Tales from Down Under

Distance Travelled: 36706km
Date: 19th Dec 2011 to 23rd Jan 2012

I know I haven’t written up the last few months’ worth of stories, but these have just happened, so I thought I’d give you an insight into what I’ve been doing in Australia (“just” being something of a misnomer there, as I wrote this a month ago). Parents – sorry, but most of these are about me being an idiot. If you want to retain respect for me, it’s probably best to skip this update. Everyone else – want to hear about me being drunk and stupid? Read on…

Rip Currents

One of the first things that Will and I did when arriving in Sydney was to go hang out at the beach. Now, I said that I was going to tell you about me being drunk and stupid, but I thought it best to tell these in chronological order, so the drink comes later. Don’t worry though, this is plenty stupid. For those that don’t know, there’s a TV show called Bondi Beach Rescue. This basically follows the surf lifesaving club at Bondi as they fish fools from the sea. Remember this.

These are much more important to pay attention to on Australian beaches

Well, Will and I decided to ignore the large signs saying “Dangerous currents, do not swim here”. Yep. Even after being warned by friends and family, we thought ‘what the hell’, and went for a swim. After messing around for a while, we decided to head in. Now, I’m pretty sure that Will got caught in a stronger current than I did. I know he’s a stronger swimmer than me (we had a race a couple of days later that proved it), but he was definitely struggling more than me to get in. I kind of thought that he was messing around, so just paddled around, and tried to wait for him to join me back closer in.

The lifesavers, on the other hand, weren’t kidding around. They got a loudspeaker out and asked if we needed help. At this point my knowledge of signalling was non-existent, so I sort-of waved, no, we’re good, while shouting that. It didn’t work, because I probably signalled ‘please help, I’m drowning’, and didn’t have a megaphone to correct myself.

Probably a good thing too. Will still wasn’t making much headway when a board barrelled past me and a muscular Australian pulled Will onto it. Seeing that things were getting serious, I turned and swam fast into shore. As he passed, the lifeguard told me to grab his board, but by that point I could stand, and needed to show to myself that I could get myself out of this situation.

I did, but when we arrived on the beach we were met by a man with a camera (remember that show from before?). Yeah, he was from “Bondi Beach Rescue”. I’m not entirely sure what we told him, but look out for us on TV. Will found it embarrassing, while I found it funny, despite being caught in the exact same rip. (Second country I’ve been on national TV, the first being S.Korea. I’ll tell you about that later, but it’s not so entertaining)

Spider vs. Wasp

Well, this one has nothing to do with me being an idiot, fortunately.

Let me set the scene. It’s a hot summer’s day, and Will and I are walking back to our hostel in Glebe – a district to the west of Sydney centre. It’s a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky, and neither of us are contemplating the many, many, animals in this godforsaken country that want us dead.

Arriving back at our place, we come across a circle of people surrounding a wooden picnic bench. As we approach, the crowd parts, with the best of the show over. As we get closer, a friend puts his hand on my shoulder with an “I wouldn’t”.

Asking what’s up, we were ushered a little closer to where we see a wasp and a spider – a good five inches across – curled in a ball, with a wasp parading in front of it. I’m well aware that this isn’t what was going on, I mean, it’s a wasp, but what it looked like was that the wasp was saying to the spider “Yep, that’s right, I did you good”, and at the same time saying to us “Bring it on. You want this spider? He’s mine now”.

I know, but still, that’s what it looked like. We are then told that the spider had been hanging down from the bench, at about leg height, when the wasp swooped in. After a short fight, the spider dropped to the floor; apparently paralysed.

I did not mess with that wasp, and I checked the underside of benches for days afterwards.


Thanks to Sean (and wiki), I identified the wasp (and the spider – a huntsman. Arachnophobes, don’t click that link). It was a spider wasp, unsurprisingly enough. These are so cool that I thought I had to update the post to tell you about them.

The spider wasps are a large family of parasitic wasps, encompassing around 5000 species, in 6 subfamilies. I’m not sure which specific species this one was, but it looked like the photo below.

Cryptocheilus bicolor, subfamily Pepsinae. Approx. 30mm long, excluding antennae.

This family of wasps prey on spiders, often ones larger than themselves. They attack quickly, stinging the unfortunate spider at the base of the head. The amount of venom used is strictly tailored to paralyze the spider. It has to be accurately gauged- too much will kill the spider, and not enough means that the spider will remain alert long enough to fight back and kill the wasp.

The wasp then drags the prone body of the spider back to a suitable place where it makes a burrow and stores the spider inside. Sometimes the spider’s own burrow is used for this, but more often a fresh one is constructed. When inside, the wasp lays an egg on or inside the abdomen of the helpless spider and seals the exit, leaving the paralyzed spider entombed in darkness.

Once the egg hatches, the larva attacks and feeds on the still alive but paralyzed spider, using it as a food source while it develops. As it feeds it leaves the vital organs such as the heart and central nervous system till last, so the spider remains alive and fresh for as long as possible. I have no idea whether the retention of a CNS means that the spider feels pain for all this time, but it’s certainly possible. Remember this the next time someone tells you something ‘natural’ is good for you, or good in itself. Nature can be pretty evil – “red in tooth and claw” and all that.

Some wasps in the family only temporarily paralyze their victim, allowing them to regain activity before being killed by the developing larva. Others don’t even bother with the costly business of paralyzing, dragging and building at all, and just lay their egg on the body of an active spider in a location the spider can’t reach, where it eventually hatches. The larva then burrows into the body of the spider consuming it from the inside.

How cool is that? I love parasites.

The other interesting thing about spider wasps is that the sting of certain members of the family score a 4.0 on the Schmidt Pain Index. This was developed by an American called Joseph Schmidt in 1984, as an attempt to categorise the relative intensities of the pain caused by stings from hymenoptera (the family that includes ants, bees and wasps). It’s really cool, but you wonder about the mind of the man who developed it. The scale runs from 0 (benign, unnoticeable) to 4 (nearly dead), and includes:

Fire Ant
Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet and reaching for the light switch.

The Common Wasp.
Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.

The Bald-faced Hornet
Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.

The Paper Wasp
Caustic and burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.

The Tarantula Hawk is any of the many species within the pepsis subfamily of spider wasps, and comes in at a shockingly high 4.0. Schmidt described it as “Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath.”

Later on he also described it as “…immediate, excruciating pain that simply shuts down one’s ability to do anything, except, perhaps, scream. Mental discipline simply does not work in these situations.” Yeah.

The only species included which scored higher was the Bullet Ant, scoring a 4.0+, described as “Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.”

All in all, I’m glad I didn’t mess with that wasp.

Christmas Day

My Christmas was spent on Manly Beach. Or, rather, it wasn’t. All along the beach were signs saying ‘Don’t swim; dangerous currents’. And then they announced it over the tannoys. One thing I’ve learnt is that those signs are put everywhere but where the lifeguards are – I came again later and they were all across the beach with no current – but the tannoy wasn’t messing around, and after my experience at Bondi I heeded their recommendation and went around the corner to a cove hidden from the currents.

The guys that I was with were up for the idea to have a Christmas BBQ, but all the pits were taken, with huge queues, so we went and got pizza instead.

It was a great day, but it wasn’t Christmas. Not really. Hanging out in the sun on the beach? Fun, but not in the least Christmassy. I didn’t get to see family, or walk through the snow/frost. You want to know what my dinner was?  A peach. Just one, because the shops were closed.

Santas on a battleship? That’s how they do Christmas in Oz.

Christmas decorations on a Sydney bus

But in the end, I got to phone home, and I spent the day with friends, and it ended up being a great day.

The garden of the hostel I was staying in over Christmas. This was taken on Christmas Eve with a glass of white wine and a good book. I checked the underside of the table thoroughly.

Boxing Day

My boxing day was much more boring than Christmas. Boxing Day I was to be flying from Sydney to Melbourne, but that was delayed by a day due to ‘bad weather’. I would later find these photos (below) of the hail in Melbourne, and understand. At the time, I was bored and restless, so I went out to Darling Harbour, and spent far too much on Manhattans at the Hard Rock Café, before finding a great live ska band to while away the early hours with.

The kind of hail that can ground planes. I’m glad I avoided it – it looks like it would really hurt.

New Year’s Eve

This NYE was probably the best I’ve ever had. Most New Years are either house parties, or disappointing nights on the town on a night where everyone else has the exact same idea. Not this time.

This time, I went to an event organised by Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman – one of my favourite artists, and one of my favourite authors. It was an evening of drunkenness, debauchery, dancing and diabolic antics. We sang, we danced, we had a hell of a night. I was introduced to an incredible cross-section of the Melbourne music scene, and it was amazing.

Neil Gaiman gave us his New Year wishes, among the song and dance of the rest of the night. It was beautiful, so I’m going to just reproduce it in full here. Imagine it read out in a warm and comforting voice, the kind that makes for the best storytelling.

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.

So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.

Make your mistakes, next year and forever.”

At one point, as they were collecting up the free champagne (which was forgotten in the craziness that was the New Year Countdown), I objected. Couldn’t they just leave a few glasses for me? I asked. Nope. But… In that box there (kicks a cardboard box), there happens to be a left over bottle of champagne. I’ll leave it here.

The barmen/bouncers were on my side for a change. Very weird. I suspect it had more to do with me chatting up the coat check girls than a New Years’ good will to all men. Either way, a good end to the night.


Luna Park. One of Melbourne’s major landmarks, and home of the oldest continuously running rollercoaster in the world, since 1912. It looked like it too.

So, this is where my drunkenness overtakes my stupidity. I was in Melbourne for around a week and a half. And most of those nights, I was drinking the goon. For those of you that haven’t been over to Oz, a goon is a box of wine with a bag inside. Usually around 4l.

Drinking that amount of wine each night is a terrible idea, but it does lead to fun evenings. Like the night we ended up hanging out in a tree with a bottle of wine, thieving a (thrown out) Christmas tree, chatting up a couple of girls in the park and playing with some possums.

Shaun with a Christmas tree

Really, the possums are by far the most tame wild animals I’ve ever come across. They are happy to be fed, petted, played with. And they’re really adorable. And there’s no rabies in Australia.

Ok, so this doesn’t look adorable at all. Terrifying maybe. Maybe it was the goon.

The Goon

Drinking in Australia is expensive. This is supposed to be a heavy drinking culture, but no-one drinks pints. Schooners, the local equivalent are 2/3 of a pint, and a good 50% more expensive.

What I’ve learnt is that everyone drinks the goon before going out, and then has to dodge the bouncers trying to keep out anyone who appears to be a little drunk.

I hear that the name comes from the Aborigine, because the Aborigine for ‘pillow’ is something close to ‘goon’, and the bags inside the boxes make the most amazing pillows. I have no idea how true that explanation is though. Wikipedia offers the more likely explanation that it’s short for flagon, but I prefer the pillow version.

I have had far too much contact with this most Australian of drinks over the last few weeks, and I can tell you that they are uniformly terrible. But… I can’t afford anything else, and it certainly gets you ready for a night on the town.

The death of my Phone

This one is fun. I dropped my phone in the sea, but I managed to get it back.

A friend said he’d give me $100 if I jumped off the pier at St. Kilda, Melbourne. We’d been drinking, so I did. I left my phone and other assorted stuff on the side, but it must have been knocked in by one of the guys hanging around on dry land. I spent around 40mins hunting for it underwater once we realised, just diving more or less aimlessly beneath the pier, groping for something solid in the mud.

Just as I was going to give up, one of the guys stuck his foot over the edge of a step, and said “it probably fell around here, search this bit”. So I swam over to there, and promptly stood on the phone. Yep, bloody amazing. Of course, spending the best part of three-quarters of an hour in the sea means it won’t turn on any more. In hindsight, it probably wasn’t worth it.

Also, the guy that said he’d give me $100 never got around to it, even after we met up in Sydney a few days later. He did mention on Facebook a couple of days ago that he hadn’t forgotten it and still intended to pay up, so there’s hope yet!


He came through! Dom- You’re a legend. And because of fluctuations in the exchange rate, I made money from the delay.

A Job Interview

I came back to Sydney again, but it was for quite a strange reason. I had a job interview, but I didn’t know where, or for whom, or what the job entailed. And I had no way of finding out.

I’d responded to an advert in a hostel in Sydney before heading down to Melbourne, and then completely forgot that I had. The flier gave details of what the job involved, but I forgot that too. So then I went to Melbourne, and got a phone call from them on Tuesday, asking if I could come in for an interview the following day. I said “er, actually, tomorrow is quite awkward for me, could we push it back a day?”, so we arranged for me to come in the following Monday.

The woman on the phone gave me a brief spiel about who they were, and what the job entailed, but despite the fact that this was the next morning, I was exhausted from the night before. So I sort of stopped listening to her until she started asking questions again. It was something management/office/communications/something or other. That’s all I got. She was to send me an email detailing the job role, and where I was supposed to go. But I never got it and my only way of contacting them was the phone number I had, but, well, that wasn’t really an option any more.

I bought a new phone a couple of days after the old one died, and there was a message on it, saying I should contact them. ‘Them’ being Entourage Marketing. Great, I had a name. But the interview was at 9a.m. the following morning, and I knew nothing about them. No worries. I bought a shirt and tie, did a bit of googling, and rocked the interview.

Second Interview

During that first interview, I learnt that it was a commission based sales/marketing role. I apparently came off well, despite going in utterly blind, because I got a call back for a second. I was told that only around 20% of applicants got an interview, and then only around 10% got a second, so I was feeling pretty chuffed. On the other hand, I didn’t want the job. I needed the money, so I wasn’t going to turn my nose up at an interview, especially one I’d travelled 900 kilometres to get to, but I didn’t really want to be a charity mugger. Especially one that was purely commission based.

The night before the morning after

Considering that I wasn’t too bothered about the job, I decided to go and see my friends at their hostel (one that I’d been hanging around at for over a week without staying there). As soon as I sat down I knew it was a mistake. A mug of wine was dropped in front of me, and we started playing drinking games.

The night just got better from there. We went to a club, and then a bar. A couple of my friends had to run from the police. They were urinating into the road when a police car pulled up and got slightly sprayed. They zipped up and sprinted into the nearest bar, with the police in hot pursuit.

There was no way that I was going to miss the end of this, so I headed into the same bar. Thinking I was part of a very drunken group, the bouncer stepped in front of me and refused entry. I was allowed a half hour to go get a drink of water and come back, but there was no way I was missing the end to this story.

Instead, I nipped across to the entrance to the rooms offered at the pub, and blagged my way in there. Following the stairway down again, I saw my friends walk right past the police, after coming out of the bathroom. We regrouped at the bar, and I was treated to my first Guinness in months.

Leaving the bar, I arrived at my hostel only to find that the place was on fire. Honestly. I arrived in reception to the sound of alarm bells, and the staff freaking out. I asked what was wrong, and was told “Nothing”…”there seems to be a lot of smoke”…”oh crap, we’re on fire, get the hell out”.

Fire engines were called and we were held outside the building for ages until things were cleared up. When we were let back in, the corridors were filled with acrid smoke that spelt like burning plastic.

I got around four hours of sleep, and then went in for an interview for a job I didn’t really want. That’s not to say I didn’t give it a good shot, but needless to say, I didn’t get it.

So there you have it; a taste of my life in Australia. Although this sounds like I’ve just been messing around and getting drunk, I have been looking for work too (honest). I’ve got a second set of stories from Australia to post, and then regular updates will resume.

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2 Responses to Tales from Down Under

  1. Dave says:

    Bro I drink goon’s over here, it’s aaaaaaal good. Also glad to hear you’ve been up to your usual antics!

  2. Will says:

    I’d just like to clarify the surf rescue story.

    I did get stuck in a rip like an idiot, but I persevered against the current and by the time Bondi Surf Rescue decided to help me I’d already got myself to standing depth. Despite the fact that I was free to walk out of the sea at that point, the lifeguard still made me get on the board even though I told him I was fine and didn’t want to.

    I feel like the Surf Rescue has robbed me of my glorious victory over the salty-blue. Only the distracting influence of other more recent iniquities, such as someone stealing all my food (including a whole and unopened block of cheese!), has allowed me to move past my anger at Bondi Surf Rescue.

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