I specialise in parasites, particularly viruses. But first and foremost I’m a biologist. I decided to concentrate on viruses only after I qualified as a biologist – and snakes are biological right, so I should be able to cope with them fine?
During the filming of Bite Me I had plenty of encounters with snakes, both planned and unplanned. Generally I’m not fazed by snakes, especially for someone more used to tiny micro-organisms but ironically my most exciting snake encounter wasn’t in some exotic tropical country, but in Florida.
The morning in question didn’t start well. A local wildlife expert (who also happened to own the airboat in which we planned to travel across the Everglades) limped over with his foot in a huge bandage – crocodile bite! As he was unable to help us he had arranged for a colleague to take us out, but when the coleague finally arrived his hand and lower arm were bandaged up – alligator bite! We had also expected to meet a pest control expert in order to do some fact finding, but unfortunately he was in hospital after being attacked by killer bees. I tried to avoid thinking that this was all bad mojo! At least the weather was nice, and anyway it didn’t take long to find another volunteer to accompany us on our snake hunt, and luckily he knew how to handle big snakes.
The plan was to cruise out into the Everglades in the airboat in search of one of the 260-strong population of Burmese pythons. Then we aimed to capture it and deliver it to the authorities. The Pythons now breed and live in the Everglades, but nature certainly didn’t intend them to do so. This bunch of reptiles all originate from former pets that were released into the wild when they became too big to handle. Once enough of them were slithering around the area it was inevitable that a few males met a few females and now they are established as a rather unwelcome breeding population.
It didn’t take too long before we found a python, but it was huge. I was secretly hoping to find a snake big enough to look good on camera, but not so big that it could potentially eat me. The crew seemed pleased to have found such a monster, but I wasn’t so sure. This one was a good twelve feet long and had a girth bigger than my thighs. OK, so it might not actually eat me but it was really massive.
I tried not to show that I was having second thoughts. When catching snakes even a virologist knows that commitment is everything. Second thoughts are bad. Once you go to grab a snake behind the head you need to be both swift and confident because a tiny hesitation can result in a bite. Pythons may kill their prey by suffocating them rather than simply by biting them, they may not be venomous, but they’ve still got very sharp teeth.
Albert, our local volunteer, came forward to offer some advice. “If you don’t want to get bit work out how much spare length he’s got in them coils. As long as you stay further away than he can reach - you should be alright.”
At that Albert stood about five feet in front of the snake as if to say. “This is about the right distance”. But it wasn’t the right distance! The snake lifted its head and struck with amazing speed grabbing poor Albert’s forearm with its huge mouth. Luckily it didn’t hold on, but plenty of blood was spilled which did nothing to build my confidence. As you'll see in the show, I did grab and hold the python without being bitten, suffocated or eaten - and without becoming the fifth casualty of the day, but it was so incredibly heavy and strong that I stood no chance of getting it onto our airboat.
The Python was quite an edgy encounter, whereas learning to drive the airboat was just pure exhilaration and fun. I love the idea of a hand-built boat powered by an old-school Cadillac 500 series vee-eight with a dirty great aircraft prop grafted to it. Driving it was a unique experience - sat high above the reeds, the big vee-eight bellowed behind my ears as I steered the boat left and right by pushing a lever backwards or forwards.
The USA always surprises me. I thought that I’d spent enough time in the country to get to know it quite well, particularly the south west where I’ve spent weeks touring around on motorbikes with my brother. But Portal Arizona gently sneaked up on my subconscious and became my favourite location of the whole series.
Portal is a tiny settlement in southern Arizona nestling under the Chiricahua Mountains close to the borders of both Mexico to the south and New Mexico to the east. It has history (Geronimo was captured around here and sent to a concentration camp in Florida), it has wildlife (even David Attenborough spent time here) and it’s a bird watcher's Mecca. It has desert, it has forests, and it has mountains which tower thousands of feet above the town. The area is full of wildlife, both beautiful and harmful, but for me it was the people who made our stay there so great. Oh – and a tuned up 1966 Chevy pickup which I was kindly allowed to use as a run-around!