Travel: Prey for the preacher: Jeremy Hart joins the hunters of Whigham, Georgia, in their annual round-up of deadly snakes

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The Independent Travel
Ken Banker's sermons from the wooden pulpit of Whigham Methodist Church are never dull. When the Georgia preacher recalls the evils of biblical serpents, he knows what he is talking about. Reverend Ken, motorbiker, shark- hunter and one-time Detroit gang member, has found a new pastime in the dangerous woods of America's Bible Belt: he is now a rattlesnake hunter as well.

The thrill-seeking clergyman is not alone in his pursuit of Georgia's deadly reptiles. The whole of Whigham, population 550, is at it. This town of two churches, a peanut-packing plant, a men's underwear factory and a petrol station, is the rattlesnake capital of the South.

Travellers on Highway 84 normally stop in Whigham only if the single traffic-light shows red, or when the zealous local cop sounds his siren. 'He's especially strict during school time,' said one lady. On the last Saturday of January, however, the sedulous Officer Macmillan is overwhelmed by more traffic than he could book in a month. For eight hours, the sleepy settlement, lodged between the Alabama-Florida railway and Highway 84, just north of Florida's capital, Tallahassee, becomes a destination, not a bypass.

Rattlesnakes, maybe 500 of them, are what pull in the crowds to Whigham's annual round-up. There, in wooden pens, diamond- marked 'rattlers' writhe. Each snake packs enough venom to kill a man. A seething pen of them is a herpetophobe's worst nightmare, especially when some of the beasts are 6ft long and weigh more than 12lb. 'We had a guy bitten 10 years ago,' said Myron Prevatte, one of the organisers and a retired guided- missile expert. 'The rattlesnake is like a heat-seeking missile. It has sensors on its head and strikes at the source of the heat, your body.'

Most southerners in the States have their own stories of close encounters of the slithery kind. Snakes are part of the outdoor life south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The round-up is a chance to watch, at a safe distance, the creature that few love and most loathe. 'We have lectures teaching snake first-aid, what to do if you are bitten and how to avoid getting bitten,' said Mr Prevatte.

Snake-haters can get their own back at Whigham's Snake Day. 'People sort of expect rattlesnake dishes, so we do cook a few,' Mr Prevatte added. Fried rattlesnake is said to taste like chicken - but, then, isn't every untried exotic meat? 'It's not true,' said Tim Waingraw, a former cook for Ronald Reagan and now chef at the White Swan Cafe in Tallahassee. 'It tastes like rattlesnake.' Handbags and belt buckles are sold as more lasting mementoes.

The round-up is not about killing reptiles that take the occasional lunge at hapless humans. It started, 34 years ago, because snakes were killing the dogs used by wealthy Yankees for quail hunting on the former cotton plantations around Thomasville. 'That never worked,' Myron Prevatte admits. 'But the idea caught on, and we keep it going to milk the snakes for their venom, to make antivenin.'

January is no fun for rattlesnakes. The minute the deer hunting season ends on New Year's Day, Georgia's hunters lock away their rifles and pull out 6ft lengths of hose, old golf irons with hooks welded on the shaft, and large tin buckets. They have just four weeks to scour the heathland along the state line for the heaviest of rattlers.

The thrill might be in the chase, but the reward is paid in dollars. There are no professional snake hunters, but the best of Whigham's part-timers can earn up to pounds 2,000 in the month preceding the round-up, with a 6ft Eastern Diamond Back fetching from dollars 4 to dollars 7 a foot.

Barry Strickland, now an estate agent, tried his hand at the deadly game when he was at school. 'The first time I went out was on the morning of the round-up,' he said. 'We found five straight away. One of them was the biggest that year. Real luck.' His wife will not allow him to bring his snakes home, so the 38-year-old son of a preacher wraps his catch in an electric blanket and leaves it out by his garage.

Jimmy Cox's mother-in-law hates snakes. 'I had brought one home,' said Jimmy, an eye specialist, 'and it was in a can in the house. She's a bit deaf and can't have heard it rattling, because she kept moving the can around the place. When I told her what was in it, it was like she'd had a heart attack,' he laughed.

Jimmy and Barry are two of Whigham's best. To have them as teachers was going to be like having Wyatt Earp show me how to rob a bank. Jimmy, as a special treat, brought along his six-year-old son, Michael. Jimmy's brother Joey had spotted a rattlesnake 20 miles from Whigham the weekend before. That was where we would look first. A light frost still covered the ground west of Whigham as we set off in four-wheel-drive vehicles. 'The colder the better,' Barry said, sipping from a Coke in one hand and steering with the other. 'That's when the snakes are least active.'

The plan was to check a hole dug by a gopher tortoise, where rattlesnakes like to hibernate. If we were lucky, it would stay cold enough until we arrived. Once the sun warmed up, the snakes would slither out. The hole was on the edge of a pecan tree grove.

Jimmy hopped from his cab and reached in for his hunting gear, before heading straight for a pile of logs. He rammed the hose down the hole, twisting and forcing it deeper underground, his hand almost in the sandy mouth of the burrow. Then he pressed his ear to the end of the pipe. 'If there's a rattler down there he'll rattle and I'll hear him,' he whispered. There was not.

We moved on, darting from hole to hole with increased urgency. Innocent burrows - at face value, the homes of cotton-tailed bunnies or docile tortoises - took on a menacing aspect. All of us, except Jimmy, stood at least 10ft back, illogically terrified of a creature we were not even sure was there, even though we knew that rattlers have a strike range of no more than a foot or two.

For a while, the chill in the air was our guard. But, as the warmth of the day increased, so did our anxiety. At any moment the ground could be seething with sunbathing serpents. 'This is the time to be careful,' Barry warned.

Jimmy, seemingly oblivious of the rising temperature, rapidly explored burrow after burrow. Each time, there was no noise except the wind though the pecan trees and the chatter of a jay.

The procedure was changed only once. Jimmy had slid, swizzled and listened, but this time he listened for longer. His face muscles tightened, he stared intently at the ground. The rest of us froze, the hole the sole focus of attention. Jimmy strained to hear a snake's tail rattle - but there was nothing.

By lunchtime, the air was hot, the sand baked. 'This feels uncomfortable,' said Jimmy. Then, without warning, just as all hope seemed lost, little Michael let out a chilling scream. From the ground, only a shadow's length away, a 5ft rattler stared at the boy. Its tail shook.

At once, Jimmy took charge, ordering Michael to step back. Hook in one hand, aluminium can in the other, the hunter stalked his prey. Disappointed of the chance to draw the reptile from its borrowed lair, he treated the scooping up of the snake with little drama. 'The real thrill is hearing it in the hole and getting it out,' he said matter-of- factly, as he lifted the snake and dumped it in the can. The Eastern Diamond Back rattlesnake shook for all it was worth: its anger echoed from within the can, the sound so loud it bounced back off a wall of nearby trees. Jimmy looked unsatisfied. Michael looked white. The rest of us were happy the snake was out of sight.

At least we had a can. On his first hunt, Reverend Ken did not. Out with a member of his congregation, the preacher forgot to take a one, so pessimistic was he about the chance of finding a snake. He should have had more confidence. 'The first hole we looked in had a 5ft snake in it. It was scary, especially as I didn't have anything to put it in except a suitcase in my van,' he said. Thus Reverend Banker brought his first rattler back to Whigham with its fangs buried in the old case.

Where to stay: Whigham is close to Thomasville and Tallahassee. Neither has large chain hotels, but there are many family-run B & B inns, such as Evans Bed and Breakfast, Thomasville, Georgia (010 1 912 226 1343), dollars 45-dollars 70; Governor's Inn, Tallahassee, Florida (010 1 904 681 6855), dollars 129-dollars 219. Paul Newman likes to stay at Susina Plantation Inn, an old plantation house between Thomasville and Tallahassee (010 1 912 377 9644), dollars 175 a couple (includes five-course dinner).

Time to go: Whigham's rattlesnake round-up is held on the last Saturday of January. The 34th round-up will be on 29 January.

Further details: For information on Florida and Georgia, call USTTA (071-495 4336).

(Photograph omitted)