The place still exists. It is located a few km outside Harare, on the Bulawayo Road. We do not go there often nowadays. In fact, we have not visited it since we returned to reside in Harare after my retirement in 2013.
However, in the late 90’s we brought our children there a few times. The idea was to familiarize them with the various reptiles they were likely to find in Africa and avoid or at least minimize the “yuck” factor.
I still remember our first visit when we were fortunate to meet George, one of the guides working in the place. He was a small skinny man probably in his late forties. George only had one arm, his left. My recollection is that he had lost it after the bite of a cobra but the rest of the family believes that a crocodile was responsible for the loss. I am sure I am wrong!
The first time he guided us through the reptile collection it left such an impression that, whenever we came back for a visit, we looked for him as our chaperone. It was well worth it. He was not only extremely kind and patient with our children, but had a natural way of putting them in “direct contact” with the various reptiles. With him they handled for the first time varios beasts such as the resident monitor lizard, chameleons and a number of harmless snakes.
What really made the visit to Snakeworld different was George’s guided tour through the successive enclosures that hosted the snake collection. These were a succession of glass windows where the various African snakes were on display. You started from the various non venomous snakes and gradually worked your way through a crescendo in poison severity that reflected on our level of excitement.
The tour started with a quick walk through the harmless beasts. As some of these had already been handled, they attracted mild interest.
The exception were the African pythons, located at the end of the “non-poisonous” wing. Their enclosure was large and populated by a few specimens, one of which was especially large if not very active. The ability of these snakes to kill and swallow prey much larger than themselves by virtue of being able to stretch their jaws was the main comment George made about them.While moving to the “poisonous” wing a few metres on, George prepared his audience for what was coming giving facts about the various snake teeth arrangements and various venoms.
The first dangerous ones were the boomslangs that only awoke mild interest on the youngsters. Conversely, I found their beautiful bluish-green colour and arboreal habits really fascinating and to see them brought to my memory and incident that happened a few years earlier while camping in Chobe National Park with our very young kids. We were sitting at our camp during lunchtime waiting for the heat to subside when, without warning, a green bundle landed between us with a thump. It was a boomslang that had just caught a lizard and clearly lost its balance! Almost before we could recover from our severe fright the snake re-climbed the tree and it was gone in seconds, only its bluish tinge and typical scales made me guess its identity.
But let’s go back to Snakeworld.
The twig snakes with their great ability to mimic -yes you guessed well- twigs, are always attractive as you can spend a few minutes before spotting them among the branches, even when you know they are there, looking at you!
While waiting for us to find them, George would give information about the biology of the various snakes, their distribution, conservation status and prey. Through him we learnt that Eastern Zimbabwe (the valley of the River Honde) was the place where the most dangerous snakes were likely to be found.
Then we moved to the final part of the exhibit, where George gave facts about each snake species. The latter ended with a statement about their lethality and this was the real “pièce de résistance” of the visit!While boomslangs and twig snakes would kill you if they could get hold of some part of your body, death would occur after days of agony. The situation was more dramatic with the few that followed.
The gloated-looking puff adders with their excellent camouflage and slow slug-like displacement were striking as I could understand that stepping on one would be the most likely snake accident that could happen, as George confirmed.
The “cobra parade” started with the most common Egyptian cobra, that would kill you in a couple of days if not treated. We were getting anxious to continue but he would walk a couple of displays on and stop again showing us what looked like water stains inside one of the glass panels. Pointing at some beautiful terracota coloured snakes, he would explain that they would blind you if they would manage to hit your eyes with their spray of venom. I immediately remembered Alan and Joan Root filming spitting cobras in “Two in the Bush” where Joan wearing glasses was the target of a large spitting cobra while Alan filmed the scene! Two in the Bush is a great documentary worth watching!
After the cobras it was the turn of the mythical mambas. The beautiful and deadly green mambas were first and they took us aback, honouring their names by sporting the most wonderful and shining pale green colour. George would explain that these were rare in Zimbabwe but rapidly lethal if not treated by the right anti-venom. We were all in awe at their almost “smiley” face that made them look deceivable friendly. “Luckily they live up trees”, George said to calm things down ‘but if beaten, you only last a couple of hours” he concluded.The black mambas were unnerving, not black but grey and reaching a size both in thickness and length that is not what you expect. Clearly an impossible foe to escape in the field if angry as, George told us, they can reach a speed far greater than a running human! Luckily, like most snakes, they are shy and move away way before we know they are there. “Do you enter their cage?” I asked George. His answer was short and clear: “No. If bitten you would only last a short time, maybe one hour”. “In South Africa, the black mamba’s bite is known as the kiss of death”, he added. The atmosphere was getting tense! Trying to control our excitement and imaginations we came to the last window where we could not see anything. When George pointed it to us, a humongous and colourful snake suddenly came together. One very large Gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica), its thickest part like my forearm and with a large head, lied totally immobile in front of our eyes. Adorned with the most beautiful colouring, waiting to explode in a strike that would take care of its prey. Its colouring consists of a succession of cream coloured sub-rectangular splotches running down the center of the back, interspaced with dark brown hourglass markings with yellow edges while its sides have a series of fawn or brown rhomboidal shapes, with light vertical central bars.
Although its colouring seems to be rather obvious, it gives the snake an excellent camouflage on its tropical habitat littered with tree leaves. George, showing it his utmost respect, mentioned that this snake was only found in the Eastern Lowlands but that it was -luckily- rather uncommon. He also mentioned that the one we were looking at had been at Snakeworld for many years and that it was extremely aggressive. Then he added: “we call it two steps”. Although I realized why, our kids immediately asked him the reason. That was what George had been waiting for! “You get bitten by this one and you can only walk two steps, then you die”.
Although I am not able to confirm his statement, the snake was massive and at the time I could imagine that the amount of toxin it could inoculate through a good bite would be very large and rapidly lethal. I can assure you that George’s “two step” statement had an impact on the family and to listen to George saying it again become one of the reasons to return to Snakeworld.
As time goes on we mature things. In our case we have incorporated George’s “step” scale into our own family “bush language” and, in the rare cases we spot a snake, the immediate comment is “was this a two-step one or a ten-step one?” I must admit that we get lots of amusement with what follows.
 The Gaboon viper is the world heaviest viper with two-inch long fangs! Not surprisingly, it dispenses the highest amount of venom of any snake. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaboon_viper