November 13, 2012
For almost six months, they resided in a cramped dungeon in southern France. The summer sun blazed outside, hoards of tourists unwittingly came and went from the region of the Périgord, and the two cans of strong, cheap lager endured their days of isolation in the damp cobblestone cavity where I’d left them last May. Could beers think and feel loneliness, the two might have cried, “Why have you forsaken me?” But, in fact, someone in the world was thinking of them, and one day in early November a man stuck his hand into the cobwebbed cavity in the base of a cemetery retaining wall in the riverside village of Grolejac, and pulled it out again with a half-liter tallboy of malt beverage, namely Gayant La Démon.
Edward Heseltine, a Briton living in the Dordogne department, which includes the Périgord, also read the note I had affixed to the can and, shortly after drinking the cheap yet stimulating beverage, sent me an e-mail about his discovery—and just when I was beginning to think that readers of this blog weren’t interested in this game of go-to-France-and-find-the-beer. But people, it seems, are catching on. Just days after Heseltine contacted me, a traveler named Andrew Quinn sent me a similar e-mail describing how he’d found another of the multiple beers I stashed last spring in remote locations throughout from the Dordogne River Valley, as far west as the Bordeaux region and as far south as the high Pyrenees. Quinn, an American documentary filmmaker from southern California, was traveling in the Dordogne with his wife, Hilary, in September when they made a side excursion, followed the instructions that I posted on this blog in May and parked their rental car at the described mile marker. They walked 100 yards along a stone wall paralleling the Vezere River, a Dordogne tributary, before Quinn dropped to his knees. His hand went went into a drainage hole, and it came out again with a can of beer. Quinn was thrilled, he told me later by phone, “like a little kid” on a successful treasure hunt.
Quinn also picked up on the game’s subtler, deeper significance that had inspired me last spring.
“It was neat to have this interactive experience with another traveler who had been there before,” Quinn said. “There’s so much history in that area of things that humans have left behind, whether hand prints or dwellings or cave paintings, and I appreciated that this was sort of the same thing—that this beer was something that another person had left behind.”
Speaking of leaving things behind, Heseltine took only one of the two beers he discovered in Grolejac, leaving the other for anyone else who may like the sound of a cheap beer at the end of a treasure hunt in the beautiful Périgord. And Quinn, too, reciprocated, going back to the car and taking inventory of his available selection of libations: They had an expensive bottle of wine and a €6 bottle of Normandy cider. The cider went into the hole, and the treasure hunt in the Dordogne remains a live game.
All told, and to the best of my knowledge, six containers of alcoholic beverage remain hidden in remote crevices and crannies in rural France. If you wish to find them, read these instructions pulled from prior Off the Road posts: “I left a bottle of something extra special just 2.2 kilometers from the top [of the Hautacam ski resort], under a table-like rock on the left side of the road [as one ascends], 200 meters past a roadside auberge, and just 20 meters past a metal grate over the road. E-mail me when you find it.” And: “I stashed a beer halfway between the two passes [of Col d’Aubisque and Col du Soulor] in the cliff. It’s a Kellegen blond special, 8.6 percent alcohol, stuffed into a hole in the left end of the cobblestone retaining wall. On the wall is spray-painted a Basque freedom message, ‘LIBERTAT.’ You can’t miss it.” And: “There’s a beer on top [of the huge Col du Tourmalet pass]. If you’re coming up from the east side, you’ll see a concrete bunker-like structure on the right side of the highway. It’ll just take you a second; jump off the bike, reach under the ground-level ledge (you’ll see what I mean), and find the beer. I left it directly beneath the “L” in the spray-painted political message about Basque freedom.” And: “In Sauternes, on road D116 E1, in the base of the cobblestone rock wall facing the entrance to Chateau Lafaurie-Peyragney, a can of beer now dwells in a hole just 40 meters west of the four-way intersection. Let me know when you find it. The beer’s name starts with an “M,” is as strong as a wine but a whole lot cheaper than Chateau d’Yquem‘s latest release.”
The ultimate experience in the sport of lost beer recovery may be the 2010 excavation of several unopened bottles from a Baltic Sea shipwreck. The vessel had gone down in the early 1800s and took to its frigid grave a shipment of sparkling wine and beer. The champagne was reported to be worth tens of thousands of Euros per bottle, while the beer proved later to be contaminated by seawater and, alas, undrinkable. Which makes me wonder about my own beer caches. Specifically, I wonder if the winter freeze could shatter the bottles, or burst the cans—especially those in the high Pyrenees. But perhaps the safest of the bunch will be that particularly strong ogre of a malt beverage named the Maximator that currently resides, as far as I am aware, in the relatively mild wine region of Sauternes. Still, I should hope the thrill of finding them will be enough to encourage you to go looking.
Not a beer fan? Then consider another prize I’ve more recently hidden away: A bottle of homemade maple syrup mead that I brewed and bottled in 2008. It now occupies a cozy nook in Marin County, inside a pedestrian-accessible tunnel less than a mile north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Intrigued? Here is another hint to take you toward the prize: Looking south through the tunnel, you will see downtown San Francisco. E-mail me when you find the mead—and be gentle if you decide to critique my home-brew.
Want to contribute to the game? I invite anyone, anywhere, to stash a beer in a secret but accessible public place. Please provide written directions in the comments box below, and I will publish them in a new post. Additionally, please e-mail a photo of the beer going into its hiding place to email@example.com.
November 5, 2012
The presidential candidates look as suave and dapper as ever each time they step to a new podium on the long and winding campaign trail—but each man’s well-groomed countenance belies the rigors of the arduous road each has traveled during the 2012 presidential race. Following is a discussion, with some facts and figures from behind the scenes, about the two men fighting to have America’s most demanding job and each candidate’s long, long journey that ends tomorrow at the polls.
Where the candidates have been:
Between June 1 and November 2, the Obama camp—including the president, the vice president and each man’s spouse—made 483 campaign-related appearances. Barack Obama was present for 214 of them. The same four-tiered Romney party, meanwhile, made 439 appearances, with 277 by Romney. In late September, the Obama campaign’s efforts seemed to max out: on September 22, the Obamas and the Bidens made 11 appearances, and 10 the day prior. The Romney camp has more recently made its most active efforts, with 10 appearances on October 31, and 11 the next day. Barack Obama has not visited Montana, Idaho, or Wyoming, among other states, and neither candidate has bothered appearing in Maine, Kansas, Nebraska, Tennessee, Kentucky and Oklahoma.
On October 24, Obama had what may have been the busiest day of his campaign. He flew 5,300 miles and made appearances in Iowa, Colorado, California (to appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno) and Nevada, before, at last, catching some sleep on an overnight trip to the major swing state of Florida (which has seen 112 campaign visits by both presidential husband-wife quartets since June), where the campaigning commenced the following morning. Later that day, the president continued to Virginia, Ohio and Illinois, where he cast an early vote. A week later, Obama made another campaign sprint beginning on October 31; forty-eight hours later he had bounded 6,500 miles around the country. November 1 was a particularly exhausting day. After leaving the White House at 9:20 a.m., he hit Green Bay, Las Vegas, Denver and, finally, Columbus, Ohio. And on November 4, he left the White House at 8 a.m. and made visits to New Hampshire, Florida, Ohio, Colorado and Illinois.
How they get there:
The president gets around in his own private jet, called Air Force One. While “Air Force One” is, in fact, the call sign of any Air Force plane on which a U.S. president is traveling, the term more commonly refers to a particular pair of customized Boeing 747s used exclusively by the White House. Operating the planes is not cheap. ABC News has reported that an hour of flight on Air Force One costs about $180,000–usually of taxpayers’ money, unless a flight is considered strictly part of the campaign. But Obama does occasionally journey overland by bus—specifically in a black, slick and shiny armored coach that, just like its duplicate vehicle, cost $1.1 million when the Secret Service purchased the pair last year. By some guesses, Ground Force One, as it’s been dubbed and which has been active during this campaign, travels just six to nine miles on a gallon of gasoline.
Mitt Romney has also covered some impressive distance during his campaign. According to the Huffington Post, Romney will make a last-minute, four-day, 15,000-mile dash that ends tonight after visits to seven states, and he has traveled tens of thousands of miles throughout the campaign. As of late August, he has been traveling mostly on a private jet—a McDonnell-Douglas 83. Running mate Paul Ryan has his own plane—a similar model called the DC-90.
Where they sleep:
Luxury travel goes hand in hand with luxury lodging, and the president has stayed at the Beverly Hills Beverly Hilton Hotel in a room that costs $4,000 per night, the Ballantyne Hotel in Charlotte, North Caroline, the Hotel Bellevue in Washington, and many other fine establishments. And Romney has stayed at the Charleston Place Hotel in Charleston, the New York Palace Hotel, which can cost $9,000 per night, and the Millennium Bostonian Hotel.
How they stay fit:
In spite of their busy schedules, Obama and Romney both take the time to care for themselves and maintain physical fitness. Romney, it’s been reported, jogs three miles daily, whether on treadmills, around the hotel premises or on trails. Obama, too, keeps an exercise routine and aims for 45 minutes of boosted heart rate per day, achieved through running, basketball and even boxing. Although one of the Air Force One jets contains a treadmill, as Obama recently told Jay Leno, the stationary running machine was installed during a previous presidency and Obama does not jog on it during flights.
In the end, for all the sleepless nights and airport marathons and shaking of hands, we wonder: Did their campaign efforts steer the election? Whether Romney wins or Obama, America will know soon which man will get to spend the next four years flying in Air Force One.
October 19, 2012
The seemingly slow-motion ash plume of a distant and erupting volcano; the petrified rivers of lava on the slopes of a mountain; the stories of towns caught by surprise by descending volcanic avalanches: Such are the elements of vulcanism that amaze and terrify us—though not necessarily enough to keep people at bay, and volcanic landscapes, both dormant and active, draw countless tourists to rumbling mountains, rivers of lava and boiling geysers every year. Following are several of the most inspiring volcanic destinations.
Pompeii. Porous rocks, cinder cones, geysers and lava beds may be fascinating for anyone with a geological conscience, but not much volcanic scenery can quite compare with the Roman ruins of Pompeii, in southern Italy, where archaeologists have uncovered human terror frozen in stone. Body casts have been made of partially preserved figures lying curled in fetal position, seated with arms shielding their heads and in other desperate poses. One family of four was even discovered hiding under a staircase, where they succumbed to the fatal blast of heat that engulfed the city on August 24, in A.D. 79. In all, an estimated 16,000 people died that day. Along with human remains, the ruins of Pompeii include artifacts of the era—like various household items and petrified loaves of bread. And looming over it all is the culprit, Mount Vesuvius. Or, not looming exactly—because Vesuvius is only a shade over 4,000 feet tall (various sources give their own exact figures). Yet the little mountain is considered a real hazard and is among Europe’s handful of active volcanoes. It erupted most recently in 1944. The mountain, along with its relatives Campi Flegrei, Vulcano, Stromboli and the often-rumbling Mount Etna of Sicily, marks the interface between the African and Eurasian tectonic plates, where the former dives under the latter, melts in the heat of the earth’s interior and sends plumes of magma upward to create cone-shaped volcanoes. Hikers can ascend Vesuvius without a great deal of effort. The trail skirts the rim of the crater, where rising steam reminds us—and certainly residents of nearby Naples–that Vesuvius hasn’t yet had its last words.
Krakatoa. On August 26, 1883, the entire 2,667-foot-tall Indonesian island of Krakatoa vaporized in one of the most powerful volcanic explosions in history. More than 36,000 people died in the blast and from the resulting 130-foot tsunami, which swamped the Southeast Asian coastline. The explosion was heard 4,500 miles across the Indian Ocean in Sri Lanka and veiled the earth in an airborne ash layer that lowered global temperatures and affected weather patterns for years. Quite literally, Krakatoa’s was an eruption that rocked the world. For decades, the mountain was gone. Then, in 1927, the sea above Krakatoa’s craggy stump began to boil—and in years following a new mountain emerged. Today, Anak Krakatoa—the “child of Krakatoa”—stands more than 1,300 feet high and is growing an average of 16 feet per year. It’s a little mountain still, but plainly one of the most dramatic. At times, cloud systems above the peak glow with the colors of fire—though scientists are dubious whether the new volcano has the potential to explode with anything like the power of its predecessor. The mountain is an object of great intrigue, and tourists who visit the island may even hike to the summit.
Mount Lassen Volcanic National Park. The southernmost peak of the Cascades, Mount Lassen in Northern California rises dramatically from an otherwise nondescript landscape of farm country and rolling hills. Cone-shaped like its volcanic cousins to the north—including Mount Shasta, Mount Hood, Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens (which exploded in 1980, killing 57 people)—Lassen last blew its lid in a series of eruptions between 1914 and 1917. This activity left its northeast side a ruin of volcanic rubble and desolation. Travelers through the mountain, which is bisected by a highway that cuts up and over and right past the summit, will see steaming pools high on the mountain, as well as a devastated area. Lower on the slopes is a craggy landscape of black volcanic rock and hardened lava flows that appear like a turbulent, frozen river. Hikers can walk 700 feet up to the nearby peak the Cinder Cone (that’s the 360-year-old volcano’s name), atop which is an ominous-looking crater. Wish to climb Lassen itself? The summit stands 10,463 feet above sea level, about 5,500 feet above the hill country at its base and 2,000 feet above the trailhead, where hikers park their cars to make the four-hour round-trip trek.
Mauna Loa. Sometimes regarded as the biggest mountain on the planet (and the tenth-largest in the solar system) when measured from its base at the seafloor, Mauna Loa rises more than 31,000 feet and measures 19,000 cubic miles in volume. (The neighboring Mauna Kea is slightly higher and part of the same massif, but Mauna Loa is generally regarded as the central peak of the Big Island.) While Everest climbers may smirk at the suggestion that a gentle shield volcano in the tropics is anything but a molehill, Mauna Loa ranks as one of the earth’s most active and exciting volcanoes. Mauna Loa has erupted 33 times since 1843 and has long been an attraction for locals and tourists seeking photo-friendly volcano-viewing opportunities. Its eruptions have been relatively benign events—though in 1935, the U.S. Air Force was called upon to drop bombs in the path of a lava flow headed for Hilo to try to divert it. The city wound up untouched, and no people have been killed by Mauna Loa’s historical volcanic activity. The most recent eruption was in 1984—a three-week-long outburst that had the Big Island on high alert, threatened to destroy a prison and provided lava lovers with the photo ops of a lifetime.
Yellowstone National Park. The North America Plate is slowly sliding across the surface of the earth—and lying beneath this moving slab of crust is a volcanic hotspot, a vent fuming with heat. This process has left a linear series of scars on the land, including the nearby Snake River Plain. Today, the place we call Yellowstone National Park sits on top of the gurgling hotspot, and as a result the park features hot springs, geysers and rock formations in addition to its fantastic assembly of bison, elk and other megafauna. In fact, wildlife may attract the majority of Yellowstone’s visitors, who have good chances of seeing grizzly bears and wolves from the highway, yet the sheer thrills of vulcanism are a sure draw. At the Old Faithful geyser, which erupts reliably every one to two hours, crowds gather in timely waves to witness the show as water spews 100 feet and more into the air. And sapphire pools of clear, scalding water bring tourists to the rail along paths that wind through a number of dramatic hydrothermal sites. But the gentle volcanic activity of Yellowstone is a bit misleading—for this region is just one of the earth’s supervolcanoes. The Yellowstone supervolcano has erupted three times, scientists believe. The first event was the biggest—a blast about 2.1 million years ago that released 25,000 times the energy of the famed Mount St. Helens eruptions–itself 400 times more powerful than the Hiroshima atomic bomb. The two subsequent eruptions of the Yellowstone supervolcano occurred about 800,000 years apart—and by this pattern geologists speculate that we’re due for another. Such a huge eruption in Yellowstone today would kill an estimated 87,000 people. So enjoy the placid activity of Old Faithful—and cross your fingers.
We’ve named a handful of volcanic sightseeing spots. What others are worth a journey?
October 11, 2012
Where men have gone, two things have almost inevitably tagged along: rats—and grapevines. The one sneaked aboard the first boats to America, living on crumbs and destined to swarm a whole new hemisphere as surely as the Europeans themselves. The other was packed along in suitcases, lovingly so, and with the dear hope that it would provide fruit, juice and wine just as readily as it had in the motherland. And the grapevine did. When the Spaniards hit the Caribbean and spread through Mexico, vineyards grew behind them like cairns marking the trail of a shepherd. Vitis vinifera struggled in the muggy Southeast, but Mexico and Texas became centers of wine production, as did California, south to north along the Catholic missionary route. Meanwhile, the common grape went about rooting itself in the rest of the world. Just as the Phoenicians had introduced the species to Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula millennia ago, sailors of more modern days brought their wine vines to southern Africa, Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand. The species thrived in Chile, produced super crops in the Napa Valley and gained fame in the Barossa Valley of Australia.
Like rats and men, V. vinifera had conquered the world.
Today, the expansion goes on. New wine industries are growing in old places like Central Africa and India, while old industries are being newly discovered in Baja California and Texas. In China, ballooning into a hungry giant in a capitalist world, winemakers are cashing in on the thirst for the world’s favorite funky juice. And in England, they’re cashing in on the grape-friendly effects of global warming. From the high mountains of the Andes to the scorching plains of equatorial Africa, grape wine is flowing from the earth. Following are a few places where tourists might never have known there was wine to taste.
North Carolina. Once among the leading wine-producing regions in America, North Carolina saw its industry wither when Prohibition kicked in, and for decades following, it lay in ruins, grown over with tobacco fields and mostly forgotten. But now, North Carolina wine is making a comeback. Twenty-one wineries operated statewide in 2001, and by 2011 there were 108. Many make wine from a native American grape called muscadine, or scuppernong (Vitis rotundifolia). The drink is aromatic and sweet—and supposedly dandier than lemonade on a warm evening on the porch swing. But familiar stars of the V. vinifera species occur here, too. RayLen Vineyards makes a knockout Cabernet-based blend called Category 5, named to honor the high-octane cyclone that was bearing down on the coast just as the family was bottling a recent vintage; RagApple Lassie‘s red Zinfandel is tart and zesty like the classic Zins of California; and Raffaldini Vineyards and Winery runs the tagline, “Chianti in the Carolinas,” with Sangiovese and Vermentino its flagship red and white. A good starting point for a tasting tour is the city of Winston-Salem, gateway to the Yadkin Valley wine country. Also consider visiting the Mother Vine. This muscadine grapevine first took from a seed circa 1600 on Roanoke Island. Generations of caretakers have since come and gone while standing guard over the Mother Vine, whose canopy has at times covered two acres and which barely survived a clumsy pesticide accident in 2010 during a roadside weed-killing outing by a local power company. Want to taste the fruit of this old lady? Duplin Winery makes a semisweet muscadine from vines directly propagated from the Mother Vine herself.
China. In parts of China’s interior wine country, grape varieties that evolved comfortably in sight of the Mediterranean Sea shiver as autumn plunges into the sub-Siberian winter. To keep their vines from dying, Chinese farmers must knock them over after harvest, bend them to the ground, bury them under 15 inches of dirt and hope to see them again in the spring. The method, though laborious, seems to work well enough, and the wines of the central province of Hebai have spawned the flattering regional nickname “China’s Bordeaux.” But the nation’s modern wine industry took a humiliating hit in 2010 when six people were detained in connection with the discovery of dangerous chemicals—used for flavoring and coloring—in a number of big-name Hebai wine brands, including Yeli and Genghao. Around the nation, retailers cleared their shelves of suspect bottles—many falsely labeled as high-end products, and some containing just 20 percent real wine. Worse, some wine bottles (2.4 million per year) from the quote-unquote “winery” Jiahua Wine Co. contained no wine at all—just a masterly handcrafted mélange of sugar water and chemicals. But thirsty travelers must have a drink now and then, and if you’re not in Rome, well, you might just have to drink what the Chinese drink. Thankfully, this country knows wine. Really. Evidence of indigenous winemaking dates back 4,600 years, prior to V. vinifera‘s appearance, and today China is gaining a reputation as a producer of serious wines. (“Serious” is the oenophile’s way of saying “good”—though one must note that “playful” wines can also be good, if not serious). Consider Chateau Junding, Changyu Winery and Dragon Seal, among other wineries.
Baja California. From the tip of the Baja peninsula to the United States border, vineyards grow in desert canyons watered by springs and shaded by date palms and mango trees, and travelers who inquire with locals may easily find themselves soon enough in possession of a Pepsi bottle freshly filled with two liters of red, semi-spritzy, alcoholic juice. But it’s in the northern valleys of Guadalupe, San Vicente and Santo Tomás that tourists find the serious stuff—wines so fine and fussy they demand glass bottles with corks and labels. In fact, among the sorts of people who talk about particularly great vintages of the 1960s, and certain Pinots that are just peaking, or whether a Bordeaux might benefit from being “laid down” for a few more years—the wines of Baja are gaining a classy reputation. The fierce heat of Baja’s summers is the driving force behind a range of excellent red wines. Look for Rincon de Guadalupe’s Tempranillo, a jammy, forceful wine with some delicious upfront scents of bacon and smoke. And the Xik Bal Baja Cabernet Blend is as vigorous and elegant as the prized Cabs of the Napa Valley. Want a white wine? The Nuva, from Vinicola Fraternidad, is a fruity, fragrant combo of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Moscato de Canelli. For a taste of history, visit Bodegas de Santo Tómas, the oldest winery in Baja. You might also try and track down a bottle of Criolla (also called Mission), the first grape variety the Catholic missionaries introduced so long ago.
India. Grapevines enjoy a winterless wonderland in the tropical wine country of India. That is, they would enjoy it if their keepers didn’t induce the dormancy of the deciduous vines by hacking them down each spring. “See you after the monsoon,” says the farmer to his stumped vines, and he walks away with his rose clippers to tend to his cashew and mango trees. If he didn’t cut them back, the vines would thrive all year and even produce two crops—each a halfhearted, diluted effort from the vine, which really needs several months of hibernation each year to perform best. And when the rains have passed, buds sprout and blossom, and as the leaves unfold into the sunlight, miniature bunches of grapes appear and begin their steady surge toward ripeness and the season of harvest—which, in this topsy-turvy tropical land, happens in March, even though it’s north of the Equator. Bizarre. Sula Vineyards is one of the more famous wineries in the state of Maharashtra, with Shiraz, Zinfandel, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc among its main varieties. Other nearby sipping sites along the Indian wine-tasting trail include Chateau Indage, Chateau d’Ori and Zampa Wines. But things don’t smell quite like roses in India’s wine country. Though production grew steadily for years, with Maharashtra’s wine grape acreage ballooning from roughly 20 in 1995 to 3,000 in 2009, the market took a hard hit in 2010. Bad weather and economics were the main culprits, though some reports say the industry is stabilizing again. Still, Indians seem not to be developing a taste for wine like Westerners have. While per capita wine consumption runs 60 to 70 liters per person in France and Italy, according to this article, and 25 liters in the United States and four in China, the average Indian drinks between four and five milliliters per year—just enough to swirl, sniff, taste and spit.
Next time, join us as we explore more unlikely regions of wine.
October 3, 2012
Where would we be without snakes? Rodent populations might boom, the native bird assemblage of Guam would probably remain mostly intact today and 100,000 people every year would not die of venomous bites. As we can see, snakes bring both good and bad to the world we share with them. But mostly, these reptiles have been cast in the role of evil.
It’s easy to see why, if we just take a glance at the scariest of the lot—the venomous snakes. Indeed, it might take a very persuasive herpetologist on field sabbatical in Ecuador to convince the locals that the pit viper of his thesis focus is anything but a device of the devil. Throughout the New World tropics, roughly 2,000 people die every year from the bite of the pit viper (Bothrops atrox), known also as the fer-de-lance. Its close cousin, B. asper, goes by the same common names and is comparably devastating and said to be so aggressive it will chase people, bent on sharing some of its powerful venom. And in Africa, the black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) seems so wicked it’s absurd: It is the fastest snake in the world and can slither more swiftly than the average city cyclist pedals to work; it is the second-longest venomous snake, growing to 14 feet; it may strike a single victim repeatedly like a psycho with a butcher knife; its venom is so potent it can kill a horse—and a person in just 30 minutes; and, in bite victims who go untreated, the mortality rate is—get this—100 percent. In other words, nobody—that’s nobody—on a trek in the wilderness of tropical Africa, hours from the nearest doctor and without antivenin, survives the bite of the black mamba. As locals say, this snake delivers the “kiss of death.”
Stories of such creatures can leave indelible impressions on the tender minds of men—so indelible that no matter how plain and obvious it is that the harmless gopher snake—or king snake, or rat snake—is a peaceful friend of society that wants little more than to eat a rat (a job that somebody’s got to do, and how grateful we should be that snakes have volunteered), many people still call snake control and removal experts when one appears on their property. Forgive them, Mother Nature, for they know not what they do. Now, whether you love them or hate them, here are a few iconic species to watch for when traveling, from those wickedly venomous to those worth learning more about before you cast your judgment.
Reticulated python (Python reticulatus). Probably the longest snake in the world (if not the heaviest), the reticulated python of Southeast Asia is also an occasional man-eater and a popular pet. (Go figure that one. I’ll stick with my yellow Lab.) Recently, a 25-footer weighing 350 pounds was named the largest snake in captivity—but just how big the largest “retic” ever to have lived might never be known. In 2003, one snake was reported to be 49 feet long and weigh more than 900 pounds. Only when journalist John Aglionby of The Guardian made a trip to see and measure the creature, being kept in a cage in a village in Java, was its real size revealed: 23 feet. Why should we believe an English journalist and not the keeper of the snake, you ask? Come on. Forty-nine feet? Anyway, read Aglionby’s article, which explains the difficulty in measuring large, coiled-up snakes. Worthy to note when discussing the biggest snakes is that between 1997 and 2002, the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society offered a $50,000 reward to anyone who could produce a 30-foot snake. The prize was never collected.
Ashe’s spitting cobra (Naja ashei). And you thought camels were nasty for spitting in strangers’ faces (they’re actually belching up their cud). Well, the spitting cobra doesn’t just spit; it spits venom. And since the venom is harmless to intact skin, the mean evolutionary tactic behind this nasty habit seems to be, precisely, to hit the victim in the eye, which can cause permanent blindness. Ashe’s spitting cobra is the largest of the dozen or so spitting cobra species, which live in Africa and Asia. N. ashei, first named only in 2007, reaches nine feet in length, has been seen eating five-foot-long puff adders (another deadly venomous snake) and, like all the spitting cobras, can also inject venom by biting. And while we’re discussing cobras, the king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) can grow to twice the length of the Ashe’s spitting cobra and may administer, in one bite, two-tenths of an ounce of venom to its unfortunate victim—enough to kill an elephant. The species acts aggressively when cornered or when guarding a nest, in which the females lay their eggs, but does not commonly attack humans.
Green anaconda (Eunectes murinus). It is the biggest of the boas and perhaps the bulkiest of all snakes, but the South American green anaconda’s pop culture reputation as a killer may be entirely undeserved. The snake, which gives live birth to 20-inch babies and can reportedly grow to 28 feet and 280 pounds (according to the San Diego Zoo), is relatively sluggish and does not, with any regularity, attack humans.Yet people hate the creatures. Just check out the comments following this blog post about a pregnant anaconda killed by South American villagers. The author of the post questions why the animal was killed. Scores of readers responded like raving idiots at a public hanging. One argued that with 70 baby snakes inside her, the big snake was a population bomb about to go off and would have left the village crawling with hungry anacondas. And another reader said, “[W]e don t need snakes on this world.they are dangerous. i hate the snakes it s the animal of the devil…” Well spoken. Thank you. Next! “[T]hat thing could kill a horse.” No, it probably couldn’t. Next! “How could it possibly have been pregnant? It’s a SNAKE, snakes are REPTILES, and reptiles LAY EGGS!!!” Obviously not a herpetologist. Next! “[S]nake’s aren’t nice animals…there more like monsters who just wanna eat.” Brilliant. Next! “Either you eat the Anaconda, or the Anaconda eats YOU !” All right, all right! Order! In fact, there is no documented case of an anaconda killing a human.
Beaked sea snake (Enhydrina schistosa). Though the Australian inland taipan tops the list of the world’s most venomous snakes, the beaked sea snake isn’t far behind. Rated as the world’s sixth most venomous snake, it is considered the most dangerous sea snake. Its fangs may measure just four millimeters, and surfers and divers wearing wetsuits may be protected, though just barely, from this animal’s bite. Yet nine of every ten people killed by sea snakes are killed by the beaked sea snake, which is said to be easily provoked and very aggressive. It inhabits shallow, murky waters in Australia and much of the Indian Ocean, often among mangrove roots. Wading fishermen are frequent victims.
Santa Catalina Island rattlesnake (Crotalus catalinesis). If the flared hood of a cobra is the icon of danger in the heat of Africa and Asia, then the sound of a rattlesnake giving its warning might be that of the American desert. Which makes the rattlesnake without a rattle a riddle of evolution—though scientists have supposed that its rattleless tail may be a result of evolving on an island mostly absent of other creatures to communicate with. Otherwise, the Santa Catalina Island rattlesnake is a rattlesnake in every way—from head almost to tail. It is a dwarf among rattlesnakes, however, reaching a maximum size of just 28 inches long. It is also endemic to (that is, entirely limited to) the single Sea of Cortez island on which it lives, and—with just 100 square kilometers to call its own—the species is critically endangered. Predation by feral cats is a considerable threat.
Sobering facts about snakebites: In 2011, the BBC reported that snakes bite as many as 5.5 million people every year, killing at least 100,000. In India alone, the article stated, a million people may suffer snakebites every year. The Indian cobra, Russell’s viper, saw-scaled viper and common krait are the main perpetrators in India, while the king cobra tends often to be wrongly blamed. In sub-Saharan Africa, carpet vipers, black mambas, puff adders and boomslangs are snakes to be feared. In Australia, the snake blacklist is long and frightening, while in Europe vipers are the main culprit, and in North America, rattlesnakes. What to do if bitten by a snake? Antivenin is said to be the only reliable treatment, unfortunately. According to the 2011 revision of Where There Is No Doctor: A Village Health Care Handbook, the wound of a snakebite victim should be firmly wrapped in a bandage before the person is carried on a makeshift stretcher to the nearest doctor. “If you can, also take the snake,” the authors advise, as identifying the needed antivenin can otherwise be difficult. And things not to do after receiving a snakebite? Cutting the flesh near the wound, applying ice, trying to suck the venom out of the bite and having a beer (as alcohol can reportedly make symptoms worse).