Never say never : 1998

This is an event I wrote about in 1988. I still chuckle when I think about it to this day . . .

In September 1988, Kevin Kiwi (not real sir name), a New Zealand native orchid grower, came over to Australia for the big conference held in the Sydney Domain. Kevin and I had written to each other for a couple of years and it was arranged that he would spend four nights at my place. And needless to say he wanted to see as many Australian native orchids as he possibly could. I, of course, was only too happy to go bush with him. So we spent every available moment doing just that. It was a genuine pleasure to watch his face fairly glow as each of our local species came into his sights for the first time.

Many of the species we take for granted raised absolute amazement in Kevin and made me remember my own frenzied efforts at locating each new species way back in my early native orchid days. As I watched him I decided that most of us have become very ho hum about the common gems that inhabit the Sydney region. When was the last time you went weak-kneed at the sight of Plectorrhiza, Liparis, Cymbidium suave, etc. etc.? To Kevin it was all new and as good as a lottery win.

But this 20-year-old New Zealander did have a strange side to his character. He was unnaturally interested in whipper-snipper orchids – not just the epiphytes. And so it came to pass that I was forced to adopt the uncustomary stance of looking “down” for orchids instead of “up”. I hope nobody in Sydney Group ever hears about my treason, it would be so embarrassing. It’s not that I’ve got anything against terrestrial orchids, it’s just that I’ve always figured I would start growing a couple once I began receiving pension cheques or end up with a wooden leg or something.

While I’m still a good risk for an insurance company I’ll stick to looking “up”. But really I know that I still have too much to learn about epiphytes to take on something new before mastering the old. Over the years I have stumbled onto some good patches of Donkey Hoods and Green Ears and because I might fall out of a tree tomorrow, I’ve made mental notes on their locations. Just in case I’m forced to switch my alliances.

Well, anyway, there was Kevin, performing ballet routines as he marvelled at the hundreds of Pterostylis plants that lined this particular track in the Upper Blue Mountains. Pterostylis nutans, Pterostylis longifolia, Prasophyllum something or other, they were all there – and Kevin fluttered about them like a deranged moth around a candle. I walked behind him, secretly enjoying myself and thoroughly rewarded by Kevin’s obvious appreciation.

Although I hadn’t taken him seriously, I do recall Kevin’s often repeated enquiry: “Do you ever see Funnel Web Spiders around here?” My response each time was: “There’s probably a few around but don’t worry, it would be a million to one chance if we see one on a wet day like this.” (Yes, it was raining down on me yet again.) With hindsight, I guess Kevin was genuinely concerned about Funnel Webs.

The Kiwis, of which my brother has been one for 50 years, have heard all the fables about our man-eating, tobacco-chewing, big-as-a-football Funnel Web Spiders, the world’s deadliest spider. And Kevin did ask about the snakes many times as well. This is understandable I suppose, for a guy who hails from a country that has no native mammals, about 3 harmless reptiles, and only one poisonous spider (which has never caused a death and, so Kevin says, is as scarce as $50 notes in the church collection plate. I excuse Kevin for thinking that Australia has unspeakable horrors lurking behind every bush.

Kevin couldn’t resist it any longer. He asked me if I’d mind him digging up a particularly fine specimen of Pterostylis longifolia so he could take it home with him. He had an import permit for 500 plants and owns his own quarantine house. I resisted the temptation to lecture him for ten minutes about what a disgusting attitude it was for a foreigner from the New Zealand colonies to come over here and try to rape and plunder our heritage.

After all, you’d never hear of an Aussie doing such a thing in his own country. Instead I told him that if he promised to use the plant strictly for peaceful purposes and never to mention it to a soul, I’d overlook his indiscretion just this once.

So the young New Zealander squatted on his back legs and callously plunged both hands into the damp, soft earth surrounding the prized plant. I reckon he’s done this sort of thing before – the rosette, stem and root ball all lifted in one perfect piece. I watched him as he dribbled over his prize. He eyed each flower in turn, fingered the rosette for a few seconds and then turned the sod over to view the roots and tubers.

With a flash of speed that would defy measurement, Kevin rose off the ground about half a metre. I’ll swear he didn’t kick his feet; he just sort of rose up like magic. His mighty plant fell to the ground. He somehow levitated to where I was standing stunned. For a second or two we both occupied the same set of footprints. When he finally stood by himself he forced out his first sound, very feeble it was: “There’s a bloody Funnel Web there! A bloody Funnel Web.!” Those were his exact words, I distinctly recall them.

I moved over to the still intact sod of moss, clay and pebbles and carefully turned it over. I expected some sort of spider but, I must admit, not a Funnel Web. I had only seen two in my life despite much time spent in their domain, the Hawkesbury Sandstone ringing the city of Sydney. But there it was for certain, in a cavity was a huge female Funnel Web. It was motionless – probably in a state of semi-hibernation after the winter.

The panic began to set in – Kevin had held this beast in his bare hands for perhaps 8 seconds. He may have been bitten without realising it. He was now visibly shaken and had turned white in the face. He had numerous cuts and scratches on his fingers and as well they were quite dirty. How could he tell if he’d been bitten at all? He said he felt funny but I reasoned this was only shock. After five minutes he hadn’t convulsed or turned purple so I deemed him to be okay.

I believe the thing that prevented him being bitten was that the spider was positioned with its upper surface (back) facing Kevin’s fingers. Also it was fairly well locked up in the pebble cavity. This would prevent the fangs being used effectively. I teased the brute out into the open and it soon livened up and reared up its front legs and fangs. There was no risk – it was a Funnel Web alright.

By the time we got back to the car, poor Kevin was fair dinkum jumping over shadows. I consoled him by pointing out that he’d probably look back and laugh about this one day. He didn’t know whether he would or not. We did get that plant back to the car, minus its fearsome guardian, and the rest of the day remained uneventful.

I have recounted that day’s events with a light-hearted approach, but I wonder just how close it came to being a very sad tale. There can be no doubt that Kevin had lady luck on his side. Let this serve as a warning to all native orchid growers. Watch what you’re doing and don’t ever claim anything is a million to one shot – in short, NEVER SAY NEVER . . . EVER!

P.S. When he left my place the next morning, Kevin was still alive and in reasonable condition. I received a letter from him several months later: So my diagnosis was spot on.