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Snake chancer: David Whitley

A wildlife encounter of the most undesirable kind can force you to reassess your attitude to travelling safely

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There are many things that you wish to see after three hours of sweaty hiking through a lonely forest.

Definitely not on that list is an enormous snake, parked nonchalantly 300 yards in front of the ancient rock formations and magnificent views you’ve come for. This is especially true in Australia, with its near monopoly on the world’s nastiest, most venomous snakes.

Having neither a large ruler nor a suicidal urge to pick up the roadblock for an accurate assessment, I had to resort to guesswork. Measuring over six feet, it was either a Joe Average king brown snake or a gigantic Eastern brown. Either way, it was not good news.

The bush around the path was far too thick to even consider diverting through, which left me with two choices: to go forward and risk disaster, or to turn back.

Ego won out over common sense, so I plumped for standing behind a boulder, lobbing stones at the snake until it either scuttled off into the bush or leaped at me, fangs primed for destruction. I’m fairly certain this technique doesn’t warrant a mention in most survivalist handbooks.

Only as I was walking back did the utter stupidity of my actions begin to hit me. Not only had I just taken on a highly dangerous snake, I’d gone against everything else I would advise someone else to do.

The Namadgi National Park may make for a hugely underrated and agreeable escape from Canberra, but it really can’t compete with the city in terms of mobile phone reception. I couldn’t contact anyone — and no-one knew where I was.

I’d not given anyone a vague itinerary that would suggest I might be within 180 miles of the battleground, having gone to the Namadgi entirely on a whim. I’d also neglected to sign in at the Visitor Centre or give an expected time of return. As for the first aid kit, forget it — if the snake wanted to take me out, it would be the perfect murder.

I suspect I’m not alone in the massive theory versus practice gap when it comes to safety and security on the road. Sure, we know what we’re supposed to do, but how often do we actually do it? This is a world, after all, where most of us have the same password for virtually everything, and warnings on boxes of cotton buds about not inserting them in the ear are ignored in true punk rock spirit.

And, despite regularly advising people not to skimp on travel insurance, I’m not exactly sure what mine covers. If I go kayaking and end up brutalised by an angry harbour seal, I’ve absolutely no idea whether I’ll end up bankrupting my entire extended family in order to pay for the hospital treatment.

My personal safety policy revolves almost entirely around being big enough to look like I might put up a decent fight, but not big enough to be a trophy target for little nutters with a Napoleon complex. I usually only discover that an area is dodgy after I’ve blissfully strolled through it on my own at night.

Similarly, I have the nagging doubt that the day my wallet gets stolen will be the day that I’ve got all five credit and debit cards inside it. And that the cancellation hotline numbers will be written down on that piece of paper I left at home next to the pristine photocopy of my passport photo page.

If or when my passport does go missing, I will probably regret never having looked at the number of the embassy, let alone not writing it down. And when I arrive back to the hotel to beg them to contact everyone for me, I’ll probably discover that all the valuables have gone walkies from my room because I was too lazy to look at how the safe works.

Until this cavalcade of calamity befalls me, I suspect I’ll continue to achieve low marks on the practicing-what-I-preach front. I’ll persist to leave camera and phone tucked under my shirt on the beach while I go for a swim. I’ll forever be found looking at my guidebook like a hapless tourist in decidedly unsavoury areas. And I’ll always leave the zippable passport pocket unzipped.

That’s unless a snake gets me first, of course.

 

Published in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)