How to re-claim your wandering soul

We’re staying in a tiny Lao village among the pigs and chickens and water buffalo on the Eastern bank of the mighty Mekong River. Thailand’s identical-looking jungle is lapped by turbid waters on the opposite bank, a short – but treacherous – swim away. From what I could manage to understand from a local guide, Ped, Laos people here believe there are 32 individual parts to the human spirit. When we experience moments of extreme excitement, fear or trauma, some of those spirit parts can detach from us and stay in those places where we experienced it. An ancient concept of a horcrux if you like. This makes us spiritually incomplete. We’re missing something.


After playing football and games with the kids, night falls over dinner and the generator gives up the ghost. Everyone busily sets up candles around the huts so the village elders can invite us to a Baci ceremony to call back our lost spirits. The moon is missing only a sliver of its own self. It will be complete as a full moon tomorrow night. The rest of the sky is a deep, sapphire blue, chinked with facets of the stars. There are lots of candles. The village shaman is chanting to call the wayward spirits. I’ve had so many extreme and profound moments recently that I find it very easy to imagine that my spirit is missing a few important bits. I think of some of those extreme moments of elation, fear, loss and joy.


The flickering lights illuminate a centrepiece of flowers, bamboo sticks, items of spiritual meaning and cotton threads. The atmosphere lulls us all into a feeling of being looked after by the dozens of faces inside the house and many more peering in through the windows. When the shaman is satisfied that the spirit pieces are all present, the village elders all help to tie the spirits back onto us. All the elders form a circle around our outward facing circle and, taking turns, chant as they tie a cotton string, first to the left wrist, then to the right, until our wrists are wrapped in bundles and bundles of white cotton strands and knots. Each one of us gets each of the elder’s individual well wishes, blessings and smiles.


Ped explains that the idea is to keep the cotton stings until they come off by themselves, and by the time the last strands naturally fall away, the spirit will be fully intact again and healed together. Alternatively, if you do want to remove them, we were told we could take them off and leave them by one of the millions of Buddha statues that you might come across in Laos, or tie them to a tree, or release them into a river, or on a mountain, or some other beautiful natural place. You wouldn’t want parts tying your soul back together to end up somewhere unpleasant.


After all the elders tie all the strings and mumble the chants, we all eat morsels of delicious pre-prepared offerings and drink the village rice whisky with our re-united spirits (never an uneven number of shots of rice whiskey – we are also drinking for our spirits, of course, and it would be rude to have just one shot for yourself). We are so full from dinner, but we must feed our souls nonetheless. It is at this point we realize that both the beautiful centre piece of the ceremony as well as all our individual offerings are all newly hand made. Even the individual banana leaf plates, incense and candle holders and flower chains have been freshly made that day by the village. An incredible amount of work and love has gone into our experience this evening, and we don’t even know how we can start to thank the villagers for their kindness.


It’s now been a couple of days since, and we’ve already released a couple of strings ourselves. Some were left in a Buddha cave, set into a cliff at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Ou rivers, overlooking the Y-shape of the two vast rivers and beyond to rice fields and hills studded with water buffalo and working elephants. Ped told us how to pray to the Buddha in the cave like the locals do. Even though we’re not really Buddhists, we follow his instructions. We knelt in that cave, brought hands together and bowed our heads, wishing good wishes on a bunch of people very dear to us, and hoped that we could feel whole again.


We’re not sure if it all worked, our souls still seem like they’re floating around in the ether getting distracted by cats on YouTube and salad. But we did feel quite peaceful in that cave in the cliff face above the river. And the fact that everyone had made such an enormous effort for complete strangers was magical. So even if Buddha is not your bag, I think you’d like the spot, if only for the human good will poured over us all by this little village somewhere on the bank of the Mekong.

We find a field of pot(s)

Act 1. Overnight ‘sleeper’ bus from Hanoi to Vientiane, March 2014. Amongst other fellow travelers sharing our insomnia, we get chatting to a slightly eccentric English dude with a ginger afro, who tells us he’s off to find this mythical place. A field of pot, somewhere in northeast Laos. He’s asked the driver to give him directions, but after nearly being left by the roadside in the middle of nowhere at 4am, he decides to try from Vientiane.


Act 2. April 2014. After completing a loop of Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, we overhear ginger-afro’s Scooby-doo voice on Beer Hoi corner in the old city. Vientiane was a no-go. So was Vang Vien. He had hitchhiked to some village with a snake farm high in the mountains but was forced to return after the small windy road over the pass was blocked for the third day running by a couple of overturned lorries. As so many before him, he had given up and gone tubing.


Act 3. Rumors skitted around just out of earshot in Luang Prabang as we visited this time around, November 2014. What was it, who has been, and how had they managed to get there? We felt like Richard at the beginning of The Beach, we even met a dude who looked like Robert Carlisle, but he turned out to be Dutch, excessively boring, negative and worst of all, sober.


Our imaginations stretched to their limits, 6 of our bravest decided to take the plunge into the unknown and hire a minivan to give us the best shot of actually making it to the Plain of Jars.


Within 5 minutes of meeting our driver ridiculously early in a misty morning in Luang Prabang, we were stopped dead in the road. Our driver was picking up his breakfast. 20 minutes later, we were tearing past our first turned up lorry on the windy mountain road south. This is starting well, we all thought to ourselves, and decided for the first time in 2 weeks to use our seatbelts.


As the morning got warmer, the scenery unfolded itself in the most spectacular way as we wound higher and higher into the mountains where, in fitting fashion with our adventure into the unknown and possibly paranormal, it suddenly got colder and colder.


6 hour of windy driving brought us to our third stop of the day, the tiny village of nun-chuck. Things went from curious to surreal when of the 4 ordered chicken soup lunches only 3 were served with chicken. Dr Rick and Mr. Yuen started acting strangely after conversing with a passing rooster and enquiries about plain-clothed men on mopeds carrying assault rifles were brushed off by our driver. “For security. So if anything happens, there is always someone for safety”. What happened? Safety of whom?


We arrived in Phonsavan that evening, our driver first reluctant to take us to site 1 for sunset, “it is too far”, “it is closed”, “there are daemons who invite themselves to dinner”. 150000 kip apparently shooed the daemons away. We set up time lapses between the eerie looking megalithic stone structures. The sunset bathed the fields and hundreds of jars blood red, and more than once did we get the feeling of someone nudging our shoulder, just to turn around and see there was no one there. Two other tourists and a couple of villagers with dogs shared the scene with us before the sun finally dropped below the horizon and we scampered back to our golf buggy.


We all had our theories of course. Our on board criminologist Dr Rick has it on good authority that the giant stone jars were used for keeping buffalo safe from sabre-tooth tigers. He enthusiastically pointed at foot long tooth marks at the mouths of the pots. Ms Jodie MSc PHD from the world renowned university of Maidstone presented her paper arguing her theory of pre-historic human giants leaving only LaoLao cups behind, as they became extinct along with all the dinosaurs.


Ancient Siam historian Dr Yuen brought forward his well-documented book on the iron-age giant peanut, and the locals’ need for large storage containers for their staple of peanut butter. Prof. Toto took photos and looked confused, whilst whackjob Nic wouldn’t shut up about aliens and manic Matt just stood there shouting “MEEEERica”.


We slept uneasily that night, probably due to the freezing cold, reading about theories of jar burial sites and our attempted nerve remedy of LaoLao. A deserted Stonehenge (built around the same time) hours drive from anywhere at night would give even the sturdiest shivers. Especially after watching ‘The Descent’ with no popcorn.


Site two and three proved even more intriguing, and after a good half an hour of persuading our driver that it wasn’t too far, there was a functioning road, and that the sites weren’t closed (and a little help from head office regarding payment of his fee), we were on a rocky but adequate road further west. Warning signs detailed the presence of land mines and cluster bombs that had been dropped throughout the area during The Secret War, so we kept well inside the marked ‘safe’ perimeters, that is where you could see the markings.


A friendly cow lead our way through rice paddies to site three in a hillside field, which, perched amongst some pretty trees was a lot more inviting until Dr Rick found a cluster of huge spiders in one of the jars. Site two was equally if not more impressive and the view from the hilltop setting was so wonderful that not even the jar that made everything in its immediate surroundings spontaneously levitate freaked us out.


We had made it. This ancient, mythical place had finally been conquered by our little group of 6 adventurers, henceforth to be known to the world as The Pot People. As we gazed over the serene landscape we felt a sense of accomplishment but also a slight niggle of apprehension. Were we here of our own accord, or had this magical place called us and with it, conquered us?

Too good to be true? Authenticity and travel films

World Travel Market came around way faster than we’d anticipated. As a newly formed company this was our first year in business, and we’d spent it making 24 films for different companies around the world. 19 countries, and the most time spent in one place: 3 weeks in Penang. We had hardly arrived in Sydney, and one of the biggest industry events on earth came knocking on our doorstep. So in a mad scramble we booked our tickets, moved the editing suite onto the nearest plane and shot off back to London. And weird it was, but that’s a different story.


WTM was a bustling hive of tourism industry activity. Multi-million pound deals, which had been simmering for months in preparation, were getting the final details bashed out and dotted lines signed. As with the Cannes Film Festival, most long-lasting networking was done between 1 and 3am, over wine/beer/sake/nondescript Brazilian hipster cocktail at a private party, where invitations and bouncers ensure that you only get to talk to people actually worth talking to. Whilst crashing these parties was way easier than we had found in Cannes, it was encouraging to learn that working in the movie industry surprisingly does supply you with some skills that come in useful in the real world. Many Bra-hipster creations were enjoyed, many contacts made.


Apart from meeting our current and potentially new clients, we found the blogging events particularly interesting, and not because they were all particularly good. Some speakers were obviously used to presenting, some less so, which in one case was unfortunately rather detrimental to the speaker’s point on the importance of audience engagement. What did shine through on most panels regarding content, was that the end consumer (read: you and me) was less and less impressed with a flashy high-end ad campaign and increasingly relying on reviews from ‘real’ travellers to make a decision on which holiday, hotel or tour to go for.


Authenticity is key, so there is a trend of giving bloggers free trips in return for a blog post, as long as their audience is big enough. Unfortunately what bloggers do was still widely misunderstood, so many of the panels centred around the topic of authenticity being damaged by restrictions on creative freedom. The argument goes that bloggers earn the trust of their following through being unbiased, so if a brand dictates what to write, authenticity (= trust) is dissolved, which damages the blogger and makes the post useless to the brand. Many bloggers interviewed explained that companies had approached them hoping for an ad without having to pay industry rates, thereby completely discounting the real work involved in creating a trusting audience, and what real value this audience holds for the blogger.


If you want an ad you can direct, get an agency. If you want a brutally honest review you have no say over, but goes to a genuinely engaged audience, get a blogger. How much money do you have? How much risk are you willing to take?


Tying in with this, what was interesting to us was that audiences seemed to want to know that videos they are watching are a ‘real’ representation of what they can expect. That brands are true to their products. If you’re running a booze cruise, don’t pretend it’s all cultural and spiritual. If you’re running a historical commentary on Hindu temples, don’t pretend it’s a great kid’s activity (unless it’s designed for kids). If you want to engage professionals for your marketing, work with creatives because they are just that: creative. They come up with ideas that you may not have come up with, see your product and audiences in new light, and in context of what everyone else is shouting about. And take the authenticity card into account.


As a production company, we have discussed a lot about our shooting style and our identity as a creative developer. Where do we see ourselves in this ever-expanding mass of content? Who is our audience? What standards of quality do we expect from ourselves? Where is the tipping point? When does cinematography become so stylised, that video turns into a movie, that reality becomes illusion and you become just some model? When do you lose track of authentic communication?


Fulfilling commercial objectives and maintaining integrity aren’t mutually exclusive though. We stand by everything we produce, and re-capping our work with peers, bloggers, agencies and our clients at World Travel market has confirmed we’re spot on. We have found we can speak with most conviction of places we have liked, film stories we would want to watch ourselves, in which we recognize ourselves, and our audiences recognize themselves.


We write because we are interested in what we’re writing. We photograph what we see and find intriguing. We share what we would like to see ourselves.


And we think this is about as authentic as you can be.

The psychology of coming home vs. the world in miniature

40,000km across the face of this earth. Back in the day, it was people like Chris Columbus, Capn’ Cook and Dave Attenborough ‘in search of guano’ that did this sort of stuff and it often meant year-long sabbaticals from the village blacksmith business. Now every Tamsin, Didier and Hamad can set off after a quick trip to North Face and plunge into this world to party on a far away beach covered in UV paint whilst uploading everything to faceplant.


London to Sydney overland is nevertheless a rather epic feat, but whilst smart phones and selfie-poles were at every corner of the globe we visited, the real modern interconnectedness of this world hit us smack bang in the face like a wet herring as we sat in our Qantas seats, watching Guardians of the Galaxy in widescreen, on our way back to the starting point of this epic quest, only minutes after we’d actually arrived at the finishing line.


Sitting in a giant toothpaste tube for 21 hours and miraculously appearing where we’d left off 9 months earlier was a real shock to the system. On the Piccadilly line to Cockfosters (“…yep. Cockfosters.”), we debated whether we’d just dreamt up this entire world, the last year and all the trials and trepidations (and Typhoid) that came with it.


The ‘psychology of returning home’ has been widely studied, whether it be travellers, overseas workers or soldiers that come back to alienation in familiarity. Just like Tom and Jerry, who leave little cut-out Tom and Jerry shapes in doors they smash through, you leave a little cookie-cutter hole in your familiar surroundings when you head off for Edinburgh, Sao Paulo or Taiwan.


You have an awesome time, meet lots of new people with lots of new perspectives on life, ingest things you’d never dream of touching in your 1st world health & safety surroundings and are forced into alternate lifestyles where busses are routinely 4 hours late, cows go berserk in the middle of highways and you can’t read any of the multi-coloured squiggly signage.


Travel broadens the mind, you diversify and expand – it’s a well known phenomenon. Returning home often means your new shape doesn’t fit the old hole – you just love the feeling of that painted surfboard necklace under your shirt and tie, you bend conversations to slip in the ‘correct’ pronunciation of ‘Pinot Grigio’ and you stockpile Mie Goreng from your local pan-Asian supermarket.


Positive or negative deep-impact experiences, such as the ones some of us travellers and many soldiers face abroad, can alter a person’s psyche so much that returning home and continuing as normal becomes impossible. For an example, you only need to watch “The Hurt Locker”, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” or even (especially for Kiwis) “The Hobbit”.


Your new identity has finally caught up with you and is going nuts building little dream catchers and Tibetan prayer flags into your suburban safety net. All seems hunky-dory until you realize that you loved Texas and it’s big burgers, easy, welcoming spirit and tailgating in massive pickup trucks. And this is in no way compatible to your spiritual Balinese quinoa-fuelled yoga retreat. You never knew you could get to deeply love two completely opposing mindsets, what do you do now?


As we sauntered around World Travel Market with our business caps on, meeting up with existing clients, chatting to potential new ones and branching out to interesting bloggers, production companies and tourism boards, we found ourselves submerged in an entirely new level of ‘returning home’ as we walked past miniature versions of the 19 countries we’d spent significant time and formed memories in over the last year.


Stunning Siberia threatened to clash with amazing Japan. “They have no sense of personal space” cried our Russian friends about our Chinese friends. “They never smile” cried our Vietnamese friends about our Russian friends. “They will rip you off” cried our Japanese friends about our Vietnamese friends. “They have giant killer Robots!” cried our German friends about our Japanese friends. All inside our heads, as we walked through one of the biggest travel industry events in the world.


Surrounded by representations of all our wonderful friends, with all their unique, amazing and sometimes incompatible lifestyles we were able to take part in, and who had shaped us into our crazy cut-outs we were when we returned to London. At Rat & Dragon’s 10-year anniversary party, when everyone who has been part of the journey meets in one place, we have no doubt that curiosity on a human level will overcome any cultural differences.


But for the moment, in our familiar environment, in our expanded new shapes, we can let our different cultural influences stay exactly that: different. It’s an interesting exercise in low-level cultural schizophrenia, but it will allow us to stay fluid rather than set in an amalgamated, consolidated mindset.

Leg 5: Reverse Culture shock

It wasn’t the off-his-face, chanting, gesticulating, bare-chested backpacker in the middle of the road holding up central Darwin traffic and our taxi outside Shenanigans Pub. It also wasn’t having to cough up 30 bucks for 300mb of very limited mobile phone internet where we’d been previously charging up our various unlimited international SIM cards across 18 counties for peanuts.


It was walking into Coles supermarket on our first night in Australia that simply blew us away leaving a lasting feeling similar to the one you get when visiting your former high school. Everything felt so familiar yet completely alien at the same time.


It’s well known that travel opens your mind, even if you bypass Thailand’s mushroom shake-fuelled full moon parties. Depending on your preferred level of adventure, your life’s frame of reference will either be nudged, bent or completely torn apart. Which is a great thing for those who feel life has more to offer and want to challenge themselves, or disastrous for those who need structure to thrive. Cue joining a Tibetan mountaintop monastery for months of silent meditation or dedicating your life to Sea Shepherd and increased narcissistic Facebook posts about how, out of all of your investment banker friends, you’re the only one making a difference, man.


Blasting apart everything your subconscious relies on to make sense of the world results in what the experts frequently refer to as culture shock – just like jumping into a hole hacked into a frozen lake at new years eve in Sweden, your brain goes into overdrive whilst you adjust to your new surroundings. What is not so well discussed is an even weirder phenomenon: reverse culture shock.


We had spent the last two weeks in historically war torn Timor, which we arrived at following a three day public ferry trip tracking young David Attenborough’s steps through Indonesia’s eastern islands accompanied by around 5000 locals sleeping on cardboard on deck. Getting around town in shared micro-busses blaring out trashy techno and eating hand made meals at the side of dusty roads brought us in constant contact to Timor’s lovely, crazy, scarred and sometimes somewhat feral locals and made us appreciate whatever the world threw at us. Not that it was a conscious choice: if you don’t chill out, you go crazy or you go home.


When people only have scraps, they create their houses, pleasures, and lives from scratch, which makes everything unique. Experiences were sometimes wonderful, sometimes infuriating. Meals were sometimes breathtaking, and sometimes they gave you Typhoid (hint, hint: historic #WTFFriday still up for grabs!). Walking into a supermarket for the first time in 3 months was strange, as there seemed to be so much choice/excess, so much assurance you won’t get sick/sanitisation and homogenisation of animals, plants and life. Everything was so familiar (YEY Tim Tams!), yet everything seemed so soulless.


But hang on, dear reader, we’re not out to poo-poo one side and glorify another. In fact experiencing these opposing forces has influenced our experience on Leg 5 of the Epic Journey so profoundly it has shaken up our own understanding of travel and it’s impact it can have on life. It has confronted us directly with such opposing facts and feelings that can only work together, which has taught us a very important thing: you can judge and opinionate about absolutely everything. Or you can see things for what they are and appreciate things on a more rounded level without having to agree 100% all the time.


Of course, most people would like to see war, life-threatening diseases, and dire social injustice eradicated. Imagine all the people, living life in peace and so on, you know the drill. But most other topics of conversation over the last 8 months have come down to opinion and taste.


It’s rather fashionable these days to travel where nobody else has. The words “off the beaten track” are regularly used as a necessary mark of authenticity of a backpacker and assurance of quality for trips. It seems the beaten track is nowadays populated by one single gecko, clinging desperately to a piece of tumbleweed blowing in the breeze.


When you book your newest adventure to be taken seriously on Facebook about, you’re going to be heading off to a Peruvian hill tribe camp, an orphanage in Calcutta or climbing Indonesia’s blue flaming Ijen volcano. But how many Aussies have been to Uluru or Kroombit? How many Brits have been to the Lake District or Scotland? Everyone wants to get a photo eating scorpions in some exotic night market, but very few see the ‘travel moment’ merit in a decent roadhouse burger.


We’re tending to measure ourselves against the intensity of our own and our audience’s culture shock potential. What we have found on Leg 5 though, is not the problem with this ‘spiritual, cultural, political, Gap-Yah’ type of travel, but the under-appreciation for any other type.


Arriving back in the well-travelled first world environment of Australia, we were amazed at the most banal things. The bus the helpful dude on the street told you about actually exists. You can throw toilet paper into the loo. There is toilet paper. You can find out what meat’s in your food. You can’t get fresh fish grilled on the beach at 11pm. You have to pay for parking. You can’t get unlimited internet on your phone.


Australia, so familiar an environment had suddenly become this new world to discover for the sake of it, not just a place to get drunk with a huge amount of German and French backpackers who regularly complained that they’ve actually never met Australians. Granted, we did have 10000km of roads to explore, but we did so with an open mind, without constantly thinking: “oh, yes, we’ve seen this before, we grew up with this, this is normal life, this is not exotic enough for a real travel destination to talk about”.


On our final leg, thanks to all of the experiences on our way to Australia, we were able to enjoy the wonders, incredible landscapes, crazy and eccentric and very ordinary Australians on our journey (read all about it!), that for some, are part of their day-to-day lives. But so are the Dili fish markets, Malaysian street food stalls, Vietnamese dilapidated colonial buildings, Chinese bamboo skyscraper scaffolding and Siberian dog sleds. These are other people’s banal, day-to-day sights.


There are wonders to be experiences when you leave your front doorstep to fly off to a far off country who’s capital you can’t pronounce. But there are also wonders to be experiences just behind your back garden. Don’t measure the value of your trip by your culture shock, but experience the world in its entirety, and the fantastic people you will meet absolutely everywhere. Even in Scotland.

Australia wins craziest animals prize

The Canadians have a beaver. Costa Rica has a clay-coloured thrush. The Swiss have a cow and Australia, well, Australia has two bloodthirsty killers.


Many a viral article has focused on Australia’s lethal every day wildlife. In fact we have it on good authority that Buzzfeed is at least 30% funded by jaw dropping facts about the Southern hemisphere’s most eclectically populated continent. And with good reason, Australia’s wildlife is bat shit crazy, and not just limited to their national animals*.


The egg laying, duck billed, otter footed beaver tailed platypus looks so out of this world that when a specimen was brought to the UK in 1798, academia declared it an elaborate hoax by a Chinese taxidermist. A mammal that lays eggs, sweats milk to feed its little platypiglet babies and can feel the electric fields caused by other animals muscular contractions, Platypi also sport a venomous spike on their back leg that can cause serious pain even in Arnie Schwarzenegger.


Very closely related are the second most well known monotreme, the Echidna. Take a hedgehog, stick a tiny anteater’s nose on the front of a stupidly small face, mix thoroughly with a Platypus until the venomous spike, milk sweating glands, electro-sensors and egg laying stick. Oh, and add a backward-facing pouch. Echidnas gain points in the comedy factors as they have four pronged penises, their babies are called puggles and they have to commonly be shooed out of rural garages to avoid being run over.


Darwin, Northern Territory has no sharks. Or so the locals claim. “Crocs ate ‘em all”, apparently. This may sound like the Daily Mail, but there is actual photographic evidence of Brutus the 6m croc on the Adelaide river chomping down on a bull shark. We met Brutus personally (he is massive, check him out), and attacks on sharks by crocs and on crocs by sharks do happen as bull sharks swim up river and crocs out to sea regularly, made possible by the croc’s and shark’s inbuilt water desalination/re-salination systems.


Apart from being the country with globally the largest population of wild camels, Australia also hosts some pretty kick ass bird-life. Wild Emus (pictured, the fence is for ‘our protection’, apparently) can claw through metal wire fences, small rodents and human rib cages (if you really piss one off), and mummy emu will chase you away at 30mph with her spiked wings whilst daddy looks after their precious jade-green egg. And if you thought that was freaky, wait till you meet the tyrannosaurus ostrich cousin nightmare from Jurrasic Park hell: the cassowary. Dagger-like clawed feet, leg breaking kicks, strong nest-protective instincts and pretty insane courtship rituals involving swimming in lakes or the sea push this emu-cousin up the crazy scale. Oh, and you should google what this dude looks like. (although, they are actually pretty shy and endangered).


Our second national killer animal is the world famous kangaroo, loved everywhere but Australia. Counter to the belief of EVERYONE ELSE on the PLANET apart from Australians, roos do NOT keep handy things, snacks and toys for you in their pouches, they are not in the slightest interested in humans beyond their capacity to bring you food and they certainly don’t allow you to commute on their backs. Furthermore, roos are the most deadly animal in Australia bar mosquitoes. Their complete and utter lack of understanding for what roads and cars and headlights are, make them a royal pain in the butt and splatter on the front grill for motorists nationwide. Thanks, though, to their crazy ass reproductive system (with three vaginas, mummy roo can have several pregnancies going on at the same time and even freeze embryos in time in case there’s a drought), there are plenty of them around, which caters, amongst other things, for shops selling their paws and ball sacks as souvenirs. Nice.


Koalas are next on the international cute list, and you can even cuddle one in a park in Townsville if you promise to pretend you’re a tree. Koalas sleep 20 hours a day and for the rest of the time are pretty grumpy, as they munch through their nutrient poor food of choice, the Eucalyptus tree. In order to hang onto branches for this long, their hands have developed a little bit like a messed up human’s: three digits on the finger side and 2 on the thumb side. Take a close look at this dude, it’s pretty weird! Koalas do have a bit of a ‘teenager with a constant hangover’ reputation, but their lifestyle could hold the key as to why Australia has such unique wildlife. But more on that later.


Bandikoot. Now that’s an awesome name. This little rat-like marsupial even inspired a series of videogames in which the protagonist, Crash, fights his nemesis (and creator) Dr Neo Cortex, who in turn looks like Rimmer’s Hologram from Red Dwarf. All a bit confusing? You’re not alone. Together with the more-than-cute possum, these two marsupials live in Oz-New Guinea. Whereas bandicoots stay to themselves and are carriers of Q Fever, don’t be surprised if a possum climbs up into the back of your campervan, sits in your pizza box and looks at you expectantly in the middle of the night. Their little, almost-human hands and strong-gripping tail make them excellent climbers and their enormous numbers due to lack of predators have, in New Zealand, led to culling programs which result in heaps of cute Barbie doll-sized fur coats which are commercially used.


Sitting in your campervan at night you will also have the pleasure to enjoy the eerie cries of a bird that is spread across the globe, but who’s Australian counterpart is so whacko, it deserves a worthy mention. The bush thick-knee curlew is the raver of the animal world, competing nightly for the ‘most spooky sounding animal’ prize. Mostly nocturnal, plenty stagger around with slightly paranoid big eyes they expertly narrow using their lower eyelid when looking at you to resemble crazy cartoon villains. When you get too close, they freeze in cryptic, odd-looking postures to confuse predators before growling and then taking off with heads held low and feet scurrying fast.


And the Aussie bird life in general is spectacular. Like someone’s gone to carnival re-inventing all the birds you usually know, city pigeons have unicorn horns, the lorikeets look like they were dropped in a 5-year-old’s paint pot, cockatoos screech from power lines, scrub turkeys check out your grocery shopping, kookaburras laugh at the pigeon’s ridiculous unicorn horns and Australia’s cities are blessed with a real-life Egyptian deity trying to steal your chips. London has pigeons – Sydney has ibis.


And if that’s not enough, a dog-sized flying mammal will flap its leathery wings into your TV aerial twice a week, just after pooping digested fruit juice all over your car and throwing the loudest up-side-down tree parties in the neighbourhood.


You may almost say it’s a good thing giant coconut crabs no longer ransack your leftovers as they’ve disappeared from mainland Oz. Seriously, google the things. They are that BIG.


As you will already know from countless shock-horror-photo-lists, it’s not only the blue ringed octopus, box jellyfish, beer-guzzling wild pigs, sharks, spiders, snakes  and stone fish that will most definitely kill you if you get to close to them. Bear in mind, though, that millions of Australians successfully live here and don’t die every week, unless there is some government cover-up conspiracy theory about hiding all the daily resurrections.


What is rather interesting besides the OMG-I-can’t-believe-it factor is how this place specifically brought on so many weird and wonderful animals found nowhere else on earth. Yeah, some of it has to do with evolution in isolation. But why a swing towards marsupials in the first place?


Cue cuddly Koala. Our grumpy little friend is uniquely adapted to living in harsh, dry environments, which meant that the original mix of all sorts of species from when Australia was still connected to South America, Africa, Antarctica and India was skewed towards marsupials as Australia got drier and sparser floating away further from Bali. You can see a clear divide from a lush, humid rain forested Bali to drier, more desert and steppe-like Sumbawa and Timor. Cue 34 million years ago when earth seems to have been pelted by quite a few huge meteors, the effects of which the marsupial seemed to be better able to deal with than placental mammals and boom – wimpy placentals died off.


But what about Dingos? Aaah, you got us. No, just kidding. Dingo DNA has been shown to be very close to domestic dogs, which means they probably came over with early settlers from India and South East Asia. When they arrived in Oz, one of the more reckless cried ‘paaarteeey’ and ran off into the outback, where they’ve been going ever since. As to the other mystery of why there are so many highly venomous animals in Oz, well, on that count, nobody’s quite sure. Not even the Platypus.


(*Bonus fun fact: Aussies are one of the very few nations that controversially don’t see a problem in eating their national animal. Everything in harmony down under, throw another roo steak on the barbie.)