In my search for snakes at the mine I visited in the DRC, I concentrated on areas where there was good natural bush, and where most snake sightings had taken place.
One morning, I was searching in an area with tall trees and long grass. By 09h00 the temperature was already in the high twenties and heading for the thirties.
I listened for rustles in the bush and distress calls from birds, as these often indicate that snakes are close by. I focused on large anthills, since these are loved by snakes, especially if they are surrounded by grass. An anthill offers great holes for snakes to disappear into.
While carefully searching along the base of an anthill, I got quite a fright when I discovered that I had very nearly stood on a 2m-long black mamba! Despite the fact that it had been less than a metre from me, it had been obscured from view. Fortunately, it was far more interested in getting away from me than biting, and I managed to grab the tip of its tail as it sailed under a log. I had a set of tongs with me, so I gripped it about 20cm from the head and let it slip backwards until I could apply pressure and grab it right behind the head.
It reminded me of the time when a colleague, Crawford Coulson, was bitten by a black mamba many years ago. It was a warm Saturday morning at Assagai Safari Park in the Valley of a Thousand Hills in KwaZulu- Natal. Crawford arrived in shorts, a T-shirt and running shoes, and I was in my office, doing paperwork. He walked up to the reservoir to check on its water level, and accidentally stood on a large black mamba that was probably fast asleep in the sun.
The snake struck and caught Crawford on the back of the leg, in the calf region. Its feeding teeth got stuck in his leg, so he couldn’t get the biting snake off him! It clung on for a few seconds and injected a fair amount of venom. Crawford eventually managed to shake the snake loose and walked down to the offices — about a three-minute walk. He told me that a mamba had bitten him, and that his lips were quickly going numb.
I weighed up the options, realising that I needed to get him to a hospital urgently. The main snakebite hospital at the time was Addington in Durban – about a 40-minute drive away.
I got Crawford into my car, a small BMW, and rushed over to the safari park’s restaurant. I wanted them to call the hospital and tell them I was on my way with a mamba victim. As luck would have it, the restaurant was chaotically busy – a bus with about 60 tourists had just arrived. I decided to move on.
My next call was the restaurant owner’s house, just 100m up the driveway. By now Crawford was sweating profusely. The house was open, but nobody was there. So it was back into the vehicle and off to Addington Hospital, driving at high speed with my hazard lights on.
Crawford was sweating more and more, and starting to nod off. I knew that time was running out, but I wasn’t even halfway to Addington!
As I approached Westville Hospital, I considered stopping off there, but knew that they didn’t have a trauma unit. I decided to continue to Addington, knowing that I would need to drive through central Durban during rush hour.
The traffic was bad – barely moving. I tried to push my way through, but didn’t have much luck. The fuse on my hooter eventually blew from overuse.
By the time I got to Addington, Crawford was losing consciousness, and, as I opened the passenger door, he just about fell out of the car. He was rushed into the trauma unit and placed on a ventilator.
Once this had been done, the search for anti-venom started. The hospital didn’t have any! It took several hours for the hospital to locate anti-venom, and by the time they managed to get some, Crawford had started recovering on his own. About 11 hours after being bitten, and without anti-venom, he had recovered sufficiently to be transferred to a general ward. It was an exceptional case, and Crawford was very lucky to recover so well.
Two weeks later, I caught a 2,5m-long black mamba right where Crawford had been bitten.
Black mamba bites are usually very serious, and victims need urgent hospitalisation. In most cases, the victims require loads of anti-venom.
During a recent KwaZulu-Natal black mamba attack, the victim received 40 vials (400ml) of anti-venom, which is an awful lot. Luckily, he recovered fully.
Although most snakebite deaths in SA are the result of black mamba or Cape cobra bites, treatment is generally very effective and usually life-saving. It is, however, critically important to get victims onto a ventilator (if required), and to make use of a bag valve mask if the victim stops breathing.
As for my trip to the DRC? Well, thankfully there were no issues, apart from my close call with the mamba. But it was another important reminder to remain vigilant at all times. A venomous snake is not to be trifled with. – Johan Marais