If you’re the pessimistic type, you might focus on the things that can bite, sting, burn or drown you in Queensland: bushfires, treacherous surf, blazing heat, jellyfish, snakes, spiders, sharks, crocodiles, ticks... But chances are the worst you’ll encounter are a few pesky flies and mosquitoes. So splash on some insect repellent and boldly venture forth!
Out & About
At the Beach
Around 80 people per year drown on Australia’s beaches, where pounding surf and rips (strong currents) can create serious hazards. If you happen to get caught in a rip and are being taken out to sea, swim parallel to the shore until you’re out of the rip, then head for the beach – don’t try to swim back against the rip; you’ll only tire yourself.
Bushfires happen regularly in Queensland. In hot, dry and windy weather and on total-fire-ban days, be extremely careful with naked flames (including cigarette butts) and don’t use camping stoves, campfires or barbecues. Bushwalkers should delay trips until things cool down. If you’re out in the bush and you see smoke, take it seriously: find the nearest open space (downhill if possible). Forested ridges are dangerous places to be. Always heed the advice of authorities.
Coral can be extremely sharp; you can cut yourself by merely brushing against the stuff. Thoroughly clean cuts and douse with antiseptic to avoid infection.
Hot weather is the norm in Queensland and can lead to heat exhaustion or more severe heatstroke (resulting from extreme fluid depletion). When arriving from a temperate or cold climate, remember that it takes two weeks to acclimatise.
Unprepared travellers die from dehydration each year in remote areas. Always carry sufficient water for any trip (driving or hiking), and let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to arrive. Carry communications equipment and if in trouble, stay with your vehicle rather than walking for help.
Sunburn & Skin Cancer
Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. Monitor exposure to direct sunlight closely. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is greatest between 10am and 4pm, so avoid skin exposure during these times. Wear a wide-brimmed hat and a long-sleeved shirt with a collar. Always use SPF 30+ sunscreen; apply it 30 minutes before exposure and reapply regularly to minimise sun damage.
Things that Bite & Sting
Basic Reef Safety Rules
- Don’t touch any marine life.
- Wear shoes with strong soles when walking near reefs.
- Don’t eat fish you can’t identify.
- Don’t swim in murky water; try to swim in bright sunlight.
The risk of a crocodile attack in tropical Far North Queensland is real, but with some common sense it is entirely avoidable. ‘Salties’ are estuarine crocodiles that can grow to 7m. They inhabit coastal waters and are mostly seen in the tidal reaches of rivers, though on occasion they’re spotted on beaches and in freshwater lagoons. Always heed any advice, such as crocodile warning signs, that you might come across. Don’t assume it’s safe to swim if there are no signs: if you’re not sure, don’t swim.
If you’re away from popular beaches anywhere north of Rockhampton, avoid swimming in rivers, waterholes and in the sea near river outlets. Don’t clean fish or prepare food near the water’s edge, and camp at least 50m away from waterways. Crocodiles are particularly mobile and dangerous during the breeding season (October to March).
Jellyfish – including the potentially deadly box jellyfish and irukandji – occur in Queensland’s tropical waters. It’s unwise to swim north of Agnes Water between November and May unless there’s a stinger net. ‘Stinger suits’ (full-body Lycra swimsuits) prevent stinging, as do wetsuits. Swimming and snorkelling are usually safe around Queensland’s reef islands throughout the year; however, the rare (and tiny) irukandji has been recorded on the outer reef and islands.
Wash stings with vinegar to prevent further discharge of remaining stinging cells, followed by rapid transfer to a hospital. Don’t attempt to remove the tentacles.
Marine spikes and poisonous spines – such as those found on sea urchins, catfish, stingrays, scorpionfish and stonefish – can cause severe local pain. If you’re stung, immediately immerse the affected area in hot water (as hot as can be tolerated) and seek medical care.
Contact with blue-ringed octopuses and Barrier Reef cone shells can be fatal, so don’t pick them up. If someone is stung, apply a pressure bandage, monitor breathing carefully and conduct mouth-to-mouth resuscitation if breathing stops. Seek immediate medical care.
‘Mozzies’ can be a problem just about anywhere in Queensland. Malaria isn’t present, but dengue fever is a danger in the north of the state, particularly during the wet season (November to April). Most people recover in a few days, but more severe forms of the disease can occur.
To minimise bites:
- Wear loose, long-sleeved clothing.
- Apply repellent with minimum 30% DEET on exposed skin.
- Use mosquito coils.
- Sleep under fast-spinning ceiling fans.
Despite extensive media coverage, the risk of shark attack in Queensland is no greater than in other countries with extensive coastlines. Check with surf life-saving groups about local risks.
There’s no denying it: Australia (and especially Queensland) has plenty of venomous snakes. Few species are aggressive: unless you are messing with or accidentally stand on one, you’re unlikely to be bitten. About 80% of bites occur on the lower limbs: wear protective clothing (such as gaiters) when bushwalking.
If bitten, apply an elastic bandage (or improvise with a T-shirt). Wrap firmly around the entire limb – but not so tightly that you cut off the circulation – and immobilise with a splint or sling; then seek medical attention. Don’t use a tourniquet, and don’t try to suck out the poison.
Australia has poisonous spiders, although the only species to have killed anyone recently, the Sydney funnel-web, isn’t a Queenslander. Common species:
- Redback – Bites cause increasing pain followed by profuse sweating. Apply ice and transfer to hospital.
- Whitetail – Blamed for causing slow-healing ulcers. If bitten, clean bite and seek medical assistance.
- Huntsman – A disturbingly large spider that’s harmless, though seeing one can affect your blood pressure (and/or underpants).
Common bush ticks can be dangerous if lodged in the skin and undetected. When walking in tick-prone areas, check your body every night (and those of children and dogs). Remove a tick by dousing with methylated spirits or kerosene and levering it out intact. See a doctor if bites become infected (tick typhus cases have been reported in Queensland).
A Bit of Perspective
Australia’s plethora of poisonous and biting critters is impressive, but don’t let it put you off. There’s approximately one shark-attack and one croc-attack fatality per year here. Blue-ringed-octopus deaths are rarer − only two in the last century. Jellyfish do better − about two deaths annually − but you’re still more than 100 times more likely to drown. Spiders haven’t killed anyone in the last 20 years. Snake bites kill one or two people per year, as do bee stings, but you’re about a thousand times more likely to perish on the nation’s roads.