TACKLING A TOMMYGOFF

A deadly Fer-de-lance viper takes on a Land Rover Defender in the jungle of Belize

by Tony King, Las Cuevas, Belize, 1996

With a paranoid fear of the deadliest creature in the forests of Central America I wound up the window of 978, a white diesel Land Rover 110 Defender, my eyes fixed on the huge coil of snake ahead of me. Beside me Ernest was recalling how a friend of his had escaped through the window of his Land Rover as a tommygoff reared up and attacked through the passenger window. And how another friend of his had died within two days from the bite of a tommygoff despite having had the bitten leg amputated. I knew that stories tended to get rapidly exaggerated in these parts, particularly by the Creoles who were especially reluctant to enter the jungle, but infront of us was a mean-looking Fer-de-lance, at least six feet long, it's tail quivering like a rattle-snakes, its head, bright yellow under its chin, held high and alert a good two feet above it's motionless, camouflaged body, and I was going to take no chances.

I had just been called over by the young sideman who had spotted it moving into the middle of the mud track to defend it's territory against the mechanical might of a D6 bull-dozer. He, the D6 operator and my usual jungle companion Mr. Howe stood near the 'dozer, watching from a distance, aware that these snakes often travel in pairs. Mr. Howe himself, a Mayan Indian, had spent five months in hospital after a Fer-de-lance bite over thirty years ago, and had been unable to work on his peanut farm for a further two years. Unsurprisingly there was little sympathy for the outnumbered creature, a member of the pit-viper family and known in Belize as tommygoff or yellow-jaw, and my instructions were clear - drive 978 right at him and mash his head into the ground.

The track immediately infront of the tommygoff was very wet and soft, I couldn't take it too slow, but I had to be accurate with my right front wheel. I slipped into first gear, doubled the accs, then took on the mud and aimed for the snake. I needn't have worried too much about the aim, the tommygoff lunged forward with the full power of it's six feet of coiled muscle, striking the front tyre with it's jaws wide apart and it's deadly fangs sprung forward. A fairly new mud-grip tyre was probably more than the tommygoff had bargained for, and the Land Rover rolled on over the back of the now out-stretched snake, front right, rear right.

I looked back, ready to acknowledge any recognition of my brave feat, but all I saw was Mr. Howe rushing into the thick trackside vegetation wielding an eight-foot long branch and then repeatedly smashing it with all his immense strength into the undergrowth. After half a dozen blows he emerged with the snake hanging limp over the end of the branch. The tommygoff had not been harmed by the Land Rover, it's elastic body able to take the weight on the soft ground, but realising it had met it's match it had retreated from the open track, only to find Mr. Howe putting the safety of the team ahead of his own and attacking it with as much fury as in it's own futile attack on the Land Rover.

Ernest and I finally left the security of the vehicle, and I looked over to Mr. Howe. His eyes said everything, I should have stopped the Land Rover with the tommygoff trapped under the wheel, there would have been much less risk to him if I had but he had got it anyway. To a man of 53 who had spent all his life working on and off in the Belizean jungle this was nothing particularly out of the ordinary, he had killed many tommygoffs before and if given the opportunity he would kill more in the future. He grinned in his modest way, and I shrugged my shoulders - sure, the Land Rover could've done it, but this time it was experience that had won the day.