Updated: Feb 24
A few years ago, I travelled to Darwin with my family, to meet up with a close friend, Steve. He was in the country as part of a worldwide family holiday from England. Many years had passed since we’d last met and we had lots to catch up on.
This excerpt captures the first evening together, our first ever trip into Kakadu National Park and an encounter with a cane toad!
Here is an excerpt from my travel book.
While the children slept, mosquitos blitzed the outer fringes of their rooms, unable to penetrate the shockwaves from the overhead fans. The four adults sat quietly in the passageway, and as beers flowed, we reminisced about the past and caught up on gossip. Steve and I had previously enjoyed many adventures together and had always hoped our children would become best friends and share escapades.
We were now together, in the Top End of Australia, finally taking steps to make that happen. After a day in Darwin to experience the local sights, we collected the hired cars at first light and then headed into the interior. The children soon became inseparable, as were Fran and Mel, who shared one car while Steve and I took the other.
Kakadu National Park is tantalisingly close to Darwin, and within minutes of leaving the outer suburbs, the urban landscape gave way to disused scrubland and red dirt. With just one sealed road to follow, and very few cars to think about, the morning drifted past as we sped into the shimmering distance. A road sign depicting the bold outline of a kangaroo led to a photo stop. Apart from the bush flies, which seemed to have been waiting for fresh tourists and buzzed incessantly around our faces, there was no trace of any marsupials.
Nearby were a series of natural monoliths, many over two metres tall and home to armies of termites. The ochre linings of each mound were pitted and battled-scarred, due to the onslaught from the extreme elements. But deep inside, the termites were protected. To insulate themselves from the stifling heat, termites construct living chambers interlinked with vertical ventilation shafts, which create a natural air conditioner. Regardless of the outside temperature, this feat of engineering cools the core to a liveable constant temperature of 30 degrees Celsius.
As soon as we parked, the children ran across the savannah to investigate. While bounding across the red dirt, they ignored the barrage of questions and instructions from their concerned mothers.
‘Molly, goodness me, watch out for snakes.’
‘Noah, put your shoes on.’
‘Daisy, don’t you dare touch anything!’
‘Girls, have you put on sunscreen?’
‘Seby, wait there for me. Where’s your hat gone?’
After surviving the termite mounds, the remainder of the morning’s journey proved uneventful, as we sped through a semi wilderness towards the heart of Kakadu. By lunchtime, we were booked into a tourist park, complete with neat cabins, a sparkling pool and an onsite restaurant.
‘Look, Daddy, a frog,’ Seby called out, as we played together in the shallow end of the pool. He climbed onto my back, and I swam nearer to investigate. The amphibian was nearly as wide as my hand, with tiny warts on its dappled back, and I had a good idea this was our first encounter with a cane toad.
In 1935, the Bureau of Sugar Experiments introduced cane toads into Queensland from Hawaii, in an experiment to help control the native grey-backed sugar cane beetle. There is no doubt the toads enjoy munching sugar cane beetles and have eaten thousands, if not millions of them. But the story doesn’t end there.
Cane toads are extremely toxic, and Australian predators are not adapted to cope with ingesting the poisonous glands that protrude from their skin. They may look tasty to eat, but there has been a massive reduction in goanna and snake populations in areas inhabited by cane toads. There is worse news to come. They have a natural tendency to travel and have now hopped across Queensland, New South Wales and many parts of the Northern Territory.
They now number 200 million and are seemingly unstoppable as they continue to impact the unique Australian eco-system and migrate further west and south. As for the native grey-backed beetle, they are still a pest, but the Bureau of Sugar Experiments is unusually quiet about the topic these days.
I picked up the toad by one of its meaty legs, and together with Seby, we walked across the manicured lawn towards the nearby restaurant. Inside, a few workers were enjoying cool drinks before dinner. While crossing the floor, I asked, ‘Excuse me, but my young lad found this in the pool. I think it’s a cane toad.’
Their conversation ceased as they studied the warty creature dangling between my fingertips. One man stood, adjusted his wide brimmed hat and came closer to investigate. He had piercing blue eyes, weathered skin and the steady gait of someone in charge. As he approached, he took one look at the creature and said in a slow drawl, ‘Yes, mate. That’s a cane toad. Well spotted.’
He then kneeled down, looked directly at Seby and whispered, ‘Do you like Australian wildlife, young’un?’
Seby nodded, but was unusually quiet, and squeezed my free hand with his. The man ruffled Seby’s fair hair, stood upright, took the toad and said clearly, ‘Well I’m glad, and so do I. This here is a cane toad and in Kakadu we hate them with a vengeance. They kill our wildlife, and with a destructive creature like this, there’s just one thing to do. Now close your eyes if you don’t like blood.’
He then hurled the toad against a timber door with such ferocity that it splattered hard, bounced onto the floor and lay perfectly still. As the man returned to his drink, he turned his face towards us. ‘If you see any more of those damn things during your stay, feel free to do the same.’
Seby couldn’t wait to tell the other children about the new game of cane toad bashing, and the rest of the afternoon was spent searching for them in the confines of the lawn and pool area. A bounty was given for each one, and a few hours later, Australia only had 199,999,997 left to exterminate.