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Once bitten: Tim Brown’s tale

One of the best parts about travelling around SA was all the fascinating people we met along the way, whose knowledge, enthusiasm and passion for South Africa's wild areas was infectious! We decided to start a series where we introduce some of these amazing people and get them to share some of their stories. First up is Tim Brown, a Durban-based tour guide who gets to spend most of his days in the bush. He tells us a bit about himself and what drives him, as well as what it is like to survive a bite by a Mozambique spitting cobra...

tim brown tour guide
Tim Brown on tour.

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Tim, it's great to have you join us on SATW. Please can you introduce yourself briefly and tell us a bit about yourself and what it is that you do?

My name is Tim Brown. I'm from Durban, and I am a Nature, Culture and Historical Tour Guide in KwaZulu-Natal. I also run a Specialist Safari and Tour company based out of Durban.

I am a nature lover, passionate about what I do and feel it an honour to share my beautiful country with people visiting from all over the world. I love my job because I get to share my passion with clients that come all this way from all over the world to learn and see what an amazing country South Africa is. Being in nature is a huge bonus, and a great tool to teach people about where we could learn from nature how to be better people.

 

What made you decide to get into the tourism industry?

It was by chance. When I was 21 I returned to South Africa after working overseas for 2 and a half years. I was at a loss for where to take my life and happened to bump into an old friend who was studying a Professional Field Guide and Lodge Management diploma. My passion for nature and helping others through education led me to sign up for this intense year-long course, living in the bush. We would get up at 5am and do practical – being trained to conduct open vehicle game drives and bush walks. We would learn everything from Astronomy to the structure of the earth and all that is in between - birds, animals, plants, history, culture etc. Between the practical sessions we would have lectures during the later parts of the morning and afternoon before more practical. I loved it, it changed me as a person immensely.

Tim Brown game drive
Tim game driving in the Kruger National Park.
Do you have a favourite game reserve in South Africa?

Hluhluwe iMfolozi Game Reserve, in KwaZulu-Natal, is my favourite. It is the oldest protected area in Africa (since 1895) and was home to Operation Rhino which brought back the white rhino from the brink of extinction, so it holds a very special place in my heart. I have also had amazing sightings there so that helps too!

Elephants crossing the road are always a treat to spot.
Elephants crossing the road in the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Game Reserve.
What is your favourite bird or animal?

Always hard to say as I love them all for different reasons. If I had to choose today I would say the lion purely because the way a lion conducts himself is the way I want to conduct myself in life. A lion is a leader. He shows others the way and he will defend his family at the cost of his life.

The most excitement we got from these young lions
Two brothers in the Kruger National Park.
You must have had a number of encounters with wildlife in your time - what story sticks out for you?

There have been so many over the 13 years of working in this industry. Things from being charged by lions on foot while tracking them, to a hyena creping up next to me to lick the braai (BBQ) grid while I was staring into the camp fire on night watch, a leopard walking though our camp in the bush in Sabi Sabi, and chasing elephants from our swimming pool at the staff village…the list goes on.

One thing which will always stick out for me as it literally changed my life was when I got bitten by a Mozambique spitting cobra while trying to get some rest before my afternoon game drive on New Years Day in 2008.

I had returned to my room at Bush Lodge in Sabi Sabi. I had had a relatively late night before with it being New Year's Eve, and then up for a 05h30 game drive with my guests so I needed some rest. I had to wait 15 minutes for the lady who was cleaning my room to finish, and once she was done I was in bed like a bullet as you can imagine!

I recall it was 12 noon when I closed my eyes on this very hot summers day (38º Celsius). I actually recall checking under my blanket which I didn’t do that often, however I did not see anything. About 15 minutes later I woke with an unbearable burning sensation on my upper left arm. I honestly can only say it felt like when you put your hand on a hot pot in error and just don’t let go!

I jumped out of bed faster than a cheetah covers 1 meter at top speed! I grabbed my arm and looked at it and there was an immediate reaction… There was one (only one) drop of blood like a pin prick on a slight scratch. As I watched, within 60 seconds the wound began to turn colour. There was a small dark centre with a big red ring around it and then a white ring around that. I was totally baffled…

I quickly checked under the covers and there was nothing there so I knocked on my mate's door and asked what he thought it was, all the while the pain killing me. Having only one penetration point we were thinking scorpion but when I went back to check my bed I found nothing except a dead house fly…

At this point the pain was just too much and I dragged my mate in to help. We found nothing until we radioed for help to the lodge manager. I was getting dressed and as I bent down to pick up my slops... there she was! An adult Mozambique spitting cobra reared up towards me and at this point I actually remember a weird calmness coming over me. I knew my life was no longer in my hands. My mate sat me down outside where the manager had just arrived as well as the whole guide staff. They had already called the paramedic who was a 15 minutes drive away and I must say he got to me very fast.

mozambique spitting cobra
The Mozambique Spitting Cobra. Image Wikipedia.

My mate caught the Mozambique spitting cobra in an empty 5 litre water bottle and sat her next to me, which to be honest thinking back I did not like, but in the moment I was not thinking clearly!

The guys put a pressure bandage on my arm and kept me calm but by this point I wanted someone to just cut my arm off! The medic arrived and got an intravenous drip into my right arm and shoved an oxygen mask on me.

Tim getting treatment shortly after the bite.
Tim getting treatment shortly after the bite.

Now just in case you are not aware of what type of venom a Mozambique spitting cobra has, it is a mixed venom of mostly cytotoxin and then some neurotoxin. So if you can get through the first 8 hours with your neurological side still working you will just have horrible tissue damage to the site of the bite...

At this point much was a blur but I recall not being able to speak properly or see straight, and then it happened! I couldn’t breathe at all… As I tried gasping for air my mate turned my face towards him and told me I would be fine but I could see he was scared, and I was petrified! The medic, thank God, had adrenaline that he quickly shot into my vein and slowly I could breathe again. I was now dripping in sweat and it was time to get out of there.

The manager raced me the 15 -20 minutes to the gate of the reserve where an ambulance was waiting with two paramedics who for some reason wanted me to lay down even though I kept telling them I felt like I was going to vomit, and so I did, almost choking myself because I was laying down…

What was supposed to be an hour's drive to the hospital was shortened I am sure with the speeding, but I almost recall nothing of this except moaning with the pain even after being given Morphine.

We arrived and I was taken to ICU where I would spend a few days, followed by a couple more in High Care. In ICU the pain was unbearable and I was not sure it if was night or day, but I recall a nurse coming to me and telling me not to be scared but if the swelling didn't stop in the next few hours and went past the pen lines she drew on my shoulder, they would have to operate. At this point there were two things they could do; take my arm off or do a fasciotomy where they cut open the arm to relieve swelling and allow blood to get to my hand so that it wouldn't die…

I didn’t want to swear in this post, but even with all the pain meds I was shitting myself!

Fortunately, although the swelling went past the pen line it didn't spread much further and I knew the only scars I would have would be a hole in my arm, and psychological.

The two medics that brought me to the hospital visited and brought me a magazine and a chocolate (how sweet, lol). I recall them saying I was very lucky and that the alcohol I had consumed from the night before (which wasn’t much I might add) helped to break down some of the toxins in the venom. They also told me that they had had another call that day also for a Mozambique spitting cobra bite and the guy did not make it. Jeepers, hearing that I was not sure what to think but now that I look back I know I was lucky!

Tim in hospital
Tim in hospital.

Seventeen days after being admitted to hospital I was back at work with a lovely hole in my arm after the dead necrotic tissue had been cut out. It was large enough that I could actually stick the end of my thumb into the hole!

All of a sudden I had a bit of a phobia of snakes and I remember taking a 2 meter long stick with me into my bedroom. The craziest thing was that when I went in, I saw the fan had fallen out of the ceiling onto my bed! Clearly something or someone was out to get me, and I struggled to sleep easy for a long time.

My return to work was a lot of fun. The guys showed me the Mozambique spitting cobra which they had kept in the refrigerator for me. Being cold blooded the snake had died, but it still gave me the shivers thinking about it.

The next day I was conducting a bush walk and decided to stop at a Buffalo thorn bush to explain some interesting traditional beliefs about the tree. As I reached in to show the guests a twig there was a boomslang (hemotoxic snake) sitting on another branch looking at me. I nearly fell to the ground right there… This was enough!

Tim brown snake bite wound before
Tim's bite wound.
Tim Brown snake bite
All that remains of Tim's encounter with the Mozambique Spitting Cobra.
Wow, that's a couple of close calls! We're glad you're still around!
When you're not in the bush guiding, what do you get up to?

I love spending time with my daughter and wife. We don’t always do much but I have been known to take a “bushmans holiday” – to take them to the bush, but we also go down the coast to relax near a beach and also spend a lot of time in the Drakensberg mountains.

Finally, why should people visit South Africa?

This could be a long answer but I will keep it short….

  • The nature is amazing.
  • The history is fascinating.
  • The cultures are electric.
  • The people are diverse.
  • The currency is weaker so it is great for internationals with stronger currency to get things between 1/3rd to ½ price of back home.
  • The sun is an attraction.

This is Africa; Africa is in all of our blood and when you visit, Africa will get into your heart and you will be drawn to return!

Well said, Tim. Thanks for sharing your story with us.

You can find out more about Tim as well as the tours he offers on his website www.timbrowntours.com

If you are interested in more detail on the Mozambique spitting cobra, we have included its distribution map below. Mozambique spitting cobras biting people while they are in bed is actually quite a common occurrence (not to alarm any of you planning your next bush holiday!). Also below, snake expert Johan Marais of the African Snakebite Institute discusses this interesting phenomenon.

mozambique-spitting-cobra-distribution

A map showing the distribution of the spitting cobras of the genus Naja, including the Mozambique spitting cobra, in southern Africa. Source: Snake Bite Assist.

mozambique-spitting-cobra-article
Johan Marais, of the African Snakebite Institute, discusses Mozambique spitting cobras biting people in their beds.

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