The Snake …

 Before anyone reads this story I would like to say it’s a bit of a fairy tale. I mean it could easily happen but I think you’d be more likely to win Tattslotto. I know of three men who have stood on snakes and not been bitten. My good mate Dom stood on a Copperhead at Phillip Island as a young man and wasn’t bitten.   My Dad Keithy tripped and landed right next to a snake, a big Black snake and was unharmed. A man I met at South West Rocks in New South Wales only realised he was standing on a snake when he felt something wriggling under his foot. The old snake doesn’t want to bite anybody, he needs that venom for his prey. The much maligned snake doesn’t need any more bad press.

I would like to dedicate this story to my daughter Sophie, who saw her life flash before her eyes on a family bush walk on Richards Tramline, above the Mississippi creek outside Warburton, near Big Pats creek. She was in the lead and nearly stood on a massive Tiger Snake who was straddling the track and simply refused to budge. We jumped up and down and yelled out at him but he just wouldn’t move. I don’t think he could have mustered the energy to bite anyone. I picked him up with the aid a long stick, putting him off the track before he slowly disappeared into the scrub.

… and The Tiger

Complacency is not a good thing. It creeps into our lives in one form or another, in all facets of what we do. That was the man’s problem; he had become complacent. He saw everything in the bush as his friend. But there were no friends, and conversely no enemies either. The only real enemy he had was complacency, and becoming distracted.

He had walked the narrow track dozens of times, and had occasionally seen snakes, mostly Highland Copperheads. Small beautiful creatures, extremely docile. You would most likely be bitten by a Copperhead if you tried to bite him first. He had a close encounter with a Copperhead one day 12 months previous. It was a cool day, maybe 18C, and steady rain fell. The last thing he expected was to see a snake, and yet there it was crossing the path right in front of him. Beads of moisture clung to the dark scales on its back, like a prize fighter’s face after the third round. It was as if black polish had just been applied, almost shining. The reptile did not slow down or speed up it simply crossed the man’s path, seemingly at leisure. No harm done, but as much as the man loved seeing snakes, close brushes with them like this one scared him as much as the next person.

And then it happened. He took his eyes of the track, distracted by a bird call he didn’t recognise. He had done the walk to see the Black-faced Monarch, a rare bird he had often seen on this part of the track, which closely followed Big Pat’s creek for several hundred metres. A sharp stabbing pain hit him in the calf, he was wearing shorts, and he quickly looked down to see a striped snake disappear into the grass.   He sat down calmly, away from where the snake was heading and examined the 2 puncture marks on his leg. His first aid kit which he always carried in his backpack contained a pressure bandage for just such an occasion. When it was firmly in place he tried to gather his thoughts. Blind panic hit him abruptly, where did that come from, he thought?

His mind raced, he immediately saw parallels between himself and the man in his favourite short story, “To build a fire” by his favourite author, Jack London. The man who in the brutal climate of The Yukon, met disaster, succumbing to the -75c temperatures after becoming wet to the waist. His breathing returned to normal, don’t be ridiculous he scolded himself. Someone will come along the track soon and will raise the alarm. He chuckled at the dramatic way he had thought the worst from the start.

12 hours or more he had up his sleeve, he knew that. As long as he remained calm and dead still. It was 3 kilometres back to his car, walking back to it not an option. His heart rate must not go above the resting rate, if he remained calm, time was on his side. He sat there in the shade for twenty minutes or more, before a strange thought occurred. You idiot, just ring for help, your phone is in your pocket. He took the marvellous invention in his hand but was shocked to read Emergency calls only where the reception bars normally were. Okay I’ve never been in this position before but I know I can still call 000.

A lady’s voice answered,”000, what is your emergency”? The man described his predicament, but the woman repeated herself with less patience this time. It was obvious that the man could quite clearly hear her but she could not hear him. He hung up and tried again. This time a much younger voice greeted him, a man’s voice, but the same thing happened. He hung up again, despondent this time. He walked 100 metres and tried again. Same thing. Panic and fear crept into his mind, until he reassured himself everything was going to be fine.

He had been bitten by the big snake at 3.40pm. It was now 4.30, a good 4 hours of daylight left. In a straight line through the bush it was about 1km to Smythe creek road, but the energy needed to bush bash would have been greater than the 3kms along the track. Tantalisingly he heard vehicles, 2 motorbikes, a 4WD and a logging truck went past. They may as well be in the Kimberley for all the good they were to me, he thought.

2 hours went past, the man sitting there, wrestling demons inside his head. He held no animosity to the big Tiger snake, I must have stood on him and gave him a fright, they don’t bite people for no reason. Why had he not told his wife, anyone, where he was going. London’s character had been told not to travel in the Yukon without a travel mate; He now felt the same way. With a mate beside him, he would have had an antidote by now, probably kept in overnight for observation. Why hadn’t he simply watched where he was walking, he would have seen the big brute and simply walked around him. He knew snakes often gave dry bites, without injecting venom, but how would he know if that was the case? 

By 8 o’clock, the man realised no one would be venturing along the track to save him. The sun had set, and the long summer twilight had begun. He decided to walk to his ute. It seemed odd to him, but even in his state of apprehension, he kept trying to recognise and identify all the sounds of the bush around him. It was hard wired into his brain, but thought he would abandon that practice under such duress. Maybe it was a help, kept his brain focussed, he didn’t really understand why.

After walking a kilometre, he knew the big fella had not given him a dry bite. His head began to ache, he felt quite nauseous, an aching pain on each side of his lower back were the start of kidney and liver damage. He stopped to reapply another pressure bandage above the one he was wearing, a useless exercise he knew, but he did it anyhow. His vision was blurring, and his mouth was dry no matter how much water he drank. He toyed with the idea of sprinting to his car but knew if he did that he would not survive. 

He continually checked his phone for reception, nothing. He tried 000 again and again, but he didn’t even get dial tone. At this stage the battery on his phone died. His vision got worse, the fading light not helping. All his symptoms were increasing in intensity, and he paused again to rest.

A voice in his head told him this would be his final resting place but it was a thought he quickly dismissed. To prove it wrong, he pressed on, another 100 metres or so. This time he sat down, and didn’t allow negative ideas into his head. Keep going, keep going was what the voice said this time and he struggled gamely to his feet. Within metres he propped himself up against a tree to violently empty the contents of his stomach. He felt better momentarily and soldiered on. Suddenly, like a drunken man, his legs gave way beneath him. His breathing became shallow, and his mind hallucinated. He gave up on the idea of getting to his car, realising he could not drive it even if he was behind the wheel now.

A calm feeling overcame him. His mind was as clear as bell, or so he thought. His wife was standing over him looking down and smiling. Wow, what a looker she is, he said to himself. She stroked his face and told him everything was going to be ok and the serenity he felt at that time was the most peaceful feeling he had ever known. She said to him she had to leave him now, but not to worry, she’d see him again soon. He felt very alone and scared all of a sudden, but his wife’s soothing words continued to comfort him, long after she had gone.

The sounds of the night slowly relaced the bush birds of the day.   The Eastern-yellow Robin gave his repetitive monotonous piping call almost until it got dark.  A Kookaburra, like a small child fighting sleep, refused to stop calling even though you would say it was now night time. The yip- yip call of the Sugar Glider could be heard, emerging from a small hollow in a big Candlebark up above the creek line. From high up on the ridge, a Powerful Owl gave its far carrying haunting call from a huge Messmate. A parliament of Southern Boobooks called from a gully further up the creek.

A full moon rose over the ridge where the Powerful Owl had called and the warm night was just a beautiful temperature, a pleasant 23c. Towards dawn, a group of Yellow bellied Gliders gave their whirring gurgling calls and just before sunrise,  a   Sooty Owl gave his characteristic ‘Bomb whistle’ call. The inert body of the man lay beside the track. The dawn chorus began, the birds all seemingly in competition to see who could call the loudest. A calm expression on his face belied the pain the man had endured before his heart gave its last beat.

Des Palmer