Australia is a country famously full of deadly things.
There are the box jellyfish that float surreptitiously through the ocean in the summer months. This is the world’s most poisonous life-form and an encounter with one of these guys will leave you in what one unlucky person called “the most agonizing pain you could ever possibly imagine”. There are snakes, spiders, marsupials and insects that can bring your life to a cripplingly painful end.
But, as I found out quite accidentally you should also be worried about melons. Specifically paddymelon, a close cousin of the watermelon, and something that looks so benign you wouldn’t bat an eye if it appeared in your fridge next to the margarine.
I learnt this on a recent trip in the Northern Territory’s red centre, a place I was exploring on a small group tour. We were visiting Ormiston Gorge located off the Stuart highway that connects the town of Alice Springs with not much else. The gorge is one of the region’s most visited icons, a deep fissure that cuts precipitously into the West MacDonnell Ranges.
We arrived on a windy afternoon and our guide Dave, an affable Australian who reminded me of a boyscout leader with his neatly pressed clothes and impressive knowledge of the terrain, explained the options for the day. These included a short jaunt around the gorge’s base or a longer hike that follows its perimeter and returns via the river bed that cuts through its centre.
In all, we were told, the second option was only lightly strenuous and would take just over an hour. As the great majority of my fellow travellers were what Australians refer to as “grey nomads” only three of 18 of us opted for the longer hike and, along with Dave, we set off along a meandering path that hugged the gorge’s edge.
The scenery along the trail was spectacular. It featured the deep, pastel red colour typical of the red centre. But, uniquely, given the river that often flows through its centre, the gorge also features verdant plant life: giant ferns, spindly trees and dense shrubs that gave the scene an almost prehistoric feel.
After 45 minutes, the trail began its steep decent into the bowels of the gorge. Soon we were just above the river bed, a tranquil scene of slowly moving water that passed over a bed of boulders. We stopped to admire the view before dropping onto the rivers dry edge to begin our walk back to our starting point.
The going was slow as we negotiated the large rocks, and, after about thirty minutes, Dave stopped to point out a basketball-sized melon connected to a weedy rope. He
pointed it out nonchalantly, more just to break up the walk than out of any real interest.
Being from a country where it’s rare to stumble on an errant melon, I was intrigued.
“Can you eat it?”
“I suppose so” David answered, intrigued at my sudden fascination. To indulge my interest he cracked it open to reveal a white flesh.
Thinking back now, it lacked many of the characteristics that one would associate with a tasty melon. It wasn’t juicy, and didn’t have the floral smell typical to edible fruit. But the exterior. The exterior was just like a watermelon, with its soft green and white stripes.
If wild blueberries and raspberries are delicious, I figured, a wild watermelon-y type fruit must be sensational.
I bit deeply into the melon.
My reaction was instant. The flavour of this thing was something between awesomely bitter horseradish and diesel fuel. I immediately gagged and spit out what was remaining in my mouth.
“Did you actually just eat that thing” a fellow hiker asked with a strange look of incredulousness that someone would willingly ingest a random gourd off the river floor.
“Totally nasty” I replied, still trying to spit out any residue of the awful flavour as we continued our slow progress.
It took about three minutes until a feeling- one that I haven’t had in over 10 years when I similarly but purposely poisoned myself with magic mushrooms, overcame me. It was the feeling that the world had, in an instant, slipped away and become distorted into a place that resembled but was distinctly different to the one I had inhabited just seconds ago.
Put simply, I quickly realized that I was tripping out on the random, Aussie outback melon. And, in contrast to the somewhat expected result of eating mushrooms, this was a decidedly scary feeling.
“Uh oh” I said to the group as the world narrowed and I had the distinct feeling that I would soon pass out.
The next few minutes were blurry. I remember looks of concern, and suggestions that I should dip my face in the river. I remember a kaleidoscope of colours and a burning dizziness. But most of all I recall being terrified that my life would soon be over and how could I be so profoundly stupid.
“Moronic Canadian traveller dies after voluntarily ingesting random legume in Australian outback”.
As I braced myself for the end, I realized that I would have the energy to continue, even if in an altered state. As we walked, I tried to maintain a
conversation (about what, I can’t remember), but the reality was that I was intently concentrated on just staying conscious.
I do, however, recall feeling of relief when we arrived at the bus. I flopped onto my seat, which felt like a warm, comfortable hug. The rest of the group loaded in, and soon the coach trudged out of the gorge.
It was only later in the day, after I came to the slow conclusion this was not the end of my life, that Dave somewhat reluctantly passed me a laminated page with descriptions of the local fauna.
On the bottom left hand corner was a picture of the melon. The description explained that it was a Paddy Melon, “found mostly in wetlands, likely originated in Africa and resembles a small watermelon, attached to a weedy stem.”
At the end of the paragraph was a final note that left me with a chill that took me days to shake off.
“This melon is known to kill livestock. DO NOT INGEST“.