Growing up in Durban, on the east coast of South Africa, in an area which was bordered by a nature/ game reserve, it should have been no surprise that we saw a lot of snakes. I grew up being aware of the dangers and learned over time to tell a poisonous snake from a non-poisonous one (general rule of thumb – don’t play with any and stay away from the ones with a wedge-shaped head or a hood as these tended to be the ones that could inflict the most damage, the exceptions being mambas).
From my first close up look at a green mamba when I was about 7, I was hooked on them. My parents learned to rely on me for snake observation and identification. I pored for hours over snake books, finding them both seductive and repellent, with seduction winning by a small forked tongue. Like sharks and lizards, which I also adore, their difference to mammals was remarkable and I remember being surprised as hell to find some snakes gave birth to live young.
My first good look at a snake was when Suzy our cat, herself just a youngster, found a baby mamba in the bougainvillea bushes which formed the back boundary of our property. We were sitting on the patio, my sister yet to be born and my brother around 2 when we saw her throw something up in the air. Dad knew what it was immediately and leaving us with stern instructions to stay put, he went off to put on his snake killing gear. This consisted of heavy industrial overalls, big black mining gumboots and a thick jersey. Armed with a spade, he clomped back into view and made short work of the poor mamba. The cat, who grew up to be formidable hunter, sat next to it with a very annoyed look on her face. It was gorgeous and bright green. One mamba later and I was like Eve, transfixed.
My Dad got much more sanguine over the years and as my knowledge grew, got a little over-confident. One night he was locking up. I was in bed reading and I heard him go “Oi”. After a bit of clattering and bashing about, he proudly walked into the bedroom, bearing a badminton racquet. On it was a small battered snake. Pushing it towards me, not quite under my sleepy nose, he said “Mantha, look what I found in the playroom! What is it?”
As I gazed at it, half asleep and fairly surprised that he had brought it to me, it started to rise and very quickly assumed the strike position. Taking in very quickly the wedge shaped head, the brown and black colouring, the position and the very, very inky black mouth, I yelled “Mamba”! My poor Dad had only brought one of the most deadliest snakes in Africa within easy striking distance of my face. “Really?” said Dad, “oh I better go and kill it”.
Five minutes later, he came back. Snake had been despatched to snake heaven. “Where’s the body?” I asked. There is a local belief that if you kill a baby snake and its mother finds its body, she will enter the house and kill the occupants in revenge. Dad had put the snake in a bag in the rubbish outside. Relieved, I went to sleep.
A few days later, in disbelief that it couldn’t be yet another mamba (they are quite rare and finding them in a house even rarer), Dad did exactly the same thing. This time, the snake was a little more battered and I was fully asleep. Opening my eyes to yet another mamba served like an entrée in front of me woke me up faster than the bucket of cold water my brother would throw over me some years in the future. Same badminton racquet, colouring, same inky black mouth and same strike position. Same method of despatch, except this time, before he marched out of the room, my father asked whether he should drop it into Mom’s bath, a family joke after a Rinkhals incident when I was a baby. He also went to show her, promptly her to scream. As I was slipping off to sleep again, I realised that two baby mambas in the same (albeit large) room were a very bad coincidence indeed.
I jerked awake and by the time Dad was back inside I was sitting up waiting for him. He blanched when I explained to him that baby mambas were just as lethal as adult ones. What I said next made him swear out loud, which was unusual. Mambas are not keen on humans, for obvious reasons. They don’t just slither into houses. Downstairs somewhere was a nest.
He found it the next day and despatched all of the mamba babies. After that, he became a “kill on find” kind of guy, not willing to take chances with snakes and his family. It was a shame, as most of the snakes we met were non-poisonous. Dad once found a snake at the back of his PC, a rather large green one. It had got into the workings of the PC, something we had only ever seen on a viral email and which we had thought was a photoshopped fake.
The only other really close-up encounters I had with live snakes were with what I thought at the time was a night adder (but having a look recently at snake pictures, makes me realise it probably wasn’t), one summer when they seemed to be all over the place and I nearly got bitten by a baby whilst walking home from school and once when I saw a snake move quick as lightning across a neighbour’s gate as I was about to unlatch it. I thought at the time it was a grass snake but given its bright green colouring (most grass snakes are apparently olive green) and its speed, it could have been a mamba. Which just goes to show how difficult it is to identify snakes as an amateur or when the meeting is quick.
Nowadays, there is a huge drive to educate people and conserve all snakes, whether “medically important” (I love this term, it means – “will probably kill you if it bites you”) or not and thankfully, there are a host of people now willing to capture and release snakes back into the wild.