Snakes on the plains

2011-06-07 00:00

“WARW,” I said feebly. “Yes?” “Just saw the best one ever.” Warwick tensed, expecting to be asked to reverse. I shook my head. With a cracking headache thanks to tick-bite fever, I was doing well sitting upright. Photographing anything was unthinkable. Accustomed to lengthy photographic stops at roadkill, my family heaved a collective sigh of relief.

Tom got tick-bite fever first, then me, then Gabriel. Tom complained that his legs couldn’t run anymore and had an unprecedented need to go to bed early. When he developed the classic eschar on his back, we put him on antibiotics and Tom was soon his old energetic self again. Pepper ticks, however, are the least of our worries out here.

Someone who claimed to recognise us by the red dust of Matsitama on our trousers, told us that our exploration camp was renowned for being overrun with snakes: all the best ones, including black mambas, puff adders and Mozambique spitting cobras. The latter snake recently caused the floor of our GIS (Geographic Information Systems) man’s tent to undulate, as it made itself comfortable for the night under the groundsheet.

While we downplay these concerns, we are careful. At night, the boys use a torch and look where they walk, and in the field, they wear trousers, gaiters and boots. Sunglasses offer some protection against the venom of a Mozambique spitting cobra, and should that fail, I always have on hand bottled water and an eye bath.

And we observe a few rules. (Mostly) no poking sticks into holes in trees or termite mounds, the preferred homes of snakes. And when we’re out walking we make noise, the boys follow, and we stay on the path, taking care not to brush against overhanging branches (on account of the well-camouflaged and venomous vine snakes). This only seemed overcautious until one instructive walk when the late afternoon sun cast shadow in an astonishing number of recent snake trails intersecting the path.

Fortunately, only 10% of southern African snakes are dangerous. Consequently, we try to inculcate a fascination for snakes in Gabriel and Tom, so that they too can see that the beauty of a puff adder is only slightly diminished by it being in our bathroom.

The other night we spent a long time observing a small black snake with an oddly shaped head and no urgency to flee. We were surprised to identify it later as a venomous southern stiletto snake. It was still around a few nights later when I encountered it several times as it moved between tents in the camp. As we don’t kill snakes, I spent the next morning duct-taping all holes in our rather worn tents. As a matter of course, I search the boys’ tents before they go to bed, and not only for snakes. The single species of scorpion we’ve identified here is parabuthus­ granulatus, the most venomous scorpion in southern Africa (it can be fatal). There are many of this species and whenever we find one too close to our tents, I corral it into a wastepaper basket and release it outside camp.

Many of the spiders here are of the poisonous comb-footed variety, and even the frogs include the banded rubber frog, known for secreting poison through its brightly coloured skin. And then there are the solifuges, otherwise known as Kalahari Ferraris due to their speed. While they are not poisonous, they look formidable. Just the other night, we watched while an enormous solifuge ate a gecko in our torch light.

Size is a factor, with many of Botswana’s creatures weighing in as über bugs. I was incredulous when I found a magnificent dragonfly larger than my hand. The mopane moths, with their spitfire markings, are likewise as big as my hand. And then there are the tarantulas, known as baboon spiders in southern Africa. Before we lived here I viewed tarantulas as pricy pets from South America (we’d bought a pair of Chilean rose-phase tarantulas for our boys). Imagine our surprise, when we poked a grass stalk down a webbed hole and some very familiar, hairy legs appeared (we are more accustomed to seeing them appear from around a curtain).

In addition to being large, the sheer profusion of bugs is unsettling. As soon as the sun goes down, the ground literally rustles with rapacious beetles and huge flopping moths. We have been absorbed by the small drama of a cicada shrieking as it was eaten alive by beetles, or of a centipede tucking into the woolly front of a moth pinned on its back, occasionally flapping in protest. In the beginning, when I lay on the ground photographing bugs, I tolerated them in my hair, clustered on my shirt, and even in my shirt. That was until a large centipede flowed into a hole in my Croc and caused me to say many of the words I’d asked Gabriel and Tom not to say.

The other night at supper, I looked up in surprise to see Tom wearing half a head-phone. When he let out a yell at about the same time, I realised that it was actually an enormous beetle gripping his ear. Although I quickly knocked it off, it took much longer to persuade him that every burly man in the dining-room would have let out the same tonsil-fluttering yell, if graced with that beetle.

But just when we feel overwhelmed with entomology, we’ll encounter a gargantuan creature we’ve never seen before, something not in our well-thumbed field guide of African insects. And for a while, an enigmatic member of the cricket family will fill our imagination with questions about what it is and how it fits in. We still talk about that one.


• Writer Tania Spencer and geologist Warwick Bullen are living in the Botswana bush near Francistown with their sons Gabriel and Thomas.

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