Death by snakebite in the Drakensberg

2009-09-17 00:00

YOUR article titled “The tale of two photographs” (The Witness­, August 14), brought back memories of the full, unpublished facts about the rescue­ attempt.

The Pietermaritzburg Rambler’s Club held its annual Easter Camp in the Drakensberg each year. We always travelled to camp, with all our camping gear, on the back of Mr Govender’s lorry. In 1955, our Easter camp was at Champagne Castle where we set up camp among wattle­ trees beyond the hotel, and where we had enjoyable hikes and campfires with songs in the Berg.

At about midday on Easter Monday, after we had struck camp, we decided to have a final run up the “Matterhorn”, the little Berg peak behind the hotel­, before finalising the packing of the lorry and returning home.

It was a sunny day and we wanted to make the best of the beautiful Berg. The rapid climb up took 20 minutes. After a rest viewing the landscape, it took us a bit longer going back down slowly. As we returned to camp we received a message that someone had been bitten by a snake and needed help.

Ian Miller had been hiking with two friends, neither of whom had before hiked in the Berg. One of his friends had just arrived at the hotel, having run down from the mountains, to say that Miller had been bitten the previous evening and needed help.

Fortunately, one of our members, Dorothy Robbins, had driven to camp in her small car and was able to stay on to give a lift home to three other Ramblers.

Don Allison, an old stalwart of the Ramblers Club, set off immediately with Miller’s friend to give assistance. After seeing the rest of the Ramblers off on the lorry, Ken Roberts­ and I followed Allison, after being told that the Forestry Department guards would follow with a stretcher.

Robbins remained behind to phone (by trunk calls) our homes and report our delayed return.

We made good time up the steep zigzagged path below the Sphinx and on to Blind Man’s Corner, below Cathkin Peak, where we turned south along the contour path. As we reached the first stream, we saw Allison and Miller’s friend coming back down the grassy hillside to the contour path.

Miller’s friend said that this was the wrong stream and, being new to the Berg, he could not recognise the way he had come down that morning. We continued along the contour path looking for possible clues. A few streams later, as we went through a bushy area around a large stream, we saw a clear footprint in the sandy stream bed, at right angles to the path, where presumably Miller’s friend had jumped down from a rock that morning. We left arrow marks on the path to show the forestry guards the way we had gone.

We then boulder-hopped up this stream, which runs down next to The Old Woman Grinding Corn peak. It took some time to climb up to the site of the tragedy. Unfortunately, Miller’s other friend, who had stayed with him, said that Miller had stopped breathing shortly after his friend had left early that morning. I tried to check for Miller’s pulse, but I could only feel my own pulse throbbing after the rapid climb up the stream bed.

His friend said that he had used a mirror to check for condensation from his breath, but to no avail. This was before the days of CPR, cellphones, GPS and helicopter missions, and there was no way of getting medical assistance.

They said that they had camped there the previous night and while Miller had been collecting water in a billycan from under a rock in the stream bed, he had been bitten on the wrist by a snake. They had injected snake bite serum but it might possibly have been outdated. They had put Miller into his sleeping bag for warmth, and they had spread their tent out as a mattress and put it on a flat place in the rocky stream bed and laid Miller on it. Unfortunately, it rained during the night and they all got wet and cold which aggravated Miller’s condition.

The forestry guards arrived with a stretcher, but by this time it was nearly sunset and we decided that it would be impossible to move Miller’s body down in the dark. As his two friends were so distraught, we took them down to the contour path while the guards stayed with the body overnight.

Fortunately, I had put my sleeping bag, raincape and some snacks in my rucksack, but Allison and Roberts only had the clothes that they were wearing, as they had expected to be back at base that evening.

Early the next morning we three Ramblers went back up the stream and met the forestry guards who were carrying the stretcher with Miller’s body, going slowly over the steep, rocky terrain­.

I noticed that his arm was sticking out and I realised that, as rigor mortis had set in, it could not be bent back into his sleeping bag.

As we walked back along the contour path, we met several horses that the hotel proprietor had sent up. Thus Allison, Roberts and I were able to ride back, as we were thoroughly exhausted, while the guards with Miller’s friends followed with the stretcher. After a much needed meal, we left with Robbins in her car to return to Pietermaritz- burg­ as we were all late for work that day.

We expected to be contacted about the details [of the experience], but the next thing we knew was a report in The Natal Witness about the inquest.

The verdict I remember was death caused by pneumonia and aggravated­ by the snake bite.

The Drakensberg is a lovely area but it must be treated with respect. Thorough preparation, knowledge and experience are essential before venturing into this natural wilderness, preferably with a large party.

We have met many snakes on our hikes but fortunately they usually move away when disturbed.

It was unfortunate that Miller had put his hand into an area where a snake was hiding.


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