Illustration by Matt Weismantel
The Hunt for Red November | Lachlan Webb
We packed the car and headed off around midday for the small, iron ore mining town of Pannawonica, situated about 450 kilometres south of Port Hedland in the untamed Pilbara region of Western Australia. Dave had arranged for the two of us to eat dinner that evening at the miners’ mess hall, and from there, it would only be a short distance to our first track. We wanted to officially begin the hunt just before dusk and considered the first hour after sundown as the optimal time to spot our species. I still vividly remember the time of sunset in Pannawonica on that evening, the 1st of November 2011: 6.25 pm.
The mood over dinner was an anxious one; neither of us said much. We were now only minutes from embarking on a snake hunting expedition we had been planning for months. Our target species was the Pilbara Death Adder, scientifically referred to as Acanthophis wellsi or more commonly referred to by herpetologists and reptile enthusiasts as wellsi. The task was made more challenging by the fact we required at least one female to partner the males already in our respective collections, with the intention of establishing a captive population. Soon we would be in the thick of the Australian bush at night. Our only contact with civilisation would be in the form of UHF radio, and we were in the heart of snake country, hunting for a dangerously venomous and potentially deadly animal in its own surroundings.
Towards the end of my meal, Dave abruptly said, "I will meet you at the car. See you soon."
Five minutes later, I made my way out to the car to find Dave pulling everything out of it. He looked concerned and a touch frantic. I was not game to speak.
As I approached the car, he asked, "Are you confident using a bag-pinning catching technique?"
I immediately knew what this meant: we must have forgotten the snake hooks. I had used this technique previously with venomous snakes, but only sparingly, as it significantly increases the risk of a bite. Using this technique means every move by the catcher must be precise and resolute.
I knew, however, we did not have much choice, so I hesitantly answered, "I guess so." Fortunately, we soon found the hooks underneath the driver’s seat of the car. We collected our thoughts and headed to the first location of our hunt.
En route, as the sun was preparing to set over the Indian Ocean, and the vehicle’s temperature gauge gave a reading of 35 degrees, the rich colours of the landscape intensified. The scenery consisted of jagged escarpments, spinose, spinifex-covered hills, and rugged rocky outcrops that protruded sharply from the red earth. We passed a watercourse where along its banks stood a congregation of native eucalypts guarding their provider. Intermittently, colourful patches of various wildflowers were in bloom, the desert pea standing out from the rest. It was ancient and tenacious country.
We reached our destination right on time, just after 6 pm. Weather conditions for this time of year could not have been better.
It was not long into the hunt when Dave shouted, "Wellsi!"
I jumped from the car, armed with my hook and catching bag, and confronted the snake. It was a male, and he was aggressive, striking at me on several occasions. But, by the time Dave arrived, I had successfully managed to bag the animal. We were jubilant and hurried back to the vehicle to resume the hunt.
There we were, about one hour into our mission, crouched forward in the front seats of the car looking attentively through the windscreen, as spotlighting these snakes on the reddish-coloured dirt tracks of the Pilbara can be challenging. Suddenly, the second wellsi of the night appeared! As I approached the animal, it lunged at me and took off. It was headed for the shelter of a large spinifex clump. Every attempt to hook the creature failed, and it struck and lashed out violently. I knew if I did not do something fast, we would lose it in the clump of spinifex. I threw the scrunched-up pillowslip I was holding in my left hand firmly down onto the animal in the hope that it would calm down. Thankfully, it worked. We knew the snake was, for the moment, feeling protected beneath the pillowcase.
Dave hurried back to the Toyota for another bag. When the bag covering the serpent was lifted, it chose to fight instead of fleeing. It furiously and repeatedly struck at me and the hook. On one occasion, it bit the hook and, while only for a second, you could hear the awful sound of fangs on steel. The snake was pugnacious and savage, literally throwing itself at us as it used every move in its repertoire to avoid capture. Finally, I managed to hook the belligerent beast long enough to get it in the bag.
Once the snake was safe and feeling settled in the security of the bag, I could not help but notice a lonely droplet of venom, innocently but self-assuredly gliding down the shaft of the hook. We both hoped this specimen would be the most volatile we would come across. We were not even sure if it was worth the trouble as it, too, was a male.
The hunt continued for about another hour but proved unsuccessful by way of any more wellsi, so we decided to move to a different location, approximately half an hour’s drive away.
This time we were on foot. We left the Toyota behind and penetrated deep into the bush. Our only possessions were backpacks, snake hooks, catching bags, headlamps, hand-held torches, water bottles, a compass, a knife, and a first-aid kit. The search on foot proved to be the most unnerving; it was an incredibly eerie feeling walking this environment at night. We were making our way through a section of moderately dense poverty bush and sharp, knee-high spinifex, leaving faint footprints in the sand behind us where we had cautiously placed our feet. There were prevalent termite mounds encircled by vegetation; they were proudly scattered throughout the area, in an almost boastful manner, demonstrating their inhabitants’ remarkable architectural abilities. Without warning, a protracted, blood-curdling scream punctured the silence. Both of us immediately froze, and stared intently at one another while we listened to these spine-chilling sounds...
Dave broke our silence. "Feral cat?" he asked, prompting a response by raising his eyebrows while slightly lifting his head.
"I think so," I said. "But I’m surprised at the intensity of the screams."
The more we heard, the more we were convinced, as we could decipher two tones creating this terrifying ruckus. It is not uncommon for feral cats to make these unbelievably loud, sinister noises when fighting, particularly over a kill or rotting carcass. It was evident that life out here was as resilient as the landscape itself.
We recommenced the hunt and, just after the frightening screams ceased, my attention was strangely drawn to a crisp, lustrous reflection being displayed on my Casio G-Shock watch face. I then looked up to see a modest, waxing crescent moon graciously settled in the sky accompanied by a myriad of radiant stars. It was ironic how such a delicate night’s sky gently lit up the harsh, unforgiving wilderness of the land below it. Dave must have seen me looking in awe at the sight above us and stopped to join me.
"Ya don’t get a view like that in the city, huh?" Dave declared, straightening his back to extend his chest, while deeply inhaling some of the fresh, untainted air.
"Nope... It gives you a feeling of insignificance."
"Yep, it sure does," he said, before turning away and continuing the hunt. "C’mon mate, we’d better keep moving."
I rather quickly and easily regathered my focus on the task at hand. It had now been over three hours since our last sighting. It was late; time was progressing fast, and the seconds passing were steadily stealing our optimism. You could sense the disappointment beginning to set in, poorly concealed by both of us.
Just when hope had all but vanished, we simultaneously shouted, "Wellsi!"
It was a spectacular animal and a female no less! She was huge and did not seem the slightest bit intimidated by our presence.
Nonchalantly, she elegantly carried on like we were not even there. We just admired her beauty while she confidently cruised the country beneath her. Her colours were so vibrant; so dense, yet so rich. Her disposition, size, sex, colour, condition and markings made her a highly desirable specimen.
As I gently picked her up and placed her inside the pillowslip, without difficulty as she was so relaxed, Dave made the comment, "She is stunning! Her red and black colouration is bloody magical. A snake such as this needs a name."
We headed back to the Toyota Landcruiser, ecstatic. The hunt had been a resounding success, and we could not have hoped for a more triumphant night.
Thereafter, we began the journey home to Port Hedland, and the mood was one of real achievement.
At one point, I thought to myself for a minute or so, and said, "Dave, regarding the name..."
"What do ya reckon?" he replied.
"What about Red November?"
He smiled. "Red November it is."
Lachlan Webb is completing a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Education majoring in Modern History, English, and Aboriginal Studies at Southern Cross University. He passionately acknowledges the power of the written word, and while he has an aversion to writing about himself in the third person, he can, on occasions, be persuaded to do so.