All things that slither and crawl seem to love me, for whatever reason. I can´t really say that the love is mutual, but I´ve definitely come to develop a healthy respect for the creatures who live with their bellies close to the ground.
Especially the lethal ones.
Having spent time both living and traveling in East Africa, Central America, Amazonia and Australia, I´m no stranger to the “Nature´s Deadliest” gang, who have made a disproportionate number of guest appearances in my travels.
The first memorable moment was when I encountered a Black Mamba (widely regarded to be the most dangerous snake on earth), in Tanzania while coming down from my summit climb on Mt. Meru. The Black Mamba ranks among the top of a list of serpents known as “10 step snakes”. This term originated with African safari guides, who came up with a funny way to express the terrifying reality of what it means to get bitten by one of the snakes on this list: You´ll be dead before you make it 10 steps.
So on that sun dappled day, after a lung busting climb on Mt. Meru, we stopped with our guides (1 park ranger and 1 climbing guide), near a beautiful waterfall only an hour from the park entrance gates.
I was feeling energized and victorious in my climb (despite the agonizing pain my feet were in from 4 days of hard hiking); so I charged ahead of the rest of the group toward the falls. I´d given the park ranger my camera and stood proudly beside the thundering cascade for a well deserved, celebratory photo.
That´s when I saw the park ranger´s eyes go wide and he told me to walk toward him….very slowly.
I felt my heart drop into the pit of my stomach and knew instantly that some dangerous African animal had gotten the drop on me. Fighting the urge to run, I shuffled toward him in what felt like slow motion. My breath hung suspended in my chest until I was finally standing beside the park ranger. He was pointing to a rock right next to where I´d been standing. I had to squint to make it out, but then my eyes registered the coiled mass of smooth, grey scales that blended perfectly with the rock upon which it was perched.
The ranger whispered, “Black Mamba” in an almost reverent sort of way.
The true horror of the danger I´d been in finally clicked. While I´d been imagining the fangs of a Leopard closing in on me from behind, an even scarier menace had been waiting as I´d run up to get a picture near the waterfall.
It continued to watch us, curled up on that rock, as though it were just as surprised by our close encounter. Afterward, our climbing guide told me I was lucky to be alive since Black Mambas are not just deadly, but notoriously aggressive.
I guess mine had been enjoying a day off from terrorizing the animal kingdom.
(Fun fact: Black Mambas are actually more grey than black.)
My second meeting with one of the “10 step” crew was more common for outdoorsy people and happened in the land down under. After having spent time camping in the wilds of the Blue Mountains (New South Wales) and in the Outback near Uluru (Northern Territory), I´d returned to Sydney and decided to take a half day hike into the vast and lovely Royal National Park. Only a 45 minute ride out of the city, I jumped off the train at the popular trail head known as the Karloo Walking Track. It was an easy walk through lush and fast changing terrain that ends at a refreshing swimming hole. I was enjoying a scenic and uneventful hike until I came into a clearing atop a flat rock face, and startled a massive brown snake.
I´m not sure who was more surprised, me or the snake.
I completely froze and the gigantic brown beast quickly slithered off into the brush at the edge of the cliff. I evaluated my options as I heard two hikers approach from behind. Immediately, I warned them that I´d just seen a huge brown snake scuttle off into the bush and told them to be careful. They seemed surprised (both were Sydney area residents), since they hiked in the area often and had never come across anything scary before. Though being Australian, they were well aware of the dangerous nature of hiking in their country.
Even close to a major city, one can´t be too careful apparently.
Naturally, I cracked a joke about having weird “snake karma” and apologized for scaring them. They thanked me for the heads up and picked their way carefully down the trail in the same direction our slithery friend had retreated. I grabbed a big stick to make as much noise as possible as I continued along the trail behind the other hikers, hoping not to take any other would-be sunbathers by surprise.
After my hike, I chatted with a local while waiting to catch a train back to Sydney and he told me that I likely saw an Eastern Brown or King Brown Snake. Both of which are highly ranked in the “10 step” gang.
Like I said: Weirdest. Snake karma. EVER.
Though as unnerving as those incidents were, it was my most recent episode (this past December), that is probably the most ridiculous.
My husband and I were traveling through Missiones Province in Northern Argentina on our motorcycle. We were only a day´s ride from Puerto Iguazu and the magnificent falls when we came across a small town with a campsite next to a waterfall. Hot and tired from the long ride, we couldn´t pitch our tent fast enough and dive into the deep, cool waters of Salto Capiovi. Many people don´t realize that the state of Missiones is largely rainforest, as it skirts the southernmost edge of the Amazon River basin.
And like all areas of Amazonia, there are more malignant critters than you can shake a stick at.
Though any thoughts of lurking dangers were far from our minds as we let the icy waters of the Salto wash away the sweat and dirt of the road. Afterward, my husband was doing some routine maintenance on the bike while I decided to hit the showers (it was a pretty fancy campsite). I returned to camp fresh as a daisy, wearing nothing but a sarong and carrying a small bag of toiletries. I dove into our tent to change and was sitting on the ground (bare assed, I might add), when I heard my husband gasp and blurt out, “Just so you know…an incredibly deadly snake just crawled under the tent and is right next to you.”
And for the third time in my life, I felt my heart nearly stop beating in my chest.
I remained perfectly still until I was able to grab one of our luggage boxes close to me and in what may have been the least graceful move in the history of humanity, leapt on top of the thing like a drunken cat. My husband was shouting at me to get out of the tent, but my boots (and any semblance of clothing), were too far out of reach and I didn´t want to risk leaving the safety of the luggage box.
It was like the most frightening version of “the floor is lava” you´ll ever play!
I told my husband to grab a stick or a wrench and start hitting the sides of the tent close to the ground to scare away our unwanted guest. After what felt like an eternity, he unzipped the door and I decided to make a dive out into the deepening jungle twilight, snatching up my boots while still half naked.
Quickly, I threw on my boots and we tore apart and moved our entire camp before dark, in the event we were near the snake´s burrow or nest. Afterward, my husband described the snake and told me it´s name in Spanish. That´s when I realized he was talking about the Amazonian Coral Snake.
Mortality happens within minutes of a bite from this colorful little “10 step” bugger.
So were all of these experiences where I easily could´ve and probably should´ve died just pure luck? Divine intervention perhaps?
Maybe, but staying calm and keeping a level head was what really won the day.
The common thread in all of my encounters is, despite being in mortal danger and having only seconds to react, I remained calm and took the safest, most logical steps to protect myself. Keep in mind, most snakes want nothing more in the world than to get the hell away from you.
Or in some cases, for you to get away from them!
So give them the chance (or back away slowly), and your chances of survival improve drastically.
In the event that´s not an option (like if you are butt-naked in a tent for example), put a barrier between you and the creature as quickly as possible and then remove yourself from its presence at the earliest possible opportunity.
Let it never be said that traveling with me is a dull experience!
Until next time, keep wandering and stay sharp folks.