Snakes are common neighbors here in southern Africa. We’ve got lots; from tiny blind snakes that live underground, which completely baffled me the first time I found one, to egg-eaters that put on a big show but are harmless, unless you’re an egg. There are semi-dangerous ones like the pythons with a vicious bite and a tight grip; they can kill a person if they’re big enough. And we have the lethal line-up too, including multiple varieties of cobras, the bad-tempered puff adders, and to top it off, Africa’s largest venomous, most aggressive, and easily most dangerous snake, Dendroaspis polylepis, the black mamba.
Although I would rather not, these are the neighbors I run into most often. Or maybe it’s just that the occasions are so vividly burned into my mind with adrenaline and fear. Take for instance the latest encounter:
Jay and I were checking on our bees in the bee house out in the bush. We had to stick them out there in an old worker’s dwelling because we ran out of room here by the main house. The building consists of two small, separated rooms containing a total of five bee swarms. We’ve been on alert lately when working in that house due to a run-in during a past bee-check that Jay was lucky to survive. He had bravely (word choice debatable) gone in ahead of me, without a suit, to smoke the hives (smoke makes bees believe there’s a fire, so they suck up loads of honey for safe-keeping and get too fat to fight when we open the box). When I heard a shriek from within, I figured he’d lost his bet of not being stung. But when he came flying out the door, arms and legs flailing, his enormous eyes spoke of something much worse than a bee sting. Indeed, although he had checked before entering, he overlooked the large gray snake against the gray floor in the dimly lit room. Only once the 2.5 meter (8+ feet) body was slinking its way between his legs did he spot it. Hence the shriek. Although there was only one escape route, the door, the snake, possibly befuddled, disappeared behind the door, allowing Jay to run through it.
So this time, as he was preparing the smoker, I went in full-suited (though I don’t know if that would make a big difference against a pissed-off mamba) and peeked around for a giant venomous snake. I found none, so I returned to Jay in the other room. As I watched him, crouched over, back to the door, try to coax the smoke out, death turned the corner.
I had the enviable position of facing the door where I could see the mamba accelerating toward us. My words, “ohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygod” were probably not the most useful warning to give my partner, alas, they were the best I could come up with at the time. At least they got him to stand up and turn around, just in time to see the thick black tail disappear past the other side of the door. It seems we had frightened it as much as it had frightened me, and it decided against joining us in the tiny room. I then found a few more words “Closethedoorclosethedoorclosethedoor”, which Jay did. I glimpsed the snake again as it slid past the room’s one window which the bees fly through. It then occurred to me that we should leave the wee room, now filling with smoke, in case the mamba decided to climb in through the window. It was gone by the time we got outside, so with great haste and apprehension we finished the bees and fled for home.
The mamba is feared for many reasons; its size, speed, and aggression (it has been known to chase people); the fact that it will spread a hood (in case the person has not already shit himself); and it will deliver multiple bites if deemed necessary (even though one bite can kill a man in an hour). Once bitten, your brain will remain alert while the rest of your body succumbs to paralyzation and you slowly suffocate. This according to in an oft-consulted book on our shelf, The Complete Guide to the Snakes of Southern Africa.
The author notes that large quantities of antivenom may be required to save the victim’s life. That is if the victim has access to antivenom. An employee of Jay’s uncle was bitten by a black mamba last year on a farm a couple of hours away from us. His co-workers loaded him into the truck and rushed him the 100km into the nearest town. The man arrived at the hospital alive but the facility had no antivenom and no heart-lung machine to keep him alive. He died within the hour.
The book also mentions that most snake bites occur on the limbs and that pressure bandages can be applied to prevent the rapid spread of the venom. Tourniquets, however, should be avoided, except in the case of a black mamba bite. But what if the bite is not on a limb?
A neighbor was once cruising his farm on a motorbike. Up ahead on the dirt road, he spotted a black mamba. Long as they are, they often cover the entire width of the road, leaving no room to go around. He may also have been driving too fast, and on dirt, braking hard results more in sliding than braking. In any case, he drove over the snake, effectively triggering a defense response. Since he wisely did not stop, all he saw of the mamba’s reaction was that it had raised up off the ground, as if to strike. Once back home, he found two teeth punctures in the seat of his bike, right behind his butt. He sold his bike after that and has never ridden since.
Despite the fact that the sight of them stops my heart, or maybe because of it, I am strangely fascinated by black mambas, especially when I can observe them from a healthy distance. Jay and I have found them on the road before too, and we turn off the car for a couple of minutes to watch as they glide into a nearby tree and camouflage as just another branch. We ran into one once on foot as well as we searched a field for mushrooms for dinner. I think both species were surprised at how close we had unwittingly come to each other, but it didn’t charge us and we slowly retreated to the car. We each had the capacity to kill the other but we rather went our separate ways.
And that’s the choice we have. Black mambas and humans are never going to be roommates but we’re obliged to be neighbors. Conflicts (i.e. shootings and/or injections of lethal neurotoxins) arise when we aren’t respectful of each other’s boundaries but, in general, Namibia has enough space for us to be those neighbors who simply avoid each other. Greet politely when our paths inevitably cross, back away slowly, and then observe inconspicuously from behind the curtains.