care would probably cover it. The best thing? It was about 19 deg C. Brilliant blue skies. Glorious morning sun.