I’ve always been fascinated by dangerous snakes. Don’t ask me why. I’ve never considered myself an adrenaline-junkie: the thought of skydiving sends a shiver down my spine, and I’ve even been known to shamefully duck out of line at theme parks so that I don’t have to ride the roller coaster. But put a pit viper in front of me and I become transfixed: there is something bewitching about so much death crammed into such an elegant creature. My first encounter with deadly snakes came in the Amazon jungles of Peru. It was here that I ran into the fer-de-lance (Bothrops asper), a pit viper legendary throughout Central and South America for its cryptic camouflage and fatal hemotoxic venom. I came across the snake late one night while walking back to my jungle cabin. In the misty moonlight it was nearly invisible. Luckily I noticed it before my sandaled foot landed on its coiled body. Since then I have been obsessed with these snakes. And if you’re looking for vipers the Annamites are a great place to go. (OK, OK, if have to admit it my favorite member of the pit viper clan is a New World snake called the eyelash viper (Bothriechis schlegelii), but the vipers of Vietnam fill up every other slot in my favorites list).
It’s no surprise that I’ve had a couple close calls. But I think it’s only fair to point out from the start that in my experience no snake will strike unprovoked. Whether you mean to provoke the snake or not is another matter entirely—and quite academic if you do end up getting bitten and dying in some god-forsaken jungle. But rarely will a viper go out of its way to attack a human. Why would it? Venom is costly to produce, in limited supply, and only used for defense as a last resort. The purpose of the hemotoxin is to kill small prey, not people. But vipers are not all that skilled at reading intentions: step on a tail or get too close while taking a photograph and you might end up with a lethal bite. Both situations have nearly happened to me. I want to make it absolutely clear, however, that the incidents were due entirely to “operator error” as my father would put it. In other words, me letting my guard down. That’s never a good thing when one is dealing with poisonous snakes. Needless to say I’ve learned a couple important lessons along the way.
Lesson number one: Never assume safety in numbers. While walking through the forest our team often walks single-file. It’s easy to assume that if there is a snake on the trail the first or second person will see it. That isn’t always the case. Early on in my trip to Quang Nam I almost stepped on the tail of a pit viper after two people had walked directly over it. The fact that two jungle-hardened guides had not seen the snake will give some idea how well camouflaged it was: its slender outline evaporated into the tangle of low-lying vegetation where it lay in ambush. My foot was inches from its tail when I saw it and jumped back. Whether or not the snake would have struck can’t be definitively answered. But knowing the temperamental attitude of Trimeresurus I would bet my rice rations that it would have. Lesson number two: Always play it on the safe side when judging the striking distance of a viper. On the last day of the trip I came across a stunning mature emerald pit viper. Because my camera doesn’t have a good zoom lens I got as close as I thought I safely could and began snapping pictures. I was at least one viper body-length away from its head. Then in a flash of green lightning the snake struck at me, making contact with my right pointer finger. For the first time in my life I thought Oh my god, I’m going to die. It was only after several seconds of heart-racing panic that I realized that the fang hadn’t penetrated my skin. And it’s a good thing it didn’t. Without access to anti-venom and days away from medical attention, I would have, in the words of my Vietnamese colleagues, “gone to see uncle Ho Chi Minh.” That was the last time I got within three feet of a pit viper. I’m afraid, readers, that you’ll have to go without any more close up shots of vipers this year. I’m done in that department. Enjoy what I’ve put up and we’ll leave it at that. Perhaps this year for Christmas I’ll ask for a camera with a high-power zoom. Yes, now that I think about it, that wouldn’t be a bad idea.