– Norman very kindly offered to teach me some of the tree species I would be studying. I was very grateful… no, I was desperate, and unfortunately this mindset instantly put us at odds. Norman was having a nice, relaxing walk through the bush, enjoying some interesting conversation with his new acquaintance from America. I was on a schedule; I needed diagnostic traits, scientific names, and phylogenetic sketches of each scrubby tree we passed. I needed confirmation, absolute certainty, a moment to put down a GPS point and no time to waste otherwise. The sun was going down, damn’it. I can only imagine the rictus smile I presented to him as he strolled through the shade of a jackalberry tree (Diospyros mespiliformis), speaking wistfully of his youth and his ambitions for the future. This actually was all very interesting, and I reflected on it later, but at the time there were certain situational priorities that needed attending and a substantial checklist of species to get through. The walk was, inevitably, less productive than I had hoped, but I did get a great black mamba story out of it.
– Black mambas are not, in fact, black. They are a dusty greyish color that blends in well with the scrub and the dirt paths that wind throughout Wits Rural. They get their name from the color of the inside of their mouths, a black that reflects the despair of your soul right before you’re bitten by one. A black mamba can kill a full-grown man in twenty minutes. Fittingly, it has a “coffin-shaped” head, and its venom is paralytic. Black mambas can grow up to 14 feet long, and can move at 20km/h, or 5 meters per second, or faster than you or I. “Common highly dangerous snakes of South Africa” has this to say about the black mamba: Many people have survived being bitten by black mambas. (Oh, good). The biggest thing is to remain calm. (Excellent).
– Norman returned from a long trip to find a black mamba in his house. This is the house directly behind mine. The situation arose thusly: He got home late at night, and fully exhausted, paused only long enough to drop his bags before collapsing into bed. In the early hours of the morning, he awoke to a strange scraping sound. At first he ignored it, but the sound persisted, and when he opened his eyes he was unable to locate the source. It stopped as he was looking for it, and he was about to return to bed when he noticed a slight movement above him. There was a black mamba perched on top of his bedroom door, presumably because this was the closet thing it could find to a tree branch. He vacated his house and called a park ranger of his acquaintance. His friend was not pleased with being woken up so early in the morning and wondered why a grown man couldn’t kill a single snake. When he arrived he realized it was because the snake was over 12 feet long and as thick as his arm and he promptly called for back up. It took three of them to wrestle the snake out of Norman’s house. Norman assures me that he’s not afraid of snakes, but he was happy to see it go.
– Norman’s story was not only interesting, but like calling the name of the devil, slightly prophetic.
– The next morning I prepared for my first day of sampling. I had my backpack, snacks and water, my crappy tree identification guide, a dbh tape and a clinometer. My mind was largely occupied with my troubles: my tree identification guide was unsalvageable crappy, my clinometer required a clear line of sight up to 10 meters and an unobstructed view of the base of the tree. Where did it think I was, a golf course? I needed another set of hands, a map that actually mapped, and someone to tell me what all these stupid trees were. Thus preoccupied, I wasn’t paying much attention to where I put my feet, as I wasn’t even sure where I was going. Suddenly, I was startled nearly out of my skin by a harsh hissing sound, like steam escaping from a burst pipe. I froze, and looking down, saw that I had almost stepped on a snake. I remember thinking what a strange looking snake it was. It was very short and blunt, no more than a foot or two long, but nearly as thick around as a man’s bicep. I didn’t jump back or run, I was still catching up on what was going on and in my experience snakes usually flee themselves before you get a chance to. I was also thinking about how Hloniphani had told me that in all his years here he had only seen a snake once, and here I was tripping over one on the third day. By this point it was clear the snake wasn’t going to strike, it was far too cold, but it wasn’t running away either. I was perplexed, almost insulted, by its cavalier unconcern. Finally it began to move away in a sluggish, ungainly series of flops, resentment clear in every S-shaped curve of it.
– As is always the case after a snake encounter, I was mildly more jumpy and vigilant for a time, but eventually the encounter slipped my mind. It was only later that evening, sitting in front of my computer, that I thought about it again and realized the snake had enough distinctive characteristics that I might be able to do an amateur ID. My first stop was the aforementioned “Common highly dangerous snakes of South Africa” and there it was on the front page, right beneath the black mamba. The puff adder (Bitis arietans) kills more people every year in South Africa then any other snake. They are dangerous because they don’t move out of your way, and they have large fangs that inject venom deep into your skin. The venom is cytotoxic and haemotoxic, and one of its effects is to cause the skin near the bite site to die and fall away. Though the venom causes severe pain and swelling, death usually occurs from the secondary effect of kidney failure. Reading all of this on “Common highly dangerous snakes of South Africa,” I very quietly began to hyperventilate.
– Other wildlife sightings have been exceedingly more pleasant. The giraffes in particular are always a treat. I have never seen such curious animals. If they catch sight of you in the bush and you aren’t doing anything too alarming, not only will they stand and watch you, they’ll move around to get a better view, staring placidly as they chew on a mouthful of leaves. They remind me of those old couples you sometimes see in restaurants, the ones that ran out of things to talk about twenty years ago and instead openly stare at the diners around them. Giraffes have that same guileless gaze, and they chew their food in the exact same way. Sometimes I stop whatever I’m doing to stare back at them, but it’s a face-off I’m doomed to lose. As soon as I find better internet I’ll post a video of them.
– There is a bird that I want to kill. I have yet to catch sight of it, but I know it’s indecently pleased with itself. It thinks the whole world is one, never-ending hilarious joke. If I laughed that long and that often I’d be committed or shot. As I don’t own a shotgun, I told it to get a job.
– Avoiding impala poop is hard.