It's the last week before school starts again, so Bill (Onionsack) and me decided to stuff the van with herping gear and take the kids for a long night cruise along the Northern Cross-Island Highway, "a slim stretch of mountain road 50 miles south of the capital Taipei, not even 20 miles long, but hands-down the best road-cruising blacktop in all of Taiwan. About 40 of Taiwan’s 51 snake species can be found here, where the northernmost reach of many species overlaps the southernmost reach of others. At elevations ranging between 1800 and 3000 feet, the highway runs through a vast tract of uninhabited forest, the only breaks in the green wall being a multitude of waterfalls, creeks, and the occasional small, man-made canal.
" (quote from HerpNation Magazine's cover story on herping in Taiwan. Get your subscriptions already!)
It being mid-summer in Northern Taiwan, rain had been scarce over the past two months, and we approached the road with mixed feelings. Depending on the weather conditions and your luck, a cruise along the NCIH has the potential to divulge natural treasures of colossal proportions (Mandarin Ratsnakes, anyone?), but may just as easily become an epic drag that turns up one single trash snake every ninety minutes and makes you want to commit seppuku by snake hook after seeing nothing but little bamboo vipers for seven hours straight. (I take consolation in the fact that Southern Arizona seems to be capable of being just as horrible, even during the Monsoon
Our cruise didn't start well. Too many trucks on the road scaring the bejesus out of us; enormous concrete-mixing behemoths veering around sphincter-tight hairpin bends at the maximum speed this fifteen-foot wide road allows, air horns blasting, without mercy for anyone in their way. As if these terror-inducing machines weren't enough to ruin our mood, there were also ancient delivery trucks piled sky-high and overhanging on the sides with hellishly reeking garbage bags, snailing their way ahead of us at ten miles per hour, blocking the view and rotting off our noses at warp speed, as the road was in no place narrow enough to pass these Bringers of Foulness.
To make matters worse, after three hours we had only found three bamboo vipers (Vidirovipera stejnegeri
), and a habu (Protobothrops mucrosquamatus
), both dirt-common species that I can easily scare up on a short walk right behind my house.
But then our luck changed, and it did so in a hurry. Coming around yet another hairpin bend, we almost plowed into a group of four Taiwanese youngsters gathered by the roadside, animatedly gesturing at a dark, quite sizable snake on the road right by the escarpment, and manipulating it with some thick, unwieldy-looking object. Looking at it from the car, we initially thought it to be a Stinky Goddess (Elaphe carinata
), a ratsnake that's quite common even at night along that very road
. I stopped the van, Bill and the kids geronimoed out, and while I was still guiding the vehicle to a safe parking spot, I heard the boys yell "DAD! Come QUICK! IT'S A COOOOBRAAAAAAA!!!"
Oh. Yeah. Gone was the blue funk brought about by the terror trucks and the shitty snakes, gone the nose-wrecking odor from those garbage bags, gone my fatigue. Some snakes are better mood-elevators than the best Peruvian flake, and cobras certainly count among them. When I arrived snakeside, giddy as a schoolboy, I discovered that while the four Taiwanese herpers possessed great knowledge about snakes, they were sadly lacking in the gear department. That tool I'd seen from the car was a fat tree branch with which they had unsuccessfully been trying to move the four-foot Naja atra
to a place across the road more suitable for photography. Luckily, Bill and me had just received a shipment from Midwest Tongs - hooks, Gentle Giant tongs, snake bags, and, quite fittingly for the occasion, Naja naja
T-shirts for the boys -, so we put our new toys to work, a move the branch-wielding, sweating kid visibly welcomed.
After relocating the cobra and taking a better look at it, we quickly discovered that this specimen seemed to be the "Ferdinand the Bull" of the Naja
world. As you may remember, this book (and later the Walt Disney short film), tells of a bull who prefers to sit under trees and smell flowers to clashing horns with his fellow bulls, and this snake was just as relaxed and mellow. During the following ninety minutes of photography, videography, and general manipulation, the cobra never once
hooded up, and only hissed once. I'm certainly no expert on cobra behavior, but from what I've seen so far, after a few failed escape attempts they eventually will flash their trademark. Not this one, though. Instead of assuming the position and giving us the evil eye, the snake moseyed straight towards Bill's camera backpack, slowly slithered up on top, tied itself around the handle into a knot of Gordian proportions, and stayed put.
Any cobra sitting on a backpack makes for great television, and Bill, as our cinematographer, was elated. Round and round he went, filming the snake from all possible angles. Suddenly, though, he looked at his battery gauge, his face darkened, and he turned around to me and said.......
"Dude....my spares are in that bag."
I don't think I've laughed this hard since my grandmother swallowed her dentures. Damn, that was funny.....at least until we decided to get the snake off the bag and found out that no prodding or poking would make him leave his position. After trying - and failing - all of the standard tricks we could think of, we realized that we had to resort to a more hands-on approach. While I fixed the cobra's head with the Gentle Giants, Bill untied the rest of the beast from the bag handle as fast as he could. If you've ever untied a snake from anything, you know that it's more difficult than clearing an ice-covered rope from a rusty steel hook. In reaction to the manipulation, the snake will flex its muscles and fasten the knot even tighter, a situation that can be very frustrating - especially when the serpent in question is a chunky, four-foot Chinese cobra that might snap out of its treacherous-looking mellowness any second and lay down the law.
But in the end, Bill prevailed, and after a short climb onto his tongs and the attached camera, the snake finally headed for the ground, where we took turns photographing it without the disturbing background
PS: all close-ups shown here were taken by my nine-year old son Karl free-handling my Pentax K10D with a 70-300mm zoom lens and a big flash attached. Considering the weight of the rig, and the fact that this was only the second time he ever worked with this camera, I think he did a mighty fine job!
PPS: More, better, and closer close-ups from the scene, shot by Bill, can be found on his Facebook album