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Klaserie River Sands

Year of the snake

I knew it would happen one day, after a buying a house in the South African bush, that I’d eventually have to confront my greatest fear.

So far we’ve experienced a leopard outside the back door (caught on my camera trap), close encounters with elephants and buffaloes and a pride of lions that occasionally shows up on the other side of the river while we’re having sundowners. I love living among all of the above creatures, but there’s one that is guaranteed to make me run screaming like a little girl in fear – a snake.

Our house is in a private nature reserve, near South Africa’s Kruger National Park. It is set in thick, almost jungle-like bush on the banks of a gurgling stream, and while its beauty captured me the moment I saw it, I just knew there were some slitherers out there waiting to make my worst nightmares come true.

Recently, when sitting on the stoep with friends from Cape Town, my nightmare 23b turned to reality. As we chatted over our drinks there was a ker-plunk and a scream from one of our guests as something fell from the leadwood tree above us, bounced off the roof and landed on the deck.  ‘Snake!’ my friend cried. I got up and ran inside.

Black Mamba in the outdoor shower

Black Mamba in the outdoor shower

Peeking through the (now closed) sliding door, I saw the others hovering a safe distance from a slightly stunned and disorientated grey-green snake. My wife dashed inside and checked the ‘Common Snakes of the Kruger Park’ identification poster that the former owners of the house had left pinned to the back door as a cruel prank. ‘Black mamba,’ she said with conviction.

Recovered from its fall, the snake began to slither slowly towards our outdoor shower. It spared a passing glance at the humans nearby and showed no sign of fear, nor any inclination to get out of their way any time soon. Rather, it shimmied up the wooden slatted screen of the shower and perched there, taking a good look around at what it no doubt thought would make a mighty fine home.

Wanting to make myself useful, and to put more distance between me and the snake, I called the security gate guard of our reserve on my cellphone and cried for help, then went out of the house via the back door (shielding my eyes from the huge picture of a mamba in pride of place at the top of the poster as South Africa’s most dangerous snake) and ran outside.

‘I’ll keep watch on it from this side,’ I said from beyond my parked Land Rover, about 20 metres away. My strategy was to keep a close eye on the mamba through my 400-mm camera lens.  ‘You stay on the other side and keep watch from the stoep,’ I said to my friend Robert. He had less room to move and was only about five metres from the snake, well within killing range, I thought to myself.

‘What should I do?’ my wife called. What any good Aussie woman should do in a time of crisis.  ‘Get Robert and me a beer each, please,’ I replied. ‘We can’t lose sight of the snake.’ And I needed to calm my nerves.

Two security guards, Lawrence and Charles, arrived and asked if I had a stick or a broom they could use. I was hoping they might have brought a shotgun. ‘Are you going to kill it?’ I asked.

I regretted the words almost as soon as I had said them. I grew up in Australia, where the common approach to snakes was that the only good one was a dead one. I have witnessed the killing of the reptiles and, as much as I fear them (irrationally, I am sure), I am not proud of that. I’ve become far more conservation-minded in my later years. I wouldn’t kill a lion or a leopard or an elephant because I thought it might eat or trample me, so why should I kill a snake that was minding its own business (albeit in my shower)?

‘No, we do not kill snakes here,’ Lawrence said. I was impressed, but still scared.  I kept my distance while Charles found a long stick and began rapping the shower walls and floor to scare off the mamba.

charles prods the mamba

Charles prods the mamba

Initially, the only scaring was done by the snake. It reared up to its full 40 or so centimetres in length (OK, it was a young one), and Lawrence and Charles nearly pushed over the leadwood as they backed into the stout tree and each other to move out of range.

Perhaps after a little snake chuckle, the mamba settled down again and eventually, in its own good time, slid out of the shower and into the bush beyond.  Lawrence threw a few rocks in its general direction to see it on its way. ‘Do not go walking in the bush for a while,’ he cautioned me, redundantly.

The next morning I got out of bed and, as is my habit, walked to my braai boma where I can look over the stream. There in the sandy bed was a puff adder, curled into a question mark and soaking up the morning sun. Two deadly snakes in two days.

A Puff Adder in the stream bed

Puff Adder in the stream bed

As I looked at it, pondering the number of times I’d traipsed up and down that sandy bed, I realised that in this, the year of the snake, the three things I’d always been told about snakes were wrong.

1. Snakes are more scared of you than you are of them. Wrong. This is not possible: I am still more terrified of them than they will ever be of me.

2. Snakes will get out of your way, rather than try to strike you. Wrong. The mamba was in no real hurry to leave my shower, and even had a go at Lawrence and Charles when they tried to see him off.  The puff adder lying in the sun was doing what puff adders do – waiting for someone to come and tread on it so it could kill them.

3. The only good snake is a dead snake. Wrong. I thought about my house and about those of my friends in the reserve. Many of them have a problem with mice, but I’ve never seen a mouse, or any evidence of one, in my house.

It’s no wonder.

Tony Park
About

Australian writer Tony Park fell in love with South Africa on a short trip in 1995. He is a major in the Australian Army Reserve and has worked in journalism and PR, including six months in Afghanistan in 2002 as PR officer for the Australian ground forces. Tony and his wife Nicola now divide their time between Sydney and the African bush. For more information on Tony and his books, visit www.tonypark.net

  • Hayley

    Will that be the last time you’ll ever use the outdoor shower?

  • heather

    Amazing story – so true to South Africa and the bushveld. Very strange time of the year for you to experience the snakes though. Pleased you’re all safe!

  • Sara

    Hhhhm where there’s a little one there’s usually a bigger one is that not right? 😉 Sorry Tony couldn’t resist!! Loved the article – could picture it as I read it………stay safe!!

  • Florence-Ann Erasmus Cronje

    I have to say that I share your fear of snakes Tony, and was born and raised in Africa. I had such a good chuckle at your description of keeping out of striking range and asking your wife to get you guys a beer! 🙂 Excellent reading, and hoping that there are a few ‘snake encounters’ in your next book!!!

    Just for interest sake, my late father-in-law Owain Lewis was bitten by a puff adder a few years ago on our farm in Zimbabwe and nearly lost his leg due to the damage of the bite, and was ill for about 6 months… nasty critters!!!

    Sadly, he was killed by a buffalo last year on the 9th June while hunting in Zimbabwe, and had been a professional hunter for more than 25 years and had an impeccable reputation and safety record. It just goes to show that no amount of experience or safety precautions can prevent what happens out in the wild of Africa.

    Thanks for sharing your story, and looking forward to many more wonderful stories from you!!!

  • Rob Baird

    I too am like a little school girl when it comes to these chaps Tony. I even avoid earth worms in case I identify them incorrectly…

  • Ian owtram

    Hi Tony, Maybe you need to come and spend a night or two with us and I will get my 8 year old son to give you a few stories about the snakes he has encountered and kept in his short life. Our doors at Antares are always open for those that want to learn more about the bush and its occupants

  • baparris

    wow, I guess you’ll check the shower and watch your step for a while!!

  • Hecate

    I’m still laughing. My elderly parents who live on a Free State farm have regular snake encounters. If they come into the house, my dad herds them into a special sack with a forked stick and them drives off to a remote spot to release them. His children all have to have stiff drinks whenever this happens.

  • Margaret J

    Love it Tony! Had us chuckling over brekky!

  • Grahame & Kate

    Sort of had a laugh but our fond memories of being in that shower are now somewhat tarnished…

  • Stunning story – love it!

  • samburumags

    Great story Tony perhaps it will be featured in the book you are thinking about following The Prey with, if you see what I mean!

  • Tracey M

    Yukkkk – I hate snakes too Tony!! We got 4 brown snakes in our house yard in 3 weeks this last summer. We got some of those solar snake repellents though and I have to say, I don’t know if it is co-incidental or not, but we didn’t see another one for the rest of summer! Hope they work a charm again next summer!

  • KarenPease

    Heh…my husband shares your fear of snakes, and we don’t even have any poisonous ones, here in Maine.
    One morning in 1995, when we were rehabilitating our newly purchased 1840’s home, I heard a high-pitched scream. I thought, at first, that my infant daughter was crying but seconds later Steven scrambled up the ladder from the dirt-floor basement. He was chalk white and shaking. He’d been pulling down insulation from between the floor joists and a 2 foot garter snake had fallen onto his face.
    He stormed outside, lit a cigarette and commenced to pacing circuits around the front lawn. The air around him was blue, and not just from his cigarette.
    “We’re moving! That’s it. I’m done. No way in helll am I gonna live in that snake-infested piece-of-$**t house! In fact, I’m gonna torch the sucker. Burn ’em all! I’m not even going back inside. Never! Never, ever, ever…”
    I had to laugh, even though I felt badly for him. I’d never before seen my tough and capable husband scared. I went down cellar and picked up the snake, which was sunning itself on the granite sill of the basement window. I climbed upstairs and took it outside, dropped it in the gravel of the road and picked up a shovel.
    “What are you doing?” Steven paused his pacing and asked.
    “Killing the snake?” I thought that was what he wanted… the only thing that would make him relax.
    “Don’t kill it! Gawd, Karen. Just…take it away. FAR away. Like…China.” He grinned sheepishly. The crisis was over.
    And despite his (also) girlish screams, my estimation of my husband grew.
    Thanks for the great story, Tony.
    And yes…I brought Steven a beer, too. At 9:00 in the morning. 🙂

  • Lesley

    Ag you have to love Africa. My Aussie husband and I (South African) also own a holiday bush house we visit monthly and the only mamba I have ever encountered on foot took off up a tree at great speed. We often see mamba’s in the trees during summer but the birds alert us to the “hunting mamba’s”. We also have a gorgeous spotted bush snake who visits our deck on occasion (non-venomous) and have had the odd house snake indoors – but good for controlling the rodent population. I would be more afraid of the bloody snakes in Aussie – far more venomous than ours!

  • Elaine Harrington

    Tony Tony Tony!!! What do you mean by “scream like a little girl”; has there been a gender change sometime in your life? Quite OK to scream in fright at the sight of something so deadly dangerous but don’t blame the girls!! I would simply have frozen in abject terror :-)) !! Have read all your books so far! Keep them coming. Leaving for my third trip to Africa in August. Bitten by the Africa bug!!

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