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  • Kev Thomas Writes

Black Mamba Tales

A friend sent me the video clip of the huge black mamba, and I'd assume it's either in South Africa or Botswana. The guy narrating the video is speaking Afrikaans, and mentions they hadn't measured the mamba. He also comments on its girth.

I have a healthy respect for mambas and as a young game ranger back in the early 1970s I was doing an anti-poaching foot patrol and black rhino count, with the late Ollie Coltman in Chewore south, Zambezi Valley. Aside from our game scouts we had a Vadoma casual labourer with us because of his local knowledge of the particular area. During the patrol we took a 5-minute break and the Vadoma spotted a mopane bee (sweat bee) hive in a dead tree. To a Vadoma mopane bee honey is like good Scotch to a whisky connoisseur. Squatting on his haunches, and using his traditional axe, he began to chop the tiny hive open. All of a sudden a big mamba came out of another hole in the tree and struck him on his cheek. By the time we'd got back to the vehicle and managed to get it through the bush to where he was, he'd died. Not very long after this incident we joined the resident game ranger at Mana Pools on a trip to Karoi. Tony Conway had a Morris 1000 painted in bright Dayglo orange. Because it wasn't an official trip we went in Tony's tiny Morris 1000 (thankfully the landmine war hadn't yet started). On our way back to Mana Pools, and not far from Nyakasikana Gate a huge mamba was stretched across the road. Tony's brakes were a bit shoddy and our front wheels went over the mamba. (Not easy because normally their reflexes are so fast, they rear back). There was an audible bump as the biscuit thin front wheels went over the snake. However, and worryingly, there was no audible bump from the back wheels. Nothing. We also didn't see any sign of a snake disappearing off either side of the road. And there was no dying snake wriggling around on the road. Brenda was sat in the Morris 1000s back seat with 6-month old Brett on her lap. Tony was driving and I was in the passenger seat. The car was a 2-door with fold forward front seats. It was an old Morris and had numerous holes in the firescreen and foot well. You could see the gravel road through some of the holes. Mambas have been known to end up in a vehicle's engine bay. Because of our concerns, I rapidly plundered Brenda's bag full of Brett's nappies (diapers), even soiled ones, and used them to plug the holes. An angry and very nervous 9' plus black mamba in the confines of a Morris 1000 interior would've been scary in the extreme. When we eventually arrived in Tony's yard at Mana Pools game ranger's quarters, we threw the doors open, pulled the seats forward for Bren to make good her and 6-month old Brett's escape, and fled the vehicle! Tony and I then cautiously opened the bonnet, lifted it with a broomstick and inspected the engine bay. We never found the mamba and decided it must've gone off the side of the road, or if it had got into the engine bay, fallen out along the way. In 1979 we were living at Triangle Ltd in the Rhodesian SE lowveld. Having recently left the regular army, I was the estate game ranger and professional hunter. On a trip to Harare our convoy had been ambushed by a ZANLA terrorist group near Ngundu Halt. During the ambush Bren was lying in the damp ditch alongside the road, with our boys. All three of them under the age of 6. Perhaps it was the shock etc but a few days later she ended up in Triangle Hospital with pneumonia. The late Roger Blaylock was the resident surgeon and he was also considered a leading authority across Africa, on snake bite trauma. In his research he'd already been bitten by a puffadder, and a boomslang (whether it was intentional I have no idea!). While Bren was lying in bed in the ward, a large black mamba came onto the veranda and was slithering along the highly polished corridor floor. The nurses called Roger Blaylock as he was doing his ward rounds, and he quickly arrived at the scene. While Brenda watched from her bed, he grabbed the mamba by the tail and lifting it up attempted to swing it around above his head. His intention was to take it outside and release it in the hospital gardens. Unfortunately, the corridor was narrower than the length of the snake, and when Roger tried to swing it around, it hit the wall and doubling back along its length bit him on his bicep. Fortunately, he was in the right place and after releasing it in the garden, he calmly walked into the theatre, lay down, and waited for the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Colin Saunders to arrive. They very nearly lost Roger but luckily he survived, and he'd also dictated to a theatre sister what he was feeling like, until he lost conscious. Ventilation and antivenom were the keys to his survival. During 1982 we were in the remote East Caprivi and one afternoon a client and I were driving back to the safari camp, along a bush track which followed the Kwando River. It was overgrown with long grass and thick riverine bush. We were in my short wheel base Series 2 Land Rover without the canopy on. I'd also removed the doors, and had my one spare wheel on the bonnet (hood). Because we were driving through clouds of tiny midges, I'd fortunately pulled the windscreen back up and locked it in place. The vehicle had a roll bar on the back and we had two San trackers standing holding on and nattering behind us. Because both of them had tracked for the SADF Bushmen Battalion they spoke passable Afrikaans. As we were coming round a corner one of them suddenly shouted 'Pasop dis n groot slang!' As he shouted a very large mamba reared up right in front of the Land Rover. The vehicle's forward momentum brought the snake onto the bonnet, and stretched across the width of the vehicle its serpentine body rolled over the spare wheel. At the same time, it reared up and with mouth agape struck the windscreen twice, doubled along itself in the narrow space between the spare wheel and windscreen, and disappeared in a flash of gunmetal musculature into the long grass on the driver's side. During the saga, my client had been hunched over in the foot well making loud and liberal use of the F word. The San trackers were about 100m behind us. They'd both debussed with alacrity right at the onset. Back in camp, and after a few strong drinks to settle our nerves we started joking about a 'Windscreen Viper'! During the mid 1990s I was conducting a safari for Darryl Collett​ on his magnificent ranch Mjingwe, later stolen in Zimbabwe's brutal land invasions. Darryl owned Touch Africa Safaris and they had a lovely camp nestled in a basin in the shadow of the imposing Chingoma mountain. A huge granite massif. The entire area is a Zimbabwe Eden. My client was in the medical profession and came from Mobile, Alabama. Mjingwe was, and still is prime black mamba habitat. The camp staff often spoke of a black mamba they'd seen in and around the camp environs. I don't believe black mambas and safari clients should be sharing camp accommodations. The risks are just too great. And unfortunately too, for mambas in camps, I don't rank myself a snake catcher. The 12ga is an easier option. One early afternoon we were driving out of camp and a section of the track exiting camp comprised solid granite. It was the lowest level of what the Ndebele refer to as a dwala. Stretched right across this track was a black mamba. Initially I had trouble trying to identify which side the head was but when I did, and because we were hardly out of camp, I shot it. Although we didn't measure it, the client is 6' 7" and I took a photo of him standing on my Land Cruiser fender holding the dried and salted skin. As can be seen it was a big mamba.

When Darryl and his late wife Hilary joined us in camp that evening, I mentioned we'd met the resident mamba on our way out of camp and I'd shot it. Taking a puff of his ever present pipe, Darryl remarked, somewhat tongue in cheek, 'Shame, that was Oswald, he was my pet camp mamba!'. We had many a laugh about that, because Oswald just happened to be in the wrong place at the right time.

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