John Key and the Cobra

It was our very last morning in Kandy and we decided to visit the hospital, and then Peradeniya Royal Botanical Gardens. I’m glad it was in this order, because if it had been the other way around, then possibly it wouldn’t have been our last day in Kandy, but something far worse…

Kate wanted to visit the hospital because her grandfather had recovered there after injuries during the Second World War. As we drew up to the main gate of the National Hospital though, it was obvious that all the buildings were recent. None appeared to be seventy years old.

A helpful security guard in a light blue shirt and bright red tie came over to see what we wanted.

“My grandfather was a patient here in 1943.” Kate held up her phone showing an article about soldiers stationed here during the war. “We wondered if we could see his ward.”

Site of the old hospital

The guard laughed in a nice way. Then he pointed at a slope behind us, the site of the hospital’s multi-storey car park. “That’s where the old hospital used to be. But not any more. Everything’s been redeveloped.”

It turned out we weren’t allowed to take photos – sssh, security – though the guard kindly let Kate take one. She chose a view of the National Hospital sign over the main entrance, proof to her uncle that we’d been here. Then on the way out, Sunil slyly took another photo of the grass slope that once had been a tiny outpost of Maxwell, New Zealand.

The highway outside the botanical gardens was a crush of traffic. Four lanes of vehicles, hemmed by an ever changing fringe of tuk-tuks. Sunil let us out on the opposite side and we dashed with another pedestrian through the throng of cars.

Walking towards Great Lawn

The entrance fee to the gardens was expensive – one price for foreign visitors and another for locals. It had been the same at the beautiful hillside Hakgala Botanical Gardens near Nuwara Eliya that we’d visited two days ago. We were becoming garden specialists in our own sweet way, although nowhere approaching the knowledge of Kate’s mum, who could probably name every type of leaf on every tree.

Whatever the admission fee, Peradeniya Royal Botanical Gardens proved to be truly beautiful. A path led us past the spice garden, glasshouses full of orchids and cacti, and through a trellis of dark green plants that bordered one side of the wonderfully large Great Lawn.

I’d been hesitant about returning. A second visit might not live up to the gloss of the first. Yet no, once again this place delighted us. It was a pleasure to walk along its glorious palm tree lined avenues and to stroll around its immense Great Circle, ringed with seventy-eight memorial trees each planted by a visiting head of state or dignitary.

Kate’s foot was hurting however, and halfway around she announced she would return to the main entrance so I could roam more swiftly in the time we had left before rejoining Sunil. Cautiously I crossed the grass of the Great Circle, sticking to bare patches and keeping my eyes peeled for any sticks that might suddenly move. Not that we’d seen snakes anywhere – other than one that had weaved across a hot road in front of our bus – but it paid to be vigilant. Sunil had told us a story of how his last two clients, a couple of keen walkers, had experienced a close encounter while climbing Ella Rock. The man had been studying Google Maps and not looking where he was going. Only at the last moment did he avoid stepping on a long black stick, that on closer examination turned out to be a snake. They laughed it off and took photos of what they believed to be a python. Only later when they showed the photo to Sunil, he confirmed this was no python but a cobra, one of the deadliest snakes in the country.

John Key’s tree

This sort of thing would never happen to me. I wore solid boots when walking in thick undergrowth, and I kept a careful eye on the ground, especially at night when I used a torch. Anyway, the chances of meeting a snake in the Botanical Gardens had to be virtually zero, sticking to the tarmac walkways and not kicking my sandals though any rougher sections. And in this observant way, I spotted a sign that listed all the seventy-eight dignitaries who’d planted trees in the Great Circle, beginning with Edward VII and ironically at number seventy-four showing the Right Honourable John Key, former Prime Minister of New Zealand. As fate would have it, his tree was nearby. And scrambling back into the grass, I climbed a slope, went left a bit, then right, and headed for the youngest looking sapling – the same Mangifera zeylanica that the tea-drinking, ponytail pulling premier of NZ had planted in 2016.

Look where you tread!

I felt like a proud Kiwi, particularly as the real Kiwi, Kate, had failed to register the tree at all. Yet in all the excitement, I was late, and with barely fifteen minutes to go, I hotfooted my way down Cook’s Pine Avenue, then turned left at the partially filled lake and hurried past the bamboo grove back towards the main entrance.

Ahead I could see Kate in her blue shirt, smiling and pointing. And speeding up some more, I hastened towards her. Only to hear a rustling sound right beside me, and looking down I saw a six-foot long black snake zigzagging its way past. I glimpsed it for only a moment; it moved so quickly. Yet it was close – too close – only a foot away from my sandaled feet. Fortunately, whatever type of snake it was – a rough sided snake, a rat snake, possibly even a cobra – it had the sense to slither for cover. Just as I was a lucky walker. Though I wasn’t looking at the ground, somehow I avoided stepping on its tail.

Afterwards, Kate confirmed it had already provoked warnings and screams around the gardens entrance as it zipped from one patch of grass to another. And when I described it to Sunil, he nodded matter-of-factly, and said it might have been a cobra, the same as that snake the walking couple had seen up on Ella Rock.

The lesson of this story? Look where you’re walking, because when you’re least on your guard, something is bound to happen.

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