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The Wily Goanner by Louis Becke


In the early part of the year 1899 a settler named Hardy, residing at Glenowlan, in the Rylstone district of New South Wales, about 150 miles from Sydney, lost numbers of his lambs during the lambing season. Naturally enough, dingoes were suspected, but none were seen. Then other sheep—men began to lose lambs, and a close watch was set, with the result that iguanas, which are very numerous in this part of the country, were discovered to be the murderers of the little "baa-baa's." The cause of this new departure in the predatory habits of the "goanner"—which hitherto had confined his evil deeds to nocturnal visits to the fowl-yards—is stated to be the extermination of the opossum, which has driven the cunning reptile to seek for another source of food. And, as before the shooting of kangaroos, wallabies, and opossums was resorted to as a means of livelihood by hundreds of bushmen who had no other employment open to them, the young of these marsupials furnished the iguana with an ample supply of food, the theory is very probably correct. Poison will be the only method of destroying or reducing the numbers of the iguana, who, robber as he is, yet has his good points, as has even the sneaking, blood-loving native cat—for both are merciless foes to snakes of all kinds; and 'tis better to have an energetic and hungry native cat and a score of wily iguanas working havoc among the tenants of your fowl-house than one brown or an equally deadly "bandy-bandy" snake within half a mile.

In that part of New South Wales in which the writer was born—one of the tidal rivers on the northern coast—both snakes and iguanas were plentiful, and a source of continual worry to the settlers.

On one occasion some boyish companions and myself set to work to build a raft for fishing purposes out of some old and discarded blue gum rails which were lying along the bank of the river. Boy-like, we utterly disregarded our parents' admonition to put on our boots, and, aided by a couple of blackfellows, we moved about the long grass on our bare feet, picking up the heavy rails and carrying them on our shoulders, one by one, down to the sandy beach, where we were to lash them together. Presently we came across a very heavy rail, about eight feet long, twelve inches in width, and two inches thick. It was no sooner up-ended than we saw half a dozen "bandy-bandies"—the smallest but most deadly of Australian snakes, not even excepting the death-adder—lying beneath! We gave a united yell of terror and fled as the black and yellow banded reptiles—none of which were over eighteen inches in length nor thicker than a man's little finger—wriggled between our feet into the long grass around us. For some minutes we were too frightened at our escape to speak; but soon set to work to complete the raft. Presently one of the blackfellows pointed to a tall honeysuckle-tree about fifty feet away, and said with a gleeful chuckle, "Hallo, you see him that 'pfeller goanner been catch him bandy-bandy?"

Sure enough, an iguana, about three feet in length, was scurrying up the rough, ridgy bark of the honeysuckle with a "bandy-bandy" in his jaws. He had seized the snake by its head, I imagine, for we could see the rest of its form twisting and turning about and enveloping the body of its capturer. In a few seconds we saw the iguana ascend still higher, then he disappeared with his hateful prey among the loftier branches. No doubt he enjoyed his meal.

About a year or so later I was given another instance of the "cuteness" of the wicked "goanner." My sister (aged twelve) and myself (two years younger) were fishing with bamboo rods for mullet. We were standing, one on each side, of the rocky edges of a tiny little bay on the coast near Port Macquarie (New South Wales). The background was a short, steep beach of soft, snow-white sand, fringed at the high-water margin with a dense jungle of wild apple and pandanus-trees.

The mullet bit freely, and as we swung the gleaming, bright-silvered fish out of the water on to the rocks on which we stood, we threw them up on to the beach, and left them to kick about and coat themselves with the clean, white sand—which they did in such an artistic manner that one would imagine they considered it egg and breadcrumb, and were preparing themselves to fulfil their ultimate and proper use to the genus homo .

My sister had caught seven and I five, when, the sun being amidships, we decided to boil the billy of tea and get something to eat; young mullet, roasted on a glowing fire of honeysuckle cobs were, we knew, very nice. So, laying down our rods on the rocks, we walked up to the beach—just in time to see two "goanners"—one of them with a wriggling mullet in his mouth—scamper off into the bush.

A careful search revealed the harrowing fact that nine of the twelve fish were missing, and the multitudinous criss-cross tracks on the sand showed the cause of their disappearance. My sister sat down on a hollow log and wept, out of sheer vexation of spirit, while I lit a fire to boil the billy and grill the three remaining mullet. Then after we had eaten the fish and drank some tea, we concocted a plan of deadly revenge. We took four large bream-hooks, bent them on to a piece of fishing-line, baited each hook with a good-sized piece of octopus (our mullet bait), and suspended the line between two saplings, about three inches above the leaf-strewn ground. Then, feeling confident of the success of our murderous device, we finished the billy of tea and went back to our fishing. We caught a couple of dozen or more of fine mullet, each one weighing not less than 1-1/2 lbs.; and then the incoming tide with its sweeping seas drove us from the ledge of rocks to the beach, where we changed our bamboo rods for hand-lines with sinkers, and flung them, baited with chunks of mullet, out into the breaking surf for sea-bream. By four in the afternoon we had caught more fish than we could well carry home, five miles away; and after stringing the mullet and bream through the gills with a strip of supple-jack cane, we went up the beach to our camp for the billy can and basket.

And then we saw a sight that struck terror into our guilty souls—a Danse Macabre of three writhing black and yellow, long-tailed "goanners," twisting, turning and lashing their sinuous and scaly tails in agony as they sought to free their widely-opened jaws from the cruel hooks. One had two hooks in his mouth. He was the quietest of the lot, as he had less purchase than the other two upon the ground, and with one hook in his lower and one in his upper jaw, glared upwards at us in his torture and smote his sides with his long, thin tail.

"Oh, you wicked, wicked boy!" said my partner in guilt—at once shifting the responsibility of the whole affair upon me—"you ought to be ashamed of yourself for doing such a thing! You know well enough that we should never hurt a poor, harmless iguana. Oh, do take those horrible hooks out of the poor things' mouths and let them go, you wicked, cruel boy!"

With my heart in my mouth I crept round through the scrub, knife in hand.

"Go on, you horrible, horrible, coward!" screamed my sister; "one would think that the poor things were alligators or sharks. Oh, my goodness, if you're so frightened, I'll come and do it myself." With that she clambered up into the branches of a pandanus-tree and looked at me excitedly, mingled with considerable contempt and much fear.

Being quite wise enough not to attempt to take the hooks out of the "goanners'" mouths, I cut the two ends of the line to which they hung. They instantly sought refuge on the tree trunks around them; but as each "goanner" selected his individual tree, and as they were still connected to each other by the line and the hooks in their jaws, their attempts to reach a higher plane was a failure. So they fell to upon one another savagely.

"Come away, you wicked, thoughtless boy," said my sister, weepingly. "I shall never come out with you again; you cruel thing."

Then, overcoming my fear, I valiantly advanced, and gingerly extending my arm, cut the tangled-up fishing line in a dozen places; and with my bamboo fishing-rod disintegrated the combatants. They stood for a few seconds, panting and open-mouthed, and then, with the hooks still fast in their jaws, scurried away into the scrub.