We arrived to discover Darwin more frontier town than cosmopolitan city. Not far from the equator, the lack of air-conditioning was rather disheartening, that and the absence of television. We were also surprised at the animal life. This area of Australia is full of very large bats, strange marsupials, and massive lizards.
We quickly arranged a safari with an Australian version of a sightseeing tour, two Land Rovers driven by a couple of earthy, outdoorsy Australians. As we were cruising down a gravel road, the driver slammed on the brakes for no apparent reason and leapt from the vehicle, not saying a word. I wasn’t sure if we too shouldn’t leap out and run for our lives.
Suddenly, he grabbed at something on the ground and then plopped an animated frill-necked lizard on the hood. It was almost two feet long, and it hissed and snapped and displayed its frilled neck in his attempt to frighten away the humans interrupting its day. We had never seen anything like it. It was only one of many fascinating things we saw that day.
About six months later, mom was trying to nap during the heat of the day and saw something very odd out in the backyard. She cried out for me, and I was surprised to see some sort of large lizard sprinting across the grass on its hind legs. Rushing downstairs, I snagged a frilled lizard in an old fishing net and a bucket. Its disposition was about the same as the first I’d seen.
Soon after, we watched a group of men chase down a massive goanna, a beast at least eight feet long from nose to tail. Our proximity to a lizard that large was awesome and terrifying, like walking into a living version of a Japanese horror movie. Goannas look much like Komodo Dragons, except, fortunately, they are not as large. Nonetheless, an eight foot-long lizard is an eight foot-long lizard.
Later at Howard Springs, a natural spring some sixty miles south of Darwin, a four-foot goanna encroached our picnic, forcing the woman and children atop the picnic table for refuge as the dad battled the beast with a leafy tree branch. The park ranger noticed the interspecies combat and chased off the intruder. This goanna was a regular at the springs having learned humans meant food. The Australian humans meant food. The uninitiated American humans just freaked out and made strange sounds.
We moved from Bambra Crescent to Lampe Street near Fannie Bay. Most houses in Darwin were built on stilts for the natural cooling effect. The ground floor at Bambra was dirt, but the ground floor at Lampe was concrete and much cooler and nicer. Surrounded by bushy trees, the space underneath was a pleasant place to hang out during the heat of the day.
Not long after settling in, I was messing around under the house and noticed a goanna slowly poking around in the backyard. I ran up the stairs, alerted the family, and we all stood at the edge of the concrete under the house, watching our reptilian interloper.
He was well over three feet long and moved slowly around in his pivot-footed steps, investigating this thing and that. Our presents didn’t seem to bother him. We, however, were a little nervous at first, but we soon relaxed. He didn’t seem as dangerous as he looked.
Dad picked up a rock and tossed it near the goanna. It ran quickly to the rock.
“Somebody’s been feeding it,” Dad said. “He thinks I’m throwing food.”
He tossed another rock, and the large lizard ran to it, flicking its tongue. We were all very relaxed now, enjoying the show. Dad picked up a nice sized triangle shaped rock, and this time he stepped out into the grass and, for whatever reason, threw it high in the air.
The rock arched through a clear blue sky and then came down square on top of the lizard’s head with a crack. The goanna reared on its hind legs, hissing, snapping, and clawing at the air as if fending off a raptor. We stood frozen in shocked silence.
After all the hissing and clawing, it ran in a tight circle at an amazing speed. We still stood frozen, fixated on the frantic lizard, not sure what we should do. After about three or four tight circles, the goanna ran straight for us.
I remember it in slow motion, that is, we were in slow motion. My memory of that lizard is a blur of pure speed like an arrow shot from a bow. We all turned toward the stairs, screaming in chorus and elbowing each other for position. Fear can relieve parents of their instinctive drive to protect their young, and fear can also turn brother against sister. What can I say? I was running for my life, and she wasn’t running nearly fast enough. I simply had to yank her back and run ahead.
We hid in the house the rest of that day. Dad kept saying how he didn’t mean to hit it in the head with the rock, and he would never again throw rocks at indigenous wildlife. No worries; we never saw that angry, oversize lizard again anyway.