Snake safari in Kenya
You have to be made of stern stuff to go on a reptile safari in Kenya. Matt Carroll steels himself
Sunday 10 August 2008
'You wouldn't believe how many snakes there are here. This place is absolutely crawling with them." Not exactly what you want to hear as you're walking into a pitch-black cave. However, according to my guide and professional snake catcher, Royjan Taylor, he's never actually found one inside the cave itself. He's referring to the dense forest that surrounds it.
I'm not sure I believe him. As he leads me into the damp darkness, I get the feeling that I'm entering Indiana Jones's Temple of Doom. If Harrison Ford were here, he'd calmly dispense with any monsters that leapt out of the shadows. But he's not. And I'm petrified. Actually, weren't snakes the only thing Indiana couldn't stand?
Like Professor Jones and millions of others, I suffer from ophidiophobia – a fear of snakes. It's not just the poison I'm worried about; it's their beady eyes, flicky tongue and slippery skin that send shivers down my spine. In an effort to confront the issue, I headed to Kenya's east coast for a toxic twist on the traditional safari. The aim was to track down Kenya's "other" Big Five: the puff adder; the python; the cobra; the boomslang; and – scariest of all – the mamba. One bite from the last and you've got about two hours until the lights go out.
Kenya is home to 126 different snake species, but Watamu is renowned as Snake Central, thanks to its varied ecosystems. The trip is designed to show people that there's more to snakes than meets the eye. "There's a lot of myth surrounding snakes," said Royjan, "but they're incredibly shy creatures that will do anything to avoid human contact."
Royjan is a self-taught snake expert, who's been collecting them since he was 17. As well as the snake safaris, he runs Bio-Ken, home to the largest collection of African snakes in the world. The farm houses 56 different species, but they're not here purely for show. Bio-Ken is one of the world's leading suppliers of anti-venom, and offers a free snake removal service for the local community.
As we headed out into the bush on the first day, Royjan set about changing my mind. "Snakes are deaf and have no arms or legs, so the only way to defend themselves is to bite. This is very much a last resort."
We began our search in a maize field. While the rest of his team spread out around the edge, I stuck close to Royjan as he poked around the bushes for poisonous predators. It wasn't long before we found something – a relatively innocuous sand snake. While the angry serpent writhed, Royjan shoved a digit in its mouth to show that its bite is "only" the equivalent of a bee sting. He let it go; we had bigger and more dangerous things in mind, such as the green mamba that Royjan's assistant, Joseph, spotted in a nearby tree.
While I cowered away from the deadly creature, Royjan leapt up the tree, grab-stick in hand, emerging 10 minutes later with it wrapped around his hands. Peeling back its lips, he revealed a fleshy pink mouth containing two surprisingly small fangs. Unlike the sand snake, one bite from this could prove fatal. But it's all in a day's work for Royjan. After he placed it into a sack, we headed to the nearby cave, which is used by locals as a place of worship.
"I've never encountered a snake in here in 15 years of tracking them," he assures me, as we scramble along the dark tunnel that leads to an open-air chamber. Instead he's brought me here for a quick lesson in local history. "Centuries ago, this cave was used by slave traders, who kept people here before exporting them."
I pause to consider the cave's morbid past, then a shout from somewhere within its depths announces another sinister finding – one Royjan wasn't anticipating. Joseph has stumbled across a huge spitting cobra, which can spray poison into your eyes from two yards. We find Joseph with his trousers covered in the stuff.
Royjan springs into action, calmly retrieving the 5ft-long beast. Scared of humans it may be, but its menacing stare convinces you that this is not an animal to be messed with. In spite of my fear, I accept Royjan's invitation to stroke its brown scales. Instead of the slippery texture I'd been expecting, I find the snake almost silky to the touch.
In the coming days, I get to grips with more reptiles, even handling a non-toxic bush snake. But the final surprise comes on the last day, when I open the door of my cottage to find one scuttling across my porch. Armed with Royjan's words of wisdom, I calmly let it scurry off, secure in the knowledge that it will do its best to avoid me.
How to get there
Return flights to Nairobi with British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) cost from £568.
Bio-Ken Snake Farm (00 254 423 2303; bio-ken.com) runs a variety of snake safaris. A day safari (Watamu only) costs from $70 (£36) per person, minimum of two people required. Longer trips are available.
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