“Ohh, ohh, sometimes I get a good leeching,” Alpha 7 sang to us as part of their spectacular skit during first changeover.
Before coming to Borneo, I scarcely knew what a leech was. “Do they hurt? How big are they?” I nervously enquired. Soon enough, I was all too familiar with them.
My first phase was the Biodiversity survey. In the remote area of the rainforest which we were situated, my Project Manager Tim Chapman and David Rendle boasted about the creation of a new sport; leech racing, it was eagerly explained, is a game that involves encouraging a leech to move about on the floor using the placement of your feet. It would seem leeches are attracted to bodily heat. As you move your feet around, the leech alters its course.
|Alpha 6 - Biodviersity Team Phase I|
It was also on Phase I that I was introduced to two kinds of leeches. The regular leech is plain and black, and doesn’t hurt when it bites. These leeches contain local anesthetic so they can feed unnoticed by their prey. The second leech I was introduced to contains less local anesthetic thus has a harder time going unnoticed when biting: it is known as the tiger leech, either because of its fierce attack or it’s stripy orange colouring, I’m not sure which.
|Leech attack in progress|
That is until the fateful afternoon of 20th February. I was minding my own business, admiring our newly completed basher when all of the sudden I felt it: a sudden prick, the leech looking for the most appropriate of private places to sink into. Unfortunately for me, the leech found the most inappropriate of places. I exclaimed my concerns to the world, but I was afraid to check. Could I really have been leeched there? Surely not; this was the sort of thing legends were made of – I am no legend. I couldn’t hide from the truth though, and I promptly galloped off to a private patch of jungle to carry out a more thorough investigation. Sure enough, there the little tiger leech was, staking his claim in my most special of special places. I pulled up my shorts and brought the leech back to my group, a trophy to show everyone, before performing the roll and flick.
That’s how you get rid of leeches, the roll and flick. Well, that’s the nice way. It’s a technique I think all venturers are trained in during induction. Leeches are sticky creatures, so just trying to drop them won’t work. You need to roll them up in the palm of your hand to disorient them, and then flick them away. Many people new to leeches panic, and rush to flick them away. The leech ends up not going very far, landing on a boot or a fellow team member. The key is to remain calm, and always aim away from the group. It’s cruel not to. Venturer Beth Maton says “I’ve become so skilled at the roll and flick that I can do it while walking.” A useful skill indeed.
Of course, better than getting rid of leeches is to not get any leeches in the first place. Some people hike around in longs during the day, their trousers tucked into their socks. Others have claimed DEET will repel the little suckers.
|Leech on a sock|
But perhaps the best way to deal with leeches is to not care about them. Project Manager Krystyna Kirkham adopts this attitude. “Below the knee, fair ground.” She says. “On my first day of trek, I took off my boot and there were 27 leeches on my foot and another 15 in my boot. Even the guides were disgusted.” However, there is a line to be drawn. Krystyna agrees: “above the knee is my personal space”. A thought many a PM and venturer alike share, Beth being one of them. Beth’s first leech experience crossed that line.
|Leech expert Krystyna|
And some people do in fact grow fond of leeches. “I actually have a fair amount of respect of leeches. They are the most determined creature without a brain out there,” Krystyna says.
Beth tells a story of a girl in her first Alpha group who started out absolutely terrified of leeches, but by the end of Phase I was putting baby ones on her arm so that they could grow strong.
Whatever your feelings about leeches, they’re here and they’re not going anywhere. They are as much a part of Raleigh as buggy long drops, bland porridge, and Mac’s frightening motivational speeches. They help make our Raleigh experience, shaping us into the people we will be for the rest of our lives. So whether your pulling a leech off your left testicle, stepping around one on a jungle trail, or waiting for a well fed blood-sucker to pop in the fire, remember to be grateful for leeches, and the fleeting part they play in our short lives.