Stories and Traveltips

ID #5465

Encounters with Rinkhals, Randparkridge, Randburg, Gauteng, South Africa.

The rinkhals (Hemachatus haemachatus), aka the ringhals or ring-necked spitting cobra, is not a true cobra but is considered to be a spitting cobra. Most I have encountered had a light grey upper body. However coloration varies and a characteristic of the species is that the belly is dark with one or two light-coloured crossbands on the throat. Their average length is 90–110 cm. Some individuals may have a mostly black body, while others are striped. Generally they prefer grassland habitats because it allows them to blend in with their surroundings but they also also live in swamps. They are found in the Southern Cape, northeast through the Free State, Lesotho, Transkei, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa, Western Swaziland and parts of Gauteng.

They have a varied diet. Primarily they prey on frogs and toads but they also eat small mammals, amphibians, and other reptiles. The venom of the rinkhals is neurotoxic and partially cytotoxic. When confronted by humans it generally aims its venom at the face which, if it enters the eyes, causes great pain.

When distressed, it rears up and spreads its hood, showing the distinctive stripes on its neck. It can spray its venom up to 2.5 m but its spitting mechanism is primitive and it has to rear up and fling its body forward to do so. In addition, they fake death by rolling onto their back with mouth agape. Don’t be fooled by this behavior -- they are still very much alive. 

My family has long been exposed to these snakes.  After demobilization in 1946, my parents bought a smallholding outside Randfontein called Wheatlands, where my father Arthur William McIver started a small dairy. Apparently it was crawling with snakes, so much so that a collie they owned at the time would bark in a particular way whenever he cornered a snake -- a sound they soon learned to recognize. My father, who was at ease handling snakes, would pick it up, open its mouth and show my sisters Myrle and Deirdre its fangs and other parts of its anatomy. All of which made an indelible impression on them and they talked about it for years afterwards.

One of their farmworkers had a habit of smoking dagga (marijuana), to which my father took exception. On one of these snake-handling exhibitions, he threatened the worker with the snake, saying that he would toor (bewitch) him with it if he did not stop the habit. As luck would have it a few days later he disturbed a rinkhals which reared up in front of him, giving him a real fright. Apparently the experience persuaded him that my father had indeed bewitched him and, from that day onwards, he stopped smoking dagga completely.

They are fairly common on the grasslands of the Highveld and I have encountered several big ones. It seems that the bigger they are the more aggressive they become. On one occasion I was on my knees repairing an irrigation pump on my smallholding in Randparkridge when I looked up to see a large rinkhals sailing past, head up off the ground with hood spread, only a few feet from my face. Gave me the fright of my life it did! I must have disturbed it and it soon disappeared into a nearby patch of papyrus reeds growing next to the reservoir in which I stored water. I thought of killing it – it was close to the house and my children often played nearby -- but I could only see the end of its tail – its head was nowhere to be seen. Discretion being the better part of valour, I left it alone and we never saw it again.

On another occasion I arrived home to find my wife in a state. She had been resting in bed and, hearing a knock on the window, looked up to see a rinkhals attempting to enter the room through the window next to which she had been sleeping. Fortunately however the window was closed. Apparently she flew out of bed, went outside, picked up a grinding stone lying nearby and threw it at the snake, after which both she and the rinkhals disappeared in opposite directions. On another occasion Margaret Snyman, who rented my house for a while, saw a rinkhals trying to enter the house through a bedroom window. Characteristically, without any further ado, she picked up a shotgun and dispatched the animal with a single shot.

Frankly they are too dangerous to have in or around one’s house. Furthermore if you insist on fooling about with these snakes it is advisable to wear protective glasses that prevent venom from entering one’s eyes. However, like much African wildlife, if you leave them alone they disappear soon enough. But hoo boy -- try telling that to my wife or Margaret. Understandably, you may as well be talking to a wall.

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Last update: 2014-03-17 02:14
Author: Alan McIver
Revision: 1.17

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