The Black Mamba: A Lethal Whip on Wheels

My last blog about the Egyptian Cobra that escaped from a Bronx Zoo snake house reminded me of another snake encounter, this one in Malawi. Here is the relevant journal excerpt.


Traveling up the Shire (rhymes with 'leery') River in Malawi is a bit like being in a float during a Fourth of July parade. Both sides of the river are lined with spectators, in this instance spectators whose eyes, pink ears and bulbous noses that occasionally spout four foot high jets are all that remain above water.

The hippos of the Shire blink lazily as we motor by, turning their massive heads in unison to watch. Overhead flocks of white-chested cormorants stitch the sky. The water is calm and as the sun sinks lower the sky turns pink, then orange, then gray.

By the time we reach the camp landing, the sky is black, save for the billions of pinpricks that let the light from the universe next door leak in. We are shown our rooms, the showers and told where to take supper. We are told to carry our flashlights with us whenever we move about the campsite. We are told that two hippos typically come up into camp at all hours of the night to feed. We are told not to worry if we hear them snorting.

The dining room is an outdoor space set with several long tables and ringed by a fence made from dead branches stuck in the ground. At one end is a huge baobab tree and in front a circular fire pit whose flames illuminate the baobab. It looks like a prop out of King Kong. During dinner three staff members play conga drums and a makeshift marimba. The drummers are excellent, accompanying their singing with a complex set of rhythms that are beyond me, seven against four against three, something like that. Another African dances to the rhythm, a halting shuffling step, with small incisive steps that accent every seventh beat. Sometimes the drummers are there with the beat; sometimes it is understood. The odd thing is the marimba playing. It is not African but gamelon, tri-tonal music with the distinctive gamelon rhythm. How did it get here?

I am seated between Nancy and Gary Brown, one of our safari guides. Gary is an amateur herpetologist. I ask him if black mambas are in the area. He says yes. I tell him I am told they can grow to 25 feet in length and, unlike most snakes in Africa, are very aggressive. He says that they only grow to 14 feet and are this big around. He makes his hands into the compass of a fire hose at full blast and adds that they can move at speeds of more than 12 miles per hour.

“Are they really aggressive?” I ask, trying to disguise the tremolo in my voice.

By way of answering, he tells me this story. A few years ago he was driving his land cruiser along a dusty unpaved roadway when he suddenly came upon a 14 foot long, fire hose thick black mamba stretched out across the road. It was sound asleep. A snake lover, he wanted to do it no harm. He jammed on his brakes as fast and hard as he could. The vibrations of the skidding wheels woke the snake. Before Gary could blink, the mamba had reared up to a third of its length, darted over the hood of the land cruiser and struck the windshield like a baseball bat, shattering it. Then it slithered off into the underbrush. Gary said the attack lasted no more than a few seconds.

As he finished the story I stared at the baobab tree casting snake-like shadows across the ground and asked myself (for the umpteenth time) What the hell am I doing here?

That night I drifted off into a fitful sleep with the promised hippos foraging just beyond our tent. They sounded like chainsaws starting up.