Peter took up
full-time catching—"this silly business," as he calls it—in 1964 after
a varied career in the bush as a hunter, game warden and police officer, mainly
in what was then Tanganyika. While stationed near Kisumu, on the north shore of
Lake Victoria, where the Kenyan government had a prison, he witnessed a
massacre by snakebite that still leaves him chilled. He spins the yarn in a
deep voice, as hypnotic as a cobra's sway, with the cadence of a story in the
Boy's Own Paper.
days," he says, "a lake steamer called the Rusinga served the town
periodically. One week it was long overdue and everyone worried, when finally
we saw a plume of smoke slowly approaching through the channel. It was Rusinga,
all right, but embedded in a huge floating island of papyrus she had collided
with en route. Unable to back out, the skipper pushed the island into Kisumu.
It was a proper island, complete with thorn trees growing on the thick, matted
reeds. The prison warden deputed a work party of the hardest cases in jail to
cut the steamer free. The prisoners went over the side with their pangas and
began chopping. Suddenly there came a hideous scream—then another and another.
Snakes? No, crocodiles. The snakes came later. Scads of them, in the trees, the
reeds, living on the island like the crocs. Cobras mainly. More than a dozen
men died before one side of the ship was cut free. Then the survivors went over
the other side. They were back in a flash, shivering with fear. Under one of
the thorn trees lay three lions."
The lions, more
fortunate than the prisoners, were shooed ashore and their lives spared.
Over the years,
Bramwell figures he has caught more than 1,000 snakes. His best single day came
on a 60-acre plot along the coast in Kilifi, when he caught 15—mainly green and
black mambas—in one morning. The poisonous snakes were sold to producers of
antivenin, black mambas in those days bringing Bramwell about $25 apiece.
"Pythons are the most expensive," he says. "In the '60s and early
'70s, they brought 100 bob—about $14—a foot. Now the skin alone is worth
What becomes of
"A lot of
them end up in zoos, others become purses and footwear. I'm told the Chinese
eat them, but I've never had an order." Bramwell pauses, then grins.
"Maybe the Chinese don't order out."
the serpentarium, I was presented with a necklace by Bramwell's African
assistant, George. The necklace consisted of two live pythons, together
weighing 130 pounds. They coiled cool and smooth around my neck, distributing
their heft so evenly over my arms, back and shoulders that I had no sense of
their weight. As one python stared into my eyes and tested my nose with his
tongue, a small African boy stared with popping eyes. "That mzee," he
said to his companion, "is not a coward."
Little did he
After a day of
bird watching in Kilifi Creek—we saw thousands of egrets, ibis, white pelicans
and kites leaving their roosts—we pushed the 25 miles north to Watamu, a
fishing and diving resort. Watamu is around the corner from the famed Blue
Lagoon, where the original film of that name, with Jean Simmons and Donald
Houston, was shot, and the snorkeling is excellent. It's a strange sensation to
pop up for air after watching barracuda feed along the reef and see a man in a
turban leading a camel up the beach. Old colonial types stroll the sand in the
cooler hours, sometimes coming into conflict with the ubiquitous German
tourists who throng to the Malindi area in midwinter. Not long ago an elderly
lady who had spent most of her life farming in the Kenyan upcountry was walking
primly along the beach at sunrise when she came upon a nude and brazen German.
Recoiling in horror, she wielded her rubber-knobbed cane like a cavalry saber,
striking at the man's most vulnerable (and evident) parts. "When I made
contact," she told her friends, "there was a most disgusting
Winter and I
spent a day light-tackle fishing aboard the Honeylulu with David and Jeni
Slater, accomplished charter boaters who put us into wahoo, kingfish, yellowfin
and dolphin. Known elsewhere as dorado and mahimahi, the dolphin here is called
felusi, from the Arab word flus, for gold. Though we saw two blue marlin and a
sailfish, they wouldn't take. The marlin run larger than the billfish at
Shimoni, with the Watamu record for blues being 754 pounds.