Miss Australia but not the snakes

snakes of AustraliaIt’s Autumn here, Spring there. It’s the season when I miss Australia the most. I watch my cycling friends in Australia and New Zealand ramp up their mileage on Strava. I get invited to various racing weekends and training camps I can’t make. I look at the speed and altitude of the rides my friends are doing in New Zealand and remember why I like track riding.

Yes, I could leave those groups on Facebook but I’m too attached. I even love my annual automated birthday greeting from the Canberra Vikings cycling forum.

Fine, fine. It’s getting close to my next sabbatical and I’m scheming about another trip to that part of the world, another winter missed, another year in a part of the world with a robust women’s cycling community.

So obviously I love it there. With a few exceptions. One of the exceptions is snakes. I blogged recently about animal hazards to cyclists but it occurs to me I didn’t say enough about snakes.

Snakes were new to me. Yes, we have garter snakes here and even the massasauga rattler. I’ve actually seen one, though I heard it first. That was reassuring to know. Thanks for the warning rattler on the hiking trail. We’ll give you room.

Australia was the first place I’ve lived where school field trips involved needing a parent to carry the snake bite kit. “Good God, don’t ask the Canadian.”

The facts about Australian snakes are both terrifying and reassuring. Here’s this from Australian Geographic:

WHEN IT COMES TO self-defence, Australia’s snakes have got things pretty well covered. We share our continent with about 140 species of land snakes, some equipped with venom more toxic than any other snakes in the world.

But bites are actually quite rare in Australia and, since the development of anti-venom, fatalities have been low – between four to six deaths a year.

Bicycling Australia has a snake safety page. That should give you some idea that it’s an issue. The safety page is also kind of reassuring.

The same long, hot days that encourage you to get on your bike also make the Australian snake population far more active. So, what about cyclist-snake encounters? Popular literature is full of scary stories about the many dangerous snakes in Australia. Yes, there are numerous species of snake in Oz. Yes, many of them are venomous and a dozen or so of 170+ species could probably kill a human. However, very few people actually die from snakebite in Australia each year. This is in stark contrast to other places in the world where thousands of people die from snakebite (e.g. South America, South Asia and North Africa). – See more at:

But still, the presence of snakes in places I ride my bike scared me. The piece goes on to warn about Brown snakes in the Canberra velodrome infield.

Living in Canberra I do have some extensive experience with one particular family of Brown snakes—the ones that live in the infield of the Narrabundah Velodrome! Saturday afternoon training in summer is frequently interrupted by one or more Browns trying to cross the front straight after feeding. When the same snake is subjected to bicycles zooming past for some time, it can become a bit testy and aggressive, yet most days these snakes hide in the grass until the cyclists have departed for the day. My main concern at the velodrome is also my only real concern for a snake encounter when on the dirt; falling on top of a snake could be a good way to get bitten!

Here’s an interview with Catherine Culvenor  now a member of Cycling Australia’s High Performance Unit about her time training at the track in Canberra.

Training at the “Bundahdome” had both its good sides and its bad sides. In winter, one end of the track stays wet almost all day meaning it is too slippery to ride on, and the freezing temperatures of Canberra aren’t great either – I remember leaving school one day to train in 4°C fog. Trying to warm up your muscles under those conditions is not easy! In summer, the brown snakes that inhabit the velodrome’s grassy centre like to give people a bit of a surprise. I became used to them playing peekaboo during efforts, but having to watch out for one of the world’s most venomous snakes is not really something you want to have to focus on during a flying 200m.

bike path


Brown snakes also seemed to love to hang out on the warm pavement of the bike path. I once got an email from  the ANU campus cyclists group  warning of an “angry brown snake” on the path on my  way home. I suggested that they might just move it. But not Australians are also proud and protective of their local wildlife. There’s a sign at the Australian National Botanic Gardens which advises visitors not to leave the paths and to wear closed toed shoes. Why? Snakes. The sign goes on to say, “The Brown Snake is a valued member of our habitat.” So am I, right?

Riding to the crit course one night for our weekly race, an oncoming cyclist yelled at me: “Snake up ahead on the path mate.”

This got me worrying about two things actually. Snake? So what do I do about that? Turn around and go home? Ride by cautiously? Go super fast? And “mate”? Did he think I’m male or is “mate” used gender neutrally? Turns out “mate” is gender neutral. I like that. And I should just pass the snake cautiously which is what I did.

My best Canberra snake story concerns a snake I didn’t see. I finished a time trial race one night and people came over and clapped me on the back saying how brave I was. It was like I’d grown up there. The way I held my line and passed right by the snake. I hadn’t even seen a snake. Stick in  the road? Snake? took me quite a few months to tell the difference.

So yes, I miss cycling in Australia, in Canberra, a lot. But I don’t miss looking out for snakes.