Snakes Alive!

Snakes Alive – Serpents and the German-Queensland Settlers


The new settlers to Queensland were not at all familiar with snakes, Germany being home to only a few small and harmless species. In the bush of Queensland I’m sure they thought they must be surviving in a ‘living hell’, populated by a large diversity of very dangerous serpents. No wonder ‘schnake’ (or “schlange”) tales feature prominently in the unwritten folklore!

My very good friend Rudy Manz of Laidley, retired farmer, button accordian enthusiast and terrific yarnteller has the following great tale:

‘I vos out in der paddock vorking and I haff a spell so I sits me downs unter the shades of de barbed vire fence’ and den I sees dis pig pleck schnake comes valk me py. So I sings out to mudder, ‘komm chain bluey loose’. Vell I gets me axe and I chops dat pig pleck schnake into tree halves!’

(According to Rudy this is a true story from Black Snake Creek, near Marburg – and there is a Black Snake Creek just outside Marburg. I have no reason to doubt the authenticity of the story).

A slightly different version of this (same?) story was given to me a number of years ago by Les Moreland of Kenilworth, whose forebears hailed from the Hattonvale area, located in the heartland of the Lockyer Valley. His story goes as follows:

‘Yes, like old man Beutel when his son came into the yard – “I called out to Mutter I said, ‘Chain me bluey [blue cattle dog] loose’. Well, that’s what you say in German, you know, ‘untie me dog (chain me Bluey loose) and “I him mit d’ stick hit”. “I him in tree halves cut”, he said. We always used to think that was good, us kids: “Him in tree halves cut”. Ah, he said, “He lives up our place tree miles about past.”

The autobiography of the Reverend Kreuger of the German Baptist Church of Queensland who settled in the ‘Engelsburg’ (Kalbar) District in the lushFassifern Valley is well worth relating in some detail – giving us a fair idea of the issue of snakes for the new settlers. Numerous accounts still exist of the uneasy relationship between the new settlers and the reptilian inhabitants. His detailed account is for the year 1873 when the scrubs of the Fassifern were just being settled.

‘It was a terrible blow for snakes too, especially the edge of the scrub in the flat along the creek where my place is situated, mostly carpet and red-bellied black from 6 to 8 foot long. The biggest I destroyed was a carpet, he measured just 12 feet. I got him under the house, and that heavy that it was just as much as I could do to draw it to an ant bed. In the first few months I kept an account of the number I dispatched and counted up to 50 when I got tired of counting and left it off. Dozens of times I was nearly bitten, and the wonder to me is that always at the last moment I observed the danger to withdraw. My greatest danger that I was in happened one day, when I was standing near the fence looking at some men whom I had felling scrub for me. When I turned around, there was a big brute of a black snake about seven feet long with his head raised up, about three or four paces away watching me. Finding a stick handy, I struck at him, but the stroke (as the grass was rather high) had wrapped on him. My stick broke in two and left me with the shortest end in my hand. When he charged at me, very savagely, his head was as broad and flat as a man’s hand. I hammered away at him as fast as I could jumping backwards all the while, but the brute always came with its’ head out of the tall grass again close to my feet. When it happened, in my leaping I struck with my heels against a little hidden stump in the grass when the sudden jerk sent me forward, falling lengthways over the reptiles, when I fell I thought my end concerning this life had come. Well, I cleared away on all fours on hands and feet as fast as I was able for about half a chain or so, feeling that he was following me for some part of that distance. I got into a log and looked round but could see nothing of him, what saved me from being bitten, I think, was the trousers that I wore at the time were woolen and very wide, for in examining them below the knee parts, I could notice six to seven places where his fangs had hooked with wet blotches around. I am not very nervous, but if my heart ever was thumping, it was then. ‘ ….

‘Another time, walking through some grassy place with some friends of mine, at a good pace, I being in the middle and looking before me, I saw a big brute of a death adder and was just in the act of putting my foot on him, but had just time and swiftness enough to slide my foot over him. But in doing so I turned him over with the heel of my boot. He snapped around in a horseshoe-form they always do when they strike, but instead of doing so forward, where my foot was, he struck the other way where he was touched. Needless to say, he had to die there and then for his murderous intent. There are very few reptiles to be found here now, an odd one may be met with now and again ….. Some years hence they will be a thing of the past.‘

The Topp and Neuendorff brothers ‘clearing scrub’ in the Fassifern Valley – marking the beginning of the end for the extensive reptilian population that inhabited the dense Fassifern scrubs..

The extensive bush wanderings of naturalist and bird collector Hermann Lau, who traveled the scrubs of southern Queensland, particularly in the Bunya Mountains to Cooyar area, from 1854 until his eventual return to Germany in 1892, meant he had some very close encounters with serpents. ‘I shall relate an adventure which nearly deprived me of my life had not the all-protecting hand of Providence averted such a calamity. One day in the month of November, being very hot, I went to a sand ridge near Tummaville cattle station, belonging to Yandilla, 12 miles to the south of it, in search of Bee Birds (the Rainbow Bee Eater, Merops ornatus) eggs. Seeing two birds in a bush, I soon detected their homestead.’

‘I managed to procure a stiff stick for opening the passage and worked it into the nest for a distance of three feet. Thinking that I had reached the bottom, I reached in. As I did so, I felt something slipping in my hand; my grasp suggested young birds. The second time I grasped the touch was cold. It struck me that an iguana may have been present in the nest, as I had previously seen an iguana coming out of another nest with a young Bee Bird in its mouth. So I withdrew my hand.’ ‘Well, again working the stick to the end, I perceived something got hold of the point, and by gradually extracting the stick, beheld to my great horror a brown snake five feet long – one of the most venomous of its kind – savagely biting the point. I dragged it to the entrance by its teeth and quickly dispatched the arch-enemy, thanking my God for the release of so great a danger. Finding myself full of nervousness, I hastened home to allay such a feeling by drinking a glass of brandy and water’ (from the unpublished diary of Hermann Lau, the wandering German naturalist and reprinted in Bonyi-Bonyi: Life and Legends of the Bunya Mountains, by Ray Humphrys, published by Wyndham Observer, Nanango).

I’m sure in such a dire situation I would have omitted the water from the drink!

Further north, in the Bundaberg district, ‘schlange’ were also a menace for the new settlers. When a boat load of Apostolic settlers arrived from Germany at the Bingera sugar plantation near Bundaberg in 1912 conditions were very primitive and reptiles caused problems. The diary record of one of the settlers illustrates the everyday tragedies that occurred:

‘…. Mrs Pustolla being pregnant and in a delicate condition had a fright as her eldest son ten years old picked up a sheet of iron and started screaming he had been bitten by a snake. Now snakes were bad and poisonous and he could die, we were told so this is when the problem started. I was only five and I saw a man grab the ten year old boy Herman, take his braces off, and tore them apart and tied one above the bite and the other below. He then pulled out his pocket knife and put two cuts through the bite and then started sucking out the blood and spitting it out. Every now and then he would turn to the lads face and schmacked his cheeks telling us kids to keep talking to him, to keep him awake as he wanted to go to sleep. However that episode ended and another one started. The lad’s mother having witnessed all this collapsed so our mother and the man attending to the boy carried her inside her hut. With all the happenings mother told me to go and get the doctor quickly. Now I was home from school with three boils around my knee and I had a sugar and soap poultice wrapped around my knee. The doctors house was about three miles away, so I took a short cut through the forest barefooted. When I reached the doctors house there was a bell tied to a rope, which I pulled vigorously. It made so much noise that the doctor flew out of the house and seeing the blood and muck running down my leg (the poultice having done its work) he picked me up and carried me into his home-made surgery, but I was too exhausted to notice it. All I could say was, “come quick, Tunta Pustolla is bleeding to death.” It was hard to get him to understand what I was trying to tell him, so then he sat me on the handlebars of his bike and peddled like hell. The doctor could not do much to save the baby, but we all thanked the Lord Tunta Pustolla’s life was saved, as she had four other children who needed her. The fathers of both families had now saved a few pounds and it was time to move back to the canefields where the cane was ready to cut. On our arrival all the bag walls on our previous huts were blown to ribbons. Seeing there was an old barn, or a once lived in hut, almost covered with wild passion fruit vine, we decided to see if we could make it a place to live in. After cutting a track through the dense undergrowth and cutting down the vines that had entangled over the doors, we managed to get inside. There was a lot of wriggling and hissing and oh! What a commotion – the kids and Mrs Pustolla were screaming and yelling that they were not staying in a “snake hut” [Schlange Bude], so the old hut was once again left in peace. It was always then known as the “Schlange Bude” and when the children played up or misbehaved it was quite the thing to say, “Ich Schlie B dir in der Schlange Buder bis du gut bix” – and that was enough to frighten us kids.’

Jacob Umpstandter was not well, so one of the passing neighbours spoke to his wife, asking “How is Jacob, Mrs Umpstandter?”. “Ach,” she replied, “he vas no goot at all, he run himself over mit de horse and cart and den he bit himself mit de snake”. (A well-loved tale passed down through the generations – from the Grafton German community, northern NSW).

The Lutheran Parish was in an area of southern Queensland noted not only for its prickly pear ‘forests’ but also for an abundance of death adders; it was not uncommon for farmers to dispatch twenty or more reptiles in a day.

Soon after the new pastor arrived, he was told how a city pastor came out to take services during the vacancy. On the Saturday he did some visiting, and met some folk on a farm. In true ‘Queensland style’, the men all squatted on their heels in the shade of a brigalow tree while they had a chat. Casually, one of the men said to the city pastor: ‘Don’t move! There is an adder between your feet.’ When a quick glance verified the fact, the horrified pastor rose straight up in the air into the branches of the tree. How he did it no one could explain, but all who had been present (including the pastor) insist to this very day that was how it happened! (cited from the book ‘Here Comes The Pastor and other yarns’, Lutheran Publishing House).

Death-adders (or ‘DA’s’ in the local lingo) played a major part in the life of one Brigalow pioneer, Otto Hermann August Bein. In the period 1910 to 1920 the Brigalow district, to the east of Chinchilla, was infested with death-adder snakes, which were both a menace and a considerable danger to many early settlers. Otto Bein selected land in the Brigalow district, as did a number of German pioneering families, after travelling on horseback from the Gatton-Laidley region. He cleared much of the land by hand, using an axe, while also battling the encroachment of the yet-to-come prickly pear plague. In 1915 he married Miss Johanna Olm. One of his passions was the collection of death-adders. The snakes were then sent south where they were ‘milked’ for their venom in order to manufacture an antidote. At one stage he had more than one hundred snakes in captivity on his property – awaiting the arrival of a scientific collector from the Melbourne Zoological Society.

A relative, Bill Bein, also had a rather interesting encounter with a reptile. Whilst bending over to clear some undergrowth, a green snake, some four feet in length, crept into his open shirt and wound itself around his waist!

In the same district lived the Kleidon family. Henry Kleidon also had a close shave with a death-adder. Like many other members of the Kleidon families, he was known to be a hard worker and could often be found at night clearing his land of the dreaded prickly pear with an axe, his only illumination being a lantern. This was particularly dangerous as adders were known to be nocturnal. Indeed they were in plague proportions in the Brigalow district and one had to be careful where one stepped. One night Kleidon was bitten on the thumb by a death-adder and he quickly realized that he could never get to medical aid in time to save his life so he simply used the axe to chop off his thumb. It did save his life, and he lived until June 1990. ‘His missus nearly had a heart attack when he went home, ‘Eric Colls later recalled, ‘when he gave her the thumb. He took his thumb home. He never even had a headache out of it. You’d have to do it without thinking. The point is, if he didn’t [chop off his thumb] he’d have been in a box [coffin] anyhow’. (photograph and details concerning Otto Bein and the Kleidon case taken from the book, Footsteps Through Time: A History of Chinchilla Shire, by Tony Matthews, published by Chinchilla Shire Council).

In the numerous small German cemeteries that dot the Darling Downs landscape are buried many younger people, some being the tragic victims of snakebite. Take the case of Maria Catharina (Maryann) Fiechtner laid to rest in the Allora cemetery. Maryann was the fifth child born to David Christian and Elizabeth Katherin Fiechtner and was born on 30th October 1878 in the Clifton district. Maryann died as a result of snakebite on the 14th of January 1892 when she was only 13 years of age. This case is only one of many that can be found when one surveys the old German cemeteries on the Downs and other areas of southern Queensland.

Nearly fatal results were averted from the encounter of Apostle Heinrich Niemeyer, founder of the Apostolic Church of Queensland, with a serpent. Settling in the Rosewood Scrub in 1883 the Apostle set about building himself a bush hut and clearing the scrub for future cultivation. One evening, when he was clearing the chips away, throwing them together, there was a death adder in one of the armfuls, which suddenly stung him in the right thumb. The sting was unbearable. He dropped the chips and grasped his thumb tightly; he hurried to his wife and asked her to bring some string, which she did. She tied one ligature on the wrist, but he noticed it was still going further, so she tied another above the elbow, and he even noticed that the poison was beyond this, and so another was tied below the shoulder.

The Apostle could not stand the pain and felt himself gradually sinking, and prepared himself for death. He cut the arm fairly deep, but this only brought a few drops of dark blood, and his arm swelled to an enormous size. His wife noticed that the poison was in the body and gave way to wailing, but she thought of the miracle that happened to the Apostle Paul and said this to her husband. He prayed to the Almighty God for help, and then commanded the poison to stand still. Instantaneously God heard his prayer. He then fell into deep sleep like one unconscious. His wife, in the fear of his dying in his sleep, continually tried to keep him awake, which she did until two o’clock in the morning; then, in spite of all her endeavours, he fell fast asleep and could not be awakened until five in the morning. The poison of the adder had disappeared, only the thumb had a blue-black colour and the arm was a little lame. This night was one never to be forgotten by Mrs. Niemeyer, for in addition to the sting of the adder on her husband, the previous fire lit by her husband commenced to burn around the hut – even some of the trees took fire and fell very near to the hut – she tried very hard to put out this fire, but it was beyond her. But the God over life and death had sent His guardian angels to protect them and keep them from all danger.

Apostle Heinrich Niemeyer – founder of the Apostolic Church of Queensland and pioneer of the Lockyer Valley settlements.

Talking of the casual nature of some of the older German farmers, particularly regarding the issue of ‘serpents’, my old friend the late Darcy Condon, who was a retired farmer who also wrote and published many wonderful short stories, related to me an incident that occurred when he was a baby growing up on the ‘Jimbour Plain’, northwest of Dalby.

‘My parents were assisting with a grain harvest on the adjacent Von Pein farm when Darcy’s mum sat down for a well earned rest on the edge a hay bale, holding me (baby Darcy) in her arms. The old Von Pein worker, ‘Honsie’, spoke to Mum saying, ‘Missus I’d be very carefuls if I vas yous, der just happen to be’s a viper (death-adder) neath your bottoms’.

(As Darcy related to me, surely Honsie could have told his mum that before she sat down on the haystack!)

Colin Beutel, who grew up at Ravensbourne, related a true ‘snake yarn’ in his book of memories of the Ravensbourne district, ‘Ravensbourne Then and Now’:

‘Rudel (Wackerling) and I were walking along the banks of Cressbrook Creek when we noticed a black snake about six feet long swimming in the water. Rudel picked up his rifle and blew the snakes head off from about thirty feet away. I wouldn’t have hit its head six feet away, let alone thirty feet away. I would say he was one of the best shots in Ravensbourne. Rudel could also shoot from the hip. He was a World War I infantry veteran. Rudel was also a good axeman and was an expert at sharpening and setting the crosscut saw.’

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