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.
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.
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.
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.
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