In 2014, I returned to my place of birth in Melbourne, Australia, to visit family. The 32-hour slog to the other side of the globe was uncomfortable, but it was nothing compared with what awaited me on the ground.
One night, the uncle with whom I was staying went to Tasmania to visit friends. Suddenly, place transformed into a horror house. It was about 9pm, the sun was leaving the horizon and the lawn, which had been baked into straw, was getting a much-needed reprieve. Sweat had welded my polyester shirt so tightly to my back that it almost took my spine with it when I finally managed to peel it off.
I staggered to the air-conditioning panel and turned it to its coolest setting. Lovely cold air burst from the vents in the ceiling and floor. I almost cried from the relief. Then it cut out. And I couldn’t get it back on. Google, calls to family and YouTube guides didn’t help. It was still about 30C, so although I wouldn’t be visiting the land of nod any time soon, I decided to retire to bed anyway.
Switching on the bedroom light, I spotted a huntsman spider the size of a dinner plate poised next to my curtain. I stood starkers and inert, feeling as if I had been doused in liquid nitrogen and my shoes had grown roots. My eyes stuck on this not-so-incy-wincy bastard for what seemed like hours until I found enough courage to throw one of my shoes at it. I missed. I threw my other shoe. Missed again.
One of the more friendly animals Daniel Lavelle encountered during his time in Australia. Photograph: Courtesy of Danny Lavelle
In the UK, even our wild animals are the cute stuff of children’s books – fluffy, charming, innocuous. In Australia, they are the stuff of nightmares. Twenty-one of the world’s 25 most venomous snakes live there, along with crocs, great white sharks, giant bounding rodents (kangaroos) and monstrous arachnids. A tiny spider can murder you in your garden; the creepiest thing you’ll encounter in a British garden is Alan Titchmarsh.
Finally, I steadied myself and took a closer look – it wasn’t a huntsman after all, but the skin one had left behind. Relief! Until I realised this meant it must still be scurrying around the gaff, lurking in a cereal box or in my coffee mug; ready to send me to work with a coronary. Charlotte’s Webb, my arse – I’m convinced that spiders were created in a haunted lab by a misanthropic scientist.
It was then that the trees outside began to reverberate with the sound of a thousand maracas shaking all at once – the cicadas, a bit like crickets in the same way that Mufasa is a bit like your house cat, had just found their summer voices. Moments later, a coterie of squabbling possums assembled on the roof like warring lawnmowers.
I decided to turn on every light in the house to avoid being ambushed. I was nude – all the blinds and curtains were undrawn, and my neighbours were still milling around in their air-conditioned, huntsman-free dwellings – but I didn’t dare draw the blinds for fear of close encounters of the eight-legged kind; I didn’t retrieve any clothes for the same reason. Instead, I sat on the kitchen floor with my back pressed against the open freezer, shoe in hand, prepared for the worst.
I had never felt further from home as I waited until the early hours, when bleary eyes, a sore bum and a cold back convinced me, finally, to head to bed.
Australia is a beautiful country. The trunks of the luscious eucalyptus trees are as smooth as suede; gorgeous white shores look on crystal-blue horizons and the whole place looks polished. But it is hot. Bloody hot. And full of malice. I fled from Oz soon after and traded a red-hot summer for a freezing, damp, spider-free Manchester winter. And I’d never been happier.