I have never seen people run so fast from such a small snake. They genuinely looked frightened. One man would pull at the camel blankets then run away whilst 4 others stood a distance away with clubs and axes ready to pounce if the snake showed itself. We had just spent our first night in the Thar Desert, close to the border with Pakistan. As we traveled west the temperature had been increasing and during the 4 hottest hours we got what shelter we could from one of the occasional trees or bush and the Camels were allowed to go free range in search of food. Just to make sure they did not go too far their movement was restricted by a short piece of rope tied between their legs. Even so on one occasion it took Mulla (our guide and camel expert) over half an hour to retrieve one of them.
We had arrived in Jaisalmer a couple of days earlier. Its a small place with an ancient fort that is falling down. There was consternation a few years ago when some of the turrets collapsed and killed a number of tourists. The fort is one of the largest fortifications in the world (in terms of the area it covers) and despite being built in 1156 it still housed a thriving town inside. It has been built on weak sedimentary rock and is unstable though and there has been a lot of water seepage damage over the years as the population and number of tourists have grown and water has been plumbed in. The main reason for being here though was to go an a Safari into the Thar Desert.
There are many things one can do on a camel. Being comfortable is not one of them, well not at first anyway. The first day was not particularly good as we were making our way through scrubland that looked like it had been a store area for building materials, however there was an abundance of wind turbines which have bought electricity to most villages for the first time, and a pipeline bring potable water to a central point in most villages. By evening the scenery had changed and we had been joined by 4 other people. Eventually we settled at some large sand dunes for the night. The company was grand and the conversation was both interesting and funny. To my immense relief two of the group (a married couple who were first generation British with Indian parents) had also been hospitalised during their travels. They had overdone it with the street food and had some stomach problems. Tablets and rehydration sorted it.Bizarrely, at exactly the point when Jo was talking about our home and mentioned our dog, a dog appeared from nowhere and sitting between the pair of us; slightly freaky.
A jeep had turned up with some metal framed beds which were arranged in a row and, after we had finished our evening meal we all settled down for the night. We were given the camel blankets that are placed between the camel and the metal frame that forms a sort of saddle and were told that we would need them in the early hours as it got quite cold. We were all in bed by 8:30. It was odd lying there in a row of 6 all looking up at the fabulous night sky. A truly wonderful experience. It was Jo’s birthday the next morning so it was a rather special experience. After breakfast and Happy Birthday singing we packed our stuff up as the guides took the camel blankets back putting them in a pile in readiness for the camels. Suddenly there was great consternation.
Shouts, people running away. Some with big stick thumping the ground and someone with a big axe, swing it into the sand. Of course we went over to see what was happening. Snake, snake, they yelled. We could see a small snake moving with speed away from the sticks and into the blankets. Everyone backed off. One man went forward and very nervously lifted the corner of the top blanket. No snake. He lifted it higher then pulled it off the pile whilst at the same time running away. The others with the sticks and axe moved a little closer. No snake.They backed off again. The process was repeated four times before the snake was found. Wild clubbing. As each man swung his stick or axe at the ground they would run away then look back to see if the snake was following them. The snake had not been hit and buried itself in the sand. The sticks were used to dig the sand up and flush the snake out. I thought they were just going to chase it away but this process of trying to hit it whilst also running away continued until the snake received a blow from a stick, then the axe man moved in to finish it off. “Dangerous snake?” we asked. “Very Dangerous, very poisonous” we were told. “Its a Lundi snake” We looked it up when we got back. Lundi is the Urdu name. The snake was a sub species of a Saw Scaled Viper. It is described as a very fast moving snake who strikes quickly and repeatedly. Wildlife of Pakistan describes it thus….”This snake is primarily nocturnal in hot weather (may be active at dusk) and is sometimes diurnal in cool weather………This snake can bury itself in sand with only the head exposed. It is fairly active and can move rapidly in a side winding motion. In dry weather it hunts prey almost entirely at night, but may hunt by day in cool weather. Always alert this snake can become easily excited. It can be really aggressive and is likely to flee when encountered, but has been reported to chase victims aggressively……. This snake is considered to be the world’s most dangerous snake because of its highly toxic venom, its abundance near cultivated areas, and its aggressive, easily excitable temperament.” The bold typeface is my addition, and in my view perfectly reasonable in the circumstances. Most people bitten by this snake are bitten on the lower legs as they walk by but many of the local population are bitten when they sleep on the ground. It appears that the snake discovers them by accident and its aggressive nature and excitable temperament causes it to bite.
Anyway, the snake having been dealt with, our 4 chums started on their way back to Jaisalmer and we set off into the desert again. I found it a bit like an English Canal Boat journey. Its very slow, which forces you to slow down as well. At first its quite difficult but it soon becomes slightly mesmerising. A slow, slow pace but before you know it you have covered a big distance and things that were on the horizon are now beside you. As I say like an English Canal Boat trip but with less greenery and rain and more sun and sand. This second day was much more interesting than the first with the desert really looking like a desert. It was scorching by the time we stopped for lunch and our 4 hour shelter. At 5:00pm, when we had a short stop to water the camels it was still 42.9 C degrees in the shade.During the day there was a “camel incident” So as far as animal humiliation stories go its now a score draw.
We finally stopped for the night on a smaller group of sand dunes. As Mulla made us tea we watched 8 Desert Eagles circle in the thermals above us. Eventually they lost height and settled in a tree less than 50 meters from us, where they kept us company till the morning. No beds this time so we slept on the camel blankets on the sand. It wasn’t so comfortable but the tranquility of the dunes and the exclusivity made it something special. We woke many times during the night and each time the night sky was stunning. The half moon came up sometime after 3:00am so we could vaguely see our way around on the sand dunes when we had to answer a call of nature.
The next morning Mulla said that there had been a lot of Lundi activity during the night and there were snake tracks around by the camels. He said that he was relieved that they had not got bitten as it would have killed them. We showed him some tracks where something had come up the dune to where we had been sleeping and passed less than 2 metres from my head. “That Lundi snake” he said. “Big one”. But we were sleeping there.“ we exclaimed. “You very lucky” he said: Quite!