I have spent most of my life being thoroughly terrified by snakes. My usual response is to scream or freeze – even if it’s only a mole or grass snake. So I was somewhat taken aback by my response yesterday when encountering one of Africa’s most poisonous snakes – Bitis Arietans – the Puff adder.
Puff adders are sluggish, slow moving snakes (unless they’re striking) that can reach up to a meter in length. Their preferred activity is lying around snoozing in the sun. They are so lazy that they will seldom move when encountered - but don’t provoke them. You do not want to face the consequences. A Puff adder’s venom is deadly and the snake can deliver between 100 to 350 mg of poison in a single bite. The venom causes necrosis – tissue death – and medical attention must be quickly sought or fatality will result. You’re getting the picture here, aren’t you, Puffies are not very nice. Because they just lie there like great big slugs, nicely camouflaged against the golden earth and stone of paths, the tendency of hikers to step on them, with unhappy consequences, is great.
So there we were yesterday, driving along a country road when I spotted something lying in the road. It reared up as we went passed and at first I thought it was a Cape Cobra. Armed with our cameras, D decided this was too good an opportunity to miss. So I swung the car around and headed back. D was out of the car like a shot and I was getting out when a dirty great SUV came roaring towards us – heading straight for the snake which was halfway across the road. D yelled, “Nooooo!”. I waved my arms around like a deranged monkey and the driver swerved at the last minute. But what was most amazing was the Puff adder’s reaction. It struck out at the car – a thing thousands of times its own size. The speed with which it moved was uncanny – rearing up off the ground, its jaws unhinged, fangs exposed, striking at the tyres whizzing past it. As the car sped off the snake stayed motionless for a moment, then dropped down and continued on its way.
We snuck up to snap away and generally invade its space. The curious thing was this: the Puff adder wasn’t remotely bothered by our presence, and I, curiouser still, wasn’t afraid of it. Yeah, I know, go figure. There I was, happily following the snake across the road and into the bush. Let me say though that I do not advise this kind of mad behaviour - predicated, I’m sure only because we were behind cameras (no, I’ve no idea what sort protection I thought that provided) and because I’d aged another year. Evidently advancing age makes one more foolish. We had the good sense, I think, to stay three to four feet away from the snake, and oh I do thank he who developed zoom lenses. Mind you, it might also have something to do with the fact that I saw the snake as symbolic. Snakes are symbolic of rebirth and healing – a fairly potent symbol, I thought, to turn up on my birthday.
Eventually, the Puff adder slithered under a bush and issued a heavy huff and puff. We took that, rather sensibly I think, as notice that we’d outstayed our welcome, and left the snake to find a sunny spot in which to doze away the rest of its day.