World Tour Highlights: Top 20 Bugs and Creepy-Crawlies

This is the first in a series of lists of highlights of the World Tour from a particular perspective, with the purpose of recording as many stories as I can before I forget them. Some of the lists will look at the natural world, some at man-made artifacts, and some at the challenges of travel itself. This list presents (in no particular order) the highlights of the Bugs, Arachnids, Invertebrates and Related Creepy-Crawlies of the World Tour.

1. Green Ants

I don’t know why I follow Sheryl’s suggestions, sometimes. They always lead me into failures of judgement, like licking an ant’s bum. Green ants are honey ants - they collect nectar and store it in their abdomens. They’re a traditional treat for the Australian aboriginals, who bite the bums off. I’m not a mean person, though, and biting off an ant’s bum sounded like bad karma to me, so when Sheryl picked up an ant and shoved it into my face arse-first, I opted just to lick its bum. Naturally Sheryl lost her grip and the damn thing squirmed around and bit me on the tongue - there’s gratitude for you. Swelled up and hurt for hours.

2. Camel Spiders

Camped out with the camels under the stars in the Sahara Desert in Morocco, a massive and hideous arachnid ran into the circle of firelight. Seemed like the size of a dinner plate, sand-coloured, creepy, aggressive and fast. Much havoc and shrieking from everyone as they tried to avoid it running around everywhere. I hope I never have to see one of those things again. Read the dispatch here.

3. Giant Centipedes

Bugs grow big in the tropics, and some of the biggest are the centipedes - huge red spiky things with massive mandibles. In Tonga once, I walked into the hostel and found myself in the middle of a hysterical shrieking group of people frantically trying (without actually getting anywhere near it) to remove one that had wandered in from outside. My first instinct with any creature, fuzzy or otherwise, is to play with it, so without really thinking I walked in, bent down and picked him up. 30cm long and undoubtedly poisonous. He coiled up my arm and around my neck with his spiky legs prickling my skin, and I took him outside and released him. Walked back in to a dozen bug-eyed looks of awe. It made my reputation at that hostel for having nerves of steel - the story got retold twice a day, according to Sheryl, who each time had to admit to being the girlfriend of the Centipede Guy.

4. Cockroaches

I’ve lived in some filthy roach-infested hovels in my time, and I always said I’d rather have one huge cockroach than a thousand little ones. That was before I spent any time in the tropics. Some species of roaches there are the size of your fist. And they fly. I remember one giant cockroach battle in Huế in Vietnam. Twenty minutes of epic one-on-one gladiatorial combat, thumping and smashing, trying to get it out of the dumpy budget hotel room we’d just arrived in. At one point I got him into the toilet bowl, desperately flushing and blasting him head-on with the water hose, and I swear he was still fighting upstream. Finally I got him under but I knew he was still in the U-bend so I just kept on flushing. Let him crawl up out of the toilet on one of the floors below us and give somebody else a surprise.

5. Wetas

Everybody knows I can’t handle crickets. Don’t ask me why, I have no idea. I like almost all other bugs. Some people are scared of snakes or spiders, but I’m terrified of crickets. New Zealand’s wetas are dinosaur crickets. The length of your hand and weighing more than some birds, these things turned me into a shuddering wreck any time I saw one. Imagine how far one of those things could jump, you wouldn’t be safe across the room. One showed up in a hiking lodge at night, right beside my head.

6. Spiders

Unlike crickets, spiders I quite like. They’re useful, elegant creatures, and I think they’re pretty cool. But in Australia they’re all poisonous and all out to kill you. Red-backs (black widows) lurk in water pipes and door handles waiting for unwary fingers, and white-tails are mean enough to cross a room just to bite you. The scariest-looking, the Huntsman spider, is actually not poisonous, but it’s massive enough to give you a heart attack when one turns up unexpectedly. Outside of Australia I didn’t have to avoid them so much. I even snacked on them pan-fried in honey at a roadside stall in Cambodia. Oh, and no discussion of spiders would be complete without mentioning our faithful mascot and travelling companion Spidey.

7. Rhinoceros Beetles

These are massive, clumsy black beetles. They fly badly, bumping into everything. Four days running in Kep, Cambodia, we saw the same three beetles stuck on their backs in the same place on the balcony of our hotel, buzzing feebly and trying to turn back over. Every morning I’d help them turn over and release them into the trees, and invariably the next morning they’d be right back in the same place, upside-down again.

8. Dung Beetles

You see these guys all over Africa, standing on their front legs and using the back legs to roll their ball of dung around. It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it. Some of them are very pretty despite their occupation.

9. Atlas Moths

The biggest moths in the world, some can have a 25cm wingspan. We saw them all over Borneo. I like their fuzzy antennae.

10. Scorpions

A daily hazard in Africa. They like dark places so we had to shake out our shoes every morning before we put them on. Often we’d find them squashed under our tents where they’d hidden during the night and we’d rolled over in our sleep and crushed them. They say the smaller they are, the deadlier poison is their sting. I’m happy to say I never had to find out firsthand.

11. Leaf and Stick Insects

Some of the more alien-looking insects. Stick insects can be 30cm long, and leaf insects can get pretty heavy. Their protective camouflage makes them almost impossible to spot until they move - or, like one leaf insect we saw in Cambodia, if they’re walking along on the ground.

12. Leeches

Leeches are one of the most hideous creatures imaginable. Jungles are teeming with them, especially the jungles of Borneo. Trekking in the jungle, a lot of people wear “leech socks” - gaiters that cover the shoe and extend up to the knee. It only does so much good though - tiger leeches in Borneo often come at you at head-height off dangling leaves. I recommend never performing a Google image search for the keywords “tiger leech eyeball”.

13. Flatworms

Flatworms, or properly, Land Planarians, are odd little brightly-coloured and patterned creatures like very thin slugs. They ooze along blindly, their boneless bodies making S-curves like a snake. In Niah Caves National Park in Malaysian Borneo the most common species has a spade-shaped hammerhead - there were thousands along the boardwalk and wooden railings over the swamp.

Image courtesy of Sheryl

14. Bush Flies and Sandflies

Bush flies can make life in Australia’s Outback a misery. There are innumerable swarms of them, crawling into your eyes, ears, nose and mouth, the instant you step outside. Insect-repellent doesn’t keep them away; nothing keeps them away. You soon pick up the habit of waving your hand around your face while talking or eating - the famous Aussie Salute. New Zealand’s sandflies are even worse - tiny midges that rise in dense clouds from the ground all over the South Island to torment human and animal alike with hundreds of little bites that itch fiercely for a week afterward.

15. Ticks

They’re everywhere; hideous things that carry disease and bury their whole head inside you to suck your blood, swelling up to the size of an apple-seed. Everybody has a special way of getting them off safely, and none of them work. I picked one up in northern Hungary during an epidemic of tick-borne encephalitis. Had to dig it out of my hip with a penknife, ice and a stiff drink. Left a bleeding crater in my flesh the size of a dime. The three weeks of waiting out the incubation period of the disease was nerve-wracking, to say the least. I developed symptoms on the last day, but it turned out just to be giardasis (q.v. #18). Read the dispatch here, and another here.

16. Glow-worms

New Zealand’s glow-worms are the coolest thing. They’re the larval stage of a little flying bug. They live in caves and under things in forests, and make a dangling curtain of sticky threads like strings of tiny pearls to trap their food. They glow in the dark to attract prey, and their blue-green constellations speckling the roof of a cave or turning a forest into a fairy-landscape is truly magical.

17. Mosquitoes

They need no introduction. They’re the bane of hot countries. They carry terrible diseases and seem to serve no useful ecological function besides population control of humans. The world would be a better place if they were eradicated. They love the taste of my blood - I’m always covered in bites. Malaria prophylaxis got me through Africa, but all through the rest of the world since then I’ve been unprotected and assuming it’s just a matter of time. They don’t like Sheryl’s taste at all, but in a show of massive cosmic irony she got one lousy bite in Sumatra and wound up in the hospital with Dengue Fever. Read the dispatch here, and other dispatches mentioning the little horrors here.

18. Giardia

The curse of the traveller, these microscopic intestinal parasites might be too small to see, but they have big effects. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to dose myself with Tinidazole, Metronidazole or Mebendazole to flush out an infestation picked up from dirty food, water or people.

19. Red Ants, Black Ants and White Ants

Humans like to think that we’re the dominant species on Earth, but it only takes a bit of travel in the tropics to realize that it just isn’t true. Red ants, black ants and their white cousins the termites, by sheer weight of numbers, rule the planet. To see the unthinking instinctive organization of an ant colony on the march, or the massive and intricate structures of terminte mounds towering against the sky - well, it’s humbling, is what it is. Fifty thousand years from now humans will be long gone and the ants will still be working away industriously, virtually unchanged. But I still won’t forgive the two times they infested my backpack in Thailand, building a nest, savaging Mister Raisin, and eating the silkscreen paint off a pair of toe-socks given to my by friends in Japan.

20. The Lightning Man’s Children

The mythos of the Australian aboriginals of the Top End of the Northern Territory includes a story about Leichhardt’s Grasshopper, a vividly patterned orange and blue insect. They say that they’re the children of the ancestral spirit Namarrgon, the Lightning Man, and that their appearance heralds the beginning of the build-up to the wet season. Myths aside, they’re striking insects and my cricket phobia doesn’t seem to extend to grasshoppers, so I was able to appreciate them in Kakadu National Park.


One Comment on this Dispatch:

January 17th, 2012

ewwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww leeeeeeches.

¬ Remy Fallbrook
January 20th, 2012

And out of sensitivity to the audience, I didn’t even tell any leech stories. I have a few nasty ones.

¬ Chris
Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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