A snake with arms

True Snake Stories from the African Bushveld – Tales from My Childhood

I would like to preface this article with this – I love snakes. They are adorable (most of them) and all round intriguing creatures. These are true stories that happened when I was between the ages of 8 and 11 in different locations. I thought that anyone who reads this might want to have a laugh about it like I do now. Yes, these situations were actually dangerous, but they are also unforeseeable and, at times, humorous. I hope that you can have a good laugh with at least some of these. As I write this and the memories come flooding back, I miss these simple times. 

A Little Bit of Background Information

Charters Creek photograph
My sister and I with some warthogs, Charters Creek

Before we get into the thick of it, there are a few things I would like to let you know. I was born in South Africa and lived there for almost 13 years before moving to England with my family. In South Africa, my dad worked on game reserves and my mom home-schooled my sister and I. Because of my dad’s work, we lived on the reserves he worked at, so we were always too far away to go to public school. Living on game reserves meant that we were surrounded by nature at all times, an overall wonderful thing. It also meant that my sister and I did not have the most typical upbringing. In our years living in the bundu we experienced some amazing, scary and strange things. The main culprits for today’s stories are snakes. Snake lovers and haters beware. 

A Glimpse into the Life and Some Fond Memories

Lala Palm House, Mauricedale
Me looking at some white rhinos from the pattio of my house

As I mentioned, my family lived in houses on game reserves for the most part. It was a very different life to what most people experience and I will forever be thankful for it. In one of the houses I lived in there was no fence around the property except a small area at the back. At the front, a well used dirt road passed through and a well of sorts lay at the bottom. It was not uncommon for white rhinos to visit the premises, along with calves. They would roll in the mud, destroying the water systems my sister and I built as well as the tadpoles’ homes. Rhinos would often come up to the house, curious of the bipedal creatures living there. The house was a beautiful open plan thatch roof bungalow that flying creatures loved to get stuck in.

On several occasions me or my family were caught unawares when a rhino decided to pay a visit. Once, my dad got trapped on the top of a jungle-gym, surrounded by the grazing pachyderms. On another occasion my sister and I found refuge in a tree. Somehow we had not noticed when a mother and her calf snuck up on us. One would think an animal as large as a white rhinoceros would be noisy, but they would be wrong. Anyone who has faced a rhino will tell you there is no shame in being oblivious to their approach. 

A Little Bit About Snakes

a large reticulated python
credit: dinoanimals

There are hundreds of snake species and over 15 recognised families. These snakes include vipers, pythons, cobras and many more. While some, like pythons and boas, are not venomous and instead constrict their prey. Snakes can be found in most countries but do not inhabit Antarctica, New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland and Ireland. New Zealand is snake-free, with no snakes even in zoos or any other habitats including as pets. The very existence of snakes on the islands is considered illegal. 

Africa has some of the most venomous snakes in the world (Australia takes the cake for that one). Despite this, relatively few people die from snake bites per year. In fact, the places with the most snake-related deaths are actually South and South-east Asia. Counties such as India have reported the highest number of deaths by snake bites. With dense populations, the climate and the potential lack of anti-venom available to victims, this comes as no surprise. Statistics also show that Sub-Saharan Africa is also a hot spot for snake-related deaths, with up to 20,000 people dying there annually. Overall, there are roughly 100,000 deaths globally due to snake incidents, though not all being due to venom.  

Justin the Vet Vs Snake 

Spitting Cobra snake
credit: sciencealert

This first story takes place when I was around eight years old. It was my mom’s day to mow the lawn – a simple task. Only a snake had made it its new home. My dad, the proficient snake catcher and all round hero, was not home. We sent for option number two – our neighbour and vet, Justin. 

Justin exuded the look of confidence, his watch glimmering in the sunlight on his left hand. It would have been believable if not for his shaky voice and buckling knees. A pillowcase was brought – a short term cell for the creature. He got a broom and removed the snake from the machine. He pinned the snake’s head down using the broom and picked it up with his left hand. A breath of relief passed through us. I watched from just a few meters away as my mom opened the pillowcase and handed it to Justin. Slowly, he lowered the snake into its prison, tightening the pillowcase around his arm to prevent an escape. He counted… 1…2… on 3 he released his grasp of the snake and pulled up. 

Until that day I had never seen true fear. Justin’s eyes turned the size of dinner plates and his skin paled. Panic. Sheer panic filled his face. His watch was caught in the pillowcase, along with his hand. It only lasted a few seconds, but I just knew that Justin thought he was going to die. His bare hand in a pillowcase with a now loose cobra. He soon realised it was his right hand holding the case itself and loosened it enough to save his hand. I swear he almost fainted, but he was safe, as was the snake. The serpent was released a few kilometres down the road in the bush.

There’s a Snake in My House 

Mozambique Spitting Cobra snake
credit: wikipedia

I lived on a fantastic game reserve called Mauricedale, a place well known for its rhino population. The day started out like any other – it was warm, the sun was shining, I was avoiding school work… To get to my sister’s room you would have to walk through my room from my parents’ room. It was like one long hallway with doors in the strangest places. At the end was my older sister’s room, which had its own door leading out into the garden. This was not something that struck us as strange, nor was the inch high gap between the floor and the door. 

As I said – a normal day – we were having a braai and my sister was asked to get something. She goes through the house, noticing our cat (KiKat) was watching something rather warily. My sister (who was around 12 at the time) passed by the steps to her room and felt something. Liquid shot out from between the wall and the wardrobe to her right, covering her legs. There was no question as to what just happened – she had just been spat at by a spitting cobra. In one foul swoop she picked up the cat, ran out and announced the presence of the serpent. My dad sent her to wash her legs off in case she had any cuts, and went to check out this home invader. Of course, we all followed. He tried to get the snake out safely, but ultimately determined that it would be too dangerous. 

I will never forget the sound of the shotgun going off, the wardrobe falling to pieces, and the spray of that snake. In the hours that followed, the gap below the door was filled and a gruesome clean-up started.

A Cobra’s Unfortunate End 

Mozambique Spitting Cobra snake
credit: earthtouchnews

We lived on a farm for a few months not too far from the previously mentioned occurrences. I was nine and, due to the serpentine experiences I had already had, always on the lookout. This place was more populated than the game reserves we had lived on before. Higher population meant that snakes were more likely to be a danger to others.

I cannot fathom how it got in, or how long it has been hiding by the freezer, but there it was. Another cobra. I spotted its writhing body several times before anybody believed me. It was a shock that it had not tried its luck on escaping or blinding anyone with its venom. This was a sad circumstance – there was no way of getting to the poor creature safely. It had well and truly stuck itself between the freezer and the wall and did not want to budge. My dad gave me the look. He left the room and came back with a shotgun. With two children in the house, his wife, and others working in the vicinity, it was the safest route. 

We all ensured our pets were safe and stepped back. My dad aimed the shotgun, and bang. I am certain no one could hear a thing for a few seconds but that did not matter. The moment the gun went off a spray of red shot up onto the ceiling. If you ever thought that the blood splatter from horror movies are exaggerated – they are not. To this day I am convinced that the ceiling of that kitchen is stained red.

My Dad’s Oscar Awarding Performance 

Spotted Bush Snake
credit: alchetron

My dad is quite the comedian. He likes to prank unsuspecting victims and scare the life out of them. One day he was working at his new job at Shall Cross Farm. My mother, sister and I were waiting in the bakkie while he spoke to some of the workers several meters away. Out of nowhere, the men start running. They run like they had just witnessed a murder most gruesome. My dad, being the sceptical man that he is, goes to check out all the commotion. A snake the men called a ‘mamba’ was resting behind a shed. My dad picks it up and one by one the men cautiously return, still keeping their distance. This must have been when my dad hatched the plan that would work all too well. He looked at the snake as if the two had an understanding, then the creature bit him. 

There was an audible gasp and the fear that had begun to dwindle was ignited again. My dad dropped to his knees, no doubt clutching his chest. The snake made its escape but not the workers’ eyes were on my father. Slowly he sank to the ground, his life leaving him. He looked up at the men who were now surrounding him. Take care of my family… he said to them, his voice weak. Please… look after them. The fear in the men’s’ eyes only intensified. As the last bit of life was drained from my father, his eyes closed. Seconds passed, no one knew what to do. A wry smile formed on my dad’s face and his eyes shot open. It was as if a ghost had just appeared before the men and a yelp rang through the air. 

The snake was a spotted bush snake, a non-venomous, non-fanged snake. 

I Outrun the Fastest Snake in the World

Black Mamba snake
credit: livescience

Okay, this story might be the only one mentioned where I experienced fear. This started out as a lovely warm day. My dad, dog Katrain and I, decided to take a walk in the veld. We drove a fair distance into the bush and got out to start walking. In the distance a goway bird called, as if it was trying to warn me of the danger that lay ahead. We walked along a stream – kingfishers darted up and down catching their lunch and being beautiful. The stream ran at the foot of a cliff. As we followed it the hours passed and the heat from the sun intensified. My dog often walked with us, a boerboel that made anyone feel safe. No person could look at her and not feel at least a little bit intimidated, but she was lovely. Well, I did not think so that day.

A few hours into the walk the dog suddenly becomes interested in a bush. The stream is now somewhere in the distance and we are walking by the cliff. My childish curiosity got the better of me. I walked over to see what the fuss was about, my dad looking at something else a few metres away. This bush looked like any other – half green half brown, dry. I took a closer look at it… in the blink of an eye something came flying out at me. You know how in movies everything goes in slow motion in an epic battle scene? Well, I was Keanu Reeves in the Matrix watching this black mouth come straight for me. There is nothing more identifying about a black mamba than its obsidian mouth. 

Horror Movies are Accurate, Snake Edition… Continued

Black Mamba
credit: aboutanimals

There I was, standing in the bush, hours away from any hospital, with a black mamba flying at me. If I am being honest, I did not know if it was I or the snake who got the bigger fright. Either way, I somehow missed the snake, turned around and legged it. 

You think they are lying when people in horror movies are running away from something and they trip over everything? Wrong. The adrenaline rush made me feel like I could climb a skyscraper but I tripped over everything and nothing. I could have got caught in an acacia and fought my way out with the fear coursing through my body. Only after I fell over nothing, as well as a few fallen trees, did my dad take notice. I could hardly get the words out of my mouth, my eyes wide with a fear like never before. Black mamba. I finally told him. He laughed and shook his head, then the snake turned direction and slithered past up both by the cliff. His eyes then reflected mine.

To this day, neither of us have seen a black mamba as large as that one. Not only can black mambas reach up to three metres long, but they are also fast. The fastest record is 16 kilometres an hour – maybe not too fast, but extremely fast for a snake. Not only that, but if I had been bitten there is no chance I would have survived. We were hours away from any town or hospital and its neurotoxic venom would have rendered me unconscious. In less than six hours I would have been dead.

Grandpa Gets a Surprise Bathroom Visitor

Old man on a tiolet
credit: demiengaleone

I was not around for this one, but this story is a staple in my household. My grandparents on my dad’s side were a hardy pair. They lived hard lives and experienced all kinds of things, from terrorist attacks to being followed by hyenas. In their later years they owned a big farm where they had sheep and mangoes. Their house was quaint and beautiful, and had a toilet room attached to the side of it. This last story is short, but definitely worth a mention. 

My grandpa went into the toilet to do what it is people do in there. The room is small, just enough space to sit down (almost) comfortably and stretch forward to touch the old door. Above the toilet sits a little window that stayed open almost year round. After these events, I imagine that changed.

There my grandpa is, doing his thing. Out of the corner of his eye he sees something crawling through the window. He freezes, the thing continues to make its way down towards him. As it comes into view it becomes clear what it is – a black mamba. Anyone’s worst nightmare comes to life. He is stuck there, sitting on the toilet, pants down. The snake lowers itself and slithers across him, onto his lap, down to the floor. As it reached the floor it seemed to change its mind and turn back around. The creature begins to make its way back up, over my grandpa’s lap and towards the window. 

As my grandpa told it, there are few things that scared him more than that. Having had my own experience with a black mamba I can sympathise, but this story will never die. 

The Snake Stories Come to an End

Photo from Mauricedale Game Reserve
My Dad stuck on top of a jungle-gym while rhinos graze below him

There they are, a few stories from my childhood that really jump out at me. These stories are not meant to be serious. Looking back at them, they are truly hilarious in many ways (RIP the cobras), though not entirely harmless. Each of these short stories are true and written how I remember them. Who knows if that black mamba really jumped out at me? It feels highly unlikely but in that moment when it happened, I swear it did. 

There are so many more stories about my short life in South Africa. These are all of the snake-related ones I could think of, though. There are stories about buffalo, rhinos, elephants and even frogs and terrapins. 

I hope you enjoyed reading these – they were certainly a lot of fun to recall and relay. If you think you might want to hear about more stories some time, why not let me know? 


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