Our impression of the snake in its West Coast habitat (Background photo: Getty Images)

I went hunting for the legendary snakes of the West Coast bush

Is there a colony of copperhead snakes living in the remote West Coast bush? Yes, say some locals. Possibly – but probably not, says one government report. Charlie O’Mannin set off on a cross-country journey to uncover the truth.

It’s 1990 and a gold prospector is working in a secluded West Coast valley. On one side a sharp bank drops off to a creek below, on the other dense forest makes the hills nearly impassable. Even more concerning are the old mine shafts dug randomly among the undergrowth. The prospector has to choose his footing carefully – rotting logs, ferns and tussocks conceal holes that are metres deep.

In the distance he can hear the sounds of the still active mines of the valley, ripping gold from the soil.

He takes a break at the top of the bank. And a 30-inch long snake coils up his arm.

In a panic, the prospector throws the snake away from him, down the slope to the rocks below.

The prospector does not report the encounter to any government agency. Neither do any of the other prospectors who witnessed it.

The author’s reconstruction of the fateful moment (nb. copperhead snakes are not green) (Photo: Charlie O’Mannin)

Flash forward 24 years to 2014. The same prospector is talking to a journalist (unknown) and recounts his experience. The story makes enough of an impression on the journalist that they interview more West Coast gold miners and a scientist at Landcare Research (again unknown). Based on these conversations the journalist concludes that there is a real possibility that there could be a population of snakes in the West Coast gold mining districts.

As far as I can tell, the journalist did not publish any of this information. Instead, they got in contact with the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) and reported it as a potential biosecurity breach.

According to a Biosecurity New Zealand spokesperson, as soon as MPI were notified, they “undertook a thorough investigation” that included interviewing the original notifier, “interrogating relevant databases,” consulting with the Department of Conservation staff in the region, and engaging a professional herpetologist (reptile scientist) to write a report on the scientific possibility of an undiscovered West Coast snake population.

This report also includes the exact GPS coordinates where the snake was found. I don’t have a driver’s licence because those fuckers at NZTA keep failing me, so I did the only reasonable thing and travelled from my home in Dunedin to an obscure point in the West Coast bush by bus, train, bike and foot to uncover the truth.

Getting to Greymouth wasn’t that hard, but it was a good 50kms from Greymouth to the GPS location, so I borrowed a cruddy purple bike from the hostel where I was staying and set out on the highway, walking my bike up the big hills and then zooming down the other side. Just out of sight, in the dense rainforest on either side of the road, I imagined little wriggly reptiles in there, frolicking in the mist and happily devouring native species.

On the hunt (Photos: Charlie O’Mannin)

I had obtained the herpetologist’s report through the Official Information Act and it’s the basis for a lot of the information I have. This is the reason why we don’t know the identities of the people I’ve mentioned so far; the government redacted all personal information from the report before giving it to me.

In 2014, someone, either MPI or the unnamed journalist (the report isn’t clear), got the prospector to identify the variety of snake as a Victorian copperhead, a venomous South Australian snake, by showing him comparative pictures of Australian snake species. Considering that they were asking him to remember what a snake he saw briefly 24 years previously looked like, we should probably take the identification with a boulder of salt.

According to the herpetologist, the copperhead is perfectly suited, ecologically speaking, to West Coast conditions. It’s also widely present in Tasmania, which shares a similar ecosystem to the West Coast. The copperhead mainly feeds on frogs and lizards, which are certainly available on the coast, but the snakes have also been known to feed on invertebrates, small mammals and birds.

At 10am I took a wrong turn that added 20kms onto my trip, taking me in a loop almost all the way back to Greymouth. I almost gave up. I was already tired and grubby and I still had so far left to go. But the thought of those snakes, so close, so tantalisingly close, drove me on.

L: The author’s ultimate destination, R: Injured but unbowed (Photo: Charlie O’Mannin)

By the time I got close to the GPS location of the 1990 snake sighting I was exhausted. I abandoned my bike to go bush, forcing my way through blackberry that tore up my legs and crawling along dead trees fallen over old gold pits, each slip bringing a long fall down a black shaft horribly close.

Every shadow hissed at me, every dark hole a seething mass, every hanging strand of moss a great green python ready to envelop me in its coils of truth.

I wish I could say I found concrete evidence – droppings, scraps of shed skin, even a suspicious pile of frog bones. But the snakes had clearly heard me coming and covered their tracks; all I found was moss and sticks and dirt.

However, when I asked one local at the nearby pub about the snake rumour, he instantly and emphatically told me that there absolutely were snakes in the old gold mines. He said that back in the day the miners of the area commonly encountered snakes, but never reported them because they were afraid the government would come in and close down their mines. Still, he had never seen a snake himself, and didn’t know anyone who had.

In the herpetologist’s report, the most persuasive piece of pro snake evidence is probably this: “Copperheads are notoriously secretive and inoffensive, preferring to avoid encounters with humans where possible. This significantly lowers the probability of close human interactions.”

The West Coast is already one of the most remote areas of New Zealand; although the region covers 8.7% of New Zealand’s land area, it has only 0.75% of the people, a measly 32,600. Nelson’s Creek, the nearest town to where the snake was sighted, has a population of 363. If there’s anywhere in New Zealand that snakes could go unseen, it’s the West Coast.

The herpetologist speculated in their report that because of the remoteness of the snake’s location, the species was probably introduced via gold mining shipping routes from South Australia in the 1860s and ‘70s. The report concluded that if the original invaders were pregnant or could breed, then “theoretically a colony in excess of 100 individuals could readily have established over the period of a century”.

If there were snakes on the West Coast, and if they were lime green and made of rubber, they might look something like this (Photo: Charlie O’Mannin)

New Zealand history is littered with biosecurity breaches involving snakes. A search of the Papers Past archive came up with a large number of reported incidents between 1830 and 1950.

At the time, the nation’s docks and wharves had little in the way of modern biosecurity measures. When a live carpet snake was found in a shipment of bananas being unloaded at the Wellington wharf in 1896 “it was quickly secured and carried off by a man who appeared to have some knowledge of how to deal with snakes”. And in 1893 there was a similar case where a dock worker took home a live snake as a pet. Or, “it is now in his possession” as the newspapers at the time reported it.

The border wasn’t the only place that snakes were encountered. In my newspaper archive search I found five snake encounters that didn’t have any obvious links to shipping routes or were found deep inland.

In 1886 a snake caused panic when it was discovered in an Auckland racecourse. The man who captured the snake, and therefore owned it, was offered a 5 pound note by an entrepreneur who wanted to run it as a side show. This offer was declined and the snake was given to an academic who chloroformed it for scientific research. As the West Coast Times wrote, “It will be a great relief to many people to know that the reptile is at last dead”.

In 1875 loggers in the Ureweras, as remote as you can get in the North Island, came across a metre-long snake that they “chopped up there and then into mincemeat”.

And then there was this stub of an article from 1869: “There has been a snake found in the Upper Waikato; the first of this order of reptile yet found in New Zealand. The interesting specimen has been deposited in the Museum, where it can be seen by the curious”. The piece neglects to mention which museum the snake was deposited in.

MANAWATU STANDARD, VOLUME LIII, ISSUE 102, 28 MARCH 1933 (Stuff Ltd/ CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

How useful is this information? Well, it shows it’s more than plausible that snakes could have got through New Zealand’s nonexistent 19th century biosecurity and established a population. But on the other hand, none of the snakes recorded were actually found on the West Coast. And of course, all those other early sightings appear not to have led to Central North Island snake infestations.

In the end, the main argument against the possibility of a snake population is that more people would have seen and reported them. As the 2014 report notes: “it is unlikely that a colony of snakes could have remained so poorly reported by the public and herpetological community in an area of the Grey Valley, which although considered remote is still surrounded by large areas of agricultural farmland, small communities, and populated towns”.

But also, if you’re a fiercely independent West Coast gold prospector or logger who more than likely already distrusts a central government that regulates your activities from the capital, how likely is it that you would actually report a snake to that same government? We already know that at least one, the 1990 prospector, never got in contact with a government agency despite believing himself to have had a close physical encounter.

A Biosecurity New Zealand spokesperson told me that after MPI’s investigation, “the evidence suggested it was very unlikely that a snake population was present in the area,” and that the case was now closed.

When asked what their favourite kind of snake is, that spokesperson would only venture that “for biosecurity reasons, we don’t want any snake species to establish a population in New Zealand”.

My favourite snake is the Red Bellied Snake because its belly is red. Hsssssss.

If you know any of the unidentified people in this story, any other information about the West Coast snake population, or have blurry black and white photographs of squiggly things that could be snakes, please email me at c.omannin@gmail.com

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