19th January 2010
My hatred of all things spider began at an early age and was confirmed nightmarishly at the age of eleven when, upon waking parched in the middle of the night, I took a hefty gulp of what I thought was water from the glass next to my bed before realising, to my unending horror, that I had unwittingly slurped a giant and very much alive arachnid straight into my gob. The fact that this most devious of spiders (and they do seem to develop ever more devious ways of torturing me) was still alive when I projectile-expunged it from my mouth onto the carpet only added to my belief that these creatures could only be the work of the devil himself. As I watched that spider twitching menacingly in a pool of water-spew, my younger self immediately declared war on its entire species - a war I would be prepared to fight until the bitter end.
For a long time, this was a losing battle. My arachnophobia frequently got the better of my common sense and compelled me to undertake a nightly series of almost certainly needless “spider checks” before I would be prepared to attempt to sleep - checks that sometimes involved the complete dismantling and reassembly of my bedding. That I never again uncovered another such loathsome specimen under my sheets or beneath my pillow was beside the point to my younger self – one had already infiltrated the supposed safety net of my bedspread and I wasn’t prepared to let it happen again. Certainly, the oft-quoted statistic about humans swallowing in their sleep at least one spider per lifetime was enough to convince me that no let up in my quest to be forever rid of the eight-legged bastards could ever be allowed. In any case, while my bed may not have thrown up any further arachnid traumas, spiders were very much present in other parts of the house - lurking hairily in cracks in the walls, spinning sinister webs at the backs of the cupboards and pulsing like black hearts under the bathroom plughole. Quite simply, they had to be stopped.
In the early days of the spider war, my main weapon was my dad, who would frequently be called upon to despatch any sighted enemy agents with a swift stamp of the shoe or slap of a newspaper while the rest of my family (my mum and younger brother Nic having also joined the cause by now) stood shrieking in the next room. Later, I took to the battlefield myself, at first with similar weapons of brute force, but later with the far more sophisticated, not to mention civilised, Spider Hoover. This ingenious device, discovered by my gran in a local mail order catalogue, consisted of a battery-operated suction pump attached to a long transparent cylinder in which the spider, having been hauled inside with a brief powersuck, would reside until you took it outside and deposited it in a bush or tree as far away from the house as possible. Not only did the Spider Hoover provide a quick and easy method of capturing offending arachnids (the old glass ‘n’ postcard method was fraught with potential danger and once ended up with a spider running up the length of my arm like an eight-legged Roger Bannister) but it also allowed one the begrudging satisfaction of knowing that no blood had been shed in the pursuit of a spider-free household.
One evening soon after I first met Holly, she spotted the Spider Hoover (my third model, I believe) on the kitchen shelf in my London flat and immediately thought it was some kind of breast pump. When I calmly explained what it really was, I think she probably wished it had been a breast pump. Kiwis, you see, don’t appear to suffer from arachnophobia. In fact, Holly was so appalled by the very notion of me being scared of spiders that it put serious doubts into her head about my masculine credentials. I tried to explain my fears (“come on, they’re fat black hairy blobs with eight legs and eight eyes – what’s not to be scared of?!”) but to little avail. New Zealanders, it soon became clear, are used to living side by side with spiders in a way that most of us Brits would never allow. They’re also far more inclined to “rough it” in their tents and batches and log cabins, while we swan around in posh hotels and ski resorts. And roughing it in New Zealand inevitably means sleeping in very close proximity to lots and lots of spiders.
I should be grateful really. This is New Zealand, after all, not Australia; the native spiders are not, as a rule, particularly large and only one species - identified by a distinctive white dot on its back - is capable of inflicting a poisonous bite on humans. It just seems to me that there are a heck of a lot of them out here. Part of the reason, no doubt, is that we’ve spent much of our first three months here living out in the countryside, where spiders the world over are far more likely to be found residing than in your average city apartment. And, seeing as I have come here unarmed (the Spider Hoover, on Holly’s strict instructions, is currently gathering dust in a box somewhere in England), I have been forced to approach my new arachnid-rife environment with a more diplomatic approach. Fortunately, the house spiders here are slightly less terrifying than their British counterparts. Rather than being big hairy black things that lie in wait in darkened nooks and crannies, the spiders here tend to be of the more spindly and small-bodied variety and prefer to hang from the ceilings of rooms and thus at least give you a bit of a warning about their intentions. Though I still conduct the occasional de-spidering if I happen to see one in the vicinity of the bed (in the absence of the Hoover, this usually takes the form of an admittedly primitive scrunch-attack with a tissue), I’m more inclined to follow the “if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you” mantra that my dad tried unsuccessfully to instil in me as a child.
Unfortunately, just as I thought I was getting to grips with the idea of living peacefully with the Kiwi spiders, I came face to face with one that made my childhood spider-swallowing episode seem like a walk in the park. A fist-sized Avondale Spider, a breed I later discovered had been brought over from Australia and is to be found only in and around the Waitakere region of NZ (ie. right on our doorstep), had somehow found its way into the house and was stationed in all its disgusting glory above the threshold of the back door. Upon espying it, I immediately forgot everything I had learnt during the previous two months and screamed like a girl while Holly - lion-hearted heroine that she is - removed the beast with the improvised use of a floor mop. To be honest, I don’t think even my trusty old Hoover would have been big enough to deal with that one.
Traumatising though this incident had been, it wasn’t enough to completely shatter my new-found spider-facing confidence and I was therefore able to approach our recent two day sojourn “roughing it” in Holly’s dad’s forest in the King Country with a far lesser degree of trepidation than I might have done a year ago. Now I don’t want to give the impression here that I am a complete novice when it comes to the great outdoors. I did, after all, spend a year of my school career as an RAF cadet, which entailed several intensive expeditions to the English countryside and nights spent in tents comprising little more than a sheet draped over two paltry wooden sticks. But it is true that such experiences in my life have been few and far between and our two days in the forest opened up to me a whole new world of al fresco adventure.
Firstly, on our way down to the forest, located approximately three and half hours’ drive directly south of Auckland, we paid a visit to the world famous Waitomo Caves, where I had my first ever encounter with the remarkable glow worm. Though I have long been beset by a morbid fear of spiders, I am generally on friendly terms with most other insects. Holding wriggling garden worms in my palm, for example, has never been problematic for me, so I entered the glow worms’ dwelling with excitement rather than trepidation. After an initial walking tour through an impressive cave that resembled the inside of a slowly-melting cathedral, we were loaded into a wooden boat that ferried us along an underground river surrounded by thousands of glow worms. With everyone obediently following our guide’s plea to be silent in order to preserve the cave’s ambience, it was a mesmerising journey, with the worms on the walls and ceiling resembling nothing less than a field of glittering stars in the night sky.
After a brief stop for lunch, we continued on our journey to the forest, a massive 130 hectare block in the middle of the mountains that Holly’s dad Philip has co-owned with some other relatives for the past fifteen years. Forests have always held a strange fascination for me, no doubt inspired by my love of books such as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a child, and one of the things I miss most about England is the atmospheric walks I used to take through the knotted old woods near my home town. I had never before, though, been fortunate enough to walk through a privately-owned wood guaranteed to be free of other ramblers and travellers. Indeed, the only animal lifeforms we encountered during our stay there were a couple of wild goats and an unexpectedly quick-footed hedgehog.
Densely populated with over twenty thousand trees, from steely oaks to skinny pines that towered far above our heads, much of the forest felt beautifully untamed, though this did have the downside that our feet and legs were cut to shreds by the low-lying brambles and blackberry bushes that had grown out haphazardly across the walking tracks. Most scenic of all was the fresh water river that runs for over three kilometres right down the forest’s spine, and as I walked up it, often tummy-deep in water, I was ecstatic to be able to tick off another personal first. Though there were no fish or eels to be seen, the waterfalls and highly distinctive rock formations en route were more than enough to keep me mesmerised, even when the water temperature felt sub-zero and my right arm was aching from holding my camera far enough away from the water that there was no risk of it meeting the same fate as its predecessor on the beach at La Rochelle…
After a long afternoon of exploration, both in and alongside the river, we returned to what would be our lodgings for the night – a custom-built log cabin with the most basic of amenities, bunk-beds and an external “long drop” for a toilet. In former times, I may have baulked at such conditions but my time in New Zealand has taught me that the country’s incredible natural scenery is almost always best experienced by getting down and dirty with it, rather than from the cosy confines of a hotel or organised tour. It was this outlook, I think, that allowed me to sleep relatively worry-free, in spite of the fact that I knew I was sharing my bed not only with Holly, but also with several of my former arachnid adversaries. I took this not only as a sign of progress in my long-running war against the spider race, but also a more general realisation that the home comforts of my life in London aren’t necessarily as important to me as I thought they were. In the absence of electricity, we relied on cold food for sustenance, candles for reading light and a battered set of Chequers for entertainment, not to mention a hole in the ground for you know what. And though I can’t suddenly claim to be a born-again Hobbit after just a couple of days in the great outdoors, the experience did at least teach me that a night without the laptop and the television is not only an achievable feat, but actually bloody good fun as well.