Close calls – part 2

cc7Many regard the black mamba as Africa’s most deadly predator. And understandably so – without anti-venom treatment within a few hours, the mortality rate in humans is 100 per cent. So when professional hunter Paul Stones was bitten whilst on safari, he knew what he was up against.

In camps all over Africa, the most frequently ask question must be “Are there snakes here?” Let’s be honest, there are snakes pretty much everywhere, but they are of very little consequence because they are sensitive and extremely shy by nature and will, in most cases, avoid humans at all costs. However, like all things in life, the unexpected does occasionally happen.

It was late September and my clients Manfred and Juta Kursawer from Germany were hunting with me in Northern Zululand, South Africa. The safari had progressed well but we were still on the look-out for a Cape bushbuck, so I arranged for us to spend a day or two hunting on a property near Mkuze Falls. 

On the first morning, we came around a bend in the Pongola River and spotted a really old bushbuck ram on the far bank, but it soon gave us the slip. Fortunately, however, bushbuck are very territorial and will often drink at the same spot at around the same time each day, so I decided to construct a hide out of saplings and grass on the near bank in the hope that he would return the following day. 

cc3At 10:45am the following morning, we returned to the hide to begin our vigil. Initially, I was seated in the right-hand chair, with Manfred on my left, however, I soon realised that he would have a far better shot from the right-hand chair, so we stood up, squeezed past each other and took our seats. In doing so I knocked Manfred’s glasses from the armrest of his chair and immediately bent down to retrieve them. 

Now, in the front-left corner of the hide there was a small gap between the frame and the thatch grass of about two inches through which a shaft of sunlight was illuminating the lens of the glasses. As I reached down to pick up the glasses, something slapped my left calf, so hard that it knocked my legs together. I immediately assumed that one of the saplings had come loose from the frame and whipped my leg. I reached down and touched my calf, only to find that it was wet. Somewhat surprised, I turned my leg into the shaft of sunlight. 

That was when it dawned on me. Running down my leg was a trickle of venom, along with with some blood from two clear puncture wounds in my calf. I knew then that I had been bitten by a snake. I also knew that I urgently needed to identify the species of snake, so I moved out of the blind, looked around and soon spotted a slim, dark slate-grey snake of around 3ft in length. Whatever it was, it was too small to cause me any serious harm. Or so I thought.

cc2Suddenly, however, everything slowed down and, in abject horror I realised that I was looking at the tail of a black mamba of nearly 12 feet in length. Its body had been obscured by the short winter grass on the riverbank. Slowly, as if it knew of the consequences of its actions, it moved away into the distance. 

There are three different types of venom found in Southern African snakes: haemotoxic (i.e. twig snake and boomslang), which cause you to bleed to death as they prevent the haemoglobin from clotting your blood; cytotoxic (i.e. puff adder and Mozambique spitting cobra), which causes massive cell damage, often resulting in the loss of a limb; and neurotoxic venom (i.e. green mamba and Cape cobra) which debilitates your nervous system. The black mamba is the only snake classified as having virulently neurotoxic venom (dendrotoxin) in combination with cardiotoxins and other toxins such as fasciculins. In other words, you really don’t have long before the venom causes complete paralysis, leading to suffocation and death. 

Many in such a situation might well have gone into total panic and, to be truthful, for a few seconds I was probably on the verge of losing it. But, thankfully, my friend and fellow PH, Gerritt, who, along with Juta, Manfred’s wife, had accompanied us in the hide, held me back. If he hadn’t, I may well have attempted to run back to my Land Cruiser which would have certainly ended any possibility of survival, for my increased heart-rate would have accelerated the transfer of venom to my brain. 

Instead, I relaxed and lay down under an acacia tree with my back against its trunk and my legs out in front of me. Juta, by some small miracle (of which there were many that day), found a length of white parcel string in her bag. I made a tourniquet from it and placed it above my left knee.

At this point I was no more than five minutes into my ordeal, yet I was drenched in sweat, the result of a combination of shock and fear. Tightening and loosening the tourniquet to ensure that there was still blood flowing into my limb, I kept looking at my watch and estimated that I had approximately 20 minutes before I would lose consciousness.

Seven minutes had just passed when I realised that my legs were starting to go numb, a feeling that can only be described as having the incoming tide of a very cold Atlantic Ocean slowly move over your feet and up your legs. A tingling, cold and frightening feeling to say the least.

The numbness soon reached my thighs and then spread upwards into the rest of my body. As my hands could no longer function,  Juta took over the tourniquet and I lay my left arm across my lap and kept an eye on my watch. Twenty minutes had passed and my condition was undeniably deteriorating rapidly. My mouth was dry, my tongue felt ten times its normal size and I started to mumble and slur my words.“They must come, they must come,” I clearly recall saying.

At 11:37am my Land Cruiser, driven by Gerritt, came roaring into sight. I was immediately loaded into the back and, with my friend Tommy Potgieter holding me down, Gerritt drove like a man possessed in the direction of the nearest hospital. At 11:45am, I lost consciousness for the first time. I could no longer breathe as the intercostal muscles between my ribs went into paralysis. 

cc1I came back to my senses several minutes later but I knew that time was fast running out. At 11:55 I lost consciousness for a second time, this time waking just as Tommy and Gerritt carried me into the hospital in Pongola, Northern Zululand. 

The hospital staff reacted magnificently, immediately attaching a respirator and heart monitor to me and injecting me with a cocktail of drugs. The respirator was my saving grace as it breathed for me and therefore kept me alive. 

Suddenly, I was back, lying there with little or no movement, no real speech but my mind as clear as crystal. Gerritt was arguing with the doctor because, up until this point, no anti-venom had been administered, simply because if the doctor gave me the wrong type, I would be in even greater danger as this is akin to being bitten by an additional species of snake. After much debate – Gerritt was very convincing – the doctor relented and 12 ampules of neurotoxic anti-serum was injected into my arm. 

Anti-serum is created in a very interesting way. Pure venom is extracted from the snake and a small amount is injected into a horse’s blood stream. Horses are used because they have very large and powerful hearts and can handle the effects of the venom in small doses. Once this has been done repeatedly on a fairly regular basis, the blood is then drawn from the horse and the haemoglobin is split from the rest of the blood. It is the haemoglobin that is, in essence, the anti-venom. When you react to the anti-venom (as many do) you are in actual fact reacting to the foreign antibodies that have come from the horse. 

One is usually tested beforehand by scratching your skin and dabbing some anti-serum onto the skin. Any reaction would be indicative that your body is likely to reject the serum. In my case there was no time for a test and I immediately reacted and started to swell like the proverbial Michelin Man. Minutes later, my face had swelled to the extent that I could no longer see. 

I lay there in the silence, the respirator breathing for me, totally incapacitated for what felt like an eternity. Suddenly, I felt someone take my hand in theirs and, through the haze, I managed to make out a man of the cloth. He held a small jar of anointing oil, which he then proceeded to dab on me. To this day I do not know which of the two gave me the bigger fright, the snake or the holy man. To my relief he soon left. 

I never did find out if he had come to bid me farewell or to pray for my rapid recovery. I like to think it was the latter.

cc5By midnight, the respirator and anti-venom had done their job; I was breathing on my own and movement, although not very co-ordinated, was gradually returning, although my body was still completely numb. 

At about 3am, however, the numbness began to wear off. To my horror, as the feeling returned after 15 hours, the level of pain was of a magnitude that I simply cannot describe. I screamed at the top of my lungs – just the feeling of the bedsheets against my skin was agony. The nurses filled me with morphine and I soon faded into a beautiful, dreamless sleep for the first time in 24 hours.

At around 8:30am, I came to in a warm and silent room. My leg was extremely swollen and I felt ill, but the fever that had raged through the night had broken. I sat up in bed, the world spinning like a top, and gradually worked out where I was. Although there was a bedpan next to me, I looked down and saw that the drip stand had wheels and that it was only a short walk to the bathroom. 

I slid my legs over the edge of the bed and went crashing to the floor, ripping all the tubes out of my arms. I was so weak that my legs would no longer support me. Lying there on that cold floor, I will never forget the horror. Twenty-four hours earlier, I had been a strong, fit 30-year-old, but now I could not walk, and didn’t even have the strength to get back into bed.

It took a long time before I finally got my full strength back. I spent time in camp and then at home recuperating from my ordeal. There were after-effects that stayed with me for many years – not physical ones, but mental. I would often wake in the night and see a snake moving through my room, as clear as day. In the morning, I would wake in a room I had turned upside down in an attempt to kill the snake. 

I am often asked about my experience with Africa’s most deadly snake. Why is a snake that lives on nothing more than rodents so fast and aggressive? Why does it need a venom powerful enough to kill a one-ton eland bull or eight humans within minutes?

How I survived a black mamba bite is open to conjecture. Firstly, I was bitten very low down on my body, far enough from my heart and brain. Secondly, I did not panic and was extremely fit at that stage in my life which no doubt gave me the time required to get to the hospital. However, the bottom line was that I was with very good, capable people, without whom, I know for certain, I would have died. In many respects I was lucky.

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