A couple of weeks ago, I wrote 18 Strange Observations of America (from an Australian Living in the USA). One of the many interesting observations I made living while in the USA was that Americans almost universally asked me about how I got on with the wildlife in Australia. I commented that America has some of the world’s most dangerous animals, including bears, bison, coyotes, bobcats, cougars, and panthers, and that I was far more afraid hiking in the US than I had ever been in Australia. The article has so far been read over 40,000 times, and this point seemed to be somewhat controversial, with many commenters letting me know that I was unlikely to ever encounter these animals in regular day to day activities, and insisting that Australia was still the more dangerous of the two countries on account of its proliferation of dangerous beasts. To be honest, none of the wildlife in Oz has really ever bothered me that much and I don’t think it bothers most Aussies. But it got me to thinking that actually, I have had many encounters with Australian wildlife and it sometimes ended in tears. I haven’t written much about Australia yet, and I thought these tales might amuse my readers in the USA and elsewhere.
Because I have a lot of tales to tell, I will tell part 1 (Spiders and Snakes) now and part 2 next week.
DISCLAIMER and WARNING: I am not an expert in Australian wildlife, I’m just a curious Aussie. This article is for entertainment purposes only and not intended to be used as advice for handling anything or being bitten or attacked by something. Please refer to this first aid link instead!
I have been bitten twice by spiders in Australia and both times were in the last several years. The first time, I left a pair of shorts drying outside overnight and the next day went to put them on. I felt a “prickle” on my butt, but I thought it was just my imagination (or a spiky bit of cotton or something) until I felt another prickle. Quick as a flash I pulled the shorts off but not before I was bitten a third time. I was close to the kitchen so I grabbed a glass and trapped the scuttling spider within it. He was huge and grey and hairy with a triangular abdomen. (I have heard that males are quite obsessed with the shape of things and so it is true with me.) I checked out my arse in the mirror (I don’t regularly do this I promise) and sure enough there were three sets of puncture marks. “Damn it! Dan a spider bit me on the butt!” I yelled to my housemate Dan. Now when you are bitten by a spider it’s helpful to apply a pressure bandage upstream of the bite so that you don’t spread the venom around the body. Or at least I was sure I once read that somewhere. This is easier said than done when it is your rear end that has been attacked. I will be eternally grateful (and apologetic) to Dan for having to valiantly grasp my arse cheek for twenty minutes while we tried in vain to achieve this aim. Following this, we took the spider and got on google to identify it. It turned out that of all the “big hairy” variety of spiders, this one – a “bird dropping spider” was the only one marked “non-venomous”. Half an hour later and my arse had regained its former lustre and I felt great (though slightly violated both by the spider and Dan). Phew! Being an animal lover I let my little hairy opponent go free in the garden.
The second time I was bitten was literally (and ironically) the night I arrived back in Australia after a long stint in the US. I didn’t have a place in Oz and was sleeping at my parents’. As day broke, I rolled over groggily in bed and again felt that “prickle” sensation. Again, being sleepy, I rolled over a bit more, and felt another prickle and then a sensation of something being crushed under me. I woke up with a start and noticed a series of small grey legs and other body parts littering the matress. My leg had a series of bite marks down it- testament to my sound sleeping. Luckily, I was able to reconstruct the unfortunately dismembered spider and note that he was a Huntsman spider. A Huntsman is a common non-venomous spider that is a source of much entertainment in Australia, as it is found everywhere (especially inside houses), is exceedingly large, and is constantly scaring Aunts, Grandmas and foreign tourists when it makes its inevitable unexpected appearance. It’s also great for attaining easy hero points with the girlfriend because you can safely evacuate one of these spiders from the bedroom with a cup and piece of paper without any serious risk to your wellbeing. Mind you, they can give you a very painful bite.
Once, at University where I was completing my degree, a bald headed foreign student was washing his hands in the bathroom when I walked in. I noticed that he had a huge Huntsman spider on his back.
“Excuse me mate,” I warned him helpfully, “You have a huge spider on your back.”
But he immediately started screaming. “Shit! Get it off! Get it off!”
“Just stay still. I’ll flick it off.” However, to my chagrin (and his horror) my flick was not successful and the spider ran agitated up the guy’s back and started doing laps of his bald head. Well if this guy didn’t go completely off the deep end. He was bouncing off the walls like a pinball and screaming. “Stay still, stay still!” I yelled at him over the din until finally he ripped off his shirt and the spider went scuttling across the floor. Satisfied that my job here was done, and on the startled looks of random people who had just entered the bathroom, I exited the bathroom before the victim had a chance to thank me.
A Huntsman spider was also the source of an unfortunate pre-surf episode a few years ago when I went to put on my wetsuit and found a big grey fella crawling out of it and up my bare tummy. Suffice it to say that you should ALWAYS check your wetsuit when you leave it hanging outside to dry as damp and dark objects are favourite spider hidey-holes. And to my dismay and guilt this particular spider did not survive the incident.
It’s certainly true that Australia has a bunch of spiders but there are only two you need to be really afraid of- the Funnel Web, which is common in the Sydney area, and the Redback. It’s possible to die from a Funnel Web bite, but there is an antivenom available in hospitals. Furthermore, I’ve only ever seen one once or twice my whole life. The Redback is related to the Black Widow spider found in the US, and looks exactly the same but for a red stripe on its back, which not only makes it look cool but also move faster. The Redback can also be a nasty little bugger and can cause muscle paralysis/weakness. When we were kids, we had a sandpit in the backyard which we’d fill with water from the garden hose to pretend we had a pool. I remember all these little Redbacks floating around on top of the water. Didn’t seem to bother my parents much (they now deny this story).
With 7 of the top 10 of the world’s most dangerous snakes located in Australia, it’s easy to see why Australia has a reputation for sinister slitherers. My closest encounter took place near Port Macquarie (on the East Coast) a month ago, when I took a shortcut to the beach through an area of grassy swampland where I knew there were snakes- and put my foot down right next to a red-bellied black snake. Luckily I saw it and jumped into the air and the snake was startled and went in the opposite direction.
But my grandest snake encounter was a freak occurrence. I was at my parent’s place after returning home from high school and chilling out on the couch watching some beautiful king parrots on the edge of the roof of the house just outside the window. All of a sudden, there was a commotion outside the window and a great puff of red feathers, and all the parrots flew off- except one. This poor sod was trapped in the jaws of a gigantic black pendulum swinging back and forth from the eves. After an initial moment of “what the..?” I realised the giant black pendulum was a HUGE snake. By huge, I mean it was about 2 metres long, and that was the part I could see!
The poor bird was still alive and flapping its wings in desperation. I went outside onto the verandah and yelled “Oi!” at the snake (which was still dangling a few metres away, two storeys above the backyard). When that didn’t work, I picked up a mop (the only thing handy) and threw it like a spear in the snake’s direction, but mop throwing not being my forte, I missed and the mop crashed into the neighbours yard with a thud. By this stage the parrot was dead and I was resigned to let nature take its course. The snake took about 8 hours to fully digest the parrot, all the while hanging upside down from the eves two storeys above our backyard. It was thus still there when my Dad got home from work, and we climbed onto the roof of the house to see that the snake had emerged from INSIDE the ceiling space, and THROUGH the roof tiles, to spring its surprise attack! I swear I am not making this up. There was one roof tile which was slightly lifted up just far enough to accommodate a snake’s body and when we climbed into the ceiling space under the tiles, there was the rest of the snake, another 2 metres perhaps, wrapped around one of the wooden roof joists to support the rest of its body dangling in mid-air. The snake was thus around 4, maybe 5 metres long in total.
Now this seems even more unbelieveable, but at the moment the snake attacked these parrots, I had a video camera sitting next to me. The previous night I had been filming some cool lightning out to sea and I hadn’t put the camera away. So I have a video of all this somewhere. This was in the VHS days, and so I can’t post the video, but writing this now I’m thinking that I surely have to get this digitised somehow and on the website. Maybe if there’s enough support in the comments, I will.
After we ate dinner, we noticed that the snake had vanished. The only way was down, so it had no doubt fallen into the backyard, but we couldn’t find it. There was a kid from across the road called Gareth who was a reptile enthusiast, and he told us the snake was a diamond python (not venomous) and that since it was winter, the snake would have been in the roof space to warm up next to the central heating system. He said with a meal like that in its belly at this time of the year, the snake would die if it didn’t find warmth.
Well, blow me down if two days later the snake didn’t reappear two storeys up again, on our back verandah, attempting to climb the tree (which goes through a hole in the deck) and gain access again to the roof! We knew it was the same snake because a) it was bloody gigantic and b) it had a parrot-sized lump in its body. My mother, being both benevolent and slightly insane, used the afore-mentioned mop to aid the snake in its quest to bridge tree and roof. And thus the snake went back into the roof.
Now, I am slightly ashamed to admit that the central heating broke down at some point in the following weeks, and repairmen came to fix it and we didn’t mention the snake. Dad and I did have a look up in the roof beforehand, shining a light around, but we couldn’t find it. Probably it grew cold after the heater broke down and went to look for greener pastures. Nonetheless, we waited nervously from a scream from the tradesmen, but it didn’t eventuate. We never saw the snake again.
The video, however, was the object of a very funny incident a few weeks later. We were having a relo-bash (Aussie for “evening with the relatives”) and Dad wanted to show everyone the snake video. He asked me where it was and I said it was in the cabinet with all the other video tapes. Next thing, Dad accidentally put on one of my brother’s porno movies, which were labelled generically to hide from the parents. Thus all of my aunties, my grandma, my grandfathers, and various cousins were treated to twenty seconds of footage of snakes of a very different kind, while my Dad turned a deep shade of crimson and loudly blamed his kids for his mistake. Ha ha ha. The time that Dad broadcasted the “snake video” has thus gone down in our Australian family folklore.
Ahem… I appear to have digressed. The final chapter in this spooky story, Part 2: Dingoes, Jellyfish, Octopi and other Wondrous Creatures is now live! Head on over and take a look.
And in the meantime, let me know your experiences in the comments below!