SI Vault
Robert F. Jones
February 08, 1982
From Shimoni to Lamu (shown here), the author travels up the Coral Coast of Kenya, and evokes the ancient Arabs, Vasco da Gama and Papa Hemingway
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February 08, 1982

Passage To The Past

From Shimoni to Lamu (shown here), the author travels up the Coral Coast of Kenya, and evokes the ancient Arabs, Vasco da Gama and Papa Hemingway

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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.

"In those 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 more."

What becomes of the pythons?

"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."

Before leaving 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 know.

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 thump."

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.

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