Our Take On Snakes
Caravan & Outdoor Life|June - July 2020
Our Take On Snakes
Caravan & Outdoor Life joins some of South Africa’s leading herpetologists in the Maputaland region to find rare species and teach the local rural residents how to react to snakes. With Opposite Lock on board, we’re all set to strike at a moment’s notice…
Richard van Ryneveld

I was damn glad that tonight we were looking for frogs and aquatic stuff in a croaking and groaning swamp, rather than rare snakes! I knew my companions would go ape if they found a deadly twig snake or mamba but, for now, I was happy the hunt was on for other goggas. I had met medical doctor Colin Tilbury that evening, just before heading out to the mud hole. Johan Marais, the Snake Man, whispered in my ear: “Colin is probably the world’s best authority on chameleons.” We were heading back at quite a lick towards our camp, Gugulesizwe. Colin Tilbury, sitting behind me, kept saying rather loudly, “Chameleon… chameleon… chameleon.” I couldn’t help but ask: “What bloody chameleon?”

In reply, Colin asked our campsite head ranger, Mbongeni Myeni (MB for short), to reverse back 200 metres or so. Colin hopped out and reached out to a bush next to the road. It was a chameleon all right. I tested him a few more times on the way back to our comfortable camp that night. How he saw them in the bush from a moving vehicle was beyond me. But this snake adventure trip was to reveal a lot more surprises over the week that we spent high up on the coast, near the Mozambique border.

Confused? I bet. This was a 4x4 adventure sponsored by Opposite Lock Johannesburg, Hi-Range City Botswana, and the Gugulesizwe Camp in Northern Maputaland up near the Mozambique border.

The camp, which is run by Maputaland Travel, in conjunction with the neighbouring KwaMpukane community and the local wildlife authority, is a tribute to the relationship. The core of the trip centred on Johan Marais and his African Snakebite Institute. Johan’s mission on this trip was to reach as many of the local community, schools, clinics, the adult community, and the staff of nearby local lodges. Johan quickly has every audience eating out of his hand. The talks had a simple avoidance theme: “Step back eight paces from the snake in the case of kids, five for adults. Believe it or not, you are safe.”

Added to this was the urgent message, “If somebody has been bitten or had poison sprayed in their eyes from a cobra, get them to the nearest clinic post haste. In the case of a cobra spitting in your eye, wash it out with water and again get to a clinic as soon as possible.”

This was the first of many teaching sessions during our week-long adventure in the Maputaland area, and we soon discovered that driving out along the millions of badly-rutted tracks to visit these community centres was already giving us an idea of the good off-roading available in the area. With a Toyota Hilux and Fortuner fully equipped by Opposite Lock to do the 4x4 slog work, we were very happy to tackle whatever came our way.

This trip wasn’t all education, conservation, and social responsibility. A larger proportion of our week in Maputaland was hanging out with a bunch that love ‘herping’! By the end of this trip, I certainly knew what this search for reptiles and amphibians was all about. To us common folk, that means looking for snakes, chameleons, lizards, skinks, frogs, spiders, or goggas of any kind. And these guys go at it hammer-and-tongs, morning, noon, and night. They probably walk in their sleep looking for snakes. Certainly, after night after night of extended herping, this old ballie was properly knackered when I was finally able to roll down my mosquito net and climb between the white percale linen sheets!

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June - July 2020