Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Hurr, hurr, hurr, hurrrrr*

So last night, when I gave the cats their supper, there was this on the back door mat - glistening, slimy and fully seven centimetres long. I regularly scoop drowned slugs like this out of the pond, but finding one in the house is rather rarer, thank goodness.

And it made me think about creepy crawlies I've come across in my travels, and realise that I've been uncommonly blessed because, despite both venturing up the Amazon and spending a lot of time in that Harrods of deadly insects, Australia, I've had very few incidents of the multi- (or in this case, no- ) legged kind.

Apart from the horrendous night in New Caledonia after which I wearily greeted the dawn with 47 mosquito bites on my face alone, there's been pretty much nothing to report. From my travels.

Now, when I spent a summer living in Australia, that was different. I'll pass over the brown snake living under the haystack where it was my job to go twice a day to get feed for the horses, because today's focus is invertebrates. Specifically, spiders.

In the living room of the homestead, hooked onto the curtain was the shed skin of a tarantula, kept as a kind of souvenir, like the polo trophies on the mantlepiece. This was disturbing to me, because my room was built on to the house as an afterthought, and each morning when I pushed open the screen door to go outside and into the main building, it broke a web that had been spun across my doorway by what I can only describe as a particularly ambitious spider. I never - thank goodness - laid eyes on this nocturnal beast, but it tells you all you need to know about the scale of the thing that as the strands reached breaking point, I could hear them snap.

Then there was the day that a visitor who briefly shared my room entered it ahead of me, shrieked "Tarantula!" and lunged at her bed with her booted feet. By the time I got inside, there was only a brown smear on the bedspread to show for the encounter - but my imagination filled the gap, and I didn't have a solid night's sleep for the rest of the summer.

And finally, there was the gully. Towards the end of my stay, I realised that spending every day in jeans as I exercised the horses, I was going to get home dazzlingly white. So I started wearing shorts when I rode (yes, the stirrup leathers can give your calves a nasty pinch, but you learn how to avoid that) - but still, there would be tan lines when I went to the beach back home. So then I rode in a bikini, which was rather pleasant as long as I kept moving faster than the flies.

One day I took a different route and found a gully between me and the way back to the stables. Tall, dead thistles were scattered along the bottom, but otherwise it seemed hazard-free, so I set off down the bank. It was only when we were halfway down and the horse had a fair amount of momentum going that I suddenly saw that between the 2-metre high thistles were swathes of spider webs like nets. It was too late to stop or turn, and all I could do was shut my eyes and shriek as Gidgeon took me down and through the thistles, the webs wrapping themselves around me on my bare skin almost from head to toe.

It was a nightmare. I'm shuddering now. I didn't see a spider that time either, but I didn't need to. It's the single most vivid image I've retained from the whole 10 weeks I stayed at Narrioota - and, remember, there were snakes.

So this slug is nothing. Except... it's too fat to have squeezed under the door, and I can only assume it muscled its way in through the cat-flap. It's a superslug.

* This is how a slug (possibly snail) sounds when it laughs, according to the story on the Junior Request Session on the radio on Sunday mornings in my youth. I have no idea what happened in the story, all I remember is the sound effect. I'm blaming the Red Fort.

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