Australia is a dangerous country. It has more than its share of poisonous animals and other extremes that can concern potential tourists. It is not without reason that I am frequently asked: “Can’t almost everything kill you in Australia?” Quite simply, yes. We came up with 11 categories of dangerous Australians that you should watch out for if you are planning a trip Down Under.
1. Big things that bite
These dangerous Australians don’t nibble, they bite, as in a leg off.
Australia has the highest number of fatal shark attacks in the world. Sharks have even been spotted in Sydney Harbour.
Fortunately (depending on how you look at it), shark attacks primarily involve surfers. A fully grown shark likes to snack on seals, and guess what you look like to a shark in your little wetsuit?
The easy way to avoid sharks is to ‘swim between the flags’. Where surf lifesavers patrol a beach, they will assess the water for dangers (see below) and set out flags. The area between the flags is watched and you will be warned and ushered out of the water if sharks are sited.
Also, avoid surfing, especially at dawn or dusk.
Australian crocodiles have the strongest bite ever measured: at 3,000 kg of pressure, it would possibly even rival that of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Basically: Just because you can’t see them, does not mean that they are not there.
Most crocodile ‘incidents’ in Australia involve either tourists, who did not read the signs or thought they did not apply, or intoxication and a bet… I’ll give you a tip: the croc won.
How do you avoid an incident with these dangerous Australians? Read the signs. OBEY the signs. Avoid river banks and the sea near mangroves or estuaries, too. If you are unsure whether it is safe, ask a local. If you don’t see any locals in the water, don’t go near it.
2. Slippery slidey things
Australia has the top 10 most venomous snakes in the world and most venomous numbers 21 to 25 as well. Around 140 species of land snakes and 32 species of sea snakes have been identified in Australia, about 100 of which are venomous. However, only 12 of them could actually kill you. That’s comforting, right?
Since the introduction of anti-venom in 1956, there have only been about two deaths per year. Most involve an attempt to kill a snake or to show it off to mates. About a fifth of snake bites occur when someone tried to pick up the snake. Many involve the aggressive Eastern Brown snake (world #2), which will attack if it feels threatened.
Snakes are part of life in Australia. I remember my very first day of school in Melbourne: another child got bitten by a snake in the yard. We learn to look out for these dangerous Australians, check our shoes, and take caution when in areas where they are known to live.
Generally, don’t leave your shoes outside. If you do, check them for critters before inserting your foot (snakes and spiders). This becomes second nature when you live in an area with a healthy snake and spider population. If you are sleeping under the stars, check your swag or sleeping bag before crawling in. They have also been known to find their way into dishwashers and even kids school bags, so be aware.
If you are out walking in bush areas, such as the Adelaide Hills, you are likely to see snakes. Don’t touch them! The brown, black, tiger and red-bellied black all live in the Adelaide Hills. I grew up in the area and we have lost a couple of dogs to snake bites.
Wear hiking boots, thick socks and long pants, if possible. Most Australian snakes have powerful venom but only small fangs, and they will often strike without biting first as a warning – except for the Eastern Brown – it is a b%§$&*d. This outfit will prevent most snake bites.
Walk with ‘heavy feet’. Tell your kids to stomp. Basically, the snakes feel the vibrations and evacuate before you get there.
If you do see one: freeze. Go no closer. If the snake has been disturbed, stay extremely still until it calms or slithers away. If it is still not alarmed by your presence, pivot 180 degrees on your feet and walk quickly in the opposite direction or at least take a wide berth around the snake. Look out for others in the area too.
For most snakes (or other dangerous Australians that bite and sting), the rule of thumb is you have about 20 to 30 minutes until you will be hallucinating, having difficulty breathing and your heart may have stopped (venom often causes blood clotting). If you are bitten:
- Stay calm.
- Cover the bite (don’t wipe off the venom – it helps with identification).
- Immobilise the affected limb – wrap a (compression) bandage to the tip and as far up the limb as you can and immobilise with a splint.
- Try and remember what the snake or other creature looked like.
- Get to the hospital as a matter of urgency.
And don’t try to pick them up!
3. Creepy crawlies
Australia has a lovely range of insects and arachnids and other creepy crawlies that can cause pain, if not death. Watch out for these four dangerous Australians.
We like things big in Australia. Australia’s giant centipedes can grow to more than 15 cm (six inches) and are common throughout Australia. You are most likely to find one in the garden or under leaves and rocks and logs while hiking, particularly in the evening (they are nocturnal). A sting from its venomous claws (the first ‘legs’ after the head) could lead to days of intense pain and can even be fatal for young children.
Jack jumper ants
These nasty little ants are prevalent in Tasmania. The rest of the country has bull ants and inch ants (yes, they are as big as the name infers), whose bites do hurt, but the worst by far are the jack jumpers.
These small, black and orange ants have extremely good eyesight and can jump – thus the name. They live in the bush and in areas where the soil is freshly tilled or disturbed, such as a new housing development. It is one of the most dangerous ants in the world and actually one of the most dangerous Australians. Approximately one person dies in Australia from jack jumper stings every four years – that is more than die from bites from our more poisonous spiders!
Bees and wasps
Research actually suggests that bees, wasps and other insects are the most dangerous Australian animals. Despite the potent poisons of snakes and jellyfish or the fierce bites of crocodiles and sharks, 27 people died from stings of bees and wasps over a 13 year period. In contrast, snake bites are only fatal in one to two cases a year.
Picture the big, hairy, poisonous spider of your nightmares… you are probably thinking of something like the funnel web. It lives in and around Sydney and its venom is one of the most toxic of any spider. They line their burrows with webs that look like funnels, thus the name. You are unlikely to come across any when visiting as a tourist, but stay away from gardening, leave rocks and logs where they lay and don’t disturb debris on the ground.
Another one of our most poisonous spiders is the redback spider. We even have a song about being bitten by a red-back while on the toilet. They are black with a tell-tale red or orange stripe on the abdomen.
Redback spiders are much more common. They are the reason why we wear gloves when gardening, roll over logs for the fire before picking them up and check our shoes before putting them on. I remember going to choose a Christmas tree one Christmas, picking it up, putting it in the back of the car behind my cousins (then aged 2, 3 and 5) and taking it out of the car at home, only to discover about 14 redbacks nesting in the tree. We had to hose the tree down well before taking it inside.
Redback spider bites apparently burn and bring intense pain. Anti-venom is now often not administered unless the bite victim is young, elderly or otherwise infirm.
Curiously, one of the most dangerous spiders cannot actually hurt you. The daddy long-legs has a small body and very long, thin legs. It is a common house spider and loves to eat flies. While it’s venom is supposedly extremely potent (more potent than the funnel web – though it is unclear what this information is based on), it has only tiny fangs and could not pierce human skin. These dangerous Australians are therefore harmless for humans.
4. Sea creatures
The sea and the beach are alive with things that can kill you. We have a lot of the superlatives in this area – mostly ‘most deadly’ – and the shark is perhaps the most harmless.
On the beach
As a general rule: do not let your children go fossicking on the beach in Australia unless you and they are fully aware of the creatures they might find and which ones are dangerous.
Cone snails are actually one of the most deadly animals in Australia and they look like pretty shells. I have never seen one: they are most common in the north of Australia. Comfortingly, the venom has the capacity to kill 15 humans within just hours. Worst yet, their harpoon-like tooth can inject venom through gloves and wetsuits. They are most often encountered walking on the beach or wading in the water.
Wear shoes when walking in shallow water or rock pools to help avoid stepping on any of these creatures. Go looking for shells on a different beach where there are fewer dangerous Australians.
The stonefish is the most venomous fish in the world. Unsurprisingly, it is found in Australia. It has excellent camouflage capabilities and is difficult to see until it is stepped on, when it shoots venom through 13 spines into whatever squashed them. Their venom can cause severe pain, heart failure and death. Fortunately, anti-venom was developed in the 1950s and there have been no known deaths since.
Stonefish can live out of water for up to 24 hours. So, again, wear shoes when walking in the shallows and rock pools. Dousing the spot with vinegar can help alleviate pain. Washing the site with hot water (no more than 45°c) can also help denature the venom.
This tiny mollusc (12 to 20cm) is one of the most dangerous Australians and is one of the world’s most venomous marine animals. It is easily recognisable from its bright blue rings that become more prominent when threatened. They are generally found in coral reefs and tide pools in the north of Australia, but have also been found on beaches in the south of Australia with increasing frequency.
Several humans are bitten each year – mostly when they try to touch it. The bites are painless but can cause paresthesias, numbness, muscular weakness and difficulty breathing within 5 minutes. There is currently no antidote, but reported deaths are few. Just don’t touch them!
In the water
I feel a little like Winston Churchill: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds…” Yes, there are more things that can kill in Australia in the water.
There are 31 Australian sea snakes, all of which are venomous. Most are docile or rarely encountered by people (such as the yellow-bellied sea snake). The exception is the beaked sea snake. A single bite can cause paralysis and muscle damage. Fortunately, an anti-venom is available.
Dory made bouncing on box jellyfish look like fun in Finding Nemo. Until Nemo’s dad, Martin saw what she was doing.
The Great Barrier Reef and the northern Australian waters are home to this poisonous and almost invisible creature. The venom in it’s looong (up to 3 metres long!) tentacles cause a heart attack and paralysis, which often leads to drowning. Each tentacle (and there are up to 60 of them!) has around 5,000 stinging cells which transfer venom on touch. The severity of the sting will depend on the size of both the jellyfish and the victim and how many stingers are involved. More than 70 people have died since 1883 from jellyfish stings.
At least two of the victims (both in 2002) actually died from Irukandji syndrome as a result of stings from Irukandji jellyfish. These jellyfish are tiny – about one cubic centimetre in size – and transparent, so that they are very difficult to see in the water. This makes them the smallest but also one of the most venomous jellyfish in the world. Their sting can cause muscle cramps, nausea and even brain haemorrhaging… nice!
Take a bottle of vinegar with you to the beach. If someone is stung, get them out of the water as carefully and quickly as possible (don’t get stung yourself!) and then douse the sting area with vinegar for at least 30 seconds. Don’t douse the sting area with urine a la Monica from Friends. It will only cause more pain. Seek medical attention.
Our bids may look charming, but they can be dangerous too. You should have expected that, right?
Cassowaries are the second-heaviest flightless bird and the third tallest. They are also classified as the most dangerous bird on earth. Unsurprisingly, they come from Australia.
This strange prehistoric throwback – like an emu with a boney lump (called a casque) its head and blue neck and red collar and wattles like a turkey – inhabits the rainforests off north-eastern Australia.
Cassowaries are fast runners (up to nearly 50 km/h) and are equipped with dagger-like claws (12cm long!). It is a very territorial bird and will use these claws as weapons if it feels threatened. Hundreds of attacks on humans are reported every year; fortunately few are fatal.
Give cassowaries a wide berth.
Another dangerous Australian bird is the magpie, but only during spring. This territorial bird is black and white and only a little smaller than a crow. In spring (September) these birds will swoop on anyone who comes near their nest. The swooping is so bad, that Australians will wear sunglasses on the back of their head or draw a face on the top of a cap to fool the magpie that they are being watched. Make sure you pack your sunglasses if you are visiting Australia in the spring.
6. Other animals
Of course, it would not be right if some of Australia’s cutest animals couldn’t also be quite dangerous. They are not to be messed with.
The most famous, of course, is the boxing kangaroo. Australians idolise them so much that they put a boxing kangaroo on a flag and display that flag at sporting events. And it is based on fact. Kangaroos can balance on their tail and use their legs and claws to seriously injure any threats. Kangaroos are territorial and the alpha male will look after his mob – from other kangaroos and humans.
Kangaroos and other wildlife have been known to become aggressive and attack when they have been fed human food, such as carrots or even McDonald’s chips. Do. Not. Feed. The. Wildlife. When animals become used to human food, they will attack if they realize you have some and are not sharing. So it might not be you but the next tourist who is attacked. Even when you are visiting a wildlife park, such as Cleland, where you are allowed to feed the kangaroos, emus, bettongs, etc, only feed them the pellets available for purchase.
However, the biggest danger posed by Australian wildlife is the risk of having a car accident when you swerve to avoid hitting one of the furry critters. They walk away, and you total your car hitting a tree.
Kangaroos are particularly dangerous. Wild camels in the centre of Australia can be dangerous, too. Most visitors and locals will drive a 4WD with a bull bar when in the desert. The bull bar is then at the right height to knock a camel off its feet – so the whole animal ends up going through your windscreen.
Perhaps the most dangerous Australian marsupial of all, however, is the adorable wombat. These little bundles of muscle are used to bracing when they think their burrow is collapsing. Never put your hand down a wombat burrow as the wombat will think their burrow is collapsing and brace, crushing your hand in the process. Generally, they will brace when involved in a car accident, too. And they are very good at it. When a fully-loaded Mac Truck hits a wombat, for example, it would not be unusual for the truck to flip, lose its load and be severely damaged while the wombat walks away.
Keep your eyes on the road, avoid driving at dawn or dusk if possible, and have your passengers look out for any signs of movement on the sides of the road up ahead.
If the animals don’t get you, the heat might.
Heatwaves are one of the deadliest natural hazards. Even Australia, a country used to having heatwaves, is woefully underprepared for increasingly higher temperatures. Just last December, while we were in Australia, records broke all around the country and the average national temperature hit a new high as well (now 40.9°c!).
Tourists and locals alike are often unprepared for such extreme weather. By extremes we mean days exceeding 39°c or even 45°c. One of our last trips home coincided with a heatwave, were it did not go below 30°c, even at night, for more than 16 days. Concentration became difficult. Dehydration was a serious issue.
And extreme heat causes fires.
If you are visiting Australia in Summer, make sure that you remain well hydrated. Drink more than you think you need and make sure children drink too. Learn the symptoms of dehydration and how to do the simple pinch test so that you can take action early.
The pinch test: Use two fingers to pinch up some of the skin on the back of the hand or on the chest just under the collarbone, then let the skin go. The skin should spring back to normal in less than a second. It if takes longer to return and does not spring back, it could be a sign of dehydration. Check for dark and smelly urine to confirm.
8. The distance
Australia is a large country. Very large. It is the sixth largest country in the world at over 7.5 million square kilometers. There are also significant distances between many of the major cities, often with not much but desert in between.
I won’t forget two friends, who were studying with me in Germany and thought they could cycle from Adelaide to Perth in a couple of days. It is nearly 2,774 km by road, most of it across the Nullabor Plain, the longest, straightest, flattest road in Australia. Nullabor means no trees… Can you understand why I laughed before I realised they were serious and needed to understand the dangers? Please check the distances that you intend to travel and be aware of the dangers.
Even experienced long-distance drivers should take extra petrol and extra water when driving through the outback or across the Nullabor Plain. If your car breaks down, STAY. WITH. THE. CAR. It is much easier for a search party to find your car than it is to find an individual.
9. The waves
if the sharks don’t get you, and the jellyfish and sea snakes avoid you, the waves still might get you.
Waves in New South Wales, Tasmania and Western Australia have been known to rise above 40 feet, with strong currents. This can quickly lead to serious injuries and fatalities.
Many Australian beaches are also known for their strong rip tides. There is a reason that we advocate swimming between the flags and it is not just the sharks. In fact, many of the fatalities that occur on our beaches involve foreigners who are not swimming between the flags.
Then there are the sudden waves, that like to sneak up on people who get too close to the edge while taking a selfie… if they don’t fall off the cliff first.
10. The people
Yes, if the extreme animals, landscape and weather do not get you, the locals just might. Any list of dangerous Australians would be incomplete if it did not include the human Australian.
Adelaide was once given the moniker “The unsolved murder capital of the world”. Very comforting. With disused opal mines at Coober Pedy, the longest limestone cliffs in the world on the Nullabor Plain and miles upon miles of desert, there are many places a body could just be disappeared.
If it can happen to the top man in Australia, why can’t it happen to you? On 17 December 1967, then Prime Minister (our equivalent of the President) Harold Holt went swimming and disappeared. His body was never recovered. While the official view is that Holt drowned, many conspiracy theories say otherwise. Don’t worry, Australia is known to like a bit of irony. There is even a swimming centre named in his honour.
11. Drop bears
Perhaps the most dangerous Australian of all – at least for tourists – is the drop bear, or Thylarctos plummetus.
The Australian Museum defines the drop bear as a “large, arboreal, predatory marsupial” is related to the koala and about the size of a leopard. They live in densely forested regions of Eastern and South Eastern Australia, including the Adelaide Hills and Kangaroo Island. As the name suggests, they like to drop from the branches onto their prey. Research has shown that they are more likely to attack a tourist than someone speaking with an Australian accent. To protect yourself, spread Vegemite or toothpaste behind your ears and under your armpits and imitate an Australian accent.
Dangerous Australians: 11 things that can kill you in Australia
Australia is a big country filled with lots of dangerous Australians. We counted 11 categories, some of which you might have heard of, some of which may be less familiar.
Our dangerous Australians are often given as the reason why someone does not want to visit Australia. Yet they are not as prevalent as you might think. I have never seen many of these deadly animals (especially not the drop bear) and the average tourist will not see them either. Many tourists will even seek out some of the dangerous Australians, especially the cute and cuddly looking ones!
Take cautions, pay attention to your surroundings and what your children are doing and know the emergency number if anything still goes wrong.
Australian emergency telephone number: 000 (triple zero).
Don’t let Australia’s reputation for deadly and dangerous Australian animals and features dissuade you from visiting – there is so much you will miss!