Snake in the Grass

Australian outback
Australian outback

‘What the devil made me come out here! It would have been just as good to starve to death in Finland as to die of heat exhaustion in the bottom of this pit, swore the young man escaping unemployment. It was hot. Over 40C in the shade. The sun scorched from a bright cloudless day. It must have been close to  50C, if not more, in the drainage excavation.

It was the early 1960’s. We lived in the middle of the Australian desert in the mining town of Mt Isa. The preceding years had seen thousands of Finns emigrate from all over Finland. They had scattered all over the wide Australian continent too. Building sites, factories, dam, bridge and road construction and forestry sites. The stories of the rich and famous Mt Isa mines, North Queensland cane fields, Tasmanian, South Australian  and Victorian wine growing areas lured hard working Finns like bees to honey….

I joined that bewildered crowd of my countrymen on the morning of Independence Day 1959 when my plane landed in Darwin. The heat was like a physical blow. Where on earth have I come? If I wanted a sauna there would have been plenty in Finland, complained those who stayed on in Darwin.

Cradle Mountain, Tasmania

I journeyed on to Tasmania, where I was met by my brother-in-law, clad in a woollen jumper. That looked better. The next day  I started work as a carpenter in Hobart at the city’s library construction site. No point in procrastinating. Roll up your sleeves. Things will be alright once we learn to speak that Aussie English, encouraged my brother-in-law at the start of the first day.

I was now one of that group of Finns pulled up by the roots and transplanted across the other side of the world. My destiny was to identify with thousands of my countrymen. In the pages of this book I will tell of the Australian Finns’ struggles and triumphs. I  experienced them  alone – and even more so with others. I worked as a migrant for 35 years. I was there at the grass roots and at the peak….’

My father, Voitto Pokela
My father, Voitto Pokela


These are a couple of excerpts from my father’s book. I am in the process of translating it into English.

Shortly after arriving in Tasmania, Dad went on a hunting and fishing trip into the Tasmania wilderness with a group of other Finnish men. It was his first experience in the Australian bush.


In his book ‘Footprints in Australian Sand‘ he tells this story:

‘After a good breakfast and inspection of the maps we took off in pairs. A couple stayed near the river mouth. Antti and I decided to follow a small creek we found on the map for an hour or two. The creek flowed downhill to a river half a mile from the mouth. The last half a dozen men decided to follow in the tracks of the men who had left yesterday and return with them the following day. We pulled on our brand new gumboots. The salesman had reassured us that they were tough enough to even withstand the bite of a tiger snake.

In less than an hour we arrived at the crystal clear river. The water was only half way up our legs. It was better to walk along the river than on the bank which was dotted with sharp spiky bushes. An unexpected blockage lay ahead. The normally  two metre wide creek changed into a twenty metre wide billabong. Our gum boots were no longer sufficient. We decided to throw in a couple of lines, continue on our way  and pick them up on the way back.

The ground around the billabong was level and had animal tracks on both sides. We found a comfortable spot on the bank to continue our conversation from the day before. We put our fishing gear and bags on the ground under an oak. I threw off my gum boots, lay down, and pulled  my hat over my eyes. Antti was still arranging his resting place by the tree.

Tasmanian wilderness
Tasmanian wilderness

Voitto, don’t move! Antti suddenly whispered fearfully. Carefully, I lifted the brim of my hat and glanced in Antti’s direction. Cold shivers ran down my spine. Antti stood by the oak, pointing his gun straight at me. Now was the time when it was best to be absolutely still. The man’s nerves had obviously got the better of him.

I had time to be thankful that Helvi and the children had not left Finland yet. Taito, my brother-in-law,  would quickly inform them of my fate. My tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth. One tends to feel  somewhat helpless when a mad man stands six metres away aiming at you with a twelve calibre double barrelled shotgun. Shot in the head, not even a friend would be able to recognise me. The seconds seemed to last forever.

Carefully I glanced from under my hat brim. The gun was still pointed straight at me. A look of horror on his face, Antti hoarsely whispered Cover your ears well with your hands!  The shots rang out almost at the same time and my ears blocked. Once again I carefully lifted my hat brim. Antti was loading his gun again, a look of triumph on his face. A feeling of elation overtook me. I was still alive!


You can get up, it’s taken care of. I’m loading up again just in case he’s got more friends around the neighbourhood Antti said, satisfied.  On the path a few metres from my bare feet squirmed a badly wounded two metre long tiger snake in its death throes.

The black tiger snake (Notechis ater) lives in Tasmania, a few islands off the southern Australian mainland and in a small area in Western Australia. It can grow as long as two and a half metres. It exudes more than ten times the amount of venom of other tiger snakes in Australia. Antti had shot a very venomous reptile.

It was a blessing I noticed it crawling onto the track from the grass just as I was about to lie down. It would surely have been the end of you had it bitten you on your bare foot Antti pondered wiping the sweat off his brow.

We lifted the tiger snake onto a rock by the side of the track….’

The wilderness gun episode occurred some 13 years after WW2. Dad had been a machine gunner during the war. He had a deep understanding and respect for weapons as a consequence.  I published a post about his war experiences on Father’s Day.

© Raili Tanska

17 thoughts on “Snake in the Grass

  1. What a great thing to have Raili. That must be great to be translating that.
    When we stayed with friends in a ecohouse they had built in the middle of nowhere in Tasmania, a beautiful place – all trees, lakes and mountains, there was a big tiger snake living under one of the outhouses. I was out taking shots and walked right close to what I had registered as a coiled hosepipe – right up until it uncoiled and slithered back in to a space under the building. It was a very large tiger snake. I went back later to get a few shots of it with Liz in tow and we didn’t notice it to the side of us until it slithered away. I did manage to get some shots of it. It was a beautiful specimen.
    Our friends knew all about it, and others around in the area. Their view was that the only time they’d trouble you was in mating season when they went a bit crazy.

    1. If you leave them alone, they will not generally bother you. But we do have some of the world’s most poisonous snakes here. My parents lived in southern Qld in the country. They used to get snakes in summer particularly. If you left the door open they’d come in. Or lie on the veranda railing. Mum once picked up what she thought was a length of hose (like you) and it turned out to be a snake. They never got bitten. We visited often and I never even saw a snake. But they did lose several dogs to snake bites.

    1. No, this is a book he had published in Finnish in the mid 90’s by the Finnish Church publishing house. I am really just translating it for extended family – grandkids, great grandkids, english speaking relatives – so they can read it too. I will be posting snippets of it on my blog. I don’t know that it will go further than that.
      But on another note entirely, I have sent the manuscript of Nanunja to a publisher 🙂

      1. Followed my intuition – Austin Macauley. Know of them ? They said it would take 6 weeks for me to hear back from them. If they are not interested I have some other options to pursue.

    1. Thanks Calen. I did a rough translation a looong time ago and forgot about it. Came across it earlier this year and decided it was time to get it finished 🙂 So now into final draft and adding photos.

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