Biltong and Black Mambas

otc-BMambaWhen Mathew invited Jacob to ride along with him on a delivery trip to Nelspruit, the out of work mechanic jumped at the chance to do something besides hang around the neighborhood watching other people being productive. Mathew owned a small trucking company and he would get overflow trucking jobs from local factories, farmers and even supermarkets. Mathew hauled loads as far as Durban, the long distance jobs being more attractive prospects. On this delivery trip he would be taking a load of farm produce from Hazy View out in Mpumalanga down to Nelspruit. This would be a quick and easy trip on good South African roads. Jacob was not too worried about Mathew’s tendency to drink while driving, but he was a little concerned about his friend’s habit of executing life or death passing maneuvers. Jacob knew he would have to keep an eye on his friend. He wanted to lean back and enjoy spotting the beautiful Jacaranda trees, which were now in full blossom. This was his job as second driver as far as he was concerned. Just like the last time. Jacob’s plea traced the usual roots of Mathew’s bad habits ‘… why don’t we take our time heading down there? You look a little knackered from your dagga and beer session last night. We don’t have to drive like a couple of crazed cuiters ja…’ ‘Poesgesig’ Mathew would be thinking. He was a known and unchangeable quantity.

They had a late departure after picking up two loads of boxed produce. After dark the men decided to find a rest stop. The old MAN Diesel truck was fully fueled and was nowhere near the max load capacity. They were capable of driving through the night, but the drop off delivery point would not be open until 08:00 AM the next day. As they approached Legogote Mathew swung off the R538 and onto a dirt road clearing that the truckers used as a rest stop. There were no services here. No fuel, no water and restroom facilities were as far into the bush as the trucker dared to thread in his search for a little privacy. By now the temperature was on the cool side. It was Jacob that decided to build a small fire to make tea. Mathew was eventually coaxed out of the truck when Jacob broke out his bag of biltong. After tea and chewing biltong for an hour, the two drivers retired to the truck’s cab to get some sleep.

Around 06:00 AM Mathew swung his legs out of the driver’s door and jumped down onto the cool red earth to take a leak. Strolling back over to the truck he noticed one of the tarp tie-downs had worked loose on the right side of the cargo bed. He knew that it would be easier to retie the loose cord from on top of the cargo bed. Mathew was about to grab hold of the welded pipe at the very rear of the truck when he was confronted by the thick head of a snake sticking out the bush that overhung the truck’s bed. He was just a few feet from the snake with its menacing black eyes and flickering tongue. In an instant Mathew was frozen with fear and the innate desire to bolt. He instinctively knew that making any sudden move was out of the question. Mathew also knew that this particular snake was a Black Mamba, the longest and fastest snake in all of Africa. It could easily outrun a human. He also knew that this was a wicked and deadly species of snake. The reptile seemed to be smelling his new found prey. As Mathew nervously and unconsciously shifted his weight from one leg to the next, the Black Mamba instinctively reared up right and was now as tall as Mathew in a face off that was nearing the limits of Mathew’s ability to stay calm. The Black Mamba is one of the most feared snakes in Africa. Feared especially by the Blacks who work in areas that are the natural habitats of these creatures. The Mamba’s venom is a paralyzing cocktail of toxins, which vigorously attacks its victim’s heart, lung and muscle functions. Asphyxiation occurs quickly. For a human, death can be the result in about 20 minutes. Not a nice 20 minutes to be sure.

Mathew knew that he was nearly out of time. It had been less than 10 seconds since noticing the snake. He now remembered an old phrase from his youth. His Dad would torment him when he could sense Mathew’s hesitation in taking his best shot when hunting with high-powered rifles. ‘…Any decision is better than no decision at all son..that leopard will have you for lunch by the time you decide to use your weapon..’ Sweat began to weep out of Mathew’s facial pours. Somehow he knew the snake could sense his fear, but maybe it had decided he was too big to eat. Who knows what goes through the minuscule brain of a Black Mamba. As the Mamba stood upright and danced slightly from side to side Jacob, who had noticed the standoff in his rearview mirror, had slowly moved to a position behind the snake. So intense was Mathew’s field of vision and concentration, he did not notice Jacob climb out of the truck. Before Mathew could formulate the thought that getting out of the truck was a dumb move, Jacob slapped his old Pick’N’Pay biltong bag over the snake’s head while squeezing with all his might. The Mamba tried wrapping the free length of its body around anything it could touch, but Jacob was swift and anticipated almost every flinch and swing of the snake’s body. Mathew was now completely befuddled. Did Jacob just put a bag over this snake’s head? Jacob brought him back to reality screaming ‘Mathew, don’t just stand there like a mesmerized Yarpie..Let’s throw this naai reptile into a box!’  Mathew climbed up onto the back end of his truck pulling down a box of leaf lettuce. He dumped the lettuce at his feet and held the lid of the box open for Jacob. Jacob quickly gathered up all quadrants of the snake and dumped it into the box. Mathew slammed down on the lid closing it without any encouragement. The box was lined with thick plastic, but the Mamba, still with the biltong bag over its head, did not look very happy. ‘Where did you learn to handle snakes?’ Mathew demanded as he put an extra wire tie on both ends of the box lid. Jacob lifted the boxed snake and placed it under the cargo tarp. Jacob commandeered the driver’s seat and maneuvered the MAN truck back onto the R538. Both men sat in silence. Somewhere near White River Jacob finally looks over at Mathew and in a very calm voice explained to Mathew about his younger days working the orange groves with his Black work hands. Most were terrified of snakes, but there were always one or two Africans that had the responsibility of removing the snakes when the orange pickers would scare them out of the trees. Jacob was a supervisor in the groves, but he learned about Black Mambas from watching the Africans. The Black snake handlers were paid twice as much as the orange pickers. They were a quiet and respected lot. After 4 years Jacob started his diesel mechanic training and was happy to leave the snakes and the oranges behind. Jacob knew he would have to travel with the boxed snake back to Hazy View. He had no doubts that this is where the snake came from. In his unique view of events, it would be bad luck to kill the snake.


  1. I will be more careful in the orange groves next summer. I wonder how many venomous snakes travel by truck and car throughout South Africa? There must be a few. I will check cabinets and under the bed at all 5 Star hotels in ZA. 🙂

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