Creepy Camping Companions

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

2009-09-27

We just returned from a very quick camping trip to the Kumaon hills. The weather was persistently cloudy, and visibility so low that I was never close to the view of the snow peaks that I had hoped for. My camera stayed in its bag, the birds stayed hidden in the forest, and my attention strayed to the other creatures lurking around us.

Annelids

We camped on the crest of a ridge that separates two valleys, carrying supplies up the hillside. In this season—so soon after the monsoon—the thick, moist undergrowth was home to many friendly leeches. Friendly, hungry leeches. Ammu saw a thin, thread-like one somersaulting up the rock she was sitting on, and didn't know what it was; but I knew, and started checking my socks obsessively.

I became quite attached to three or four leeches over the next couple of days. Two of them drank their fill and disappeared without my ever being aware of them, but I caught one that had dropped off to digest its meal in my sleeping bag, and disturbed one that was drinking messily through my thin cotton sock. The second one was larger, perhaps 4–5cm long and shaped like a flower-vase with a long, thin, mobile neck and a bulging, rounded bottom. It must not have fed enough—when I nudged it with my sock, it immediately stood up straight, waving to and fro, trying to reattach to whatever mammal it probably assumed had touched it.

I sprinkled salt on both, feeling vaguely guilty when they exploded in a spectacular gush of (my) blood.

Plants

Leeches were not the only new friends we made in the undergrowth. I also found a plant with pretty green catkins… covered with fine, translucent, almost invisible thorns. When I brushed a slender branch out of my way, I discovered the thorns, and that any contact with skin was sufficient to cause an intense burning that took a long time to fade. Scratching, I learned, was a very bad idea. The profusion of these plants along a trail I wanted to follow soon convinced me to turn back, even though my hands were the only skin that I was exposing to them.

On a previous visit to approximately the same area, I discovered another interesting plant which has thorns sticking straight up from the surface of the larger leaves in addition to the thorns on its stem and branches. It had small spherical fruits—the ripe ones a bright lemon yellow, and others mottled light and dark green in an attractive pattern somewhat like a watermelon. I renewed my acquaintance with this plant too—but not, thankfully, by sitting on it as I had done last year.

I also saw—from a respectful distance this time—a nice Thistle-shaped plant covered everywhere with sharp and surprisingly stiff (I couldn't resist checking) thorns, even its perfectly round seed-head.

I can't reliably identify these plants. The first must be related to the Stinging Nettles Urtica sp., even though its leaves (palmate with a serrated edge) didn't quite match textbook descriptions. But Stinging Nettles are well-known in Kumaon, where they are called the Scorpion herb (shrub?), and their boiled leaves are eaten as a vegetable.

Arthropods

Fittingly, however, arthropods comprised the most numerous and varied of the creatures at and around camp. There were mosquitoes, of course, but not so many as to be a real problem. There were small black-and-yellow striped midges and big metallic-green flies (which distinguished themselves mostly by not sucking my blood).

After the camping trip, we went to a KMVN tourist rest house to shower and relax before heading home. It was off-season time, and nobody had stayed in the cottages for a while. We could tell, because they were crawling with spiders.

Uttarakhand hotels seem to vie with each other in providing the largest possible spider for the price of a room. Shikhar Hotel in Almora has six storeys (descending down the hillside from road level, so you have to go up to the reception from your room, not down) with increasing prices, and I could swear that the more expensive rooms have bigger spiders as well as better TVs.

This cottage won the contest hands down. There were spiders everywhere. Large and small, alive and dead, at floor level, on the walls, on the ceiling, scuttling crazily around or sitting still, out in the open or behind the mirror, inside the cupboard, in the curtains… everywhere. They were all the same kind, but I don't know which species that is. The largest were perhaps 13cm across, with prominent pedipalps, very spindly black legs and body, and indistinct stripes on the abdomen.

Our adventures with the Arthropoda did not end there, however. When we reached home, we found a 13cm centipede in the bathroom sink(!).