The Aborigines of northern Australia sing the Song of the Snake, which tells how Old Man Nargorcor sent his rainbow snakes on a great walkabout to create the natural features of the earth. Eric Worrell borrowed the title for the story of his own walkabout in the wilder regions of Australia and his encounters with snakes and many other creatures-black men and buffaloes, white men and mutton birds, spiders and swagmen, eagles and crocodiles.
His wanderings took him from the Northern Territory and tropical Queensland to the islands of Bass Strait, where he captured many snakes, among them deadly taipans and tiger snakes. Much of this perilous work was undertaken on behalf of the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, which needed the venom of dangerous species to make antivenom Other adventures include a crocodile hunting voyage, a shipwreck, hatching crocodile eggs in bed, an expedition into Arnhem Land in search of cave paintings and rare fauna, encounters with charging buffaloes and the making of a film about the mutton-birds of Bass Strait for television. All these experiences, and more, vividly recorded in words and photographs, make up Song of the Snake, a book that offers not only exciting incident but also a rich store of first-hand information on the natural life of our continent, and opens up for the reader a new and fascinating world.
Here are some passages from this delightfully written book.
During my schooldays in Sydney, weekends would be entirely devoted to the study of small living things. I was passionately fond of animals of every kind, and, with a little band of school mates, I would take a safari to Centennial Park and observe and collect series of snakes, lizards, frogs, fish and eels, keeping a sharp lookout for the uniformed ranger on his beautifully groomed brown horse.
These specimens would be brought home and housed in specially built glass cases kept in a back yard shed. Sometimes I would catch a tram to Coogee and visit elderly George Longley who kept a magnificent collection of live lizards at his home. He encouraged me in many ways, exchanged specimens with me and introduced me to many famous naturalists who previously had been names on the covers of the books they had written, exalted beyond my sphere.
When George Longley died in 1945 he bequeathed his collection to me, the descendants of which I still have. George Longley was a sad loss to zoology.
As a Sunday afternoon jaunt my father would perhaps drive me to La Perouse where I first saw George Cann, the snake-man, and dropped threepences in the collection plate after his demonstrations. After awhile George Cann became used to seeing the little, curly-headed boy in short pants and a blazer standing about for hour after hour. Sometimes he would let me carry a bag of snakes home with him, and the day George Cann himself actually gave me a whip snake was one boasted about for many months.
During World War 2 food was rationed and our camp was protein hungry. The only meat we had was boring bully beef and dreadful tinned herrings we called 'goldfish'. Occasionally we caught an odd fish in a large V shaped trap of wire netting constructed on the beach of East Point below the cliff-top camp. Imagine the drooling delight and the cheers that rang out the night a greenback turtle was caught. Turtle steak and mouth-watering turtle soup was already on the anticipated menu as they dragged the thrashing turtle from the trap. That was until I came along. I made my pleas and won the case. I am still not sure whether the men's tears were those of frustration of guilt as to their original intentions. The beautiful turtle was released unharmed.
However, there was a small recompense a few days later. The Japanese made a sudden air raid on East Point. There was no time to shelter, everyone flattened to the ground as the shrapnel blasted over our heads. As soon as the bombers passed over we surveyed the damage and counted casualties. A daisy-cutter had torn through our iron hut, ruined my mosquito net and hurled my tin trunk of snakes thirty feet without damage. Not a scratch on a man, but one python and one bandicoot had been killed in the bush outside the hut.
The camp cook was aghast when he found a neatly skinned python and an equally dressed bandicoot inside his refrigerator. He was a good sport, he knew we were hungry. He stuffed and baked the bandicoot but drew the line at snake. This was cooked ourselves over the campfire.
We hunted in the vicinity of the Cook Highway near Palm Beach, with the thought that perhaps more taipans would come to light there, but by midday we felt and looked like dried prunes. We looked longingly at the green coconuts hanging in bunches from the Palms high above our heads, and I thought of the times I'd quenched my thirst with the juice of green coconuts from Darwin's coconut groves.
There was no energy left to climb for the nuts, but we noticed a few green ones lying at the foot of some of the palms. We chopped the ends off with a tomahawk and found the juice quite palatable although slightly sour. With our backs against the palms we sprawled on the beach beside the highway and let the juice gurgle down our throat. Our thirsts were insatiable and we emptied coconut after coconut.
“'If I could be paid thirty pounds a week to hunt taipans, I think I'd spend from 10am to 5pm doing exactly this,' breathed Charles (Tanner) happily, as he tossed away an empty nut. 'It's perfectly ridiculous looking for taipans during those hours.'
I was feeling strange, and vaguely remember muttering something about being no taipans left anyway.
Two hours later I came to, leaning against the base of the palm with an empty coconut between my knees. The sun was overhead and burning directly onto me. I had a throbbing headache and was soaked in perspiration. Charles was spread-eagled in the sun with his face buried in the sand, while Eric West was on his back under a mango tree, mouth open and little lizards running all over him catching flies.
It was another half-hour before I could stagger to my feet. Eric was nursing a terrific headache too, while Charles was having trouble focusing bloodshot eyes. It eventually dawned on us that the coconuts had been fermented, and we were suffering from the daddy of all hangovers from the jungle-juice. After that experience we never round to pulling a few green ones from the palms. We carried a gallon water bottle instead.
One afternoon I was salting down birds when I heard a sound outside the shed. I pushed open the door. Roy Goss was standing white faced outside. He held up his arm and blood dribbled from the wrist. There was a crude, rope tourniquet above the elbow.”
Mrs. Goss peered through the flyscreen window of the scalding shed and began to weep. Arthur King, whom she had watched dying from the bite of a Chappell Island tiger snake at Whitmark hotel, was her uncle.
Eric (West) ran to the tent for the tiger snake antivenene. I sat Roy on a bag of muttonbird feathers, and while Mrs. Goss brought the kettle to boil I replaced the rope tourniquet with a more efficient rubber one. Then I opened the incisions Roy had made until the tendons were bared. We had to be severe. His life was at stake, and no other medical help could be obtained. There was no wireless or any other form of communication on the island, and the boat could not be launched in the heavy sea that was running.
Roy was sweating with the pain of the constricting tourniquet. His face was deathly pale under the burrow grime.
Eric (West) came back with the ampoules of serum and a syringe. Sterilizing the syringe, assembling the syringe, breaking the tops from the serum ampoules, and drawing the serum through the needle seemed to take ages.
Locating a vein was not difficult. Roy’s arm bulged with them. His skin was like rhinoceros hide and the needle bowed before it pierced the skin and slid into a vein. Allowing a time for the serum to circulate I released the tourniquet and made him sit quietly in front of the kitchen fire with strict orders to keep quiet for the rest of the day. An hour later his colour had returned to normal.
I checked his pulse and general reflexes and asked how he felt.
“'Bonzer,' he growled. 'Bring me that snake and I'll eat him.'
Every person who kills a snake, places themselves in a dangerous position. A dying or wounded snake can do much more damage than a healthy snake free to wriggle away at the human’s approach. In the bush where it can do no harm there is no point in going out of your way to kill a snake. Snakes control their own numbers, so are unlikely to have their numbers influenced by the odd ones that are killed. In many areas along the Murray River deadly tiger snakes occur in thousands, yet in most of these areas there is no record of anybody ever being bitten.
Snake-bite is rarely accidental. It is the result of an injured snake defending itself, or a captive snake resenting handling.
For years I pumped information out of Eric. A short phone call would often be followed by highly quotable details. For example, two years ago I was intrigued by a strange report of a patient developing “black and white” vision for a time after he head been bitten by a snake. A call to Eric, who had just come out of hospital after a cobra bite, resulted in the following dispassionate catalogue of observations:
“Comparing my whiteout and blackout, the most sever blackout I have experienced was from the bite of a broad-headed snake about 1945. The snake measured about half a metre and delivered a full bite, and I experienced a blackout about 10 to 15 minutes later but received no treatment. I had a severe headache, no paralysis, and recovered from my blindness within an hour.
“The first time I experienced a whiteout where everything appeared white, I could distinguish pink objects around me until I passed out, and this occurred from antivenom effects in 1951. This whiteout from the cobra bite was very similar except I only vomited and excreted once. The whiteout from the antivenom effects in 1951 I was continually vomiting and had no strength and could only crawl on my hands and knees. I passed out in Dr. Fox's office in Ettalong after help had been called.
“Going back to the cobra whiteout, I suffered no headaches. General paralysis stopped me feeling anything except local pain in my thumb and severe constriction of chest where I almost suffocated until the ambulance arrived.”
On one memorable evening I confronted him with a list of some forty questions while he dispensed us both scotch. My notes indicated increased precision in his answers as the evening wore on. For example; Eric, has anyone ever died after a copperhead bite? Yes. Years ago. A woman. On Dog Island, Bass Strait. How do you know it was a copperhead? They're the only snakes found on Dog Island for Christ's sake! Next Question!
Although not formally trained as a zoologist, his tenaciously enquiring mind and powers of observation allowed him to develop a special expertise and an international reputation. His first major work, 'The Reptiles of Australia', first published in 1963, would have been more than adequate for a Doctorate of Philosophy. It is still a major reference for both professionals and lay persons. I'll miss this man. Fortunately, much of his work will continue thanks to the competence and enthusiasm of the staff and management of the Australian Reptile Park staff.