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TRAVEL – Snakes Alive!

SA4x4 joins some of South Africa’s leading herpetologists on a mission in KZN’s Maputaland region to find rare species and teach the local rural residents how to react to snakes. With Opposite Lock on board, we’re all set to drive the region’s challenging-at-times gravel tracks…

I was damn glad that tonight we were looking for frogs and aquatic stuff in a croaking and groaning swamp, rather than rare snakes! I knew my companions would go ape if they found a deadly twig snake or mamba, but for now, I was happy the hunt was on for other goggas. I had met medical doctor Colin Tilbury that evening, just before heading out to the mud hole. Johan Marais, the Snake Man, whispered in my ear: “Colin is probably the world’s best authority on chameleons.” We were heading back at quite a lick towards our camp, Gugulesizwe. Colin Tilbury, sitting behind me, kept saying rather loudly, “Chameleon… chameleon… chameleon.” I couldn’t help but ask: “What bloody chameleon?” In reply, Colin asked our campsite head ranger, Mbongeni Myeni (MB for short), to reverse back 200 metres or so. Colin hopped out and reached out to a bush next to the road. It was a chameleon all right. I tested him a few more times on the way back to our comfortable camp that night. How he saw them in the bush from a moving vehicle was beyond me.

But this snake adventure trip was to reveal a lot more surprises over the week that we spent high up on the coast, near the Mozambique border. Confused? I bet. This was a 4×4 adventure sponsored by Opposite Lock Johannesburg, Hi-Range City Botswana, and the Gugulesizwe Camp in Northern Maputaland up, near the Mozambique border. The camp, which is run by Maputaland Travel, in conjunction with the neighbouring KwaMpukane community and the local wildlife authority, is a tribute to the relationship. The core of the trip centred on Johan Marais and his African Snakebite Institute. Johan’s mission on this trip was to reach as many of the local community, schools, clinics, the adult community, and the staff of nearby local lodges. Johan quickly has every audience eating out of his hand. The talks had a simple avoidance theme: “Step back eight paces from the snake in the case of kids, five for adults. Believe it or not, you are safe.” Added to this was the urgent message, “If somebody has been bitten or had poison sprayed in their eyes from a cobra, get them to the nearest clinic post haste. In the case of a cobra spitting in your eye, wash it out with water and again get to a clinic as soon as possible.” This was the first of many teaching sessions during our week-long adventure in the Maputaland area, and we soon discovered that driving out along the millions of badly-rutted tracks to visit these community centres was already giving us an idea of the good off-roading available in the area. With a Toyota Hilux and Fortuner fully equipped by Opposite Lock to do the 4×4 slog work, we were very happy to tackle whatever came our way. This trip wasn’t all education, conservation, and social responsibility.

A larger proportion of our week in Maputaland was hanging out with a bunch that love ‘herping’! By the end of this trip, I certainly knew what this search for reptiles and amphibians was all about. To us common folk, that means looking for snakes, chameleons, lizards, skinks, frogs, spiders, or goggas of any kind. And these guys go at it hammer-and-tongs, morning, noon, and night. They probably walk in their sleep looking for snakes. Certainly, after night after night of extended herping, this old ballie was properly knackered when I was finally able to roll down my mosquito net and climb between the white percale linen sheets!

Even on our first night at Gugulesizwe, after the long drive down from Gauteng, we went herping for scorpions in the nearby dune forest directly after supper. We were armed with ultra-violet lights and a mind-blowingly powerful Light Force torch, compliments of Opposite Lock. It is really exciting when the first scorpion fluoresces a brilliant white under your torch. I was the amateur here, while Johan Marais and Willem van Zyl (who is in charge of marketing and media for the African Snakebite Institute) scrambled deep into the dune forest undergrowth and nonchalantly popped these critters into a small see-through plastic bottle with a perforated lid.

The next morning, after another session of herping, the wee stinging beasties would be up for a modelling session. The guys would set up the previous evening’s catch and take photographs before releasing them. I learnt so much from these masterful nature photographers. Colin Tilbury, Johan Marais, and Willem van Zyl shared their knowledge freely – starting with a close-up session with a brown house snake and progressing to an Eastern Natal Green snake that Willem had caught. Slowly but surely these naturalists were helping me to overcome my pathological fear of snakes.

I even sneakily googled the cost of a Nikon R1C1 Wireless Close-Up Speedlight. Colin and Willem use Nikon like me, while Johan uses a similar Canon set up. Of course, Johan kept revving us how much better his Canon was compared to our crappy Nikons. It’s not always about Toyota versus Land Rover; photographers are worse. Another thing I learnt about the herping fraternity is that they can be destructive buggers. Aside from their snake tongs, they have a lethal piece of equipment called a Stump Ripper. It’s roughly a metre long with a wicked titanium hook.

Show them a rotten log or a massive piece of rotten bark and they go berserk. Ripping and tearing in their endless pursuit of prey, I saw them reach herping nirvana when we headed down to the old abandoned Rocktail Bay Lodge site. Many years ago I remember asking Andrew Nunnerley, the then SA4x4 editor, “What’s the most beautiful place in the world you have ever stayed?” Without a moment’s hesitation, he said, “Rocktail Bay.” I wandered down to the beach. I couldn’t bear the aura of sadness that lingered over the remnants of this abandoned gem. It was heightened when MB – who is an ‘Nkosi’ (a grandfather) like me – said, “I used to work here.” Pointing to remnants of the fire-burnt walls, he said, “That was first the bar but it moved over there.”

Apparently, a local fisherman had inadvertently set fire to the brick and mortar part of the lodge whilst braaing his catch. MB and I walked down to what is still one of the most pristine and beautiful tropical beaches in Africa. We stood in silence. Normally a talker, I thought it would be sacrilegious to ask if you can see when the turtle hatchlings make their way down to the sea. It was better that I didn’t know more about this natural event the area is renowned for…

I have so much to share about this lifeaffirming trip. I can only hint at one of the day’s trips, led once again by MB, to Black Rocks. We took a walk around the small peninsula to very carefully traverse the razor-sharp coral. I knew we were looking for something specific. Colin Tilbury filled me in: “It’s a type of lizard called a Coral Rag lizard or Bouton’s Snake-eyed skink.” Black Rocks is the only place in South Africa where the lizard is found, though I read later that it is also found in Madagascar and the Seychelles, according to Andrew Cooper of Ulster University. Some of the highlights of this trip included a wonderful drive down to Mabibi and Lake Sibaya. The snake okes were pumped because this area, where the forest leads directly onto the grass edges of the largest freshwater lake in southern Africa, is Gaboon viper territory.

Johan Marais explained how the Gaboon could lie totally camouflaged in the forest leaf cover, often on rat or mice paths leading from the forest to the grassy lake edges. “He can literally lie dead still for weeks on end waiting for his prey,” explained Johan. We didn’t find any that day, but I did get to stare a similarly venomous forest cobra in the eye, so to speak. Yabbering my fear between clenched teeth as I did so. That’s another thing I really appreciated about this bunch of mad snake enthusiasts. Not once on the whole trip did any one of them tease me or make a joke about my fear.

Their knowledge and absolute regard for safety allowed me to take photographs that I still cannot believe. I could keep going on with this story until you were asleep. But I am going to end on the highlight of the trip for me. This was the snorkelling trip down to Lala Neck. My childhood was spent in Kenya. I didn’t think it was humanly possible to beat snorkelling around in the coral pools off the coast north of Mombasa. I have now discovered it is possible. Put on a pair of goggles and float around in the rocky corner of Lala Neck, and words cannot describe the amazing aquatic show you will witness. The only way is to go out and buy a decent underwater camera and come back. Pictures are worth a thousand words as the old cliché goes. I guess if Johan Marais has his say, it will be a Canon.

GUGULESIZWE CAMP

I want to tell you about the Gugulesizwe Camp, a camp with a real heart. I can use fancy words about ‘watershed moments’ and ‘true joint ventures between community, conservation authorities, and ecotourism partners’. Or I can tell you about the genuine community welcome we felt, the moment we stepped out of our Opposite Lock double-cab at Gugulesizwe Camp. I’ve knocked around the travel industry for almost four decades. I have a reasonable ‘people’s meter’! My meter needle swung immediately to ‘real/genuine welcome’.

Gugulesizwe, quickly known as Gugs by the people lucky enough to have experienced it, is an example of what can happen when there is a genuine sharing between the local community and guys like James McCulloch, the young MD, and David Middleton, James’s lifelong friend, from Maputaland Travel. David was there to meet us with camp manager, Lindokuhle Hudla, and head ranger, Mbongeni Myeni (known to all as MB). His wife, Ntombi, is the head chef. You cannot buy true PR skills, but both Lindo and MB – actually every single member of staff without exception – have it in spades. They represent the genuine, warm friendliness of the local KwaMapukane community that operates in conjunction with Maputaland Travel to run the camp.

I would love to give you the full names of the rest of the camp staff, from Mandela the wiry thin basketball giant of a barman to Nkosi Krismas Mtembu the gardener. Nkosi indicates a grandfather. And, having recently become one myself, I was drawn to the dignified and grey-haired, but still ramrod-straight ‘elder’ in his white gumboots (worn, by the way, to ward off snakes). One of the first things you become aware of at the camp is how good, old-fashioned manners are still the norm in these coastal Maputaland communities. I just hope this story shows, with a small push of comfort zone, the rich experience that awaits you at Guguliszwe.

The camp is simple but in its simplicity lies the charm of this special place. There are eight, roomy two-person canvas tents on concrete plinths with the ‘lekkerste’ open-plan bathroom. All are equipped with 220V power plugs with USB points. The spacious dining room has a side corner with comfortable armchairs and a good library of books, with a focus on nature books pertinent to the area. Just outside the dining room is the wooden pool deck with loungers and an open-plan pub. Gugs is located just outside of the iSimangaliso Coastal Forest Reserve, 8km north from the Manzengwenya iSimangaliso Park offices, midway between Kosi Bay to the north and Sodwana Bay to the south.

If you don’t have a 4×4, don’t fear. There’s an efficient shuttle service running from a place called Coastal Cashews to Gugs. One can safely park your car at Coastal Cashew, just off the R22 tar road that runs down to Hluhluwe. Gugulesizwe means ‘Pride of the People’. Add that to Maputaland Travel’s ethos of ‘Slow Life’ and you have five words that sum up the core of this really special place. Tel: +27 (0)64 536 3175

AFRICAN SNAKEBITE INSTITUTE

I have enough information to write 10 articles about Johan Marais, South Africa’s well-known naturalist, snake man, entrepreneur, and photographer. He’s the author of the Complete Guide to the Snakes of Southern Africa. And, I believe, a new and updated edition is in the pipeline. I could tell you tales of how he started catching snakes near his home in Durban from the age of seven. Still catching anything that slithered or slid, he went on to become a cop in the Durban drug squad. It’s a long tale of adventure including field trips as far as Uganda, Namibia, and Mozambique.

Snakes were always the core of his life but this didn’t stop him from all sorts of ventures, from owning a chain of bookshops to farming with crocs and running his own restaurant. There is never a dull moment chatting to this likeable man. It’s damn hard to keep up with Johan in the bush. He is a perpetual-motion machine and his zest for life is infectious. Johan set up the African Snakebite Institute some 10 years ago. The Institute is the leading trainer of Snake Awareness, First Aid for Snakebite, and Venomous Snake Handling courses in Africa, plus sells the best gear for the tons of snake enthusiasts out there. But the best gift that Johan has given is the absolutely free app that you can download from Google Play or the App Store.

Found a snake in your house? Press REMOVALS. The GPS finds your location and gives you the name and cell number of your nearest ASI-knowledgeable snake remover. REQUEST AND ID: Take a picture with your cell phone, send it to ASI, and they will do their best to ID the snake promptly – which may be critical in the case of a confirmed bite. Load the app up now; it’s brilliant. The ASI provides an amazing service. For someone like me, that’s inherently afraid of snakes, they are doing a great job to dispel the myths. There are masses of free, well-researched information on the app to make things easy – from the most-deadly of the approximately 173 species of southern African snakes to the different types of poison and their effects.

Contact +27 82 494 2039

HI-RANGE SAFARI CENTRE (GABORONE, BOTSWANA)

I have to extend a big thank you to Chris Thomson of the Hi-Range Safari City, the 4×4 goto place in Gaborone. He was one of the core sponsors of this trip, together with Darrell van Zeil of Opposite Lock in Gauteng. I drove with Chris and Darrel from Gauteng down to Gugulesizwe and found them inspiring travel companions, quickly learning that both he and Darrel are snakemad outdoor enthusiasts. Chris started his life as a freshwater fishing guide up at Shakawe in the Okavango Delta.

Chris is somewhat quiet and laid back, but get him talking about fishing or 4x4ing and he’s in his element. I really loved looking at some pictures and his stories of a recent fishing trip to Gabon. His business, Hi-Range Safari City, has built up a solid reputation as a 4×4 specialist in the adventure travel industry. They have some 35 years of experience in kitting-out 4x4s for the roughest spots in Africa.

At their new premises, in Gaborone, they have an in-house fitment centre, a well-stocked showroom, and offer both expert advice and a fullyequipped in-house fabrication centre. Hi-Range also stocks all the products that were fitted on our two vehicles – including the incredible Tough Dog suspension, Opposite Lock off-road accessories, and Light Force Lighting.

THE VEHICLES

Darrell van Zeil was driving a manual Toyota Hilux 3.0 D4-D double cab, while Johan Marais was driving an automatic 2.4 Fortuner. Both were similarly equipped, drawing heavily from the Opposite Lock catalogue…

• Opposite Lock Bull Bar
• Tough Dog Suspension with 9-stage Foam Cell dampers
• Light Force spot lights
• Takla Seat covers
• Intervolt dualbattery system
• Front Runner roof racks
• BF Goodrich KO2 All-Terrain tyres

OPPOSITE LOCK VEHICLES

A disclaimer here: I am pathologically afraid of snakes. After this adventure with Darrell van Zeil of Opposite Lock and snake expert Johan Marais, I was able to lie on the deck literally staring a giant Forest cobra in the eyes. I only got to this point after I had witnessed Johan speaking to hundreds of school kids, and to the elders of the local communities and local clinics. Johan is brilliant at getting his message over: “See a nyoka? Step back how many paces, kids?”

In unison from the smallest to the biggest, they bellowed out the rule: “One… two… three… four… five… six… seven… eight.” Johan asked the same question of both kids and adults, “And if you get bitten, what do you do?” The answer from young and old was, “Get to the clinic as soon as you can.” It was a humbling experience sharing the snake awareness training with Johan Marais, a medical doctor and chameleon expert Dr Colin Tilbury, and the rest of the team. This was the core of the trip, and the reason our three sponsors dipped so deeply into their pockets. But trust me, you cannot prevent a bunch of avid off-road enthusiasts, with vehicles specced up to the hilt with Opposite Lock products, from having a helluva lot of fun. And I can tell you that the area from Sodwana Bay up to Lake Sibaya and on to Kosi Bay is a four-wheel-drive paradise. And how did the vehicles perform over the week-long bumping along rough sand tracks? Well, let me share this.

The Tough Dog suspension fitted to the Fortuner 2.4 and older Hilux 3.0 D-4D is truly superb. These nine-way adjustable foam cell units really are the business. Take, for example, the day the snakes at Gugulesizwe had gone into hiding. So we headed down to a place close to Hluhluwe for a couple of forest cobras and a massive python. Johan Marais gave it horns on that long trip in the pitch-dark back to our camp. Once you experience the vein-like network of seriously-corrugated tracks that lead off in all directions you will get a better idea of what it’s like trying to navigate in this region, in the dark. I was in the back seat of the Fortuner with my camera gear. I thought, “Bloody hell, Johan, too damn fast,” as I saw a huge hollow lit up in the road ahead. On occasions, I shouted! But the vehicle took it all in its stride. When we reached Gugs Camp I was a Born Again Tough Dog convert.

On two occasions we took the wrong track. Darryl and Chris got ahead of us. I have bad night vision. But these guys were having no problem, equipped as they were with their Light Force spots. I couldn’t believe the incredible power and coverage of those monsters. Beer in hand, lounging in one of the giant beanbags at the lodge, I asked Darrell, “what makes the Tough Dog suspension so good?” Darrell was quickly into technical mode: “First they are designed, made and tested in Australia.” He added that most 4×4 are multi-purpose vehicles, needing to cover all the bases from being mom’s taxi to Dad’s tough-as-teak offroader. “Your typical 4×4 has to be able to tow a caravan one day and drive safely on the commute the next.

This is where the Tough Dog shocks with their high oil volume, foam cell technology and nine adjustment stages come into their own.” Darrell explained that the shocks can be adjusted to suit very different purposes. Secondly, where in a standard shock the oil quickly heats up on corrugations and damping fades, the Foam Cell system counters this. Added to that are internal bump stops and a piston rod guide to make sure the shock is totally supported at the extremes of its travel. One last touch is the ABS plastic dust shield, an external dust wiper seal designed to keep grit from getting to the piston rod and ultimately to protect the inside of the shock. Will it last? Opposite Lock supplies their suspension systems with a three-year/ unlimited km warranty.

Find out more on 011 697-0001

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