February 28, 2023

Hotel Shenanigans

We have all done fun things in hotel rooms. Some of them we can even discuss in blogs (and some we can’t). There aren’t too many things hoteliers haven’t seen during their careers, but I reckon I have done a few they haven’t encountered before. I’ll start with a “mild” one.

I was staying near Uluru (Ayers Rock) on a photo assignment. I desperately wanted to see and photograph the iconic Thorny Devil (that’s Thorny …) an ant-eating lizard. I soon found one on the highway, but sadly it was crushed flatter than a pancake. I picked up the poor beast and examined it. Then, for reasons I don’t understand, I took it back to my motel room and popped into the freezer of my fridge. I don’t know what I thought I was going to do with it. The following morning, I found a live thorny devil trying to cross the same stretch of highway. It looked like a mechanical toy as it slowly stepped its way across the expanse of black bitumen. Tourist buses and cars were blasting past, and it was headed for the same fate as its now frozen relative, so I rescued it, put it on a low sandhill on the other side of the road and took a series of photos. (I had checked earlier with a Ranger that this was okay). Then I checked out of the hotel and flew to Western Australia, the frozen thorny devil forgotten. I’d had loved to see the look on someone’s face when they went to get ice cubes for their drink.

But my best hotels adventures have been in Fiji. Working as “fixer” for Television New Zealand’s Wildtrack programme I was taxed with providing some cane (giant) toads (Rhinella marina). I needed to have these ready for the arrival of the film crew and the “talent”. Deciding that “many hands make light work” I asked several school kids to collect some at a dollar each. That evening the word had spread and I was inundated with what seemed like a whole rugby team of kids clutching writhing plastic bags. I’d offered a dollar a toad and had taken the precaution of getting $50 in single dollars. I didn’t have the heart to turn anyone down, so forked over thirty-five bucks and took my wriggling, jumping burden up to my room. What to do with 35 toads? The bath of course! I ran a little water into the tub and emptied the amphibians into it. After a few half-hearted attempts to jump out they settled into studied indifference. I wish I’d been around for the maid’s reaction the next day but I was out in the field looking for more beasties.

Flash forwards a few years, same hotel, different film crew. This time it was the award-winning Wild South team, also from New Zealand. They wanted to film the Fiji tree frog (Cornufer vitiensis). I borrowed a pillowcase from my hotel room (moistened pillowcases are great for keeping critters in) took a quick trip to Wailoku, quickly found one and returned to Suva. This time the pillowcase went into the bathroom sink. Later that afternoon I went to check on the well-being of my prize and was shocked to find it had disappeared. I went down to reception to see where it had gone. “Collected for the laundry” came the front desk response. I was mortified, I hated the idea of froggy being washed and then tumble dried. “Where is your laundry?” I asked. “Oh, we don’t do our own, we send it to a local laundry” came the response. Shit!

I drove to the laundry and rushed in. They were, of course, totally bemused. “Have you seen a frog in the washing?” Fortunately, they hadn’t yet started on it and there was a huge pile of sheets and pillowcases waiting. Amused workers watched as I threw sheets and pillowcases around. Somewhere near the bottom of the heap I felt a damp pillowcase. With a cry of triumph, I pulled it from the remaining pile and opened it. Froggy was there, alive, and suitably bewildered, I’m sure. It was a great biology lesson for the laundry staff as none of them knew Fiji had a treefrog and they were entranced by the cutie. Froggy performed beautifully and as soon as filming was over, I took her back to Wailoku and released her into the pandanus from which she had come, apparently total unharmed, but with stories that her froglets would never believe.

The second request from the doco crew was much more difficult to fulfill and it required help from Namosi villagers. The team wanted to film the rare (and now endangered) Fijian burrowing snake Ogmodon vitiensis (bolo in Fijian) but you can’t just go to the bolo shop and buy half a dozen. I got the message out to the locals and offered a substantial cash reward for a live specimen. I didn’t hold out much hope but to my surprise I got a phone call from Namosi and later that day I was delivered a live bolo. No one had ever filmed a live bolo, so this was exciting for us all, but we couldn’t just put it on a bedspread and shoot the scene. We had to make a set.

The TV came off the cabinet and a large piece of plastic sheeting went on top. I walked into the garden (of the then Travelodge) and filled a bucket with soil, which I spread artistically over the plastic. The Security Guard wasn’t sure what to do or say. So, he did nothing. We borrowed a few rocks from the garden and some dead leaves. By the time we’d finished it almost looked like the rain forest floor, although a botanist would have realized the leaves were wrong. Bolo was removed from the (you guessed it) damp pillowcase, the lights were turned on and the camera focused on the point where I was to put the bolo. I carefully put the snake down, on command from the cameraman, whereupon it made a ludicrously high speed “dash” for the edge of the table, where I caught it before it fell. We tried this five times in a row. Bolo was totally camera shy (although to be fair the video lights must have been hugely stressful for an almost blind burrowing snake). At this point the director asked me to hold the tail of the snake and the cameraman zoomed in on the head. As the snake wriggled forward, my hand advanced with the tail. No high speed “dash” and some great footage. The final scene in the production was wonderful. It was filmed with a blue filter to make it look as if it was shot at night and my hand was nowhere to be seen.

While some may query the ethics of such an operation, we did record the first footage of this amazing animal. I would like to tell you that I journeyed back to Namosi and released the snake back into the wild. But at that time, when we really didn’t know much about its conservation status, the poor snake was euthanized and sent to an interested scientist.

And if you want to hear about more exciting things, I’ve done in hotel rooms you’ll have to take me out for a beer.

By Dr. Patrick Ryan