So what does a housewife ironing in Windhoek have in common with troops who fought in the Gulf War in Iraq? Believe it or not it is the infamous camel spider. These spiders have been known to bite soldiers in the Middle East and as a result, many myths and legends have surfaced about them.
As I said, I was busy ironing when I noticed a movement across the floor next to me. On closer inspection I saw what looked like a ferocious cross between a spider and a scorpion. Not being too partial to having spiders or scorpions on the loose around the house I decided to catch it and photograph it before releasing it in the bush, which I duly did with very little resistance or aggression from the arachnid in question.
Two years later I have been able to identify it as a Solifugid, also commonly known as a camel spider, wind scorpion or a sun spider. Solifugid means ‘escaping from the sun’. In Southern Africa it also has the name of “baardskeerder” which translated means beard cutter – apparently they have been known to cut human and animal hair to line their underground nests. According to numerous write-ups on the internet this weird creature is greatly feared, mainly due to the many myths that abound about its terrible bite and its aggression towards humans.
I was interested to see that there are a number of websites dedicated to camel spiders – sites that perpetuate the myths and others that try and set the record straight. Some of the rather bizarre stories circulating about these creatures are that they are lightning fast and can move at speeds of over 30 mph; that they carry scorpions on their backs (hence the name camel spider); that they scream as they chase a person and that their bite can cause dreadful damage to human flesh.
In truth, they are much slower and move at a top speed of 10 mph, which is still pretty fast for a spider of this size. Their venom is not poisonous to humans, but if a bite gets infected then obviously the wound will turn nasty. They do not scream at or chase people, but they do like to keep up with one’s shadow to keep out of the sun, which may give the scary impression that they are chasing someone. Their enormous jaws are used to kill and chew their prey, which mostly consists of insects, spiders, small rodents and lizards.
Urban legend or not, it is a rather scary-looking creature and I’m glad that my encounter with it was peaceful and didn’t end up with me getting more than just a nice photograph.
Postscript: I have since been able to photograph a male camel spider. As you can see, it is much smaller than the female in the picture above. This is a macro shot which shows up his beautiful head of red hair. I’m still not sure how I had the courage to get that close!