I put myself deep in the rainforest in the middle of the night, hoody zipped up and strings drawn tight over my head, so ‘things’ couldn’t fall down my top. Laced my shoes up until they were cutting off circulation, so nothing could sneak in there. Wore about half a bottle of bug spray.
We drove up rutted tracks, windscreen wipers pushing the bugs out of our way, and once we were out of the van, we turned all the torches off and stood in the pitch black, listening to the noises. And it was pitch black. That kind of darkness where you’re straining to see something, anything. You can feel your pupils at maximum dilation, but they still can’t settle on a single shape, not even the tour guide talking very softly to your left, or your hand if you stick it out in front of you. Your hearing retunes itself, pricked for the sound of anything that might be coming towards you. Amongst the animal sounds, you can hear a kind of buzz, as though there are currents in the air. The whole rainforest is out to play.
And then, in the nothing, in the black velvet that’s just been eating you up, there starts emerging shapes. Soft, glowing shapes all around you. This is glowing fungus. The longer you keep in the dark, the brighter these things become, until there are patches almost gleaming green they are so bright. We pick one of the lambent patches up and turn on a torch. It looks just like a regular stick. You can’t see anything on it at all, but without the torch on, you could read a book by it. Kindle would lose a fortune if these got famous.
We continue on into the rainforest in deathly hush, treading as softly as we could, listening and watching everything. You knew it was all alive, but the creatures in Australia are masters of disguise.
It began to rain. Not just regular rain. Pregnant droplets that have squeezed their way through the canopy and almost hurt as they touch you. This kind of eroded my plan against the spiders by noticing anything unfamiliar that touched me. My hand keeps jutting out, unasked, to swipe nervously at my head and back. I turn my torch up to the canopy, and the light grabs the edges of every drop and makes one side of them shine. They were coming towards me like laser beams; long, luminous slashes tearing at the black.
I am having great fun with the light. We stick it up the inside of a strangler fig. A strangler fig is a tree that hoists itself up by attaching to another tree. Eventually it strangles the host tree and stands alone, leaving a hollow web of roots all the way up to the rainforest canopy. It looks beautiful with a torch lighting up the middle and bursting out of all the holes.
At the end of the tour, we find peppermint stick insects. These creepy crawlies are exactly as the name suggests – the colour of peppermint. They also have blue sections to them, and they are so bright you wouldn’t believe it. We walk in on two of them having sex. After peering lewdly at them for a little while, the tour guide asks for a volunteer. Oh yes! I put my hand up, all teachers pet, all nerdy and desperate to get involved.
“Just squeeze the middle of the top one,” he says.
Yes sir. Squeeze away I did. Its defence mechanism is a thick, white substance that is released onto my hand.
“Now smell it,” says the tour guide.
It smells like peppermint. Exactly like peppermint. I pass my hand around and everyone has a good whiff.
It was only on the way home that I began thinking about what I had done. Squeezed an animal halfway through sex to have it squirt goo all over my hand, passed it around the group to smell, and wiped it off next to them.
My hand started smelling a bit iffy after that. Still pepperminty, but there was something a bit sordid mixed in there. It didn’t wash off either; I had to walk around sniffing a stick insect’s love juice for days.