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Snakes for Africa

I was fortunate to have lived in and attended school in Kenya which, in those days, was the Safari Mecca of Africa.  The capital, Nairobi, was a continual buzz of khaki-clad adventure seekers about to journey into the wild unknown.  The hotels, shop owners and curio stores all encouraged the visitors to spend freely.  Their time in town, however, was short-lived as they were soon whisked away in a safari car to places like Mount Kenya Safari Club, Masai Mara Game Reserve and Serengeti, and many others.

This was the mid-sixties and, for much of my young life, I had harboured a fascination for reptiles, particularly snakes.  Many youngsters go through this phase but mine was enduring, and to my delight, I was offered a job at the Nairobi Snake Park.  My instructions were to keep all the cages clean, feed the snakes and to stay away from anything poisonous. James Ashe, my then boss, said the snake handlers that don’t get bitten are those who need to be respected, any fool can get bitten by being blasé and negligent.  I must say, I did have a few close calls but thankfully managed to avoid a serious bite. It was important to me to prove to James that I could handle snakes in a responsible manner as this would open doors for me to go on catching trips.

He came to me one day and said, “I want you to go to the Mombasa coast and see if you can bring back some of the rarer species that occur along this stretch of Kenya’s seaboard area”.  The only problem was that the allowance I was given would hardly cover costs, so being the ingenious fellow that I am, I decided to hitch a ride from the outskirts of Nairobi on my 300-mile dirt road journey.   There I stood in the afternoon sun, bristling with snake sticks, bags, boxes, and a rucksack, wondering in my innocence why nobody would stop.

Eventually, at around 4.00 pm, an enormous railway goods transporter pulled up and the driver, with a grin from ear to ear, ushered me aboard, but said the only space was in the open toolbox over the cab, which was much like being between a rock and a hard place, literally.  But who was I to decline such an offer? As we drove on into the dusk, I was being bombarded by myriad of insects that were attracted to the headlights.  Thankfully, I used the goggles that I always carried in the event of encountering a spitting cobra on a field trip.

As you can well imagine, this fourteen-hour trip was not the most comfortable, as I tried to avoid sitting on wheel spanners, jacks and other paraphernalia housed in my limited space, but this was my first trip, and I didn’t complain.  Anyway, at night, the warm dust roads tend to bring nocturnal snakes out to feed and to enjoy the warmth.  It wasn’t long before we stopped for a ‘smoke break’ and I mentioned to the driver that should I see a snake in the road I would tap loudly on the cab roof.  His job would then be to keep the vehicle lights on the innocent reptile, and if I successfully caught it, he would receive a reward for each specimen.

At one point, the driver was so keen to succeed, that when the momentum of the truck carried us past a particularly interesting quarry, he manoeuvred the vehicle around in the opposite direction to enable me to catch what I was after.

On my return, James Ashe promoted me, which meant I could use the 50cc Suzuki motorbike for future short catching trips. This moped very handy, particularly when I received a call from the Radio Broadcasting Station to say there was a rather large python in the parking area, which offending reptile I was to please remove as nobody would venture from their offices for fear of encountering this large beast.

Onto my motorbike in double quick time, with James’ son on the pillion, armed with a noose and a maize sack.  We arrived at the scene to find our quarry disappearing in haste over a ledge down towards the Nairobi River.  I took off in hot pursuit, grabbing Mr Python by the tail.  Unfortunately, the descent was rather steep, and the combined weight of the snake and the rate of fall sent yours truly and said reptile into an untidy heap on a rapid downward path, stopping only next to the riverbank.  Of course, our python by now was totally irate and before I could gather my senses was striking at me at very close range!!  Fortunately, my young assistant had found an easier route down to the river, and while he distracted the snake, I managed to get a noose over its head and pacify it despite my uncontrollably shaking knees.

Eventually, we bagged the snake, which must have measured all of 16 feet long, put it on the petrol tank of the bike, and rode contra flow to the traffic back to the park with a very welcome police escort.