Tuesday, February 24, 2009

How not to catch a Black Spitting Cobra

I am going to do a series of posts about a wonderful snake called the Black Spitting Cobra Naja nigricollis woodi. It's a snake we got to know on NamibRand Nature Reserve and it sort of seemed to get itself in trouble.

Black Spitting Cobras are a fairly rare variety of Cobra. They are a sub-species of a larger group. I am not sure how the taxonomy of the whole group will break down eventually. I think there may be some changes. For us, however, it was our main Spitting Cobra.

I have grown up with snakes and snake related issues. We had numerous snake related medical trips when I was young, and after I learned to drive, and my parents put me on the medical trips, I had some serious snake victims to deal with by myself. So I am certainly not ignorant of the dangers of snakes. I have seen some serious damage done by Puff Adders Bitis arietans. I'm sure you've seen the pics. I'm not going to go into detail.

But through it all you start to learn about snakes. Through familiarity comes a sense of admiration. I am a bit of a softy, preferring to handle small snakes with no venom. I have never had to handle something as vicious as a Black Mamba Dendroaspis polylepis or as big as an African Rock Python Python sebae. But these spitting cobras came in without us looking for them (at least, not at such close quarters.) So I had to learn, and that is what these posts are all about.

At Sossusvlei Mountain Lodge (now Sossusvlei Desert Lodge) we did start to occasionally get Black Spitting Cobras through the area. What would we do...simple...we would catch and release them. How nice. So simple!

In the early years we managed to get the couple that run the Living Deserts snake park in Swakopmund to come out and do a reptile educational for us at the lodge. They were such nice, easy going people and really went out of their way to cater to us. They brought a few snakes along, including a Snouted Cobra Naja annulifera, I think (It's some time back now.)

While they were there, we discussed the best way to go about the educational experience. They decided that they could spend all day with the guides, but they also suggested spending some time with any staff who may encounter snakes. Almost everyone showed up for the sessions they gave for the general staff. It was fantastic. They showed us how to catch snakes in a safe way. The main technique for those who hadn't handled snakes before, involved turning large containers upside down and and using long things like brooms to encourage the snake to go under the container. Then to slide something under it, trapping the snake in the container.

Great theories sometimes work. They do. Perhaps most of the time. But now, what if the ground isn't so flat? The snake gets out while you try to push the flat thing under the container. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to figure out that their can be some challenges. But those of us who had now acquired this knowledge were not thinking about that.

The opportunity didn't take long to arrive. One of the guides was sitting at his desk reading the one day, when he saw a snake come into the room with him. He tried to see where it would go, but soon it went behind a fridge in the kitchen area of the guides house. It was a small area, and wisely he decided to move out and call for some help.

Now the trouble wasn't that nobody wanted to catch the snake. The trouble, after the educational, with a snake that get's handled regularly, and on flat ground, was that everyone thought they were an expert and we had a couple dozen people show up (including me, of course) to catch the snake.

I'll start by saying that nobody got hurt. The snake may have got hurt, certainly disturbed by it all. But it lived to do, well whatever snakes do, another day. Most people in Africa would simply just kill it.

So, the snake was behind the fridge. Brave though everyone was, this small space that it had got itelf in was a problem. Nobody wanted to be in that little space with it.

So, someone switched off the fridge, and using the cable, we pulled the fridge to the door. We managed to pull it around, so that we could see that the snake was now wound up in the inside of the workings of the fridge. And nobody was going to stick their hands in there to get it out.

We had no tools other than broom sticks and the like. So eventually we yanked the whole fridge out. It fell on it's side and the stressed Cobra started to run around. It was a mad bustle of various 'want to be' experts running around trying to catch the snake.

The snake remained really calm in the beginning, but eventually, after going under the big container for the fifth or so time, it had had enough, and started to spit at us.

It seemed, however, to give up on the aggression just as quick, and almost seemed to decide to go in the container for us, just to get it over with. So we caught it, took it far away, and released it again. When we turned over the container, it just slid away. We all know what it was thinking...
"you amateurs"

Friday, February 20, 2009

Hippo, Bite and Run

Another guest post from my sister. If you have a story from your encounters with wildlife in Africa, and would like to see it on this blog, please let me know.

Hippo Story:

One year for mid-term break, my parents took me and my best friend Elora to stay in some lovely cottages by Lake Baringo for a little holiday. One particularly dry hot afternoon Elora and I sat on the cool stoop doing a jigsaw puzzle. We were pleasantly surprised when two hippo's came out to graze about 20 meters in front of us. We were surprised because in the day time the hippos tend to stay in the water and also because the cottage staff usually supervised the wildlife coming onto the premises and it was now quite a distance from the lake (that seemed to have receded over the years).

Growing up in Africa, I was well aware that hippos were very dangerous animals however the grazing seemed harmless enough. I called my mom to come have a look. Just as she arrived on the stoop, suddenly the one hippo opened his great massive jaws and attempted to take a bite of the other hippo!

There was a bit of fight that ensued dramatically and it was enough to make me and Elora run into the cottage door, still watching these giant animals fighting! Then suddenly one of the hippos decided he'd had enough and started to charge-in OUR DIRECTION!!!

We didn't know what to do. We slammed the door shut and ran to the back end of the cottage and prayed that he didn't try to enter the cottage!!! When you see the actual size of an African Hippo (Hippopotamus amphibious), you are very easily convinced that it could storm right through any cottage with great ease!

We were lucky that actually the hippo ran towards our cottage and then turned and ran down the side between our cottage and the next cottage! Soon the staff were on the scene and no one was hurt but it certainly was adrenaline pumping action!

Blog owner's note: There has been a lot said about the danger of African hippos and perhaps this story illustrates the point quiet well. Hippos can be aggressive, and they are dangerous and ill tempered creatures. But the reason for their high kill rate of humans is often more related to the situation, where human activity moves right up to the banks of the river. Hippos spend most of their time in water, but not all. Where grazing starts to compete with gardens, hippos and humans are often in constant conflict. In Africa, often water is scarce, and the rivers are a life blood for growing populations. Something always had to give. No stats are talking about the number of hippos that are killed each year by humans.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


I don't know anything about Cameroon. The last time that I was there I was eight years old and it was in 1980. The memory is faint, but the adventures stay with me to this day!

We were in Cameroon so that my parents could do an 'Africa Orientation Course.' My parents had grown up in Africa, but still, the experiences we had in Cameroon they had never had before and, to a large extent, would never have again.

We spent part of the time in Town. I don't remember which town. I don't really remember the time there either, except that my brother ran with a glass jar, fell and cut his arm really bad.

And there were the chickens. That was strange. I think it may have been near the end. All the people on this course were told that they had to kill and prepare a chicken. Some of them had never seen an animal being killed before, let alone do it themselves. There was a lot of screaming and chickens running around with their heads off. For some reason, at that age, I don't remember anything about being grossed out. We were laughing at how all the timid people in the group were reacting. Of course, it was probably a useful exercise, as most of the people in that group would be living in rural Africa (many of them still do, including my parents.) In Rural Africa you know where your meat comes from.

The other half of the time in Cameroon was spend in the rainforest. Now why my parents had to go to a rainforest to learn to live in the desert, I am not clear??? But it was fun for us.

We went and lived in these little huts in the villages. In that area the villages are basically on roads that cut through the jungle. The villages were just a row of houses either side, with the jungle behind them. Who knew how deep the jungle was, where the next roads were. It was real Tarzan like jungle.

While there we learned that the people would eat Gabon vipers (these huge fat snakes.) They would cut them up almost like slices of bread. Actually they ate everything. Everything. They made palm wine, and sometimes people where killed because they would go climb the palms to get more palm wine while a little drunk.

A very cool thing for us as kids where the talking drums. The would communicate with drumming from one village to the next.

The highlight was the survival night. Each person had to go into the jungle by themselves for one night (not totally alone, just spread out, so you were a little distance from your neighbor. I don't remember how far it was.

Of course, I didn't go alone. My mom went one night with my brother, and I went another night with my dad. I may have been scared, but I don't remember that. It was so exciting. We had to cut our way into the jungle. If I remember right, it rained the whole night. But in those jungles the rain is hot. There is a constant high humidity. I don't think that our bed worked out to well, from what I could remember.

The whole memory of that time is a little faint in my head. But it was so exciting. I was reading a blog about a guy who had been working on birds in the area, and couldn't help think back to that time.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


Behold, my sister has provided me with the first guest post for African Bush Stories. Enjoy:

When I was 8 years old I went away to boarding school, and I lived in an old wooden dormitory with 23 other girls. It really was one of the oldest buildings on the school campus.

One night, we all went to bed as usual in our rooms on bunkbeds. I was in room with three other girls and I was on the top bunk. Suddenly I was woken up by screaming as the girls on the bottom bunks jumped out of bed, tearing their clothes off. Suddenly I saw them, the thousands of moving invading pinching ants! Now I was off the bed and out the door as quick as I could, by then our dorm parents were on the scene and out with the bug sprays. The next day we further investigated that the ants had come up through the floor boards and decide to invade a couple of beds.

We called them pinching ants but I have since learned that the local Swahili name is Siafu or more widely they are known as Army or Driver (Dorylus nigricans) ants and boy do they have a mean pinch! The school staff then took to putting piles of ash all around the dorm to prevent this happening again. Two years after this episode the building was torn down and a new cement brick one put up.


Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Some Game Drive Memories

As a child our visits to national parks and other wildlife areas where always a highlight. Perhaps, in my case, so much so that it became a career for me.

I have visited many, many great African Wildlife areas, including the famous Masai Mara Game Reserve, Samburu, Buffalo (which is basically the same place as Samburu, just other side of the river,) Meru, Marsabit to mention some in Kenya. In South Africa I visited Kruger when I was a small child, but haven't been back yet. I certainly plan to go some time, and need to for birding. I worked at Addo as a student. Since then I have been to virtually all the parks in Namibia and a few in Botswana, as well as many other wildlife areas.

Marsabit was always interesting. I don't know what it's like now. The park is on the Marsabit Mountain and surrounds the craters on the mountain. We usually went there because my parents were visiting Marsabit for business.

My memory of Marsabit that sticks out was the thickness. It was wild. You drive through these forests and the trees are lined up on both sides of you. You don't see much (I would actually love to go see the birds, but I can't remember the birds when I was there as a child.)

The forest is all closed on both sides. Then, every once in a while, something bashes out of the bush, dashes over the road, and back into the bush on the other side. No time for pics or fancy id's. You just marvel at the wildness. It's this amazing sense of 'What's going to happen next.'

The most amazing thing are the elephants. As think as that bush is, there are numerous elephants (or were, I don't know how much the areas poaching has now decimated the populations.) The whole area around Marsabit is desert, and so when it's dry, they are all up on these mountains.

So you can picture it. You creep along these insanely bad roads, thick jungle on each side, little dickers and things popping out and dashing off, and then, just meters from you, a huge elephant pops out, swings it's head at you because it also didn't know you were there, and then with a couple steps it's off. And leaves you with the combination of adrenaline and admiration. Made a big impression on me as a kid.

Then there was Tsavo. Tsavo is split, east and west, and the eastern side was often closed due to poaching and bandit problems in the 80's. So I only know the west.

As a kid we once did a drive while staying outside of the park. At the time I was seventeen or something and growing up in the bush, I had been driving for a long time. My sister had got tired of the game drives and so my dad and sister had stayed at one of the lodges. I was driving and we went down to this river valley. We started to see elephants as we drove down towards the river on the one side. As we drove out the other side, we could now see that we were in the midst of thousands of elephants.

My mom suddenly didn't trust my driving any more (I was still unlicensed) and got out of the midst of the elephants as fast as she could. Her fears were perhaps not unfounded. I believe now, after reading books like those by Ian Douglas Hamilton, that these elephants were gathering in these big groups because of the effects of poaching in Kenya in those days. That time saw massive poaching in Kenya and Tsavo was one of the worst hit.

We got up to a view of the area and did manage to count a little. There were really thousands of elephants all together. Many of my friends in the wildlife field don't believe it, but it was true...just a product of the times in Kenya.

From elephants to lions. I already knew in high school that I was going to become a tour guide and did some trips organized through our school. One of these was a overland tour with Gametrackers. We went to several places, including the Masai Mara. Now, I didn't always like the Mara back then, with the lack of control. But on this occasion I saw it from a tourists side. We had over thirty lion sightings in that time. Simply because our guide was always getting info from his thousand and one other buddies.

We were all living in Africa and we struggled to convince our guide that we would like to just drive around and look at whatever we saw. He was a bit over determined to show us lions. But it was still amazing. Often a visit to a National Park, one lion sighting a day is good going. Private reserves are a little different, but that's why you pay for what you get.

Probably my favorite Nairobi National Park. I spent a lot of time there, especially just before I finished High School. When my parents had to be in Nairobi, I would take the Land Rover and head off by myself while they sat in meetings or conferences. No particular memories stick out, but it was so cool that you could get out of Nairobi, this mad city, and this beautiful game park right there!

If you want to read Ian Douglas Hamilton's book, you'll find it on Amazon:
BATTLE FOR THE ELEPHANTS. I started an interest in Africa Elephants with his books and even managed to read a lot of his doctorate at some stage. From his work, there were many other great books on elephants.