I read the other day that an infestation of Argentinian ants has been discovered in a small New Zealand town. It took me back to the second half of 1950, when I first left New Zealand, and moved to the town of Mackay, in northern Queensland, a tropical area of Australia. We rented quite a comfortable ground floor apartment, which had a concrete floor, and quickly found that what we were told were Argentinian ants --- extremely tiny little fellows --- were our constant companions. If, on going to the washroom during the night, we stepped on a cockroach, another ubiquitous species, we didn’t have to bother cleaning it up, because by morning a long line of these tiny ants would have removed all traces of it. They had a tendency to gather in the kitchen sink, attracted by any lying drops of water: far from regarding them as a nuisance, we became quite fond of them, and tried to avoid killing them when we turned on the kitchen taps.
When, reading about this recent infestation across the Tasman sea, I discovered how unpleasant were these little creatures, I have begun to doubt that our little fellows could have been the same species. The internet contains a remarkable amount of scientific expertise on the subject of ants, of which there are said to be more than 3,000 separate species in Australia alone.
That brings me on to a really odd circumstance, which is that although New Zealand and Australia appear to be inextricably linked in the minds of outsiders, in fact the two countries are far apart --- as close as Moscow is to London --- and utterly dissimilar in almost everything that matters. One of the most evident dissimilarities is that New Zealand is a country, which, when first discovered by Europeans, was almost totally free of mammals, apart from human beings, and has always been blessedly free of what might be called pests, or dangerous creatures. It never occurred to me as a kid that there could be any danger in just lying down, either in the bush or in open land, since the country has no snakes, unlike Australia, which has 140 separate species, and, apart from mosquitoes, very few of the beetles, spiders, grasshoppers, termites or any other of the creepy-crawlie things that seem to be always threatening your peace of mind in Australia.
Thus, a strange difference that occurs between New Zealanders and Australians that I discovered when moving across the Tasman, is that whereas we in New Zealand grow up in deadly fear of snakes --- of which we have none --- in Australia they grow up fearful of earthquakes, of which they have none or virtually none. Aussies remain unmoved by the presence, even in their houses, of snakes, while in New Zealand we take it totally for granted that we will feel the earth move on an almost weekly basis.
Not to mention the proliferation of such fearsome creatures as the crocodiles that infest many of the Aussie rivers, especially in the north, and, around the coasts, the sharks that so commonly attack bathers.
I remember one evening in Mackay when my wife and I had a quarrel about something, and she stormed out of the house in indignation. She was gone only a few minutes, because she heard so many mysterious noises in the surrounding undergrowth that she was convinced were made by snakes, that she quickly sought shelter in the loving arms of a husband who might have been a total prick, but at least was unlikely to bite her.
Mackay appeared to be a centre for snake-lovers who dreamed of capturing a taipan, reputed to be the most lethal poisonous snake on earth. I was there for only six months, but in that time members of the Sydney Snake Club made several trips north in search of the taipan, and I remember at least one of them ending in the death of a man who was bitten as he was trying to get the snake into a bag. At that time, also, none of these efforts resulted in their getting a taipan to Sydney alive: all of those they captured died in transit.
It was unimaginable to me, but Australians actually welcomed the presence of a snake in the rafters of their homes, because they believed they would keep the rat population in check. The trouble with that theory was that the snakes would eat only until they had satisfied their hunger, and then go to sleep. I kept hearing tales of how snakes could take up residence along the top of doorways, and when these were opened, drop on to the unsuspecting householders. I know from my experience that the local people were completely unafraid to go into the middle of the road, pick up a snake, break its back with a quick flick, and so keep the area free from danger.
In that area of Australia the local bush was of a very straggling, ugly type. The roads inland at the time were not much more than dirt tracks, and the inland villages nothing more than a collection of buildings set up in the wilderness, with apparently no thought of municipal organization. It amazed me that anyone would want to live in such places. I remember driving the thirty or forty miles north from Mackay on a visit to one of the off-shore islands, comprising part of the Great Barrier Reef, and was amazed to see that the bush had been impregnated with huge mounds built by termites.
Years later while I was on a visit to the headquarters of the UN Environment Agency in Nairobi, an Australian scientist on secondment there for a time told me most trees in Australia had been eaten away from the inside by termites. I found it hard to believe, but as I was researching for this article I came across an article on termites by seven scientists published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B (for biological science) that confirmed what the man had told me. Termites apparently are divided between cryptotermes, drywood termites, and coptotermes, which are responsible for what they call “tree piping”. The difference is that the queens of the cryptotermes do not produce many individuals, whereas the coptotermes can produce “colonies of one million or more individuals, with tens of thousands of aggressive soldiers with long biting mandibles and sticky glue secretions.” Sounds unpleasant enough, but then they added: coptotermes “are the dominant wood-eating termite in Australia; they infest more than 85 per cent of trees.”
So now I have it from the horse’s mouth: most Aussie trees are infested by termites. Wow, that is a hard fact to wrap one’s mind around.
It is a sort of freak of nature that two such countries, only three days’ sailing apart, should have remained so biologically separate during all the millenia of their existence. New Zealand, of course, was practically lain waste between the two great wars by introduced species. The agent of greatest destruction was the rabbit, which, free from all predators or competitors, was capable of turning a landscape into a bare, constantly moving spectacle as hundreds of rabbits would move over a hillside in which they had placed their burrows. One legislator many years ago rose in Parliament to suggest that New Zealand should import tigers, as a means of rabbit control. Fortunately he did not carry the government of the day with his argument.
When I was a child we used to take a 26-mile drive to the coast, and we filled in our time by counting the number of dead rabbits killed by vehicles along the way. There were never fewer than a hundred. They have worked for years to bring the rabbit under control. At one point the nation was divided into 100 rabbit boards, each of which had a staff of so-called “rabbiters” whose job it was to eliminate the pestiferous rabbit within its boundaries. It never worked, of course. Even biological methods of spreading killer viruses have never succeeded in wiping out rabbits. However, their number has been very much reduced, and the struggle continues to this day.
And the rabbit is not the only introduced pest in New Zealand. The beautiful New Zealand bush, with its population of gorgeous birds, is ridden these days with feral cats, released by careless owners to become established as deadly killers of native birds. There are also wild pigs, and various varieties of deer, all of them introduced from abroad, one of which is called the wapiti, and is actually a transplanted Canadian elk.
I visited Australia to make a film in the late 1980s. We went to the Gulf of Carpentaria region in the far north where one of the two biggest bauxite mines in the world was run by a consortium of international aluminum companies. At the town of Weipa everything was owned and operated by the company, Cominco, an Australian outfit, which provided raw bauxite to Alcan in Canada and Pechiney in France. One day they took us up the Weipa river, where I was astonished to see many crocodiles sunning themselves on the banks until the noise of our motor would disturb them, and they would slip into the water.
This confirmed my belief that Australia is a land where some dangerous animal is lurking in every hidden place, ready to snap at you.
Australians, of course, deny the truth of this, with some reason. Whereas it is said that in a list of the 30 most dangerous snakes in the world, all but five are in Australia, that country has developed methods of treatment for snake bites so effective that although 100,000 people are estimated to die of snake bites around the world every year, only 27 of them were in Australia.