Introduction and warning
Travelling in the hotter parts of the world brings you mano a monster with all sorts of creatures that you’re not used to. I am an Englishman and normally to be found in the company of nothing more exciting than a fox or a cow. On my travels, I was suddenly in contact with everything from camels to snakes to sharks, which threatened to knock me right out of my comfort zone. However, nothing prepared me to face the creature I am normally highly adverse to…
You see, I left England with one particular animal dislike: that of spiders.
I’m not sure what they have done to deserve it, but it seems almost instinctive. I just cant stand them. They give me the impression of being unhappy, of being mean, of being violent. Spiders in the UK may not be able to envenomate a human, but that doesn’t stop them from trying. I have been bitten by an English spider, and it was a little shocking to actually feel it. I hoped I wouldn’t be bitten by any on my travels. I traced this fear back to my early teens where a nest of the little blighters was on the wall in my room and I awoke to find myself crawling with them. But, if I am honest with myself, it goes back even further than that. I vividly recall, at the age of 6, bursting into tears when my mother gave me a wind-up spider as a Christmas present. It is amazing that a childhood memory can trigger a certain response; in I find myself killing them when they are present. In England this usually amounts to a fencing lunge while wearing shoes, or the services of a cat, but then English spiders are generally small – what is to be done when the spider is bigger?
The correct way to conquer a fear is to face it down. This worked with my childhood fear of the dark (cured by locking myself in the airing cupboard) and with my fear of heights (by my jumping off the highest bungee in New Zealand). Sitting here now, can I say the following tales have cured me of a fear of spiders? I will leave that to the end of the article, after my memory has disgorged these scuttling 8-legged tales.
Warning. If you are scared of spiders, then these stories may make you want to never leave your house. Of course, and especially if you live in the country, your house is teeming with them already.
Just so you know.
All of the following are absolutely true. I know because they happened to me. Honestly, I don’t know why so many of the bastards came after me, it must be in revenge for the thousands I have killed in the UK. I think they put the word out that Basho was coming, with orders to crawl all over him…
…and so they did.
The one where Basho meets the Wolf and White Tailed spiders of Australia.
Cesca and I lay in the hostel. It was hot as hell. That sort of muggy heat not usual to an Englishman, who is more used to cold North Sea climates. It was the heat of Cairns, on the north east coast of Australia, a muggy tiring wet heat. We were exhausted. Not least of all because this was the morning after our three day diving course and we had been working hard, but also because we had been out all night celebrating our having passed the training. No one can drink as hard as a crowd of divers. Even Rugby players would have watched us from across the bar and remarked, “Oh, surely that’s just too much!”
Cesca stirred on her side of the bed and groaned. Obviously the head ache was coming for her. “I think we need to take a few days off.”
I opened an eye, “Sure.” I paused. “Just one point, we don’t have jobs to take a day off from.”
“We have been bussing up this country for the last two weeks! I need to take a rest before we go on.”
“You have something in mind?”
Without bringing her head out of the bed covers, she reached a hung-over arm to her bedside table and without looking picked up a pamphlet and slapped it on my chest.
I considered the pictures and title. The text was nigh on unreadable in my current mental state. “The Sanctuary?” I asked.
“Three days of peace in the jungle.”
“Ok. But, first breakfast.”
So a the next day we arrived at the Sanctuary. Built as a yoga retreat literally in the jungle south of Cairns, the main longhouse dominated the lush trees all around. The brochure spoke of wild cassowaries’ roaming the tracks, it also said that if you didn’t like spiders then perhaps this was not your place. The owner drove us up to the longhouse and I saw that it was of the highest build quality. A sort of open plan restaurant, bar and sitting room. It was wide and tall and peaceful. I loved it immediately.
The owner checked us in, and I whispered to Cesca, “Where are the rooms?”
She simply smiled and said, “You’ll see.”
The owner handed us over to a Woofer to show us our room. Woofers are people swapping work in exchange for free accommodation. It is a way of getting around the need for a working Visa when visiting a country. A month from this day we too went Woofing, which you can read about here. Anyway, he was English, and a nice guy. He led us out of the Longhouse and down the path on the hill, into the jungle that enveloped us immediately. The path cut a neat swath through the trees and light filtered through the leaves to become dappled as it played over our faces. The guy was speaking, and I wasn’t really listening until suddenly my ears pricked up.
“Yeah, we had one in room one the other night.” he was saying, “that’s your room.”
“Oh, really?” said Cesca.
“Yeah, they called me down to get it out,” he motioned a thumb at me, “but, you have him. Don’t worry.”
“About what?” I asked.
“Huntsmen,” said Cesca.
Huntsmen spiders. “I see” I said in that careful English way of voicing extreme discomfort.
The Woofer, being English, picked up on it straight away, “Hey don’t worry about it, you will be fine.”
Then I saw the room and I use the term lightly. Imagine this: You take a frame of a room, just the edges, like a wireframe model, and instead of walls made of wood or bricks you use green netting. So the room was basically a square tent in the jungle, and right amongst it.
“The sun rise is the best bit, “the Woofer explained, “It comes up the path and through the trees. It is wonderful way to wake up.”
Cesca exclaimed in excitement and clutched my arm.
“Wow,” she said.
I must admit, it was special. The room had a large bed in the middle and no power. Not even a light, but it had that rustic charm experienced only by those living on desert islands and perhaps by Tarzan. Of course, the netting was not what you might call airtight; it wrapped around the frame leaving huge gaps open to the outside. Anything that crawled could get in.
We plonked down our stuff and ventured back to the longhouse for lunch. There we met with some very nice people and made some good friends. Friends that I am glad to say, have stayed so. We talked with them and the woofers until the night fell and had an excellent bottle of wine. Then the time came to head to bed. The path was darker than a black-hole and without a torch the steep path could be dangerous. Slowly we made our way down to our room and took it in.
“Go on then,” Cesca said nudging me with her arm.
“Go on then what?”
“Go check the room.”
I sighed and reaching into my go-bag took hold of the nearest blunt object, which turned out to be a plastic lunchbox lid. I hefted it a few times and motioned to Cesca to follow me. We climbed up to the door and played our torch over the green fabric. It very neatly blocked the light from entering the room and I realised we would have to check it from the inside.
I found the bolt and clicked it open. I had that sense one gets when sneaking around the house for fear of waking someone.
“Get on with it,” Cesca said.
I pulled a face, turned on my head torch and flung open the door. Immediately something moved in the room. I heard a scrabbling of something frightened and annoyed at being disturbed. My torch played around the net-walls of the room as I tried to locate the source of the noise when suddenly a cricket ball sized shape flickered into view and flashed towards me. Cesca stepped back and I involuntarily cried out as the white shape, only just caught in the torch light, flashed directly at my face. Instinct kicked in and I batted it away with the plastic lid in my hand. The contact was a heavy thunk and whatever it was fell back into the room, only to flow carefully in an arc and flash for my face again. I batted it away, terror giving my body extra might but, again, it simply came straight for me. Over the next ten seconds I played tennis with it, crying out like a professional, batting it backhand and forehand in desperation to get it to stop coming for me. What was it? My mind screamed. Suddenly I realised that I was standing in the way of the exit. It was probably trying to get away! I jumped to one side and my head torch, loosened by the action, was flung from my head and fell against the doorframe to end up at my feet. Almost immediately the creature made a dash for it and…
…landed on it.
There was a moment of silence, broken only by my heart pounding. Both Cesca and I leaned in and took a close look. It was a, slightly battered, Goliath Moth. It had been attracted to the bright light of my head torch and acted only as come naturally for a moth. We looked at each other and laughed. I put the poor fellow outside the door. Goliath Moths are huge in the extreme and he was not permanently damaged by our 2 sets to 1 encounter.
We checked every inch of the room that night, but nothing was there and after a cuddle, we tried to sleep. In the morning I awoke to find Cesca wide awake, with her camera in her hand, pointing at something. Sitting on the bed post, staring at us, was a large spider. It was moving its feet in time like it was tapping them in impatience. Cesca was taking photos of it. I looked and thought I recognised it as a White Tail spider.
White-tailed spiders are medium-sized spiders native to southern and eastern Australia, and so named because of the whitish tips at the end of their abdomens. Common species are Lampona cylindrata and Lampona murina. Both these species have been introduced to New Zealand.
White-tailed spiders are vagrant hunters who seek out prey rather than spinning a web to capture it. Their preferred prey is other spiders and they are equipped with venom for hunting. WIKIPEDIA
The White Tail has a fearsome reputation outside Australia, mainly due to exaggerated stories in the papers regarding the effect of its bite. It is said that the venom causes necrotic lesions in the victims flesh and huge chunks of your body rot and never heal. Photos abound the net of the damage these white spiders cause.
Suffice to say that while a bite from one is not something you want; it would bloody hurt, the flesh eating venom has not been proven by science. It may be that there is a particular variety of White Tail that causes this damage, or it may be something else altogether, Nevertheless, I wanted nothing to do with it. The idea that it may have been crawling all over us was bad enough. We gave it a wide birth and dressed for breakfast. It rotated to follow our movements around the room and then climbed onto the wall where Cesca snapped this photo:
Wandering up to the Longhouse was somewhat of relief by this point. I wanted nothing more to do with spiders, giant moths and jungle for one day. We met up with our new friends and sat down for breakfast.
Here it comes…
As we tucked into the repast and regaled the above two stories to our friends over coffee and eggs, the male of the pair suddenly pointed at my right shoulder.
“You have a bloody big spider on you mate.” He said alarmed.
I remember thinking that he must have been joking, just adding some spice to the story we were telling, and I laughed. It was only when Cesca, sitting next to me, put her fork down very slowly that I realised that he wasn’t joking. For some reason I didn’t panic at all. In fact at this point in the proceedings I was cool as a cucumber. I was so cool you could keep a side of beef in me for a month. My conscious brain took hold of me and controlled my reactions.
On my right shoulder, looking straight at me, front legs raised threateningly, was a Wolf Spider the size of my fist. And I have big hands.
“Indeed” I said.
Wolf spiders are members of the family Lycosidae, from the Greek word “?????” meaning “wolf”. They are robust and agile hunters with good eyesight. They live mostly solitary lives and hunt alone. Some are opportunistic wanderer hunters, pouncing upon prey as they find it or chasing it over short distances. Others lie in wait for passing prey, often from or near the mouth of a burrow. WIKIPEDIA
I could see his eyes reflecting mine as the Wolf Spider has very large eyes. I could see his fangs. He was so close that my left eye couldn’t pick him up properly and so I one-eye goggled at him.
With a smooth and definite motion I reached up with my right hand and swept him down and away from my body. Unfortunately the angle I chose was not a good one and the spider battered into the table edge, flicked over in mid air and landed feet-first on my testicles. I remember clearly feeling his eight feet dig in as he landed. He was cupping my love spuds with the manner of one who has been ill used, but then fate has handed him the ultimate chance of payback and he was weighing his options. This time I jolted in terror as my subconscious, clearly upset with the pigs-ear my conscious brain had made of the situation thus far, stepped in with an adrenal dump into my muscles.
For me time slowed as the chemical cocktail entered my blood stream. All sorts of fighting systems powered on. I felt no pain or fear anymore. I felt no discomfort as all pain signals were dampened. My reactions and hand to eye coordination improved two fold and my vision narrowed with my pupils contracting to focus on the coming conflict. It was as if my conscious brain had been relieved of duty and locked in his room. The subconscious had pressed the “whoop ass button”.
With a speed that would have out-foxed Bruce Lee, my right hand moved so fast it tore reality apart at the seams. For under a picosecond there existed a perfect quantum moment as time divided the future into two streams. In one stream the spider still had my balls in its grip and yet in a spate of time that made a microsecond seem like an eon the other reality stream exerted itself and the spider was batted off my family jewels. My great haste caused small localised black holes to burst into existence and suck away the winsome reality where the eight legged freak still had hold of my love spuds!
Time’s flow returned to normal and I breathed a sigh of relief as the large spider picked himself up of the floor and ran out of the room.
“Wow,” noted Cesca, “You ok?”
“Yes. Now, where was I?”
The one where Basho meets the Australian Redback
“What do you think?” Cesca asked.
I looked at the man in question and considered the options. “Hell, why not, he looks OK” Actually, he looked a little crazy.
We had met Franco only about an hour before. He was a passenger on our train from Alice Springs, deep in the outback, to Adelaide on the southern coast. We were going overland onboard the famous Ghan train, one of only four trains in the entire country. By far he was the most vocal man I have ever met, talking ten to the dozen to anyone who would listen. Cesca had been drawn into one of the conversations and they had hit it off. I joined in and we both talked to him, pumping him gently for any information about Adelaide that may help us during our coming stay there. Franco was a goldmine of information on the subject. He was Italian Australian and had lived in Adelaide for most of his life. The difficulty was picking the information out of the high flow stream-of-conscious constant talking he was doing.
“Talks a lot, doesn’t he?”
“He’s just had a near death experience”
Franco had explained, to anyone who would listen, that he had just survived three days in the desert after his car got bogged in sand on the way back from an Aboriginal commune. He had been in the commune to see some aboriginal artist friends who had asked for help dealing with the governments new mischief. The government had closed all the stores in the commune and opened a government store, which only took tickets in exchange for food and supplies. An action known as the Intervention, but to Franco was clearly apartheid. The dishonour of this had been getting the Aborigines down and they had asked for help. Franco had driven across the desert to see what was happening and had got stuck on the way back. For three days. Finally, he had been rescued by some Aborigines and pulled out of the sand.
I looked out of the window at the searing Australian outback passing by. It was exceedingly inhospitable and I wondered if his story was true.
“How did you survive?” I had asked.
“Oh, I went into starvation meditation.”
“Oh yes, I was a monk in Italy and learned the technique, it was the only thing that saved me.”
“Yes, I walked across Europe dressed as Charlie Chaplin, for peace, I got to Rome and demanded to meet the Pope and after he saw me I became a monk.”
“Yes, but I am not a monk anymore, I teach at the University.”
“I know, why don’t you guys come and stay with me? I can show you around Adelaide…In exchange for a little gardening. Mow my lawn for example.”
He continued for about twenty minutes, almost gasping his breaths.
Cesca asked me again, “What do you think?”
“You believe him?” I was not sure that I did.
“Yes, why not?”
I looked at Cesca, she was a much better judge of this sort of thing than I. I tend to put everything through the filter of firstly, my martial arts training, then my sceptical filter born in the crucible of my Philosophy degree. Cesca had studied neither of these and so tended to trust her instincts, which are excellent. A lesson in natural Daoism that is not lost on me and one of the things I adore about my wife. The next morning, the train arrived in Adelaide and we departed. Franco rushed to get his car and we saw it coming off the train.
It was covered head to toe in red dust.
So, soon, we stood in his front room and he was still talking. It had become to us like a background track, its constancy driving the sound under our conscious radar. I didn’t mind, near death experiences remind us that life is precious, and I am sure I would feel the same – and be talking to everyone – if I had been in his situation.
If you can talk, then you are still alive.
“I have to go out, a Aborigine in prison has freaked out, and I am his carer.”
“Sure, Franco, no problems.” By now, his constant and outlandish life was not raising my eyebrows. I was not sure I believed half of it, but we was a nice guy to have us to stay.
He went. Leaving two people he has just met alone in his house.
“You know Cesca,” I said to her, “everyone always trusts you. It’s your charming face. We should become criminals, we would make millions.”
She laughed, “Have you seen the back garden?”
“No, not yet.”
“Go take a look. Oh and by the way…” She pointed towards the sideboard. I looked and saw a single framed photograph. I leaned in to see it clearly.
It was a photograph of Franco dressed as Charlie Chaplin, on the steps of the Vatican, talking to the Pope.
I walked out to the rear garden and took a look at it. The grass was four feet long. I would need a chainsaw to cut it down to size. Franco made good on his promise that day and took us around Adelaide to see the sights. We all had a great time and got on very well. The next day, armed with an industrial hedge trimmer I set to work on the lawn. It was slow going, but eventually I had removed enough to revel a path running through the garden as well as the remains of a fallen down barbecue. The four of us, Cesca, Franco, his friend (a local tree expert) and myself, started pulling the bricks from the thicket and throwing them in a wheel barrow.
Franco was still talking constantly. He really hadn’t drawn breath in the last two days, and always about himself. I don’t think he even asked us what our jobs had been until we prompted him. I was not really listening to what he was saying as I reached for the bricks, but something he mentioned made me turn and look, a brick still in my hand.
Then I looked back and the Redback spider looked right at me.
The Redback spider (Latrodectus hasselti) is a potentially dangerous spider native to Australia. It resembles a Black widow spider. It is a member of the genus Latrodectus or the widow family of spiders, which are found throughout the world. The female is easily recognisable by its black body with prominent red stripe on its abdomen. Females have a body length of about a centimetre while the male is smaller, being only 3 to 4 millimetres long. The Redback spider is one of few animals which display sexual cannibalism while mating.
Redbacks are considered one of the most dangerous spiders in Australia. The Redback spider has a neurotoxic venom which is toxic to humans with bites causing severe pain. There is an antivenom for Redback bites which is commercially available. WIKIPEDIA
Redback spiders are common in the gardens of Australia, but that is not a comforting thought. It had been many years since someone died from a bite from one, but this was mainly due to the availability to the anti-venom, rather than any decreasing species lethality. The results of the bite are almost immediate. Firstly, it hurts like a kick in the teeth. Apparently, you know you have been nipped by one; there is no doubt. The second result is the shakes, followed by all your mucus membranes going into overdrive. After this your entire body starts to hurt. This get increasingly worse for three days until, in agony, you either get better or have a heart attack. Of course, the anti-venom makes the worst of it fade quickly.
I tried to calculate the distance to the hospital in my head, but the spider had me mesmerised. The Redback is well named, it is coal black apart from a very red stripe down its back. It is also quite small. A relative of the black widow, the Redback is a modern web spinning spider like your average house spider. It as thin stick like legs and raises its body high above them. When threatened, it lacks the displays of the other, more ancient, type of spider and instead raises only a few legs to reveal the fangs.
This is what it was doing now. Probably annoyed at being dragged into the light by a jobbing Englishman. After all, given the state of Franco’s garden, it had been given a free run of the place for months. Cesca spotted the spider and came to the rescue. Or at least I thought she did, what she actually did is take a close up photo of the little blighter on her ever present camera:
“Thanks darling, big help.”
“Franco!” I called, “Look what I have found.”
Franco came over to look at the killer spider. He considered it for a few seconds.
“Oh yeah, the garden is full of ‘em”. He then picked it up with one hand and chucked it away. Like it was a woodlouse, not like it was a dangerous spider. Cesca and I were amazed. What is it with Australians and dangerous animals? They have no fear whatsoever. Is it that you simply have to get used to them? Or perhaps Franco’s near death escape from the desert had made him feel invulnerable? I don’t know, but he didn’t hesitate at all, one second the spider was in charge and the next it was flung through the air, probably wondering why it had bothered getting up this morning!
The one where Basho meets the biggest spider in the world, in Laos
In 2002 science discovered the worlds largest spider. It was a great day for science. Deep in the caves of the country of Laos, lived a real monster. A local variety of large and aggressive spider, common in Asia and Australasia, known as the Giant Cave Huntsman.
The giant huntsman spider (Heteropoda maxima, from maximus, meaning “the largest”) is a spider of the Heteropoda genus. It is considered in a December 2008 WWF report as “the world’s largest Huntsman spider. “ WIKIPEDIA
This genus of spider is famous for a number of reasons, firstly it is large. Secondly, it is mean. Thirdly, it is fast as hell. The average Huntsman encounter is over in two seconds, as the hapless human comes face to fang with one and screams, by the time the sound has reflected off the corner of the room and made it back to your ears, the spider will have started his jet engines. A horrible scrabbling, scraping sound, a blur of speed and an eight legged bolt for the door. If you are standing in the way of the spiders jump-to-lightspeed then you may well get bitten. I remember the description of the beast in the Australian book of spiders; it simply read, “Ready biter.” Anything that is a ready biter is not my kind of petting animal, no matter how many, or how few, legs it has.
Luckily being bitten by one is not fatal nor particularly dangerous, it just hurts like hell. Well, that’s OK then!
So, in these caves, scientists discovered something new, something huge. Of course, this was science’s discovery of the beast, the locals have been putting up with them for generations stretching back to the stone age, but since they don’t know any Latin they don’t count. The Huntsman is impossible to miss, even when not super-sized. It has longer front legs that curve around in a particular way, hence you cant mistake one for something else. These scientists, exploring the caves, came across the Laos Cave Huntsman and, after a large scream and probably a brandy, announced it to he world in triumph.
I have something to tell them. Drop the “Cave” part of the name.
Cesca passed me a drink, as we were starting early. We all were. Our little group of 7 party animals had arisen at 6am on this special day. We were seated in a makeshift wooden bar on the bank of a Mekong tributary river, about 12 miles north of the Laotian town of Vang Vieng. Vang Vieng is roughly half way down Laos and a famous stopover on the backpacker trail. In fact, it holds a certain amount of awe and dread. Anyone over 28 (myself and Cesca excluded) pretty much hates it, while anyone under 25 considers it heaven. This is because the city exists for pretty much only one reason; hedonistic partying.
The plan was simple. We were going tubing, which I had been assured by my Irish friend Colin was the, “best time I ever had, and I’m not joking”. I had no doubt, since the premise had a lot of opportunity for fun. Tubing is when you hire an inflated lorry inner tube, about 4ft across, and sit upon it as you float down the river back to the town. That’s the idea. The reality is that around 20 shack like bars containing swings, mud pools and buckets of strong drink, had taken up residence on the riverbanks lining the route. So, tubing basically involves drinking all day, floating from bar to bar and dancing with a lot of drunk girls wearing only bikinis.
Maybe, Colin had a point; this was going to be fun.
We were making an early start on the drinking before even getting a foot wet. Bobbits and Lenin had steered the rest of us into the bar next to the start point and bought a round of drinks. I didn’t mind, as the bar was right on the banks of the river and I could see across to the stunning Karst mountains of Laos. The view is amazingly beautiful as the mountains jut out of the flat fields and reach straight up to the sky. The sun was rising behind them and coronas glowed around the tops, high above the plains.
Cesca and I watched and then smiled to each other.
“I read,” I said, “that during the war, the Vietnamese army and the Communist Laotians hid in those mountains.”
“Cool, are there caves?” she asked.
“According to Lenin’s book he lent me, yes, huge deep caves. They are about 2 miles away from here, I’d say. Many are not fully explored. There could be anything in them. Perhaps we can go visit them before we leave Vang Vieng?”
Cesca arched an eyebrow, “Bats?”
I shrugged and supped my drink. It was hella’strong.
Cesca eyed her drink and chuckled, “Yes, I would like that, but let’s see how we feel tomorrow.” She then looked straight at me, “No bats.”
Lenin spoke up, “Best to use the toilets before we get on the tubes.”
“Good idea,” I said finishing my drink. “I bet they’re out back. Baggsy’ first,” and I rushed off ahead.
Sure enough around the back of the bar was the traditional Laos toilet block. Four cubicle shacks made out of uneven planks of wood with a straw roof to keep off the rain. Like a cargo cult of a phonebox. I pushed open the creaking door of the first one. A basic Asian toilet, little more than a hole in the ground awaited me. No light or any toilet roll. Just a bucket. Sighing, I squeezed into the small dark and foul smelling hut, pushed the door closed and squatted over the hole. I was humming to myself tunelessly in the dark gloom when I heard the following conversation outside the toilet:
“F*cking Hell!” came the voice of Lenin. He sounded genuinely shocked.
“Look at that one!” said Mariluz. She sounded revolted.
“Bloody hell,” came Cesca’s worried tones, “I am glad I am not in that cubicle!”
“It must be the biggest spider I have ever seen!” reiterated Lenin.
Spider! The word was like ice down my back. They were standing outside my cubicle. With a creeping terror I looked slowly up. Above my head, so close that it is miracle I didn’t catch it with my hair when I entered, was the biggest spider in the world. What was immediately clear to me was that is was looking directly back at me. The Laos Cave Huntsman, always posed to run or bite, was considering his options.
It was lucky that I was in my current position, because this revelation was like like a jolt of electricity through my body and I involuntarily let out a small mammalian whimper. Surely the same whimper two legged creatures have been making in similar situations since the dawn of time.
“Basho!” came Lenin, “Are you in that one?” He laughed out loud.
“Look up darling,” said Cesca.
I tried to talk and look inedible at the same time, only gibberish came from my lips, “Bwwwwahhhh…”
“Yep, that’s Basho,” said Cesca.
I quickly finished my business and pulled up my trousers. Still squatting I waddled out of the toilet. My friends saw my horrified face and could not stifle a laugh. I stood and turned to see the monster hanging over the hutch.
“What the smeg is that thing? Its huge!” I said trying desperately to look nonchalant.
“Dunno, but I think it wanted to eat you,” laughed Lenin.
The rest of the crew elected to go in the other cubicles and afterwards they forgot the monster and got on with enjoying the day.
Enjoy it we did, but I cannot look at the video of us sitting in the bar without remembering the spider looking at me as I looked at him.
The one where Basho visits Spiderville, Cambodia
It all came about when our Laos travelling companions decided to fly out of Siem Reap in Cambodia; over 28 hours away. They left the journey as late as possible so that they could make a final rush for the airport (they were flying to Australia) and sleep on the flight. The last thing they thought we would do is join them. Our sensible option would have been to enter Cambodia at a slower pace and then take a week or so to work our way around to Siem Reap, but we decided that we wanted to be at Angkor Wat for Christmas day and so the mission was on for us all.
The first challenge was the border crossing. The southern Laos border has, until recently, been closed. The latest Lonely Planet edition makes no mention of being able to get through at this point. However, the enterprising Laotians have realised that opening the border here will exponentially increase the tourists coming down to the 4000 Islands region. The effect is to turn this quiet backwater section of the Mekong, seen by only the completist, to a bustling Western haven for those crossing into Cambodia.
Bustling is good for money but what damage will it do to the area?
The private bus companies are all for this change and many deals have sprung up for easy transport to Cambodian cities. We chose to take a bus at $20 a head. It started with a boat ride out of the water locked islands followed by multiple small 12-seater transports to the border. The border guards inspected our Laos Visa’s and entry cards and penalised all who had lost them (the vast majority of the Vang Vieng Crowd), then they pointed out down a simple road to Cambodia. As Cesca and I walked I could not help but imagine snipers watching our every move, and so we danced across the line “Morecambe & Wise style”, just to show them.
On the other side we were ushered into a more transports and then onto a larger bus. The usual frauds were in operation about changing currency, which involves a confidence trick in convincing you that any Laotian currency cannot be changed anywhere else on your trip. This is, of course, rubbish and the rate being offered is very bad. However, the rate all over Cambodia is bad and the best idea is to change all your Kip to US Dollars before entering Cambodia at all. The real journey then began in earnest. The north east of Cambodia is perhaps the most un-touristed area, and for us it was passing by in flashes out the window. Trekking is available here, but like in all of this war ravaged country, stepping off the path can be deadly.
We arrived that night in the darkness of the capital. There are very few times that I allow a tout to select my hotel for me but this was one of them, as we had no idea where about we were. The hotel was actually quite good and obviously had a large crowd of tourists staying. We crashed out and awaited the next day.
The next day came with an unwelcome change of bus. This new bus was stacked with wood. That is to say, the entire inside of the bus, under every chair and in every nook and cranny, were large planks of wood that had been stacked and were taking up all the room. For a tall man this made the journey even more distressing. Now the bus plied its way up the western side of Cambodia towards our final destination.
All busses make stops, but the stop here was one I will not forget.
Spiderville is very well named. The bus stopped and we all piled off to stretch our legs. I was quite sleepy and did not take a clear look at the food items proffered by the lady tout sitting outside. It was only when my mind grabbed my eyes and fixed them onto the thing crawling on the young lady’s arm that I realised she was selling deep-fried Tarantulas.
Tarantulas comprise a group of hairy and often very large spiders belonging mainly to the family Theraphosidae, of which approximately 900 species have been identified. Historically tarantulas were the bigger genera from the family Lycosidae (like Lycosa tarantula) WIKIPEDIA
And that one had obviously escaped:
She saw my eyes widen, “You want spider?” She said while pulling the arachnid back into place as it tried to scamper up her top. She then pulled it off and offered it to me, legs a-wiggling.
“Err, no. No thanks very much, I am fine,” I managed to say backing away slightly.
The girl was sitting down on a bucket, which I thought was only her chair.
It was not.
She took my hesitance to mean that I did not want this particular spider and so she stood up from the bucket and showed me her selection inside. Twenty of the monsters were all tumbling over each other to be my deep fried food choice.
“Bwahhhh,” was an accurate translation of my reply and I quickly moved on.
The next girl was selling deep fried spiders too and had a pile of paprika coloured crawlers on a tray on her head.
After a few further spiders sellers I was able to purchase a Coke and make my way back onto the bus. A few brave souls bought one to eat and a large offering was passed around the bus. Lenin, our travelling companion, tried a leg but I passed it on:
“Sorry, I’m trying to cut down…”
The one where Basho is offered spider for breakfast in Thailand
We were driven to a staging area and then picked up by our guide and a local villager. He arrayed us with water and then we were off into the jungle. Trekking is something Cesca and I love. It gets you out of not only your comfort zone, but out of your mental map of yourself. You are immersed in the sights and sounds of the trek and have plenty of time to think. This was real trekking. The villager spoke almost no English, but our ever-helpful guide translated splendidly. The jungle was all around us and I could not see that we were following any sort of recognisable path through it. After a while, the villager cut us down some bamboo and fashioned us some walking sticks, something that really helped. We crossed swelling rivers, went up and down rocky slopes, through valleys, up hills and everywhere the jungle was all around. No signs of human life. I really felt that we were really in the mix. Of course, we were probably only a thick bush away from Starbucks, but it felt real. What also felt real was at one point we were crossing this giant fallen log, using it as a bridge over a massive drop, when the villager and guide both froze. In front of us was an enormous snake that spotted us and slithered into the undergrowth. It was about 5 feet long and looked to me like some sort of pit Viper with its arrow like head and hissing out a warning to us. It disappeared and our hearts stopped hammering in our chests. Relieved and laughing a little we all continued.
About 7 hours later, we came to a stream. There the villager stopped and made some cups from bamboo (I still have mine). Into these, he poured some local firewater and we drank each other’s health. It was strong stuff and that is putting it mildly. He then led us onwards and out of the jungle into pastures. Through these and onwards to a small purpose built wooden village.
This was arrayed with bamboo huts into which we deposited our gear. To wash we went down to the river and washed standing in the freezing waters. Not the safest thing I have ever done, but I was at least clean.
Then we went and helped with dinner. Other villagers arrived and one man played a strange stringed instrument as we helped prepare the food. Wok cooking is a favourite of mine and we soon got stuck in frying all the various dishes. Dinner was wonderful and as the night drew in, we went to bed in our hut, idly wondering about Spiders and bed bugs.
The next morning, we were up and at them at an ungodly hour. I am not the most morning orientated of people and struggle to wake up. This morning, they had what must be the ultimate way of sobering me up but not in a good way. The guide called me over to a mud bank where the villager was violently digging out a hole in the ground. It looked vaguely familiar.
“What is he doing?” I asked.
There followed a rattling conversation in the local dialect, which is a little bit Thai and a little bit something else.
“The guide turned to me and motioned the hole, “He finding you spider.”
“Spider!?” I exclaimed.
“You say last night, you like spider, so he find you one.”
My recollection had been that I had indicated a certain level of reluctance on the part of spiders in my room. Quite how this turned into me wanting to see one was lost to me. However, before I could stop him the violent digging halted and the villager was now poking a slim stick into the hole.
I was fascinated to see how he flicked the stick in a certain way and ground it around the hole, but I could not see into it myself. Suddenly he cried out and jumped back as an enormous and very angry spider came out of the hole.
Spiders are naturally nocturnal and this big fella’ had been woken from his morning slumbers by someone knocking down his home and dragging him out by force. He reared up and waved his legs menacingly.
I instinctively took a step back. He was huge and black and about the size of Cesca’s hand. I would bet that he was some sort of Tarantula, but I don’t know. The villager was not so hampered by fear and he pushed the stick under the beast and flicked it up and out of the hole, onto the bank. The spider made a dash for it, but the villager was ready and it reared again. Fangs the size and shape of clipped toe nails juddered as he tried to scare us off. The Villager was having none of it and, with a very deft and practiced movement, he slapped the stick down on the spiders back and pinned it to the floor. He then rushed up the stick and grabbed the spider from the back holding it down. He then gripped it in a certain way, obviously some sort of spider jujutsu hold, and lifted it up in his hand. The spider was totally in his control. Satisfied, he smiled, walked over and thrust the struggling giant arachnid in my face.
“You touch, please” said the guide. Gingerly I reached out. “Not there! He bites you. Leg.” My hand froze and I adjusted my aim. I felt one of the large footpads. It was amazingly soft and not all spiky. Kind of like rough felt or a good shag carpet. “Now you,” he said indicating that Cesca should also stroke the struggling arachnid. Gingerly she put forwards a hand but the waving legs meant that she closed her eyes as she did so.
“That’s his balls you’re holding,” I pointed out.
She yelped and opened her eyes; sure enough, she was groping the poor creature’s spinnerets. “Urrg!” she exclaimed.
The villager smiled, laughed, and put the spider down on the ground. The spider obviously did not quite know what to make of all this and eventually decided to make a run for it, possibly to call a constable and report being molested. The villager rattled off something in his local language, which the guide translated for us.
“He say, you lucky his father not guide today. He eat spider.”
Both Cesca and I made the same face of disgust.
“What, raw?” I asked.
“Can we have something else for breakfast?”
“Yes, come, fruit ready.”
So, there you have them. In one year away, you are always going to get involved with things that are outside your comfort zones, but for me these five encounters have had a big effect on my life. I’m not talking about my fear of spiders, that is still the same and I still kill rather than capture rogue spiders in my house, instead I am talking about some of the wonderful people in these stories. Franco, Lenin, Bobbits, The villager, the lady outside the bus, these are the things that I will remember. These are the things I cherish.
Don’t stay at home just because you may have to face something that terrifies you. As you have read, I came close to some of the most dangerous spiders in the world and didn’t get bitten, they are not creatures to be feared. Rather they should be admired. Up close, the world’s spiders are really quite amazing. They are almost, and I hesitate to suggest this, quite beautiful. The wonder of nature is that this small and intelligent creature has been around the Earth for millions of years. They have been our eight legged companion for a thousand generations, and they will be with us on this journey for a thousand more.
Just, hopefully, not attached to my testicles next time.