“When you stay at Sanctuary you will be in the middle of a rainforest environment. Please consider your feelings about sharing this habitat with wildlife and sighting the occasional snake or spider etc.”
So read the email we received after booking two nights at the Sanctuary Retreat, located in the rainforest above Mission Beach.
Interesting and adventurous! I thought. Sure, I hate spiders, but it’s always good to face your fears, right?
We were looking forward to being in an eco-friendly place, spending time in nature, and maybe even getting a glimpse of the endangered cassowary, a strange, almost prehistoric-looking creature that roams around the Mission Beach area. Cassowaries are quite an insane animal, and one we didn't want to get too close to. They have vicious claws and a horn-like crest on top of their head, and are known to attack humans, leading them to be called the "world's most dangerous bird".
Of course I was also looking forward to just chilling out on Mission Beach as well.
We arrived at the Sanctuary on a late afternoon in September, a few days after our lovely drive up the Queensland coast. We parked our rental car in the lot and called to get our free pick up, since there’s no way to drive all the way to the reception. Since the driver wasn't available just then, we decided to leave our bags and walk (i.e. hike) up the hill on our own. The hike was a bit more challenging than I expected: uphill on a very narrow path through the rainforest; lots of climbing over roots and avoiding tree branches. Apparently they weren’t joking when they warned us we should be physically fit to stay here!
The cabin that we were staying in was also slightly different than I expected. Just as in the photos, it was in the middle of a lush forest with sunlight filtering through the leaves. But on closer look I realized that the walls were made out of screens and there was a substantial-sized crack between the walls and floor that various kinds of creepy-crawly creatures could enter through.
Did I mention I’m scared of spiders?
While checking in, we asked whether we should worry about anything poisonous in the forest.
“I saw a python the other day, and we have some Huntsman spiders around, but don’t worry, they aren’t dangerous,” the lady at the front desk told us. Ummmm, yeah… this definitely didn’t make me feel any better. But we’d already paid for the hotel, so I decided to put on my big-girl pants and deal with it.
That evening, we drove into the town of Mission Beach for a seafood meal at Sealevel Restaurant, enhanced by the beautiful view of the ocean from our outdoor table. And I’m not going to lie: part of my plan was to drink enough alcohol that I could fall asleep without worrying about spiders crawling over me during the night.
After dinner, we drove back to the Sanctuary and faced the long walk back uphill. In the rainforest. In complete darkness. I took one look at the forest path, thinking about what might be roaming around in there, and suggested we instead take a gamble on the steep paved path meant for the retreat's 4x4 vehicle. We walked up quickly, using our phones as flashlights and hoping that the local cassowary wouldn’t choose that moment to get territorial on us and leap out from the bushes. But no, we made it up to our cabin unscathed and soon fell asleep to the surprisingly loud cacophony of insects and birds.
All was peaceful until my visit to the communal toilet in the middle of the night, when I went to wash my hands and recoiled with a gasp. A huntsman spider the size of my fist was hanging out by the sink. I washed quickly at the other sink and then speed-walked back to our cabin, avoiding eye contact with the spider. Lying in bed, my heart beating quickly, I couldn't help but imagine more spiders crawling over the ceiling, dropping on my face, and skittering across my stomach. It took me a long time to fall asleep.
The next day was beautiful and sunny. After breakfast, we spent a lazy morning on the little strip of sand near the Sanctuary. The gorgeous water and blue skies made me quickly forget the unwanted drama of the past night.
On our drive into town that afternoon, we saw something that made my heart beat quickly again, but this time in excitement.
“Quick, pull over!” shouted my travel partner as we drove down the road. We jumped out of the car with our cameras poised, and under a shady tree, there it was: a cassowary!
We stood for a while, watching as the tall bird walked around slowly, pecking at something in the tree. We felt super lucky to have seen this rare animal—from what we'd read, there are only a couple thousand left in Australia.
Over dinner that night, my travel partner asked me if I wanted to look for another place to stay. “No,” I said, “I survived the first night; another night there won’t be a problem. It’s good for me.”
And guess what? On our second night we didn’t see any spiders at all.