It was a typical morning in Africa with Karen. We had risen with the sun, been down to check the hippos that Karen was studying, and were back at the house by breakfast time.
call her place a ‘house’; in fact Hippo Haven is more than a house — it is a beautiful thatched home on the side of the River Turgwe in Zimbabwe, built and sculpted by herself and her husband, Jean-Roger. There are no glass windows, just frames of mosquito netting, so the house is cool in the heat of the day and filled with light.
Karen and Jean-Roger have a lot of cats, which are kept inside most of the time to protect them from the wildlife. Domestic cats are high up on the snack list, and they also don’t have much bush sense, being a bit soft around the ears when it comes to surviving in the wild. This is in contrast to their distant cousins, servals, genets, wild cats, and caracals.
The particular morning in question, I was sitting inside with the sun streaming into the sitting room, surrounded by cats and contentedly reading my book. The cats were animated and attentively looking out through the mesh of the front door and playing games with each other, hissing, swiping, and cavorting along the window ledges. Karen was out the back checking on the reservoir and Jean-Roger had gone in the truck to check on snares in the area.
Arthur, a large warthog with ginormous tusks, had come for his regular breakfast visit and was munching on pony nuts outside the back door. Karen often fed wildlife that came to Hippo Haven, and Arthur had a special place in her heart. He always came to the back door and was fed on a regular basis: the back-door area was his and his alone. Only Karen was allowed into Arthur’s area and anyone else, including Jean-Roger, was charged at… and that is a pretty scary experience. Arthur is the size of a fat labrador and he’s made purely from muscle, sinew, bone, and guts. A large warthog could break your shins if it decided to charge at you, and Arthur was certainly a charger!
I had tried to exit out of the back door when Arthur was there before, but playing chicken with a warthog that large is not something I would advise. As soon as I had opened the door he was alert, tail up, watching me with his beady eyes. He made a short mock charge towards me and that was enough to send me scurrying back inside. The damage he could have done to me could have been painful and that was not even taking into account the size of his tusks. His tusks alone could have disembowelled me. I had enormous respect for Arthur; I would always let him be.
Living where they do, Karen and Jean-Roger have a bathroom in their house, but without a toilet. The toilet was of the long drop variety (a big deep hole, and the name comes from how long it takes for your ‘business’ to drop). Ultimately, a ‘long drop’ becomes a ‘short drop’ as it fills up. The long drop was left behind as a legacy from when they had camped in the bush and before they had built their wonderful house. They did not want to build a septic tank as it was near to the river and with just the two of them living there it wasn’t considered a necessity. So, the toilet was not part of the house. It was an outhouse. And it was at this point that I needed to go to the loo.
As I opened the front door and turned right towards the long drop, my sixth sense kicked in. I glanced over my shoulder to my left, and there, only 2m away from me, was an unhappy cobra. It was standing up at around chest height, its hood was out and it was not pleased to see me.
I took all this information in at record speed and my brain engaged into retreat mode. I must have looked like Scooby Doo as I reversed in mid-air, whilst doing those circular motions with my legs, and slammed the door shut, making sure that all the cats were safe inside.
“Karen, there is a large snake outside the front door, and it’s not happy,” I yelled.
I peered out of the front door and the cobra was still there, still looking hacked off with life. It was standing about 70cm high, its hood was fully extended making it look even more threatening than it had done moments before and it was undulating gently as if swaying in a breeze, although, there was no wind. It was as thick as a large salami and had characteristic black and pale yellow stripes across its body. It was a Mozambique spitting cobra.
Mozambique spitting cobras are large, robust snakes that average in length at about 1.2m as adults, but can grow to 1.6m long. It spits from any position, raised or on the ground, can eject venom up to 2.4m, and often goes for the eyes. Untreated, its venom can cause blindness, so it is a pretty formidable snake. It is considered the most dangerous snake after the mamba.
These cobras sport a chocolate-brown or grey-brown colour on top, with a salmon-pink or orange underbelly. The throat has a couple of irregular, broad bands across it that are clearly visible if the snake were to face you with its hood spread.
I find snakes fascinating. I have seen a python in the process of digesting a small antelope, (it had serious stomach ache as the horns stuck out through its skin). I’ve had black mambas slither across the path in front of me, seen boomslangs magnificently coiled in trees, and encountered cobras with their hoods out. All are memorable, if not heart-in-the-mouth experiences. I was never in any danger, and these snakes just carried on with their own business.
Having said that, it is certainly advisable to have somebody with you who knows what they’re talking about. If you are lucky, or unlucky, (however you look at it), to see a snake while accompanied by a guide, you will also learn an awful lot about that species, as sightings are rare, and you will also be in safe hands. Having someone knowledgeable on hand makes all the difference on safari.
Snakes are secretive animals and they ‘hear’ an approaching animal by sensing the vibrations on the ground. More often than not they will slither away into nearby vegetation as they are more afraid of you than you need to be of them. They have an amazing ability to blend into the surrounding area, so even if you are trying to look for them it can prove difficult. And snakes will not attack a human being unless they are provoked, so do not go and poke a snake with a stick, or you’ll be asking for trouble!
This snake was agitated, the extended hood was a big clue, and I could see those distinctive bands on its neck as it stood erect above the ground. Definitely a Mozambique spitting cobra and a large one too.
Unfortunately, the cats were not helping the situation by hissing through the netting and agitating the snake into an even worse mood than it was already in. I struggled to keep the cats away from the mesh windows as maybe the cobra could spit its venom through the netting? Who knows? I was not ready to find out.
It was then that I realised my dilemma, I needed the toilet but I could not go out of the front door for fear of meeting the cobra and I could not leave the house by the back door because of Arthur. I weighed up the options of blindness versus broken shins, and came to the conclusion that neither was attractive. I could not hold on for long, and, from past experience, the wildlife was probably going to be around for a while. So, I chose option three.
“Karen!” I yelled, “I’m going to pee in your bath!”
This is an excerpt from Jenny Bowen’s new book, Sense Africa Five Ways, published with full permission. If you’d like to read more of her safari stories, why not buy a copy? Click here to be taken to our shop.