There is in Melbourne a man who probably knows more about poisonous snakes than anyone else on earth. His name is Dr Struan Sutherland, and he has devoted his entire life to a study of venom.
"And I'm bored with talking about it," he said when we went along to see him the next morning, laden with tape recorders and note books. "Can't stand all these poisonous creatures, all these snakes and insects and fish and things. Wretched things, biting everybody. And then people expect me to tell them what to do about it. I'll tell them what to do. Don't get bitten in the first place. That's the answer. I've had enough of telling people all the time. Hydroponics, now, that's interesting. Talk to you all you like about hydroponics. Fascinating stuff, growing plants artificially in water, very interesting technique. We'll need to know all about it if we're going to go to Mars and places. Where did you say you were going?"
"Well, don't get bitten, that's all I can say. And don't come running to me if you do because you won't get here in time and anyway I've got enough on my plate. Look at this office. Full of poisonous animals all over the place. See this tank? It's full of fire ants. Venomous little creatures, what are we going to do about them? Anyway, I got some little cakes in in case you were hungry. Would you like some little cakes? I can't remember where I put them. There's some tea but it's not very good. Sit down for heaven's sake.
"So, you're going to Komodo. Well, I don't know why you want to do that, but I suppose you have your reasons. There are fifteen different types of snake on Komodo, and half of them are poisonous. The only potentially deadly ones are the Russell's viper, the bamboo viper and the Indian cobra.
"The Indian cobra is the fifteenth deadliest snake in the world, and all the other fourteen are here in Australia. That's why it's so hard for me to find time to get on with my hydroponics, with all these snakes all over the place.
"And spiders. The most poisonous spider is the Sydney funnel web. We get about five hundred people a year bitten by spiders. A lot of them used to die, so we had to develop an antidote to stop people bothering me with it all the time. Took us years. Then we developed this snake bite detector kit. Not that you need a kit to tell you when you've been bitten by a snake, you usually know, but the kit is something that will detect what type you've been bitten by so you can treat it properly.
"Would you like to see a kit? I've got a couple here in the venom fridge. Let's have a look. Ah look, the cakes are in here too. Quick, have one while they're still fresh. Fairy cakes, I baked 'em myself."
He handed round the snake venom detection kits and his home baked fairy cakes and retreated back to his desk, where he beamed at us cheerfully from behind his curly beard and bow tie. We admired the kits, which were small, efficient boxes neatly packed with tiny bottles, a pipette, a syringe and a complicated set of instructions that I wouldn't want to have to read for the first time in a panic, and then we asked him how many of the snakes he had been bitten by himself.
"None of 'em," he said. "Another area of expertise I've developed is that of getting other people to handle the dangerous animals. Won't do it myself. Don't want to get bitten, do I? You know what it says on my book jackets? "Hobbies: gardening with gloves; fishing with boots; travelling with care." That's the answer. What else? Well, in addition to the boots wear thick, baggy trousers, and preferably have half a dozen people tramping along in front of you making as much noise as possible. The snakes pick up the vibrations and get out of your way, unless it's a death adder, otherwise known as the deaf adder, which just lies there. People can walk right past it and over it and nothing happens. I've heard of twelve people in a line walking over a death adder and the twelfth person accidentally trod on it and got bitten. Normally you're quite safe if you're twelfth in line. You're not eating your cakes. Come on, get them down you, there's plenty more in the venom fridge."
We asked, tentatively, if we could perhaps take a snake bite detector kit with us to Komodo.
"Course you can, course you can. Take as many as you like. Won't do you a blind bit of good because they're only for Australian snakes."
"So what do we do if we get bitten by something deadly, then?" I asked.
He blinked at me as if I were stupid.
"Well what do you think you do?" he said. "You die of course. That's what deadly means."
"But what about cutting open the wound and sucking out the poison?" I asked.
"Rather you than me," he said. "I wouldn't want a mouthful of poison. Shouldn't do you any harm, though. Snake toxins have a high molecular weight, so they won't penetrate the blood vessels in the mouth the way that alcohol or some drugs do, and then the poison gets destroyed by the acids in your stomach. But's it's not necessarily going to do much good, either. You're not likely to be able to get much of the poison out, but you're probably going to make the wound a lot worse trying. And in a place like Komodo it means you'd quickly have a seriously infected wound to contend with as well as a leg full of poison. Septicaemia, gangrene, you name it. It'll kill you."
"What about a tourniquet?"
"Fine if you don't mind having your leg off afterwards. You'd have to because if you cut off the blood supply to it completely it'll just die. And if you can find anyone in that part of Indonesia who you'd trust to take your leg off then you're a braver man than me. No, I'll tell you: the only thing you can do is apply a pressure bandage direct to the wound and wrap the whole leg up tightly, but not too tightly. Slow the blood flow but don't cut it off or you'll lose the leg. Hold your leg, or whatever bit you've been bitten in, lower than your heart and your head. Keep very, very still, breathe slowly and get to a doctor immediately. If you're on Komodo that means a couple of days, by which time you'll be well dead.
"The only answer, and I mean this quite seriously, is don't get bitten. There's no reason why you should. Any of the snakes there will get out of your way well before you even see them. You don't really need to worry about the snakes if you're careful. No, the things you really need to worry about are the marine creatures."
"Scorpion fish, stonefish, sea snakes. Much more poisonous than anything on land. Get stung by a stone fish and the pain alone can kill you. People drown themselves just to stop the pain."
"Where are all these things?"
"Oh, just in the sea. Tons of them. I wouldn't go near it if I were you. Full of poisonous animals. Hate them."
"Is there anything you do like?"
"Yes," he said. "Hydroponics."