Australia is a part of the world where insects are not to be taken lightly. This is a land where a tiny spider can put you in intensive care for a week, trying to breath through your ears, and a land where most insects will have a nibble at any bodily part, exposed or otherwise. It's not only the appetite that some Australian creepy-crawlies possess that scares me, but their sheer size too. Ask any Aussie to show you what they would class as a small spider and they will shape their hand as though they're about to bowl a cricket ball!
Coming from a country where it's a hardy "wee beastie" that survives the icey winters, I was genuinely anxious about going to Australia and finding myself face to face, so to speak, with any number of killer creepy-crawlies. So much so in fact, that during my time on the girt by sea I checked under every toilet seat, that I had the pleasure of perching upon, just incase a little redback spider was waiting for me to bare my white bum. This is actually a life-long fear after watching an episode of The Really Wild Show. They happened to have a feature about the Australian "Dunnie Spider," which just happens to be the redback, and although there has only ever been one incident of a biting to the bum, it's still a very distinct possibility. I saw this when I was 11 or 12 years old and it still haunts me at 22.
Anyhow, despite the profusion of Australian spiders that can have you coffin-bound, the one that troubled me most, and had me lying awake at night, is the huntsman spider. Even though it is, allegedly, harmless, the sheer size and reputation of it had me concerned to say the least. Some can have a leg span of up to and over 15cm's and huntsmans also have tendancies to happily make their way into homes where they are not welcome and even more worryingly into peoples cars. Now, anyone reading this in a part of the world where the spiders are as large and hairy as coconuts may scoff. But to the average northern European, a spider with a 15cm legspan crawling across your car dashboard whilst your whizzing down the motorway is cause enough to induce heart palpitations.
My first encounter with a huntsman spider was whilst I was working at a pear orchard in the Adelaide Hills. It was only a baby huntsman, sunning itself upon fine a beurre bosc (brown pear), with its legs tucked in, making it look smaller than it actually was. Although after a quick wiggle of the pear, its long hairy legs came into full view as it plummeted down from the fruit onto the long grass. About a week after this initial encounter I had another moment in the pear trees with a hairy huntsman. This time though my eight legged chum was not so little. In fact he was twice the size of the little bugger the week before but he still managed to conceal himself well enough underneath a pear so that when I plucked the fruit from the tree and saw the hairy legs I almost squealed like a pre-pubescent schoolgirl. Instead, in one fluid motion, I hurled the fruit across several rows of trees and began a small, personal highland fling in the trees as I was sure the spider had landed on me. Of course it turned out that I was spider free and instead there was a huntsman sitting on the top of a pear tree a few rows down thinking "what the..."
A few more visits followed in the ensuing weeks that I spent in the Adelaide Hills, each of which adding to the possibility of flowing white hair by the age of 30. As a result of these experiences I decided to do a little research on the critters in question and found my way to the Australian Museum website http://www.amonline.net.au/factsheets/huntsman_spiders.htm
Not only does this page contain enough photographic evidence to put forward a case for maybe rounding up every single hunstman in Australia and dumping them in a place where they can do no harm (I suggest Siberia). But it also has a few interesting facts. For example, if anyone ever tells you that a huntsman is harmless then simply remind them that "Huntsman spider bites usually result only in transient local pain and swelling. However, some Badge Huntsman spider bites have caused prolonged pain, inflammation, headache, vomiting and irregular pulse rate." Irregular pulse rate? Siberia is sounding awfully appealling just now.
The site has other facts too that could suggest that huntsman spiders are friendly, almost cuddley creatures. But personally, I wouldn't mind seeing my eight legged chums living happily in a dark forest in frozen Siberia. Well out of the way of soft little backpackers like myself.