Sunday, September 24

Python encounter


THE Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) is a venerable old community of very enthusiastic people concerned about the natural beauty of their homeland. Since its inception 70 years ago, MNS has run countless conservation campaigns, many with tremendous and far-reaching success.

SHEDDING TIME: The python’s left eye was still milky as an old eye scale was still attached.

It was with great pleasure that I accepted their invitation to lead a reptile-themed night walk in Camp Permai, a beachside rainforest resort north of Kuching at the end of last year.

As I was not familiar with the selected trail, we agreed to do a recce with a few guides to see the lay of the land and to check for hotspots that should not be missed.

We reconnoitred the trail and at first things looked quite bleak. It was the beginning of the rainy season: it had rained the entire way to the resort that morning, the skies were grey, and the forest was dripping like mad. While these are perfect conditions, the chances to see any herps (snakes) (or any animals at all, in fact) are slim.

For the first 15 minutes, we ambled along the narrow trail, getting thoroughly soaked by the thoroughly soaked greenery. Then I spotted this Gonocephalus liogaster, blue-eyed angle-headed lizard, on a trailside tree, and things started to look up. After a 20-minute photo session, the lizard decided he’d had enough of the smelly humans and their intrusive ways.

We continued ambling along the trail, and eventually reached a narrow creek, barely five feet wide and less than a foot deep. My son was walking at the front, gingerly stepping over the mighty smooth and slippery rocks. As he was about to take the third step across the stream, he suddenly gave a blood-curdling yell and pulled back his foot only inches from the next stepping-stone. Like a child possessed, he raced back over to our side.

At first I didn’t understand what the fuss was all about. I couldn’t see anything untoward where he had been treading, as I scanned for the danger that had triggered such a violent reaction.

Finally I realised that one of the rocks in the creek sported two nostrils and one whitish eye, and then my brain zoomed in on the rest of the animal. It was an image that hit me like a sledgehammer: just below the surface, a 16-foot Python reticulatus – reticulated python – lay stretched out along the middle of the creek, its tail end disappearing from sight somewhere upriver.

In spite of its colossal bulk, the snake’s camouflaged hide was barely visible underwater. Only the head stuck out, and in the visual confusion of the dizzying jungle textures, it didn’t really register as anything but a wet rock.

Once we had digested what we were looking at, frantic activity broke out. We whipped out our cameras, took a few shots of the snake, but we weren’t really sure how to proceed.

I’m not exactly a total greenhorn when it comes to snake handling and photography, but this was the first time I was presented with the problem of dealing with a reptile more than twice my length, probably more than half my weight, and definitely 10 times my strength.

I took a deep breath, tried to maintain my calm, and attempted rational thinking: This was just a snake. Okay, it was the biggest snake I’d ever seen, but a snake nevertheless.

Pythons are also ambushers rather than foragers, meaning that it would probably react like a pit viper – staying immobile, relying on its protective markings.

I grabbed the camera and my snake hook and approached the giant. He hadn’t moved an inch and was behaving just as I had predicted. I knelt next to his head, took a few photos, took some more, and the snake still didn’t move.

Then I made a mistake: I tried to lift the python’s head out of the water. That didn’t go down well: firstly, the snake’s immense muscles didn’t budge an inch – it was a sensation akin to prying loose a well-nailed floor board with a pipe cleaner.

Secondly, Mr Python became upset at my intrusion of his privacy, slowly U-turned his humongous body, and started upstream, where we couldn’t follow him.

At first, he probed a few shore-side hiding spots with his nose, but no hole was large enough to accommodate his mass, so he just moved on and away from us. A few yards further, he found a large dead tree straddling the creek and decided to hide underneath.

By now, about 10 guys from the resort’s head office had scrambled up the hill to see the monster. This was the largest reticulated python anyone had ever seen in that forest, and they were as excited as we were.

When a few of them sloshed into the creek to snap a few cell phone pictures, the beast got sick of the humans monkeying around and glided into the depths of the jungle.

Our encounter with such a humongous specimen in broad daylight (reticulated pythons are nocturnal) can be attributed to the fact that it had recently shed, but one of the old eye scales was still attached. The eye was milky, so the snake had opted for a long soak in the creek to facilitate proper shedding.

Although the python was very sluggish (on account of its bath in the cold mountain stream, I assume), the resort management later closed off that trail for non-guided visitors, for a short time, to give the animal time to sort out its eye issues.

And that, readers, was the most awesomely awesome snake experience of my entire life.