by Hannes Wessels
It all began over twenty years earlier by virtue of an unlikely providence. A young Garth Thompson, eighth generation white-African; like many of his contemporaries in what was then Rhodesia he left school and promptly found himself flung into a furious war which turned boys into hard men in a sliver of time. Looking to make some extra money the young soldier found work moonlighting as a hired gun at Wankie Safari Lodge in the west of the country where he cast a protective eye over Courtney Selous’ old hunting grounds. Mothballed due to the hostilities, the lodge proprietors looked to off-duty servicemen to save the facility from being destroyed by insurgents. It was here the young Thompson found the springboard he was looking for.
Hostilities over, management moved quickly to re-open the lodge and the wildlife activities were placed under the control of Dave Rushworth, an ex National Parks man respected as one of the most knowledgeable naturalists in the country.
Thompson seized the opportunity, placed himself firmly under Rushworth’s tutelage and went to work draining every ounce of available information from his mentor and went on to establish himself as one of Africa’s premier safari-guides. But upon a balmy day in the wilds of the ZambeziValley success came perilously close to a miserable end.
The year 2000, a successful safari was drawing to a close. With a little time to spare before meeting the charter-plane that would take the party home Garth decided to show his group an ancient tomb, the last resting place of a renowned local chief. Buried in the base of a large Baobab tree on the banks of the SapiRiver, a short distance from the Zambezi confluence, it was a place that had long attracted Garth’s attention. The tree, estimated to be twelve hundred years old, had rotted within providing a voluminous hollow inside the bark walls. For the local tribesmen the dark, dank cavern, guarded jealously by ancestral spirits was, and remains, a forbidden place. But for the inquisitive European, less in awe of matters spiritual, it was a fascinating vestige of another time and culture. Placed in this unlikely crypt close to a century before Chief Chikwenya had been sent on his way with an eclectic mix of personal paraphernalia including bows, arrows, spears, skins and pots.
Wary of bee-hives Garth approached the tree carefully, squeezed his head through the portal and shone his torch. The light splashed the dull grey inner walls and he was pleased to note an abandoned honeycomb – the pesky insects had left. He would bring his group closer to the great tree. He sized up the hole into the hollow and saw it had shrunk with ongoing growth and noted it would eventually close, sealing forever the secrets of the dead man from prying eyes.
Sizing it up he decided to enter first. He would heave himself up, lean his head and upper torso through the opening then lower himself top-first to the floor of the cavern. Once his hands were firm on the ground he would be able to support the entry of his lower body. Grasping the rim of the opening he hauled himself up and into the dark interior then slithered through collapsing gracelessly on to his feet. Briefly he savoured the coolness of the still air, saw one of the old pots and marvelled once again at the size of the space. Double-checking, he was pleased to see there were definitely no bees, the beam swept over the ochre pot.
Then he looked death right in the eyes.
Right before him was the serpentine shape considered by many synonymous with the devil himself; the swaying, coffin-shaped head of a mamba, its lower jaw sagging, pristine white fangs glistened against a gape, black as coal, below beady dark eyes that bored into his; their message one of looming pain followed by death.
Thompson cursed himself. He knew the story.
“Black Mambas inhabit termiteria, hollow trees, and rock crevices. Unlike the cobras, the mambas hunt by day. When disturbed it will rear up and spread a narrow hood at the same time opening the mouth wide to show the black interior, any sudden movement will provoke a strike which is likely to be inflicted on the upper body or face of a human intruder. This snake has a very potent and dangerous venom of the neurotoxic type, bites usually occur on the mid trunk, hands, arms or head. Initially a variable burning pain is felt, cold clammy pale skin, faintness, nausea and vomiting. A tightening of the muscles across the throat and chest, partial paralysis of the lower jaw and tongue, drooping jaw, profuse salivation and slurred speech, the victim has difficulty in swallowing, the eyelids start to droop, the pupils become fixed and do not contract in response to light, the eyeball is immobilized in the socket producing a ‘staring’ effect. Muscle twitches and spasms occur, the victim shows abnormal sensitivity and pain to even a light touch on the body. Respiration and movement of the ribs becomes progressively more difficult and painful and as generalized paralysis sets in with spasmodic convolutions, breathing stops, followed shortly by the heart”*
“A shiver crept over my now cold, clammy skin, my mouth went dry. I realised that my head, neck and arms had been a little over two feet from where the coiled snake lay when I had come down into my clumsy handstand position a minute earlier. I had nowhere to run, no stick or weapon to defend myself. Incarcerated in a hollow tree with the fastest, most aggressive and deadly snake in Africa I felt panic rise. I had often encountered black mambas in the past, but none in a confined area.”
Thompson stood stock-still, very well aware this was a case of the quick and the dead. A sudden move would see the reptile’s mouth open wide and fangs bared the snake would strike for his neck or head sending its venom surging into his system.
“Bearing in mind that no sane person would attempt to scramble up a smooth wall three feet from a weaving black mamba, I was effectively trapped.” Fighting for inner calm, Garth considered his plight.
“I could not leave the tomb the way I had entered as the mamba was less than a meter from where I needed to stand to pull myself up five feet to the hole which offered my escape. In a dull monotone, not wanting to excite my tormentor, I informed the group of my predicament. Some went off to find me a stick to defend myself, while others stood by at a loss to offer anything other than encouragement. During this time the snake continued to rear and weave, threatening me with its ghastly black mouth reflecting a dull glow in the beam of my torch.
“There were a few 15 foot long, thin poles leaning against the wall closest to me, possibly rafters from the late Chief’s hut. In an attempt to distance myself, I tried to clamber up the lengthy sticks, but being old and rotten they snapped, one breaking toward the mamba, nearly hitting it and making it even angrier. I wasn’t overly enamoured with my new state of affairs. Then a stick was passed carefully through the entrance. Less than 3 feet long, a slender sapling it was actually as much use as an ash-tray on the back of a motor bike in this situation!”
“Minutes seemed an eternity. The snake continued to weave as did my thoughts. I could not stop thinking of those long fangs sinking into my neck or cheek and stood transfixed.
“Then came a break. The mamba, must have been feeling quite uncomfortable too (thank goodness) as it then found a hole at the base of the tree into which its head entered followed by the rest of it but it seemed to take forever for the length of it to evacuate. I experienced absolute relief, took a deep breath and informed my anxious friends on the outside of the positive developments. But I had presumed wrong. There was still 18 inches of tail left when all of a sudden the angular head popped out of a crack in the bark on the inside of the tree, about 12 inches from the entry hole. My hopes were crushed. I thought of future tourists visiting Chief Chikwenya’s grave and hearing of some fool guide called Thompson who didn’t make it out of there.
‘The snake surveyed the scene and again I felt trapped and helpless. Eventually its head withdrew from the exit hole and his body began to recoil only feet from me. In no time the mamba was back in its original position and once again began to sway rhythmically from side to side its mouth opened at about 150 degrees it seemed to be taunting me into making a move. Desperation setting in, I started to think about trying to kill it. I realised that if I did launch myself at a seven foot mamba in such a confined area, there was a good chance that I would sustain a bite but my other options were less than promising.
“My mind wandered. I reflected on how I had enjoyed my recent safari with such passionate people who shared my love of Africa. To think I was now in this predicament, the result of a snap decision on the way to the airstrip was a trenchant reminder of the frailness of our existence. Death was no stranger to me, I had faced it down before but this was an unusually repellent way to die I thought. I drifted back to reality, realising I had to do something soon if I were to extricate myself from this most challenging of positions. Deciding inaction was only prolonging the agony, the rancid stench of bat urine stinging my nostrils, my eyes focused on an old mopane stick in the gloom. Leaning against the inner wall behind my back it was about seven foot long and as thick as my forearm. The outer sapwood had been carved into wavy shapes by termites but the dense heartwood was sturdy and firm.
“Grasping it slowly but firmly for support, my strength boosted by the adrenaline that coursed through my body, exhibiting surprising suppleness I levered my legs up onto the smooth inner- wall. With my frame parallel to the floor, struggling to remain steady, I informed the group of my plan to extricate feet first. Using the log for support and as a pivot I walked my feet gingerly along the inner wall. Eventually I managed to wedge my legs into the hole through which I had entered so willingly earlier. I knew salvation was upon me when hands that felt like they came from a benevolent god gripped my ankles and pulled me through the tight hole like a rifle cleaner coming out of an undersized barrel. Dragged unceremoniously from the tree skin tore from my body but I felt no pain. When I hit the ground, sucked in the fresh air and saw the smiling faces looking down at me I felt like I’d just returned from a junket to hell. I sagged to the ground and gathered myself. It was as if I’d been given a reprieve by some heavenly force and life had never felt quite so good.
” I made my way slowly to the vehicle and boarded it deep in thought. While we drove to the airstrip, I admonished myself quietly and silently but solemnly vowed never to disturb the grave of Chief Chikwenya again. Then I thanked God for life and resolved henceforth to leave the dead to their slumber!”
When word reached the tribesmen they expressed neither sympathy nor surprise. The silly white man had ignored their warnings, riled the spirits and for that he was lucky to have escaped with his life.
* ‘Snakes of Zimbabwe’.