A FLOWERING OF SERPENTS

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A FLOWERING OF SERPENTS

One of the first questions you hear, when you announce that you’re going to Africa, is a tremulous, “But aren’t you afraid of snakes?”

Answer:  “Yep.  Terrified!  What of it?”

If I let my life-long dislike of reptiles deter me, I would not hunt in south Texas, I’d avoid Alabama, and Australia would be out of the question.  For that matter, I wouldn’t live in Missouri, where we have copperheads, water moccasins, and the occasional rattler.

Every so often, I sit back and count on my fingers the number of times, during 14 or 15 trips to Africa, totalling more than three years of my life, that I have even seen a snake.  I have yet to run out of fingers.  Snakes there certainly are, but they just haven’t bothered me.

Now, stories about snakes?  You done come to the right place, pal.  Where do you want me to start?  Oh, wait:  First, a word of advice.  If you are a herpetophobe, fearing snakes to an irrational degree, the first question you should ask a prospective professional hunter is how he feels about them.  If his face lights up and he assures you that he loves snakes and plays with them every chance he gets, thank him politely, back away, and sign on with someone else.  Trust me on that one.  I speak from experience.

People who actually like snakes can’t fathom people who don’t, just as cat lovers can’t relate to the benighted few who find cats repellent.  Fortunately, there aren’t that many snake lovers; unfortunately, most of them seem to be PHs.

One time in Botswana I was waist-deep in a hippo pool, which was home to (by actual count) 14 hippos and one large crocodile.  We were hunting ducks and geese, and my guide would fire a shot over the reeds, and birds would flush.  One duck came zipping by and I dropped it into the water a few yards behind me.  When I went to retrieve it, I found a large python curled around it, contemplating duck recipes.  With whoops of joy, my PH handed me his gun, grabbed the python by the tail, and hauled it ashore, yelling at me all the while to be sure to get the duck.

The python turned out to be a young one — only 12 feet long, but he looked bigger to me — and we “played” with it on the bank for an hour, then allowed it to slither back into the water, shaking its serpentine head in disbelief and making reptilian mutterings.  I knew how it felt.  We kept the duck, which I thought was a trifle unfair.

Another time, I was staying with a friend on the edge of the Okavango.  He had a permanent tent camp, and I had a mattress on the floor of the cook tent.  Cook tents generally contain mice, and mice attract snakes.  The night we arrived, around dusk, Clint pulled into his usual parking spot.  I opened the door and jumped out, looking down as I did at a cobra, right under my feet.  You can, I found, change trajectory in mid-air, and my feet missed the cobra by at least a yard.

“Oh,” Clint said, “I forgot to tell you.  I killed that snake this morning.  Found it behind the cook tent.  Sorry.”

It was dead, but still.  I can’t say I slept all that well the first couple of nights, but then I settled in and all was fine.  The memory receded.

My particular horror is the Mozambique spitting cobra, which rears up and lets fly a stream of venom, aimed at your eyes, and is reputed to be accurate from several yards out.  Blindness does not appeal to me.  A friend who has a game ranch outside Bulawayo had her buildings constructed around an inner courtyard, one of which contained the shower and another a privy.  As is normal in Africa (don’t ask me why) the privy was at the far end of a narrow room, with a tiny window in the wall above.  She went out in the dead of night to do what people do in the dead of night.  The generator was not running, but there was a full moon, so she didn’t bother with a flashlight.

As she settled in, she felt a stream of cool liquid hit her thigh.  A spitting cobra was in there with her, probably right beside her in the darkness.  The room was illuminated only by thin moonlight through the high window.  What did she do?

“I closed my eyes and waited,” she said.  “Then I made a dash for the door.  Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t run with your pants around your ankles.”  The cobra also made its escape.  The privy now has its very own flashlight, hanging outside the door.

Cobras are one thing.  Mambas are another.  Mambas make cobras seem almost friendly.  Stuart Cloete, the great South African writer, wrote a blood-chilling novel called Mamba, which is about a love triangle, with the snake playing the same role it’s enjoyed since Genesis.  Ever since reading that, 40 or 50 years ago, the mamba has haunted my dreams.

At the risk of overstating, they are reputed to be able to outrun a horse (if snakes can be said to run), outclimb a monkey, be extraordinarily deadly, and have the personality of a wolverine.  There are black mambas and green mambas. The black is the more common, (and more aggressive)  and is actually a dark brownish-grey.

The editor of one of the Big Three went to Botswana back in the early ‘90s.  He was sleeping in his tent one night when something woke him up.  He heard scurrying.  A mouse.  It scurried here.  It scurried there.  Eventually, he dropped back to sleep.  In the morning, they went out hunting, and returned to camp for lunch.  He walked into his tent and out through the back to the adjoining privy, which had the toilet on one side and the shower on the other.  He glanced into the shower and there, halfway in through the drain hole, was the front half of a black mamba.  At the sight of him, it reared up, but was unable to perform with mamba-like dexterity until it had pulled itself in through the drain, which was a tight fit.  By the time it cleared the drain, our fearless editor was out through the front and calling for help.

The PH returned with some trackers and a shotgun, found the tent empty, and proceeded to beat the brush behind it.  The mamba made tracks (so to speak) and got its head blown off.

Piecing it together, they concluded that the scurrying noises the editor heard the night before was a mouse, seeking to escape, while the mamba stalked it under the bed and over the wardrobe.  This realization was too much.  The editor was packed and heading for the airport before dark, and has never returned.

Another mamba story:  I was in Tanzania on the edge of the Rift Valley, driving along a track past a Masai camp.  We saw a mamba cross the track and go into a grain-storage hut through a crack in the wall.  We stopped and advised the residents.  Soon, a bunch of budding Masai morani, complete with spears and robes, had gathered around and were debating who was going to go in after it.  Our trackers, both Masai themselves (and who insist on spelling it with one ‘a’) looked disgusted with the whole thing, and finally one climbed down, pulled aside the door frame, and went in.  There was loud clattering as he beat his walking stick against the grain baskets.  The mamba came out the way he went in, scattering the teenagers, while our other tracker nailed it.  There then began the debate about who had panicked and run first, while we drove away.

Just so there is no mistake, yours truly would not have entered that hut for a 50-inch buffalo.

By scientific analysis, per gram of venom, the boomslang is (or was) reputed to be the deadliest snake in Africa, although I believe now some obscure adder from West Africa is considered deadlier.  The boomslang (it means “tree snake” in Afrikaans) is a medium-sized green fellow with a shy and retiring nature.  Not aggressive like the mamba (I guess you don’t need to be when you’re that well-armed), he is made less deadly by the fact that his fangs are in the back of his mouth, and it’s tough for him to get a good grip and inject much venom.

One time, staying on a farm outside Arusha, my PH was called to deal with “A snake! A snake!” in one of the store rooms.  Having no idea what it might be, we grabbed a club and bucket and went to investigate.  It turned out to be a baby boomslang, no more than eight or nine inches long, vivid green against the shavings on the floor.  My PH was no snake lover, but he believed that all creatures have their place.  We herded the little guy into the bucket, then released him in some brush on the edge of the farm.

I have other snake tales — cobras, mambas, puff adders — but we’ll save them for another time.  Funny thing, though:  Thinking about all this has made me realize that, much as I dislike snakes, Africa would not be the same without them.  If only to terrorize the folks at home.