On New Year’s Day I took the family out for an evening walk on the ranch. Along the verges, lush after rains, I urged our children, Eve and Rider, to help me collect specimens of different plants, or identify wildlife spoor or scat. I wore shorts and flip-flops. As usual I was talking too much to my wife Claire, when I was stunned into silence by Eve, who cried out loudly, as if the world was ending, and pointed at the ground in front of me. I froze. I had not looked where I was going and my right foot was about six inches from the head of a puff adder, fat and four-foot long. I recoiled and my herpetologist pals will be annoyed to hear that on an automatic impulse I killed the beautiful creature. Usually, I would never hurt a snake. I felt it was a matter of survival. When I held Eve, my little saviour from the serpent, she wept with shock. Puff adders kill many, their bites leading to death within a day if untreated. The venom causes flesh to rot. Philoctetes, history’s most famous puff-adder victim, stank so badly the Troy-bound Greeks marooned him on Lemnos.
I am very grateful Eve saved me from a venomous snake, but if any of us were to be bitten clearly I’d want it to be me. Out walking on the farm I always have the crowned plovers dive-bombing me with piercing cries to divert the intruder from their brood. Like any father and husband, being the lightning rod for danger was a role I always wished for myself, and not only to protect those I love by standing at the breach of any oncoming peril. I also ardently hope that any misfortune lurking in the vicinity of the homestead might be distracted from pursuing my people and come after me instead. I want it to afflict me and not them.
For so many years I reckon that I suspected each incident I survived — bullets and rocks flying close to home, the near falls off high buildings, even an ambush on a foreign hillside or an IED explosion in a faraway rotting African city — was not just a stroke of luck for me, but also a successful plover-like tactic on my part to divert bad luck away from those that matter. And, for sure, it gave me plenty to hold forth about loudly over the dinner table, demolishing mountains of fatty meat and swimming pools of wine.
Life is dangerous in the places you rarely suspect. Just before Christmas we went to stay at the most spectacular old house in the Rift Valley, with wide verandas and sweeping lawns. For several hours each day we rode horses, getting into practice for a family horseback safari we hope to do later this year across the Maasai Mara. Among us Claire loved it most of all, going hell for leather up the farm’s grassy airstrip.
A couple of days later she found a lump in her breast. We rushed to Nairobi, where tests were done and plans were made for a trip to London. The children became aware due to a foolish slip on my part. After that Christmas did not get in the way, or spoil the holiday, since it might even have distracted us from nagging worries as the hours ticked away. The puff adder, for me at least, became an incident full of meaning, about our fragility and need for each other’s protection — and also our helplessness.
I write this from Africa, separated from my Claire and our children by 4,000 miles of sea and continents. As she was being prepared we texted each other. Sat with a poor woman who looked absolutely terrified! I felt very sorry for her. Lucky I am made of sterner stuff! That’s the tough woman who turns out to be the true sentinel of the family, showing greater courage than I ever did. When she woke up later our conversation gave me immense hope and we pray for good news, but we know that in the months ahead there will be struggles. There are so many of you who are familiar with this ordeal. For us it’s sharp and new. But you don’t become a farmer in Africa unless you’re an optimist. My own pathetic response to all this has been to visit an organic farmers’ market in Nairobi — given that our vegetables on the ranch get devoured by drought, elephant or pests unless we nuke them with pesticides — throw out all the sugar in the house, go to a party, wonder what we can do with ginger and to spend my evenings staring doubtfully at bottles of cheap South African wine.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10