Watching Charles Howard (Jed) catch snakes, and having seen how easy it was, I was sure that I could do it myself. So, when I saw two puff adders together on the track, I stopped my Landy and cut myself a stick. Well, yes, it was a bit longer than Jed’s, I might say. Use a long spoon. I let one escape into the grass and headed the other off to keep it in the open. Jack, my Secundo, prudently held onto my dog, Shakwe, on the back of the truck and watched.
Just keep the head down and pick up the tail, I told myself. I waved the stick at its head, it dodged and gave an angry hiss. I circled some more, then tried to sweep the stick up its body towards the head, but it bit the stick then went for me. The sheer speed of the strike was awesome. Luckily, it was a long stick. I could see quite a lot of merit in an eight metre handle. We circled some more, the adder trying to head for safety, me trying to get its head down without decapitating it. No dice. Some have the knack and some don’t. Then I heard a strangled gurgle and thought there was some sort of other dangerous animal nearby.
Jack had both hands over his mouth to stop himself from laughing. I can take a hint as well as anyone, so I admitted defeat, letting the irate puff adder go on its way. Besides, what did I want a stupid old snake for, anyway?
Quite a few of us in Doc Loxton’s outfit were keen skindivers. The skindiving paradise of the Mozambique coast with its coral reefs was relatively nearby. Some of us had our kit with us in case the opportunity arose to head for the reefs for a few days. Jed, too, had brought fins, mask and snorkel. Up on Mount Morrumbala, he told me, there was a deep pool that the locals said was occupied by a monster. Hoping to find an unusual gogo, he had walked to find the pool, going only on instructions as nobody was prepared to guide him. He saw no monster, but thought that the pool might be worth a dive to explore it. He invited me and Brian Nicholson for a weekend.
Amongst his other talents, Jed was an excellent cook. Despite the fact that we were up until three in the morning imbibing and playing poker, (for matches only,) Jed was up at six, making breakfast. These were never just a toast-and-toasties affair. Toast, yes, with tinned, imported butter from Holland or New Zealand, fried eggs, tomatoes, aubergines and tinned button-mushrooms. He was a green-fingered gardener and inevitably gave us a week’s supply of veggies to take back with us. On that morning, I wasn’t feeling too chipper, but the wonderful breakfast soon sorted me out.
We set out in his Landy with Brian and his twelve-bore shotgun, Shakwe, and some of Jed’s labour, volunteering to act as porters after we could drive no further. At length those men would go no further themselves and begged us not to, either. It would mean extreme misfortune if we should lay eyes on the monster. Maybe even death.
Being stupid, ignorant, arrogant whites, we didn’t take much notice. Shakwe, who didn’t speak Portuguese, didn’t, either. We hefted the kit and struggled further up the tree-clad mountain, following a stream. Buffalo-beans (Mucuna pruriens) are a pest in these Miombo forests, as anyone who knows will testify. They are covered in fine, orange-coloured extremely irritating hairs that produce a rash, the itch of which can drive you mad. Fortunately, the antidote is usually found growing nearby – the wet inside bark of the custard-apple will soothe the itch.
“Nearly there,” announced Jed as we approached a steep rock face, down which a trickle of clear water ran.
At which Shakwe, who was in the lead, stopped abruptly, the hair on his back rising. He trembled, growling worriedly. “Not a damn am I going any further!” he said in Dog, of which we understood enough. He backed away until he was behind us and refused to budge. Being stupid, ignorant humans, we went on without him, but, I must say, now with some misgivings.
Just over the rise lay the pool, some ten by twenty metres, overhung with moss and ferns. Beyond it was another rock face with a little waterfall, fifteen metres high. It was almost noon, now and the sun shone down into the rock cleft, throwing a rainbow across the spray at the foot of the fall. It was so peaceful; it seemed an unlikely place for a monster. The pool was so clear that we could see most of the rocky bottom, except for some dips filled with sediment and some small cave-like overhangs.
Jed and I kitted up to explore the pool. Brian laid down his shotgun and swam a bit as he had no diving gear. I am certain that we that we felt and peered into every nook and cranny and poked into every mud hole.
The sun moved over; the shadows covered the pool and it became quite cold. I shivered. It now felt more like monster country. I tried calling Shakwe, but he sat on a rock on the level below us, shivering and telling me in Dog not to be a bloody fool.
Shedding our gear, Jed and I climbed the cliff to get above the waterfall, leaving Brian on the flat rock at the side of the pool. We followed the stream a little way to other smaller falls and pools. Suddenly a violent explosion rent the quiet afternoon.
We tore back to the top of the main waterfall and peered over. Brian was on his feet with his shotgun at the ready, pointing at the placid water, white as a ghost, shouting to us:
“I shot him, I shot the monster!”
“That sounded like both barrels at once,” Jed said, “What did it look like?”
It took us a few minutes to get back down to him. All the while, he was insisting in a half incoherent stammer that he had shot the monster. We peered at the water, but could see no sign of blood or monster fragments. What we pieced together was that something had appeared on the surface. It was hairy with scales; it had feet and was about two metres long, as far as we could gather. He blasted it with both barrels. When he got back on his feet from where the recoil had knocked him, the thing was gone.
Even years afterwards, Jed and I would talk about it and we both agreed that he must have seen something awesome, but only Brian, and maybe Shakwe, knew for sure.