Snake Encounters in the African Bush (part 1)

As I write the title of this short narrative, I can confidently label it as “part 1” without ever having considered a prequel. Simply put, I encountered that many snakes during my 5 years in Africa. …Black and green mambas, Mozambique spitting cobras, Egyptian and forest cobras, a banded water cobra, puff adders, night adders, boomslang, green tree snake, burrowing asps, beaked snakes, rock pythons, and the list goes on…

Still, when one considers the near infinite amount of hours I spent tromping around the bush, the brief encounters I did have with snakes were relatively few and far between; contrary to my preconceived notions of what I might find during my travels.


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In fact, I had been in Africa for at least a couple of months before I spotted my first snake. Later, when I encountered a black mamba, I was more excited about getting a glimpse of it as it retreated, than I was concerned about it attacking me. I even followed it halfway up into a tree to confirm that indeed, it was a black mamba.

Never-the-less, some of the snake encounters I had were quite frightening.

As I have mentioned in past tales, often times while I walked through the dense rainforests of the Central African Republic, I obsessively stared at the leaf covered ground with thoughts of gaboon vipers, trying to distinguish between a million possible viper  heads.  Luckily, I never did have the misfortune of stepping on one. However, on one backpacking trip into the forest, I did have quite the snaky fright.

I was on day 5 of a 10 day backpacking trip into the southern reaches of the Chinko river basin, in an area comprised almost completely of secondary forest. After walking all day under suffocating humid conditions with heavy packs on, I was glad to finally stop and make camp for the night along a small creek. In the creek bed itself, the trail of a huge rock python was visible, in the form of a long, deep rut stretching into the distance.

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I had just taken off my soggy shoes and shirt to dry, when Gambou- one of my closest African companions- suddenly stood up with a wild eye, and raised his machete over his head, as if he were about to slice me in half. I laughed nervously, holding up my arm to guard my face instinctively. But before my mind could frantically find an explanation to his strange behavior- Gambou suddenly swung down, and the machete landed in a sharp thump next to my foot.

“Bata tere ti mo, Adam!” Gambou hissed, meaning: take care of your body.

I looked down just in time to see two severed halves of a green night adder writhing on the forest floor next to my foot. I had nearly stepped on the venomous snake, and had no idea. Gambou no doubt saved me from a hard lesson that night.

Another time, I was walking in the long grass, staring ahead of me, when a horrible hissing noise sent an electric charge in my body- and I jumped high in the air. A puff adder- one of the most common, and dangerous venomous snakes in sub-Sahara Africa- lay coiled at my feet.

When the same exact event happened to one of my African companions during one of our treks, I concluded that the puff adder was a friend, and had only wished to warn us rather than strike. From then on, I have had a strange superstitious relationship with that species; never once have I allowed any of my African friends to kill a puff adder in my presence- despite heated protests from them. I am convinced, if I break that mutual respect, I will no doubt be bitten by a one eventually.

None of these experiences will ever compare to the spring morning, of 2011, near the Ngoy river of the Chinko basin. For three nights prior to that day, I had a reoccurring dream of dragons and serpents chasing me through a dens canopy of trees, and every time I found myself cornered, I awoke in a cold sweat. That morning, my entire crew of nine Africans and I were riding on our truck on our way to work, when Gambou slammed on the breaks, “Whoa!” he yelled.

A man named Mature, who was sitting on the hood of the truck, suddenly leaped backwards with such force that he fell through the open windshield and on top of Gambou and I in the cab. In the chaos of shouts, I caught sight of a wiry snake head striking the hood of the truck again and again. Gambou floored the exhilarator and we drove over the snake.


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When we had made it a safe distance ahead, the remaining passengers spilled out of the truck and returned to the spot to investigate. Hanging defensively in a small acacia tree, was a nine foot coil of lithe death: the black mamba.

Its back was crooked and bleeding in a spot, but it still held its head up in defiance. Gambou dispatched it with a shovel as it struck at him defiantly with an open mouth. We all gathered around to stare at the fallen enemy. “That one was aiming for me,” Mature said somberly.

I had heard classic stories of the ferocity of black mambas- attacking old Victorian explorers on horseback, and even in vehicles- but never had I experienced it until then.

Never did I enjoy killing snakes while I was in Africa; as might be apparent, my childhood was spent watching Dr. Brady Barr and Steve Irwin on TV, inspired by their vast knowledge of venomous serpents. I had a respect and keen interest in them instead. But, as might be obvious from my writing, often times when I met snakes in the bush, my African companions were quick to dispatch them. To them, the animals were an enemy- a force they had to contend with- and often times, lost to- on a daily basis. This was an inevitable outcome.

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tags: africa, snakes, travel, photography

4 thoughts on “Snake Encounters in the African Bush (part 1)

Add yours

  1. As I live in Steve Erwin country I have encountered many deadly snakes in my life but they are more afraid of us and keen to slither away. Harming them in any way should be avoided .. they only attack if we step on them or between them and their nest. Self-defence as we all would do.
    Great story telling, you kept me in the moment 🙂

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