My father was a known far and wide as a practising practical joker and after many years of playing tricks on us children, we finally turned the tables.
He became a legend in the country as the man who discovered a white, shingle-back lizard. His celebrity status lasted for quite a few months and his fame as a naturalist spread to some of the major museums in the country.
The large, shingle back lizards are common in the semi-arid habitats of Australia. The lizards are relatively solitary, but monogamous and generally shuffle around quietly, hunting for small insects and succulent vegetation. When threatened, the big lizard turns towards its aggressor, opens their wide mouth and pokes out a broad blue tongue to frighten off attackers. If the ugly blue tongue fails to scare the attacker and the threat remains, shingle-backs will hiss and flatten out their body in an attempt to appear larger and more formidable. Shingle backed lizards or 'stumpy tails' in our part of the country were never white, just good old army issue, dark brown camouflage.
My father loved to tell the story about how he discovered the rare white lizard. "Well," he would say, taking a calculated draught on his roughly rolled cigarette. "I was just walking past the tank stand on my way to water the tomatoes, when I heard some rustling in the long grass. The weather was getting warmer and I thought it might be a snake, so I approached very carefully." At this point, his eyes would light up as he caught a glimpse of anticipation on the face of his listener. "And there it was, I couldn't believe it, a white Stumpy Tailed lizard. This lizard wasn’t a pale shade of brown, but brilliant white. It was so amazing I called out for the wife to have a look and she could hardly believe what she was seeing either. Well, we didn't know what to do at the time," he continued, "So we just watched quietly as it slithered under the cypress hedge and disappeared. We didn't think we'd tell anybody about it, because we knew nobody would believe us. Then, about one week later we saw it again, bold as brass and still a brilliant shade of white.”
Like clockwork, we would all see the white lizard every week in the same spot as it orbited the house yard and finally we decided to tell one of the neighbours, David about my father's discovery. David was the local naturalist and during the lizard's weekly rounds, he managed to see it as well. He dashed off to get his camera and before long he was back to take photos of the dazzling, white lizard. David couldn’t believe what he saw and said he would contact his friend in the museum, send him the photos and see what we should do next with our incredible white lizard.
Being an isolated rural area, the news of the white 'albino' lizard spread like wildfire and soon other neighbours were calling in to catch a glimpse of the amazing reptile. This went on for quite a few weeks until my brother arrived one day to listen to his father tell him how he had discovered the first white, Stumpy Tailed Lizard in Australia. My brother listened intently to the well-rehearsed saga of the discovery and just before the story finished, he suddenly interrupted and burst out laughing. "Don't be so bloody stupid." He informed his startled father. "I was out here a few months ago and was painting your fence; a big fat old lizard was stuck there, so before I released him, I painted him completely white." With that revelation, he roared with laughter at the bemused expression on his father's face. My father had to admit, he was the red-faced victim of a well-executed practical joke.
The amazing white lizard was a fraud and the whole story of how the lizard became white, slowly filtered around the district. The farm was still something of a tourist attraction, because from that day forward we painted any big lizards that strayed too close. There were white lizards, blue lizards, red lizards, all the colours of the rainbow and people unaware of the lizard story, would double check the tobacco they were smoking when they saw them.
Author Notes: A true story to share about farming in South Australia.