I have learnt that you must sometimes be careful for what you wish for – especially where wildlife is concerned! My husband Patrick and I have been filming at Lapalala for a couple of years now and apart from filming and photographing the more common flora and fauna species, we are constantly on the lookout for more special and unusual wildlife and behaviour. Our wish list of these is extensive and encompasses the 'usual suspects' such as leopard, pangolin, aardvark, aardwolf, mating wild dogs and so forth – we live in eternal hope.
Sometimes however, nature delivers us wildlife on our doorstep – literally. And it is from these experiences that I again say, be careful of what you wish for...
Other creatures that we are constantly on the lookout for at Lapalala are reptiles, snakes included. Snakes are not usually everybody's cup of tea for obvious reasons. But for us, finding them was on our priority list and proving to be a real challenge. As the months went by, the closest glimpse we ever got of a snake was a swiftly disappearing tail into thick bushes or tracks across a dusty road. Frustrating to say the least!
One day after watching the tail of a twig snake disappear into a thicket, I bemoaned the fact that everybody else was seeing snakes and we were not – we had heard frequent reports of sightings from our colleagues. I then muttered to the universe in general and Patrick in particular that I wished that we could see more snakes. I felt we were destined to never find any that were in close proximity and of good filming quality. Well, I can honestly say that the universe not only complied with and answered my wishes, but gave us a huge return on our vested interest...
Not even a week later, we heard the monkeys giving an alarm call in our beautiful scotia tree next to our stoep.
We rushed outside to see what all the fuss was about, only to find a huge black mamba carefully easing its way up the thick stem and into the higher branches! We flew back inside the house to grab the cameras, which was the cue for the snake to move as far away from us as possible (as do most wildlife when they feel the lens upon them) and it proceeded to move up into the higher branches.
We watched in fascination as it reached the upper canopy, gathered itself into a coiled position and launched its 2 to 3 meter body across a branch-free zone, to land safely in a fig tree across the way, where it continued its stealthy and focused hunt for food. It was truly amazing to see such a large reptile effortlessly negotiate such a distance.
But ask and ye shall receive - that was not the last of our snake action around the house! The following four weeks produced a plethora of snakes.
We were visited first by a non-venomous and very beautiful bush snake who thought that our study would provide it a safe haven. We firmly but gently convinced it otherwise and took it to a far more suitable cluster of bushes just near our garage. It was happy, we were happy. But it did not end there.
We have couches on our stoep where we sit and while away the hours sipping gin and tonics while watching the sun go down. (OK, we don't really do that, but that is the dream at any rate.) The following week, we noticed that our cats were showing an inordinate amount of interest in one particular couch, but failed to act on this curiosity until another week had gone by.
By sheer chance one evening, Pat happened to look out of the glass window and saw the tail of a Mozambique spitting cobra vanish under the couch!
Needless to say we leapt into action. Diving masks were donned (to prevent being spat in the eye) as well as thick, heavy boots and long pants (despite it being mid-summer) and we geared ourselves up in a pool of sweat to spend the next hour trying to extricate a very determined cobra from the inner workings of our couch in order to relocate it to a more suitable location well away from the house! Yes, we looked like complete idiots, but it was our first encounter at home with a cobra – little did we know we were about to become dab hands at venomous snake extractions...
A week later, a second cobra decided that it would also like to try and make a home in our study. When I casually opened the door to go outside, I was treated to a very scared snake determined to protect itself.
Upon discovery of our house guest, I did a combination ballet leap / pirouette that the Bolshoi Ballet Company would have been proud of (in addition I am sure that I would have also received bonus points on 'So you Think You Can Dance'!) Once again, but this time minus the mask and heavy boots, we scooped the little guy up, out and away to a more preferable location, once again well away from the house.
Less than a week later, Pat went into our store room just next to the study and noticed that it had been cleaned and organised as a surprise from my Mom – she had lifted all of the stuff off the floor onto shelves, so that snakes would be more easily spotted, you see. As he turned around to call me, a raised hood and determined stance from yet another cobra stopped his progress out of the storeroom, which resulted in Pat performing a kind of groovy, twisting, Zulu warrior leap away from the snake, accompanied by loud shouts for me to come and help.
We called on our colleague Dr. Anthony Roberts from Lapalala to come and extract our latest visitor. Snake handling tools were required to probe amidst the ultra-thin crack between the door and the step, so that the latest reptilian visitor could be removed and relocated.
If we thought our snake escapades were over, we were sadly mistaken.
Another week or two later, our littlest female cat once again displayed signs of particular interest towards one of the couches on the stoep. This time, we did not ignore her signals and lo and behold, we found one very large and fat puff adder underneath the couch. This time, our cameras were ready and we got some super footage of it lying and hiding from us as it hung out under our furniture. Eventually we had the shots we needed and proceeded to extract it from under the couch.
Now we were much more used to snakes – 1 broom, 2 dustbins and superhero strength from Pat (as he single handedly held up the couch) and deft broom movements from me, and we had the puffie into the bin and whisked it away to a new location, where we released it and got some great additional footage to boot.
But that was not the end of it...a week later we had another visitor, again in the form of a puff adder. This time, it was hunting next to the house where our resident tree squirrels had spotted it, boldly sounding the alarm call to all and sundry. Once again armed with cameras, we proceeded to film as much of its natural behaviour as possible – much easier without a couch in the way – and got some great hunting shots despite a growing audience of vervet monkeys and tree squirrels.
It too was eventually removed to another location away from the house, where we got some super footage of it striking, as well as its amazing camouflage abilities. We were also able to observe just how fast these snakes can move!
Far from being sluggish and ponderous, the puffie eventually got to a point where it had had enough of our lenses pointed at it and, with astonishing speed, whooshed past my foot and into a clump of grass. While we are aware of how fast snakes can move, it was the first time we had seen such a burst of speed from a usually cumbrous snake – not unlike the speed employed when the banks open on a Saturday morning at month end and everyone wants to get in there first.
I can safely say that the reptile populations at Lapalala are flourishing! I am now very careful what I wish for in terms of wildlife action. Mating pangolins or wild dogs on the hunt are ongoing requests that have yet to be answered, whilst other desires such as snake filming opportunities have come upon us in abundance.
Who knows what we will encounter next? At this point, I would like to thank the universe for answering my call.
However, perhaps it could consider my wish answered in full at this point with regard to snakes...now if we could just find that leopard giving birth and those mating aardvarks...