SA JAGTER/HUNTER | MAART-APRIL 2023 | By GEOFF WAINWRIGHT
Even the bravest hunter will agree that the mamba should be feared more than Africa’s Big Five.
My introduction to snakes started at the age of 12 when I first took an interest in wildlife. We lived on the outskirts of a town in Zambia surrounded by bush that sloped down to a stream. My younger brother and I were hunting birds in a bamboo forest, walking barefoot on a path made by the local villagers. My eyes squinted over the barrel of my BSA air rifle. I was aiming at and about to shoot a green pigeon. As I shuffled around, I stood on a snake. The snake retaliated, bit me on my ankle and slithered away.
I had luck on my side as it was not venomous, but I remember my brother blurting, “You are going to die!” His dreadfilled words brewed in my mind, and in a state of panic, we ran home. I survived. Much to everyone’s amusement, my father nicknamed me “Snake”. I was declared a hero at school and made fun of by the customers in my father’s sporting goods shop, where, during the school holidays, I helped serve customers from behind the counter, and the subject of snakes often came up.
One day, a man called John Nubie, the owner of Latarita Snake Park on the outskirts of town, popped into the shop. He mentioned that he needed snakes for his park and asked if I was interested in catching some, for which he would pay me. “Yes,” I replied, “I will try, but I’ve had little experience other than shooting them with my air rifle.” When I asked what he wanted, he casually replied, “Oh, cobras, tree snakes, mambas, and that sort of thing. Anything you can catch.” Then he walked out of the shop.
My father, a seasoned fisherman, recommended that I go search in the rubble where a bulldozer was levelling down anthills for a housing project. “However,” don’t tell your mother I gave you the go-ahead!” he said.
I had to find out about catching them by myself and hitchhiked out of town on several occasions to visit Mr Nubie’s snake park. He took me into his snake pits and showed me how to catch and handle them. For the first time while still a schoolboy, I had a sense of authority over an audience and became hooked on snakes. Mr Nubie often corresponded with the legendary Snake Man of British East Africa, C.J.P. Ionides – so much so that I also wrote to him. He was kind enough to reply and sent me a hand-drawn picture of his “snake catcher stick”. It had a fork at one end, and above that was a drilled hole for the noose. The string pulled up towards the handler, enabling the snake to be lassoed by the neck. At one time, I had my own collection of snakes in my bedroom and let them loose in our deep bathtub.
As the degree of my interest in snakes grew, I learnt to identify and handle the different species with confidence, but I was not allowed to handle Mr Nubie’s two mambas. The black mamba is the most aggressive, the green mamba more docile. Mambas are front-fanged and extremely dangerous. Their venom is highly neurotoxic and cardiotoxic, causing death in a short time should medical care not be readily available. Only a few drops of venom can kill an adult.
Mr Nubie’s mambas lived in separate glass-fronted display cases and only he could handle them. When released into the snake pit, they were his aristocrats – fast-moving, heads raised high off the ground, immeasurably graceful and attracting paying visitors.
The word “mamba” strikes fear into the hearts of all hunters. African villagers collecting firewood or wild honey die annually from these reptiles’ bites. One of the most common questions asked by people who have not been on safari is whether the mamba was ever found in our camps. “Yes, they are occasionally found, but you have to search for them and then consider yourself lucky if you see one,” was always my answer.
Black mambas derive their name from the inner mouth being almost pitch-black or dark grey in colour. Their skin colour is not black but various shades of brown, grey or even olive. Now in my late seventies and retired from hunting, I live in a caravan on the game reserve of friends in the Waterberg.
Recently, while on a kudu hunt, one of their professional hunters and a client came across a 15 cm snake sunning itself. They didn’t know what species it was. It looked harmless until the PH poked it with the shooting sticks. It struck at them, revealing its black mouth, and he quickly flicked it away with the sticks. Clients are always recommended to keep their eyes open, wear long trousers and watch where they tread going from the campfire to their tents at night. Mostly, it is the common venomous but sluggish snakes, the puff adders and night adders, which cause the most deaths in Africa. They do not retreat and will bite if stepped on.
I well remember my first mamba experience. Climbing an evergreen mango tree with me were two village boys of similar age. One of them reached out to pluck a mango and came face to face with a green mamba, the less aggressive of the two species. “Nyoka!” (snake) he shouted and leapt down onto the ground. Within seconds, like excited jabbering monkeys, we joined him. I had to stop them from stoning it to death. The mamba remained as still as a statue and took no notice of the airborne missiles. A crowd of excited villagers gathered below the tree. They lived in the vicinity and were aware that I had an interest in snakes. Occasionally, they told me where one was to be found.
Now, for the first time, I had to prove my worth, flirt with death, and capture it. I sent home for my catcher stick and a sack. When they arrived, I cautiously climbed back up into the tree. The only movement from the mamba was its sinister tongue flicking in and out. With my back pressed to a branch to steady myself, I poked my catching stick towards it, and the noose at the end opened as wide as an ashtray. I slowly manoeuvred the noose over its neck, quickly pulling it tight. Then all hell broke loose! Within seconds, I had metres of powerful mamba thrashing about on the end of the stick. I needed both hands – one to hold the noose cord tight and the other to keep the sharp end over the snake’s head to prevent it from wriggling free of the fork. The mamba was heavier than expected, and the stick started to bend like a fishing rod, so I lowered it to rest on its end. Unable to climb down as both hands were busy, I shouted for help.
A village elder who claimed to have immunity from snake bites held up the open sack and I lowered the mamba on the stick inside. Cheers rose from the crowd. I scrambled down from the tree, took over and closed the opening. Unfortunately, in the excitement, I did not realise that the cold-blooded reptile still writhing and thrashing about in the sack was being strangled, and it died.
Twice in one day, while tracking buffalo through the miombo forest, we found the ghost-like remains of almost transparent mamba skins shed on abandoned anthills. The sheds are an exact replica of the reptile, down to the last scale. One skin was more than 4 metres long! The shedding of the skin gives credence to the mythical, rooster- like comb or “crested” mamba seen by the Africans, but in fact, it is some skin flakes adhering to the back of the head or neck. During a break and between hunts, while driving on what I loosely termed a “main road” – really only a sand track – my hunting crew and I saw snake tracks on the floodplain crossing in front of us. The short grass on either side had been burned a few days prior, so fresh shoots could sprout and attract game. The best time to track any snake is after a bush fire. Bored with nothing to do in camp, we all decided to track the snake, except for Lazarath.
It was rumoured Lazarath had experienced a witchcraft scare after one of his wives had been cursed by a medicine man. He claimed she had died from a snake bite. We took up the drag marks in the ash that led us towards an anthill. Through the binoculars, I identified a black mamba well over 2 metres long, sunning itself above its hole. It did not bode well that my camp was within view no less than 40 metres distant. The crew asked me to shoot it. I had left my rifle in the truck and only carried the shooting sticks. One of my men shouted for Lazarath to bring my rifle.
At the noise, the mamba took fright. In one graceful movement, it poured itself down its hole, only the tip of its tail left showing. I ran forward, intending to jam it with the sticks, stop it from escaping and pull it out. From the opposite side of the anthill, a second mamba suddenly appeared and tried to enter the same hole. With a whip-like motion, they both flashed into sight, hissed loudly and started to fight. If threatened during the mating season, when they are laying eggs or waiting for them to hatch, mambas can be very aggressive.
“They are chasing you!” Lazarath shouted, adding even more drama to the incident. Without looking back, we turned tail and quickly retreated. We got to the truck, where we broke the tension with nervous laughter. The mambas, likely much more frightened than we were, had disappeared. I hope that when a mamba is seen, it will sweeten our hunting clients’ lives with risk. These snakes are much more deadly than any of the Big Five.