Serpent surprises

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.

Further reading


About titflasher

Writer, blogger, animal activist, people activist, dream-catcher maker, mommy to 9 cats and a roving band of foxes ... Blog name comes from my father's suggestion for the title of my autobiography ... after my mother's and my awful habit of flashing whenever the security police took our photo in the dark old days of apartheid South Africa. I love nature, including creepy crawlies and people, find life fascinating and frustrating and have two terrible weaknesses - nictotine and animals in distress ... can't abide the latter situation and can't give up the former. I'm Pagan but not anti-Christian, funny but quite serious, light-hearted but can be annoying. I am warm-hearted until someone p*sses on me too much, then I get soggy and even. Feel free to link me but all the words on these pages is copyrighted, so copy it and take the credit and I will find you and slap you upside the head, hard. The blog is probably best read via category as there is loads on here already, and I just got started :-)
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12 Responses to Serpent surprises

  1. thank you for this, scary stuff – closest I’ve ever ( knowingly) been to a venomous snake was a dead adder on the rocks near Porthleven, 🙂

    • titflasher says:

      It’s very weird going from a country and area where snakes abound, to a country where the most scary serpentine thing you’ll find is an adder … and none where I live. I didn’t capture the majesty of these creatures in my post – have filed it away for a prose piece later on :-). The rinkhals story was another one – my Dad and the gardener found the rather large snake trying to go up the outlet pipe to the bath. My Mum was in the bath at the time (hence the joke about where to put the baby mamba) and they couldn’t get close to the snake (it is a very accurate spitter), so they had to kill it by chucking rocks at it. It also does an excellent sham death (on its back, mouth wide open) so that poor thing ended up in pieces, not however before managing to land a fair bit of venom on Dad, who learned quickly to dodge. He always wore glasses when dealing with snakes after that!

  2. link correction – for whatever reason yours, has collected a trailing ‘v’

    and having read about rinkhals, I would definitely wear my glasses if I was anywhere near one, I look forward to reading more about serpents – Africans (may I call you that?) always have soem good snake tales to tell in the way that Australians talk about their highly venomous spiders….

    • titflasher says:

      Ah – will go and in correct thank you :-). Yes, I am proudly African. There is a whole set of African mythology around snakes as well, which I only got to dip my toe into really as indigenous people don’t talk about snakes very much but I might do some research around this … My brother once came home and put himself to bed (we should have known, he only did this when he was in trouble) for two days – he had extreme nausea and a terrible headache. Mom thought he had a bug. Years and years later, one of the neighbours said, “Hey do you remember the time Richard got bitten by that red lipped herald?” Of course, we didn’t as he hadn’t said a word – rather than get into trouble for playing with a snake, he put up with the headache. My Mum was very thankful it had been a herald rather than a “medically important” variety 🙂

  3. good thing it wasn’t especially “medically important”, what a wonderful euphemism 🙂

  4. Joe Bishop says:

    My all-time favourite cat, a mottled soap factory rescue case, saved me from two very nasty, possibly fatal, encounter with boomslangs in Durban. He warned me by launching himself over a two metre gap, clawing my arm in passing, to take a stand between me and an adult snake curled in the shrubbery next to my armchair, as I was reaching for a beer on the table in the shade of that plant. I recognised the boomslang for what it was, and decapitated it with a Sanderson bayonette that served as a garden tool (my bamboo knife). Skipper (as in captain – the name suited him) earned himself a feast of Nando’s chicken (which I shared), and I thought the incident was over. A week later, similar scenario, except he didn’t need to do more than stand and hiss from his chair. I saw the second boomslang, on the same branch, and chopped it with the bayonette that was now kept under the chair. I then gave him the full head, chin and backbone tickle-rub before riding off to pick up another lemon and black pepper chicken from Nandos.

  5. no worries. yes wiki is great, as is the ‘net as a whole, looking things up has become a great displacement activity (fascination/obsession) and often sends me off on all sorts of interesting tangents 🙂

    : if I don’t reconise

    • titflasher says:

      I found an excellent displacement activity earlier – am currently making mulled wine and prepping food for the allotment barbecue, will dig it out later and email it to you.

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