Elephants and rhinos? So old hat! Adventure-seeking travellers in Kenya can now go on safari in search of a very different big five...
When I told my friends I was about to embark on a snake safari in Kenya, most of them thought I was mad. I was beginning to think so too – within minutes of arriving at Malindi Airport on the Kenyan coast, I was informed a local man had died that very morning after being bitten by the infamous black mamba.
The mamba is possibly the scariest out of the big five in snakes. There’s also the python, puff adder, boomslang and cobra. And those are the very beasts I'm here to find.
My intrepid guide is Royjan Taylor, often known in these parts as ‘the snake man’ - and when you meet him, it’s easy to see why. He’s been collecting snakes since he was 17, and he’s so passionate about these reptiles you could say it’s infectious. Together with five other snake-catchers from Bio-Ken, we head off on the two-hour drive towards East Tsavo National Park.
I’ve been on safaris before, but what makes this so exciting and new is that you’re not confined to a vehicle. When we arrive on the outskirts of Tsavo, we fan out along the riverbank, snake-catching sticks firmly in hand. “There are a lot of myths surrounding snakes. In fact, they are really very shy creatures – they’re more scared of us than we are of them,” Royjan tells me, as we peer in long grass and beneath bushes and logs.
After almost an hour, one of the boys makes the call and the group crowds around to help catch the reptile safely. Royjan assures me that he can see, camouflaged and tucked deep inside a thorny shrub, a puff adder. I stand a safe distance back as the experts agitate the bush and the snake slithers into the open and is instantly nabbed by Royjan, using his trusty grab stick.
“This is without a doubt Africa’s most dangerous snake," he tells me. “About 90 per cent of the snake bites we get in Africa are caused by this snake." The puff adder is a frightening sight, especially as venom drips from its fangs. “If that venom gets into your system, it’s very nasty indeed," warns Royjan. "It’s a very strong toxic poison that destroys your muscle tissue. The bite is incredibly painful, possibly one of the worst."
Despite being face to face with a killer, I feel completely safe. It’s obvious Royjan and his team are experienced and know what they are doing. Heck, I even gingerly jump in for the obligatory photo. Then we get back into the truck and head for the vantage point to watch the sun set over the red plains of Tsavo.
I’d assumed we were roughing it in tents, but I was pleasantly surprised (not to mention relieved) with our plush accommodation. Kulalu Camp is situated on the Galana River. It has five large tents with double beds and ensuite bathrooms with flushing toilets and hot running water. Bliss after a long day chasing snakes under the hot African sun.
The next day it’s a sunny morning and it’s not long before Royjan spots an African rock python woven beneath the branches of a large bush. The snake is enticed out of its hiding spot and Royjan leaps on top of it as it edges into the clear. This is the biggest snake I’ve ever seen, but Royjan laughs it off. “They grow a lot bigger than this. I’d put her at about six and a half feet - they can grow to three times that size!”
He carefully bends the snake’s flexible head back to reveal a row of teeth that go all the way back into the mouth. But this isn’t how the python kills its prey. “This is a constrictor,” Royjan says. “So when an animal comes along she will strike out, catch it and wrap her coils around the body and eventually it can’t breathe at all and suffocates to death.”
With four strapping young men holding on to the python, I feel safe enough to get close and stroke its skin. It’s surprisingly soft and silky, not wet and slimy, as you might expect.
A few hours later another slippery customer is spotted, but this time when I arrive on the scene, everyone’s wearing goggles – it’s got to be a spitter. It’s a large brown spitting cobra to be exact – the newest snake species discovered by Royjan and his team in 2007. Its Latin name is Naja ashei, named after James Ashe, Royjan’s mentor and the late herpetologist who founded the Bio-Ken Snake Farm and research center. “This is a very poisonous snake; a bite from a snake like this produces enough venom to kill maybe 10-15, even more people,” says Royjan.
So I've spotted three out of the ‘big five’ - not bad for my two-day safari.
We head back to the farm in Watamu to find out about the poisonous snakes we missed out on seeing in the wild. The snake safari was started to drum up business for the Snake Farm’s more honourable endeavours. Bio-Ken milks snakes for medical research and for the preparation of anti-venom. It provides anti-venom to treat victims of poisonous snake-bites and, with the help of the James Ashe Antivenom Trust, provides it free of charge to those unable to afford it.
“We are educating people how to live with snakes and how to know which kind of snakes will kill them, and which won’t,” says Bonface Momanyi, the farm foreman. And it’s not just tourists who come to visit the snake farm - locals too are learning that snakes are not always to be feared.