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Mambas ... Harry Wolhuter & Highly Venomous Bushveld Snake

Wolhuter had many encounters with snakes. He was temporarily blinded after receiving venom from a Black-necked spitting cobra. Once he rescued his dog by cutting open a python which had just swollen it! But his greatest respect is reserved for the deadly Black mamba.   

I lost a number of dogs through snakes, especially mambas, (1) and on one occasion I lost seven dogs at once, all killed by one mamba! In this instance my dogs had put up the snake from a patch of grass, run him down, and now stood round him barking. One dog would rush in, and the snake would strike with such speed that we could hardly follow its action: the dog would let out a yelp, and in a few minutes it would be dead.

Unfortunately it was quite impossible for me to interfere, as the thoroughly excited dogs were all mixed up with the snake, and had I fired at the latter I would almost certainly have killed some of the dogs as well. The remaining dogs, after the fourth or fifth dog had succumbed, took longer to die – I expect on account of the gradual lessening of the quantity of venom with each additional bite. I could do nothing, as I had no serum with me at the time, and all of the dogs finally died. I revenged them all, however, by shooting the snake at the first opportunity.

One day when going for a walk about two miles from my house I saw two mambas, in a patch of scrub, wrapped round each other. This was such an astonishing spectacle that I watched them for quite a while. About four or five feet of their lengths were raised above the ground – presenting a remarkable and rather horrifying sight – and I think they must have been mating as they were sufficiently absorbed in one another to take no notice of myself, though I stood them not far away. Having no firearms with me, not even a stick, I finally returned home for a shotgun – rather doubting whether I would find them again on my return. However they were still there, behaving exactly as when I left them, twining and untwining themselves about each other. This time I shot them both, but unfortunately was unable to distinguish between the sexes.

Quite recently when talking to an old native named Charlie about the above incident he told me that a new kraal had been built close to the spot concerned. A party of natives, on their way to a beer-drink had occasion to pass the almost identical patch of shrub, and there, to their astonishment, they witnessed a similar spectacle. Finally about fifteen natives had gathered and they were standing round the two snakes talking and shouting and yet the two mambas took not the slightest notice of them, being, as previously, completely concerned with each other. One of the natives returned to Charlie’s kraal and obtained a long stick, with which they finally killed the snakes while they were still entwined.

The Black mamba is, I suppose, the best known (as it is certainly the most feared) of African snakes, so perhaps I may recount another experience or two about this very deadly reptile.

I happened, one day, to be riding through some short grass when I saw a mamba traveling towards my horse. He was coming on at a good pace and was already, when I first noticed him, so close that I thought my safest plan was to pull up and stand still. Fortunately the horse failed to see the snake, and being unaware of its presence, was not frightened and remained quite still. The mamba passed right under its belly and entered an old, disused antheap a few yards beyond; and I wasted no time in placing a good distance between us! In this case the snake clearly had no aggressive intentions: it simply wanted to enter its hole in the antheap; but had it suddenly alarmed at such close quarters and fancied its retreat cut off, it would almost certainly have struck with fatal results – at any rate to the horse.

On another occasion, while living at M’timba, I was walking at the back of the camp, just beyond the fence, when I saw a very big Black mamba retreating into a patch of scrub. As I had no gun with me I left him there and went on. Some time later, while passing the place on my way back, I saw my small son standing in the middle of that patch of scrub with his air-gun, evidently looking for “toppies” (2) that were eating our fruit badly. I felt a cold shiver run down my spine, knowing how deadly mambas were; and not wishing to alarm him and cause a commotion, I quickly said “Henry! Come here!” Fortunately the snake made no appearance, so I told him there was a mamba in the scrub and not to go back there again.

One day I was walking below my vegetable garden in a small donga when I heard the rustling of dead leaves. Glancing in that direction I beheld a mamba coming towards me. I did not like to turn and run as I thought that by doing so I might tempt him to chase me, so I quietly backed away as fast as I could – which was not nearly quick enough for my liking! I kept my eyes on him all the time, noticing with satisfaction that his pace was gradually slowing down, and finally he stopped. I then turned and ran as fast as I could to the house; collected my shotgun and returned, but the snake had gone.   

Notes   

  • Mambas. A highly poisonous snake. The Green mamba (Dendroaspis angusticeps ) which attains a length of 2.74 metres, is found in creeper-covered bush. The Black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) generally found in more open country, attains 3.66 metres and more. Mating will take place between the green and black varieties. After being bitten by this snake, a man may die within a few minutes.
  • Toppies. Colloquial name for Black-Eyed Bulbul (Pycnonotus barbatus layardi). A dark brown bird with black crest and yellow vent patch.