last updated 18/01/2017
There’s a common perception, among both Australians and those from other countries, that the Australian outback is a dangerous place to visit because of snakes. TV shows will tell you we have the top 9 out of 10 most dangerous snakes in the world or something along those lines. Culturally we have been trained to fear snakes which compounds the dangerous perception. So how risky is it, and how do you reduce the risk? Is it safe to venture out into the aussie outback? This article explains my position on the matter.
I’m not an experienced snake handler but I have done a snake handling course when working on a mine in Western Australia. Combined with a heap of camping and touring around Australia, I’ve had some level of exposure to snakes. The first thing I learnt when trying to catch a deadly western brown snake (an extremely venomous and fiercely defensive snake) during the snake handling training was that snakes don’t consider humans as prey and generally want to just get out of the way and hide. As I found out when gingerly trying to coerce a snake into a sack, it’s much more likely to scurry off and get lost in some furniture in the training room than it is biting someone. During the training we tried catching numerous deadly Australian snakes, always with the same results. Snakes just want to get out of your way and be left alone. The instructor confirmed this as being typical across all poisonous snakes in Australia.
Snakes generally won’t pursue a human. They want to get out of the way and hide. Usually a human is bitten by a snake only when a snake is provoked, surprised, feels threatened, chased, cornered or stepped on.
I’ve been beating around the bush in Australia for over ten years and I’ve probably seen around a dozen snakes. That’s an average of not much more than 1 snake per year. Many of those snakes were seen whilst driving in a vehicle. It’s rare to see a snake when walking through bush. They are elusive creatures and will usually get out of your way long before you see them. I’m not a snake enthusiast and I don’t deliberately try to photograph snakes. However if I see a snake I’ll get out the camera and take a picture. I’ve only ever managed to take a couple of photos of snakes. Usually you don’t see them at all and when you do they are usually gone before you can take a shot. On our trip around Australia we’ve managed two snake photos – one in Fitzgerald National Park in southern WA and the other in the backyard of the place we stayed at in Katherine, Northern Territory.
When a snake bites, often it’s a dry bite (no poison injected). When there is envenomation, often it’s not a fatal dose. Even if a dangerous dose of poison is injected, first aid is effective in prolonging life long enough to seek medical help. Once you get help modern anti-venom is universally effective. So you’re chances of being bitten by a snake are small and your chances of surviving a snake bite are good. Fatalities have been very rare since the advent of anti-venom.
So in my opinion snakes are inherently a pretty low risk. They don’t eat humans. They want to keep away from humans. Their bites are almost always survivable. The “most dangerous” claims come from experiments conducted regarding poison potency. This does not measure how aggressive a snake is towards humans, how likely a human is to be bitten by a snake, how much poison is typically injected during a bite, how effective treatment is and how likely a bitten human is to survive a bite. So you could have a snake that has never been involved in a human fatality being labelled extremely dangerous due to having potent venom. Actually that is exactly the case with the Inland Taipan of Australia, also known as the Fierce Snake. Never involved in a fatality, yet it’s the most venomous snake in the world. A TV show will sensationally convey that as being deadly. Actually, according to recorded history, it’s not deadly at all, having never caused a death. Think of something in the world that’s caused at least one death and it’s more deadly than the Inland Taipan. Sitting on your couch is more deadly.
Although snakes aren’t very deadly according to how many people they kill, they still pose a risk and we do see a couple of fatalities every year, so if you’re worried about snakes and want to minimize the risk then follow these guidelines:
- If you see a snake, do not approach it.
- If a snake is blocking your trail, wait for it to move away on its own accord.
- Never chase, corner or try to kill a snake.
- Wear sturdy shoes, preferably boots that cover your ankles. Your feet and ankles are the most likely place to be bitten by a snake. Protect them with tough boots.
- Wear loose fitting trousers. A snake’s brain is programmed to immediately clamp down and inject venom as soon as contact is made with their target. If you have loose trousers, there’s a good chance a striking snake will clamp down on the trousers before making contact with your skin. Apart from your feet and ankles, your legs are the next most likely place to be bitten by a snake so loose fitting trousers are a good idea.
- Take care with where you place your foot. Check several steps ahead to ensure you won’t step on a snake. Stepping on a snake is a sure way of getting bitten.
- Make noise and vibration when walking. Tread firmly. Take a walking stick or hiking stick with you and smash it into the ground with each step you take. When traversing sections of trail that are obscured by vegetation, first rattle the bushes with your stick before rattling them with your body as you walk through. Poke around with your stick to scare away any snakes.
- Avoid scenarios that would put a snake in a situation where it felt like it couldn’t escape. Close your car doors. Zip up your tent. Don’t leave blankets and clothes and towels outside. For example, if a snake makes its way into your sleeping bag inside your tent then you have a dangerous situation. The snake will feel cornered and will likely become aggressive.
- If using your hands to climb or scramble over obstacles, watch where you’re putting them. Look out for snakes.
- If approaching on obstacle, like a log, that you must step over, first check the other side before stepping over. A nice way to avoid blindly stepping over is to get into the habit of first stepping onto the obstacle.
- If you’re really worried you can get some snake proof gaiters / leg armor. These are protective sheaths that wrap around the lower half of your legs and are usually reserved for serious hunters bush bashing through remote areas. With sturdy boots and snake proof gaiters you have eliminated the vast majority of potential snake bites.
- Learn snake first aid.
- Carry a compression bandage with you on your travels and when you walk.
Knowing snake first aid is extremely important. The venom of Australian snakes travels through the lymphatic system before it enters the blood stream. This makes first aid very effective in slowing down the spread of venom. It’s so effective there’s a good chance the venom will spread so slowly that your body will be able to cope with no treatment at all. My understanding of snake first aid is as follows, but do your own research, the are some variations and I’m not an expert:
- Make the victim safe from more snake bites or any other danger.
- Wrap the entire limb in a compression bandage. It should be tight, like for a sprained ankle, but not tight enough to restrict circulation.
- In general clothing should not be removed, since clothing delays the application of the compression bandage and causes unnecessary movement. If there are too many layers of clothing to effectively compress then limb then some clothing may need to be removed.
- Immobilise the limb with splints or slings or by strapping the limb to another part of the body.
- Keep the victim calm. Stop them from moving. Keep their heart rate down. Reassure them that snake bite first aid is effective and how important it is to stay calm and still to slow down the spread of venom.
- It is extremely important that the victim does not move the bitten limb. The lymphatic system relies on muscle movement for flow. Moving the limb will cause rapid spread of venom. No movement combined with compression bandage is effective in greatly slowing down the spread of venom.
- Keep the limb low so that the lymphatic system has to work against gravity.
- If you’re on a hiking trail and the victim has been bitten on the leg, then the victim stays on the hiking trail. Walking will cause rapid spread of venom which could lead to rapid escalation of symptoms. Do not walk the victim out. Set them up with some shade, appropriate clothing and water and leave them there.
- If not bitten on the leg, then it may be an option for the victim to walk, if it means the victim will get treatment much more rapidly compared to waiting on the trail. Venom will spread faster than if the victim remains motionless. It’s a tradeoff.
- Get medical help as soon as possible.
There is one snake in Australia that sometimes doesn’t get out of the way – the death adder. The death adder hunts by coiling itself up in leaf litter or sand and sitting still waiting for an easy lunch to scurry by. It uses its camouflage to remain undetected from its prey. Unfortunately it also uses its camouflage to evade potential threats. So instead of slithering away it may remain still as you approach. Apparently the origin of the death adder’s name is deaf adder – the early settlers of Australia thought it was deaf since it had a habit of remaining still when approached. You need to be watching where you’re going and looking out for any circular shaped patterns in your path when beating around the bush, and using your walking stick to poke through any obscuring leaf litter. If you step on a death adder you’re going to get bitten. The death adder doesn’t want to eat you and won’t actively pursue you but if you step on him he’s gonna be pissed. If you’re watching where you’re going and leading with your walking stick the risk is mostly mitigated.
Hopefully this article helps reduce the worry out of travelling the Australian outback. Practice some common sense and be vigilant, and you shouldn’t have any problems with snakes. With the huge quantity of people travelling Australia and walking through the bush in Australia, it’s very rare to hear of a snake bite, and even rarer to hear of a fatality. There are other more important things to worry about when travelling Australia, like how are you going to visit all the beautiful places in the finite time you have.