The tires of our 4x4 dug through sand as we struggled up the hill above Champagne Pools on Fraser Island. Scattering the top were eleven sweaty and sunburned men in their 50s and 60s sipping from koozie-covered beer cans and watching in silence as Mitchell maneuvered his way into a parking spot.
“Park in front of us, mate,” one of them pointed with his beer. “You'll have enough time to go for a swim. We'll be here for a while.”
He leaned his round belly against the hood of our rental car. Another one with a wiry beard pushed his foot against the driver's side tire. “Where you's from?”
Mitchell told him Georgia, the land of Coca-Cola advertisements. I told him Tennessee, the home of Jack Daniel's.
“You let the air out of the tires?” he asked, turning to the back of his ute and pulling a tire gauge from the pile of fishing poles and rubber boots.
We hadn't. We had just taken the barge over from Rainbow Beach to Fraser with our rented 4x4, our first stop being a swim in the natural and rocky Champagne Pools.
“You gotta let the air out on all this sand.” He knelt down to release five pounds from each tire.
Chucking the gauge back in his ute, he told us about their four weeks of fishing, drinking beer, and watching backpackers getting bogged in sand while on the island.
The youngest looking one handed me a warm XXXX Gold can. White foam fizzed and coated the aluminum sides when I popped the tab.
“How long are you on Fraser?” he asked.
“Just tonight. We've got to be in Brisbane the day after tomorrow.”
“You's aren't staying under any trees, are ya?” another asked, slipping a beer into his blue koozie.
“We were planning on camping by the beach,” Mitchell said. “I guess there will be trees around there. Is that not okay?”
“Ah. You's should be fine. Just watch out for the drop bears.”
The rest of the men nodded their heads, grumbling “Fuckin' drop bears.”
After preparing for a two month long trip down the eastern coast of Australia, we considered ourselves fairly knowledgeable on the many creatures, plants, and elements that were going to try and kill us. But never had we come across anything on a drop bear. They had our full attention.
“They're nasty. They look like koala bears but bigger.”
“And they have fangs.”
“And red eyes when the camera flashes on 'em.”
“Drop out of the trees and go straight for the neck. That's why we call 'em drop bears.”
“Jesus Christ,” I said. “You're screwing with us, right?”
“You should always trust the locals,” the one leaning on our hood grunted. “We've seen it all.”
Drop bears, also classified as Thylarctos plummetus, are described by the Australian Museum as “a large, arboreal, predatory marsupial related to the Koala”, weighing 260 pounds and standing at 51 inches. And according to the Australian Geographic, they're more likely to attack backpackers than those who speak in an Australian accent.
We were skeptical. “Do you have a picture of them?”
“Oh, no. Drop bears are very, very hard to get a picture of. I doubt Google would have any images.”
Later that evening, we set up camp along the beach. “We should stay away from trees,” I said, looking for a spot in the open.
Mitchell laughed. “You didn't actually believe them, did you?”
My argument was not to question the legitimacy of anything while in the land of deadly critters and Gympie Gympie Trees.
“Hey! You's wanna come over for a proper drink instead of that goon?” our neighboring campsite called out as we poured box wine into sandy glasses. We walked over to their fire pit where four men in their 30s were drinking Jim Beam straight from the bottle. In between drunken banter, they slurped bowls of potato soup, dripples of broth embedding in their salty beards.
“So, drop bears. They're a joke, right?” I asked, sipping a mug of whiskey.
“Oh, no. They're really real,” one of them with shorts to his mid thigh smirked.
“Do y'all have a picture of one?” Mitchell asked. But like the group from Champagne Pools, they denied any existence of photographic evidence.
“You gotta rub Vegemite behind your ears and under your armpits to keep them away.”
“And put forks in your hair.”
“And only speak English in an Australian accent.”
“Do all that and you's should be fine.”
Turns out, however, we didn't rub Vegemite behind our ears and under our armpits – or toothpaste. We didn't stick forks in our hair, and our English was littered with diphthongs and y'alls. Believe it or not, we even slept under a tree. But we never saw a drop bear.
The next morning, one of the men stumbled to our campsite holding a beer in one hand and his phone in the other. "You'll never believe it, but I saw a drop bear this morning when I was washing my face in the water."
He handed me his phone. Behind a cracked screen and dirty fingerprints was a wet koala bear photoshopped with bloody fangs, red eyes, and a shredded backpack.
I squinted. “Ah, right. That's a scary looking one.”
“Now you're getting it," he smiled, taking a sip of beer. "You gotta believe in them. If you don't, you're letting the whole team down.” He tipped his beer and wished us safe travels, laughing about "Fuckin' drop bears" as he stumbled through the sand back to his site.
I rolled my eyes as I began to break down our tent. A white-bellied seagull flapped past while wind rattled palm branches overhead. Something splashed in the creek behind me. I whipped around to see a seagull dunking his face in the water. Shaking my head, I grabbed my bag from inside the car.
"Fuckin' drop bears," I mumbled, rummaging for my tube of Colgate.