Australia’s famous for its wild landscape and even wilder animals. Just some of the reasons Australia has become an international obsession are its massive hairy spiders, Tassie devils and our beloved Aussie icon Steve Irwin (RIP). The key to keeping your adventures fun (rather than deadly) is avoiding animals and being clued-in to their environment and behaviours; so, with that in mind, here are four of the most common dangers and what to do if you do run into them.
Everyone who’s been walking or swimming in some suss water on a camping trip has a leech story involving terrified squealing, bloody socks and full-on squeamishness. But as shudder-inducing as the things are, leeches are actually not that harmful! These sluggy bloodsuckers have been helping humans for ages, from Ancient Egyptians using them to ‘purify’ their blood to present-day patients recovering from surgery.
Leeches are found wherever it’s damp or wet, so rivers, lakes, waterfalls, creeks and ponds are all breeding grounds for the slimy little guys. To keep ‘em off your pristine skin, wear a long-sleeved shirt and pants and tuck your pants into your socks (it’s unstylish but very effective). As an extra measure, use DEET repellent on your skin, especially if it’s exposed. Leech repelling clothes and sprays can be found at any decent camping store.
So what happens if they actually sink their teeth into you? Your first reaction will undoubtedly be, ‘Oh god! Get it off, get it off!’ – but don’t panic. They’re usually easy to get off, or will fall off after they’ve had their fill (about 30 mins). If you’re desperate to get them off, find the head end (which is the skinny end) and push it sideways with your fingernail until it releases the suction, and the same with the other end till it releases. You’ll bleed immediately but that’s fine. Make sure you use disinfectant afterwards and keep any wounds clean and covered to avoid infection. Lastly, watch out for any large red marks or rashes because some people are allergic to leech bites.
Ranger Tip: Discovery ranger Andrew Turbill from Dorrigo National Park reckons you should treat a leech like snot: pick, roll and flick. Pick up one end, roll it over (the leech should curl up into a ball), then flick it as far away from you as you can.
Ticks tick all the boxes when it comes to irritating pests – annoying, itchy and sometimes damn dangerous. They’re most common in the summer, but the full tick season stretches from September through to the end of February. They’re especially common in cooler rainforests and grasslands because they hate high temperatures and low humidity.
Tick bites themselves aren’t very severe (apart from being itchy and annoying), but for some people, ticks can cause allergic reactions, or one nasty disease called tick paralysis – for more info see the NSW Health webpage on ticks. Paralysis ticks have a particularly noxious poison that causes fatigue and immobilisation of limbs, stopping your adventure in its tracks. But don’t freak right out, they’re quite rare.
The jury is still out on how to remove ticks yourself, so certainly consider seeking medical attention to help remove them safely and definitely don’t douse yourself in nail polish or lighter fluid like some urban legends recommend.
The best approach is to avoid them altogether, but that’s easier said than done so know your enemy: ticks don’t jump onto hosts or fall from trees like some kind of parasitic paratrooper. They climb to the top of vegetation then wave their forearms to latch onto passing mammals with delicious warm blood. To avoid bites, ensure you’re wearing full-length clothes that cover your skin, tuck everything in wherever possible and use tick repellent for any gaps where your skin’s exposed. In short, if you keep your body away from trees, you’ll be just fine.
Good news: snakes aren’t hungry for your blood and won’t chase you as long as you don’t get too close. They just want to be left alone. Australia has 140 varieties of snake, 32 species of sea snakes, but only 12 can kill you.
Ranger’s Tip: What snake is that is a great website for identifying snake species.
Mainly, you’ll only come across snakes during the warmer months (usually Autumn and Summer) since they’re cold blooded, but hey, don’t rest on your laurels, mate: 550 people are admitted to hospital with snake bites each year. If you do come across one, try not to threaten or surprise it. Most snakes aren’t interested in biting anything bigger than they can swallow, and don’t perceive humans as food. The exception? Eastern Brown snakes and tiger snakes are notoriously bad-tempered and aggressive. If you spot one, quietly back away slowly until you’re out of their sight. Then run.
If someone does get bitten, the first thing to do is remain calm and reassure them. As a rule of thumb, never try anything you’ve seen in a movie. Definitely don’t try to catch the snake – get out of its way! You can look for helpful ID markers like body colour and length, eye colour, pupil shape, location of eyes on the head, shape of head or any distinctive patterns or features.
The best advice to treat a snake bite is: lie the person down and try to move them as little as possible while you call an ambulance. If you’ve been smart and packed a first aid kit, apply a bandage over the bite site, then a pressure bandage along the length of the limb (like the St Johns Guidebook here). If you’re in an area without roads, send some of your party back up the track to find service so you can contact 000 immediately and await instructions. The Emergency + app will be able to get your GPS location from your smartphone – highly recommended to install that one.
Did you know: The four dumbest snakebite solutions from the movies (never do these!) are, in no particular order: cutting around the bite area, trying to suck the venom out with your mouth, using a tourniquet to cut off blood flow, and trying to catch the snake.
On top of being hilariously bad ideas (that screenwriters with zero bush experience came up with), none of these harebrained ideas actually stop the venom from getting into the bloodstream. They don’t work, don’t try them. Ever.
Australian spiders have a fearsome reputation and they are in fact, the most widely distributed venomous creature in Australia. Unfortunately for NSW, the two deadliest Aussie spiders, the funnel-web and the redback spider, are both found in our state – awesome, right?
But before you panic and plan the rest of your life indoors, hear this: spider bites aren’t as common as people think, most aren’t venomous and spiders are actually less life-threatening than snakes, sharks, or even bees. Phew! Spiders generally stick to themselves if left alone, and antivenom for both the funnel-web and redback spider has been available for decades, meaning no fatalities have been recorded since then. This said, if you are bitten by one of our eight-legged mates, here are a few first-aid tips.
Firstly, stay calm and call triple zero (000) for an ambulance. The Emergency + app on your phone will help to get your location, but remember, if there’s no mobile coverage you won’t be able to reach triple zero. So, carry a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) with you on every multi-day walking or camping trip – PLBs are equipped to send a distress signal with your location to Search and Rescue operators over dedicated radio frequencies.
If it’s a funnel-web spider: firmly bandage the affected area and splint if possible. Make sure the person lies still (this helps slow the venom moving through the body) and wait for the ambulance.
If it’s a redback spider (and for all other spider bites): wash the bitten area thoroughly but do not bandage it because pressure will increase the pain. Once washed, apply an ice pack.
For both cases, and for any other spider bite, it’s also a good idea to try and trap or photograph the spider so you can take it with you to the emergency room. This helps doctors to know what kind of spider it is, and what kind of care you’ll need.
So now you’re well versed in some of our creepiest critters. But don’t let it scare you off. With these precautions you’ll be able to tackle Australia’s wild outback and return safely with your mates and ripping yarns to share.