Magazine article The Spectator

An Idle Question, a Deadly Bite and 60 Years of Memories

Magazine article The Spectator

An Idle Question, a Deadly Bite and 60 Years of Memories

Article excerpt

We're just saying our farewells to the Post Office Hotel in Chillagoe, in the outback of Far North Queensland, and I'm telling Dorothy Lawler, the hotel's 70-year-old part-time cook, that the coleslaw she made with the steaks we had the other night was the crunchiest and most delicious I'd ever eaten. (It's a great place, Chillagoe. Go there! ) Dorothy says she's off tomorrow to visit her 103-year-old mother for Mother's Day.

'Wow, that's amazing. How many great-grandchildren does she have?' I ask. Dorothy tries working it out by counting the number of brothers and sisters she has and what became of them: '. . . and there was Alan. He died of snakebite. Then there's. . . .'

'Wait. Alan died of snakebite? How old was he?' 'Fifteen, ' says Dorothy.

It happened in 1951. Dorothy's father was a woodsman and had so much work to do that weekend that he didn't have time to run into town to collect some groceries in his truck. Alan went to fetch them on his bicycle.

On the way back, in the half darkness, he saw what he thought was a newspaper blowing across the road. Except it wasn't a paper, he discovered, as he ran into it. It was a hawk in battle with a snake. The snake got caught in the spokes of his bicycle and Alan - who seems not to have known much about global snake species distribution - said he thought it was a rattlesnake. Perhaps, people surmised afterwards, it was because of the mental association he'd made with the flapping noise of the bird's wings.

Anyway, the snake bit him and Alan thought he knew what to do. He went immediately to the barbed-wire fence by the road and used the barbs to open the flesh where the snake had bit him. Then he somehow managed to twist and contort himself into a position where he could suck out some of the poison.

Thinking he'd got the worst of it out, he climbed back on the bicycle and rode up the hill towards home. Scarcely had he gone 150 yards, though, when the effort of pedalling uphill helped send the poison deeper into his system. He collapsed and was found by a family friend lying in the road.

Alan was taken to hospital, where he spent the next three days in and out of consciousness. He was young and strong and the fact that he'd lasted so long gave hope that he'd recover. But the snake which had got him wasn't a rattler (of which there aren't any in Australia) but a taipan, third most deadly land snake in the world.

Taipans are dangerous not only because of the extreme toxicity of their venom but also because of their ferocity: often they'll strike their victim not once but two or three times, each bite containing enough poison to kill a man. …

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