Hats Off For Snakes & Millionaires

For the quick-fix readers who will soon realize that this is yet another whopping 4-minute read and end up quickly browsing the pictures and move on; do at least scroll down and read the bold text, it might save your life 🙂

We were burning all the hundreds of branches we had collected over the summer holiday. After every bit of bad weather, Camp Moogerah’s massive green lawns were littered with dead foliage which we duly collected to make the property look presentable for the school camps. Now the time had finally come to torch the fruit of our work.

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“My alchol-infused brain, however, insisted on knowing more about how to murder a snake…”

The neighbours came over for a barbecue in the light of the blaze. Richard and Joan are millionaires and I worked for them. Anton and I had given their property a thorough trim with whipper-snippers, lawn-mowers and hedge cutters. Pleased with our effort, they invited us for dinner and drinks; two nomads with calloused hands and broken shoes sitting in a sparkling white leather couch, eating Black Angus steaks, each pound of meat worth more than half a day’s wages for us. Damn fine steak I tell you, and great company too.

As we watched the flames eat away our pile of stick-pickings, I ended up chatting to Richard. He is from Western Queensland. To anyone who knows a bit of Australian geography, Western Queensland means hardship, tough times and leathery skin. Born nearly 70 years ago, Richard grew up on the edges of the great inland deserts, where the land is like a cracked heel; dry, furrowed and painful. He didn’t come from money, he came from farmers and hard work – “yakka” they call it here – and Richard still does a hard day’s yakka every day, beginning at sunrise, tending to the nearly 100 premium horses he breeds for the glamorous race-tracks of Australia’s big cities.

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Not all snake encounters are serious…

Richard is tough as nails but as fair as King Solomon, and the fortune he has made through hard work and a knack for business hasn’t made him aloof or snobbish – quite the contrary. When he travels with his larger-than-life wife, Joan, they are always looking for “real people” as they say. Real people like Richard, who during the depression taught himself to be a butcher as his sheep were worth more dead than alive. Real people like Joan, who has nurtured thousands of people with spiritual advice and amazing food in the restaurant she used to own.

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This guy either got balls or no brains. Which ever it is, he got away with catching a snake and killing it by biting off its head. Don’t try that at home!

It’s not everyday I hang out with millionaires. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I try to avoid them, I just generally don’t seem to frequent the same places. With this limited experience in mind I admit that at first I probably did judge Joan and Richard by their wallets and not their hearts.That is, until I sat down and talked to them and realized that they are also just people of this world; trying to work out what it means to be human and how we can all do our best to honor the gift of being alive.

They may be in the autumn of their lives (not that you can tell from their ceaselessly active lifestyle) but they are still as curious and open-minded as a 12th graders, fresh out of school.

Anyway, I was talking to Richard as we were watching the massive fire. I was drunk. Very drunk in fact, and slightly self-conscious too. I wasn’t sure what to say but the beers did their best to move my lips without my intellect interfering. We got talking about a brown snake I had seen on his property and I asked him; “what is the best way to kill a snake?” With a long lifetime of experience with living around these slithering killers, Richard patiently began a small lecture – by far the best advice I’ve ever had on how to deal with snakes:

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Here is what happens if you don’t throw your hat fast enough…

“You don’t”, he said dryly. “You only ever kill a snake if there is no other way around it or if you find it living close to where there are children and live-stock with off-spring.” Apparently, most snake bites occur when people feel they need to establish their superiority by catching them or stomping on them.

My alcohol-infused brain, however, insisted on knowing more about how to murder a snake: “I’ve heard that a shovel is the best tool, but how do you do it, do you chop it in half or what?”, I asked with a slight drool. “Look”, Richard said, “if you must, you hit the snake with the flat side of the shovel. Aim at the middle of the snake, there’s a greater chance you won’t miss it. What happens is you break its spine and it moves slower, allowing you to hit it again, working your way up towards its head until you’ve finally taken its life.”

At last someone who knew what they were talking about! So many times I’ve been scared shitless walking around the bush, wishing I had a shovel and yet not knowing what to do with it. But Richard had even more to tell me; “there are a few things you can do if you come across a snake, the first thing being nothing.”

My baffled expression prompted him on; “standing still is your best chance. Often when people meet a snake, they tend to jump or run away. That’s downright dangerous. You see, a snake responds to vibrations on the ground. If you’re walking around snake land, walk heavy. The snake will feel your steps and move out of your way. Similarly, if you are right next to a snake and you jump or run, it will perceive the vibrations as a threat because you are already too close to it and chances are it will attack you, and you usually can’t outrun a snake. So stand still if you see a snake by your feet.

“I nodded silently, trying to look like someone who could of course stand still right next to a killer snake… Richard continued; “but even better is to throw your hat on the ground, it works for other animals too. When I was a young man on the outback cattle stations, we used to round up all the wild cattle and drive them into a giant pen, from where we could sort them and transport them. Only one man had the balls to stand inside the pen with all these scared and untamed cattle. This guy was an old man with a battered old hat as his only defense. Anytime a bull was about to charge him, he simply took off his hat and threw it on the ground, and every time it would give his hat a good tussle with its horns and he would just stand back and wait until he could again pick up his hat and get on with the work. Same with snakes, throw your hat, see that the snake goes at it and slowly move away from the scene while the snake is busy sinking its fangs into your head-wear and not into your veins.”

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Quick! Who’s got the shovel?

Richard himself has never been bitten by a snake despite walking around Australia’s bush for close to seventy years and having had to kill off a fair few poisonous ones. That fact, and his sincerity in telling me this little story of how to survive a snake encounter make me respectfully tip my hat for this deeply experienced and genuinely generous man. And because of Richard, from now on I will also respectfully take off my hat for any snakes that cross my path.

Thank you Richard and Joan, for being level and honest employers and great conversationalists and also for potentially saving me from future snakebites. You are good people and the world is richer for having you!


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