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Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Out with a bang or a whimper?

Yesterday was the last day of our two week autumn school holidays and I decided I would make the holidays end with a bang with a nice long hike at uMkhomasi Wetlands Nature reserve. Well the holidays almost ended in a whimper for me. But more about that a bit later.

Click on pictures to enlarge.

A long and winding road. This is the same road to Loteni, down the mountain and up the other side. Loteni lies on the other side of the mountain. My destination way down in the valley below.

Entrance to uMkhomasi Wetlands Reserve, proclaimed a reserve in 1973, previously it had been a privately owned farm. uMkhomasi is part of the uKhahlamba Drakensberg World Heritage Site, of 2,428 square kilometres in size. The park stretches from north to south along KwaZuluNatal's border with Lesotho. 

There are no roads in the park, except those leading east to west to particular camp sites. If you want to travel from north to south in the park you have to walk.

After paying my entrance fee and signing the Mountain Rescue Register, I started my hike. The point I wanted to reach was one of the caves which can be used by hikers as shelters, the Cypress cave, about 2 hours easy hike. 

The hiking trail starts just outside the resident rangers house and leads down to a small stream at the bottom of the valley, across the stream and up the mountain on the other side. All the hiking trail have these creosote treated gum tree poles across the every couple of metres. This is to prevent water run off from turning the trail into an erosion  gulley. The poles are held in place with steel staples that are driven into the ground, as can be seen on the left hand end of this pole.

The first part of the climb started easily enough but got steeper and steeper with the trail climbing up the mountain in short zig zags. After about 30 minutes the inclince became easier and the trail rather like an easy meander up the mountain.

I was ambling along all alone in this huge empty space, with just the mountains the blue sky and a cool breeze blowing on my face. I thought to myself this is pretty much what the first man Adam must have felt like, not another human on the planet just me, caught up in all this beauty.

Suddenly a half choked scream rent the silence, in a language before language, and in my brain the warning lights flashed a word, also in a language that existed before language, snake! snake! snake!.

Inches from my left leg a spitting cobra was poised to strike, hood spread, and tongue flicking. Well I won't be lying much if I said I did three back-flips, and four cartwheels from a standing position and ended up pretty much in the same place, just a few inches further. All the time going through my mind was, "take a photo, take a photo!" And I did, I thought I had got several photos of the snake but I only got three, the rest just showed grass and bare ground.

The snake took fright at my gymnastics and decided to make an escape.

Photo of the snake above, heading for cover. You can see the hood, still slightly spread with the darker head on the left. This snake was about a metre long, +- 3 feet. Here KwaZuluNatal the snake is known by it's Zulu name, "mfesi". Say the word mfesi and most people here know what you are talking about.

Photo Internet.

This is the sight I saw, spitting cobra, Hemachatus, heamachtus. No wonder I was capable of such amazing gymnastic, or at least some very fancy foot work.

The venom of the spitting cobra is neurotoxic. A spitting cobra's main defence though is to spit venom, up to 2.5 meters, into it's attackers eyes, this is extremely painful and can cause blindness. If I had been bitten there's not much chance I would have made down the mountain on my own.  Fortunately for me this is not an aggressive species of snake, most of the time the only thought going through their small brains at a time such as this, is escape.

After my heartbeat came down from what felt like 500 beats a minute to something more normal, I continued on my hike. 

More about this in my next post.


Matt said...

Very interesting. about 10 years ago I had the privilege of visiting Ghana, Africa for about a month for missionary work. We had this rule impressed upon us: If you can't see the dirt on the ground, then don't walk on it. They have the "common" cobra, the black and green mamba, and I've been told the Gaboon viper along the coast although I question that.

Thanks for your posts, i very much enjoy them, especially the photos.

Shoreman said...

Like Indiana Jones, I hate snakes. That, my friend, was way too close an encounter. Glad you came through unscathed.


Kay L. Davies said...

After an encounter like that, my small brain would have been thinking escape, Phillip. My goodness!
The first photo is just beautiful.
PS—we've been away, and I came home to find the internet not working on my computer. It took us almost 24 hours to figure out what to do. Now I know.
It's nice to be back, even after a holiday.