There are snakes on every continent but Antarctica – and many can deal life-altering damage. Learn how best to survive a confrontation with a serpent
In the course of my job, I’ve had my fair share of encounters with snakes. I’ve killed and cooked puff adders in Africa, eaten raw water snakes in the Northern Territory of Australia and caught and chomped my way through plenty of vipers in the Central American jungles. And, yes, I’ve been bitten. I had just made a little camp in a tree in the Borneo jungle. I was settling down for the night – hungry – when I saw something moving along the branch. I knew it could be my only chance for supper. Almost instinctively, I grabbed its tail and started to pull. But the snake wrapped its head firmly around a branch. I pulled harder. Eventually it pinged free, flew back and bit my hand. It didn’t stop there. The snake was so mad that it started biting itself in a frenzy. I chopped its head off, had it for supper and it all ended OK.
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That bite was nonvenomous, but looking back I know I was lucky. The truth is that you don’t even want to be bitten by a nonvenomous snake. As soldiers in the jungle are routinely told, snakes don’t brush their teeth. They harbour masses of bacteria in their mouths, which means any variety can give you an infected bite. In the jungle, an infection like that could kill you. So never play with a snake, even if you think it’s safe. Don’t prod it or poke it. Just let it do its thing and you run a better chance of it letting you do yours.
Snakes are generally shy and will avoid you if they can (with a few exceptions that I have come across, such as water moccasins in the Louisiana swamps, which can be pretty aggressive). So good advice if you are in a snakey area is to walk carefully and with consideration to each step, but also with a slightly heavier footfall. They are very sensitive and will detect you coming from quite a distance. If there is a lot of undergrowth, find yourself a solid stick and bang the ground in front of you as you walk. Wear good, sturdy jungle boots plus snake gaiters and always step on top of fallen logs rather than over them – snakes often shelter in the overhang and are more likely to attack if they see a big size eleven boot about to stand on them.
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It’s worth knowing that venomous snakes often deliver a dry bite, where they don’t inject any venom. For this reason, however, younger snakes – especially baby rattlesnakes – can be more dangerous than the adults because they are unable to control the amount of venom they produce. So don’t assume small means less deadly (which is good survival advice in general).