Memoir

It’s scary but nobody cares

Challenging Australia’s reputation for deadliness

I’VE NEVER UNDERSTOOD why Australians bother with the drop bear myth. It’s like a morgue trying to freak out visitors with a plastic fly in the complimentary punch bowl. If Aussies want to freak out foreigners, they can simply relate their own everyday encounters with deadly creatures, such as finding a funnel-web spider submerged in an air bubble in their swimming pool, or discovering a brown snake in their washing machine, or being bitten by a redback spider at the age of three and taken to the GP’s office to be told, ‘It’s probably fine.’ These are all actual experiences Australians have related to me, unsolicited.

There was once an African safari park outside Sydney that advertised its lions and tigers and bears with a commercial jingle featuring the refrain, ‘It’s scary but nobody cares.’ While I can’t imagine the phrase inspired many theme park visits, such nonchalance in the face of potential death would be the perfect national motto for Australia. Sure, some Aussies do care, but the national attitude is pride in not caring. Another local once told me – again, unsolicited – about the white-tailed spider bite that turned his arm the greyish pallor of a three-day-old corpse. He related the experience with underlying satisfaction, as though it ranked high among his personal achievements. White-tailed spiders are scary. This guy not only didn’t care, but was damn proud of it.

When my husband and I announced our move to Sydney, everyone at home became very concerned for our safety. The way Canadians talk, you’d think Australia’s coasts are frothing with sharks, and you have to check under your seat at the Opera House for taipans. And the spiders – they’re the deal-breaker. Several Canadian friends insisted they would never visit us because of the spiders. ‘How are you going to handle the spiders?’ everyone insisted, as though daily life in Australia required a spider-preparedness plan. Did it? Did Aussie kids have spider drills, much like, as a child on Vancouver Island, I’d practised cowering under my desk during earthquake drills?

When people weren’t warning us about specific creatures, they’d quip, ‘You better watch out, everything in Australia will kill you.’ I assumed Australia’s reputation as the deadliest continent came from the obvious sources: the excess of poisonous spiders, the ludicrously toxic snakes, the contenders for world’s largest crocodile. Once in Australia, however, I realised that when people say everything will kill you, they mean everything. The sun will kill you slowly, the riptides will kill you quickly, and as one Aussie cheerfully informed me, even a kangaroo can disembowel you.

 

AUSTRALIA’S SCARINESS, AND particularly the terror trinity of snakes, sharks and spiders, grew tedious before Steve and I even left Winnipeg. Canadians expected us to be fearful, to be cowed by Australia’s incredible deadliness. We refused. When we discovered the national attitude of It’s Scary But Nobody Cares, we embraced it.

Or at least, we tried.

Australia often made this easy. On morning talk shows we learned about Elvis, the saltwater crocodile who, after years of amenable behaviour in captivity, decided today was the day, and lunged at the man mowing the grass around his enclosure. (All Elvis managed to maul was the lawnmower, so perhaps that was his target all along.) We learned about the bloke who punched a croc to impress a female tourist, and the woman who got bitten by a croc while trying to take a selfie with it, and another woman whose pet croc slept with her in bed. We learnt about the snake orgy discovered in an empty backyard swimming pool; ‘It is still quite an unusual act to happen, it is not usually seen,’ the attending snake-catcher calmly reported to the ABC. We understood these events as sources of merriment for Australian morning talk-show hosts, and we laughed along.

Our own lack of deadly animal encounters became banal. There were no taipans at the Opera House, or anywhere else in inner Sydney. I had a momentary burst of excitement when I received this email during a teaching stint at Western Sydney University:

Subject: Warning snakes sighted on Campus

Hi All,

Please be aware and vigilant when walking around campus today as snakes have been spotted in the vicinity.

Security have been trained in safely capturing and relocating snakes – DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES ATTEMPT TO CAPTURE A SNAKE YOURSELF.

Kind regards.

Attached was a photo of what looked like a black garbage bag crumpled by a kerb, but what turned out to be, with excessive zooming, a tangled snake in a gutter. I spent the day on campus being aware and vigilant, yet I didn’t see a single warning snake, or any other type.

I was vying for a snake encounter because of a particular anecdote that had been making the rounds of our expat friends. A guy up in rural Queensland is out in the bush when a brown snake bites him. This is one of the world’s deadliest snakes so he’s probably got an hour to live, tops. He calls the ambulance, but it’s going to take at least half an hour to reach him because he lives out in Dickville. So he opens the fridge, pulls out a beer and sits back and drinks it. And he survives.

‘He knew if he got all panicky, the poison would circulate faster, so he just chilled with a beer,’ was how three fellow expats told me this story in the same week, all with identical awe and bewilderment. Whether reportage or urban myth, this story forged one of my favourite fantasies of Australianness. Picture it: I get bitten by a hyper-poisonous snake and yet remain cool and collected while I call myself an ambulance, then sit back and drink a XXXX Gold. ‘Whoa, you are the calmest foreigner we’ve ever seen get bitten by a death adder,’ the ambos exclaim. We share another beer before they take me to the hospital.

This seemed less and less likely. After a year in Sydney, I hadn’t seen a single snake, deadly or otherwise. I fantasised about visiting rural Queensland.

 

THOUGH I WAS less keen to personally encounter a shark, I again took a hard stance of refusing to be afraid. Steve and I always knew when the latest Australian shark attack had happened because my mother would call.

‘I guess you haven’t been to the beach lately,’ she’d say.

‘We went on the weekend.’

‘What about the shark attack? Don’t you read the news?!’

Shark attacks in Australia routinely make the Canadian news. Every time, the attack was in another city, near Newcastle or Byron or Perth. Every time, I insisted to her that it was statistically unlikely I’d ever encounter a shark, particularly as I was in Australia to write a thesis, a predominantly desk-based activity.

I assumed my sharks-are-scary-but-nobody-except-people-who-stand-to-profit-from-shark-culling-cares attitude emulated that of most Australians, until I was party to this conversation with two locals: Sam, from Perth, and Jacqui, a Sydneysider.

‘I’ve been a surfer for twenty years, but I’m still scared of sharks,’ Sam said.

‘Growing up, I read a book about shark attacks in Australia,’ Jacqui replied. ‘My mum said I would freak myself out and I was like, no I won’t. But yeah, I totally did. I get freaked out even when I’m alone in a pool.’

‘I have an encyclopaedic knowledge of shark attacks,’ said Sam.

‘Do you know anyone who’s been attacked?’ Jacqui asked.

Sam’s voice became grave. ‘I knew friends of these two guys who were out surfing and saw this great white circling them, eyeing them the whole time.’

‘But they survived?’

‘No. Then the shark went away–’

‘That’s what they do! They dive down!’

‘Yeah, it dived down and came up and attacked the one guy. The other guy had to drive back in their four-wheel and, you know, tell everyone.’

‘And the first guy survived?’

‘No, he died.’

‘This is exactly what Canadians think Australians talk about all the time,’ I said.

Jacqui and Sam were genuinely afraid. Still, I told myself, how many thousands of people swam and surfed along Australia’s coasts every day and returned to shore with all their limbs still attached? Sharks were scary, but I resolutely didn’t care.

 

THERE WAS ONE creature my developing Aussie nonchalance couldn’t withstand, however. I’d never been particularly arachnophobic, but so many people in Canada asked me about Australian spiders that I started having nightmares. When I mention this fear to Aussies, they counter with, ‘But you’ve got bears and cougars in Canada. They’re much scarier than spiders.’ Here’s the thing: a bear will never take up residence in your washing machine. A cougar will never coil itself into the wheel well of your moving vehicle. And a thousand baby bears will never suddenly hatch inside your car while you’re doing ninety on the freeway.

Many Canadians have never even seen a wild bear, myself included. But every Australian I’ve met has at least one spider horror story. And they will share those stories in minute detail at the slightest provocation, their voices tinged with glee. Part of becoming Australian, I discovered, is routinely hearing anecdotes like the following, told to me by an acquaintance, a person I would have assumed had no desire to scar me for life, yet did so anyway.

‘My housemate was home alone, watching TV, and she looked up and saw a huntsman on the ceiling in the corner of the room. A minute later she looked back and it was gone. She started looking all around and couldn’t see it anywhere. And then she realised it was right above her head. She was sitting on the couch staring straight up at this thing and it dropped onto her face.’

This woman is somehow still alive. I’m aware huntsmans are not poisonous; I’m also aware that, in the same situation as the woman in this story, my heart would have fatally imploded before the spider was halfway through the air. Most disturbing about the story is not the spider itself, but the circumstances that led to it dropping. Scientifically speaking, there are only two possibilities. Either the spider was a klutz that somehow lost its grip and fell directly onto the woman’s face coincidentally. Or the spider made a purposeful decision to attack in the manner of a bomb being released from an aircraft. Frankly, both alarm me.

Based on a random and ongoing sampling of my friends and family, more Canadians are scared of spiders than of bears. While frightening, bears aren’t normally found crawling across your living room ceiling. Perhaps this explains the drop bear myth. Australians find bears genuinely scary; how much more terrifying then, if they inhabited the Australian bush and drop-attacked from above.

 

OUR FIRST YEAR in Sydney passed spider-free, and my nightmares subsided. For a few months I refused to go bushwalking because of the golden orb spiders; their huge webs were obviously designed to ensnare fully grown humans, despite everyone telling us they were harmless. (Sure, and I’ll definitely wear that dangling cork hat you recommended.) But we had no personal spider encounters. Extrapolating from there, I assumed we never would: a year spider-free times ten equals ten years spider-free. It’s basic maths.

Then my parents came to visit.

‘Don’t worry, Mum’, I said on the phone in the weeks before their trip. ‘We haven’t seen any snakes or sharks, and only some boring spiders. It’ll be fine.’

My largest concern wasn’t the wildlife attacking my parents. It was our housing situation. My parents were arriving in December, which led to a more complex maths problem: if four adults spend one month in an apartment featuring a total of one bedroom and zero air-conditioning units, how much time will pass before one of them murders the other three? High school calculus didn’t prepare us for such equations.

The first few weeks passed with no one murdering anyone. We drank cold beer on a hot Christmas morning, zipped ourselves into onesie windbreakers and clambered over the Harbour Bridge, and watched the New Year’s Eve fireworks spectacular from the water. It was magical and it was grating. We increasingly got on each other’s nerves in the sweaty apartment. Dad was doing well in keeping his grizzly-like temper in check, but the hot sleepless nights were adding up for all of us. I wanted my parents to stay forever and I wanted them to leave immediately.

Then, with only a few days before their flight home, it happened. It was mid arvo. Steve was at work. Dad was in the bedroom, catching up on sleep. This left Mum and me alone in the lounge.

‘What’s that?’ she said, out of nowhere. She pointed high on the living room wall.

Lurking near the ceiling, its dark body contrasting with the white wall, crouched my nightmare: a fur-covered huntsman the size of a fist. I’d never seen a live one, but I’d spent enough time memorising spider identification charts to know it immediately. It looked exactly like the chart picture, except larger, like it was wearing the pelts of other hunstmans it had killed.

Mum and I froze. The spider froze.

Directly beneath the spider was the air mattress where Steve and I had been sleeping.

‘They’re not poisonous.’ I whispered, not wanting to startle the spider into action. I was trying not to hyperventilate. My Canadian friends had been right! I never should have come to this vicious country.

Shaking, I took a deep breath. This was my apartment. I had invited my mother here. Now I had to be an adult and deal with this abomination, even if it resulted in years of therapy. Why couldn’t it have been a snake? I had a XXXX Gold ready in the fridge.

The spider still hadn’t moved.

‘Why does it only have seven legs?’ Mum whispered.

I counted. Seven.

‘Do they normally have seven legs?’

‘I don’t…think so,’ I replied.

The most bothersome wildlife she ever dealt with in Winnipeg were squirrels, rabbits and the occasional burrowing vole: fluffy rodent variants that dug up her garden, but also fled at the sight of any approaching human, unlike this giant spider. My mum is the type of person who could have happily spent her entire life at home. I’m sure she was deeply unimpressed that my life choices had led her into our current predicament. But she was also not the type of person to panic. She would deal with this crisis, then return home and simply never visit me anywhere in the world ever again.

I’d worry about that later. Right now, we needed a plan. We weren’t going to try to squish this thing any more than we’d try to squish a raccoon, and even if the spider were on the floor and I could have used the bowl-and-a-piece-of-paper trick to take it outside, that wasn’t going to happen. I wasn’t keen to enact a heart-warming scene in which I release an amputee huntsman into the wilds of the Camperdown nature strip, just for it to scuttle straight back into my apartment after dark. This meant we had to somehow kill it without spider guts splattering onto our faces. Or, option B: wake Dad mid nap.

‘Better to take our chances with the spider?’ I whispered. Mum nodded.

In hushed tones, we came up with a tactical strategy. Mum kept reconnaissance. I moved toward the closet, tai-chi slow, and retrieved the vacuum. But the nozzle wasn’t long enough to reach the spider. Using hand signals to communicate, Mum slid the air mattress away while I climbed onto a chair, vacuum in one hand, nozzle in the other.

It still wasn’t long enough.

The huntsman was onto us. It started scuttering towards the ceiling. If it got away, we’d have to vacate the apartment and possibly burn it down.

Shaking with adrenaline, I turned the vacuum to maximum suck and leapt off the chair, lunging toward the beast.

It started to bolt, then stopped. Time slowed as the spider tried to flatten itself against the wall before it was suddenly pulled backward and into the nozzle.

I nailed my landing, like an Olympic gymnast in the domestic implements event.

‘Good work!’ Mum shouted over the noise.

‘How do we know if it’s dead?’ I panted.

Mum looked around. ‘I guess the place could use a cleaning.’

She spent the next hour vacuuming the lounge room, until Dad finally woke up and we put him in charge of phase two: removal of the vacuum from the premises for content evacuation, to take place a minimum of three blocks away.

 

THAT NIGHT, WE found the spider’s missing leg: a curled, furry hook with a pointed tip, lying under the sheets of the air mattress.

Staring at it, I could feel spider talons creeping along my skin, under my clothes. I shivered. I thought about Australianness, and about how I now had my own spider anecdote to inappropriately wedge into conversation. I thought about how one day, maybe, I could tell this story with enough bravado to distract from my trembling hands. I thought all this long after my parents had retreated to the bedroom and Steve, insisting there was no way we were sleeping with the lights on, left me sitting awake, my back to the wall, a flashlight in each hand, vowing to never admit to anyone that I had become somebody who cares.

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