The caracal is the recognised King of our urban wilderness by virtue of his variety of extraordinary skills, cunning and beauty. The real ruler, however, is the Queen, as in so many monarchies.
Our queen has absolutely no kinship with the caracal and they had half a chance they would kill each other, again as in so many monarchies.
She is very long and slender.
Photos © J Warner
She is sometimes beautiful depending on her mood. She is highly temperamental. She can move extremely fast. And she is undoubtedly deadly – as befits a Cape cobra.
We are sure our particular snake has been here for years. She has grown considerably in size and from the dozen or so times we have seen her since we came we think she is now almost two metres or over six feet – longer than the recorded maximum of six feet and one inch. We are disinclined to check her with a tape measure.
Our territory is hers too and there is little here to challenge her. We have no badgers or secretary birds, two of the cobra’s worst enemies, and our little Cape grey mongeese, while they are intrepid snake hunters, probably find her a bit too much to tackle. Badgers and mongeese are less susceptible to cobra poison than other creatures.
We first met her some fifteen years ago when we entered our side street off the main road. As we came around a curve she was crossing just ahead of us and we stopped almost within her striking range.
We had caught her by surprise. She stopped and reared high, a good half metre from the tar, flaring her hood wide and aiming her shining eyes at the front of the car. She wouldn’t have done much damage to the Mercedes, ancient though it was, but might have hurt herself. So we waited a couple of minutes until she slowly folded her hood, lowered herself to the tar and slid into Our Urban Wilderness between street and sea.
With that hood unfolded she was spectacular. It framed her head like the wide ruffled collars the first Queen Elizabeth wore. That and her unblinking gaze promising death, and the tongue flickering from her broad head, sent a clear message: Don’t try it!
We watched her for a long time on one occasion because she didn’t know we were there. We happened to lean on a fence atop a three-metre retaining wall near our home and there she was way down below, sunning herself on a bare concrete slab at the bottom. Her body, glowing like polished copper, lay in loose coils, parts draped over other parts, her head lying relaxed in the middle.
After some ten minutes she decided to end her sunbath. Her head slid smoothly into a nearby tangle of shrubbery and her body, thick as my forearm, followed the same line until the tail vanished with a little twitch. She oozed power.
Another time we caught her in a moment embarrassing for her and potentially very dangerous for anyone coming too close. She was shedding remnants of her old skin. All snakes do this when their bodies outgrow their skins. It is awkward for them; the action must itch and possibly hurt, it takes much effort to slough off the old skin and they understandably become bad tempered and inclined to resent intruders.
The Queen was on a strip of lawn behind Hawkeye Kathy’s house, looking very strange. Her copper-gold body was spectacularly blotched with what appeared to be the shreds of a black plastic bin bag. It takes time for these last bits to come unstuck from the tender new skin underneath and she was moving her head up and down her body, rubbing at them.
I was walking up the road from our gate and first noticed her when I was about ten metres away. She saw me at about the same time, reared and hissed.
I stopped in my tracks. In South Africa Cape cobras are one of the biggest people killers among snakes, I think second only to the puffadder. They are nervous and if confronted they will not give way. They are not as aggressive as the mamba, which will attack at the blink of en eye, but I was not going to take chances by getting any closer. I watched her for a few minutes until she subsided and continued her rubbing, and backed off.
Since then we have seen her several times and she has seen us and is probably accustomed to our presence by now. My only fear is that I might accidentally bump into her one day when I stroll through the green jungle we call the garden. So reclusive are cobras, however, I think she will hear me coming and move out of the way before I reach her. Of more concern are her offspring. Cobras lay ten to twenty eggs and we have several times come across juveniles– which presupposes we have not one but two large cobras around, a male being necessary for this event.
The young are independent from birth and just as poisonous as their mother. They cannot deliver the same volume of venom as mom’s maximum of over 200mg (of which only 20 are enough to kill a human – equal to the mamba’s), but still enough to make you very ill indeed.
We have found a number of young in the garden, most of them very small and dead. How they died we do not know. Some were torn and battered as if stomped by large birds like the ravens, hadedas or guinea fowl. Most of the smaller babies, we believe, are eaten by the mongeese and other snakes. Another nemesis is a stork which we watched spear its long beak into the thick grass and come up with a wriggling snake of about 10cm. It tried to wrap itself around the beak but failed and became supper.
To be continued/ Friday 31 October …..