A Cobra Tale
Shortly after I’d joined the regular Rhodesian Army’s Selous Scouts, we had a new garrison built. It included single, and married quarters (circa 1974/5). Before this could happen the virgin bush on the garrison site, about 50kms north of present-day Harare had to be cleared by bulldozer. As soon as the garrison was completed, we moved into our new home. It was on the end of a housing block, and fronted onto undeveloped bushland. On our actual house site, and to allow the building team to get started, a huge scrub covered termite mound had been leveled by bulldozer. Termite mound ventilation shafts often provide refuge for various cobra species, and black mambas.
Not long after the move into our new home a colleague of mine in the unit, decided to get married. We were invited to their wedding, which was to be a late afternoon/evening affair. At the time, I was back from operations and on R&R. To allow Bren an afternoon pre-wedding nap I was babysitting our youngest son, Keith. Brett the elder one was also having an afternoon nap. At the time Brett was five and Keith was two. I was sitting in our lounge reading, while Keith, in a diaper only because of the heat, was toddling around with his milk bottle.
Our lounge and dining room were combined and the small dining sector led into the kitchen via a door. Suddenly, Keith attracted my attention by standing in the dining room/kitchen doorway and in baby talk making a variety of alarm sounds I can’t even attempt to put into words. While showing this verbal concern in his best baby talk, he was also gesticulating wildly towards the kitchen with his milk bottle. His body language panicky. Getting up, I ambled over and looked into the kitchen to see what he was so concerned about.
My casual amble in PT shorts and nothing else, soon turned into a mad scramble. In the middle of the kitchen floor, raised up and with hood fully flared in threat mode was a colossal and angry Snouted Cobra (Naja annulifera). Although they don’t spit, their venom is a potent neurotoxic type. When threatened they’ll readily bite. Grabbing Keith by his upper arm I pulled him out of the way, and attempted to pull the door closed before going down the passage with him.
Above: A snouted cobra (Naja annulifera) in defensive mode with hood extended. The Snouted cobra doesn't spit its venom but will bite without hesitation if threatened (Internet source).
On the way I also ensured the door leading from the kitchen into the passage was closed. Having woken Bren up, I plonked Keith onto the bed alongside his mother and brother, and then said to Bren, ‘Cobra!’ before closing them in the bedroom. Grabbing my old .22 Remington with a handful of .22 shorts, I then went back to the kitchen.
Upon my return I was a little concerned to observe my attempt at closing the kitchen/dining room door hadn’t been fully successful. The door was slightly ajar. Chambering a round in the .22 Rem and with the safety off I carefully pushed the door open with the end of the barrel. There was no sign of the snake. Walking barefoot and rather cautiously, I passed through the kitchen, checked behind the waste bin and vegetable racks, and then stepped outside through the wide-open kitchen door into the backyard.
Due to the heat we had a tendency to leave the kitchen door hooked open. After checking the backyard and finding nothing, I had a quick look around the front yard but no big cobra was to be seen. Feeling quite pleased with myself, I decided the unwelcome guest had departed while I was busy getting Keith out of harm’s way, and arming myself. Bren was less confident, and was quite vocal about it. I consoled her on account of my supposedly being a double rugged bushman, and Special Forces soldier, and off we went to the wedding. Although not before tightly securing the bedroom door.
Above: Our son Keith in foreground with bottle, this was about the time of the cobra incident.
The wedding, like most weddings of that era, and in a time of brutal bush war, was a rowdy affair. And as per norm a fair amount of alcohol was consumed. With Chris and Rusty finally joined in Holy matrimony, we made our way home. All 50kms of it. Having arrived, and carrying two sleeping toddlers over our shoulders, Bren and I entered our home via the front door, and after turning on the light were faced with a disaster zone.
Our lounge was in complete disarray and looked as if it’d been totally ransacked. The chaos was unbelievable. Virtually every picture was either on the floor, or hanging askew. Ornaments were strewn all over the place and a fancy latticed copper lampshade on a table lamp was crushed flat, the lamp lying on the floor. Bren uttered one word, ‘Cobra’, but I, still in wedding party mood remarked, ‘Maybe it was the wind’. It was the wrong thing to say because our insect-proof gauze covered louvered windows were tightly shut, with the curtains drawn.
My remark didn’t exactly make me flavor of the week with Bren. She knew full well the mayhem was caused by the cobra trying to exit the lounge. We carried the boys to our room, and before putting them on the bed I made a thorough room check but found nothing. While Bren remained behind the closed bedroom door, with the kids, I carried out another quick search of the house. I even pulled all the linen out of the linen cupboard. No snake could be found.
Next day we got our Korekore house servant, Samuel, in to help with the search. And again, we came up with nothing, despite pulling the fridge, deep freeze, and stove away from the wall and searching behind them. At one stage Samuel started muttering about ‘M’tagati’ (witchcraft) but I gave him short thrift. That evening we went to the WOs & Sergeants Mess for a bit of a social, and recounted our experiences of the night before. A lot of interest was shown by our colleagues, but the most they could do by way of assistance at that point in time, was advise with much hilarity against visiting the Thomas’s house.
After returning home from the mess we were again met with exactly the same scene as from the night before. A devastated lounge area. And again, I couldn’t find anything, so we spent another night behind a closed bedroom door, with our two youngsters sleeping in our room. Next morning, I called Samuel in to once more survey the damage in the lounge. Looking a little ashen he remarked, ‘Makure rakanga rakakura zvaityisa’ (‘The cobra was enormously large’). He was right on the mark, but after another thorough turning of the house inside out we still couldn’t find it.
During the afternoon some good Australian friends of ours visited with their one-year old daughter. Steve was based at a neighboring garrison and worked in EOD. While we were all in the lounge having tea, he was sitting on the carpet, his back against the front of the settee and his arms resting along the top of the seat cushions. Jenny, his wife, was holding their daughter.
Above: About a year before the cobra incident, with our Australian friends at the neighbouring Inkomo Garrison.
When I started the elusive cobra story along the lines of, ‘Wait until you hear this…’ before recounting our experiences of the previous few nights, they listened nervously, Steve’s eyes looking keenly around the lounge. And then having drunk their tea they departed with alacrity! We were beginning to feel more and more isolated.
The next morning was a repeat of the previous two. It was getting outrageous. However, later in the evening before supper we were all in the lounge. The two boys were sitting on the floor playing with a friction toy, which they were scooting across the carpet to each other. On one pass the toy missed Brett, and passing him hit the skirting board just to the right of the fire place. It then continued to run at speed flush to the wall and disappeared into the narrow gap between the back of the deep freeze and the wall.
Brett ran after it, and lying back against the wall pushed his arm behind the deep freeze trying to feel for the runaway toy. This move was met by an exceedingly loud and angry explosive hissing sound from behind the deep freeze. It reverberated through the entire lounge, and Brett, quick as lightening, plucked his arm out from behind the deep freeze. Jumping up, I hastily lifted him off the ground while Brenda grabbed Keith and we carried them both to our room, where I left them behind the closed door with their mother.
Returning to the lounge with the .22 Rem I quietly approached the deep freeze, grabbed the back-left hand corner and heaved it away from the wall. All hell broke loose as a thoroughly angry snouted cobra burst from behind it, and with hood flared wide open and head raised up, took up a defensive position under our small circular dining room table. Crouching down on my haunches as close as possible, and from mere feet away I shot it in the head.
After dragging the dead snake out into the back yard, we measured it off against my feet and it went just under six. And my feet are a size 10. Samuel, having heard the commotion, came over from the servant’s quarters and standing looking at the snake ventured, ‘Nyoka yakapinda kumba kwenyu nokuti ndiwo wakanga uri musha wayo’ (‘The snake entered your home because it was its home’).
Above: Coloradan clients with the salted skin of a snouted cobra. Mike shot it after it was rapidly heading straight for him during an afternoon bird shoot. It was later surmised the snake had intended going down a nearby termite mound ventilation shaft.
Our house servant Samuel's observation was probably right, because that’s exactly what'd happened. The cobra no doubt having lived for years inside the termite mound that was bulldozed to make way for our house. When rechecking the deep freeze, we found the cobra had been hiding inside the housing where the motor is located, and as a result had escaped our previous searches.
Some years ago, while unloading his vehicle a safari operator in Zimbabwe was bitten on the leg by a Mozambique spitting cobra (Naja mossambica). Its venom which contains postsynaptic neurotoxin and cytotoxin, causes severe local tissue destruction (not unlike a puffadder bite). The victim had to be casevaced from Bulawayo to Harare, and I’ve included a few photos with this post, which at the time had been circulating on social media. They well illustrate the tissue destruction caused by Mozambique Spitting Cobra venom.