Written by Neil Harmse
Chapter 9. Concerning Snakes
One of the most frequent questions I am asked by people venturing into the bush on a trail or hunt is: ‘Do we have to worry about snakes?’ To be honest, there are snakes all over, even in suburban gardens, but they do their best to avoid contact with humans. Over the years I have spent in the bush, covering many miles on trails and hunts, my incidents and encounters with snakes have been relatively few and, as mentioned, these reptiles do their best to keep out of our way.
My first serious encounter was on a day in the late 1960s in the Waterberg. I was working on a geological survey and when it was almost midday, I decided to sit down and have a sandwich for lunch. I found a convenient tree log to park on while eating. I placed my field bag with my notebooks, maps and equipment on the ground with a bit of a thump, which must have disturbed the reptile – a yellow Cape cobra, which shot out from under the log. It was trying to get away, but as I jumped up, it turned and spat venom directly into my eyes. The snake then disappeared, and I was left squirming with excruciating pain, especially in my left eye, which had taken the most venom. Grabbing my water bottle, I rinsed my eyes, but this did not seem to help. I was about 2km from camp and, like a halfblind man, stumbled back to it. There was a Fitzsimmons snake-bite kit and I managed to use a vial of anti-venom serum, diluted with water, to rinse my eyes again. I then made my way to the farmhouse and phoned a doctor in Warmbaths, who suggested rinsing my eyes with milk and then coming through to him as soon as I could. After rinsing my eyes, the farmer drove me to the doctor for treatment. He flushed my eyes and then bandaged them, with instructions to keep them closed and out of sunlight for a day or two. After two days, the bandages were removed, and medicated drops prescribed. My left eye was still badly inflamed and had to remain covered for about a week. My eyesight eventually recovered, but to this day, I still have trouble with my left eye, especially in harsh light or while night driving with oncoming headlights.
Many years ago, in the early 1970s, I was doing some geological mapping in a very remote area in South West Africa (now Namibia). I was alone and had parked my Land Rover and 46 proceeded on foot towards some rocky outcrops, plotting and mapping as I went along. I had my field bag over my shoulder with my notebook, reference books, measuring tape and pens, and had my clipboard and geological pick in my hands.
Ahead was a large outcrop of sandstone with a high and vertical cliff face reaching above it. Suddenly a black mamba shot out from some scrub and sped away towards the cliff. It reached the cliff face and moved left and right, trying to find an escape route. Unable to find a gap, it then turned and came back directly at me. Now, the black mamba is one of the most dangerous, venomous and aggressive snakes in Africa, and definitely not a creature to take lightly. This one must have been about 3m long and seemed to be moving like lightning. All I could think of was that if it bit me, I had no hope and my body would not be found for weeks, maybe months. I simply froze! Not a movement. I think I had stopped breathing. The mamba shot past me, about half a metre away, at unbelievable speed and kept going, just wanting to get away. Had I moved or taken any aggressive action, it would have struck and I would not be writing these words.
Another snake incident was years later and concerned a Mozambique spitting cobra or
My good friend and expert wildlife guide, John Locke and I were contracted by the North West Province Nature Conservation to conduct a training course for prospective rangers in the Borakalalo Reserve. One evening, John and I had a campfire going and I went to the bathroom to clean up. This facility was rather rustic, constructed of poles, reeds and thatch. Standing at the washbasin, I heard a strange, hissing noise emanating from beneath it. Looking down, I saw a large snake curled up on a ledge. Needless to say, I beat a hasty retreat, hoping that the snake would move away on its own if left undisturbed. After about an hour, John and I went to see whether the reptile had gone. As it was getting dark, we had torches to see better in the dark recesses of the facility. We saw no sign of the snake, so we went back to our campfire to get a few chops and sausages going.
While sitting and enjoying a drink and dinner, we heard a strange, swishing sound moving closer. Jumping up and flashing torches, we saw a large Mfezi or Mozambique spitting cobra making its way over the loose sand from the ablution block and heading directly towards our camp. The snake must have picked up our movements and swung off to the left, directly to my tent, where it slid under the groundsheet. There was no way I was going to sleep in the tent while the snake was sharing the same space, even if it was under the canvas sheet. Wanting to make it move, I went inside the tent with a broom to try to push it to the side and out, while John was on the outside with his torch trying to see which way it was moving. Eventually a terribly angry Mfezi shot out and sped up a tree, below which my Land Rover was parked. Not wanting the snake to get into the car, I drove it away and parked on the other side of the camp. After a very uneasy night, at sun-up we could see where it had slid from the tree and moved into the bushes away from camp. We could again breathe easily. Thankfully, we did not encounter the snake again for the remainder of our stay.
Once, on a walking trail in the Manyeleti, I was leading a family group when I heard the sound of a herd of elephant ahead of us. My old tracker, Petrus, with us. He was walking ahead, following the tracks. As usual, when we approached the herd, he moved back to see to the safety of the people in the event of us having to back away suddenly, should the matriarch or one of the cows become a bit nasty. A breeding herd is always unpredictable because of the cows with young calves and sometimes immature bulls within the herd. We were walking slowly along and I was concentrating fully on the elephants. As Petrus was passing me to move to the rear of the group, I felt him grab my jacket and pull me backwards. Astonished at this sudden move, I looked at him and he pointed down, in front of me. There, where I was about to put my foot, was a nasty-looking puff adder curled up, watching me with beady eyes.
I was saved from what could have been a very bad bite by Petrus’s sharp eyes and quick reaction. We watched the ‘puffy’ for a short while and then left it in peace, giving it a wide berth and carried on observing the elephant herd. Again, the snake was simply basking in the sun and not really aggressive, but this would have changed, had I put my foot on it. While involved with game control operations in the southern area along the Kruger National Park border, my family and I had a house on a large estate in the Malelane area. Early one morning, I heard a high-pitched screeching or squealing coming from somewhere at the front of the house. Grabbing my shotgun, I ran through the house and onto the enclosed veranda. There was a large mamba trying to grab a big frog, which was the cause of the high-pitched screech. Before I could fire a shot, the mamba turned and was gone, into a tree on the side of the house. I fired a few shots into the tree, but with no result. I could not see where the snake had disappeared to.
When I eventually returned to the porch, the frog was dead, obviously bitten by the mamba. My two children, six-year-old Janet and five-year-old Craig, were standing wide-eyed, watching the incident. The snake gone and the frog dead, I went to put the shotgun away and asked the children to fetch a spade, pick up the frog and throw it over the fence into the veld. Inside the house, while storing the shotgun, I suddenly heard loud screaming from the children and, grabbing the gun, ran back. The mamba had returned to collect its prey and as the children ran away, it turned to chase them. I had heard of this behaviour before, but had never experienced it. I once again grabbed the gun and as I came around the side of the house, I encountered the terrified children with the mamba in pursuit, going in the opposite direction. Without hesitation, I blasted the snake, almost in two halves, from the close-range shot of the shotgun. With children and dogs around the house, I was taking no chances sharing our home space with a reptile like that.
Over many years and many miles through the bush, I can honestly say that the encounters I have had with snakes have been few and far between. Snakes are generally less of a problem than people imagine and for the most part, given their instinct for survival, they will move out of your way and do their best to avoid contact with humans.