Africa Guide
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Guide to Africa

Where did that snake go? Sand River camp

Written by Neil, a professional safari guide in South Africa

I'm in a small rectangular thatch hut with a chicken mesh wire wrap nailed into place on the thatch eves and down to the two-foot high concrete base which makes up half the perimeter of the hut. The basic framed chicken mesh door opens inward, and is held shut with a ram bolt. There is no electricity. The thatch roof slides steeply down from the central point to the concrete two foot wall on the one side, and on the other side, a chicken mesh wall, window and air-conditioner all in one. The hut is high enough to stand up in. The interior space barely fits in the two single base and bed sets and a wooden chair and a metal two shelf stand in the far corner. There is little room left to move around in.

I am sitting on my bed bent over tying my bootlaces. My feet are firmly on the ground. I hear a sharp click sound, movement to my right, and as I straighten - the Mozambican spitting cobra slithers right over my boots (feet inside already - thank goodness) in an obvious attempt to get past me. The snake heads for the far corner - follows the wall for a bit, and then under the other bed and out of sight. Shit! At any other time during the day this wouldn't be such a problem but I was tying my bootlaces because its just before 4 in the afternoon and my 1st rifle, his guests and the entire camp are waiting for me to go on a sundowner drive. I don't revel in the idea of coming back from the drive and looking for the snake in the dark - in a room I can hardly move around in - I don't want to delay paying guests their first sundowner drive, and I certainly don't want to put my hands under the bed (only an inch between the floor and the base) and lift up the bed with a hiding cobra under it!

I also don't feel like leaving the hut open, it has been hot the entire day and I do not feel like coming back to my hut the 'reptile park' after the sundowner drive.

I shut the door and go for help - a broomstick, some apprehension and a 1st rifle and guests armed with the knowledge that I will be a few minutes longer than I expected are the only help I'm going to get.

After five minutes of moving beds around, checking corners and dark spaces (nearly the whole room) the snake could still not be found. So back to plan B. No more delays - get on with the sundowner drive - and look for the snake tonight. I rolled up my sleeping bag (I would already have to share my room with the cobra - I wasn't prepared to share my sleeping bag with it!) and closed the chicken mesh door.

Now normally I don't worry about snakes too much - I've lived with snakes all my life, I know that snakes have lived with me - kind of like an 'unseen law' we don't see each other, we don't worry each other. This law had just been broken. I saw the snake, it slithered over my boots and under my bed - then disappeared. Going to sleep this night would be difficult!

I spent many minutes (perhaps an hour or so) convincing myself that it will be OK. What's the worst that can happen I asked myself - I don't like my answer very much, but it is getting late - I have a 5-hour walk in the morning, and I have to go to sleep - cobra or no cobra!

I start to think about the cobra. Naja mossambica, known to me as M'fezi. It is an olive-brown reasonably small (about 800mm) snake with black blotches on the throat. Now I'm thinking about its venom - predominately cytotoxic that can cause serious tissue damage at the bite site. The cobra preys on toads, lizards, insects and innocent field guides lying in camp beds!

I remember reading somewhere that not many people die from the bite which made me feel a little better but as I start to put the 'what if' scenarios together, I start to tuck my sleeping bag around myself - shrink wrapped in a sleeping bag in 30 degree heat in the dark. Soon I start sweating from the heat, I am clutching my headlight in my hand - any noise, and I can immediately turn on the torch and identify the source.

I start to think about some of the first aid tips I know about.

The first rule is always to immobilise and reassure the patient who must lie down and be kept as quiet as possible
OK, that's cool - I'm already immobolised, lying down and being as quiet as possible! I'm trying to reassure myself but lying on a bed in a small, dark room knowing that M'fezi has taken up residence underneath my bed is quite hectic

Apply a pressure bandage immediately. Loosen, but do not remove the bandage if there is severe swelling!
My sleeping bag has already become my pressure bandage - it's wrapped so tightly around my body I feel as though I'm in a sauna!

Now I can literally hear the rain spiders move above me, I can hear the cockroaches scuttle to and fro on the floor, and every now and again, I think I can hear a bigger movement. Something tickles my thigh inside my sleeping bag - the light in my hand come on like a searchlight, the sleeping bag unravels, and I sit bolt upright, frantically searching, but no sign of the snake - it's the sleeping bag zip tassle that tickled my thigh. I turn off the light in my hand and then finally the lights inside my head switch off as well, and I go to sleep.

I never saw the snake again - it probably found its own way out - or its still in hiding somewhere inside my hut but I managed to sleep better the next few nights - as the 'unseen law' firmed itself up again, and the snake and I returned to our normal ways.

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