In our world of evergreen, the seasons’ flush of the White Stinkwoods this year has been a definite announcement of springs’ arrival. The warm days, feverish bird activity and blooming fynbos has been natures’ invite to don walking shoes and get out and play.
Whilst leading a couple, Craig and Vanessa, on a trail in the Goukamma Nature Reserve recently, conditions were perfect for birding and admiring the floral display. The terrain and clear skies added to the appreciation of the vistas from the top of the sand dunes. After a lunch stop from which we gazed down on the turquoise sea, we continued through some open dune fynbos.
Leading on a single track, I passed a low Blombos with an exposed stem, Vanessa following closely behind and Craig bringing up the rear. Barely 10 paces further on, the stillness was shattered by a hollow blast and an anguished cry from Craig. Swiveling round, I saw Craig clutching his left hip and looking at the top of the bush. Following his gaze I saw, slithering from the top of the Blombos, a large glossy puffadder. Hissing aggressively it slithered away into the undergrowth, quite possibly the largest puffadder I have ever seen.
Approaching Craig, inquiring if his skin had been punctured and ensuring that the snake was far enough away so as not to pose any additional risk, the potential seriousness of the situation sunk in. We were at least 4km from any access point with a vehicle and at least one hours walk to help.
Fortunately Craig, in his own words, reacted with ‘lightening-like Chuck Norris’ speed and managed to jump away when he heard the initial explosive hiss. He narrowly avoided the full impact of the strike escaping with merely a light bump on his hip.
Adrenaline pumping through our veins, we gathered our composure before continuing our walk to the beach, thankful that we had suffered nothing more than a scare. In our post fright discussion we all expressed surprise at the fact that the puffadder was not on the ground, but on top of the bush. A possible explanation for this unusual resting place may be that the snake had recently finished moulting and was rubbing the old skin off in the bush.
Thinking that this incident would satisfy our quota of serpentine encounters for the season, I was in for another surprise. A fortnight later, I had the occasion to guide two ladies, a pair of cousins from Gauteng on the Garden Route Trail. Prior to the trail, they had mailed endless questions concerning their safety, both at the accommodation venues and in the natural areas we walked through during the trail. Being obliged to inform them on all potential natural threats they could encounter over the next 5 days, I related the Puffadder incident during our briefing. Following an uneventful first three days, on the fourth day, as we started the Goukamma stage of the walk, once again they sought assurance that we would avoid any encounters with snakes.
Shortly after we had crested the dune from the Lake Pleasant side of Goukamma Reserve, we reached an open flat stretch where I stopped to take some photographs. Continuing, Evette took over the lead with Rene a few paces behind. Suddenly Rene exploded, both into the air and into some colourful language with the word snake repeated a few times. On landing, she bolted forward and then stopped, petrified that there may be more snakes ahead of her. This time, the attack was a determined Night Adder. A small snake, not longer than 20cm, it charged towards me, with a series of repetitive strikes, each one lifting its body clear off the ground. This time, with the snake in open view I was able stay out of striking range while videoing the attack before it slithered into the fynbos. Afterwards, it took a lot of pacifying to assure Rene and Evette that there would be no repeats for the rest of the day. Reluctantly they agreed to continue, though on strict condition that I remain in the lead and did not stop for any more photos.
So what was there to learn from these experiences? First, summer has arrived and snakes are emerging from their winter hibernation. In the first case the puffadder had clearly moulted recently which most likely contributed to it’s aggressive strike. Secondly, as long as you can see a snake you are safe. It is only when an unseen snake is disturbed and feels threatened that it will strike. This is particularly true of puffadders which will only reluctantly move off when approached. Normally they will give a series of warning hisses and only strike when stepped on or approached extremely closely. Thirdly, it is important to have an idea of what emergency protocol to follow in the unfortunate event of being bitten while in the wilderness. Have your doctors and local ambulance telephone numbers stored in your phone. Importantly, ensure that you correctly identify the snake to assist in receiving the correct treatment. There are three types of snake toxin and each requires a different treatment protocol.
Lastly, learn to admire snakes for their beauty and their crucial role in nature. Rather than perceiving them as a dangerous threat that should be destroyed, realize that they are vital to controlling rodent populations.