Magazine article The Spectator

Living to Tell the Tale

Magazine article The Spectator

Living to Tell the Tale

Article excerpt

I happened to look up before I turned off the light just after 11 p. m. and there the snake was, writhing on the mosquito net just a few feet above me. It was not big -- no more than nine inches long -- but it looked to me, with its distinctive coffin-shaped head, very much like a black mamba.

Slowly, very carefully, I eased my left leg out of my bed at the Lion Sands Private Game Reserve on the Sabie River close to Kruger National Park. The rest of me followed in quick succession. The snake was in an angry bundle at the lowest point of the drooping netting.

I telephoned reception. A butler arrived with a broom. I politely inquired if this was the ideal implement to use. I asked for the manager but it became clear after a series of crackly conversations over a walkie-talkie that he was unavailable. Eventually a young offduty South African guide appeared with a long wooden pole with a manoeuvrable claw and the snake was hastily removed.

The next day Oliver Richter, the manager, sought me out. He said that the snake must have somehow burrowed its way through the thatched roof and fallen on to the netting. While apologetic, his line was that, in the middle of the African bush, these things happen. At £1,100 for a suite per night, I respectfully suggested that these things should not happen.

A line of Basil Fawlty's occurred to me: 'I mean this is a hotel, not the Burma Railway! I mean it does actually say "Hotel" outside, you know. Perhaps I should be more specific?

What about "Hotel for people who have a better than 50 per cent chance of making it through the night"?' Soberingly, I read the week after I returned from South Africa that a young backpacker, just 28 years old, had been killed by a juvenile black mamba at the nearby South African Wildlife Campus in Hoedspruit. I doubt very much whether they had the antivenin to treat a snake bite.

I know for a fact that Lion Sands did not. On the plus side, I did get to see at close quarters the Big Five -- that's a lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo -- during my stay, but somehow I find myself unable to recommend this particular game reserve unreservedly.

My holiday in South Africa had begun sedately at the Mount Nelson in Cape Town. …

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