Adventures in Peru, Chapter 16

Bottled Energy

Snakes and Other Horrors, Part 2

The python, variously called boa constrictor, land boa, anaconda, and so forth, attains a tremendous size in these latitudes. The natives talk of some being as much as sixty feet long, but I can hardly credit that. The longest python I have ever seen I happened upon in Natal. It was in the act of squeezing the life out of General Bissett’s favourite pointer that had wandered off into the forest. Two or three of us rushed to the assistance of the dog, and fired, altogether, eighteen shots at the snake before we could induce it to loose its hold of the affrighted animal. General Bissett had the skin dressed and mounted. In its green state it measured 22 ft. 2 in.

Strange to say, the pointer suffered no discomfort beyond a badly swollen nose, which yielded to treatment, so that in a couple of weeks or so he was as frisky as ever. All the same he didn’t display any pressing anxiety to visit that part of the forest again.

Pythons, when they crush their prey, try to throw a coil or two round the trunk of a tree, so as to get a purchase. It is then they are most dangerous. A tiny native girl of five years had a narrow escape one day. When her father appeared upon the scene, a python had seized her by her dress and was dragging her towards a tree stump. The monster had, in fact, commenced to wind its tail round the tree, before the child’s father realized fully what was occurring. By great good fortune the latter had his axe with him, and a few lusty strokes sufficed to make the great snake release its captive.

I have a specimen land boa skin in my hall, cured native fashion, which measures 19 ft. 6 in. Originally it was 21 ft. 6 in. long.

A few months ago a man told me of one he said he had got in Venezuela that went at least 40 ft. He offered to let me have it for 10s. I said, “Right you are. Here’s your money, directly you bring the skin. Moreover, if it measures 30 ft. I’ll give you 20s., and 10s. extra if it exceeds 30 ft. by more than an inch or two.” The native swore blind that the skin was a good 40-footer, and tried to “touch” me for a few sols on the strength of it, but I wasn’t “having any” just then. As he never turned up with the skin, I am forced to conclude that he told me a fairy tale.

The water boa is a bit larger than the land species. I heard of one captured in a tributary of the Orinoco, that measured exactly 30 ft. 1 in. It was taken at a place 400 miles from the delta, and was sent to General Gomez. I promised its captor £1 for a similar skin, plus 1s. for each foot it went over 20 ft. That was in 1917, and I am still waiting to hear from the man.

In Paraguay, the water boa is called My Boy Yegua. I used to sell the land boa for 10s. per foot in London for making boots, but now the Indian, or Peruvian python, has supplanted it in public favour.

During my travels in the interior of Peru I met with a snake no one could name. It was of the mamba type, but ashy grey in colour. I managed to secure it, and it now graces my collection of bottled energy.

An even greater rarity, however, was a snake I encountered near Panama in Colombia, when seeking the wonderful Passion Flower orchid. It measured ten feet long, and was covered with large oval, orange-coloured spots, bordered with red on a dark leaden ground. In between the orange spots were smaller white markings. The Indians considered this the most poisonous of all the snake family. When they skinned my specimen they were careful to cut its head off first, and whilst carrying out that operation they weighed it down with a great stone. I took it home to Kington the next time I returned to England. On my way thither an eminent French naturalist offered me £10 for the skin. He said the snake was very, very rare. Certainly I have never seen another like it.

For snake bites, leaving out of consideration Ambrose’s stone, I don’t know a much better remedy than corrosive sublimate and ammonia mixed. This is how it should be applied: tie a ligature above the bite, not too tightly, then prick the place with a needle until you draw blood. Now pour some of the mixture on the puncture, taking care that it penetrates well. A famous Indian hunter gave me this recipe, and said it is a sure cure.

One snake incident that occurred to me when I was on construction work I shall never forget. It so fell out that I stayed three nights and two days with a friend named Reid, whose section of line adjoined mine. Reid slept on a bed and I on the floor. At daybreak I woke, and glanced over at my friend to see if he was awake. To my horror I saw a great green mamba had twined itself round the head rail of his bed.

The situation was a terrifying one. For if Reid so much as moved, the snake would strike, and that instantly. What could I do? Every moment was precious. As my eyes roved hither and thither seeking some suitable weapon of offence, they lighted on an axe that lay on the floor a little distance from my bed.

Very, very quietly I crawled towards it, and when my fingers closed over the haft, I felt I don’t know how. The revulsion of feeling almost upset my self-control. I speedily recovered my balance, however, and, wasting no time in preliminaries, fetched the mamba such a mighty blow that I severed both it and the stout iron bar, as easily as if I had been dealing with pie-crust. Half the snake’s body fell on the floor, and half on the bed. Reid woke up with a start, and was not a little shaken when he realized how nearly he had “passed in his checks.” He was properly grateful to me, and said I had saved his life. I don’t think he was far out there.

Up the Orinoco there grows a creeper the Indians swear by, as a remedy for snake bites, second to none. It also seems to render reptiles quite innocuous, apparently paralysing their fangs. Supposing a person has been stung, the Indians well prick his skin above the elbows and then freely apply some of the pounded leaves and branches of the creeper as a poultice. They repeat this operation several times, meanwhile administering the juice of the bruised plant, diluted with water, as a drink. After undergoing this treatment, it is said, a person becomes immune, and can handle any kind of poisonous snake or serpent without running the least risk of evil effects.