Monday, July 8, 2013

When you live in Australia, be always aware of snakes.

When you live in Australia, especially in the northern half, you are always aware of the presence of snakes and, to keep your house or car doors closed is an absolute necessity.  I went to my garden shed one night and in the light beam of my torch was a 1.4 metre black snake in strike position in front of a big green frog; seconds away from its death. My light made the snake to disappear, and I can still see the smile of the green frog whose life I just had saved. You certainly never go in your backyard without a light.

I remember the story that made the front page in our daily newspaper, the Cairns Post a few years ago. Two Australian interstate tourists drove up the scenic and rainforest surrounded “Gilles Highway” from Gordonvale (About 25 Km south of Cairns) to the Atherton Tableland.

They decided to have something to eat and stopped at a nice spot beside the highway so that they could also admire the wonderful rainforest beside them
. Unfortunately for them, they left the backdoor of their car open. When they continued their drive about an hour later, the driver of the car behind them spotted a carpet snake “looking” out of the window of the backdoor “dangling” in the wind.

The driver in the car behind frantically tooted the horn,
and since it is difficult on this road to overtake, it took some time to find an overtaking lane and the driver called out: “You have a snake in the car.” Well, this couple learnt the hard way to keep car doors closed when stopping in the rainforest. Following is a story from my life, and my close encounter with snakes - Werner

I can say it was a culture and a creature shock for me.  When I arrived in Australia I stood in front of a big learning curve. The fauna and flora was totally different to what I was used to in Germany. And, that was particularly so when I arrived in Mossman in tropical North Queensland with my wife Karola and our three children; to cut sugar cane.

The splendid tropical fauna; the palms and especially the coconut palms; the blue sky; the evergreen rainforest, the nearby Pacific Ocean; the warm tropical climate gave us the euphoric feeling – wow, we’ve arrived in paradise!

Our abode, oh that was a culture shock. It was a kind of a hybrid, embodying all the features of a house, barracks and a shed; nothing to brag about, but it kept the wind and the rain out. The farm had no mains power, but an electrical generator supplied us with light. 

The sugar cane farm was also home for other creatures; in particular venomous black snakes, taipans, death adders, and the non venomous carpet snakes (python). Bandicoots  and rats that live in the sugar cane and find their food there and likewise become food for the snakes. The taipan is one of the deadliest snakes in Australia.

My boss gave me good advice on how to avoid stepping on snakes and getting bitten. “When you walk here, look down in front of you, and if you want to watch birds flying above, stop walking.” I adhered to his advice religiously. I encountered many snakes in my 60 years in Australia, but never stepped on one - yet.  This good advice should be given to our children and anybody that comes to this country. I wondered how I could convey my boss’ advice to our three young children in a practical way instead just spoken words. An opportunity presented itself a few days later, but an explanation first.

Once upon time, sugarcane fires lit the Queensland skies throughout the cane-cutting season. The cane was burnt to remove the dry leaves to make cutting much easier, when the cane was still cut by hand.  Today, this practice has been discontinued and mechanical harvesters have replaced the manual cane cutter. Not burning the cane benefits the environment, and the animals that live there.

To watch a cane fire was a great spectacle and a sight to behold,
especially with the wind behind it, thirty-meter high flames were nothing unusual.  Unfortunately, this spectacle had also a more ominous side to it.  Many small animals, which found food and shelter in the cane fell victim to the fire, if they were not fast enough to escape. They were predominately snakes, rats and bandicoots. The latter two, which escaped to an empty paddock fell prey to hawks circling above. Click on the blue bandicoots link above for more reading about that interesting marsupial.

So, while cutting cane I found a badly burned 4 meter long carpet snake.
Unfortunately, this snake would have died a slow excruciating death, and the boss told me to put it out of is misery. Carpet snakes are nocturnal and generally harmless, but you have to make sure that your fowls and small babies are not exposed to them. I never killed a carpet snake since then; we lived with them, often had to chase them from our “outhouse’ before we could use it. The carpet snakes and death adders were the main cane fire victims, because they move much slower than the other snakes.

This dead carpet snake gave me that golden opportunity to teach our three young children where to look when walking in North Queensland. I formed a 4 foot diameter circle with the dead snake, and put my waterbag some distance past the ‘snake circle.” All three children had to undergo the test separately. Peter, our son, was the first while the girls waited some distance away.

I told Peter to fetch my water bag further up the paddock and I told him to look out for snakes. So, Peter must have fixed his eyes totally onto the waterbag and stepped right into the snake circle. I called out, “stop, look down for snakes; he did;” saw the snake and jumped as high as he could out of the circle. He learnt his lesson to look down and not into the distance when walking, and so did Sonja and Doris who made the same mistake as Peter. This was a valuable lessen for them.

Yes, snakes are constantly on your mind here in the tropics. I remember coming home for lunch, and found Karola and the three children standing on top of the kitchen table, frantically finger pointing under the table where a 4 foot Blake Snake was.

When I worked on a sugar cane farm at White Rock, 10 Km south of Cairns, we lived in a typical; for that time, Queensland house on high concrete stumps.

Another piece of advice I received was that snakes won’t attack you unless they are cornered. I believed this till the following happened.

Our eldest daughter, Sonja, came over to the shed where I was refuelling the tractor. “Dad we just saw through the window a big brown snake going past the house.” I knew straightaway that this was a Taipan.  I was going to chase it away and came over “armed” with a hoe. She showed me in which direction the snake had gone and I proceeded slowly in that direction with my hoe firmly in my two hands.

I hadn’t gone far when I saw the tail of the snake in front of me, and then the snake looking at me, raised into a striking pose.
I was probably only a second away from being bitten, and had no choice but to strike first with the sharp part of the hoe - the snake was dead and cut in three parts. Putting the three pieces together; it measured 2.2 meters; it was a Taipan.

The assertion that snakes only attack when cornered was debunked. This snake wasn’t cornered, in front was a gully and left and right was open space.

My thought for today. – Werner
People make mistakes, gain experience, and learned from them and it all counts as part of life lessons. Wazim Shaw
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Ute and Eddie said...

Thanks, Werner, a good lesson to be remembered; snakes are all around us.

HarryM said...

Werner being and old Queenslander os 81 years born on Mt Tambourine in 1932 i know what you are saying and support you in this blog and the next one on Towel Heads I fear for the up and coming generation Cheers Harry M

Unknown said...

I wonder if a nice house in the cane fields will have too many snakes to be a comfortable proposition.