Health and Safety in Sub-Saharan Africa is a bit of a conundrum. With some irony, I must state that reliance on governmental regulations and standards only serves to underwhelm in an overwhelming way.
Looking through North American eyes, one’s own standard of care must remain high at all times. Individuals bear full responsibility for their own safety. However, for locals, there is no need to rethink the usual format. Caution only serves to interrupt life as usual. This enables much freedom, which is actually quite liberating, even if occasionally dangerous.
There is one thing however, that the African’s don’t mess around with and that thing is a snake.
On one occasion, Rita discerned the English word ‘diesel’ in the mix of Bemba conversation that accompanied our friends increasing distance from a nearby cactus tree. Their fear was abundantly clear but our friends were hesitant to enlighten us as to the nature of their conversation. Assisted by Rita’s unceasing insistence, they reluctantly informed us about a very large cobra inhabiting the tree. Sheepishly, they admitted that prior to our visit they had spread diesel around the tree, so as to scare Mr. Cobra away and ensure our collective safety.
The diesel must have worked because we didn’t spot Mr. Cobra that day. Other than absence, the only evidence of the snake’s departure was a large branch that it snapped on its way out. Both Rita and I were quite disappointed and perhaps a little naïve to the danger of the snake because both of us really wanted to see it. Thankfully, it was not long thereafter that my snake wish did come true and I’m alive to tell the tale.
Both at Mvuu camp and for any guided walks in a National Park, one must be accompanied by a safari field guide as well a guard armed with an Ak47. The guides are always interpreting the environment and the guard is always anticipating the unexpected.
The guides are a fountain of knowledge and keen observers even when off-duty. This was the case the other morning when Samuel, the manager of the lodge, noticed that a squirrel was acting out of character. The squirrel was making all kinds of noisy chatter in the green leafy bush above his head so Samuel paid attention. Fantastically, the squirrel deliberately pointed its nose, and Samuel, toward a very large Black Mamba snake sharing its tree.
Unaware of this commotion, I happily strolled along toward lunching hour, nearing the intersection of Samuel, snake and squirrel. Samuel heard the footsteps of my innocent bliss approaching and immediately ordered me to freeze in my tracks, be very quiet and squat down.
This fearsome serpent is by far the most feared and most dangerous snake species in Africa and I was not far from sharing its time and space. Before the advent of Black Mamba antivenin, its bite was 100 percent fatal, usually within about 20 minutes. There it was, directly above my head – all 6 feet of it.
At first I couldn’t see it – its belly looked like a tree branch and it was a grey colour. The squirrel was still upset and making an enormous racquet. I stayed still and quiet for a very long time but I wanted a better look. I inched closer, straining to see the snake and then I saw it.
It quickly disappeared and moved into another tree. Then it extended its head and about one third of its body straight like a meter stick to catch the next tree beyond. It moved very fast and I lost it after that.
Once the snake was out of sight, I was free to finish the few last steps of my journey to lunch. We proceeded with great caution. And what should be waiting to greet me in the middle of the dining area? Nothing other than a rat.
I’m alive and so is the squirrel. The rat isn’t.
Beware the Black Mamba my friends!