Australia: Leeches, A Night at Dharmananda

Bowman Leigh journeys deep into the jungles to visit the Buddhist retreat at Dharmananda. The hundreds of tiger leeches make the stay less peaceful than she expected.

High in the rainforest of New South Wales’ Nightcap Range, my fellow study-abroaders and I had our first “bush” encounter at a place called Dharmananda.

After making it through orientation the week before, I was eager to embark on the first of many field trips throughout Australia, getting acquainted with the land I was supposed to be studying.

There was one problem though: the mini-portrait I’d gathered of Australia so far included the city of Brisbane and my program’s orientation site — a glamorous eco-community with sustainable million-dollar second homes, organic meals, and an infinity pool. Not exactly indicative of one of the world’s most unique and extreme environments, or the rainforest sleepover ahead.

Since Dharmananda was a legitimate Buddhist retreat center, there were several overarching rules that its patrons obliged visitors to follow and we were told to do the same by our leader, Peter:

  1. No killing (including mosquitoes)
  2. No eating meat
  3. No dishonesty
  4. No promiscuity

It all sounded easy enough.

The point of our visit was to attend an eco-philosophy workshop led by Dr. Elizabeth Bragg, also known as Eshanna – a name that seemed appropriate for the FernGully-esque setting. So, we headed to the Nightcap Range by bus, with only half of us heeding Peter’s last minute warning to “not wear flip flops.” What could be so bad about the rainforest floor?

Once we’d climbed through the Australian hinterland and up into the range itself, the bus pulled over. Peter broke the news that access to the retreat center required a twenty-minute trek through the rainforest along a muddy, leaf-covered road. I flung on my pack and headed out. The surrounding vegetation was vibrant, and waxy leaves glistened with dripping water. Onward we walked, hauling our gear, and marveling at the absolute quiet of the rainforest. Sure, there was the occasional bird trill, but overall, a vast, consuming silence caused our usually raucous group to shut up and listen as we made our way up to Dharmananda. Whether due to our awe-inspired silence, the beauty of the scenery, or the simple newness of the landscape, none of us (especially the flip-flop clad ones) happened to look down at our feet until we reached the top, sat on a few stumps, and began listening to Eshanna describe the Nightcap Range’s natural history.

About two minutes into her talk, my eyes wandered down to Eshanna’s open-toed sandals. Pausing in horror, I noticed tiny leeches stuck between each of her toes, blood and all. Did she know what was happening? Around me, people not only noticed Eshanna’s bloody feet, but also started to realize that there could be leeches everywhere, even on their own shoes. Eshanna’s once attentive audience was now focused on a thorough search of shoes, socks, and toes for lurking leeches, missing the tail end of her info session.

Afterward, now that I’d begun to understand the threat at hand, every rainforest walk to and from buildings prompted a desperate search for leeches. The worst part was that the threat was almost invisible. No matter how attentive you were to your foot placement on the forest path, the leeches always found a way in. Stowaway leeches were always waiting to burrow through your sock for a tasty meal. Within hours, a shoe-centered panic began to spread throughout the group, especially once everyone experienced their first de-leeching.

Much like a normal worm, the leech body is stretchy, so pulling them felt almost as gross as having them on you in the first place. The use of de-leeching instruments, like a nearby stick, demanded a bit of finesse and was only somewhat successful. One strategy emerged as the best: grabbing the leech with your own fingers, but instead of pulling, sliding your finger underneath its mouth to break the seal, and then flinging it away. This was not a fun thing to do and frequently ended in leeches grabbing on to the offending finger and holding on for dear life, as the person flung their hand around furiously, trying to escape.

About my third or fourth time removing a leech from the mesh webbing of my shoes, I noticed Eshanna’s helper having similar removal issues next to me. We made eye contact and, as if to console any worries I had about violating Buddhist rule number one — no killing — she said, “It’s okay to kill these little bastards.”

If there was one silver lining to the leech battle that first day, it was my growing awareness of their capabilities. I felt like I knew, more or less, what a regular leech could do and how to protect myself. Choosing where to bunk down that night, I felt no hesitation plopping down on the floor of a cabin with no door. Leeches could smell you, but couldn’t possibly make it all the way up the cabin stairs, across the floor, and over to my sleeping bag. Right?

Nope.

A little before midnight that night, I awoke from a dream to a slimy feeling on my right forearm. Still in a sleepy daze, though, I ignored it, nonchalantly pulling the leech off and setting it down somewhere near my sleeping bag. Mistake number one. When I awoke again, my mind had had a chance to catch up. With another leech now on the opposite arm, I ripped it off in one adrenaline-powered motion, hurling the thing away from the group of girls I was sleeping near. Heart pounding, I fumbled around for my headlamp. I scanned with my LED-light to find where the leech had landed. And, as if the Jaws soundtrack was playing along, my light beam suddenly spotted climactically on the perpetrator. As I looked closer, the position of the leech was almost more terrifying than its previous attack on my forearms: there it was, fully engorged and sticking out from the wall like a demonic spike.

Trying to summon the remaining adrenaline in my veins, I went for it using a stick, scraped it off the wall of the cabin, and tossed the fat leech back into the forest where it belonged. Only after getting back to my sleeping bag, a wave of nausea starting to hit, did I noticed how much I was bleeding.

A far cry from the leech I had imagined pre-Australia, mostly from a particularly legendary scene in the film Stand By Me, tiger leeches in this rainforest look more like mean inch-worms. Both ends are mouths, which makes sucking on a host pretty easy for them. When they find a nice human to munch on, the cut they make is actually incredibly small. The reason you bleed so much is due to an anti-coagulant around the edge of the cut, making it harder for your body to seal it up and scab over. Having had not one but two leeches around each arm, the blood coming out of me was enough to cause the girls who’d awoken during the ruckus to let out a yelp and put hands to their mouths. Training their flashlight on me, their worst fears had been confirmed and soon, everyone was checking their sleeping bags and clothes. Going back to sleep that night was next to impossible, and come morning time, a debriefing occurred at the breakfast table.

Feeling sick, but proud I’d survived the night, I told my story to the group. To my surprise, however, there were others whose night almost topped mine. It seemed that a better name for the tiger leech might have been “flying leech,” as a guy in my program had awoken the night before with one on his stomach high in the loft of our kitchen building. The only way to get up there was with a ladder.

In the end, while leeches continued to plague our attempts at achieving Zen at Dharmananda, we managed to make it out only somewhat scathed. While packing up on the last day, I even attempted to make peace by constructing tiny hoops out of dead leaves for a leech to jump through as I waved a tantalizing finger in front of the hole.

When all was said and done, we hauled our gear back down the hill — this time not a flip flop in sight. We patiently waited as rain began to pour and loaded the bus and Peter’s pick-up. And, as we finally found our seats on the bus to civilization, a feeling of relief seemed to settle too. We took a group picture as a memento of our bravery.

Dharmananda, though, hadn’t quite had enough of us. Ten minutes into the descent, the first of many shrieks erupted inside the bus as leeches popped up everywhere — on a shoe, down in a sock, or inching their way along the top of a bus seat. A wave of desperate window-slides and hand-flicks ensued.

The leeches had come along for the ride, and Dharmananda had given us one of Australia’s enduring lessons: nature always wins.

Bowman Leigh hails from Portland, OR but is currently in Australia studying sustainability. Talents include a knack for public embarrassment, fig-tree climbing, and obsessive cleaning, but her passion is in perfecting "bush-dance" moves.