Pythons and social life

We first met Jim and Silvana during our first trip to Magadi [1] where they were part of the ILRAD [2] group that invited us. After that I visited him frequently at ILRAD as he was always ready to receive me and to talk. He always gave me sound advice during my early career days for what I am grateful.

Our friendship grew and at some stage he invited us to his birthday party at his house in ILRAD. The latter had a beautiful campus, similar to that of some American universities and the houses were scattered in it but not too far from each other. As Jim and Silvana were a popular couple, the party was attended by lots of people, most of them unknown to us at the time.

It was midnight and the party was at its best, dancing away to good and loud music. Suddenly, I noted some interruption to the dancing and I spotted a gentleman, cladded in pajamas that was walking fast towards the music source and, without saying anything, it lowered its volume almost to make it inaudible. After this, he turned around and walked out the same way he had come muttering something like “I need my sleep”!

The dancing stopped not only because we were feeling surprised and amused but also because the music had died! Jim reacted immediately and, totally unconcerned, he went back to the music player and raised the volume to the maximum -louder than before- and asked us to continue dancing. There were no more interruptions and we had a great party!

The “intruder” was, as expected, one of Jim’s neighbours, an administrative manager, to who our friends -as it was customary at ILRAD- had informed about the party and even invite, together with his wife! It took a few months for the relationship to improve to the levels prior to the party!

Jim and I shared a liking for snakes, a taste that our wives did not share. He wished to keep a pet python but it was difficult to get one as there were no pet shops. We then decided that we needed to go on a “snake-catching safari” sometime, knowing full well that snakes are very elusive animals and that the chances of finding one while actually looking for it was almost zero! So, the snake-catching safari become something like a running joke between us.

One day, when Silvana was in Italy visiting her family we decided that we had waited long enough for the outing and a Sunday morning we departed for the lake Naivasha area. Mabel joined us, despite her strong dislike of snakes of any kind. We decided to walk around the lake and focus our search by following a dry river bed that headed for the Hell’s Gate area.

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A view of the area we chose for our snake catching safari.

After enjoying the walk for about two hours we stopped for lunch. While eating we discussed our plans for the afternoon and decided to continue walking for a while longer and keep checking near some small water pools where we reasoned that a thirsty snake would come to drink! Although Jim was equipped to catch a snake, it was all rather light-hearted.

We arrived to an area where the river had carved a deep ravine that offered some shade and, suddenly I saw Jim running while shouting “there is a snake there!” We followed him and then saw a shinny and small snake resting in a wet part of the ravine. Jim was on it immediately and caught it with his tongs.

Truly unbelievably Jim had found the python! Admittedly it was a very small one but it was a recently moulted African rock python (Python sebae). Jim was extremely pleased while I helped him to bag it. The snake was accommodated in a large terrarium and well looked after as Jim cherished the snake!

He kept the python several years while it grew in size and I often included looking at the snake during my visits to ILRAD. After a while he needed to increase the size of the terrarium and, eventually, the snake grew to such a size that it required to be transported to an empty room in one of the laboratories where it became a great attraction until it was donated, I believe, to the Kenya Museum snake display!

Apart from catching a snake, we continue socializing together and it was with Jim and Silvana that a rather forgettable incident where I exceeded my alcohol tolerance limit took place, although there were attenuating circumstances…

It happened after a long and tiring return trip driving all the way from Intona Ranch with my boss Matt during which we got badly delayed by torrential rain at the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. Eventually, with Matt walking through the mud and water in front of the car guiding me through we managed to negotiate the worst patches of the road and eventually got back to Nairobi although later than planned.

Because of the delay, we were forced to come straight to a reception organized by a chemical company to welcome another Paul, their Technical Director from their “mother” company in the UK. Later on, he would become the Director of ICIPE’s Tick Programme and, therefore, my boss!

The company was an important player regarding ticks and tick-borne diseases so Matt considered essential to attend so we did, straight from the bush! I can still hear him chooek-chooeking around in his water-saturated shoes while walking around meeting people, as usual without a care in the world, wearing his usual green cardigan and laughing!

I was very thirsty and needed a drink so I picked a glass of a cocktail offered to me, sweet and refreshing. I repeated the dose a couple of times more. Less than an hour later I noted a slight weakness in the knees that, at first I attributed to the long drive. However, the situation got worse and realized that the nice drink was a bit of an alcoholic time bomb so I stopped and went for water (what I should have done from the start). Although I was not a teetotaler, I normally did not (and still do not) drink much alcohol. However, after such a long and waterless drive I was very thirsty.

Luckily, before too long, Mabel came to collect me with clean clothes to go for the next social activity that I had totally forgotten. We had arranged to go for dinner to the “El Patio” restaurant with Jim and Silvana. This was a Spanish-style restaurant that we all liked.

Although my situation had not improved, we drove to the restaurant and, we ordered paella for four with some Spanish wine that I did not touch, staying with water.

I am not sure if it was the sight and smell of the Paella or the heat inside the restaurant or a combination of both that tilted the balance against my alcohol metabolism and I started feeling increasingly worse so, without touching my food, I decided to leave the table and go out seeking fresh air and that was a mistake as -apparently- oxygen increases your blood alcohol levels and makes you drunk!

I now felt really bad and needed to find a secluded spot in the garden to be sick and then, my condition improved, sat in the car to wait for Mabel.

I insisted that I could drive despite the protestations of my wife. However, when I was unable to reverse the kombi from the parking place, I conceded defeat, moved to the passenger seat and allowed myself to be driven the long way to Tigoni by her. Apparently during the whole journey I moaned and groaned until at some stage I passed out and, frankly do not remember if I slept in the car or I managed to walk into the house!

Afterwards, the “El Patio safari” replaced the “snake catching safari” as our running joke!


[1] See:

[2] International Laboratory for Research in Animal Diseases (today International Livestock Research Institute).

Sleeping rock python

Our final visit to the Zimbabwean bush before leaving for South America took place from 8-10 January, and it was shared with our daughter who is also leaving for Italy later this week.

As usual, we enjoyed our safari in one of the jewels Zimbabwe has to offer. Learning from previous experience, we stayed at Main Camp as time was short and camping during the rainy season is not really a comfortable option! We were correct as it did rain and the sky -thankfully for the hitherto dry Hwange- was waterlogged so we expect and hope that the rains will continue.

Although there were a number of interesting observations during the trip, I will start with the one I feel “inspired” to write about, while I think about how to present the others to you.

Several memories of my past experience with African Rock Pythons (Python sebae) came to my mind when, on reaching the top of the Nyamandlovu viewing platform we were warned that there was a python in one of its corners!

My experience with rock pythons on safari is very poor. In fact, until this find I had never seen one in a national park or game reserve! My only encounters with these magnificent creatures were in Kenya, either first hand or through pictures and/or stories. I recall seeing a picture of a really humongous python (most often and most regrettably killed) that had swallowed a goat at Intona Ranch in the Transmara. It was probably about five metres long and about six people held it up for the picture. That was interesting but a real pity.

On a more optimistic note, we once met a Swiss fellow “safarier” at Meru National Park, also in Kenya in the 80’s, who told us the story of a python swiming towards his little daughter who happened to be near the water. The moment it approached her, the snake stopped swimming towards her! He also mentioned that when he kneeled next to it, the snake resumed its approach, only to stop again when he stood up, suggesting that there is some size-assessment from the python when stalking its prey.

Apart from stories and pictures, I also remember two first hand encounters. On one occasion, while staying at Elsamere[1] in lake Naivasha on a bass-fishing trip in lake Naivasha, other guests spent their time looking for pythons at the lakeshore! I was really sceptical about python-collecting so I was really surprised when two -albeit small ones- were found! I should also add that luckily they were small as my friend Paul jokingly hung them around my neck with the obvious result that I carried the scars of 2 python bites on my upper torso for a few days! I can testify that pythons bite at least as hard as laboratory rats!

The second encounter was when, perhaps inspired by the above incident, Jim, my wife and I decided to go on a python-safari! Jim was a good friend with whom I shared a liking for snakes. My wife does not like snakes so she came for the walk, hoping for a fruitless search! Our trip took us to Hell’s Gate[2], long before it was declared a National Park.

We did enjoy a magnificent walk along the gorge and dry riverbed. It was there, at a narrow, shady and wet passage between narrow cliffs that we found a young rock python that had recently moulted and was shiny and healthy. As until then, finding the python was just our pretext for the walk, we were as amazed to find it as I am sure the snake was to see the three large primates walking towards it!

Enough reminiscing and back to the present safari! The Nyamandlovu pan viewing platform offers a magnificent view of the water and the action that is always present there. This time the action was clearly inside it! The empty half of the platform was clear proof of the snake’s presence, fear of snakes prevailing even among animal lovers who preferred to pack themselves at the other end!

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The young  rock python wedged in a crevice of the platform, head down.

We were really thrilled by the news and moved closer to have a good look. The snake was a juvenile. It was comfortably wedged head-down in a gap of the railing, apparently enjoying an afternoon nap[3]. We took a few difficult pictures and sat in the empty corner next to it leaving it alone, happy to watch it every now and then while focusing on the events at the pan.

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Regret the leg but it is only for comparison!

Amazingly not one of the several occupants of the platform came to have a look at the snake although all of them were aware of its presence. They preferred a packed platform end while we remained undisturbed at the “snake end”!

Needless to say that the snake did not move while we were there! It was still in exactly the same position when we left at the end of the day, still enjoying life. We were a bit concerned about it being rather vulnerable but hope that it will find its way and we will see it again.


[1] Elsamere Conservation Centre was the home of George and Joy Adamson for a time and it has accommodation facilities.

[2] It was named by Gustav Fischer and Joseph Thomson in 1833 after its narrow cliffs.

[3] Although snakes do not have eyelids, they still sleep by being able to close their pupils and sleep.