Stretch Combrink’s peripheral vision is extended beyond yours and mine. He acquired this enhanced ability on his ‘vision quest,’ which consisted of spending 45 days locked in a room with 41 deadly snakes. A vision quest is a native American tradition where boys venture into the wilderness to become men, to find wisdom, peace and their inner soul. Stretch chose to take on this challenge in part to raise money for the endangered reptile trust, but also to extend his vision both outward and inward.
Stretch’s love of snakes has taken him all over South Africa and Namibia as a snake expert and snake catcher. Stretch bears the marks of his profession on his thumb, where he was bitten by a puff adder, a deadly snake with a cytotoxic (cell destroying) venom which ate away the flesh on his thumb and hand over an excruciating six weeks, leaving him badly scarred to this day.
Stretch’s partner, and original owner of the Snake park is Stuart Hebbart. Stuart started his snake career at age 12 in the Western Transvaal, South Africa, when he and his friends decided they could make millions of dollars selling snakes to the local snake park, Fitzimmons. They made a few dollars, but decided they could make even more selling venom, so they started their own snake park and harvested the venom from their park residents. They fell short of becoming millionaires and went off to more conventional careers, Stuart in the engineering trade working in the shipping business in Walvis Bay. In 1992, Stuart started up another snake park in Swakopmund. His wife, Sarah, ran the park while Stuart carried on with his work in Walvis Bay. She wasn’t very keen on snakes at first, but, Stuart claims, she has since warmed up to her cold blooded charges.
Stretch only joined the Snake Park recently, but adds a mystic dimension to Stuart’s workmanlike approach. They may have quite different personalities, but they have in common a deep and abiding love of snakes that gives the snake park its spirit. They populate the park mainly by rescuing snakes from residential areas (thereby rescuing the human residents, as well), and by donations. Sometimes people buy snakes and hand them over to Stuart and Stretch when they grow too large to care for. Sometimes the ministry of environment and tourism confiscates illegal snakes, like their albino pythons and rattlesnake, and gives them to the snake park to care for them.
A walk through the snake park is a walk through most of Namibia’s deadliest snakes, most interesting creatures and a few visitors from other countries. Visitors include an albino diamond back rattlesnake, native to the U.S. but bred in Southern Africa as an albino. Stuart says that illegal breeding is sophisticated enough today that buyers can choose their colour. This rattlesnake was confiscated by the ministry and given to Stuart.
The diamonback shares a room with the indigenous sidewinder snake, some nasty scorpions, and a new reptile which Stewart can take a small credit in discovering, as a photograph in Stuart’s own book on snakes got the attention of German biologist who recognized it as a new species.
In the next room you will find all five of Namibia’s cobras: the Zebra or Western Barred Snake; Mozambique Spitting Cobra; Angolan Cobra; and the Cape Cobra. The smaller Shield Nose Snake and Coral Snake are also in the room, and also disply a hood when threatened, which is the defining characteristic of a cobra, so Stretch claims these are the two forgotten cobras also found in Namibia.
The next room features three massive specimins of Stretch’s nemesis, the Puff Adder, and the most famous and deadly of the deadly snakes, the Black Mamba. There are two marvelous mambas, each in its own cage at the snake park. One, stretch explains, is very agressive while the other is docile enough to handle and has even starred in a few choice Hollywood movie scenes. Stretch claims his acting was spot on!
The next turn takes you outdoors into the garden to where the chameleons, bearded dragons, tortoises and a few other four legged reptiles dwell, and then it is back inside again where you will find the pythons. The snake park has four huge pythons who tend to cuddle up in a writhing bundle under their heat lamp. They also have two gorgeous albino pythons, also confiscated from animal smugglers, as was the red tailed boa constricter from South America.
Stuart has worked many years to build this amazing collection of snakes, compiled from animal smugglers, farmers and terrified tourists who find them in their cars after returning from the bush. Stretch has recently joined the Snake Park to add his own expertise and spiritual connection with these animals. Together they make an odd couple: short and tall; practical and mystic; married and single. But they are bound together by a common love for these beautiful, fascinating and sometimes deadly creatures who populate the Swakopmund Snake Park.
by John R Wheeling | Leisure Times Namibia