Swagman #17 – Magnetic Island: The Battle for Cabin 27
Magnetic Island, Australia
Magnetic Island, a short ferry ride off the coast of Townsville, is like
visiting a small community that lies within a zoo. With only a sprinkling of
hostels, hotels and shops along the east coast, the remainder of the island
is undeveloped and crawling with the wildlife that you’d pay $30 to see at
any of the major zoos. There is a necessary but rewarding hike to see some
of the animals, while many of the animals will approach you whether you like
it or not.
After a free night accommodation at Maggie’s beach house in Horseshoe Bay,
Nikki and I ventured away from the water a bit and found our way to Geoff’s
Place. They booked us into cabin 27, one of the many littered around the
property, and told us that we would have it to ourselves that night. So we
threw our bags down and headed back out in search of koalas.
Anything you read about Magnetic Island will make a point of the fact that
the island has one of the highest population of wild koalas in Australia. Of
all of the walking tracks that cut through the forests, the Fort’s Walk
“virtually guarantees koala spotting” (Lets Go: Australia 2003). We inquired
further about the walk at reception. A man standing nearby overheard us and
felt it was his duty as a bushman to prepare us.
“Sturdy shoes, lots of water, sunscreen, hat, sunglasses. Water, can’t have
enough,” he said.
The woman at reception confirmed each of these with a nod.
“Don’t go walking in those things,” he said, pointing at our feet. We were
both wearing flip flops. My right big toe nail was still horribly split
right down the middle from Cairns.
We nodded in a serious manner and then set out on flip flops. Nikki hadn’t
brought any shoes, and hell if I wasn’t going to see a koala. We figured if
the road got rough we would turn back. The road, however, was nothing but
smooth dirt the whole way. The only thing the man had neglected to mention,
and what interested me the most, was the sign at the beginning of the walk
that warned of taipan snakes. Suffice to say that stepping too close to one
of these beauties could earn you two small fangs in your leg and a lethal
shot of venom. So now we were walking along the path like a couple of
bobblehead dolls, our eyes bouncing up and down as we searched the trees for
koalas and the ground for snakes. We looked like we were in a constant state
And hour into the walk and we had still seen nothing. It was like the
cassowary search all over again, and I was growing increasingly frustrated.
It wasn’t until we were on our way back that I noticed a young German couple
aiming a pair of binoculars in the direction of a nearby tree. I followed
their gaze and there, in a nearby tree, was a huge koala.
Koalas are fascinating creatures to me, mainly because they don’t do very
much. They sleep about 20 hours a day, propped up in the branches of a
eucalyptus tree. When they are awake they just eat – they require about 20
lb. of foliage every day to survive. I’ve heard rumors that the gum leaves
make them stoned, and regardless of the validity of those rumors that is the
perfect description for how they look. They seem to just doze off suddenly,
like grandpa in his chair after lunch. Their legs dangle in the air, their
arms barely hug the tree branch, and their head just hangs at the shoulder.
There was some speculation between Nikki and I that park rangers had just
placed a stuffed koala in a visible tree to maintain visitor attendance. But
then, as if on cue, the koala slowly lifted his head, looked off at nothing
in the distance, and went back to sleep. Intense. I could have climbed the
tree and snapped pictures of him up close and he wouldn’t have budged, but I
was content to just take a few from the ground. After all, there were snakes
Back in town we had a quick dinner at Maggie’s and went to the nearest pub
to watch New Zealand beat the Welsh in the World Cup. I was able to get a
World Cup T-shirt, and all I had to do in return was drink to jugs of beer.
It was a win-win situation. I went to bed feeling good, and was woken up in
the middle of the night by a horrible scream that seemed to come from
directly below the cabin. After a moment of silence, during which I had a
firm grip on the sheets, I figured I was just dreaming and went back to
The next morning I met the peacock. I was stumbling to the bathroom when it
stepped out from behind a cabin, spread its tail, and let out the same
bloodcurdling scream I had heard the night before. Could have been worse, I
For lunch that day we decided to walk down the road a bit to Magnetic Mango,
a mango farm/restaurant that’s situated on several acres. The walk
along the road was long, and ended at the gate to the farm. Across a small
field we could see the tables of the restaurant, so we began walking down
the dirt road leading to it. As we were walking a large white bird flew
directly at us, causing us to both duck and chuckle uneasily. This had
happened to me before. The birds in Australia sometimes like to fly a bit
too close to humans, especially when they take off. One dreaded bird, the
magpie, actually likes to attack humans in the back of the head. The thought
of such a thing is funny, but I know of one man who was actually killed by
one. And they’re everywhere, a distinct black and white bird that you can
thankfully spot from a distance, enabling you to walk as far away from it as
This bird, thankfully, was not a magpie. But it was a bit odd when the bird
circled around and came at us a second time. By this point we were in a full
sprint for cover, kicking up dirt in our wake. Suddenly, to my horror, my
right flip flop flew off and I was running partially barefoot. Luckily I was
able to scoop it up without breaking my run and carry it like a football to
safety. We finally reached the lunch counter, out of breath but intact.
“So you survived the bird,” said the man at the counter, who turned out to
be the owner.
We answered with wide eyes and deep breaths. He continued.
“See, she just laid eggs and last week some crows got at the eggs. So she’s
being a bit more careful with this batch. You can see her laying at them out
We looked out, and sure enough right there in the center of the field was a
bird just sitting in the grass. Why it would lay eggs in the middle of an
open field is one of nature’s great mysteries. Why management wouldn’t at
least put up a handwritten sign that says “Warning: Birds will attack if you
walk too close” is one another great mystery.
We ate a quick lunch and set out to explore the plantation in search of
their 500 lb pig (seriously). We made it through the mango trees to a field
and were greeted by about six kangaroos who had taken an obvious interest in
us. So we froze and stared and they stared back. Eventually they became
bored and all bounced away at an astonishing speed. It’d hard to realize how
fast they are until you see them in the wild, because at the zoos they
appear to be drugged as little toddlers run up with handfuls of feed and jam
them in the ‘roo’s face. We never got to see the pig, but we counted about 20
kangaroos by the time we left the farm, walking as far away from the bird’s
nest that the fences would allow.
Back at the hostel we just watched some TV and I knocked back a few happy
hour beers. We then walked back to cabin 27 in the dark for a good night’s
sleep. We weren’t in the cabin for more than a few minutes when there was
some strange rustling outside. It continued for awhile, until I thought it
would be most macho of me to have a look. I wandered out of the cabin,
without a flashlight of course, and went around back towards the woods to
investigate. I could still hear the movement, but it was too dark to make
out any shapes. Soon my eyes became adjusted to the dark though, and I could
see that something was moving along the side of the the cabin next door to
ours. I moved towards it, trying to follow it’s path. It looked like one of
the birds that we had seen wandering around town over the past few days.
Nikki was out of the cabin calling to me, but I didn’t want to answer
because I thought I would scare the creature away. She continued to call
into the dark from the steps of the cabin, like an upcoming victim in a
Friday the 13th flick. Eventually I had followed the animal around to the
front of our cabin, but it was just beyond the beam of light. I joined Nikki
at the steps.
“It’s a possum,” she said. I could see now that she was right – the creature
was definitely small and furry. There was more movement nearby.
“There’s two, three of them,” Nikki said. This was great, back to nature I
thought. I had never seen a possum.
“I want to see if it’ll come into the light a bit,” I said quietly.
Two of the possums were motionless, but the one I had been tracking was
slowly coming towards the light.
“Just a little closer,” I said. The possum crept into the light, and
suddenly darted towards me. It leapt up, sinking its claws into the trunk of
a tree less than a foot from my face. I threw up my arms, let out a scream
that rivaled the peacock, and shoved Nikki into the cabin, slamming the door
All was quiet. We had a good, nervous laugh and settled in for the night.
But we could still hear them walking around outside, circling the cabin.
“This must be where they sleep,” Nikki said.
When realization sets in, it’s usually with an icy feeling. When we had
checked in, one of our screen windows was ripped. We figured wear and tear,
but now it was looking to be something with teeth and claws. I jumped up and
grabbed our two heavy packs, propping them up against the window. All along
the walls of the cabin were screen window, most of which were covered in a
secure looking metal grating. The biggest window though, which our bags
barely covered, did not have this protection.
Suddenly there was movement on the roof. One of the possums had climbed up
while the others continued to circle around. Then there was the smell of
“They’re marking their territory,” Nikki said.
Now, I don’t know if this has anything to do with anything, but the previous
night I had woken up with a full bladder and had decided against the walk to
the bathroom and had just gone at the edge of the woods directly behind the
cabin. Had I enticed some sort of war? The peacock was our ally, it had been
sleeping under our cabin the night before and had probably let out that
scream when the possums came home.
The movement continued for a little longer and then just suddenly stopped.
Sleep was almost a possibility. We had the lights on the entire time to try
to keep them away, but this meant that we couldn’t see anything outside. The
bathroom was not an option, we agreed that we would implode before leaving
the cabin at night. So we lay there, staring at the insects and the little
gecko lizards. It had been quiet for long enough.
And then, loud and clear, came a slow, patient, angry growl from the window
right at my feet. It was like nothing I had ever heard before, and any
nervousness I had was quickly replaced with fear. I threw a ball of socks at
the window, as if this would do anything.
“Did you hear that?” I said.
“What?” Nikki replied.
A note about Nikki – she grew up in Thailand, until when she was six years
old. While there she became sick and lost her hearing. Her parents thought
that she was just being stubborn and ignoring them, so it was a few days
before they realized that the situation was a bit more serious and took her
to a doctor. Nikki still enjoys tormenting them with this. The news at the
doctor was grim – she would never be able to hear properly again. She
learned how to read lips, and continued her visits to the doctor. The news
was always the same, until one day she suddenly regained her hearing, much
to the amazement of the doctors. There are some lingering affects, however,
and every now and then she doesn’t hear something that I do. Something like
a ill tempered growl from a wild animal directed towards us. It didn’t help
my confidence when I was the only one that could hear what was going on
outside. This wasn’t the first time that this had happened. One night I woke
up to the sound of maniacal laughter outside. I woke Nikki, who told me that
she couldn’t hear it but wanted me to describe it to her.
“It sounds like a freaking group of maniacs laughing outside!” I said.
And so it continued, and after each bout I tried my best to imitate the
laughter until I just gave up and went back to sleep. The laughter, it turns
out, was kookaburra birds. But for now we were dealing with possums, and
would be for the remainder of the night. We eventually just passed out,
although I was awoken a few times by movement on the roof or more growling
at the window. Luckily I am a grumpy sleeper, and any time I woke I was more
annoyed than scared. Each new growl got a “F@*$ off” in return.
And we survived the night. There were claw marks on the wood outside the
windows, but we were leaving anyway. At checkout we warned reception in an
attempt to prevent any sequels.
“Had a bit of a problem with the possums last night,” I told the young girl.
“Oh, were they trying to get in again?” she said.
Another great mystery.