It was about midday on a Thursday in January 1998 when Danie Pienaar came face to face with a black mamba and its bite. Danie, now head of Scientific Services in the Kruger National Park, was a student at the time and tracking white rhinos near the Phabeni tributary, south of Pretoriuskop.
The water was deep and he was looking for a place to cross the stream.
“I remember there were reeds on my side, when I saw a brown movement and saw the snake disappear into the reeds’ he said. He identified the black mamba but initially thought nothing of it other than that it was a huge snake.
He was alone and was wearing shorts. A few paces on he recalls feeling a burning sensation on the side of his leg, under the knee. “Subconsciously, perhaps I knew I was bitten because two strides on I stopped to check.” He found four blue-purple holes and a drop of blood and had his worst suspicion confirmed.
The first symptoms appeared quickly. He had a bad taste in his mouth, almost like metal, and ‘pins and needles’ in his fingertips and lips. It soon became worse and later it “felt like all the hair on my body stood up.” “I realized the venom was doing its damage.” Being alone, far from the bakkie and with no medical equipment on hand Danie faced daunting decisions.
He only had a gun, a knife and the tracking equipment. “I was relatively sure I was not going to get to help in time.” For a brief time he considered settling under a tree and writing farewell notes to friends and family. Fortunately, the desire to survive burned stronger and he decided to try and reach the bakkie.
“If I had died there, a rescue team would not even know where to have started looking for me.” In the meantime he tried, knowing it was not the right thing to do, to open the bite marks with his knife – with little success. He tied his belt around his upper leg and with the tourniquet in place made a quick note of what had happened to him. Leaving all else behind, he took his gun and compass and ventured back to the bakkie.
“It was extremely difficult as I deliberately forced myself to walk and breath slowly to try and slow my heartbeat down.” He was sweating badly and by that time had tunnel vision as the poison attacked the smaller muscles. He finally arrived at the bakkie and attempted the closest route to a tourist road, using the fire breaks and, at times, almost getting stuck in streams. “I probably planed them,” he said.
Reaching the tourist road, he could not find anyone and it was near Shaben Koppies that the first car came by. “They must have thought a weirdo was on the attack as I was doing130km an hour, forced them off the road, jumped out without a shirt and gun in hand.'
The two ladies and a gentleman rushed him to Pretoriuskop where he found ranger, Tom Yssel. He explained what had happened and recalls how Tom told his wife: “A black mamba has bitten Danie,” not thinking that their eldest son is also named Danie, and she thought he meant the boy.
The doctor in Skukuza advised them to go to Nelspruit, but that a helicopter was not available and they had to go by car. The trip to Nelspruit, in a friend of Tom’s Combi, was done in record time, with a police escort around White River helping them on. He arrived at the hospital, about two hours after the time he had been bitten. By this time, the symptoms had intensified, but he could still communicate sufficiently to tell the doctors what had happened.
Because of the time frame, they were skeptical, and told him he would be ‘monitored carefully’. “Even my father, when speaking to me on the phone, tried to convince me it was not a black mamba.”
As the doctors removed the tourniquet, his condition deteriorated rapidly. Suddenly he could not swallow, and his speech slurred. He tried to tell Tom not to switch the machines off, as he remembered how a snake expert in the Magaliesburg had an experience where he could hear the people contemplating switching the life-support off as they thought he was in a coma.
The doctors put him on the ventilator and he was briefly knocked-out. When he came to, he was completely paralyzed, yet he could touch, hear and see everything. “I could only see if they lifted my eyelids to check my pupils, but there was nothing wrong with my sight,” he said.
It was the same situation as the man from Magaliesburg. He was restrained to the bed and recalls how his sweat dammed on the plastic sheeting in the hollow of his bed. The fan was on and he was freezing, but could not do anything. By 18h00 that night, his friend Dewald Keet visited. He urged Danie to try giving him an indication if he can hear anything.
“With great difficulty I managed to slightly move a foot,” which Dewald luckily noticed. They then realized he was not in a coma. Slowly he regained more muscle function, as the venom molecules were flushed out of his system. The following morning his parents had arrived. He was still on the ventilator and not fully recovered from the paralysis.
“Being attached to the ventilator with a thick pipe down my throat was the worst part physically,” says Danie. The pipe was removed on the Saturday and he left for Pretoria in his parents’ care on Monday. He never received any antivenin. Other than the sweating that continued for some time and the bite marks that remained purple for a while, Danie suffered no consequences.
On his first day back in the field, the first thing he encountered was a black mamba in the road! A few months later he told the story to a friend, who happened to have a similar experience soon after and was able to tell the doctor what had happened without having seen the snake that had bitten him. The doctor, after examination and questioning him, administered the antivenin which saved his life.
Danie believes he survived for a number of reasons. “Firstly, it was not my time to go.” The fact that he stayed calmed and moved slowly definitely helped. The tourniquet was also essential.
“It was not easy to stay calm,” he says. “It was almost as if I dislodged myself from my body and was talking to someone else the entire time.” “I also knew snakes and have never been scared of them,” he said. The experience has not left Danie with antagonism towards the black mamba. “Snakes do not eat people. I was on my way and cut the snake off from where it wanted to go.”