Snakes alive!

Panorama Magazine

“You may encounter black and white rhino, elephant, buffalo and lion. You are requested to remain motionless. If the animal charges, move quickly and quietly behind cover. In the case of lions, DON’T RUN but move up in a close group behind the Game Guard.” – safety regulations at game park in South Africa.

It’s difficult to not instantly emulate Cathy Freeman when a ton-and-a-half of twitchy African elephant is bearing down in a swirl of dust, its trunk blaring wrathful and ear-splitting blasts. It’s even harder to “move quickly and quietly behind cover”, seeing that all that stands between us and the irate leviathan is a slim lad in khaki bush clothes with a .458 rifle slung casually over his shoulder.

Blood curdles, stomachs quake, hearts flip-flop and feet begin lifting off the ground in an involuntary reflex directly connected to survival. But the ranger remains cool. For him it’s simply another day at the office, just another elephant making a mock charge. With an abrupt shout and raised hand he magically brings the beast to a halt.

It stands a few metres away, swaying on gigantic legs, flapping enormous ears and casting a baleful yellow eye upon our little group as we stand petrified, expecting certain death. The beast is so close I can gauge the depth of the wrinkles criss-crossing its leathery skin. Amazingly, it then lumbers off, a deep gurgling emanating from the depths of its stomach. This I understand to be the sound of an elephant’s chuckle.

Campfire stories

Face-to-face encounters with wild beasts form the crux of an African safari. Such elemental confrontations fully expose the awesome, fearsome beauty of the wild. As scintillating as an bush dawn or sunset may be, Africa’s primal lure is its extraordinary aggregation of wild creatures.

Around the African campfire, it is the stories about charging elephants, man-munching lions, crazed old buffalo and enraged rhino that spark the greatest interest and hold listeners enthralled. Game rangers carry a bandolier of wild tales to spin out with the after-dinner drinks. Ironically, Africa’s smaller creatures don’t often feature in such yarns, yet it’s the small ones that can sometimes cause the most havoc.

The litmus test of calm-under-pressure in the African bush is finding a snake in your bed … or sleeping bag, to be exact. Presumably bush-craft lesson number one is to always zip up your tent! It’s a rule I ignored when camping at Mkuze in Kwazulu-Natal one summer, but one I won’t ignore again.

Mkuze Game Reserve, the adjacent Great St Lucia Wetland Park and the nearby Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park, all located between three and four hour’s drive north of Durban, are where many South Africans go to get in touch with wildlife.

This region is less visited than the Kruger National Park and much more affordable than the high profile, upmarket safari lodges, which cater almost exclusively to an international clientele able to enjoy advantageous exchange rates. The Kwazulu-Natal parks may be low-profile destinations but they are as thrilling as anywhere else, as I discovered.

Tent horror

Ducking my head through the tent flaps, shining my torch and seeing a sinuous wriggling taking place within my faded old Downafluff was enough to shred any allegiance to, or even recall of, bush rules and protocol. My squeaky yelp resulted from the instantaneous constriction of my throat.

A snake in the bed is what I categorize as really scary. In comparison a scorpion is nothing; just make sure you tip out each shoe every morning. Spiders are never really a problem, although big, hairy ones can make you shudder. It’s true that unknown insects can be startling, especially when suddenly encountered as unidentified flying objects. But a snake in your bed immediately stimulates a cold sweat.

My brain raced through the possibilities. Was it a black mamba, the most venomous and aggressive of African snakes and sometimes reaching four metres in length? Perhaps a puff adder, lazy, fat and stubby but responsible for more bites than any other African snake? Or maybe an Egyptian cobra, fast, fearsome and deadly? Or even a rhinkals, the spitting cobra that can blind?

Not once did I consider it could be harmless. Whatever it was in my bed, it was sure to be bad news. Having grown up in Africa, I’d learnt the wisdom of treating all snakes as venomous, until proved otherwise.

The chill realisation dawned that I must seize the sleeping bag, with snake inside, and haul it outside. Clenching the Maglight in my teeth and crouching in the mouth of the tent, I reached inside tentatively and grasped a handful of material.

Horror upon horror! I’d grabbed the snake itself, felt it squirm beneath my touch!

I leapt backwards. The torch fell from my mouth, now gaping in a silent scream. I froze upright. Mesmerised, I watched with drumming heart as the disturbed snake unwound slickly from the mouth of my sleeping bag, its olive-brown coils glistening in the sharp beam cast by the fallen torch, which lay shining its light towards the back of the tent.

Moments of panic

The snake slid from the bag and disappeared into the darkness within the tent. It had looked enormous, but naked terror tends to alter one’s perception. I stood rigid, on the verge of panic. After an excruciating minute I took a small, cautious step forward, and another, and was now within reach of the torch. But where was the snake?

I inched my hand towards the fallen Maglight, made a sudden lunge, snatched it up and, in the same movement, leapt to my right. From a suitably safe distance I swung the torch back on the tent.

My movements had panicked the snake. It threw itself against the side of the tent in a bid to escape but fell back to the floor, squirming about at an alarming speed. I stood transfixed, the torchlight quivering in my shaking hand. The snake darted left and right trying to sense an escape route. Finally it located the tent opening, speedily slithered onto the grass and sped into the night.

I could neither move nor think. My mind was stuck on the picture of the snake’s sinewy convolutions inside my tent. Eventually the terror began to dissipate. With a large stick I poked at my sleeping bag while scanning the tent’s interior carefully with the torch beam to ensure all intruders had been evicted.

There was no sleep for me that night. I lay in the zipped-up tent conjuring up a procession of lurid, vivid images concerning the terrors of the African bush, all the while with the hymn “All creatures great and small” looping through my mind. Come dawn, however, I’d recovered enough equilibrium to begin transcribing my nocturnal terror into something quite adventurous, perhaps even a touch heroic.

Africa has this intoxicating effect. Perhaps it’s what all visitors to the bush really seek, some sort of incident to survive so they’ll have great stories to tell. By breakfast time I was literally gushing about my night-time visitor, exhilarated by my ‘brush with death’.

A ranger’s laconic observation that it had almost certainly been a common, harmless grass snake in no way diminished my sense of achievement. Africa had shown me its wild side and I’d survived. Nothing was going to discount that experience, not even the truth!

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