Snakes alive!

2009-12-24 00:00

I GREW up in a little town called Kearsney which is about 25 kilometres inland from Stanger and about 2 000 metres above sea level on the north coast, with my mom, Maureen­, stepdad Alec and two younger brothers Roydon and Sean.

Dad and Mom were the principal and vice-principal of a school for children and adults who were mentally and physically disabled. The home was known as St Luke’s Home of Healing.

From 1945 to 2006, St Luke’s Home of Healing occupied an old English-style mansion that was built in the late 1800s by Sir James Liege Hulett for his wife and children. It has 15 bedrooms, three reception rooms, a huge kitchen and its own chapel. It is now used as a bed and breakfast and it is called Kearsney Manor. From 1921 to 1939 it was the original Kearsney College that is now situated­ in Bothas Hill.

I have so many happy memories of the years that I spent in Kearsney and a few not so happy memories. I remember summer lasting the whole year and I did not even own a jersey until I moved to Pietermaritzburg to study in 1984.

The whole farm was practically under the cover of a canopy of trees. Over the years Dad managed to cut down many old trees to allow the sunlight in. The soil was so fertile that everything grew to twice the normal expected height. I remember avenues of mango­ and Chinese guava trees and there was an allspice tree which had the most beautiful aromatic leaves.

My fondest memories were of sitting in a tree eating sugar cane with my brother Roydon­ and Albert. Albert was the induna’s youngest son who was supposed to teach Roydon and me Zulu. In fact, Albert did all the learning. We taught him to speak fluent English within a year. Sadly we did not learn much Zulu. During the hot summer months our diet consisted mostly of sugar cane. Roydon, Albert and I knew exactly where the choicest, juiciest sugar cane grew. After school we would go into the cane fields, carefully select and chop down about 10 sticks of it and head for our favourite tree. Once we were seated on our favourite branch, no one could see us but we could see all the comings and goings. Our only giveaway was the pile of chewed cane pulp that grew and grew under our hiding place. We would sit and talk about our plans for the future but little did we know that once we grew up we would sit and talk about all the good times that we had on the farm.

It was in that canopy of trees that my worst nightmare resided.

One of my earliest encounters with a mamba­ was terrifying and as always, unexpected. Our house was about 500 metres from the main building and it was also covered with thick tree branches. One morning, as I was getting ready for school, I reached for my school uniform in the cupboard and in the gloom I saw something move in the bottom of the cupboard. I was on the bed in a second. Our housekeeper Alzena joined me there and we both screamed for help. Mom and Dad summoned less hysterical assistance and managed to coax us both off the bed and out the room. They then proceeded to thrash the living daylights out of that black mamba. Once the snake was properly dead it was time to make the snake dance. A fire was made and the snake placed on hot coals. The snake would then dance as its muscles jerked and contracted involuntarily. It was quite therapeutic after the fright we got, to see the snake die again.

After that close shave I did not have a proper night’s sleep again. We were constantly on the lookout for snakes because they were everywhere. Dad was convinced that he had snake-proofed our house but they still managed­ to crawl in somehow.

Dad bought my brother Roydon a pellet gun when he was about 10 years old. He soon became a crack shot and was often called when a snake was found in the trees above the houses on the property. On one occasion he shot a green mamba out of a mango tree from about 50 metres, which, for a pellet gun, was pretty impressive. We always knew when there was a snake in a tree during the day. Either the resident troupe of monkeys would sound the alarm with their unmistakable excited grunting noises or birds would start dive bombing and making loud screeching noises. We would stand and watch for the telltale snake’s movement and we would see the culprit 99% of the time.

Mambas were not the only snake that we lived with. Puff adders were also plentiful. Although they are fatter and shorter than mambas they can squeeze under doors just as easily as any mamba. One of my closest encounters with a puff adder was in our veggie patch when I reached down to pull out a carrot and I saw the puff adder’s typical diamond skin pattern just a few centimetres from my fingers. I stood up in shock, screamed inyoka and then looked down but it had already disappeared. In fact that used to happen quite a lot. If I encountered a snake in the garden, I’d call for help but the snake would invariably disappear as quickly as it had appeared, leaving me looking like a fool once help arrived.

My most embarrassing encounter with a green mamba happened one hot Saturday morning when Mum and Dad were having their annual general board meeting. The chairman Father Stevens, and other local businessmen and businesswomen who were on the board were seated having their meeting. I knew that I had to be on my best behaviour and this meant that I should keep myself occupied. I was outside climbing a tree minding my own business when I came face to face with a fierce- looking green mamba. Its face was literally centimetres from my face and I will never forget those little black eyes and black forked tongue that flicked at my face.

From then onwards Father Stevens would tease me about how he watched me jump the height equivalent of a one-storey building, out of that tree. I landed running, much to everyone’s amusement.

Dad bought a camera so that he could start a collection of photo trophies. He was sick and tired of saying “it was this long” and people not believing him. He knew no one could argue with a photo.

Dad was 1,98 metres tall and even with his arm extended; the mamba would curl around his feet.

I’m still surprised that no one was ever bitten. The only injuries sustained on the farm were when Joseph hit his thumb with a hammer instead of hitting the nail because he had a babalas or when Alfred fell off the roof and fractured his leg.

Snakes were never very far from us even when we were away from the farm. In January 1982, Mom took us to Durban for Roydon’s 14th birthday. We had to visit the snake park of course. We went around and looked at all the enclosures. There was an enclosure with newspaper articles pasted on the glass about a missing python. Roydon didn’t just walk past the enclosure but stood there and inspected the glass-fronted enclosure with its bricked up back walls. He noticed a small hole in the back wall. Lo and behold, through the hole in the wall he spotted something shiny. He had found the python that everyone had been looking for for nearly a month. It was right under the cage and had not been stolen as suspected.

Only Roydon and I knew from our vast personal experience with snakes that a snake could squeeze through the smallest of holes.

Everyone was amazed and Roydon collected the R250 reward and got himself in the [news]paper.

Mom and Dad are both buried next to the Kearsney Chapel. I took a drive to Kearsney to pay my respects and tend to the grave last December. While there, I popped in and visited Kearsney Manor­ which has been lovingly restored.

A friend of the owner kindly took me on a tour of the remodelled building. I suddenly heard an old familiar sound. It was the sound of screeching birds. The woman conducting the tour turned to me and said: “I wonder what all that commotion is about?”

I don’t like to scare people unnecessarily so I pretended that I didn’t have a clue.

It turned out that the new owner breeds parrots and exotic birds in a clearing in the side garden.

I was shown about 10 wired cages full of birds with eggs and chicks … It made me chuckle to think how well fed the inhabitants of the trees must be with birds in cages just sitting there, tempting them.

Things haven’t changed much! I wonder if they ever found our snake pit?

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