Like many other city dwellers we arrived at the farm with what can only be described as a pathological fear of snakes. They were for us the archetypal embodiment of terror and evil, and we lived in heightened apprehension that we would encounter one in the garden, or worse, in the house. And quite soon after we arrived our fears were realized with the sighting of a large snake in a tree just off our stoep. In a state of frenetic fear Johan and I put on our wellies and Johan took his rifle out of its leather case, loaded it, and carried it around to the front of the house. He then shot the snake. The first bullet made a visible hole in the body of the snake which convulsed and wound itself tightly around the tree trunk. Johan shot a second time again piercing the snake’s body. The snake writhed in what was clearly unbearable agony, convulsing all the while, until finally it was still. We looked at the snake and then at each other and in that moment the archetypal fear, like a shell, fell apart, leaving us with the awareness of just a wild creature making its way in the world and feeling unmentionable pain if hurt. This was the poor creature we had killed so thoughtlessly.
From then on our attitude to snakes was entirely different. We made contact with a snake expert who gave us information about the various snakes we might find on the farm. He told us that boomslange (tree snakes), which this most probably was, (they have a small head with large eyes), can deliver a potentially fatal bite, but are extremely shy and will get out of one’s way as quickly as they can. Since they are back-fanged snakes, they have to get a good grip of an arm or leg before biting, and further, although their bite is venomous, it would take forty-eight hours before death occurred. In this time an antidote could be sourced from Onderstepoort, the veterinary hospital in Pretoria. In twenty years, our friend told us, just three boomslang-related deaths, countrywide, had been reported.
After this we lived side by side with any number of snakes who appeared at odd intervals during the summer months, One day as a group of Buddhist retreatants ate lunch, a boomslang wove its way along the stoep roof, slithering down a light fitting in which some sparrows had nested. The parent birds were frantic, beating their small wings and screaming loudly at the snake, who took no notice of them. Above the heads of the retreatants the snake entered the nest and ate the birds’ eggs it found inside. That afternoon the retreat spent a meditation pondering suffering and the role of human intervention in preventing it. Strangely enough this same group a year later encountered two skaapstekers (sheep stabbers), which are beautiful snakes with exquisite markings, mating beside the meditation room. Proceedings were stopped for a good twenty minutes as all stood and watched the intertwined snakes.
One year there was a cobra in the house which caused quite a stir. Cobras are much more dangerous with a bite possibly leading to death within as little as twenty minutes. It slithered along the passage as I came into the house one morning, moving in the general direction of the bedrooms. With bated breath I quickly locked the dogs away, and room by room, with a long stick, checked for the snake – under the beds, behind desks and cupboards. When not found I closed the door to that particular room. This continued for five rooms, until in the sixth, I spotted the snake behind a linen kist. I knew I needed to get the snake into a container but didn’t know how to do it, so I phoned my snake expert friend who came around, and quick as a wink, flipped the snake up and into a bucket with a lid, which he closed. He then released the snake far up the mountain, as snakes are territorial and we didn’t want it returning to the house.
This incident made me realise that I needed to learn how to catch a snake myself, so I enrolled at a day-long snake course where one learnt about snakes in the morning and had practice at snake catching in the afternoon. When the afternoon came the snake handler showed us how to pick up first a Cobra and then a fat Puff Adder with a long metal pole with pincers on its end. This feat then had to be copied by the workshop participants. When my turn came, with my heart beating alarmingly fast I stepped forward as the cobra was released and oiled its way along. I managed to snag the snake, putting it into the container provided.
Since the course I have removed three snakes by the method I learnt. One of these was a large molesnake that had curled up in the corner of the old cellar where a group of guests was practicing yoga. Molesnakes are not venomous to humans but they are aggressive and can give a nasty bite. We later saw him a few times and called him Moses. Moses was extremely vicious, stabbing forward at me as I put my pole out, and grasped his powerfully muscled body with the pincers. I released him into the garden.