It was day three for our team in the snake cave on the Island of Flores In Indonesia. On the previous two days we had seen many reticulated pythons but all small, so we weren’t expecting to see anything unexpected on day three. We were only going in to get some pick up shots and move to the next filming location. The cave was literally a chamber of horrors, probably the worst place I have worked in the ten years I have been at National Geographic. The cave was filled with the usual customers (scorpions, roaches, maggots, spiders, millions of bats, lizards, and snakes), but it was the unbelievable amount of bat guano that made it unbearable. There were places where you had to wade through a chest deep liquefied guano slurry. The stuff was like quicksand almost sucking you down and making progress very slow and cautious. This guano soup along with low oxygen levels eventually prevented our expedition from going deeper into the cave.
On day three, about 60 m into the cave, walking along the right side wall where the fecal soup was the most shallow, I spied a large python partially exposed in a crack in the left wall, on the opposite side of the cave across the deepest part of the fecal river. I immediately yelled for cameraman Eric to start rolling the camera, which was already rolling at the time, and shouted big snake three times. On the third “big snake” it started to retreat into the crack in the wall, so I frantically waded across the middle deepest portion of the fecal river (waist deep on me) and to the other side of the cave were I was successful in grabbing the last few feet of the snakes tail before it escaped into the wall. By this time Dr. Mark Ayoula, python expert working with me on this project, arrived to assist me in pulling this large snake out of the wall. I handed over the tail to Mark while I attempted to free more of the large snakes body from the crevice as Mark pulled. After a brief power struggle the python popped out of the crack in a blur of coils and quickly started to wrap us up.
In the waist deep fecal soup, the darkness of the cave, and myriad of coils it was difficult to locate the head which was our major concern. With Mark still holding the tail, the big snake wrapped its powerful coils around Mark’s body once and around both of my legs down low at least once, and maybe two coils. The snakes head was horrifyingly all over the place, popping in and out of the fecal soup and making securing it almost impossible. Before we could formulate a plan to get out of the quicksand-like fecal soup, where drowning was a serious issue while trying to subdue a giant snake, it bit me.
I felt the snake attach to my leg right below my left buttock, which sent me literally through the roof with pain. These guys are armed with dozens of strongly recurved razor sharp teeth. After securing its hold it threw the weight and power of its muscular body into the bite and started ripping downward. The power of these snakes is beyond comprehension…remember they are constrictors and power is the name of their game. Since the bite was occurring underwater no one but me really knew what was occurring, and I was in such indescribable pain I couldn’t convey much information, other than guttural screams. I was so completely incapacitated by the pain I couldn’t even attempt to remove the snake from my leg. I was super scared that the snake was going to pull me off my feet with its coils around my legs, and drag me underwater, yet after what seemed like an eternity the snake released its bite yet continued to hold me with its coils. It most likely needed to get a breath of air, since the bite occurred under the water.
After letting the team know that It released it’s bite, we still could not locate the head after frantic searching. This was the time I was most concerned, and without doubt one of the scariest moments I have ever been a part of, because the horror of taking another bite was simply overwhelming. I really did not think that I could remain conscious if I took another bad bite, and I knew that another bite was coming for someone if we didn’t secure the head. Prayers answered, the snake relinquished some of its coils, and I finally spotted the head at the surface of the water a long ways away. Mark quickly dragged the snake to the opposite side of the cave, the shallow side, and I threw a bag over its eyes and quickly secured the head. We immediately placed the large snake into a capture bag, and then Mark inspected my wounds.
They were bad. It was a horrific bite. When my wife Mei Len saw them last night, she gasped and said that it looked like a shark had attacked me, and that is a pretty good analogy. They have so many teeth, which produce these deep ripping wounds, it’s just bad if you are on the receiving end. When the team discovered how severe the injuries were we immediately exited the cave and cleaned the wound.
Infection was really the biggest concern. Snake bites are always bad because they have such unclean mouths, but to receive a bite in a cave environment in a liquefied slurry of bat feces simply has to be the absolute worst of all septic situations. We were in a very remote area, so I had to hike out many kilometers to our truck, up and over a very large mountain. After an hour or so we reached our vehicle were we had another hour on bumpy dirt road before we got to the first village. The village medical facility was like a medieval torture chamber, so we refused to let them do anything but clean the wound, which sent me through the roof. The next closest medical facility was another 2 1/2 hrs drive so we headed off to there.
Arriving late at night we found a young Indonesian doctor that cleaned my wounds again, gave me many shots, and placed a few stitches in each major flesh tear just so they weren’t just hanging open. He advised it best to leave the wound somewhat open since it was such a dirty bite, which turned out to be very good advice. He also advised us to get to Bali as soon as possible. Following a few hours sleep and around five hours of driving time, (producer) Simon and I got to the airport where we successfully got on a flight for Bali later that morning. Nat Geo’s Medical Office informed us that it best to forgo Bali treatment and instead get to Singapore as fast as possible. We did this, arriving the night following the bite, around 27 hrs after it happened, to the hospital where I was admitted and received good treatment from two doctors, one being a tropical infectious disease specialist. I am now home and resting comfortably.
The entire sequence was filmed. It is chilling footage to watch, like a train wreck so horrible you don’t want to watch yet simply cannot remove your eyes. It was an epic snake capture, one to go down in the history books.
The support and logistic help I received from NGCI personnel, mainly the Singapore office, was truly instrumental in minimizing the ill effects of such a snake bite. The field crew I was with acted professionally and efficiently. Truly the support, direction, advice, and encouragement I received from everyone at NGT, NG Medical Office, NGCI, NGCUS, was phenomenal. Thank you to all involved. It truly was a team effort to get me out of the wilds of Indonesia, get me proper treatment, and back to the US. For this I am eternally grateful.