PRIOR to living in Africa, my only experience of snakes was running away from a small adder glimpsed near our tent on Rannoch Moor between Loch Ossian and Corour in the Scottish Highlands.The next sight of a serpent was after a large black mamba bit a toddler on the neck at a sugar estate in Swaziland.

The undernourished and underpaid mother grabbed the child and sprinted uphill to our clinic, probably breaking the women’s 800 metre track record in the process. Mamba venom is neurotoxic, paralysing the muscles used for breathing and swallowing. While the little girl was ventilated, the clinic’s entire supply of antivenom was poured into the intravenous drip over the next few hours. Two days later, she was sitting up in the cot and demanding breakfast.

The snake expert on the estate was an agronomist and a leading light in the local natural history society. He often brought unusual specimens for us to examine before releasing them back into the bush. One morning he appeared holding a handsome, muscular African rock python. As we discussed its colouring and diet, the naturalist stopped talking. My medical colleague and I noticed his fingers turning bluish but continued commenting and admiring the snake which was now locked round the snake-catcher’s wrists. When he shouted at us to kill it, we were taken aback and rather disappointed at his attitude as a prominent naturalist and ecologist. In the end our friendly anaesthetist gave it a shot of muscle relaxant and peace reigned.

At our previous home in the mountains of Swaziland, we and our cats had an understanding with Freddie, a 2.4 metre long black mamba. We know he was that length as he got his head stuck in the wire of the chicken house one afternoon, the greyish body stretched out from the wire, over a low parapet, then under the washing line. He appeared from time to time on hot summer days on the veranda but always in the company of one of the cats who would walk beside him, apparently communing. After some time, they would escort him off the premises.

Snakes are seldom seen around our small farm in northern Uganda, the surrounds of the buildings being swept daily, the vegetable plots weeded and any undergrowth burnt. In the bush outside the perimeter fence, it’s a different story, a reptilian delicatessen of frogs, lizards, voles, rats and the occasional disorientated domestic hen, with pythons disposing of young goats and the neighbours’ dogs. The most feared is the puff adder which can lie doggo for a day or more, awaiting the next meal; it uses its tongue and tail to mimic worms or large caterpillars, as many a frog realises too late.

Our son has been taught from an early age to remain motionless and silent if a possibly venomous serpent approaches. He describes several such encounters to impressed listeners with a rather smug grin,well aware that almost everyone else panics and shouts in such a situation. What he also knows is that one night his parents found a cobra in an outhouse courtyard. While mum held a wavering torch, dad attempted to bludgeon the viper’s head with a knobkerrie. However the combination of Anne Marie’s erratic beam and my own excitement caused repeated misses until the club finally broke on the rocky ground. The snake, quite unharmed if perhaps puzzled at all the noise, shimmied off, leaving behind two exhausted and somewhat shamefaced adults.

Dr David Vost studied medicine at Glasgow University and is currently working at a hospital in Swaziland. He and his family live on a small farm in Northern Uganda near the Albert Nile.