Have you ever taken a chance that changed your life irrevocably?
I’ve always been able to feel change coming, as distinctly as one feels a shift in the direction of a summer breeze or the onset of spring. It’s a sudden realisation that I’m done with something, or that I won’t be continuing down the path I am on. I’ve never been sure if I feel the change because in that exact moment, I’ve made a decision to pursue a new direction, or if it’s an external force showing me the way. I’m inclined to believe the former, that the sense is an outward manifestation of an inner choice. Either way, it’s as clear and relentless as a wave coming towards me as I stand with my back to the sea. I’m aware of its approach only moments before the realisation envelops me and whooshes past, leaving me with the irrefutable understanding that my current path has run its course and I’m onto something else now.
As I stepped out of the artificial winter created by the small aircraft, the strong presentiment of change was carried on the hot wind of the Namib Desert as it whipped my long brown hair across my face and gave me my first real taste of Africa. From the air, the plane had appeared to be landing in the middle of the Namib Desert and as I took in the breath-taking landscape of golden desert sand dunes surrounding the tiny airport of Walvis Bay, I realised that my impression was not too far wrong! The burning sun beat down on the small runway and I waited for the other passengers who had boarded the aircraft with me in Johannesburg to go ahead of me on the short stroll into the airport building while I pulled myself together. The butterflies in my stomach had been there since I left my home near Sydney, Australia. They had put me off most of my in-flight meals and taken hold with a strength that surprised me. My anxiety was a product of nervous excitement, for although I had travelled overseas before, this was my first visit to Namibia in South-West Africa. I was twenty-three years old and I had never been so far from home. This was compounded by the fact that I had just travelled half way around the world to stay with a man I had never met, but who was to change me in ways I never imagined.
It all began some eighteen months earlier when I sat down in my family’s lounge room on the outskirts of Sydney and turned on the television. Joe Kightley, my mother Carolyn’s partner (who would later become her husband), had recently purchased Foxtel, a pay TV service that provided access to a wide range of television shows including my personal favourites – those that aired on the crime channel, the history channel and the wildlife documentary channels. My pet python, ‘Osiris,’ with which I spent much of my time, was at that moment sleeping nestled under a rock in his enclosure, so I put a VHS tape into the VCR to record anything of interest that might be airing that day. I turned to Animal Planet, hoping specifically for programs about snakes.
My attention was instantly fixed to the screen in front of me when I saw a tanned, agile, and obviously athletic man leaping out of the way of a strike from a giant lance head viper. The man and the snake were surrounded by impenetrable jungle and the warning calls of white-faced capuchin monkeys heightened the suspense. The highly venomous snake was enormous and an incredibly fast striker. It was doing its level best to defend itself against the man, who clearly meant the snake no harm, but who had been displaying the snake’s deadly fangs to the camera only moments before. This intense contest for survival continued, with the man keeping just out of range of the snake’s strike every time it lunged at him. My summation of the situation was that this man could not possibly live to tell this amazing tale, but as I watched, he got the snake under control using his snake-handlers tongs and gently placed it on a large branch, where he confidently began to photograph it with all the caution of an experienced wildlife photographer. He spoke to the camera constantly with a pleasing South African accent and it became obvious to me that this man really knew about snakes. He wore fitted Stirling pants and a blue short-sleeved collared shirt. I thought he was probably in his mid to late thirties. His straight blonde hair fell slightly in front of his hazel eyes and brushed his collar at the back of his neck. He had a handsome face and a boyish enthusiasm that I knew would appeal to a wide audience. The program drew to a close a few minutes later and I had to admit that I was impressed. It was rare to see a television presenter so knowledgeable and passionate about his subject. I pressed the information button on the Foxtel remote control. The title of the series read ‘Austin Stevens Most Dangerous.’ I scanned ahead through the television schedule and marked the next showing of the program.
Over the next few months, I never missed an episode of ‘Austin Stevens Most Dangerous.’ I looked forward to every Monday night when Austin would take his audience to a different continent in search of yet another deadly reptile. There were many different animals covered in every episode, each culminating in a spectacular final encounter that increased my admiration for Mr Stevens’s knowledge and talent. He had an undeniably charismatic on-screen presence and his presentation style was informative, educational and enthusiastic. I learned more about the reptiles of the world in those few months than I ever had during my visits to reptile parks and zoos or in my training and work as a veterinary nurse years earlier. One episode particularly enthralled me, when Austin drove from his home in the coastal town of Swakopmund, Namibia, into the desert to search for the elusive desert elephants. The Namib Desert, the oldest desert in the world, was clearly a place of awesome beauty. It was also one of the most hostile environments I had ever seen depicted on screen. I had at one time spent a year working in the CEO’s office of a leading Australian television network and obtained work as an extra on lots of films and television shows through a modelling agency, so I had experienced different aspects of the television industry and I could not help but admire the tenacity of the film team and their presenter.
At the time Austin’s series was airing, I had been working as a practice coordinator for a workers compensation investigation and assessment company for a couple of years. The people were wonderful and although the position was rewarding, my life at that time was about as far removed from Austin’s world of constant adventure as one could get. I had visited parts of Australia and Thailand and set goals for future travel, but I knew I would always be limited by the several weeks of annual leave I could obtain from work each year.
In my spare time, I researched Austin’s work on the internet. He had been born in Pretoria, South Africa, and had developed his interest in snakes at the age of twelve. I was shocked to discover that Austin, who appeared half his age on screen, was actually in his mid-fifties but I was not at all surprised to learn that he was a herpetologist who had spent many years working in snake parks both in South Africa and Germany. Austin was the Guinness World Record holder of the one-hundred-and-seven day snake ‘sit-in,’ during which time he had lived in a small room with thirty-six of Africa’s deadliest venomous snakes and had sustained a bite from a cobra before going on to complete his world record. He was also the recipient of photographic awards and an accomplished author. His published works included over one-hundred-and-fifty articles on wildlife accompanied by his own photographs, and a book entitled ‘Snakes In My Bed,’ a humorous look at the behind-the-scenes moments of life as a herpetologist, which also included the world record attempt. I was disappointed to discover that this book, published in 1992, was out of print. I went into my local book shop one Saturday and asked them if they could trace a copy.
‘Snakes In My Bed?’ the lady behind the counter asked incredulously. ‘That’s my worst nightmare!’
‘That’s only because you haven’t met my python yet,’ I replied with a grin. I had been very successful with visitors to my family’s home who feared snakes. My black-headed python, Osiris, whom I had purchased as a baby, had become so accustomed to being handled that he possessed an insatiable curiosity about strangers that helped them to face their fears. So far, every visitor had managed to replace their fear with a desire to hold Osiris, who had quickly dispelled their nervousness with his friendly attitude towards them. Word-of-mouth brought us more visitors and Osiris and I featured in Australian newspapers.
‘I’m afraid there’s no way we can obtain this book,’ the book shop assistant continued. ‘It’s too long out of print.’
‘That’s ok,’ I said. ‘I will try my luck on the internet.’
There were no copies available through Amazon.com at that time either, so I was forced to give up my search for the book.
I often used the internet to find information on particular snakes that captured my interest, and one evening I ran a search for images of the cape cobra, a majestic snake found in Africa. There were some low quality images among the results, but from the midst of these, one photograph stood out. It was a beautiful shot of a cape cobra, its hood extended and its body raised off the ground to face the camera. The cobra was perched atop a desert sand dune with clear blue sky behind it. It was one of a kind. I moved the mouse and clicked ‘photographer,’ and the website divulged:
Austin James Stevens
PO Box 4174
I held my breath. I knew this had to be the same man whose work I had been admiring for months. I had no idea whether this address was still current, but I saved it to my computer and spent the next few days deliberating about whether to send a letter. Who better to ask how to obtain a copy of ‘Snakes In My Bed’ than its author? Then again, I was sure Mr Stevens would be getting so much mail that I would never receive a reply. At least I could write and let him know how much his series had delighted me and ask if he knew how I could find a copy of his book. On second thoughts, Mr Stevens spent most of his time travelling the world and African postal systems were not known for their reliability.
Soon after, in mid June 2006, I sat at the computer and typed out a letter to Austin Stevens, introducing myself and telling him of my interest in snakes and in his work. I also explained how I came across the postal address, asked where I could find more of his photographs and where I could locate his book. At the last minute, I included a photo of Osiris with a four-year-old girl who had recently visited and held him. Then I wrote out the address on an airmail envelope and posted the letter, fervently hoping it would make it overseas to its intended recipient despite all my misgivings to the contrary.
Over the next month, life remained much the same as usual, with the daily commute in heavy Sydney traffic to the office and back again being the central feature. I had given up on receiving a response from Austin Stevens, assuming that in all probability my letter had been lost in the post. Then one evening at the end of July when I returned home from work, there was a conspicuous envelope covered in images of African wildlife, addressed to me. I turned the envelope over to find that the sender was ‘AJ Stevens’ and that it had come from Namibia. I had received a reply to my letter!
Austin had written to me and thanked me for the photo of my python and for my interest in his work. He explained that he was not currently filming, which allowed him time to respond to letters, and he went on to tell me of his love for Australia and Australian pythons that stemmed from previous travel there. He explained that his book was indeed out of print but that some of his photographs could be obtained via his photographic agent. He had concluded his letter by informing me that mail often went astray in Namibia, but that if I emailed him, communication would be easier. To my utter astonishment, he had included his email address, and I immediately sat down at my computer and wrote a reply.
Over the next twelve months, Austin and I corresponded via email. It began very slowly in the first five months, during which time Austin travelled often and we exchanged only four emails. I sent Austin some newspaper articles that had featured my python and me at home and photographs of myself and of my family at our home in Australia. Towards the end of December, we began chatting regularly and started to get to know each other. Austin told me all about his travels. He described his home in Namibia, its vast desert expanses populated by some of the most intriguing animals walking the earth today. We posted each other discs full of photographs of the things we had done and places we had visited. In the paragraphs of our emails we each found a friend with whom to share our thoughts and interests. Austin and I shared a love of wildlife, travel, snakes and writing and Austin had been keeping me informed of the progress of the new book he was working on, ‘The Last Snakeman.’ I asked if he would sign a copy for me when it was published and he agreed.
We had discussed so much about our lives, our homes, our families and our views, opinions and beliefs that it seemed perfectly wonderful when, just after the New Year, Austin invited me to visit him at his home in Namibia. I realised immediately that this was the opportunity of a lifetime, for an Aussie girl to see the Namib Desert with someone who knew it and its creatures better than probably anyone else in the world. I was excited to meet the man who had come to mean so much to me, though we had never laid eyes on each other nor heard each other’s voices. I made enquiries and quickly concluded that due to the current airfares, my new job with a security company and Austin’s busy schedule, the best time for me to visit would be June 2007. With Austin’s advice and encouragement, and with money for the airfare generously loaned to me by my father, Glenn Wilcher, I booked my flights to Namibia with an overnight stay in Johannesburg, South Africa, on the way. I allowed myself only twelve days with Austin, for not only was I unsure of how we would get along together in person, I also knew I would have to somehow find the money for a hotel.
It has been said that women are first mentally attracted to a potential partner, that is to say that their attraction is often first sparked by some aspect of who a person is, their interests and passions and what they are doing with their life. This was certainly true in the case of Austin and myself. On first receiving Austin’s invitation to visit him, I had hoped for nothing more than to leave Namibia having made a good friend of him and having seen a country vastly different from my own; however, by February, we had expressed our attraction to each other in our emails, established that we were both single and agreed that we would see what came of our time together. Austin had been married before, but the marriage had ended in divorce many years ago. We had discussed our age difference to ensure that it would not impede our friendship or possible relationship, and so I was confident we had the potential to get along well together. We both decided that we would not become romantically involved with anyone else before meeting.
Austin and I did openly consider the possibility that we might not get along. I was concerned about Austin inviting a stranger into his home and occasionally doubted his sanity in that respect while Austin was concerned that I would be disappointed in him after everything I had seen on his television shows. With Austin’s final comment to me on the matter being, ‘I believe your presence will rather enrich my life than negatively affect it, but… if we don’t get along as well as we expect to, I’ll just have to feed you to something in the desert – ha!’ it was decided that we would stay together at Austin’s place, thereby allowing us to take off for our desert trips with a minimum of disruption, and allowing me to save some money on hotel bills. Austin was soon scouring the local furniture store for a sofa bed for me and we continued to chat on email, excitedly planning all the things we would do together and quelling each other’s fears about meeting in person after all this time. Our emailed conversations took place a few times each day until I finally left Australia to join Austin in Africa.
The flight from Sydney to Johannesburg was filled with my self-created anxieties and I wondered if the many people who travelled overseas each year to meet their ‘pen friends’ for the first time had similar feelings. Austin and I had become great friends insofar as the online medium would allow, but just how different were we? I was used to working among the crush of people in Sydney city and had grown up in a big family, complete with all the noise, frequent disruption and socialising that inevitably accompanies a large number of people living together. Austin, on the other hand, lived a life of isolation, having no family in Namibia and no ties to any city whatsoever. What if he doesn’t like me? What if we can’t wait to be rid of each other after twelve days of living together? What if I disappoint him? What if I make a total fool of myself? I resisted the urge to order a stiff drink from the flight attendant as I had arranged to phone Austin once I reached my hotel in Johannesburg where I would spend the night before taking another flight to Namibia in the morning.
During the long hours on the plane, I reflected upon the reactions of my friends and family to what I was doing. David, a close friend who had known me since childhood, strongly encouraged me to make the trip with his ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’ attitude, while Bec, one of my sisters, told me that I ‘must be either very brave or very stupid.’ My father, Glenn, had been understandably sceptical about my trip, at first wondering whether the person on the other end of my email correspondence really was Austin Stevens, and then wondering whether he would in fact be at the airport in Namibia to pick me up when I arrived. I had to admit these were real concerns, albeit I could not imagine why anyone would carry on an identity prank for twelve straight months. There were also the incredible photos Austin had sent, to consider. Only someone who had, at the very least, direct access to Austin Stevens’s collection could have sent them to me. Dad, who had travelled overseas many times himself for everything from forensic science conferences to assisting on archaeological digs, environmental restorations and wildlife censuses, trusted my judgement in the end and wished me well.
My mother Carolyn’s response was entirely different. As she kissed me good-bye at the airport, she informed me with tears in her luminous green eyes that I would not be coming home to Australia. She had a very strong presentiment that I would stay in Namibia. Despite the fact that my mother’s intuition had always been uncannily accurate, I told her this was nonsense and assured her I would see her back in Sydney in two weeks’ time.
Upon arriving in Johannesburg after a fourteen hour flight to a country that was nine hours behind mine, I was already experiencing symptoms of serious jet lag. I had been unable to sleep due to the cramped conditions on the plane and was processing thoughts at a quarter of my usual speed. I felt tired, disoriented and anxious and it took an immense effort to concentrate. As I left the airport, I was suddenly confronted by a swarming mass of exotic-looking people who were strange to me. Tall indigenous Africans with gleaming skin and shining eyes openly stared at me as I tried to take in the unfamiliar surroundings. Several of them approached me, competing with each other with offers to take my suitcase and insisting I allow them to show me where to go. They wore neither airport uniform nor name tags. Having been specifically forewarned by Austin not to accept any unsolicited help from strangers and sensing they were looking for payment, I politely but firmly declined to accept their help and proceeded instead to follow Austin’s explicit instructions. A printed email from him explaining the layout of the huge airport and the location of the car park was clutched tightly in my left hand along with my hand luggage, while my right hand grasped my heavy suitcase. Eventually, I located the car park and with it the shuttle bus that would take me to the Garden Court Holiday Inn, the hotel that Austin had recommended. The drive to the hotel astounded me. Everywhere along the highways there were indigenous Africans wandering on foot along the edges of the roads. The air pollution was immediately evident in a haze of brown smog that hung over the city. Once I checked in to the hotel and settled into my room, I sat staring at the telephone for a moment before lifting the handset and dialling Austin’s Namibian number.
‘Hello?’ he answered.
‘Hi Austin, it’s Amy calling from the hotel in Johannesburg. Just ringing to let you know I got here safely.’
‘Are you ok?’ Austin asked followed by numerous questions about my journey so far and instructions as to where I could obtain a nice dinner at the hotel. His concern for me was evident and it was not long before he was expressing his admiration at the courage I must have needed to come this far.
‘I am really looking forward to meeting you tomorrow,’ I said.
‘So am I. I will call you later tonight to make sure you are ok. What’s your room number?’ Austin asked. We ended our phone call and I went downstairs to the hotel restaurant and ordered dinner.
On returning to my room, I showered and then climbed into bed to read for a while before turning off the light. I knew that my excitement at meeting Austin the next day would prevent a good night’s sleep, and it was only a few minutes later that the phone in my room rang.
‘Hi, it’s Austin. Are you ok?’
‘Yes, I’m fine,’ I replied. ‘Thanks for your advice on dinner. I was delighted to find calamari on the menu, so I really enjoyed it.’
‘Oh, did you?’ There was a subtle amusement in Austin’s tone that suggested he did not like seafood, which proved correct. I began to be afraid that our conversation would be awkward without our keyboards in front of us when Austin suddenly said, ‘You know, your voice is exactly how I imagined it would be.’ I melted on the spot.
‘Really? What do you mean?’ I asked.
‘It’s so nice. You don’t have a completely Australian accent. You sound almost British,’ Austin explained.
‘Well, my mother was born in Yorkshire…’
We talked for a while and by the time Austin hung up with assurances that he was eager to meet me in the morning I began to feel that everything really would be okay. Of course, predictably, the next day the worries took hold again.
I woke far too early, pulled on my faded blue jeans and a nice short-sleeved, dark brown top that would be suitable for the hot weather I knew I would encounter in Namibia and prepared to leave. Twenty minutes later I checked out of the hotel and was on my way to the airport. It was a nice flight and from my window seat I had my first glimpse of the Namib Desert as we neared our destination. Hundreds of kilometres of sand and enormous hidden valleys created by ancient rock formations were easily visible from the air and my mounting excitement at what the next twelve days had in store for me reached its peak when the plane landed in Walvis Bay.
And so there I was, on 19th June 2007, almost exactly twelve months to the day since I first wrote to Austin, disembarking from the plane in Namibia and steeling my nerves for the meeting that had been in my thoughts every day for months but was now only minutes away.
To be continued in Chapter 2 …