Searching for the infamous western desert taipan

By Ross McGibbon 14 June 2018
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An encounter with one of the world’s most venomous snakes in an Australian desert: what more could a reptile enthusiast want?

Imagine that you’re a passionate surfer. You talk about surfing to anyone who’ll listen; read every surfing book and magazine you can find; spend all your spare time travelling in search of the best waves.

Now, translate that enthusiasm into finding and photographing reptiles in the wild and you’ll begin to understand the passion that I have for these animals. It’s this enthusiasm that led fellow wildlife photographer Tim Squires and me on an expedition into the remote Great Victoria Desert, about 1500km inland from Perth, where we hoped to find and photograph the western desert taipan (Oxyuranus temporalis).

Most Australians would have heard of taipans because these reptiles are among the world’s most infamous snakes and Australia is home to all three known species. These are the notorious coastal taipan, which is also found in southern New Guinea; the inland taipan, sometimes known popularly as the fierce snake and believed to have the most toxic venom of any land snake; and the recently described western desert taipan.

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They are all formidable snake species, possessing large fangs, extremely potent venom and an agility that demands the utmost respect from even the most experienced of snake handlers. Returning to the surfing analogy, photographing taipans is like big-wave riding – succeed, and you won’t remember a happier moment; get it wrong and it may cost you your life.

Tim knows about this better than most. It’s almost a year since our last taipan expedition, during which he nearly died after being bitten by an inland taipan. It’s an ordeal neither of us is eager to repeat. 

But where there’s risk, there’s reward, and, for me, there’s no greater reward than seeing these wild places and animals with my own eyes. 

Sitting at the top of my list is the western desert taipan, a reptile first described by scientists as recently as 2007. Fewer than 20 encounters with this reptile have been recorded, although the Pila Nguru – the Spinifex People – would surely have come across this snake regularly during the 15,000 or more years that they have lived in the Great Victoria Desert.  

Excitement levels are high as Tim and I hit the road. Almost four hours into the drive, we encounter the trip’s first reptile: a western blue-tongue lizard crossing the road ahead of us. We escort it from the road and watch it scurry off into the undergrowth.

As the bitumen gives way to dirt east of Kalgoorlie, Tim shouts, “Stop! Snake!” I see it too and bring the vehicle to an abrupt halt. Sadly, our excitement quickly turns to disappointment as we realise that the snake is roadkill.

As the colour drains from the sky, we take a moment to enjoy some dinner and discuss which nocturnal species we hope to encounter after dark. The desert death adder is the number one attraction in this area, but I fear the temperature is dropping too quickly to support much reptile activity.

My prediction proves correct; by 11pm a few geckos are all we have to show for our efforts. 

Goldfield’s shingleback skink
During his trip, Ross got the opportunity to capture some of Australia’s other desert reptiles like this Goldfield’s shingleback skink. Image Credit: Ross McGibbon

Next morning we wake with the birds and face almost 1000km of driving. The small outback town of Laverton is our last stop for fuel, supplies and phone reception. Tim quickly calls home to explain we’ll be out of contact for up to a week. I feel for Tim’s partner, who’ll no doubt be nervously awaiting a phone call, hoping it will be Tim’s voice on the other end this time, not hospital staff.

To my surprise, the dirt road into the desert is well maintained, allowing us to travel at a good speed. Soon we have to brake for our first snake. This time it’s a mulga snake sitting on the shoulder of the road with its head in a bush, very much alive. Grabbing our cameras, we approach the snake, which has only just noticed us. It rears up and advances towards us, neck flattened like a cobra’s – defensive posturing that comes in handy when deterring predators. We rattle off a flurry of photos before the snake grows tired of us and retreats

By nightfall, we’re only halfway to our campsite and need to get a move on if we’re to get any sleep before tomorrow’s early wake-up. However, we can’t resist stopping for two more mulga snakes and numerous geckos. By 1am we’re in taipan country and we wearily make camp in a small clearing before retiring to our swags.

Related: Photographing Australia’s large, venomous snakes

On any other day I’d be cursing my alarm, but when it goes off at 4.30am I spring excitedly from my swag. Half an hour later, we’re cruising around in the four-wheel-drive searching for taipans – a game of luck that requires us to be in exactly the right place at the right time to see one crossing, or basking on, the track. 

After almost three hours of fruitless searching, we grab a quick break, but 10 minutes later we’re on the road again. After another 15 minutes, I spot a long, dark snake slowly slithering across the track. There’s no mistaking its identity and I leap from the passenger side before Tim can stop the vehicle. He isn’t far behind and, with cameras poised, we approach the 1.8m taipan. It raises its head out of curiosity, but to my amazement, it doesn’t alter its speed or direction.

I snap the snake in the middle of the track and we slowly creep closer until we’re within 2m of it. Still the taipan keeps its composure and we take more photos as it cruises through the spinifex. At one point, I position myself directly in the snake’s path. The taipan approaches to within a metre, raises its head and opens its mouth, exposing just enough of its fangs to let me know what’s in store if I don’t let it pass – and providing me with one of my favourite shots of the trip.

By mid-morning we’ve completed our mission. We can’t stop grinning. We’re now among the fortunate few to have observed and documented one of Australia’s least-known snakes. And thanks to ‘our’ taipan’s calm disposition, we’ve had the sort of interaction of which a wildlife photographer can only dream.