(Originally appeared in "Black: Australian Dark Culture" magazine #2)
Of all the Earth's inhabited continents, Australia is the flattest and the driest. Its weathered and arid geology is also the oldest and least fertile and it is home to seven, eight or nine of the "World's 10 Deadliest Snakes" - depending on which list you read. Even in this age of sprawling coastal cities and soaring economic growth, after Antartica, Australia is the least populated continent on the planet!
That's one harsh and unforgiving place to call home.
Western civilisation can only claim a 400 year relationship with this vast landscape, but human habitation goes back some 48,000 years. That's a lot of time for its people to develop a diverse range of myths and legends to explain the land in which they lived. Add to that just over two hundred years of white habitation, and an influx of global cultures, and you end up with a country full of people who just love a tale.
They love telling them. They love listening to them. They love being creeped out by them. And, all too often, they love to believe them.
Sightings of Bunyips and Min-min lights have persisted since the Dreamtime, and colonial tales of Hoop Snakes and Dropbears are still effective methods of frightening tourists and city dwellers on their first visit to the outback.
These days, sleek black panthers stalk bushlands west of Penrith. Thylacines, officially extinct since 1933, are sighted in Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia and even as far away as Papua New Guinea. UFOs buzz truckies on the Nullarbor, and serial killers stalk the empty highways between Perth, Adelaide and Darwin.
But, how often is there a grain of truth resting at the centre of these myths?
Take, for instance, the aforementioned lists of the "World's 10 Deadliest Snakes". In not one of those lists could I find mention of the Hoop Snake. And yet it is, apparently, one of the leading proponents of serpent induced death in Australia.
Where is this elusive Hoop Snake? Is it a native animal, or an import? Has the encroaching urban landscape driven it to extinction? Or is it all a load of cobblers?
The fabled Hoop Snake (Oxyuranus hulahoopis) is a reptile with a most unusual and effective method of attack. It lies on the shoulders of outback roads and tracks: quiet, motionless, curled with its tail resting in its mouth. You might even mistake it for a harmless piece of shredded road-train tire. And, unless you're travelling at speeds equal to that of a battered ute on its way to a B&S Ball, you're in danger.
Whenever suitable prey comes along, the Hoop Snake flexes its sinuous muscles and flings itself along the road or track. Tail held firmly in its mouth, it retains its circular shape and rolls, like a runaway tire at a sprint-car track, after its next chosen meal.
The top speed of a Hoop Snake has never been reliably recorded but tales are told of touring cyclists losing the race against this dreaded reptile. It's fast and, if you're not in a motor powered vehicle, it will most probably catch up with you.
When it does, it uncoils, like a spring releasing its energy. The Hoop Snake straightens, taut as a spear, flying the final few metres to its victim. Mouth wide, fangs at full extension, it is said to hit with all the force of a double-pronged javelin. Its venom will kill you in a few short instants of very agonising pain.
Stories say that there is only one possible way of escaping a Hoop Snake. If you're lucky enough to be near a tree when it makes its final strike you just might have a chance. At the last possible instant, as the Hoop Snake is making its final lunge, dive behind the tree!
The Hoop Snake will impale its fangs in the tree and trap itself. The tree, of course, will die instantly from the intense toxicity of the venom. This is the reason there are so many 'black stumps' in the Australian outback.
This might all seem like a bit of a lark to tell the pasty faced tourists but what about that 'grain of truth' I talked about?
Tales of Hoop Snakes and 'Hoop Snake like creatures' can be found all over the world. There is Ouroboros in Greek mythology which, while never being known to roll, was definitely portrayed as having its tail in its mouth. The Japanese have Tsuchinoko, a mythical slug-like serpent that can roll like a wheel. Sweden has the Hjulorm, in its folklore. Surely all these myths are based on something?
Tales of the Hoop Snake are most common in Australia and the USA. The first recorded sighting was by one JFD Smyth, in his book "Tour in the U. S. A.", in 1784 and sightings in Australia quickly followed its colonisation in 1788. Regular sightings in both countries continued until the late 1930s but have dropped off significantly since and numerous scientific surveys have failed to discover any sign of this elusive creature... which goes to suggest the Hoop Snake might be just another sad victim of human-caused extinction.
Maybe, the Hoop Snake is real? Maybe the idea of a 'wheel-powered' creature isn't that crazy? Or maybe its all just tales for grandad to frighten the kids?
If you're still not sure, have a look at the link below. It just might change your mind about the strange wonders nature can produce, and maybe lift your hopes that the Hoop Snake really is out there truckin' Australia's dark and dusty highways.
Last Updated Monday, June 07 2010 @ 11:54 AM EST|15,805 Hits