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  • Writer's pictureNondiarist

On snakes, and my inspiration to write about a very special herpetologist

Updated: Jun 5, 2022

I don’t have a phobia about snakes but I do have a very healthy wariness of them. In that, I guess, I’m normal.

I’m interested in them – hey, I’m interested in all things natural history. Animal physiology, animal psychology – well, just animals basically. But I don’t know enough about snakes to start making my own examinations, or to crouch beside one and go coochee-coochee-coochee-who’s-a-sweet-little-snakie-then?

Apart from the time Judy the fox-terrier joyfully brought us a thoroughly dead, thin, grey coloured serpent (apologies, but I have no idea what it was – maybe someone can enlighten me?), my first, heart-pumping close encounter was one with a puff adder.

Aged about fourteen, I was sauntering along the path down the hill to the bottom stables at Teviotdale Riding School, north of Harare. It was a fairly steep slope; I had to negotiate several raised rocks, dropping down a level over each. In mid-air, over one such natural step, I realised that my landing point below was not soil and grass but the back of a short, khaki/grey/white, segmented-marked snake.

Puff adder in South Africa
Puff adder. Photo by Leonard Hoffmann.

I went, “Ah,” and hovered, with my downward-moving foot waving around in erratic circles. The creature wasn’t going to hang around. Why would you, when some galumphing great thing is about to stand on you? It slipped rapidly into the bushes on the left, leaving me to un-pause time and let my foot carry on what it was doing. I made it down to the stable yard in record time that day.

Several years later, I was keeping my own horses at a friend’s property near Mount Hampden, on the western reaches of Harare. We went through a lot of tea in those days, me and Heather. Before-riding tea, after-riding tea, listening-to-records tea, just-about-any-excuse tea. We were focussed on making a fresh round when there was a chorus of shouting from the back yard – the kind of shouting that lets you know something serious is going on.

David, the groom, had discovered a banded cobra behind one of the outbuildings.

Brave man, he was. He’d hauled it out by its tail and dropped a brick on its head. It was dead, stretched out on the grass – all one and a half metres of it. We gathered round. We stared at it. I remember thinking what a pity it was that we hadn’t seen it alive, rearing up, threatening us with its expanded hood…..well….maybe not. But I was a little bit sorry such a magnificent creature had had to be killed because it was in the way of our human lives.

It was still.

“Let’s have a look at its fangs,” suggested Heather.

So we found a couple of sticks and we prised open its mouth. Five interested faces peered in – me, Heather, David, Sammy (other groom) and Molly (house-keeper). It was dead. I know it was dead. But it could still twitch. There was a ripple of muscle along the whole of the snake’s body, head to tail, and, next thing, the sticks were suspended in mid-air and five people vanished in an instant.

It WAS dead. It never moved again after that but I don't think any of us had ever moved quite so fast. I could taste the bitterness of adrenaline on my tongue.

My third close encounter was with a very friendly python in Vietnam in 2019. Daisy is (and I say ‘is’ because she’s most likely still there) kept as a pet by a farmer in the Mekong Delta. She’s a vermin catcher and she doubles as a tourist attraction in her spare time.

Python on a tiled floor
Daisy the Vietnamese pet python
Python draped on shoulders
Living neck scarf

I tell you what - she's bloody heavy.

I knew a herpetologist. He walked into my life out of the blue and there was an instant connection – a soul-mate click. He is, sadly, no longer with us but I am honoured that I knew him and I need to write something – a tribute, I guess – about him. I will.

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