I often wonder what it is about humans and the nature of fear. What is it that seems to make some people take a perverted joy in reminding you of things it is important to be scared of: crocodiles, cassowaries, racehorse goannas, difficult terrain, wild dogs, wild men…?
Oh yes, We were warned of all these things and more as we prepared to embark on our journey by tandem bike from Cooktown to Biggenden. Yet not one of these well-intentioned folks had an inkling of what would be our greatest hazard and primary source of annoyance on our journey south…
Who would’ve thought?
I must admit that I have harboured a somewhat disproportionate fear of magpies for the last decade. This phobia was brought on by a rather violent episode when little Z was only a few years old. We were living in the Adelaide Hills, which incidentally seems to house a collection of the nation’s grumpiest magpies.
I was pointing something out to little Z, when all of a sudden I felt an almighty crack on my head. I thought something had fallen on it (a branch? A brick?) and reached up to check it. My hand came away with blood as the vicious pied perpetrator looked on smugly from a branch overhead. I walked home that day with a sizeable lump on my head and a newly acquired terror of my black and white neighbours.
Now, I have learnt to better recognise those early signs of an impending bird attack. The indignant shriek, the fierce beating of wings, the tell-tale shadow across your path.
Our first encounter with a hormonal magpie on the BNT was after we had detoured through Townsville for bike repairs. Coming out of the city, we took the Flinders Highway, which is rather a busy stretch of road that runs between Townsville and Mount Isa. However, there was a fairly generous shoulder, so I felt okay about things. That is, until the first attack of the swoops. As always, it came out of nowhere, just as the highway shoulder was narrowing and we were negotiating a corner.
What a sight we must have looked as we wobbled down the edge of the road, being chased and swooped by the angry bird, with myself attempting to keep our balance and stay on our part of the road, as Z let go of the handlebars and waved with all her might from the back of the tandem to shoo the bird away.
Alas, it was the beginning of September. Magpies seem to have collectively decided to save up all their aggression and hormonal angst over the course of the year, only to unleash it on unwitting Passers- by during the first few weeks of September, while they are nesting. I groaned inwardly as we pedalled along, knowing this would be the first of many swooping episodes, reassuring Z that as long as we kept our helmets and sunglasses on, we would undoubtedly come away from each attack with our scalps in one piece and all eyes intact.
By the time we arrived at our campsite near Mingela that evening, we had been swooped a total of six times. This was despite my best attempts at magpie whispering- sending telepathic messages along the lines of , “Just passing through- don’t wanna make no trouble…..”.
Over the coming weeks, we learned to perfect the art of magpie damage prevention. I must say, after what must have been close to 100 swoops, we came away relatively unscathed. Here was our tactic.
MAGPIE DAMAGE PREVENTION FOR TANDEM CYCLISTS
The pilot (person on the front seat of the bike) warns of an impending attack (ie Arms up! Arms up!) Holds handle bars firmly, with head slightly lowered. Eyes must not leave the road and principle task is to keep bike steady, thus preventing falls. All magpie wrangling duties will be entrusted to the stoker.
Stoker (back passenger) immediately releases grip on handlebars, waving arms overhead and side to side when necessary, remembering that there are limits to the pilot’s balancing capacities. A variety of noises and sound effects can be employed to deter further attack.