Snakes and High Water


Text by Liz McKenzie and Photos by Richard Nelson

Red bellied black snake visiting my campsite--highly venomous but shy

Red bellied black snake visiting my campsite--highly venomous but shy

I’m camping now in Warrumbungle National Park, in the northern part of New South Wales, a couple hundred miles inland from the coast. This isn’t all that far from the huge floods in Queensland. I’ve always avoided going inland during midsummer here, but decided to give it a try. The forecast called for reasonably cool temps, but turns out that still means pretty hot. It’s probably in the mid-80s but very muggy, and the sun is extremely strong.  

Basically I’ve been lurking around all day from one patch of shade to another.  

The big story down here is rain. After 10 years of drought, places that were just sprawls of dessicated brown land are now green and lush. The livestock people are doing really well, but the crop farmers have gone from a decade of struggle, to a spring and summer that looked perfect, to a situation where their crops are drowning or unharvestable because the fields are a sea of mud.  

I’m sure everybody’s heard about the floods in Queensland. Actually you have to redefine your whole concept of floods to comprehend what it’s been like. I saw a bit of television news yesterday, showing absolutely mind-boggling devastation. As one commentator said, it’s like an inland tsunami. 

Actually there have been ordinary, slow-rising floods here for the past several weeks. But the latest ones are flash floods caused by humongous cloudburst thunderstorm rainfalls. The most unforgettable footage was of a blue car being carried along like a tiny cork in a huge whitewater river running through the middle of a town. The car came bouncing along like a whitewater kayak, hit a section of fifteen foot standing waves, vanished in an instant and never reappeared. Can’t get it out of my mind…just hoping nobody was in that car. 

Here in the Warrumbungle National Park, the usually semi-desert landscape is almost a jungle of tall grass with flowers everywhere. It’s hard to walk off the trails because the greenery is so thick and the normally-dry ground has swampy spots everywhere with frogs croaking.  

After dark last night I was meandering past the bathroom building and some people with flashlights had come across a snake that was sliding along on the sidewalk just outside the building. It was a beautiful thing—shiny iridescent black, spreading its neck sort of like a cobra when I got close. It was a blue-bellied blacksnake, which is in the top 20 worldwide for the potency of its venom. I sort of herded it away from the building and off into the underbrush. Everybody seemed very curious about the snake, keeping a distance but not freaked out by it. Every reptile species in Australia, poisonous or not, is fully protected by law.  

One more quick story. Last year I camped in this same national park, and at the visitor center I talked a few times to the woman who collects your camping fees. I had asked her about stuff like koalas and emus, and mentioned that I was recording stuff for a radio program.  

I’ve always been amazed by Australians’ ability to remember people—even clerks in stores will recognize me from a previous year. But this took it to another level. Soon as the woman from last year saw me this morning she said: “Oh, you’re back again.” Then she asked if I’d be recording radio stuff. And when it came time to fill out the receipt, she said: “The name’s Nelson, right?” It’s an extreme case, but I really think Australians focus far more than Americans do on remembering people and their names. 

Well it’s cooled enough so the mosquitos are coming out and I have to decide whether to have cold cereal or instant Thai rice for dinner. Probably the rice.  RN

Mark Bethka