So, what did we do the morning after we had climbed a mountain? We got up at 4am and went for a hike, of course!
With the weather not being ideal for our purposes, this was done in the hopes that more herps would reveal themselves earlier in the morning, particularly any Rax k’aj that might be around. But once again, no snakes were found, though we were treated to a nice sunrise.
Meanwhile, my body was keen to tell me, “You do remember what you were doing about twelve hours ago, right?” My knees were killing me on the downhill stretch, and I felt a bit wobbly for much of the day. The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak.
For the rest of the day, however, we didn’t have to go far to find herps. Hiding in the construction area were two Rhadinaea kinkelini: note the blunted nose, adapted for burrowing. Later, another Pliocercus elapoides was found close by.
But then, during dinner, Tara got a phone call: the locals we had seen the previous day had found a Rax k’aj! We drove back to the site (at road level, not all the way up the mountain again), where the snake had already been placed in a bag. Rowland and Graeme removed it to place in one of our own snakebags, and confirmed that it was indeed what we wanted!
The next day, we practiced snakehook techniques with the Pliocercus and Rax k’aj. Then we took our new ‘green lightning’ outside for an extensive photography session. The lighting wasn’t ideal, nor was the colouration of the snake (it was close to shedding its skin, and therefore relatively dull), but it was still a lovely animal.
There was also an unexpected treat on that day, as we decided to go to Coban, the nearest town, about a 45 minute drive away. First we visited a local marketplace, where I bought a handwoven bag, and some traditional weavings as souvenirs for my family. It was certainly better than my last visit to Guatemala: pens were the least tacky souvenirs I could find in Flores.
Just driving to the other side of town from this area, the scenery became very different – from this:
It was in this more modern section that we stopped in a café with wi-fi; I was finally able to get a connection on my phone, check my emails, and find out that PNE had won the playoff final a few days earlier!
With all the energy we had expended, our last full day on site was a relatively relaxing one. We had another photography session with the Rax k’aj, this time in the dappled light around the stream.
While all our other animals had been released in the spots where they were found, Rowland was concerned about the Rax k’aj’s safety if it were released close to human habitation – so instead, we let it go up one of the trails. And as it slithered away to freedom, that was that for our expedition.
Around 8am on 29th May, we said a final goodbye to CCFC. As it turned out, we weren’t quite done with hiking; on the way back, we stopped at a site where it was possible to see quetzals, Guatemala’s national bird. Sadly, none were evident, though it hardly dampened our spirits after everything we had already done.
We arrived back at the Hotel Princess just before 3pm. Rowland, who was doing more work elsewhere in Guatemala, had to leave straight away, but I had a farewell dinner with the others that evening. Then in the morning, I was up early for my journey home.
Aside from the flight from Dallas to Heathrow being slightly delayed, making me panic that I was going to miss my Heathrow transfer, the return journey was fairly pleasant. There was certainly lots of in-flight entertainment to choose from. It did take me longer than normal to get over the jet-lag, though.
So, how was this volunteer experience overall? It was certainly tough – very physically challenging, and quite different even from Las Guacamayas. But if we don’t take on such challenges, we don’t learn what we are truly capable of. Despite how drained I felt some of the time, I didn’t back out of anything, and I feel proud of that.
Going on this survey was also a great privilege – being able to go to another place off the beaten track, and see so many rare and scientifically significant reptiles and amphibians, that don’t get nearly as much attention as threatened mammals. Our findings reinforced the importance of surveys like this for conservation, and how incomplete our knowledge of these areas still remains. It felt great to contribute to such work – and I should also say thanks to Rob, Tara and everyone else at CCFC for taking such good care of us.
By the end, I was left thinking about Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s words at the end of his book The Worst Journey in the World (written about the Terra Nova expedition to Antarctica):
“And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore. If you are a brave man you will do nothing: if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have need to prove their bravery…you will sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you sledge will not be shopkeepers: that is worth a good deal. If you march your Winter Journeys you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin’s egg.”
Just substitute ‘penguin’s egg’ with ‘Rax k’aj’ in this case.
Thank you to Rowland Griffin, Indigo Expeditions, and Community Cloud Forest Conservation, for giving me this opportunity!
Fascinating travel expedition articles as usual.
Random question, not sure if you’ll know the answer. Is there a green coloured adder native to Britain.
No, there isn’t, though (non-venomous) grass snakes are sort-of green. While European adders and Rax k’aj are both vipers (they can both fold their fangs inside their mouths), Rax k’aj belong to a different group called pit vipers, which also includes rattlesnakes. They have heat-sensitive pits on their faces which they use to detect their prey. These can be seen in some of the face-on pictures of this Rax k’aj.
I’ve been writing a series of fantasy books (on and off, none are completed) about a witches cat. His arch enemy is a surukuku snake (I liked the sound of the name) and his best friend is also a snake. He was an adder but I like the colour of Rax k’aj and the folding fangs and heat sensitive pits sound interesting.
I never really thought about the different biological traits animals have I was to busy giving them magical traits. Thanks for the info. Is the surukuku snake a viper too? I think I read somewhere that it is.
The surukuku is indeed a pit viper – in fact, it’s the longest viper in the world at up to 3.5 metres. ‘Surukuku’ is its Brazilian name; its scientific name is Lachesis muta, and it’s most popularly known as the bushmaster.
I like the idea of you having a snake in a more friendly role; it doesn’t happen often enough. In one of my NaNo fantasy stories, I gave one of the protagonists a pet viper: since snakes can’t hear external sounds, she trains it to respond to different vibrational signals. As for the species of your friendly snake, if you have a surukuku, you could have another non-British snake as well.
I shall work it into his back story, originally he was educated at Oxford or Cambridge so I thought an English snake would work well but you’ve given me a few more ideas. He was only roughly sketched into the second book but I’m thinking he might get a bigger part.
Intriguing! I’d go with Oxford, by the way: its natural history studies go back a long way, and there’s been some herpetological studies there too.
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