Walking to work one morning a few years ago I saw a young Aboriginal woman by the side of the road. Dressed in summer admin uniform, she was tall and elegant, with warm bright eyes. She was directing the traffic around something on the road. Getting closer I saw a young, venomous snake slowly moving across the road. She was keeping it safe from our desert town’s morning rush hour.
Where I grew up in New South Wales, snakes were sometimes seen on the asphalt roads warming themselves. Here in the desert, the roads are too hot for them and even the snakes need to stay in the shade on very hot days.
Many summer days now are too hot, even for the snakes. They shelter under the doorsteps, looking for a few degrees of coolness, transmitted through the concrete floor of a building.
A couple of years ago a snake came in through our (faulty) front door. Claudia heard the door open and found the snake in the kitchen. The air-conditioned tiles attracted the little snake. The coolness of them slowed her down, made her sleepy. Keeping our eyes on her, we called our friend, one of the well-loved and expert local snake catchers. He came promptly and confirmed that the snake was venomous, before flipping her into a sack using special tongs.
Young venomous snakes are dangerous, because their bites are much more likely to use venom. A larger, more mature snake is likely to bite hard, but saves its venom for a second or third strike. We were grateful to our friend, who took the snake away in the back of his truck. There’s lots of space for snakes outside of town in the desert sand dunes.
At the clinic that year we saw a higher than usual number of snake-bites. People got bitten wearing thongs and sandals walking home at night.
The nurses here get quietly frustrated sometimes, when after a full day’s work they are woken in the small hours of the night to care for people who hurt themselves doing the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time. It happens, but especially here in a tourist town, where many people don’t understand where they are and how to respect the environment. Our nurses are resilient, but there are too few of them and they work so hard. I appreciate their dedication.
Which perhaps was part of the reason I didn’t take Claudia to the clinic when she was hurt one night a few months later. We were out on a hot January night.
Claudia was taking photos of Uluru under the emerging stars when something sharp and sudden caused her to grab her lower leg. “Ouch! Damn. Something’s bitten me!” she exclaimed, swatting and clutching her trousered leg as she peered through the viewfinder.
There was no chance of interrupting her work to look at her leg. She had just set up her tripod. The sky around the Rock was deepening purple and the stars were brilliant, flashing through the clouded sky. Every moment is focused on work when my wife is behind her camera.
Observing that she was still walking on the leg and voluble, I told myself she would be okay. “Probably a scorpion,” I thought. I could see she was in pain, though. Scorpion stings are very painful.
Claudia took a few more photos, looked at them, got agitated. “I’m not happy with this. Let’s go out on the back road. I really want that eastern view.”
I watched her massaging her sore leg. We were in a car that was new to us and the unsealed, unlit back road was quiet enough that we might not see anyone for three days if anything happened to delay our return.
We had no mobile or satellite phone and about half a litre of water. We’d come out impulsively before dinner because the sunset was shaping up richly and it was destined to be a very dark night. Claudia loves to photograph the desert stars.
“No. I want to go home,” I said firmly.
“Can’t believe how much it hurts.” Claudia said, twitching her leg and looking irritably at her photos on the back of the Nikon.
“I’ve got nothing interesting here. If we go home now I will have been out and hurt my leg and unpacked all my equipment for nothing.” She turned the car on and steered it around towards the back road.
“I want to go home,” I persisted. “We’re going home now.”
“I can’t believe you. First there were those people with the caravan and their annoying headlights getting in the middle of my pictures. Then I get bitten by a freakin' scorpion. Now you won’t even let me get the photos I want. All because you just want your dinner. ” It was as near as we ever get to a fight. “This leg! The pain is really bad!” Claudia said, stomping her left foot on the car floor.
There was a raised red bite mark on her leg. It might have been a scorpion bite. Or one of those weird giant centipedes we get out here. I didn’t want to frighten her. But I didn't want to stay out in the dark because I knew she may have been bitten by a snake.
I didn't tell her that. But we did come home.
Relieved to get home, I thought about taking her to the clinic. I hesitated -- not just to let my colleagues sleep. Claudia, who spent much of her childhood in hospitals, hates them passionately.
I find hospitals interesting. Some people find them comforting. But when we have to visit someone in hospital — even when we spend long hours there — Claudia won’t eat, because for her, the smell and the atmosphere of the building pervades everything, even spoiling a fresh coffee. Hospitals make her extraordinarily anxious. I knew that the terror of a suspected snake bite, together with a hospital admission, would take a harsh toll on her. And anyway — it looked like a single bite. It was most likely a centipede or scorpion bite, wasn’t it?
Health workers do this to our selves and our families. It’s a recognised phenomenon. We think we know what’s going on, but are too close to the situation to be objective. It’s dangerous. And it’s something our friends and loved ones don’t understand. It’s one of the reasons we are emphatically told during training not to treat ourselves or relatives. Our brains, all too human, don’t cope.
I gave Claudia medication: pain relief and antihistamines. We put ice on it. She rested. And I watched her breathing steadily in her sleep for three or four hours, checking her pulse, alert to any grimace or gasp, ready to take her to our modest clinic with its precious resources, ready to call the emergency plane should she show signs of envenomation from the snake I suspected had bit her. I wondered whether I should have put a tourniquet on. I should have. I watched her closely and eventually fell asleep myself, exhausted, trying not be worried.
By daylight her leg showed two clear black-red puncture marks surrounded by a large, dark green, angry bruise. It was obvious to me that she had been bitten by a big snake. “This looks like it’ll take a while to get better,” she said evenly as we had our breakfast.
I felt profoundly grateful as I watched her enjoy her bread and poached eggs. Fortunately, Claudia’s thick bush trousers, high boots and dense socks took the brunt of the snake’s attack. It was also probably one of the many bites from large snakes that are not envenomated.
I thought a lot about the risk I took for her. I talked to my colleagues about it. We went out on hot dark nights less often after that. And even to bring in the washing or take the compost out, she made me wear my old leather boots in the yard during the hot season.
The maintenance man fixed our front door for us. The house feels safe. I appreciate the cool floor tiles the builders chose.
We have a black and brown snake under this table as I type. It's a sculpture is by local artist Billy Cooley, who makes the best snakes — bent over fire and hand hewn from one of the hardest desert woods. Ours is a woma python over a metre long. The woma python Spirit Ancestor — her name is Kuniya — helped create Uluru with her body coiled around her nest of eggs.
I would love to see a real woma python. They seem to be rare here now. I lift the head of our wooden one with my foot and play with it as I talk to Claudia on Skype every night. Our books, artworks and toys are good company for me more than ever now, when she is still on the other side of the world.
As I walked to work yesterday, feeling summer growing here again, I saw a lizard on a pole by the road, near where the young worker directed the traffic around the snake that day. I stomped my boots in the dust to let the smart, shy snakes know that I was walking through their place. I’m thankful not to see them as they rest under the leaves and in the sparse shade of the desert oaks. And I appreciate that young woman’s reminder that the snakes were here, living with Kuniya’s descendants, before that road, this house, or this town were ever imagined.
Thumbnail: Manasa, Hindu Goddess for protection against snakes, Kolkata, by Jonoikobengali.