"Australia 1999" story # 20


Beerwah, Queensland
May 1, 1999

I´ll be honest. When I´d set off to volunteer at the Australia Zoo, I fully expected to become great buddies with the Irwins, get invited to their house for dinner, snorkel with Steve on the Sunshine Coast, and wrestle my first crocodilian with them. I half-expected them to offer me a job, and I´d spend a long, happy life going on safaris with Steve, Terri, Bindi, and Suey.
     With such high expectations, I was understandably pumped for my second day of work.
     I got to the park late, after my scheduled ride never came, and cleaned the big lizards´ cages. I petted the two-foot, shiny blue-green water monitor, who had little affinity for me. Luckily, his hiss was worse than his whip. He breathed an evil warning, then batted me limply with his tail in unimpressive fashion. In contrast to him, the green iguana rather liked me, though the rhinocerous iguana was tough to befriend.
     I helped with the snake photos again and watched the alligator and crocodile shows. Mostly, I wandered the park watching the animals, such as the roaming kangaroos, the ferrile foxes and camels, and the displays of Australia´s most venemous snakes (the desert-dwelling fierce snake heads the list, but the coastal brown snake kills the most people).
     I also came up with any lazy excuse I could to enter the cabin, hoping to engage Steve or Terri. Steve, in clothes of his normal fashion but olive green in color, was hard at work all day constructing a new wing for the park. But, he knew my name and asked how I was doing whenever he saw me. I told Terri I shared the same food tastes as her and asked for a restaurant recommendation.
     When I finished work, I went straight to Rigoli´s for pizza. Surprisingly, it wasn´t very good, and I made myself some ice cream back at the Beerwah Motel to flush out the taste.
     I spoke with the motel´s owner, a really nice, young mother of three and the first Australian I´d met who actually liked the Crocodile Hunter. She said everyone in Beerwah liked the Irwins. Steve, whose show had gained fame in 133 countries, lived in an average house and drove a white 4WD, which everyone in the area owned. She said his croc-saving authenticity was once questioned by the head of the Northern Territory. Steve responded by going there and trapping the biggest crocodile they could find, and the Northern Territory quickly apologized.
     The following day began with cage-cleaning. I especially enjoyed being next to the perenti goannas, Australia´s largest lizards and some of the most beautiful animals I´d ever seen. Their black skin was covered in small, half-yellow, half-red diamonds and resembled honeycomb from a distance. Their heads were sleek, their claws were sharp, and their teeth were like razors. Timidly, I rubbed the thick tail of one. I´d thought I was safe, as they moved slowly in the daytime, but he whacked my thigh strongly with his tail, leaving a red line I would wear proudly as a brief reminder of my visit.
     I also tried playing with Harriet the giant tortoise. He wasn´t very playful, actually. He´s considered to be the oldest living animal, and he was brought to Australia by Charles Darwin over a hundred and twenty years ago. The poor guy´s best days were way, way, way behind him. His body had accumulated hardened dirt, his skin was as wrinkled as a tree, and each leg moved once a minute when he wanted to hurry.
     I ran into Terri and told her her restaurant recommendation was terrible. She sighed agreement, and we felt sorry for ourselves because Australia didn´t have many good, fattening restaurants. She said she especially missed American milk shakes, after which I nearly handed over my brain to her and allowed her to do the thinking for me from then on.
     A while later, I was assigned to crush a pile of boxes. Steve began to tinker with some tools alongside me. It was like being near the sun, except not as hot. Just then, Brian appeared, poised to ruin my moment by asking me to do him a favor. Luckily, it turned out I´d already performed the task. "I did that," I said.
     Upon hearing this, Steve turned his big round, happy face towards me and said, "No flies on you, mate!"
     He smiled at me for the next ten seconds, expecting a response. His heroic presence, coupled with my inability to translate this Australian phrase, made me speechless. But happy. Very, very happy. I´ll never forget his words. "No flies on you, mate!" No flies on me, indeed. Whatever that means.
     I finished the day´s work and went to the motel. I ate a well-deserved heaping helping of ice cream, Snickers, and hot fudge, adn the motel´s owner said I was a bad influence on her kids.
     The next morning, my ride didn´t come again. I walked the two kilometers to the Australia Zoo, looking for snakes along the way I could catch and offer to Steve.
     Being Thursday of my volunteer week, the day was to be spent with Fred, a grouchy old-timer in charge of rats. In a smelly storage barn, I spent over an hour filling trough after trough with pellets and water to sustain the squeaking caged rats, who existed to feed the park´s reptiles.
     Fred didn´t seem to much care for anybody, but he definitely liked the rats more than me. He yelled at me for being slow when I ran into two Canadian kids I´d met at the Gold Coast. They found it funny that I worked there.
     I got away from Fred whenever I could, which probably explains why he didn´t like me. I had my longest conversation to date with Steve, when I asked him which of the Glass House Mountains I should climb. "Aww, mate," he said, practically jumping out of his skin, "ya´ gotta go up Mo´nt Tibrogorgon, eet´s absolutely gohgeous. Ya´ can see straight from North Straddy to Queens Island!" That was all I needed - a strong word from Steve - and I could be convinced to do anything.
     Terri and I spoke too. She told me about her and Steve´s morning, which had been spent in Brisbane doing voice-overs. She said her show had had the same writer for years, which was a crushing blow to my chances of getting the job with them I wanted.
     I watched Brian do the afternoon crocodile demonstation. It seems that crocodile-wrestling was done in a boat at night. The small crocs are spotlighted and then jumped on. The croc-wrestler embraces the animal until it loses its energy to struggle, at which point the man kicks off the lake floor to the surface. An assistant helps to roll the reptile into the boat.
     Returning to the motel, I received some good advice from the wise owner. She said I should stop playing cool and just tell Steve that I´m his biggest fan, because I´d regret the missed opportunity later.
     I took the advice to heart. The next day, I was ready to tell Steve how I felt, thus setting the roots for a legendary friendship. Unfortunately, for the third time in four days, my co-worker at the Australia Zoo never picked me up.
     I was finally fed up with the shabby treatment I´d been getting from the Australia Zoo employees. Steve and Terri had been nothing but incredibly nice to me; they were easily two of my favorite people I´d ever met - humble, inquisitive of others, excited ...
     But, my volunteering wasn´t appreciated by the others. So, my week with the Crocodile Hunter had been slightly disappointing: no snorkelling with Steve, no dinner with Terri, no offer for a job - in fact, it hadn´t even been a full week. I skipped my last day, took a nap, and hitchhiked to the Sunshine Coast.
     I spent the rest of the day in Mooloolaba, body-surfing at the beach and touring UnderwaterWorld, where I´d gained free entry by volunteering at the Australia Zoo. The interesting museum had a seal show. I also got to see Asian lungfish, who require frequent breaths of air to live, and thin bamboo sharks, white with brown bands.
     Low on money, at night, I was unfortunately kicked out of a Jazz & Blues Bar where an awesome band with an amazingly pretty singer was performing.
     I went to the beach to sleep. Some guy, sitting with friends on the beach, asked me, "You going to crash?" I thought it funny that he knew I´d be sleeping on the beach. He wished me a good sleep, and I made my bed in a grove of heart-shaped plants.
     The sleep was horrible. I spent most of the morning watching old people take ridiculously early walks and wondering when in the heck the sun was going to rise.
     The sun didn´t warm me up. A pancake place looked good for breakfast. It was here that I made a decision I´ll never forget. Down to my last $13 and a hundred kilometers from where I could catch a bus to Lismore, I decided a good investment would be to exhaust my finances on not one, but two stacks of three pancakes each.
     The pancakes weren´t very good. I returned to UnderwaterWorld to read all the information I could on the displayed reef fish, seahorses, and octopi.
     Hitching to Brisbane had been necessitated. It was hot, my bag was heavy, and an old passanger with some strange aversion for hitchhikers flicked me off and cursed at me on the road out of Mooloolaba. Nevertheless, I got to Brisbane with the help of travelling drummer.
     I stopped to visit the Irwins on the way. Only Terri was at the park. She was disappointed I hadn´t gotten picked up, and she said Steve would´ve appreciated hearing how much I liked him. She and Bindi posed for a picture with me, and I thanked her for everything.
     I snuck away with my Australia Zoo worker´s shirt as a perfect, and usually unattainable, souvenir. After all, it had still been a pretty great week.

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