I reached up to steady a kitchen knife on the dashboard. Light from the big blade bounced across my forehead, and I felt the heat.
I hadn’t been to Africa in over a decade. As the rattling Toyota Corolla shook things off the dashboard, orange dust in our wake shot up and settled onto emaciated tree limbs. Black rocks in the gully to our left looked like molten lava.
As far as I could tell, Swaziland hadn’t changed. I had snapshot memories of the small mountain kingdom from my childhood, a bizarre mental album of cow-dung huts and tin-roofed shanties, a sprawling hospital where my father worked and a morgue, wild animals and tame animals and other animals in between, and a feeling somehow in the midst of it all of being special and safe.
As the child of a mission doctor, I was tolerated almost everywhere and so, while other kids herded cows or sold mangoes for pennies, I ran around with a stick and pretended to be in the special forces. One day, as friends and I raced through the hospital, I stumbled on a bucket of spaghetti in the surgery room—spaghetti that, on second examination, turned out to be relocated stomach worms, still moving.
Now we were going to Mantenga Falls for a picnic. Our knife was just for a pineapple. Bill, my brother, leaned over the steering wheel like a horse jockey.
My family never visited the falls when we lived in Swaziland. We tried once on foot, but a group of men by the streambed saw us and started dropping their beers to put on ski masks. They had bush knives. We turned around. They didn’t follow.
By the time, a few years later, the Lonely Planet crew came through, there had been enough strong-arm robbery on the road to warrant a warning in the guidebook. The authors didn’t discourage visiting the area but suggested staying in a vehicle.
Bill swung our Toyota around a sharp corner and I noticed a cave in the wall of rocks above the streambed. Twisted vines dangled from the entrance. A deep, zigzagging hand crack split the roof.
“Wait, stop here a second,” I said. Perfect splitters had come to mean more to me than just a way to climb insanely overhanging faces. They had been my introduction to climbing and, in turn, American culture.
Hand jams and ring locks were the way an awkward kid of the Swazi middle veld managed to belong in the maelstrom of teenage California. I couldn’t form a good sentence about cars or wakeboards or cereal flavors, but climbing culture was simpler. In climbing, effort was everything.
When I led my first climb (on nuts), most of my pieces wound up on my belayer’s ATC, but I finished. As I acquired cams, I dreamt of longer cracks and bigger routes.
When a friend and I climbed the eight-pitch Whodunit (5.9) on Tahquitz our freshman year in college, we fretted over the size of the route till midnight the night before. To maximize our time, we started early in the morning. We lugged two ropes and a load of leaver ‘biners in case we had to rappel, then finished before noon.
Other climbs didn’t go as well. On our first attempt at the Nose on El Cap, we dropped so much gear we had to retreat just to re-rack.
Years later I met Todd Skinner in the Valley, just days, it turned out, before the accident on Leaning Tower. Though he was trying to free Jesus Built My Hotrod (VI A4 5.7), his mind was already on his next project—to find the ultimate roof crack, 50 feet or more, hundreds of feet off the ground.
“Imagine how that would be,” Skinner said, while giving us his leftover barbecued chicken. “Do you know where one might be?”
The cave crack in Swaziland wasn’t quite the free-climbing Shangri-La that Skinner had in mind, but its angles were perfect. I hadn’t brought any gear, but it looked like I could solo the start. To finish it, I’d return with a rope.
Two hundred yards from the car, the pearl skull of a Nyala, an antelope with stout, dagger-like horns, greeted me near the base of the rock. I could have guessed from its position that it had bounced down from the cave but I wasn’t thinking about that at the time.
The cave was 30 feet up, the crack 20 feet above that. I grabbed the woody vines, tested them, and climbed up into the cave on its right side. I moved into the center and out on the edge to check out the crack. Its geometric doglegs drew my eyes back into the hole, where it began on a pile of sharp rocks.
I mimed the sequence and imagined how far I could reach off each twist in the crack. It stayed horizontal for 25 feet, the last five feet jutting over the wash. Where it turned the lip, a lattice of vines and tree roots clogged the best jams.
I was imagining how I’d clean it when I first noticed the gravelly sound at my feet. I didn’t hear it so much as feel it in my stomach. I looked down.
Time slowed. My eyes widened as I tried to take in all 20 feet of the snake in front of me. The massive body writhed. Its head hovered. Three feet off the ground, one python eye watched my every move.
Snake experts say that a rock python responds in one of two ways to intruders. If it hisses and heaves, it’s angry and wants to scare you off. If it’s silent, it’s thinking about eating you.
I yelled to Bill and my sister-in-law, Erin, “There’s a t-wen-ty-foot py-thon right in front of me!” My hands floated by my neck for no explicable reason.
“Where?” Bill shouted back.
“Right in front of me!” I didn’t move. I stood helpless at the entrance to the cave, blocked off from the vines that were my only exit. The snake didn’t move.
I yelled again to my brother. He was reaching for the pineapple knife. The snake didn’t move.
I imagined what would happen if it did move. I pictured its jaws springing open, slow-motion like in a National Geographic film, hurtling toward me. I imagined being crushed and swallowed, engulfed in blood and guts and pieces of Nyala. Still the snake didn’t move.
I wondered what it would mean if I was killed by a python on my soul-searching trek back to my childhood home. I felt chagrinned for wanting to climb in a place like Swaziland, where most people spend their days battling poverty and disease.
I remembered the worms in the hospital, saw the patient’s feet. The curtain was drawn in the surgical unit but I could tell from the commotion that they had just removed that mountain of worms from her stomach. I wondered if she had survived.
Without notice, the snake swung around and poured into a basketball-sized hole. Adrenaline animated my limbs, and I dashed past the snake’s retreating tail and fled down the vines.
I’ve often wondered how close that python came to attacking me. Was it hungry? Angry? Maybe it thought I was too big. Perhaps my brother scared it. Maybe it thought I was special.
Josh McCoy spent seven years in Swaziland and a year in Papua New Guinea. He is now a reporter for the Amador Ledger Dispatch in northern California.