You already know I have a thing about spiders. Well, that is nothing compared to my thing with snakes. And if you are a snake lover, then I should apologise, but I won’t. I was born with an aversion to snakes.
Not lizards, which is strange because snakes are basically just lizards without legs. I even had lizards as pets when I was a little girl. Two blue tongue lizards and two sleepy lizards. I fed them every day and spent a lot of time holding them. But try to get me near a snake and it’s like I seize up. I actually went to the trouble of approaching a snake handler at a rural show a few years ago and asked if I could touch the python curled around his neck. I really wanted to overcome my fear of snakes. My hand moved towards it, but as I got within a foot of the creature, I simply went into meltdown and had to leave quickly.
So, to my first encounter with a snake. Well, that isn’t hard to remember. When I was ten, my family moved from the city to the South Australian Riverland on the Murray River and a fruit block of approximately 20 acres. We went from a very modern newish house in Adelaide suburbia to what can only be called a shack in the middle of an old soldier settlement block (hence the term “block” and “blockers” instead of orchardists) surrounded by mature apricot, peach and orange trees, with a small section of natural scrub and a few big gum trees. No hot running water, just a kitchen tap connected to the rainwater tank, an old wood stove and an outside can dunny under the Boobialla tree. I don’t know how my mother coped, but she did.
The block was right on the River Murray with a steep cliff dropping down to the river. There were many adventures during the decade I lived there, but today, I’ll just tell you about the snakes. Black snakes, brown snakes, pythons, but mostly tiger snakes, the most common snake in the Riverland. They are nasty snakes because, whereas black and brown snakes will mostly run from you, tiger snakes will go for you.
You don’t take chances with a tiger snake. And there were lots of them. Oh, and I mustn’t forget the purple snake. Yes, purple. My very first encounter with a snake was with a purple one. We had a long sandy track running from the house to the main road where my Bro and Sis and I walked to catch the school bus into Loxton. The track passed through some of the natural scrub and one day not long after we had moved there, as we were walking home after getting off the bus, I looked down and there at my feet was a bright purple snake. Oh, yes, it was definitely purple.
I went into snake meltdown, screamed, threw my school case in the air and ran. Of course, we’d had the lecture from all the locals about what to do when you came across a snake. You were supposed to freeze, not move at all, and let the snake slither past. Are you kidding? All sense, reason and planning goes out the window at the merest hint of a snake in the vicinity of my person.
So I ran all the way back home, where my father said, “There is no such thing as a purple snake. And where is your school bag?” He didn’t believe me at all.
Bro and Sis hadn’t seen the snake, so I got no backup there. Dad drove me back up the track and made me go through the scrub looking for my school bag. I was in tears. All I could think about was that purple snake and I was not able to explain it, until a couple of years ago.
I was visiting an animal reserve that had some snakes in glass cages. In one of those cages was a big healthy black snake. As I walked past it (feeling sick and shaky), I saw how the sunlight glinted on its gleaming black skin, like sunlight glinting on oil floating on water, and it had a bright purple sheen. It was simply the way bright light reflected off those scales. Mystery solved!
Pity Dad isn’t still around, I would have phoned him and told him straight away. I wasn’t making it up, it was a purple snake! Maybe he’s listening up there somewhere, or reading this Blog in cyber-heaven or whatever. Hope so. I would also thank him for teaching us kids how to use snake wires. He made them out of heavy gauge wire, about six feet long, doubled over and twisted around itself. We were made to carry our snake wires with us whenever we went out onto the block without him or without Patchy, our dog, who was the best snake dog in the world. But I’ll tell you more about him in another blog.
And so to the Day of the Four Tiger Snakes. It was memorable to say the least.
As I’ve said, our block ended in a steep cliff which dropped down into the river. Across the river were the endless low flood plains of untamed bush and backwaters. The pump, which we relied on to pump water onto the block to irrigate the fruit trees, lay at the base of this cliff and there were steps carved into the cliff face to access the pump. Grass grew on either side of the steps and got quite high before it dried out during the summer months.
My siblings and I had carved three seats into the cliff face and would sometimes take our fishing rods down there, sit quietly on our sandstone seats and watch the Murray Cod swim around our hooks and bait (yes, the Murray River was clear back then, we’re talking early 60’s).
I decided to go down to do some fishing myself one hot summer’s day and was about to descend the steps when, to my immediate right, a tiger snake raised itself above the brown grass, hissed and flattened its head just like a cobra.
Rather foolishly, I did not have my snake wire with me, but Patchy had followed me out of the house and had wandered around behind me, sniffing at whatever it is dogs sniff at. He’d become distracted along the way by something smelly and wasn’t close by. I wanted to call him, but I was too afraid to make a noise. The flight instinct rose up in me. Just as I was about to throw my fishing rod in the air and run, another snake to my immediate left raised itself up, hissed and flattened its head.
Now, if you think that is a tall story, I haven’t finished yet. I was so terrified (both snakes were within striking distance of me) that I actually did freeze, not because it was the correct thing to do, but because I thought I was having a heart attack. As I stood there, truly frozen with fear, a third snake lifted its head about four feet to the right of me, and then a fourth snake did the same about four feet to the left of me.
Four tiger snakes hissing with flattened heads! I thought I was dead for sure. I was about eleven at the time, just a bit of a girl with no courage at all. At that moment, I heard Patchy come up behind me and he went berserk. He was only a little dog, a cross between a Border Collie and a Miniature Fox Terrier with knock knees and a fat low slung belly, and he was completely fearless. He went for each of the snakes in turn, barking his “I ain’t afraid of you” bark and drove each of those snakes back down into the grass. Which meant I couldn’t see them and didn’t know which direction they were going in. That was when my legs started to move again. And the next thing I knew, I’d run all the way back up the track to the house and run inside to tell Mum. Who, of course, thought I was just exaggerating and didn’t pay me much mind at all.
But Patchy knew, bless him. He knew we hated snakes and used to bring us gifts of dead ones he’d killed. He dropped a big dead black snake onto the front doormat one day. At least it looked dead. Dad went out to get rid of it and it rose up and challenged him. It wasn’t dead. There was a shovel by the front door. Dad grabbed the shovel and killed that snake quick smart.
I know snakes are now a protected species and quite rightly so, but back in the 60’s snakes were regarded with fear and trepidation. Apparently it’s OK to kill them now only if you feel they are threatening you. I always felt threatened by snakes and I killed a few myself over the years. These days, I’d be more inclined to take cover and phone for a snake catcher. But they continue to instil fear and loathing upon sight. It’s instinct and a hard one to overcome. Although I eventually did touch a snake recently at a reptile park with my seven year old grandson holding a python and encouraging me to be fearless. I did it. Once.
Once was enough!
(First published 23 October 2010, updated 2018)