The South Carolina Review, Volume 38

“House spider,” the man in the khaki uniform said nonchalantly, as my wife and I instinctively retreated. It looked like a hairy dinner plate with legs, ambling across the hard-packed dirt floor.

We had just arrived at our campsite, deep inside the rainforest of Nepal. The previous night had been spent in the relative civility of Tiger Tops, a jungle’s-edge community of “tree house condominiums” in the Royal Chitawan National Park. There we had literally stepped off our tree house deck and onto the backs of elephants to be ferried into the tropical bush in search of one-horned rhinoceros and tiger. Given that nothing in the jungle messes with a four-ton elephant, it was a rather safe adventure, but an adventure nevertheless. Now, on our final night in the wild, deep within Nepal’s dark interior, we anticipated more of the same. More elephants. More rhinos. More tigers. No one had said anything about spiders.

Undeterred, my wife and I entered our tent, surrounded by the heavy air of midday and the incessant buzz of jungle insects, looking forward to a few minutes’ relaxation before our next adventurous outing. Suddenly, a cry of terror rose from the tent next to ours. We raced outside to see our two female traveling companions in full screech mode.

“Spiders! Huge! On our cots!” The words rushed out of their mouths almost as quickly as our friends had rushed out of their tent. My wife and I looked at each other in horror. A lone spider, albeit a colossus, ambling across the dirt floor of the main hut was one thing, but in bed with us?

Camp guards in khaki uniforms were quickly on the scene, concerned, no doubt, that lives were at stake…until they learned of the spider sightings. “House spiders,” they said again, with the patience of adults instructing children. Calmly, they entered the tent and assassinated the hairy beasts, thus eliminating the physical threat. But the psychological damage was done. Suddenly, we saw giant spiders everywhere—some imagined, most real. The defining moment for me came a few minutes later in the washroom. I opened the door to see three of the overgrown creatures staring at me as if I had just interrupted a private meeting. I backed away apologetically, determined to take my business elsewhere.

Our minds raced ahead to nighttime. How would we sleep here? What would happen in the dark? We were like children on our first overnight camping trip, suddenly homesick—ironic, considering the past 14 days.

*  *  *

Two weeks earlier, we had flown Indian Airlines to Nepal from Delhi. Arriving in Kathmandu, we toured its famous Durbar Square, visited the House of the Living Goddess, and paid our respects to the “Monkey Temple,” one of Buddhism’s oldest shrines. The next morning, we set off to Pokhara to begin a five-day trek through the Himalayas. Granted, we had sherpas along for the heavy work, but it was physically demanding nonetheless, and our accommodations were quite basic and necessarily mobile. The trek was quickly followed by a four-day rafting excursion on the Trisuli River—no frills and at times, thanks to the river’s white water rapids, a little too exhilarating. Then it was on to Tiger Tops via a vomit-inducing prop plane flight on Kathmandu’s Royal Nepal Airlines (which sounds like a lot more airline than it is). Bordered by some of the world’s highest mountains and thinnest air, flights in and out of Kathmandu can be a loop-de-loop adventure in their own right. But Kathmandu did, at least, have a real runway, unlike the airfield at Tiger Tops, which was just that—a grassy field at the edge of a huge jungle. Now we had just 36 hours left on our itinerary, and those were to be spent in the heart of the jungle.

Our hosts for this final experience were three khaki-clad, armed guards, whose dour expressions combined with their wardrobe conjured images of the former Panamanian strongman, Colonel Manuel Noriega. These wildlife soldiers would be our escorts into the dark interior—a journey requiring an hour’s drive over dirt tracks so deeply rutted that it seemed no two wheels of our well-weathered jeep were ever on the ground at the same time, followed by a river crossing in a dugout canoe whose sides sat uncomfortably close to the reportedly snake-infested waterline. The capper was a one-mile hike through dense jungle interior to Camp Noriega (as my wife unofficially dubbed it), during which the guards thoughtfully warned us of the mean dispositions of rhinos. Like I was going to do something to piss one off?

So it was with a considerable sense of relief that we entered the camp’s main hut, only to be welcomed by the aforementioned hairy arachnid and, soon thereafter, his extended family. These were like no house spiders I had ever seen. I was convinced that if I tried to step on one, it would simply arch its back and flip me head over heels.

That afternoon, our itinerary called for an outing to the Gharial crocodile farm. This sounded like a nice diversion, despite that it meant hiking back to the boat and crossing the river again to take another jeep ride. But that seemed a good alternative to spending the afternoon being psychotic about spiders. The crocs were indeed a nice distraction, particularly given that, unlike the spiders, we didn’t have to worry about sleeping with them. After an hour or so of learning more than anyone really needs to know about crocs, we headed back toward Camp Noriega.

Darkness falls hard and fast in the jungle, and Noriega’s men had misjudged the time required for our croc outing. Dusk enveloped us while we were still bouncing our way back toward Spidertown in the jeep. With visibility reduced to the anemic wash of the old jeep’s headlamps, we felt predatory eyes lurking everywhere. Arriving at the river’s edge, light was all but a memory as we stepped unsteadily into the dugout canoe—chilling thoughts of swimming with the snakes impossible to ignore. The familiar feel of terra firma on the other side was sweet indeed, but we still had that final one-mile hike back into camp.

With two of Noriega’s men and four nervous tourists all behind one lantern, I was the last man in the single-file line on the narrow path. Understandably, everyone was moving at a pretty good clip. Everyone, that is, except the woman in front of me—not my wife, who was probably perched on the shoulder of the guy with the light!

The woman in front of me had a bad leg. “I can’t keep up,” she said. “You go ahead.”

Chivalry notwithstanding, I toyed with the idea, but I couldn’t leave her. Meanwhile, the flashlight was getting farther away.

“Hang on. We’re almost there,” I said, more hopeful than confident, having all but forgotten that there was overrun with hairy-legged crawlers, my arachnophobia having been temporarily displaced by the more pressing fear of what might be breathing down my neck in the jungle’s blackness.

The last 100 yards into camp seemed endless. On arrival, my body said, Let’s plop on the cot for a rest. Then my mind screamed, WATCH OUT FOR BLOODTHIRSTY SPIDERS!

It was time to find a corkscrew.

Earlier that day, we had determined our strategy to get through the night. We were going to get so stinking drunk that we wouldn’t care about the spiders. With several bottles of wine on hand to execute our plan, and ensconced in the relative safety of the main hut, we began uncorking our defenses.

Never before have so many drunk so much and remained so sober! We couldn’t get a buzz on to save our lives.

Eventually, armed only with empty wine bottles and harmless corkscrews, we gave up and headed to our tents. Determined to sleep fully clothed with our hiking boots laced tightly and our hats pulled down low, we entered our tents, defiantly swept off the cots, did a couple of those loud any-spiders-in-here-better-watch-out bursts of false bravado, and mercifully went to sleep.

Crazy, I know. To go half way around the world, trek the Himalayas, run raging rapids, track big game, survive wild plane rides, and generally have the experience of a lifetime…only to end up writing about spiders. Well they were damn big ones!




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