Snakes and Ladders

No, not the board game – real snakes and ladders.

I came across a Berg Adder the other day meters after negotiating one of the steel ladders on Table Mountain, making me feel like I was playing a game of real-life snakes and ladders. So, with no common ground other than their significance with regards to foot placement – the one you want to step on, the other you don’t – let’s take a closer look at what a hiker on Table Mountain can expect in the way of Adders and ladders.

First, Adders. (Snakes on Table Mountain in general will be dealt with at length in a future blog – watch this space). Two Adder species occur on Table Mountain: the Berg Adder and the Puff Adder. Both have scaly, plump and boldly-patterned bodies with flat, triangular heads. And both are sluggish and strikes readily. Berg Adders reach lengths of between 30 and 45 cm, while Puff Adders grow to 90 cm.

So what venom do they pack? Berg Adders are considered mildly venomous, but no anti-venom exists, so a bite might confine you to a hospital bed for months. Also, the venom is both cytotoxic (cell-destroying, attacking tissue and blood cells) and neurotoxic (attacking central nervous system, causing respiratory failure), but fortunately lacks the potency to kill a human.

The venom of the Puff Adder is mostly cytotoxic and apart from causing excruciating pain, can lead to the loss of a digit or limb. Fatalities from a Puff Adder bite are rare, but do occasionally occur. Colloquially referred to as a “Puffy”, it thoroughly deserves its notoriety in that it is responsible for more fatalities than any other African snake. This can be ascribed to a combination of factors: prevalence, wide distribution, aggression, potent venom, long fangs, habit of basking in footpaths and its sluggishness (most snakes slither away when sensing danger; the indolent Puffy holds its ground).  

So what are your chances of coming across an Adder while hiking Table Mountain? Slim. I spend a lot of time on the mountain, often in remote locations, and haven’t seen a Puff Adder in years. As for Berg Adders, I chance upon one perhaps once a year. Puff Adders seem to be more prevalent around Cape Point, as I have come across them twice in the last eight visits to the area. Both times they were coiled up in the path, basking in the sun and in no hurry to get out of the way. Mean-looking and with a face only a mother can love, I steered a wide berth around them.

From Adders to ladders. A few routes on Table Mountain feature artificial aids at some point along the way, whether it be steel ladders, staples (U-shaped steel bars fixed to the rock) or chains. One of the most well-known ladders are those found in Skeleton Gorge, where they help hikers to negotiate a steep and treacherous section in the ravine bed.

Another route that has benefited from artificial aids is India Venster, notorious after it saw a spate of fatalities in 2009. Since Table Mountain is a national park and a World Heritage Site, authorities are usually loath to pin ironmongery to the mountain, but in this case it was justified. On other routes, the use of aids is questionable, like the chains on Kloof Corner and the staples on the Llandudno Ravine route.

The newly-installed chains and staples on Lion’s Head (formerly only chains) sparked off an impassioned debate among regular hikers and climbers. Some pundits are of the opinion that the existence of an easier and safer way to the summit renders them superfluous and only defaces the mountain, while others maintain that they enhance the route and makes it more accessible and safer to novice hikers. Then there are those who feel that too much ironmongery has been affixed; that it constitutes an overkill in the use of aids. This is a contentious issue and will always be, with opinions surfacing on forums and articulated on the mountain being as virulent as an Adder’s venom. 

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