• Australia is more than just a 'deadly destination' or Mick Dundee caricature. (Digital Vision Vectors/Getty)Source: Digital Vision Vectors/Getty
Killer spiders, snakes and sharks make Down Under look like a deadly destination. But this Mick Dundee view of our country is turning us into a caricature.
By
Jill Stark

25 Oct 2016 - 3:26 PM  UPDATED 25 Oct 2016 - 3:31 PM

Sometimes it feels like Australia is a made up country.

Fifteen years I’ve been here and there are still moments when I simply can’t believe what I’m seeing. The mouse-eating spider was one of those.

“What fresh hell is this?” I thought as I watched an unfeasibly huge huntsmen drag a lifeless rodent across the side of a fridge. 

It was a video that soon went viral as viewers across the globe recoiled at the latest horror in a litany of living nightmares brought to us by Australia’s wildlife.

As a migrant from Scotland – where the scariest creature you’ll encounter is an inebriated Glaswegian after dark, or a grumpy badger rifling through your rubbish bin – I am fascinated and petrified in equal measure by what nature throws up here.

In the eyes of the world, this is the domain of apex predators where survival of the fittest is played out in epic battles that (whether common or not) find their way into popular folklore in an Internet instant.

It is this abundance of curious beasts that only serves to solidify Australia’s reputation as a land that is quite different to any other. To the outsider, there is a child-like thrill in learning just how wild Mother Nature can be in a country so vast you could fit the UK about 11 times over into Western Australia alone.

In his book, Down Under: Travels in a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson observes that Australia is the “driest, flattest, hottest, most desiccated, infertile and climactically aggressive” of all the inhabited continents and has “more things that can kill you in a very nasty way than anywhere else”.

In the eyes of the world, this is the domain of apex predators where survival of the fittest is played out in epic battles that (whether common or not) find their way into popular folklore in an Internet instant.

So enduring is the exotic view of Australia that for the first few years I lived here, I could not dissuade my family of the notion that kangaroos routinely bounded past my apartment front door.

They were convinced that daily life was a courageous gauntlet run in which residents must avoid being maimed or killed as they pop out for a sandwich break. This is, after all, a country where dingoes eat babies.

It was a view I once shared. But now, as an Australian citizen who calls Melbourne home, I can see how much more this rich country is than the crude caricature these romantic ideas of Outback swashbuckling suggest.

We are a nation that has moved far beyond the Mick Dundee stereotype. Yet, it is frustrating to think that for much of the world this is how we remain – crystallised in the public consciousness as a primitive land with an abundance of fearsome critters but not much culture.

Huge huntsman spider caught on video battling mouse
Arachnophobes look away.

In reality, we are so much more than the home of crocodile-swallowing pythons or menacing kangaroos.

Australia is home to rainforest, reef, desert, farming country and bush. We have cosmopolitan cities with thriving arts scenes and one of the most diverse and multicultural populations in the world.

Most Australians are immigrants or descendants of immigrants, arriving from more than 200 countries. A quarter of us were born overseas and four million Australians speak a language other than English. Indigenous Australians are one of the oldest peoples in the world, with a rich cultural history that spans some tens of thousands of years. And, our economy is robust and we punch above our weight in sport, entertainment, science and literature.

Yet still, the enduring mythology of the Land Down Under is one of the exotic colonial outpost where everyday life is under threat from the native fauna.

But now, as an Australian citizen who calls Melbourne home, I can see how much more this rich country is than the crude caricature these romantic ideas of Outback swashbuckling suggest.

Headlines in our own media outlets, which sensationalise these relatively uncommon wildlife attacks, with reporting that characterises sharks as “human cullers”, “leg maulers” and “life destroyers” do not help.

They perpetuate a view of Australia that is, to the onlooker, all that is deliciously foreign and mysterious about our nation, but does little to represent who we are or how we live.

Naturally, the British tabloids - in a country where the biggest threats to life are obesity and a lack of sunlight – are going to be drawn to terrifying tales of crocodile attacks and shark maulings.

The rest of the world is similarly fascinated with our remote position on the map and the unique flora and fauna that inhabits our vast island continent. It is a selling point but it is important that we ourselves do not fall into the trap of propagating or celebrating this as Australia’s dominant narrative.

So I will continue to explain to my overseas friends that I live my urban life largely unbothered by deadly predators. I will tell them that the killer huntsmen spider looks and sounds scary but is actually harmless to us. I will talk up our arts and culture and our diverse communities.

And I will point out that while it’s human nature to seek thrills – peeking at the horror movie through the gaps in our fingers – at the end of the day the movies highlights reel may be awesome but it’s far from real.

 

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