The Truth about Eco-Travel

Cairns Birdwing Butterfly

Cairns Birdwing Butterfly

This story won the 2008 Solas Award bronze for the best “Bad Trip” story.
By Laurie McAndish King

Jim was hesitant right from the start.

“Cape Tribulation? Wilderness Area? No way!”

Our travel agent had provided a bright, glossy brochure of the Bunyip Lodge, and I talked my husband into going along to this eco-resort in northern Australia. “Eco-tourism” sounded so romantic: waking to the trill of morning birdsong, viewing exotic animals without binoculars, and falling asleep to the melodic sounds of the night forest. Who could resist two weeks in a pristine rainforest? I reminded my metro man that there was a resort in eco-resort, and assured him that any inconveniences would be minor. Besides, the brochure featured a photo of a sparkling swimming pool. If Jim decided against traipsing through the rainforest with me, he could always relax with a book by the pool.

I wanted to be one with the rainforest.

We traveled twelve thousand miles by air and bus, transferred to a treacherous wooden ferry to cross the Daintree River, and finished our trip in an eight-passenger minibus that rattled and shivered and shimmied along a deeply rutted road. So far, so good. But, arriving at the Bunyip Lodge that night, we began to discover the true meaning of “eco-tourism.” The minibus would not fit on the “resort’s” narrow, overgrown road, so the driver was forced to deposit us-rather unceremoniously, I thought-in the middle of a dense jungle. There were no lights at the drop-off point and, as the minibus quivered off to its next destination, we found ourselves standing alone with our luggage.

In complete darkness.

We hadn’t packed flashlights. Who would think we’d need a flashlight to get to the hotel lobby? Jim and I stood stupidly in place for a few minutes as our eyes adjusted to the darkness, and eventually discovered a path leading to a faint light. Leaving our luggage heaped in a pile, we stumbled down the bumpy, vine-tangled trail towards the resort.

The porters can retrieve it later, I thought.

Although there was no lobby, we did manage to track down the proprietor, an amiable fellow called Tony, who was unable to check us in because the computer was “down.”

“A bug?” I sympathized, remembering the last time my own computer had crashed.

“Nawr-it’s the bloody mice. They’ve chewed right through the wires again,” Tony explained. Ever helpful, he lent us a couple of flashlights so we could retrieve our luggage and carry it to the cabin.

There were no porters.

Jim and I were both dripping with sweat before we had walked the 100 yards from drop-off point to office. But we remained optimistic, and decided that although the weather and accommodations were not exactly what we had anticipated, it would be fine as long as there was air conditioning.

Of course, there was no air conditioning.

There were cracks in the walls wide enough for a small dog to pass through (surely these were not for wildlife viewing) and a narrow bed surrounded by alarming volumes of mosquito netting (never a good sign). There was also a permanent-looking sign in the room requesting that we leave the lights and ceiling fan on at all times to inhibit the encroachment of some sort of creeping jungle rot. And there was a super-sized red box of salt in the bathroom, with instructions for using it to remove leeches.

“Simply rub the salt over the attached leech….”

Jim and I both sat on the bed and turned to face each other. He beat me to the question: “Whose idea was this, anyway?”

It was time for some serious attitude adjustment. We ambled over to the open-air bar, sucked down gin and tonics, and flipped through a couple of natural history books we found lying around. I hoped to spot the rare buff-breasted paradise kingfisher. “It migrates all the way from New Guinea,” the guidebook said, “to breed only in this small area in North Queensland, and nests by burrowing into termite mounds.” I would also be on the lookout for the musky rat kangaroo and for the cassowary, an ostrich-like bird that can kick a person to death in self-defense. Now this was exciting.

Lawyers' Cane, also called the "Wait-Awhile" plant

Lawyers' Cane, also called the "Wait-Awhile" plant

Not wanting to be outdone, Jim studied up on the plants. “It says there’s something called the Gimpy Gimpy plant that causes horses to commit suicide.”

“Does not,” I countered. Surely he was kidding.

“Duh-zz. Page 137. The most terrifying plant in the area,” Jim read, “is the Gimpy Gimpy. When brushed against, its leaves release an extremely painful irritant. There is no known antidote, and the pain can last for months.”

“All right, but what about the horses….” I interrupted, catching him in what was surely a complete fabrication.

“Horses have been known to die from charging into trees after exposure to this plant,” he continued. “The leaves appear soft and fuzzy from a distance, and have been used, by some stunningly unfortunate explorers, as rainforest toilet paper.”


Over another round of gin and tonics, Jim and I anticipated the next day’s activities, which now revolved around avoiding the Gimpy Gimpy plant. “We might be lucky enough to spot a small, dusky-colored, rat-like kangaroo scampering about in the rainforest shadows,” I enthused. “It’s the world’s most primitive marsupial!”

“Yes, and we could also see a small brown bird covered with termites, or a large brown bird that could kick us to death,” Jim replied, with somewhat less enthusiasm. “These were the exotic native species you had dreamed of encountering?”

The next morning, the air remained thick. The shirts we had worn the day before and hung in front of the window to air out remained wet-not merely damp, but soaked through-with perspiration.

We tried to find dry clothes, but everything inside our suitcases was wet, too, so Jim used a hairdryer on our shorts and shirts. Then we headed for the lodge, where I scouted around for the inviting swimming pool that had been featured in the brochure. I was desperate to float in it. I imagined diving in, a brisk splash, then full-body relief.

The pool did not exist.

Oh, there was a tiny wading hole, similar in overall look, if not dimension, to the palatial pool featured in the brochure. The photographer had apparently taken the shot from ground level, and used an extremely wide-angle lens, in order to flatter the tiny pond and convince unsuspecting tourists to register at this eco, so-called resort. I was sorely tempted to call it quits, but we couldn’t go home. We were stuck for six more days in this purgatory of heat and humidity.

Tony was sympathetic and let us in on a secret. He suggested we spend the morning “cooling your inner core,” as the locals did, by soaking in Cooper’s Creek just down the hill. Also, he assured us that the leeches there were only small, the kind that bite you gently and then fall off.

“Just a little nibble, really. No worries.”

The photo-perfect swimming hole was clear and beautiful, surrounded by lush tropical vegetation, shaded by magnificent rainforest trees. And the water was cold, as Tony had promised.

Very, very cold.

I’m a bit of a baby about plunging my body into icy leech-filled streams, so it took me a good twenty minutes to submerge. My feet were easy, lower legs not so bad. Thighs difficult, waist nearly impossible. The water was unbearably cold, and I kept thinking about the leeches, and which of my body parts they would be most likely to attach themselves to. Did they prefer light or dark, cold or warmth, freedom to crawl around or a cozy nook or cranny…?

With my mind finally off the oppressive heat I relaxed, looked around, and began to think: Who would live in a place like this, anyway? Were they all insane? Had they been kicked out of other towns, or even other countries? Visions of early shiploads of convicts filled my mind. Perhaps the crazy ones had migrated to Queensland. An intense vibration interrupted my reverie, and I realized my teeth were chattering uncontrollably. After sitting in the numbingly-cold creek for more than an hour, we had induced hypothermia. This was the locals’ brilliant strategy for surviving in such a sweltering climate!

But we did finally feel better (especially after removing the small leech that clung tenderly to my right big toe). So much better, in fact, that we decided to take a nature walk. Tony drove us to a nearby nature reserve and introduced us to Helen, a stout, Hobbit-like creature with the air of someone who had spent too many years alone in the jungle. Although the sun was shining and the sky showed no signs of rain, she dressed in a bright yellow slicker and knee-high gumboots for our rainforest walk.

Jim grew bored quickly. “I think we’ve seen all 3,052 endemic species,” he muttered from behind me on the trail. “Now I only need to sit on a Gimpy Gimpy plant to make my trip complete.”

It was then we came upon what were clearly Helen’s favorites: ants crawling by the thousands along rough tree branches. Each ant was about a quarter of an inch long, and had a delicate, bright green abdomen that was grossly over-extended-filled with nectar the ant had collected-and looked as though it was about to burst. Helen gently pulled an extra-large-sized ant off a tree and extended it towards my face. “‘Ere ya go, then. Go ahead, lick its butt.”

Lick the ant’s butt?

I don’t know whether I was more afraid of the ant, with its horrifyingly engorged abdomen, or of Helen and her curiously insistent attitude. She touched the ant’s translucent bulge to her own confidently outstretched tongue, and I bravely followed suit. After it was clear I had not been poisoned, Jim licked his own ant, and his eyes shot open. The taste was like mixing the fizz of Alka Seltzer with lime sherbet, and then multiplying by a gazillion. Ziiiiingo!

Helen explained that the ants were great to have around, as they kept other bugs away. I was glad to hear this, because I’m always the first to know when mosquitoes are nearby: they apparently sense the sweetness of my blood, or the depth of my hatred for their species, and swarm about me without fail.

Despite the ants, today was no exception. The mosquitoes swarmed, they landed, and they sucked my blood mercilessly. I convinced Helen and Jim to turn back just as it began to rain. Venomous tree frogs sang a deafening chorus that echoed in every direction and disoriented me completely. Water gushed down in torrents. “It’s called a rainforest for a reason,” Jim replied with an irritating satisfaction the one time I dared to complain. Our feet sank into calf-deep mud, which splattered onto my legs and threatened my balance and oozed its way down to the very toes of my boots. My bare arms and legs itched wildly.

That’s when I realized my wish had been granted.

I had licked an ant’s butt, and I had provided nourishing blood for the local mosquitoes and leeches. I had melted in the heat and been numbed by the creek, been thrown off balance in mud and disoriented by echoing frogsong.

I had become one with the rainforest.

The next morning I counted more than 75 bites on the lower half of my left leg alone. I spent the following week suffering grievously, and experimenting with every imaginable remedy for itching, none of which was particularly effective. But this is the trip we will remember forever. When I reminded him of it several years later, Jim replied, “Let’s do it again!”

One Response to “The Truth about Eco-Travel”

  1. Evelyn says:

    A wonderful read! I truly enjoyed it. As an American expat living in Australia I liked viewing the tropical rainforest through an inexperienced traveller’s eyes, and yes, the story rings true.

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