World Tour Highlights: 15 Reptiles and Amphibians

If I’d kept this together with the upcoming list of animals it would have been way too long, and so Reptiles and Amphibians of the World Tour get their own list, the twelfth in the World Tour Highlights articles. Here they are, in alphabetical order.

1. Agama (Tanzania)

Funny-looking two-tone lizards. We first spotted one in Tanzania with a bubblegum-pink head and body and a blue tail, sunning on the rocks in the Serengeti, and then others later in Malawi with a bright blue head and a yellow body.

2. Cane Toad (Australia and Fiji)

Ah, the legendary Cane Toad. Object of utter loathing and hatred in Australia. An introduced species there, they have no predators and are wreaking havoc on the ecosystem. Everywhere we went in Australia people would either tell us to kill them, or inform us that you can get high by licking them. They’re also all over the place in Fiji, where we counted 200 in the space of an hour on a big grassy field in Levuka, Taveuni.

3. Chameleon (Tanzania)

I’ve always thought chameleons were the weirdest thing, with their sticky long tongues, their eyes that move around independently and their strange little feet. We saw a semi-wild one in the Usambara Mountains of Tanzania.

4. Crocodile (Zambia and Australia)

I don’t even know where to start talking about crocodiles. I remember them feasting on dead hippos in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park. And they were lurking in every river and lake in Africa, it seemed like. We were warned about them while rafting the Zambezi and camping near Lake Malawi. And of course the salties in Australia were always out to get us.

Photo courtesy of Sheryl

5. Frilled Lizard (Australia)

Frightening looking things. When they’re feeling mean or nervous they flare their huge neck frills in an attempt to look intimidating. Judge for yourself how effective it is from the photo below. Driving through Australia you’ll see signboards warning about forest fire prevention with the tag-line “We like our lizards frilled, not grilled.

6. Gecko (The Tropics)

Anywhere damp and warm, you get geckos. I love these little guys. I can’t count the number of nights I’ve fallen asleep listening to their little chirps and rustlings. I just don’t know if I could ever permanently settle in a place without geckos on the walls. Most of my fond memories are of the little squishy kind. I like to catch them off the walls - once they’re caught they’re happy to sit on your hand, flattening their little cold-blooded bellies against your skin to absorb your mammalian warmth. There are lots of different species throughout the tropics, mostly small, but not all. I remember sharing a shack in Sumatra with a massive Tokay Gecko the size of a rat, and a cottage in Fiji with a gecko we never saw, but who I named Godzilla because of the amount of noise he made running around inside the walls.

But no list of gecko love would be complete without mention of Licky. We shared a room in Penang, Malaysia with Licky, who - like all Malaysians - had a big taste for sweets. One day we left some M&Ms candies out at night and saw in the morning that the candy coating had all been licked off. It wasn’t long before we had photographic evidence of the culprit - a little gecko headed for reptilian diabetes.

Photo courtesy of Sheryl

7. Green Tree Frog (Australia)

These guys were the cutest damn thing. Sheryl and I were newly arrived in Darwin, Australia, suffering culture-shock and missing Asia, living in a tent in a horrible dusty trailer park. Near the shower block were a bunch of hollow metal pipes sticking up out of the ground, and Sheryl discovered one day that they were full of squishy green frogs hiding out from the harsh sun. We visited those frogs every time we went to the bathroom or took a shower. There was just something so endearingly sticky about the way they all looked up at you from out of their pipe.

8. Legless Lizard (Brunei)

The Sultanate of Brunei is a conservative sort of place, and so the hostel Sheryl and I stayed at during our visit had segregated wings for men and women. One night, strolling furtively back to my dormitory after saying goodnight, I came across what seemed like a very slow, thick-bodied, blunt-nosed snake nosing around in the grass and poking its head into little holes and crevices. It hardly took any notice of me - even when I was right down beside it, and so I was able to get a good look and identify it as not a snake at all, but a legless lizard of the Ophisaurus genus - most likely Ophisaurus buettikoferi, the Borneo Glass Lizard.

9. Miniature Frog (Cambodia)

I have no idea if these were frogs or toads (the distinction is a bit blurred at the best of times), and no idea if they were a separate tiny species or just a mass hatching of babies, but one day in Cambodia, exploring the ancient temples of Angkor, the wet and puddled ground was swarming with tiny amphibians smaller than the nail of my little finger. There must have been millions. The ground was alive with them, anywhere I looked. It took me ages to get across the grounds of one temple, I was stepping so slowly and carefully. At the far end, Sheryl and I were pressed into impromptu babysitting duty for a little Cambodian girl, maybe two years old, who thought those tiny frogs were just the neatest thing ever and tottered unsteadily around chasing them and cackling with delight. At that age their hand-eye coordination isn’t so good, so whenever she managed to catch one between her pinching fingers and staggered over proudly to show it to us, it was a very unhappy little frog indeed.

Photo courtesy of Sheryl

10. Monitor Lizard (Southeast Asia and Australia)

Monitor Lizards were surprising things to me. They’re practically dinosaurs, they get so big. Some of them like the water, like the ones patrolling the moat of Lumphini Park in Bangkok or those in Penang National Park in Malaysia, and some like the dry, hot land, like the perenties of Australia. I’m still crushed that we weren’t able to visit the largest members of the species, the legendary dragons of Komodo Island in Indonesia.

11. Mudskipper (Southeast Asia and the South Pacific)

All right, they’re not really amphibians, but they’re amphibious fish and so I’m giving them a spot on the list. They’re almost everywhere, the weird little things, but I remember them particularly in the brackish mud flats of Bako National Park on the island of Borneo in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, competing for space with the fiddler crabs, and on the island of Nananu-i-ra on the north coast of Fiji’s Viti Levu, swarming around the roots of the tidal mangrove swamps.

Video courtesy of Sheryl

12. Sea Snake (Fiji)

I’m sure there are many different species of sea snakes, but the one I know has black and white bands all along its body and a yellow head. Sheryl and I saw them for the first time when on a snorkelling adventure at the northern tip of Sumatra in Indonesia. Later we saw them curled up during low tide in wave-worn crevices in the rocks of the well-named Snake Island near Caqalai in Fiji. During the long swim back to Caqalai from Snake Island, grumpily remarking to each other that sea snakes were very lazy, Sheryl saw a two-meter long example nosing around the coral heads at about 10m depth. We followed it until it came up for air, surfaced about five meters from us and tried to swim over to check us out. We couldn’t decide if it was curious about us or wanted to bite us. We’d been told that banded sea snakes are among the most deadly poisonous snakes, but that they can’t open their jaws wide enough to bite a human. Not really wanting to put that to the test, we swam backwards as it slid closer.

13. Skink (Everywhere)

I don’t think there’s an ecological habitat in the world that skinks haven’t occupied. Lots of different colours, but always more or less the same shape and size, skinks are the default Small Skinny Lizard that lives in crevices in rocks the world over. Once, during an expedition to the Lost City rock formations of Australia’s Litchfield National Park, Sheryl and I met a family and took over temporary uncle and aunt duties for the three stairstep girls. Delightfully nerdy kids, I remember the youngest - maybe seven years old - pointing and shrieking at the top of her squeaky lungs, “Look! Mom! Dad! It’s a skink! Look, a skink!” Naturally that became a running gag for us; we can’t hit the high notes, but every time we see a skink, you can imagine what we say.

14. Tortoise (Everywhere)

No, they’re not exotic, but I don’t care. I love tortoises. We’ve seen them in the most unexpected places; munching phlegmatically on lettuce in a campground in Croatia, trundling single-mindedly down a road in Namibia, or amusing themselves on the floor of a laundry in Buenos Aires. A great regret to me on our World Tour is that we won’t have the money to make the expensive trip to the Galapagos Islands to visit the giant tortoises there. Someday, someday.

15. Tuatara (New Zealand)

New Zealand’s endangered tuatara are considered living fossils, like coelacanths - a remnant of an earlier epoch. They have a vestigial third eye in their forehead, which surely bespeaks some kind of primitive wisdom. Sadly reduced in habitat to a few of New Zealand’s offshore islands the tuatara clings doggedly to its ever-weaker position in the eternal shuffling of competing genes. But all hope is not lost; Henry, the patriarch of the tuatara population at Invercargill, is 113 years old and still doing his bit to perpetuate the species.


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One Comment on this Dispatch:

April 15th, 2014

I love this list and especially the Tuatara’s <3

¬ Sheryl
Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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