The Hunt for the Big Snake
Daily Telegraph Saturday 3 April 1999
Robert Twigger stood to win $50,000 if he could capture alive a python more than 30ft long. His quest took him from the swamps of Indonesia to the Borneo jungle - and from gung-ho optimism to a paralysing fear
I HAD been having dreams about crossing jungles, wading through swamps, discovering lost cities. My waking thoughts were increasingly invaded by fantasies of escape. For God's sake! I was going grey, getting married, and hating myself for having, in some obscure way, given in. I needed something to take my mind off it all.
It was a friend who solved my problem. He came across the $50,000 Roosevelt Prize, on offer from the Wildlife Conservation Society of New York, for any snake caught alive more than 30ft long. It had remained unclaimed since 1912.
I rang the curator at the Wildlife Conservation Society. I thought he'd want to dissuade a rank amateur like me, but he was encouraging. "Anything more than 25ft and we're interested. But it has to be 30ft to get the prize."
Then and there I knew I would have to go looking for the prize-winning serpent. Telling Samia, my wife-to-be, was the most difficult part, but she seemed willing to allow me one last Boy's Own adventure before our marriage.
I began my preparations. It was from one C. J. Ionides, author of several books on snakes, that I got my most invaluable advice. The best thing to do when faced with an attacking snake, he wrote, is to ram snuff down its throat. I went to a snuff shop on Charing Cross Road. I chose "Irish High Toast", which was, I was assured, the strongest snuff on the market.
My plan was to move on whenever the trail grew cold, hoping that if I went to enough places known for long snakes, I would sooner or later get lucky. This went against Ionides' advice - never to go looking for snakes; wait until they find you.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, JUNE 1997
I made an appointment to meet Raja Ula, so-called King of the Snakes - who had just attempted a record number of days in a cage with 1,000 scorpions and several pythons. The Snake King had a huge stomach draped in a flashy open-neck black shirt. On his hairy chest was a gold-snake medallion. He appeared suitably regal, except for his insistent nose picking.
Raja Ula told me that he had made up his mind when he was young never to admit to feeling fear or pain. He believed that more people die from the shock of snake bites than from the actual venom. He had been bitten four times by cobras. "Your mind must be strong," he told me. "A snake tries to kill the mind first."
I asked Sri Gobind, the Snake King's manager-cum-sidekick, if he could find me a python longer than 30ft. "No problem. Only last week I was offered one." My heart raced. This was it! "I measured it myself," he continued. "But it was so big we need a crane to lift it." "Don't worry," I said, in a voice squeaky with greed, "I'll hire a crane." "Give me one more week," he said.
Eventually the phone call came. The Snake King and Sri Gobind took me to a bungalow where there was a crate 4ft long, 3ft deep and 2ft wide. Behind the chicken wire, which fronted the crate, the python was immobile. It was in poor condition, with bald patches where scales had been lost. I guessed its length to be no more than 20ft.
"There is your 30ft snake," Gobind beamed.
I couldn't believe they would try such an obvious rip-off.
"Well, let's get it out and measure it," I said.
"This snake is too dangerous," said Gobind. "It can eat a man."
"No, it can't," I countered. "Its mouth isn't big enough to get past a man's shoulders." I could claim some expertise on this subject. A reptile curator at Howlett's zoo had told me that only a 25ft snake would be able to eat a man ("and if it did, there'd be nothing left except your gold fillings and maybe your wristwatch," he had laughed).
The King of the Snakes mimed, rather well, a man being eaten by a snake. Big bully, I thought. Then he started to poke around in another crate with a metal stick, hooked at one end. He brought out a thin, green cobra, which hissed and rose up, hood flaring. Talk about high-pressure sales tactics. I thought for a moment they were going to threaten me with instant cobra death if I didn't back down. This was not a de-venomed snake-charmer's pet - it was deadly.
"This cobra is full of venom," said Gobind, as if reading my mind.
Yet somehow the implied threat served only to further complicate the argument about man-eating pythons. The King of the Snakes and Sri Gobind seemed suddenly bored. I hurriedly left.
I moved on to Borneo, where a friend of mine, Roy, worked as crime correspondent on a newspaper. Roy told me that I should go to a remote tribal village called Long Dao, which was famous for big snakes. The tribe used to worship snakes, apparently, before they converted to Christianity in the 1950s, and one old man still wore a python-skin vest.
At Long Dao, I was introduced to Fowzi, so-called "head of tourism" (a road passable by four-wheel drive had been opened three months before, but I was the first visitor). I told him that we needed to assemble a team, men who knew how to hunt and were not afraid of snakes. Fowzi looked doubtful but promised to help. He told me he had killed snakes before - including a measly 13ft python - but had never taken one alive. Over the next few days, various men dropped by, ostensibly to have a word with Fowzi. They came with their dogs, they were wary yet polite. I wondered if they were all recruits.
"How many men have you managed to round up?" I eventually asked.
Fowzi looked shifty. "One." "One?"
"One, but he is a very good man."
For former snake-hunters, the Lundaiya were surprisingly reluctant to go out hunting snakes. It seemed that instead of me selecting them, they were selecting - or rather, not selecting - me. I seriously wondered whether three of us would be enough to capture a 30ft python weighing more than 300lb. We might capture the snake, but could we carry it?
At last my snake-hunting "team" was ready to move. Fowzi had persuaded Baru, a cheerful villager with a wall-eye and a gun, to accompany us into the wilderness. The gun was very important.
On our third day we reached the area Fowzi reckoned was richest in snakes. We discovered python tracks in the mud next to the stream. Then there was the smell of snake, meaty and sweaty with a hint of bad breath. Fowzi was convinced we were on to something.
That night, while Baru made camp, Fowzi and I set off to set some bait, a civet cat. We dripped its blood around the place to attract the snake and to cover our own scent. When it was my turn to go on watch, I felt in my pockets to check that I still had my tin of Irish High Toast. Peering into black nothingness, I became almost hypnotised. Then suddenly I heard a sound I had not heard before: crunch, rustle, snap, rustle, all in slow, smooth progression. It was a snake.
I snapped on my torch, shining it into the underbrush, but I could see nothing. It was a distance of about 50 yards to reach Fowzi and Baru. I headed off in what I thought was the right direction, but they were nowhere to be seen.
Just then I heard the snake again. Quite distinct from all the other crashes and inexplicable night noises of the jungle, I heard the slow crunch of foliage, the suppressed snap of a dry leaf or twig. My panic evaporated as something more primeval took over: rigid snake fear.
I tried to get technical as a way to quell it. I thought about the labial pits - infra-red sensors on the first four upper lip scales of the reticulated python. In my mind's eye I saw a quivering heat image of myself, warm and invitingly nourishing to the snake. Perhaps I should move? But if I moved I would give the snake a sound to track me by. The crunching grew louder. I became convinced the snake was about to strike.
I jumped high into the air, banged my head on a branch, then fell over. I got up quickly then ran and ran until I was out of breath and more lost than ever. My only consolation, if Big Snake was on to me, was that snakes have low endurance for intense activity.
I stopped running and opened my mouth to yell for Fowzi and Baru but only a squeak came out, the kind of noise made by punctured rubber ducks when trodden on. I took a huge pinch of stuff, putting it on the base of my thumb. A few seconds later I sneezed heartily and felt the better for it. I kept on. At last I found Fowzi and Baru. They wanted to continue watching the useless piece of dead civet all night, but I wanted to go home. I'd had enough.
Buru, Indonesia, September
I knew no one on the island of Buru. All I knew is that Alfred Russel Wallace - who had travelled in the area 150 years earlier collecting animals for sale in Europe - had written that it had "a great many snakes". I understood now that bagging a 30-footer would be more by luck than anything else. The hunt had ceased to be some coldly calculated search guaranteed to bring in a lottery winner's earnings, with better odds. It had become a necessary part of me, something I couldn't funk.
I made contact with a man called Imran who spread the word that I was looking for Big Snake. Eventually a local fisherman brought news. He had heard from people in the jungle that there was a very big snake living there, near the village of Wasweedie. It lived in a special place and everyone knew about it. We set out into the interior.
When we told the villagers why we were there, the men became more alive, the women more fearful. They had lost two chickens to a snake only the day before. They knew where it lived. They would take me. A village boy, who told me his name was Stinky, took us to the snake mound. There were three distinct, large holes in the sandy earth. He told me there were three snakes living there.
The women sold us some of their smaller chickens. "If this fails," I said to Stinky as I lashed the chickens' legs together, "we're going to dig that mound out." My hands were trembling. The snake fever was upon me. We left the trussed, squawking chickens tied to a tree near the mound.
We returned the next day to see if the bait had been taken. We approached quietly but there was no sign of the snake.
We came back with a spade and a spear. First we removed the rotten trees and logs from the mound. We broke through the leaf mould and into the sandy ground below. It was easy shovelling, but there were plenty of roots.
In a sudden move backwards Stinky dropped to his ankles, bringing the spear to the enlarged hole we had been working on. I saw Big Snake. It was the weirdest feeling. It was as if I had been fishing for three months and only now discovered that, yes, fish really did exist. Then Big Snake disappeared.
"It's there," I said in a hushed tone.
"Five meter?" he said.
I knew he was being kind to me. From my brief glimpse of Big Snake's head - small and neat as a computer mouse - I guessed him to be less than 13ft. But we had to get it. The villagers would not forgive us if we let the unwelcome animal get away without a fight.
We dug more, sweated more, flies and mosquitoes circling unheeded. I saw the head again; the flicking tongue. The snake shrank backwards, using a concertina movement to pull away, deeper into the dark security of the mound. It pulled itself deeper and deeper and folded itself into a protective bundle of heavy coils, a last defence against attack.
We dug and chopped and dug and chopped and after another hour it became clear why the snakes had chosen this as their permanent home. The area was entangled with iron-hard tree roots. Big Snake's won again, I thought as we traipsed back to Wasweedie, ostensibly to get some lunch, but really to give up.
The telegram was waiting for me when I arrived back home to be married. "We have found a big snake eight and a half mtrs long. Imran." The snake, if it was eight and half metres - 28ft - was a world record for a living serpent. Even though it wouldn't win the Roosevelt Prize, I was sure a zoo would be interested. Another tele- gram arrived after the wedding, stating that the snake had been caught and was seven and a half metres long - it was shrinking.
A few days later a letter and some photographs arrived. The snake was still in captivity. Imran wrote: "Something is very importanty your coming soon to take the snake and the snake is still aggressive. All people in my sorronding or my neightbourds are life in worry and fear. And the box we made seems is not so strong so I am very afraid about it." Folding the letter from Imran, I looked at my new wife across the breakfast table, and as casually as I could muster, said "It's spur of the moment, but I've got a great idea for a place where we can spend our honeymoon . . ."
Samia had heard my stories before, however, and she was not convinced. In the true spirit of matrimonial compromise we settled for Ireland - plenty of rain, but absolutely no snakes. On my return, I heard from a sorrowful Imran that the snake had been released back into the swamp behind the village.
Ceram, Indonesia, November 1998
But my obsession would not go away. Eventually, one year later, I made my way to another remote island, and enlisted the help of the Huaoulu tribe. Former headhunters, they worshipped snakes, but also hunted them for food. I hoped they would have the skills necessary to catch a giant python. I made it clear that I was not interested in a dead snake. This was unusual, said the small bird-like adviser to the king of the tribe, but he assured me that any snake captured would be alive. Days dragged by in the long house while the king decided when it would be propitious to hunt. I passed the time chewing betel nut and taking lessons in archery with 6ft arrows. Eventually the king gave permission for the hunt.
For three days I ran through the forest with the hunters and their dogs. Finally we reached the area the king said he had dreamt about. The dogs ran straight to a huge fallen tree with a hollow trunk. Squinting down the dark tunnel I could see a snake, or maybe two, coiled inside. Then the hunters began excitedly chopping through the side of the tree and I knew that we had found Big Snake.
Glistening in the rain, the massive body of the snake lay passively inside the opened side of the trunk. The bravest huntsman, Sopi, poked at it with a stick and the snake struck, its huge head now visible for the first time. Using rattan nooses, Sopi snagged the head and body of the snake. Then slowly, foot by foot, with 20 men on the ropes, the 23ft 6in python was hauled from its lair. Everyone was frightened and no one seemed in control. Then genuine panic set in. Without warning the tribe started to hack at the snake: they had decided to eat it. My pathetic entreaties were ignored. This was a huge feast and that was that. The Huaoulu ate every last piece of the snake, skin and all. I'd like to say it was tastily reminiscent of chicken but it was about as chewy as inner tubes, and no more flavoursome. I went back to London heartbroken.
Knowing what I do now, I have got as good a chance as anyone at capturing the longest snake in the world. But somehow I feel the story is over. It's time to leave Big Snake alone.
This is an edited extract from Big Snake by Robert Twigger
Last Updated: February 18, 2007