I’ve been a ranger for a long time, but I’ve never been a fan of snakes. They don’t necessarily frighten me, they just creep me out a little – especially if I need to touch them. It’s inevitable to come across them from time to time in the bush. Sometimes it’s a deadly black mamba and sometimes it’s a harmless spotted bush snake, but of all the snakes in South Africa, the one I mind the least is the African rock python.
We’ve been very fortunate with African rock python sightings at Kapama over the last few months. A young, half-metre-long one was spotted on a recent night drive, sluggishly crossing the road in front of a ranger and his guests, and another, much larger one was observed cooling off in the waterhole near camp. My best African rock python sighting was of a two-metre-long snake basking in a sunny patch in a tree, lying so still that a turtledove landed right in front of it. The snake struck out so quickly we barely had time to blink, and within seconds it had wound its muscular form round and round its prey, squeezing the life out of it before swallowing it down.
African rock pythons are one of the six largest snake species in the world, the largest in Africa, and can grow to a length of six metres (19 feet). Their long, stout bodies are beautifully patterned with blotches of brown, olive, chestnut or yellow, often joining up in a broad, irregular stripe, and their triangular heads are marked on top with a dark brown ‘spear-head’ outlined in yellow. They’re usually found near water, preferring evergreen forests or moist, open savannahs, and they eat anything from birds and rodents to monkeys or fish. Fully-grown pythons have been known to hunt small antelope and even crocodiles. Being non-venomous constrictors, they strike and grab with the help of many small, backward-curved teeth and crush their prey by winding tighter and tighter with each exhalation.
Like all snakes, they’re ectothermic (or cold-blooded), and therefore depend on their environment to regulate their body temperature. This explains why the small one spotted at night took its time to cross the road and why the large one near camp needed to cool off in the water in the heat of the day. The fact that they can get big enough to consider a human child a convenient snack can be quite frightening, but it’s also their size that makes them vulnerable to hunting for food and leather.
I may not like snakes all that much, but finding an African rock python (even a small one) is always a treat – especially if they keep their distance…
Written by: Pieter Barwise
Kapama River Lodge
Watching a python devour a nyala in camp
The earth shook as Reazert (my tracker) banged on my bedroom door.
“Hang on, I’m coming.” I said, getting off my bed slowly.
“You know the African rock python?” He asked.
“Yes…” I replied, thinking he was losing his mind. It was one of the few animals I had never seen in the two years I’d been living and working in the bush.
“Well hurry then!” Reazert bolted back towards camp, calling “RUN!” over his shoulder. Confused and more than a little concerned that it was some elaborate prank, I eased out of the door and watched him leave.
He stopped and beckoned urgently. “Run, Francois! There is an African rock python that just bamba’d (killed in Shangaan) a baby nyala outside camp!”
That was all it took for me to turn into the fastest man alive – Marvel would have hired me in a heartbeat! A python alone would have been a dream come true, but very few people get to see a large python on a kill. I bolted to the car to grab my camera.
“Under your seat!” came the shouted suggestion from Reazerd, who was quickly becoming a distant blur. I grabbed it and went full throttle, quickly catching and overtaking Reazert before skidding to a stop at the realisation that I had no idea where I was supposed to be heading.
I looked around. Only in a safari lodge are you likely to see staff members from all over camp running toward a dangerous animal on a kill. I spotted Aneen, our assistant head ranger, and watched as she pointed towards the spectacle – but there was nothing there.
“Where did he go?” We all searched desperately for one breathless minute that felt like forever. Deon, one of the chefs, took the opportunity to frighten the life out of Adolph, another ranger, by running his hand over his knee. If swearing were singing, Adolph would have given even Miley Cyrus a run for her money!
Then I spotted it. The snake had reappeared from under some foliage and slithered past us to chorus of camera clicks. Filled with joy, tinged with sadness for the young nyala, I witnessed one of the thrilling relationships nature has to offer – the one between of predator and prey.
All of us – four rangers, three trackers and the kitchen head – huddled nearby and watched as the 3 metre-long African rock python devoured the baby nyala before making her way back to her lair. After a meal that size we knew we’d be lucky to see her again within the next six months, if ever.
It was pretty incredible to everyone there, no matter how many times they’d seen one, but for me – my first – it was beyond amazing, and I thank my lucky stars that it was real and not the prank I was expecting at that first excited rattle on my door…
Written by: Francois van Rhyn
Kapama Southern Camp
Living and working in the heart of the African bush is a privilege shared by only a few. It’s been my privilege for 14 years – 9 as a field guide before becoming Southern Camp’s lodge manager – long enough to occasionally feel as though I’ve seen it all. There are times, however, when Mother Nature stops me in my tracks with something so amazing that I can’t help but wonder, in all my years of living out here, how much of the magic happening all around me I’ve actually seen.
One of these halting moments happened just two evenings ago, right on my doorstep.
I was spending the evening relaxing at home when an annoying squeaking sound had me frowning up at the ceiling fan spinning over my head. To my relief, I realised that the noise was actually coming from the big old knob thorn tree just outside my front door. Naturally, I grabbed a flashlight and my camera and went to investigate.
Shining up into the branches, I was amazed to see that the odd screeching sound was coming from a very distraught lesser bushbaby. These little, wide-eyed primates are long-time residents in the trees around camp, so it surprised me to hear this particular, unrecognisable distress call. I decided to hang around and keep searching for whatever was causing him so much discomfort.
It took me a while to find the troublemaker, but when I did I immediately understood the bushbaby’s distress. High up in the tree lay an African rock python, waiting for the bushbaby to move into striking range. I couldn’t see its head, but its distinctive markings made it easy to identify. It’s not at all strange to find pythons in trees, and younger ones often venture up in search of nesting birds and bats – and bushbabies, apparently. Although clearly a juvenile, at almost 2 metres long it was no small threat to the tiny bushbaby. I had never witnessed a lesser bushbaby interacting with a snake before, but now I know that strange, whining distress call that brings to mind dodgy ceiling fans translates to a very particular fear.
In the manner of so many prey animals, the lesser bushbaby kept his eyes on the python while shouting out his agitated warning into the night. For almost an hour, I stood outside in the dark watching him leap back and forth between the branches, just out of reach of a killing strike, wondering if it could be a clever tactic to loosen the snake’s grip on the branches so it might fall.
Another 30 minutes or so later, the bushbaby gave up and moved off somewhere safer, and not long after, the hungry python wound its way further up into the tree in search of an easier dinner.
The evening’s entertainment over, I went back inside and thanked my lucky stars for the wonders of the African bush that, even after 14 years, still manage to astound me.
And for the fact that I’m not a bushbaby.
Lodge Manager – Southern Camp
It averages three to four metres in length, but can easily grow up to six metres long – that’s the southern African python. It’s massive – but even though it’s South Africa’s biggest snake, it’s very elusive and rarely seen in the wild.
Earlier this year, I was lucky to see an adult python on an evening game drive near Kapama Karula. This was definitely not a common sighting. Even more unusual to see was that the python had caught a young impala, which it was in the process of swallowing.
Contrary to popular belief, pythons don’t kill prey by crushing it, and in fact don’t break any bones in their prey when they constrict it. Pythons usually ambush their prey, latch onto them with powerful curved fangs and then wrap themselves around the prey, causing it to die of cardiac failure.
At the sighting, we watched as the python very slowly swallowed more of the impala. The antelope’s head and half of its body had already been swallowed, leaving only its hind quarters still visible. Guests on the game drive were left speechless, seeing such a huge snake eating an entire impala whole. Next morning when we returned to the same spot, the python was no longer there, and wasn’t seen again.
Two months later, however, during an early morning game drive in the same area, we discovered python remains – quite likely the same python. It’s a mystery how or why the python died, but hyena and leopard are on our list of suspects. This rarely seen snake provided us with two very unusual sightings: one in life and one in death.
On a pleasant night safari the other day my guests and I were coming towards the end of the safari drive, when out of the blue we happen upon one of the rarest sightings I have ever experienced. It all started earlier during the drive when we found the young Southern Male lion fast asleep at Sunset dam. This male normally likes to associate with the youngsters and lionesses of the Moria pride (named after one of the areas on the reserve). Later that evening on the way to the lodge I thought I would go past Sunset dam again and sure enough found the same magnificent Male lion heading towards us in the middle of the road.
I pulled off the road and allowed this massive cat to pass mere meters away from the vehicle. The guests loved the thrill and exhilaration to have such an powerful animal go past this close, and also the fact that he trusted us enough to actually come this close, without paying us any notice. We followed him down the road and he then suddenly veered off his direction clearly showing signs of having picked up on a smell needing closer investigation.
At first we thought he might have picked up a females’ scent and as he moved closer to a bush pandemonium broke loose. He suddenly launched himself into the air behind the bush with a massive African Rock Python biting him on the muzzle. With enormous power he flung the python of his nose and darted back into the road. You could see that this was quite an unpleasant surprise for him and after a few rubs he continued down the road. African Rock Pythons can reach a length of about 6-8 meters and grow up to about 50 – 70 Kg in weight. This is pure muscle and they are extremely powerful snakes.
Obviously this would be quite a hearty meal for a Lion but I am sure this male would think twice before taking on such a powerful reptile again. We couldn’t help but smile when it struck us that this is probably the best example of the age old saying ” don’t bite off more than you can chew…”
Ranger Mike Powell
One afternoon drive, we already had a great beginning with seeing two male Leopards having a territorial dispute. The older male Leopard ended up getting pushed out of his territory and the younger male won territory that he could finally call his own! A little while later we had found a pride of Lions, one male and two females lounging around like lions do!!! Finally we decided that this was too much action for one day and a drink was needed. We stopped at a waterhole, with the sun setting just behind it.
We had just served everyone with drinks and chatting about the day’s events, and all of a sudden my tracker Tully asked us to keep quiet! It was as if someone had switched the radio off, we were deadly silent! Not far from us we heard these strange snorting noises and Tully explained that this was very unhappy Impala’s. So we very quickly packed up to go find out what was
upsetting these Impala’s so much. Drove one block switched off the engine and listened, drove to the direction of the snorting and switched the engine off and listened. We found the Impala’s all facing the same direction and as we looked beyond them we saw this little white body lying on the ground. As we drove closer i could not believe my eyes, we had just witnessed Africa’s largest snake- the African Rock Python kill a young Impala.
Males can get up to 4.5metres and females 5metres and easily weigh 55kgs, that’s a lot of snake for some people to handle. Their diet is varied but they can consume small antelope, monkeys, fish, monitor lizards and even small crocodiles have been recorded. Today this Python had killed a young impala, and it was through the mothers distress calls that we had gotten this phenomenal sighting. African Rock Pythons seek prey with their heat sensors, ambush and then use strength rather than venom. As the animal exhales the snake constricts and with every breath until the prey is exhausted of oxygen. Once the prey stops breathing the Python then releases his grip and goes towards the head and starts to consume his hard earned prey. At this time the snake is at its most vulnerable to predators, so he swallows the prey surprisingly fast. Once the Python has devoured his prey he goes into hiding like a cavity of a tree or maybe an old Aardvark hole, so that the digestive juices can take over!
It just goes to show that the bush is extremely unpredictable, you never know what’s around the next corner and if you us all your senses you just might just get so much more…
Morah-Leigh Cooper-Ranger, Kapama Karula