Reviewed by Norrie Sanders
This is a story about death. And life. More or less in that order.
Venom’s lurid cover pretty much gives away the topic. It is not a book about snakes in general, but about one snake in particular – nguman, dhayban – the coastal taipan. The central theme is about the quest to capture live snakes so that antivenom can be manufactured. Along the way, we are introduced to the reasons why this creature is so dangerous and so stunning. The pages turn quickly with each harrowing snake encounter and the race – largely by amateur volunteers – to find a cure.
“It was a paradox. Queenslanders were killing taipans because they wanted to prevent human deaths, but every taipan killed was a missed opportunity to collect venom for antivenom production, which would save the lives of the inevitable bite victims.”
Although known to indigenous people for millennia, the coastal taipan was a latecomer to science. The first live specimen was captured and definitively named – Oxyuranus scutellatus – in 1933 by a young Melbourne scientist. He also suggested the common name “Taipan” derived from the Wik Mungkan language of western Cape York. So elusive and dangerous is this reptile that the next scientific capture took nearly two decades and came to be of immense significance to medicine. That capture led to a tragedy that haunts this book.
The taipan story alone would make the book worthwhile. But Brendan Murray has interwoven the stories of many extraordinary people – the only man to survive a bite without antivenom; the first boy to be treated with antivenom; and the herpetologists and a snake charmer (yes, that’s right) who risk their lives to capture and milk the snakes.
Brendan Murray’s credentials for writing this book are not immediately obvious. He lives at the opposite end of the country from the taipan’s natural habitat and has not previously published on snakes. His other book was from a similar era, but centred on a crime aboard a warship. Fortunately for the reader, this has in no way prevented him from writing a thoughtful, intelligent and enlightening account. This may be a book about one species of snakes, but it becomes an engaging and sometimes confronting insight into Australian life in the middle of the last century.
Murray carefully explores some of the issues facing indigenous people at that time, tracing the fate of people from the mission at Cape Bedford (later Hope Vale). Their story is often told through the eyes of the admirable George Rosendale, allowing the facts to speak and avoiding overt proselytising.
The forced relocation of his people during WW2 when George was just twelve:
“Then the jeep appeared, immediately followed by two more…Rosendale knew immediately that this was the army.”
“No guns pointed at anybody. But they were there. And Rosendale kept watching those bayonets.”
The mission was 2000km north of the Brisbane line and an invading army might have taken people at gunpoint. But this army was Australian.
Brendan Murray’s careful description of the journey that follows leaves us feeling the hunger, thirst and despair of George’s friends and family. No explanation is given for the inhumane way that these Australian people are treated, but at least the soldiers allowed volunteers at railway stations to provide sustenance when it was desperately needed.
Five years later, Rosendale returned to north Queensland and soon after, had a close encounter with one of the world’s most dangerous snakes. Although this had a profound effect on his life, he proved to be an extraordinary person who sought throughout his life to make a difference for his people.
The other traumatic thread in the book is about another young man who sought to make a difference. Kevin Budden travelled twice to north Queensland to capture live taipans. Kevin was also a remarkable person and his singular contribution to medical science has certainly made a difference to many people.
The people who risk their lives to capture and milk snakes are given generous treatment – they are not depicted as glory seekers but as ordinary people who are seeking to save future victims. After receiving a bite, Kevin Budden remained phlegmatic and polite after a rushed trip to hospital in a truck, “’Thanks again for picking me up’ ….’And take good care of the snake’”
The cycle of life and death is completed by the amazing story of an even younger boy – Bruce Stringer. The drama of his snake bite, and hospitalisation is highlighted by a series of images taken by his father. Murray’s description is poignant:
“He lay there for some time, his father holding his hand by his side. Though the landscape was blurred, he could detect its shades, colours and forms:………”.
“It was the world and it was his”.
Fake news was also rife in the 1950s. The author sets the records straight on media coverage of the time – particularly the racist commentary on George Rosendale. Even the highly publicised capture of the taipan in 1951 is misreported and taipan reportage generally was hyperbolic. It exemplifies the unwillingness of the media to supply the truth. Or worse, to incite fear and retribution.
Hardly surprising when so little was known about them and most of the book’s taipans seemed to have anger management issues. They may not actually stalk you, but don’t get within their personal space unless you want to be a newspaper headline.
The hair-standing-on-end sections include John Dwyer capturing a huge snake by the tail; David Fleay’s milking of a very angry reptile; George Rosendale fighting for life; and the first use of antivenom on a dying Bruce Stringer. Clever structure and good factual reporting with reconstructions of dialog, people and places, anchor the authenticity.
In an ending no-one could have made up, an Indian/Australian snake charmer Edward Ramsamay helped to save the life of many Australians. His selflessness after being bitten by a taipan is extraordinary. Though perhaps not shared by his long suffering wife Nolear:
“When asked about her husband’s behaviour these days, she’s philosophical. ‘you know what men are like, she says…….I gave him something when he got home from hospital – I went for him.’”
In fact, though she was no lover of her husband’s desire to cuddle snakes, she stoically attended every milking and his success would not “have been possible without Lear”.
The characters in this story are many and memorable, with all manner of ethnic and social backgrounds. It is hard not to feel pride in the human spirit and shame at some of the transgressions.
Taipans are also given a good hearing. At once, they are to be feared and pitied. They have a strong spiritual dimension to indigenous people and, very possibly, to those who seek them out.
The final character is country. We feel the heat, the dust and the intense light; we feel the presence of a dangerous wonder of nature. But we rarely feel the fear.
Brave people, amazing stories, superbly told.
By Brendan James Murray