I love wildlife, but this was too close

ENTER SPIDERMAN: Chaparri Lodge, a community-owned wildlife reserve in north-western Peru.
ENTER SPIDERMAN: Chaparri Lodge, a community-owned wildlife reserve in north-western Peru.

If it hadn't been the first thing we saw, we might not have been so concerned. But there it was, right near the outdoor dining table, all big crawly legs and hairy torso.

You tend to exaggerate things in your memory, so maybe it wasn't the size of a dinner plate. But it was definitely big. The size of a saucer - a crawling, hairy saucer - at least.

Panic set in immediately. The whole group of us stopped dead in our tracks and pointed, mouths opening and closing like goldfish, at the tarantula on the rock wall. The crawly, hairy tarantula.

"Oh, you don't like spiders?" asked Juan, our guide.

We went to shake our heads but just then another tarantula, big as your hand, scuttled out from under the table, making a dash for the sweet freedom of the surrounding bush.

There was a squeal - possibly from me - as the group of us took a step backwards before realising that there could be more tarantulas in that direction, too. So we stopped and huddled into a petrified group.

I don't like spiders. And the bigger they are, the more I don't like them. The amount of poison they possess doesn't make a difference. It's the hairy, scary factor I'm interested in.

Tarantulas are my worst enemy. I've happily lived on separate continents to the bulk of the world's tarantulas my entire life, and I'd never seen one in the wild until I came to Peru. Now here I was in the presence of two of them, with untold amounts more lurking in the dark bushes that surrounded us.

Enter Spider-Man (also known as Juan), a guide at Chaparri Lodge, a community-owned wildlife reserve in north-western Peru. Juan chuckled at our fear before walking over to the dining table and scooping the tarantula up, smiling as the big hairy thing crawled up his arm, plucking it off and letting it run across his hands.

Eventually he placed the spider back on the rock wall and settled down at the table for dinner. "It's OK," he said, beckoning us over to eat, "there are some spiders around here but they won't hurt you."

That's not the issue though. It's the scuttling I dislike, the crawling, the lurking in dark spaces. So we ate and watched, on full alert, as the big hairy spider sat on its rock, staring at us with its hundreds of eyes, occasionally crawling from side to side, eight legs moving in slow motion. Urgh.

You come to wildlife reserves to get close to the wildlife but this was perhaps too close. I was happy to see the spectacled bears crashing around out in the bush just near us. I was excited to see condors soaring near the cliffs above. But I wasn't quite as happy with the spiders.

This is a fear that has no basis in reality. A few weeks ago I'd gone scuba-diving with sharks in Fiji and had felt completely comfortable. It turns out I'm far happier 20 metres under the water with a bunch of man-eating sharks than I am being in an open space with a single non-venomous arachnid.

It was soon bedtime at Chaparri Lodge. In a place like this you might be hoping to sleep in a hermetically sealed oasis, an abode you can guarantee will be tarantula-free.

That, of course, wasn't the case. Chaparri was all about rustic experience, so the huts were much like those the local community lived in, with mud-packed walls and wooden planks for doors.

I checked my room with a forensic investigator's vigilance before going to bed. Every nook and cranny was explored with my hand-held torch.

I'm not, however, entirely sure what I planned to do if I found a tarantula. You can't whack it with a thong, it's too big. You can't slap it with a rolled-up newspaper - the spider would grab it and start hitting you back. Still, if there was one in there I wanted to know.

The bathroom, too, was given a thorough inspection, but that didn't ease the nerves. I was brushing my teeth, eyes scanning the walls, when a fly landed on my back and I almost hit the roof, flinging my toothbrush and trying to wrench the imaginary spider off.

The guy staying in the hut next to me wasn't quite as lucky. He was halfway through a toilet visit when he spotted another hand-size tarantula on the wall in front of him. He had to zip up and place a hasty call to Spider-Man.

I slept fitfully that night, imagining that every scratching noise was eight crawling legs in the darkness, that every light breeze on the bed sheet was the weight of a hairy torso.

As with most things, however, familiarity bred comfort. By the second night I wasn't fearing for my life at all, nor even panicking at the touch of a fly.

I still wasn't about to pick a tarantula up, though. Spider-Man could keep that job.

Have you had a close encounter with wildlife? Do you have a fear of a particular animal? Leave your comments below.

Sydney Morning Herald