Stung On The Nipple Twice
And Other Tragic Tales
Originally published as part of an ebook on Amazon. Now updated and free to my readers.
Those born in the lucky country seem contentedly oblivious to the barbs and invasions of outrageous wildlife. When faced with an advancing army of ants the size of wallabies, wasps with the virulence of the black death, or a shark, teeth gnashing, gums bared, barrelling towards you at speed, native born Aussies will generally smile engagingly and opine no worries. Call me old fashioned, but I do get concerned when parts of my anatomy have gone numb, gone black, been eaten or dropped off.
Visitors to Australia who spend any amount of time here (an afternoon, say) quickly come to realise that the entire country is out to get you. Every blade of grass, weed, tiny and apparently docile flower, fish, cow, tree, bush, shrub and butterfly has it in for you. In general the Australian flora and fauna doesn’t feel at one with humanity and shows its peevishness enthusiastically and often.
I recall my then teenage son reassuringly informing me that a Huntsman spider the size of a dinner plate was basically harmless and probably wouldn’t bite me, even if it did chase me up the hall.
It really did chase me up the hall.
“She’ll be right mate” is the great Australian panacea. A particularly virulent attack might merit a spray with the Stingose or even an ice pack. Hideous infected snake bite, limbs swollen, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, extremities turning black, cannot feel your feet? "Here’s an ice pack, she’ll be right mate - hey Bruce, where’s the Stingose?”
Let me allow that I'm actually an Australian citizen. I came to Queensland in 1999 and took citizenship in 2002, which was pretty much as fast as they would allow me to do so. My reasons were fairly apparent. At some point obviously I'd do something to merit deporting. They're quite keen on deporting crims back to their origin country in these parts, an attitude I approve of mightily. But that would mean being shipped back to Glasgow. Imagine having to serve out a prison sentence in Glasgow? In Aus at least I can sometimes fake being hard. My ain folk would see through my air of bravado in about three seconds flat.
I do have a temper, mind you, as the other passengers of a long ago London tube station platform discovered. As always, it was astonishingly busy and, as always, people were astonishingly rude, but because I'd left later that morning the tube platform was even more ridiculously, alarmingly, bruisingly, congested. I am 5’3” tall, and not particularly fearsome to look at and on that morning people were bashing, squishing, hurting and stepping on me, and particularly on my toes to a dismaying extent. I was enclosed by a suffocating press of much larger people, all of them intent on crushing my phalanges to crispy cornflakes. As is my wont, when confronted by a full frontal assault, I got Glaswegian on their arses. Dragging my metal comb from my jacket pocket (large comb, 8 tines about a centimetre apart, strong, non-pliable steel, basically a lethal weapon disguised as a hair disentangler) I announced to the throng in a loud, angry and above all Weegie voice “The next FUCKIN BASTARD who stauns on ma FUCKIN FEET am gonnae FUCKIN STAB wi' ma FUCKIN COMB!” Just like that, I had room to breathe. Not only that, got a seat on the tube.
My mum used to love to phone me (back when she was still alive, if she was still doing it from beyond the grave it would be frankly disturbing) to tell me tales of yet another UK ex pat who'd been living in Australia for 30+ years and then committed some crime or other. And the clincher was always that they'd never taken Aussie citzenship. The Australian government would then fly said miscreant home with great dispatch, ignoring my mother’s plaintive cry of “But we don’t bloody want them! We have enough criminals of our own!” So I quickly concluded the safest recourse was to pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people faster than you can say Vegemite sandwich.
But most of my fellow Scots, particularly those of the convict fraternity, would view me as tender meat to be easily devoured. Incarceration would result in a fairly short battle, followed my lots of screaming (mine), lots of blood (mine, again) and my eventual, prolonged and painful demise. It grows increasingly unlikely with age that I'll ever actually end up in jail. Nothing short of miraculous really, if you knew me in my youth. But it seemed a wise precaution at the time.
My point - if I had one which is always debatable, mostly I simply like to talk - was that Australians, those born here, see things a bit differently to us visitors to their fair shores.
They seem not to view things like sharks, snakes and venomous spiders as being a very big a deal. Did you know , for example, that the Australian Funnel Web Spider vies for “most deadly” in the world with the Brazilian wandering spider. I don't recall seeing that on the tourist brochures. Perhaps the only way to deal with such unrelenting terror from the cradle to the grave is to simply stop worrying, smile your expansive Aussie smile, and pack the Stingose.
I've had a few close calls. There was the visit to Surfers Paradise (paradise for surfers, hell for anyone over the age of 30 who isn't heavily into recreational drugs or day drinking) when my ex brother in law, Richard, shot from the ocean like a man possessed howling like a broken klaxon. He'd been stung by a “Bluebottle”. In Scotland a bluebottle is a fly. Noisy and annoying but basically harmless. Fortunately Richard only received the one sting, which served to warn the rest of us off. Including the various small children in our group.
Here's one description of the Australian Bluebottle "A Bluebottle sting can be dangerous to children, elderly people, asthmatics and people with allergies as it can cause fever, shock and respiratory distress. Medical attention is sometimes necessary: for intense and persisting pain, an extreme reaction, a rash that worsens, a feeling of overall illness, a red streak developing between swollen lymph nodes and the sting, or if either area becomes red, warm and tender. Generally, though, contact with the tentacles will cause a sharp, excruciatingly painful sting and will leave whip-like, red welts on the skin which normally last about 2-3 days. The intense pain should subside after about 1 hour. However, the venom sometimes travels to the lymph nodes and causes a more intense pain. Scars and blisters may occur." It's rare that they cause death. Rare, but not unheard of.
Richard was certainly upset and voluble about the pain, but once he'd received treatment became quite stoic and philosophical. “Oh well,” quoth he “It’s just that time of year.”
In other countries, countries where people are not oblivious to the fear of being stung to death during a pleasant morning dip, they call this assault from the ocean the Portugese Man of War. Which seems eminently more suitable than “Bluebottle”.
And yet, Australians often have a fairly unsubtle approach to names. If it’s called Beach Road, it's generally a road that runs past a beach. Similarly Reserve Road, of which there are many here in Aus. From the same folk who chose to name the river that runs through Brissy “The Brisbane River”, comes the entirely apt and forthright moniker “The Death Adder”, an Australian gem whose habit it is to first paralyse its victims, and then, when they are lying there petrified and helpless, pop out of hiding for morning tea.
If the Aussies are calling it the Death Adder and not, for example, the Tiresome Adder, you really are up the proverbial creek trying to paddle with both hands.
Long ago, living at Cabbage Tree Point (a cabbage tree is a type of palm tree, I wondered too), I found a nest of spiders in my childrens’ bedroom, at the sliding door which led to the garden. I'd been long enough in Aus to know that the Only Good Spider Is A dead Spider, but not long enough to recognise these on spec, and still foolishly clung to the notion that the occasional creature might not be as pernicious as dinner with the Borgias. After checking online, it transpired that they were Redback spiders.
I quote: “Bites from Redback spiders produce a syndrome known as latrodectism. The syndrome is generally characterised by extreme pain and severe swelling. The bite may be painful from the start, but sometimes only feels like a pinprick or mild burning sensation. Within an hour victims generally develop more severe local pain with local swelling…associated features include malaise, nausea, vomiting, abdominal or chest pain, generalised sweating, headache, fever, hypertension and tremor. Rare complications include seizure, coma, pulmonary edema, respiratory failure or localised skin infection. Severe pain can persist for over 24 hours after being bitten.”
I invite you to re-examine the words “rare complications include seizure, coma, pulmonary edema, respiratory failure or localised skin infection”. I focus on the complications. Native born Australians always seem to focus on the word “rare”.
Upon relaying my shock to an Aussie friend, and explaining I'd just killed off a potentially deadly threat in the bedroom of my 1 and 4 year old children she asked what sort of spiders they were. When I said Redback she laughed merrily. “Only a Redback mate? She’ll be right!”
So the following week I didn’t even bother telling anyone when I wandered innocently into my garden, in a long jumper and jeans, but foolishly bra-less. Naturally, it was my own fault, I should have been in full chain-mail armour. As I walked towards the aviary I felt a sudden, blinding pain in my left nipple. Ouch, I thought. Upon reflection I decided it really hurt. I made it a few more feet before feeling the same blinding pain in the same area. Not that quick on the uptake, I now realised something had stung me, not once but twice, and in the same tender area. I tented my jumper and off flew the offending stripy missile. Wasp, bee, some horrible hybrid, who knows? Whatever it was flew up my jumper, assaulted me once and, disappointed with my stunned response, went back for a second go. It was quite painful. But I had an ice pack to hand so – no worries.
In that same house, I made the mistake of going for a wander in the back garden one fine evening. I walked a few feet, but the grass felt kind of weird. A few more feet and things still felt odd. A little like the sensation of wading through long grass, except I'd mowed the lawn a few days previously. At that moment the automatic lights came on. The man who'd sold us the house was an electrician, and he had placed, bright, beaming spotlights in every conceivable area, illuminating as much of the yard as possible. Under the harsh glare of the fluorescents it dawned on me that I was surrounded on all sides. Leaning against my ankles, sitting on my thongs, resting against my heels and stretching as far as the boundaries of our property, I was enveloped by cane toads. They sat there eyeing me in their muddy, bufonidael fashion. Perhaps the light bothered them, because they started to saunter away, and I scrambled inside for the safety of flying cockroaches, redbacks and other lesser pests.
Oh yes, the cockroaches in these parts can fly, and they're about twice as big as the Scottish variety. Talk about gilding the lily.
But returning to cane toads: ugly creatures they are. One might even venture the words hideous, fearsome and terrifying. They're one of those salutary tales about not introducing foreign fauna to a new environment. Some bright spark thought that introducing cane toads to kill off the sugar cane beetles in Queensland would be a great idea. But it turns out cane toads can't climb the sugar cane plants. What they can do magnificently is breed like buggery and squirt poison. They're pretty toxic. Which explains my horror on the morning I went out to check the level of the water tank, lifted the cover, put my face down to the opening, and swivelled my eye to the right where a big, ugly, warty member of Bufo marinus was sitting, not 6 inches from my eyeball, watching me carefully. Reader, I ran.
Admittedly cane toads were introduced to Australia, so they are not yet another native wonder. The true wonder is that nothing else has eaten them all for breakfast. Australia is not a place for people who are afraid of bitey, stingy, attacky things. That’s all I’m saying.
Gardening is also not without its perils. As noted, simply walking across the lawn is not without its perils. For many years now I've known better than to venture outside barefooted. Ambling through the grass in these parts is a bit of a lottery.
My daughter came screaming to my arms on one memorable occasion, shrieking fit to break glass about an ant which had bit her. I was at least outwardly sympathetic and fetched the obligatory ice pack, which worked a treat. Maybe two months later I was out on the grass, doing something like pulling up weeds, planting seeds, or possibly lying flat on my back to watch the clouds, when I felt a tremendous pain in the sole of my foot. I looked down to see the most enormous ant, the great granddaddy of all ants, making off in a leisurely fashion just as the pain ratcheted up. With my first born child I was in labour for a day and a half. No drugs. When the doctor decided to slice me with the shears I looked up from pushing to say “Ow, what was that?” Not, generally speaking, a big fat wuss, is my point.
But this ant bite made made the nipple sting feel like a paper cut. It started out really painful and got worse and worse. And worse. Within 15 seconds I was incapacitated and yelling for the fabled ice pack, staggering around like a three legged dog at a pissing competition. I put my foot on the ice pack. Immediate relief. A few minutes later I took it off. Immediate resurgence of horrible, debilitating pain. So, back on the sole of my foot it, and this went on for perhaps two hours. An ant. A fucking ANT incapacitated me for a couple of hours.
And did you know that Australia has both salt water and fresh water crocodiles? That's right, my friends. Nowhere is safe. They've even been known to turn up in swimming pools.
The magpies here too have adjusted to Australian life by becoming fairly feral. Unlike their gentler European cousins, Australian swooping magpies are a genuine hazard to walkers and cyclists, and take particular pleasure in aiming for the eyes. I knew a lady whose little boy was being attacked, daily, every time he ventured on to the undercover patio at the back of their house. The local magpie was going out of its way to take aim at him swooping undercover and aiming for his face each time. Upon calling the local council she was told "it's just protecting its young". "Well so am I!" she wailed before purchasing a BB gun and sorting out that little issue.
Even when not tortuously painful or actually deadly, Australian wildlife just likes to make a nuisance of itself, and remind us that they're in control and we're here on sufferance. A foolish friend's father arrived fresh on a sojourn from England and, in the way of men all around the world, shrugged off offers of insect repellent for his day trip on a boat. He returned with a head resembling a grape tomato, if you could visualise a grape tomato covered in hundreds of other tiny swollen grape tomatoes. Like a warning beacon, his skin was almost luminously scarlet, his eyes two grossly engorged puffy slits from which he peered in torment. Even his earlobes resembled coruscating cauliflowers. The mosquitoes had feasted royally on the foolish Pom that day.
If an Aussie offers you insect repellent, sunblock or an ice pack - use it.
I feel I can state with certainty that most of us have never inhabited or even heard of any country outside the realms of science fiction where so many things are out to get you. The Terminator had nothing on The Aussie backyard barbecue. For many years it's been my personal habit to check underneath the patio furniture, barbecue and esky lid, inside shoes and anywhere else I plan to put parts of my body for bugs, crawlies and happy travellers.
As I once again fled from something airborne hell bent on my destruction and leapt the the greyhound with a single bound I ruminated on the fact that I just hate the great outdoors. If it's not droughts and flooding fucking rains, or temperatures like the surface of the sun, it's bats shitting virus ridden guano at you, or birds going for your eyeballs. The outside can keep it. It's inside in the air conditioning for me come the summer.
Still, you can't help being impressed by the Aussie attitude to all of this. If tourists ever manage, post pandemic, to visit Australia again, take heed. Ensure you know where the ice packs and Stingose are before venturing outside. And if you're not sure if it's toxic, assume that it is.
But apart from that - no worries mate. She'll be right.
Alison Tennent, Queensland, Australia, June 2021
Copyright Alison Tennent 2021, all rights reserved. Scottish by birth, upbringing and bloodline, Australian by citizenship. If you’re reading this anywhere but The Garrulous Glaswegian, Vocal+ or Medium, this work may have been plagiarized.