A Pit Full Of Vipers
National Geographic Young Explorer Munib Khanyari writes about a moon-lit tryst with the slithering beauties of the Emerald Isles.
Photo: Munib Khanyari.
An almost full moon night signalled the exciting prospect of searching for critters after sundown. The Andaman sun betrays you quiet early, for the island’s easterly position doesn’t really abide by the conventions of Indian Standard Time. The clock struck 6:30 pm and we got ready. Long pants, close-toed shoes, torches and a burning desire to spot the elusive.
The night air was still, heavy with moisture, perhaps saturated even further by our expectations. James, a local Wandoor lad, led us. He hissed, “Watch for snakes alongside the trail, whilst I’ll make sure we hold the correct bearing.” The Andaman Islands are a snake enthusiast’s paradise, and night time is show time.
The walk to Kanaidaira, a waterfall, started off slowly and eerily; the occasional metallic sound of insects, being the only intrusion. Very quickly it became evident that the path we were tracing was that of a dried-up river bed, perhaps an outlet of the waterfall. James confirmed that during the monsoon we would be knee-deep in water.
As we crept along in a silence that only comes with the passion of spotting wildlife, the monotone of rusting leaves was broken by a series of ‘tyuk’ sounds; rather weak and rapidly repeated. “Nightjar,” I whispered. Prabha, my colleague, nodded in agreement. These odd-looking birds would often rest on the ground and if spooked, fly off quickly, taking multiple repeated 900 turns to disorient their chaser. This particular individual was very well camouflaged though.
As we kept walking into the jungle, upstream, the air became denser and more humid. As sweat trickled down our faces, time ticked away in slow yet expectant pursuit of our slithering friends. The jungle was noisy now, an orchestra of integrated sounds. It was clear though that the ‘craw’ of the Andaman Hawk Owl wasn’t tuned to the same frequency. With each piercing ‘craw’ we tried lifting our torches to spot eye-shine… nothing stirred.
At the back of the pack, I walked, engulfed with confusion. “Should I shine my light in the canopy and spot the owls or should I look through the undergrowth for snakes?” The answer betrayed me. Whilst I stood there pondering the solution, a rustle pierced through. “What is that?” I thought to myself. The tail gave it away. “Snake!” I confirmed in excitement. The gang turned around and walked towards me. As I pointed out the beautiful black slithering body, James suggested it was the Andaman wolf snake; there was no doubt. Our rapid movement and footsteps probably spooked it and before we knew, it slithered away silently under the foliage, far from sight.
Photo: Munib Khanyari.
Fresh from the triumph of locating an endemic, I felt motivated to spot more. James too felt the need to impress. The Andaman giant geckos now added to the building cacophony with their almost hysterical laughing calls. The moon-light peering through the canopy cast a silvery hue on our path. Each fluttering moth, white, brown or otherwise, raised my expectations of an owl in flight… all in vain excitement.
As we trod along, silence wrapped the scene again. Our advancing steps retreated only by the sprayed out body of a napping Bay Island lizard on a leaf; we clearly weren’t expecting bed time visitors. Now, almost two hours into our adventure, even the ‘tyuk’ and the ‘craw’ evaded us. James seemed surprisingly expectant though, “We are very close to the waterfall now.” The dry season has sucked most of the water, leaving small, wet pools of liquid, trapped between rocks and roots of winding trees. As I shone my light downwards, the steep undulation was clear; an almost step-wise descent. A slip on these shimmering rocks would not be pleasant. “Hold the roots as you descend,” advised James. This area was clearly wetter and cooler than most of the trail we had just walked. “Rainwater always collects here as this is the start of the waterfall,” said James. The place looked really promising.
And as if it was scripted, “Pit viper!” shouted James. And there it was, coiled up, full with grandeur and beauty amongst the moist rocks. No more than a metre in length, pale orange. As its tiny tongue tasted the air for chemicals, it gave us a slit-eyed stare. A calm excitement wrapped me, only to be disturbed by James piercing whisper, “one more”. Hardly five metres behind slithered another; a sort of blackish-green morph. It didn’t like visitors clearly, for it slithered into a crevasse within seconds of being spotted. Before the disappointment of not getting a good look at the second individual could sink in, James uttered an almost disbelieving laugh, “a third one”. Much similar in colouration to the first (though not as bright), this guy seemed agitated. As I came closer, it coiled up in the quintessential ‘viper strike’ pose. The tongue flickering, eyes bulged and its pit in clear front vision made for some amazing photographs. It amazed me how they all were so perfectly wedged in place between two rocks. I suddenly was wary of my every movement. This was pit viper haven apparently! My moment with this beauty was broken again by a shrill laugh by James. It could only mean one thing… another one! This one, again hardly two meters from the third individual was coiled on a tiny branch, still as a rock. I must say the markings on this particular individual were amazing; a sort of purple body with yellowish-white mottles. Perfect for an ambush predator. The kink at the neck was very evident as I clicked photographs; entranced and enthralled.
Photo: Munib Khanyari.
The snake frenzy abruptly came to an end, when James blurted out the time “9:30 pm!, People back at base will be worried.” The walk was supposed to end an hour ago, but then again, aren’t all walks meant to last a little longer than intended anyways? As we rushed back to base, peace was restored to the pit full of vipers under the carpet of the night sky, its shimmering moon and damp air. That’s when I realised, my stomach was ready for dinner.
Author: Munib Khanyari, Web Special.