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.”

The morning after hangover is not helped by the hot weather of Cairns.

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 Longhouse of the Sanctuary.

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.

Our room in the jungle

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.

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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.

So say.

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:

A good morning visitor

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.

I looked.

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.

Wolf Spider (c) www.spyderwood.com

“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.

Franco holds court

“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.”

“Really?”

“Oh yes, I was a monk in Italy and learned the technique, it was the only thing that saved me.”

“A monk…”

“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.”

“The Pope…”

“Yes, but I am not a monk anymore, I teach at the University.”

“I see…”

“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 a