Snakes on a Plane by Alison Ripley Cubitt
Cycling through the abandoned and overgrown race course near Altona, I had my eyes firmly fixed on the ground in front of me. On my ride that morning I had seen ibis and pelicans, the 747s of the avian world, cruising on the wetlands and flying at low altitude overhead. I just hoped they would hold on to their dinner long enough not to drop their load on me.
It was shaping up to be a glorious spring day. And even though it was early September, the temperature was already in the mid-20s. I was the only person around, so I was being careful: the bitumen on the cycle track was warming up. I scanned the long tawny grasses. I looked out for stray sticks on the path as I knew that this was a route favoured by more adventurous dog walkers.
Not so long ago one of these "sticks" had reared up when I was nearly upon it. It was far too late for me to brake safely: my only option had been to speed up. It was no more than a couple of feet long and as skinny as a size zero. As I zoomed past, it turned its head and opened its jaw in fear. It was a young snake, but as one local man had told me, "you've got to watch out for the young ones. They don't know what to do with all that venom."
This area, near wetlands with birds eggs to feast upon is a perfect tiger snake habitat. And it was just the sort of place to find a hangry tiger snake, fresh from a winter asleep. I'm sure the expression, 'like a bear with a sore head,' must come from waking up hungry and angry after hibernation. Especially, if like a venomous snake, all you've been doing for the past few months is building up your reserves of toxins.
Tiger snakes do not go looking for trouble. And will do their best to get out of your way. That's the theory, at least. The one I had encountered, of the more gormless variety, clearly hadn't got the memo.
Once safely past Snake Central, I relaxed, allowing my mind to wander as I thought about what the derelict racecourse must have been like in its heydey when Phar Lap the legendary thoroughbred raced here.
And it was precisely that moment when I heard a loud thud on my bike helmet. It gave me such a start I came skidding to a stop. And before I had time to look around I saw a dark shadow hover overhead, the split second before I was hit again. I covered my face with my hands because at that moment dear reader, I was in not just one Hitchcock movie but two. I was Melanie Daniels in The Birds and Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest. (Although, in my Lycra and trainers, my outfit was not a patch on the immaculately dressed Tippi Hedren or Cary Grant).
But this was hardly the time to be thinking about Hollywood style icons. I knew I had to get out of there before that ace fighter pilot came round for another go.
My tormenter, (Cracticus tibicen) or an Australian magpie, like many creatures found in Australia, is bigger and meaner than it's European cousin. But to be fair, it was nesting season, and by the looks of it, I was heading straight for the line of trees where it had set up home.
I thought that by getting off my bike and standing my ground, it would back off. But this just seemed to make the bird angrier still. As it jumped up and down preparing to take off, I grabbed the only two weapons I had: my bicycle lock and an armoury of expletives. I waved the lock in the air to fend it off and let rip with swear words that probably hadn't be heard there before or since.
By then I was shaking in both anger and fear: how dare a bird get the better of me. Deciding instead to risk the bike, I jumped on, cycling as fast as I could. Half an hour later, I was still shaking and spilt my flat white at Melissa Cakes as I realised I was half way through my bike ride and still had to get home.
Someone in the cafe said that if you fixed plastic eyeballs to the back of your helmet, this would deter magpies. All well and good, but where was I going to find a joke shop in suburban Melbourne in the 21st century? So thanking the cafe patron, I got back on the bike, weighing up which was worse: be mown down on the highway by a massive truck, or take my chances with the fauna. As I entered the wildlife zone, I saw, to my relief an unsuspecting power walker with just a cap for protection and headphones on, oblivious to the world around her. I guessed she must have been a blow-in from overseas like me, as no sane Australian would be dumb enough to walk in that midday heat.
I mumbled feebly about watching out for tiger snakes. She looked at me in that pained way that the under 25s reserve for anyone that is, like totally old, like their mum. And in the broadest of Glaswegian accents, told me confidently that there weren't any snakes. I shrugged, got back on the bike again, passing at least one Beware of Snakes sign. And then, I'm afraid to say; I couldn't help but glance skywards, towards the magpie's nest. Would Miss Headphones get her comeuppance? I never did find out, but I fervently hoped so.
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