I am going to have to start this post off with an apology. If you followed this blog in the hope of watching the slow but inevitable collapse of civilization at the hands of my family, you will have to wait until the next post. I’m trying to write a book. As part of my research, I am plagiarising an entire ecosystem (yes, I’m afraid it’s sci-fi. It’s going to be about a planet of mutes, because I can’t write dialogue). The ecosystem I am stealing is that of the Lowveld. For those of you who are not from South Africa, that’s where we keep all the proper animals.
Anyone from South Africa who has spent any time outdoors while growing up will have some experience of snakes. For those of you not from here, whose idea of Africa comes from wildlife documentaries with names like “Africa’s Twelve Most Murderous Death-Beasts”, it’s not like that at all. Put anything you have learned about Africa from the Discovery Channel out of your mind (after calling the producers and telling them to stop being such dicks.)
There are two important things you need to know about snakes. The first is that only about ten per cent of them are dangerous. The second is that there is not a single snake (on this continent at least) which has anything to gain from killing you. Snakes don’t eat people. In fact, snakes that bite people are usually signing their own death warrants. We are nothing if not a vengeful species.
Snakes only bite when they are feeling threatened. This means that all snakebites happen when people either stumble upon snakes or when they mess with them. And boy do we like to mess with them. There are some very venomous snakes out here that have only ever been recorded as having bitten herpetologists.
Herpetologists at least know the risks. There is another group of people out here who specialise in both stumbling upon and messing with snakes. Boys. When I was still in junior school, I had a friend who lived across the road whose grandparents had a small farm in the bushveld. We used to go and stay there for weekends, and would spend hours wandering out alone in the bush. This was a farm, not a game reserve. There were baboons and monkeys, porcupines and jackals, but nothing really big and dangerous. And there were snakes.
There is a thing with farmers and snakes out here. When I was growing up, most famers would kill any snake they found, no questions asked. We used to drive down in the open back of a bakkie (pickup), and every now and then would be thrown to one side as the car veered off the road, tyres squealing. It was my friend’s father, swerving off to drive over a snake he had spotted on the side of the road.
In these enlightened times, there is a tendency to leave them alone, since they keep down the numbers of rats and mice, but I suspect that mostly, things haven’t changed. It’s easy to sit and judge as a suburban grownup, but I suppose if I woke up one morning and saw a registered sex offender standing in my garden with a large axe, I wouldn’t leave him alone in the hope he would trim back some of my trees while he was there. Snakes can be dangerous, and although I would prefer it if people left them alone, I can’t really muster too much disapproval for people who kill them when they, their workers, and their families are at risk from them.
As children though, it was definitely monkey see, monkey do. If we saw a snake, we would kill it. This went on until we returned to the house one day, cheerfully swinging a dead baby black mamba around by the tail. Venom is venom, no matter how big the snake is. It was rather forcefully explained to us that we would never be messing with snakes again. We were to call someone with a shotgun.
I had another friend with a far more enlightened approach. When I first met him, he had just started catching Brown House Snakes and keeping them. These are pretty little snakes, and harmless, if a little tetchy. By the time we lost track of each other, he had graduated to Red-lipped Heralds. These were semi-venomous. I got bitten once, and ended up with a pounding headache.
No doubt he grew up to keep the really dangerous bastards. It’s a hobby I’ve never understood. You can keep a deadly snake in a glass tank in your bedroom, feeding and cleaning it regularly. In return, you will get no affection, very little entertainment (pet snakes don’t exactly do very much), and the constant threat of agonising death (as I said above, there are some snakes which only ever bite snake-handlers). I prefer gardening.
And so down to the Lowveld. When I tried to do a post about the creepy crawlies, I ended up with a four part monster that almost no-one read. Having learned my lesson, I am just going to choose five of the many snakes you find down there, so that I can produce a one-part post that almost no one will read.
African Rock Pythons are big. Really big. They can reach over six metres and are thick, muscular snakes. There are hardly any really big ones left though. Farmers kill them because they eat sheep, and they are taken for the Muti trade.
As an aside, Muti is traditional African medicine (kind of like Chinese traditional medicine). There is a vast store of knowledge about the uses and effects of indigenous African plants, some of which are highly poisonous if the wrong dosage is given. Modern medicine is only now starting to investigate these plants, and important progress is being made in fields like cancer research. Then there is the animal stuff. This is all myth. Rare and endangered animals like pythons, pangolins and vultures are taken. There is even a small but horrifying trade in human body parts. Freshly harvested. Usually from children.
Back to pythons. We don’t see them often, but when we do, it’s hugely exciting, because they are really rare. They can give a very nasty bite, and can be aggressive, but they hardly ever eat people. Not that I would leave them alone with the kids or anything.
We once found an enormous fresh python skeleton out in the bush. It was laid out like a museum specimen, completely undamaged, with fresh bits of flesh still attached. I cannot imagine what could kill a snake that size, and strip it of its flesh, without damaging even the delicate rib bones. My wife thought it may be mongooses, but I’m thinking aliens (why would they limit themselves to cows in Arizona?)
One should never burden wild animals with human value judgements. All animals have their place in the ecosystem, and are beautiful in their own way. Except Puff-adders. Puff-adders are hideous, loathsome creatures, bloated and misshapen gargoyles, and should be driven from the earth. They are Africa’s rattlesnakes, right down to the noise. They don’t rattle, they blow and wheeze loudly to warn you off (hence the name).
People tend to get excited about Black Mambas, which are more venomous, but this is far and away the most dangerous snake in Africa. Far more people are killed by these than any other snakes. Surviving isn’t that great either- the wounds they leave are horrific, and take an age to heal. If it isn’t too close to your meal-time, you can Google them.
Puff-adders really are ugly snakes. Their bodies are short and bloated, like a sock full of custard and marbles. Their heads are broad and malevolent; with wide, gaping mouths hiding frighteningly long, fold-out fangs. They don’t even move right. No sinuous, serpentine movement for them- they glide forward like slugs. They are slow, but can strike blindingly fast.
Everything about them makes them a problem for people. First of all, they are active during the day, when we are. Secondly, instead of fleeing like most snakes, they freeze in the hope of not being seen. This is all very well, until they freeze and are not seen in the middle of an overgrown path you happen to be walking down. And they are very hard to see. If you see them in a tank in someone’s collection, they have a busy crisscross pattern that is actually quite attractive. Their scales are keeled, so they are rough in texture. Throw them down in the leaves and grass, though, and they blend in perfectly.
Out in the bush we, as tourists, don’t have much to fear from them. We don’t walk around much, and they don’t make a habit of climbing into bushes or coming into houses. I did, though, nearly lose my son to one when he was about five.
We were exploring the bush right next to the house, looking for animal tracks and creepy crawlies, when my son, as five-year-olds do, went dashing of in the direction of the road. I don’t know if I heard something or if I saw something, but I hauled him up into my arms by the scruff of his neck and there it sat, two or three little steps down his path, puffing away while its body swelled and shrunk with each breath, not going anywhere.
We stayed inside for a while after that.
Mambas are one of those snakes whose names have gained a mythology of their own, like King Cobras or Bushmasters or Diamondbacks. And they are awesome creatures. They are everything Puff-adders are not. For a start, they are huge. They can be over four metres long, more than two average men, never being thicker than a mountain bike tyre. They are sleek and shiny and sinuous, a sinister gunmetal grey streak of snake. Their heads are almost always described, rather aptly, as coffin shaped. The black part of their name comes from the colour of the insides of their mouths, which are as black as pitch.
They also happen to be one of the fastest snakes in the world, moving at about 15 km/h. That means that when you go for your jog in the morning, they could keep up with you (although I suspect you would go a bit faster if you knew they were there). The really scary thing about their speed is that a lot of the time you can’t see them moving. We were once sitting out on the stoep in the afternoon when we heard a row coming from the other side of the house. It was a large gang of birds mobbing a Mamba. Six of us were watching it move through the trees, and lost it. One section of Mamba looks pretty much like any other, until it suddenly narrows and disappears. We found it five minutes later, three trees away. This sort of thing is more than a little worrying when it’s happening right outside your front door.
They can rear up to strike at an unnerving height. Part of what makes them so dangerous is that they often strike at chest height, close to your heart. I have spoken to more than one person who has been driving cheerfully through the bush, only to have a Mamba strike their cars squarely in the middle of the driver’s side window, leaving a streak of venom flowing down the glass. The window of the average bush vehicle is at about the same height as my head.
My father, a few years ago, was standing next to a bird hide when one came straight at him, from quite a distance away. This goes against everything I said earlier about snakes wanting to leave you alone. I have read , subsequently, that they have home ranges, and it was probably heading for its nearest bolt-hole, but that’s not the sort of thing you think of when four metres of high-speed serpentine killing machine is making a bee-line for you.
A Black Mamba once gave me one of the longest nights of my life. I was staying down at my folks’ place alone, and spotted him in a tree overhanging the room where I was sleeping as the sun went down. I decided there was nothing to be done and went off to bed. There is nothing like fear to sharpen the senses. As the hours passed, my heart stopped for every snapping twig or crackling leaf until, in the thatch right above me, I heard a rustling sound.
I shot out of bed like a Champaign cork, torch in hand. Slowly, carefully, I made my way back, shining the torch up into the roof. It was a dormouse. They are unnaturally cute, with big dark eyes and fluffy tails, and I was so relieved I wanted to adopt it right then and there. Relaxing, I went back to bed. And started to think. Snakes don’t come into houses because they like the décor. They come looking for food. Food like dormice.
I stayed in the bathroom for a while after that.
Mozambique Spitting Cobras
These are classic cobras, not too big, but with the spreading hood and a smattering of bars across the neck. We call them M’fezi. When threatened, they rear up and spread their hoods, as cobras do, rocking gently from side to side. Their venom is pretty nasty, but not generally deadly. Their party trick, as the name suggests, is that they can spit their venom. They go for the eyes. They don’t have to rear up to spit, either, so if you don’t know they’re there, you can get a very nasty surprise.
Alone in the bush again (I used to do this a lot before my life was overtaken by 5am requests for strawberry yoghurt) I once found a large scorpion in the house. Ever the good conservationist, I scooped it up in a jar and took it out into the bush to let it go. I was kneeling down and tipping it out when I was distracted by a movement in front of me. Less than three feet away was a small M’fezi, reared up with hood spread, head rocking slowly from one side to the other.
I wear glasses, so I felt a degree of security, but I was buggered if I was going to move. He obviously felt the same way, so we sat there for a small lifetime, staring at each other. God alone knows what the scorpion was doing, but a small compartment of my brain that wasn’t screaming “Snake! Run!” was quietly whispering “You know there’s a scorpion here too, right? Just saying”. I can’t remember who blinked first, but we eventually went our own ways, older if not a whit wiser.
I stayed in the house for a while after that, building a small but efficient scorpion-killing machine. Bugger conservation.
It may seem like I have gone for the big, scary, badass snakes in this, but those just happen to be the snakes you see most often. There are many others, but mostly they get out of your way long before you see them. There are Boomslangs hidden in the trees, waiting for unsuspecting herpetologists to attack. There are Mole Snakes, moving silently beneath the ground. There are Vine Snakes, so well camouflaged that the only time I’ve ever seen one was when the stick I had been looking past for minutes turned and looked back at me. There are Grass Snakes, Tree Snakes, Gloss Snakes and Eggeaters.
And then there are my favourite snakes of all. Thread snakes. Now these are proper snakes. Man snakes. Snakes you can take on and still hold onto your dignity. There are a few different species, so similar that any surviving herpetologists battle to tell them apart. They are tiny, no bigger than the palm of your hand, and as thin as a piece of string. They spend most of their time underground, eating ants, but very occasionally, they will come up after rain. You can pick them up with impunity- they aren’t venomous and would be too small to bite you even if they were. They wind their way between your fingers like animated pieces of electrical wire, bright and shiny as mirrors. You can let them go and spend the rest of the day outside without a moment’s hesitation.
So there you have it. Snakes done. The next one of these will be about lizards, and then we can move onto more appealing things. To most. I’ve always been fond of the little things- finding them is always a surprise, and they are usually doing something more interesting than the big things.