South Africas Snakeman in Australia
by Cheryl Goodenough
Wildlife documentary maker and photographer Austin J. Stevens, who is best known for wrangling venomous snakes, immigrated to Australia recently. Although he had travelled to Australia several times before moving here and is now accompanied by his Australian-born wife Amy, Austin is now wrangling with some of the issues well-known to other immigrants.
Having some flexibility regarding where they would live, Austin and Amy faced their first challenge. Starting out in Sydney, I soon came to realise that things had changed somewhat [since I first visited in 1995], and I was forced to pay three times what I would pay back in Namibia for a flat half the size. Somewhat in a panic, my wife and I started scouting townhouses to buy. Here again we faced the three times more than in Namibia scenario. This was obviously a matter that was going to seriously deplete our life savings.
Going Up North
Says Austin: It was then that a friend living up the coast in Queensland, informed us that we were in fact residing in one of the most expensive areas of the world, at least as far as property was concerned, and knowing our need for wide open spaces and wilderness areas, he suggested we go north. So this is what we are doing, going north, away from the overpopulated city crowds and traffic jams, and closer to more natural wilderness.
They are currently staying in the Port Stephens area, but have plans to explore further up the coast, possibly as far as Cairns, before buying their own home.
The very best thing about being in Australia, according to Austin, is the communication with people. Everybody is friendly and helpful and takes the time to go out of their way to help you with a problem. Service in shops and restaurants is fantastic, you can explain exactly what you need, and be sure to get it. Coming from Africa, this is a real treat. Also the postal and banking systems are amazing, again everything works efficiently and is presented with a smiling face. We just appreciate that so much.
Austin adds that in Port Stephens, people also sleep with their doors open, have no high electric fences or walls surrounding their properties. As a South African, who was seriously injured as a result of crime, Austin describes the general safety as an incredulous thing that will take some time to get used to.
We just appreciate the Australian way so much. I am a wildlife photographer so, of course, I miss the African wilderness and all the wonders and wild animals to be found there, but I would not change this Australian way of life even for that, especially now that I have a wife to take care of. Amy is my ultimate highlight of being in Australia.
Austin says that hes moved to this part of the world largely because of Amy. The bottom line is that she is Australian by birth, and though she has spent the past two and a half years in Africa with me, and has fallen in love with the wilderness and wild animals, she feels that home is still in Australia, where she has family. With her heart torn between her new love for me and also that of the African wilderness, and her home Australia, we finally decided on a compromise that may work for all. We will base ourselves in Australia, and visit the wilds of Africa every year, or at least as often as possible, for as long a period as possible.
Amy was the writer of a fan letter to Austin in June 2006, and the snakeman was struck by how different her letter was from others that he received from his fans.
She sent me pictures of her snake and not of herself, he says. Also, she talked about her snake, and not about herself. She seemed content to tell me about her pet snake (an Australian black-headed python) and this, she explained, because she had seen me catch and handle one during the Australian episode of my television show.
Austin sensed that Amy was genuinely interested in herpetology and, somewhat unusually, gave out his personal email address. As any celebrity knows, usually one should never allow fans to have direct contact, as one never knows who one is dealing with. I have experienced clingers and stalkers before, he says.
Over the following year Austin and Amy continued to write regularly to one another and came to realise how similarly they thought about life and the world in general.
Being a herpetologist and wildlife author, photographer, wildlife documentary film maker, and adventure television presenter, I fall into a category which usually excludes most everyday eight-to-five type people from my circle of acquaintances. My hours are irregular (to say the least), I travel all over the world continuously, I prefer the company of wild animals, and happily spend much of my time alone doing what I do best with a camera and my laptop computer. To make contact with someone who understood everything I talked about, could add facts and figures and further information, and sympathise with my beliefs and theories was a new experience to me.
After about six months of conversations by email, an invitation from Austin to Amy to consider visiting Namibia one day, and Amy finding a way to make the trip from Sydney to Namibia, Amy arrived for a 12-day stay in June 2007. The trip was extended to 60 days, and ultimately led to Austin and Amy getting married in Swakopmund on December 7, 2007.
Although Austin had seen pictures of Amy before her visit, he says that he was astonished at how lovely she looked when she stepped off the plane at Walvis Bay airport and possibly fell in love with her at that very moment.
Austin says that, during Amys first few months in Namibia, she quickly adapted to the bush-travel life and was excited every time they came into contact with wild animals. She even thrilled to the experience of her first full-on charge by an irate desert bull elephant. She showed no sign of fright, but instead, pure delight. My kind of woman!
Early Snake Experiences
Austin was just 12 years old when he brought home his first snake, a young red-lipped herald snake. Though this species is not considered dangerous to humans, my parents were unimpressed, and forced me to dispose of the luckless reptile. I was very upset, having now seen the forbidden fruit and not been allowed to eat of it! Thus began my lovehate relationship with my parents as I battled relentlessly to coax them over to my way of thinking, and they threatened to send me to boarding school if I did not do as I was told.
Continues Austin: Needless to say, my parents did eventually succumb, and by my late teens I had a collection of snakes, next to none, housed in my room. These my parents proudly discussed with any friends and visitors, showing pride and genuine respect for my gained knowledge and enthusiasm of the subject. Little did they suspect how these creatures would affect the rest of my life.
Austin worked for many years at the Hartebeesport Dam Snake and Animal Park where staff were often approached by film makers needing animals that had been hand-reared and could be coached to act scenes in films. This proved to be a good background for Austins future and was where he started to hone his photography skills. As Austin progressed to better cameras, with interchangeable lenses, he became photo crazy and then began to write articles, publishing over 150 stories with photographs around the world.
Most of Austins published articles are in one way or another connected to wild animal behaviour and their place in the natural world. He says that when hes experienced something special, he likes to write about it so that he can share it with others who might be interested. A good example is the article I wrote after completing the filming of my desert chameleon project. This was a film nobody wanted to back, saying there was not enough interest in chameleons. However, having spent much time with these amazing desert-adapted chameleons, I knew different, and struck out alone, putting myself deep into debt, but pursuing what I believed in. I was so deeply and emotionally affected by the lives of these chameleons, and had spent so much time with them (seven months in the desert filming, alone) that I felt compelled to tell the story. I submitted the article, with pictures, to Getaway magazine in South Africa, it was readily published, and I was later informed that the article had generated the most feed back in the form of letters and enquires of any article they had ever published since their beginning, some 12 years earlier.
Getting into Television
One of the reptile demonstrations that Austin did while still working at the reptile park was filmed for television and he was later asked to do several shows for the television show Compass. Many years later, Austin got behind a movie camera to make his first documentary film about the life of snakes for a German television company. He subsequently made a documentary on desert chameleons, which was snapped up by National Geographic, and was asked to help out with various overseas film projects where snakes were being featured.
After a number of these, I was asked if I thought it might be possible to do a whole adventure episode involving venomous snakes. I said that I thought it was possible and the resulting dramatic film Seven Deadly Strikes became the catalyst that eventually led to Animal Planet taking notice.
Austins first Animal Planet series was known as Austin Stevens SnakeMaster in the United States, and elsewhere as Austin Stevens Most Dangerous, and was followed by a second series Austin Stevens Adventures.
The life of a herpetologist, especially such an adventure-seeking one as Austin, is naturally dangerous, but Austin describes himself as one of the fortunate herpetologists who can claim very few dangerous bites from venomous snakes, especially considering he has milked thousands of snakes, performed thousands of public shows and lectures, and spent years in the field catching and photographing venomous snakes.
Austin says that hes well accustomed to the ways of the Australian people and their country, and his Australian wife is helping him to adjust to his new home.
Our longing for the wilderness and wild animals of Africa will, of course, persist always, but we will rectify this with as frequent as possible trips to visit Namibia and surrounding Southern African countries. There has been, of course, also that niggling longing for boerewors, biltong and Ouma rusks, but now thanks to SAbona magazine, we have located even these. Finally we are at home in Australia!
Austin J. Stevens latest book The Last Snake Man is an autobiographical and humourous behind-the-scenes look into the unorthodox and somewhat radical life of a herpetologist at work.
The book covers Austins work at a snake park and in the field, including his time doing land mine duty for the South African army in Angola. It also includes chapters on the trials and tribulations behind the making of the film series Austin Stevens Most DangerousAustin Stevens Adventures.
The Last Snake Man was released in the United Kingdom by Noir Publishing and is available from http:www.noirpublishing.co.uk.
Austin on Important Things to Know About Snakes
Only 10% of all living snakes are potentially dangerous (highly venomous) to humans.
Snakes do not attack anything that they are not interested in as food, unless forced to defend themselves. (This goes for venomous and non-venomous snakes.)
Only the few species of giant snakes that exist may be able to eat a human. (The anaconda of South America, or the reticulated python of Asia, or possibly an Indian python.) Rural children playing in murky river water would be more likely to fall victim. This is an extremely rare happening, and is likely to be a case of mistaken identity rather than attack, as these snakes naturally prefer their natural prey, such as wild pigs.
80% of all snake bite cases recorded are in the lower leg area. Rural populations with bare feet are most at risk of stepping on a snake.
Anti-snake-bite serum is available for most snake species around the world, and is ultimately the only sure treatment to save a snake-bitten victim.
Austin on His Most Embarrassing Snake Bite
Without question the most embarrassing snake bite I received was from a snouted cobra, on camera, while working the pilot episode that would lead to the Austin Stevens series. There I was, some 100km away from civilisation out in the field, about to show my daring skills with a huge snouted cobra that I had just enticed out from under an old log. Knowing cobras so well, and having worked with so many, I did not imagine to calculate for such an old and wise snake. As is usual for African cobras, the snake struck out at me as I hunched down close to it, and expertly I flipped my arm away to dodge the strike. I had done this so many times before. Now the camera crew moved in for even closer effect, as the cobra struck out again, but this time at an odd angle, resulting with one fang just catching my index finger as it was speedily retreating. Suddenly there was a rush of blood and I quickly realised that a vein had been penetrated. There is no more serious bite than a venous bite. The venom can immediately be transported throughout the body. I might have minutes to live. My first rule from the beginning has always been keep filming no matter what. If ever I am to die in such a manner, I want it on film, otherwise it is all for nothing. I am very serious about this, and one camera reluctantly kept rolling while other crew members gathered around to do what they could to help me. I did have snake-bite serum with me, and began treatment. As it turned out, the fang had sliced the vein rather than injected into it, and the initial rush of blood had helped flush much of the venom out. Steadily we made our way back across the desert to the Cottage Hospital in Swakopmund, where I was put under observation for two hours, after which time it was decided I was clear, and against better judgment, I lead the crew back out to find that cobra again, and complete the shoot. I must admit I was feeling weak and somewhat disorientated and nervous, but felt that I must do this immediately, so as not to lose my nerve. I was after all being judged for a potential series of films. Cant afford to be a ninny! I found the snake again, and as expected, it put even more effort into trying to kill me, and the resulting footage was fantastic. This, in conjunction with the bloody footage of the actual bite and the treatment itself, was a winner. And this episode titled 7 Deadly Strikes, remains one of the most popular to date.
Austin On Making the World A Better Place
Were I even to attempt to properly answer this question, I would fill a book, and those innocently (or otherwise) blind to the real world would consider me radical. I am not the right person to ask about saving the planet and all its species, as I am resigned to the fact that there is ultimately no hope, one way or the other. I have been everywhere and seen everything over the long period of my life, and though there are so many good people out there desperately trying to save species or at least slow down the destruction of the planet, without the very first consideration being dedicated to that of world human population control, there is no hope. I am sorry, but this is a fact, and I am not open to discuss the conservation of the planet until the day that such measures are seriously considered, and urgently implemented. Each and every problem facing the planet today, is either directly or indirectly connected to human overpopulation.
Austin on His Future
Right now I am concentrating on finding my way here in Australia. The right house to live in, in the right place. Australia is a big place, and Amy and I want to look around a bit before settling completely. However, while doing this, we are both working on books which hopefully might be considered for publication at a later stage. Amy has been working on the unusual story of our meeting, and all the chaos that we have lived over the past three years since then, right up to when we arrived back here in Australia. At the same time, I am keen to get out another book full of my latest wildlife pictures, and with text describing the behind the scenes story surrounding the making of the Austin Stevens Adventure series. Meanwhile, there has been some talk overseas about the possible making of an Austin Stevens 3D film. This might happen, or it might not. One never knows in this business, and it will eventually depend on co-operating film companies coming together, and the availability of budget money. What few people realise, is that no matter how good a program you might pitch, at the end of the day it all boils down to TV politics and budget availability and future program slots allocated for the years ahead. I have always wanted to do a full feature film, so I am holding thumbs for the future.
Austin answers questions from SAbona readers
Sean: How does a black mamba compare to deadly snakes from other continents?
Austin: I consider the black mamba to potentially be the most dangerous snake in the world. Growing to over 4 metres, and with a neurotoxic venom so potent that the effects from a bite are felt within five minutes, and death may occur with thirty minutes, if not treated urgently. This a fast moving snake, which can raise its body up to the height of an adult humans chest, with a lightning strike and large fangs situated far forward in the mouth. A deadly combination of attributes.
Steve: What colour is a brown snake?
Austin: The name brown snake is somewhat misleading, because though some brown snakes are in fact brown in colour, others are not so simply marked. Depending on locality, brown snakes may vary from shades of light or darker brown, to brown with speckles, or even various shades of grey. It must also be remembered that there are half a dozen or more species of brown snake, each with its own colour variations, depending on locality. Quite confusing.
Rosemary: Do you do programs about non-venomous snakes? There are such beautiful ones out there and I think that such programs would help the public to stop being hostile towards snakes when they see them and try to kill them for no reason.
Austin: I have often pushed for programs to include colourful and non-venomous species of snakes, and indeed I have managed to squeeze one or two in various episodes. However, the powers that be, and who rule the budgets and depend on their advertising space during my shows, insist that danger sells, and I am directed to comply.
Katja: How can I get rid of King Browns? (I dont want to kill them.) Do carpet snakes eat cats? Is it worth keeping carpet snakes?
Austin: See answer below answer to Sharlene, concerning snakes in the home.
As for carpet snakes, some grow fairly large and therefore have the potential to eat a house cat. However this is a very unlikely scenario, as cats are agile and dangerous animals and would not easily fall prey to a slow moving carpet snake. Carpet snakes around the house are certainly a good way to keep down the rat and mouse population.
Sharlene: I just hate snakes. How can I prevent them from getting in or near my house?
Austin: Snakes approach human habitats usually only by accident, or if they are attracted by a food source such as mice, rats, or frogs. Also if you have a bird aviary, this will attract mice and rats and so snakes as well. Some snakes eat birds too. Also any rubbish laying about the yard might attract snakes to hiding places. Keep the yard clear of unnecessary junk. Snakes will not go out of their way to attack you, just be aware of their possible presence if you live in a bush area.
Louis: Have you ever gone on a joint adventure with Edward Bear Grylls?
Austin: Are you out of your mind! I dont kill and eat snakes and other animals, I photograph them.
For more information on Austin see his website http:www.austinstevens.net.