By Robin Machile
Stories around camp fires are always interesting. Peter poked the fire to stir it into life while we sat on camp chairs.
Some of the men were gathered around a braai stand. Turning over chicken legs and breasts, they did the same to pieces of meat.
The aroma of roasting chicken and meat stirred the taste buds. Drinks were opened and passed around.
Usually only three animals take center stage around camp fires – elephant, lion and snakes. There are occasional reference to buffalo, hippo, leopard and hyena.
A number of the men believed strongly that all snakes should be killed outright on sight. Some like me begged to disagree.
As evil as one might think these limbless creatures are, they have their role in the nature of things.
It was Justin who lumped snakes with hyenas, wondering if such creatures were really necessary. There were howls and snorts of disbelief from one side and murmurs of agreement from the other.
Then Thomas looked straight into my eyes, smiled and said “Remember the time we had that close encounter with that awful snake……”
Indeed, I did. There comes a time, however, no matter how tolerant you are of certain creatures but where human life is in danger it requires a combination of quick and decisive action.
I recalled hunting a buffalo for the camp’s Christmas ratio. It had rained heavily in that part of the morning.
It saw us making slow progress over soggy ground. The buffalo prints were deep in the wet ground and filled with water for the previous mornings down pour.
I suggested to Thomas that we follow the fresh lion prints that were imprinted next to the buffalos.
The lions had deliberately avoided planting their paws in the wet tracks of the buffalo.
It was not long before we heard the looing of the buffalo. Snorting and grounding as they grazed, I scanned the lay of the herd, carefully selecting a sizeable bull in his prime.
Peter tapped my left shoulder, drew my attention to where a lioness was sizing the herd from behind a tree, another sat next to her just as concentrated as she was. It presented an interesting situation.
The next moment played out in an almost dream-like motion. Thomas walking towards me, to my horror he almost stepped on the mid-section of a large black mamba stretched across the ground.
As he miraculously missed stepping on it, he brushed against a shrub. This immediately brought up the Mamba’s head over the shrub.
Thomas was so engrossed in getting a buffalo that he had no idea what he had just missed stepping on.
Now it was facing me, it rose to a great height, some two meters from me. Justin was next to me, I cautioned him to remain calm. Mambas have been known to bite several people at once.
The Mamba was close, maintained eye contact with me. Its body rippled with anxiety. It felt threatened, cornered, the man smell strong in its head.
Snakes do not smell with their noses but with their tongues taking the scent particles to the inner sensory organ in the head that breaks down scents and smells, helping to distinguish prey, enemy, mates and so forth.
The Mamba’s mouth was wide open, revealing its short stabbing fangs in the mucous moist black mouth from whence it derives its name.
I was that close to observe and see all this. This was not the first time either, to be within almost touching distance to Africa’s largest and longest venomous snake.
Though it is not always that a Mamba will strike, no matter how close one is, I maintained my composure, not making any sudden movements.
Getting bitten by a snake is a real and constant danger in the bush. Though more snakes see you than you are able to.
Nonetheless there are those that will bite when they feel they are been threatened. Be it a puff adder, cobra, boomslang, twig snake or Mamba they all pack enough venom to kill a person.
The mamba leaned back, mouth agape. It appeared as though it was getting ready to strike out.
A black Mamba will usually flee from trouble. If cornered, however, it will raise its hood, hiss and if the intruder does not retreat, strike out most likely on the face or neck.
Untreated bites can be quickly fatal. Our situation was such that we had buffalo on one side, lions on the other, a Mamba in front of us and behind us, was Thomas set on harvesting our Christmas meal.
It was then that I heard a loud, dull sound, then another. It was Peter. He had cut a long, thick stick with which he now swung with deadly accuracy on the snake’s neck and head. He managed to decapitate the head from the long body.
The Mamba’s headless body uncoiled; writhing, thrashing and whipping around wildly in its death frenzy.
Peters and my lower legs and shoes were sprayed with mamba blood spurting from its severed body.
Its bodiless head continued to open and close – working on the oxygen reserves still pumping through its brain.
Eventually both head and body ceased their activity. All the while I had not allowed fear to get the better of me.
I have a policy never to panic when faced with a snake at close quarters. The snake is itself just as nervous as the person it’s facing.
They are aware that humans are their worse nemesis. So will do all they can to get away unless cornered. Not that I never get caught off guard, I do and yes, there have been some really breath-taking encounters.
A large black mamba is a formidable adversary, can give a very good account of itself.
Black mambas are found throughout Zambia. Their sizes, temper, speed and deadly venom has crowned it as Africa’s most notorious snake.
Surprising though it does not account for many snake bites as does the puff adder and its smaller quarrelsome relatives the true cobras.
Mambas are known also as tree cobras and do spread a small hood when very agitated.
You cannot mistake a mamba, when you see one. The large elongated body, with long narrow coffin shaped head with the characteristic “mamba smile”.
There was a loud bang, as Thomas shot at a buffalo bull. It groaned as it hit the ground, from the bullet’s impact, which broke its neck.
The herd thundered away, taking the lions with them. There was a silence that followed the rifle’s report.
Thomas walked over to the dead buffalo. Rifle at ready in case it came to life, as buffalo are notoriously famed for.
Then called us over to view the buffalo, which we did. He noticed blood on my shoes and shins, as he did on Peter’s.
Justin appeared with the Mamba’s headless body hanging from the same stick that had been used to kill it. Justin narrated as much as he could remember to Thomas.
After skinning and cutting up the buffalo carcass, we hauled them into the vehicle then drove back to camp. I reflected on the day’s events, it could have gone either way.
That said, we were glad none of us got bitten by the mamba nor got gored or trampled by a buffalo.
The lions had paid us no heed, more interested in filling their empty bellies with the rich buffalo meat.
Nevertheless, it had been quite a day. We had got our buffalo and lived to retell the tale.
Around the camp fire that same night, we revisited the whole scene over and over again. Asking questions, probing the “what ifs” “What might have been” and so forth.
Had it really been necessary to kill the mamba? What if we had just let time slip by? But Peter had done the right thing; he would have sat by and let the Mamba have the final say.
No one could read the snake’s mind anyhow and with mambas, you just never know
Now time has flown since that incident. Here we were around another camp fire – reliving that incident.
I was asked to tell my side of that encounter with the mamba. When in the bush anything can happen. There are many incidents of close encounters with dangerous animals on hunting expeditions and patrols which were shared.
There was a lot of head shaking, knee slapping and laughter. Lions roared from the darkened woodland, a hyena howled then another.
A hippo honked from the river, this was followed by the loud stomach rumbling of an elephant very close by. That we knew was the resident bull elephant that came regularly to forage through camp.
More firewood was added to the fire, more drinks passed around. Then we raised ourselves from our chairs to collect whatever piece of meat we fancied. It would be a long night with more stories to be shared.