There are 27 things in this image that will kill you. Welcome to FNQ. This is how you die.
I've been looking forward to writing this rundown on the dangers of living in Cairns. Off the top of my head I can rattle three plants - yes, PLANTS - that have a voracious appetite for human blood. Ready? Stinging tree, wait-a-while, sensitive weed. These and more in the list below. Join me on our journey into the wonderful, wild and extremely hostile Queensland biosphere.
I want to start this list via dangerous plants of Far North Queensland because you're more likely to get your sunnies ripped off your face by some wait-a-while than you are to get bit by a taipan or eaten by a crocodile (not that those things won't happen). See, apart from crocodiles - who are keenly trained and efficient predators - or spiders - who are just trying to do their thang - most of the dangerous animals in Australia will boot-scoot out of your way long before you see them. And when you see them you generally know that you're looking at an animal, and you know you're in Australia, therefore you know that animal is probably going to kill you, and you'll stay away.
Plants, however, blend into the green and can't run away from you. You'll very likely go for a bushwalk to one of our spectacular waterfalls while you're in Cairns and that means you'll very likely come up against some, if not most, of the plants in QLD that want to string you up and slice out your soft bits. It's worth finding out about the plants before we get onto the cool things like taipans and redback spiders. So here we go!
Also daintily known as "Suicide Bush", the stinging tree - endemic to FNQ - is a local legend. It is an insidious and malicious plant that not only causes severe pain at the slightest touch, but it grows like a weed near rivers and creeks, making those secret Cairns waterfall missions just that little bit more risky.
The leaves on a stinging tree are covered with tiny, hollow hairs made of silica fibers. Inside each hair is a small dose of actual neurotoxin. When you brush against the tree the silica fibers slide ever so elegantly into your supple soft flesh and inject a tiny bit of venom just under the skin. As you writhe in pain the silica fibers shatter into smaller fibers, further administering more venom. A single leaf can have hundreds of these hairs.
The neurotoxin is a non-soluble substance, which means that your bodies usual response of swelling, rashing and flushing with fluid only serve to make the pain worse. What's more, the toxin can't be processed by these same immune responses, and so it remains where it was injected for months. Yes that's right. Months.
When I was about 13 I was having a swim at Crystal Cascades and, as any foolish pre-teen boy does, I decided to take a run up for a sick gainer off no fear. Taking a few steps into the bush, I turned around and ran towards the ledge, through what I assumed were some innocuous bushes. I didn't notice any pain as my arm and torso whipped through the leafy growth, nor did it click what had happened when the wind from the jump had a distinct bite to it. But when I hit the water, and the silica fibers embedded in my abdomen all snapped and squirmed under pressure from the impact, I realised that I might have made a mistake.
My left arm from the wrist up to the shoulder had received a good dose of Gympie Gympie, and by the time I made it to the shore I had a nice even pink rash spreading from my belly button out to my hip, and up the left side of my body to my chest. But the nipple. Oh my god the nipple. It felt like someone had taken to my nipple with a red-hot potato peeler and followed it up with an industrial caustic soda acid wash.
For the next three months I only wore a shirt to school because my crushing body image trumped the continual pain of living with stinging tree all up in my soft bits. Oh and it made it harder for people to aim when they went to slap the stinging spot since they couldn't see the rash. Yeah, kids are pricks.
If you are fortunate enough to come up against the forest demon and survive, there are some folk remedies that you may want to know about. I tried a couple of these with varying success. They range from the seemingly no-brainer to the confusingly detrimental.
In no particular order
The logic goes, if you're afflicted by hair-like protrusions, pull them out like hairs. The downfall of this theory is that you need to apply hot wax to what feels like the essence of hellfire crawling on the underside of your skin. If you pass out from the pain then this might work well for you. If you want to avoid a special kind of torture, there's an alternative to this method.
After several months in a hot toolbox, the adhesive on electrical tape turns to a gooey, sticky mess. It's actually surprisingly good on fresh stinging tree. Since the adhesive is soft and maleable you don't need to apply much pressure to the flesh in order to get purchase on the silica fibers, and if you're lucky and the fibers haven't happily shattered inside your dermis, you can pull a fair few of them out without really increasing the amount of pain you're in. I did this on my stinging tree and it worked some, I'd say noticeably so.
Paw Paw ointment is the go-to cure all for absolutely everything. It's great on rashes, cuts, abrasions and burns. I don't know how it works but it is amazing. It is also slightly effective at soothing a stinging tree rash, until you realise you have to rub it directly on the rash. Owie.
The aloe vera spray bottles made for sunburn are an effective topical application for stinging tree burn as well. It doesn't do much to help the healing process, but if you put the spray bottle in the fridge to cool it down before spraying the area, after the initial blinding pain of fresh contact, it does ease the pain for a while. Stock up because you'll go through several a week, for months.
There is a bush remedy that I have heard of, used by the aboriginal people up and down the daintree. They say that you chop out some of the roots of the tree and make a tea, then cool the tea down and dribble it over the rash. I haven't tried it but it falls into line with a lot of other bush treatments that use part of the afflicting species to assist in healing the affliction. I can't speak to the effectiveness of this, but I imagine dribbling cool fluids over the rash would at least help. Incidentally, stinging tree is a remote member of the nettle family and people have successfully been using nettle to relieve aching pains related to arthritis. Might be a correlation there.
When I went to the doctor soon after receiving my reminder that I was not on the top of the food chain, the first thing the nurses did was shove a big old ice pack on the rash. I remember not agreeing with this idea. For starters, any silica fibers that were miraculously still intact were promptly shattered, increasing the net value of pain available to my nerve endings, and straight ice on straight fire isn't a good feeling when it is localized directly on your nipple. I don't recommend ice packs
Stinging tree has big heart shaped leaves with serrated edges. If you get close you can see the little hairs standing patiently like a killer in the night, ready to leap into your pain centers at the first chance. If you get even closer, you might get one of those hairs directly in your eye. If you do, please send me a picture so I can chortle and guffaw at you. It grows all over the place in the rainforest, often on the side of steep hills and near streams and creeks. Depending on the kind of bushwalker you are you can either a - not learn what it looks like and treat every tree as if it wants to skin you alive and watch you suffer, or b -learn what it looks like, and how to break a branch off without touching the hairs so you can slap someone with it and see if either of you survives. Happy hiking!
Sensitive weed is almost as bad as stinging tree - not in voracity, but in insidiousness. Hidden in those rolling green grassy hills is a silent predator on a collision course with your soft, supple, uncalloused feetsies.
Sensetive weed is not native to Australia, rather it is native to the tropical regions of Central America. These origins, however has meant that it has taken up in our similar climate quite comfortably once introduced by European gardeners. As is unfortunately common with introduced species in Australia, sensetive weed has invaded the local ecosystem and is now a staple of the countryside.
The plant is so named because of its unique reaction to physical stimuli - a.k.a your stomping unshod feet. When disturbed it quickly folds its leaves up together to protect them, and to expose its small, sharp spines located along the trunk and stems of the plant. The plan being to target your soft undersides more efficiently. It's actually quite fun to stumble across a giant rambling mat of sensetive weed and 'wipe' it with your hand to watch the leaves fold up. The top side of the leaves is a dark blueish green and the underside a deep maroon color, making the change in colours when they close up even more compelling.
The sharp tips of the sensetive weed thorns easily break off and get embedded into your vulnerable flesh like a splinter but - unlike a splinter -they are usually less than a millimeter long, making them very hard to extract.
Sensetive weed grows in large sprawling mats in open grassy areas and can most commonly be found out on the verge in front of houses in the suburban areas of Cairns. It often grows along underneath the blades of grass, making it hard to spot - until you've stepped on it a couple of times and honed your spider senses, at which point it becomes more fun to skirt around it while your unknowing barefoot travel buddies take the plunge. You'll see what we mean by the term "North Queensland cossack dance"
There is one satisfying part of sensitive weed. It will generally grow in a large connected mat where most nodules only put down shallow anchor roots, with one or two large tap roots pushing down into the soil. If you come across a large mat of the stuff you can usually pull the entire thing up at once (like a whole-peeled orange, or a big strip of sunburn scale) by working up an edge and slowly peeling up the carpet until you fnd the tap root. You can pull the tap root out by grabbing it as close to the ground as possible and pulling it out. A final defense strategy from sensitive weed is that it will snap away from its taproot quite easily, and can rapidly regrow from an abandoned root - so make sure to fully yank it out!
Another great idea (that's sarcasm) introduced by European gardeners. Bougainvillea is an ornamental plant with pretty pink flowers and gigantic razor sharp fangs coloured red with dripping blood of the humans it has slain and (probably) consumed. You will see these things all over the place once you recognize them.
When I was a kid I used to ride my bike to school and there was one particularly dangerous stretch of footpath - on one side, a fat bougainvillea arching out over the pavement which had thwarted all attempts at pruning by way of its gnashing jaws and teeth. On the other side, a chainlink fence protecting pedestrians from falling into road traffic. Adding to the perfect storm, the bougainveillea was located at the end of a long shallow hill that, as a 9-10 year old boy, I would use to attain land speeds hitherto unbroken - on a bicycle with questionable brakes. I think you can fill in the gaps here folks. By the time I got to school I looked like I had either turned into a werewolf, or been attacked by one, or even both - an epic battle between two werewolves on a ridge at full moon. But really I just lost control at top speed, bounced off the fence and stacked it straight into that thicket of pain and personal failure. I have had somewhat of a vendetta for spiky plants ever since.
In the Cairns region the flowers are more often than not a bright and cheerful fluorescent magenta, which is an obnoxious ploy to invite unsuspecting humans to pick them. They look like a great big flowery pillow, but grabbing a fistful of bougainvillea will quickly land you with a perforated hand and (one can assume) will have you at the mercy of the plants gleeful ridicule.
The thorns on bougainvillea are usually around 5-15mm long, straight or slightly curved, and with a hardened, sharp tip. The thorns usually grow in the crux of where two twigs branch out, but also grow all along the stems and trunk of the plant. After having a proper run in with this plant it will hammer home the concept of nice-from-afar-but-far-from-nice, and will have you questioning your relationship with all things flowery.
The flowers really are a nice colour though.
Also know as "Hairy Mary" due to its dense spiny trunks, "Hat Snatcher" due to its spiky tendrils and "Lawyer cane" because, I dunno, no one likes lawyers? Wait-a-while is a type of palm that grows like a weed in the rainforests in Australias wet tropics.
The plant blurs the line between palm and vine as it shoots out tendrils into the bushy overgrowth in an effort to find purchase. You can sometimes see old wait-a-while plants that have grappled their way up trees and across branches or fallen logs, but more often than not they prefer to grow in the lower sub-storeys of the rainforest biome.
Usually your first encounter with wait-a-while will be with one of its spiky tendrils hanging over a path, likely at Crystal Cascades or Josephine Falls. These colonisers poke out the top of the main plant and then flop over to hang right about eye level in open areas in the bush. If you're lucky enough to be wearing a truckies cap you'll probably be spared as wait-a-while will usually hook onto the brim and then spring backwards into the brush. If you're wearing glasses at least it might just give you a cool eyebrow scar or a new nose piercing. If you've gone into the bush naked then you were probably expecting this, weren't you?
While the tendrils have sharp, backwards facing double hooks like something out of a Stephen King novel, the main trunk of a mature Hairy Mary will be densely coated with long slender spikes. These spikes are sometimes large and brown, but can also be short and the same green as the trunk. These might be sub-species, might be varying levels of maturity, I'm not sure because they're all equally disagreeable and I don't care to ask them. They make a poor choice of grabbing-post when you trip over on a hike, in any case.
Wait-a-while grows all through the bush in Cairns and you're almost guaranteed to come across one if you go to any waterfall track. They're perfectly designed to slow down your progress through the rainforest as they hook into and tear open your clothes, your bags and, possibly, your flesh. If you do get hooked, just stop where you are, call out to your hiking buddies the catch-cry "wait a while!" and carefully extricate yourself.
I've always thought wait-a-while was something straight out of Jurassic Park.