A frightening encounter with a dinosaur…
(Please enjoy a condensed, teaser version of a chapter in my upcoming travel memoir. What you wont find in this version, is encounters with man-eating crocodiles, wresting 5 foot crocodiles, and also getting bitten on the arm by one of the reptiles- you’ll have to wait for a copy of the book to read these true stories. Enjoy)
Our truck headlights ended at the darkness of the edge of the river. The chocolate colored water flowed lethargically by as cool mist rose from its surface. At night, the Mbari looked even more sinister than it already did during the day. I eased out of the car and walked uneasily up to the water’s edge and looked to the other end.
“That ferry’s not gonna pull itself across. Besides, it’s your turn anyway,” Little Erik said walking up behind me, grinning. He was right, although I didn’t want to admit it. We needed to get our Toyota land cruiser across to the other side. An operation we had completed many times before, in both daylight and night. But this time, the ferry was tied down the other side of the river. Someone had to swim across the water, and that someone was me. Understandably, I wasn’t too eager to take a nightly swim with the dinosaurs living under the surface.
If I could create with my best imagination, one monster to haunt my nightmares, it would surely be close in design to a modern crocodile. Out of all the beasts man has tamed, the crocodile is the only one whose perception of man as food hasn’t changed since the first of both species walked the earth. Only occasionally, when a sly lizard takes a citizen of the “modern” world, does the media cover such an event. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unpublicized cases in 3rd world countries of South-East Asia, the South Pacific, and Africa, of crocodile predation on human beings. Even before first traveling and working in central Africa at the age of nineteen, it was not the lions or hippo I feared most- it was that clever bastard hiding under water. I had told myself from the beginning, no swimming- none what-so-ever. The idea of even dipping my legs in the murky waters horrified me. But I found, during those years in the bush, I would break more than that one rule in regards to crocodiles.
Perhaps it is my fear and respect for the animals that has led me to obsess over them- and even, at the brink of my madness, dare wrestle a few of them. I knew early on, just like my travels to the Dark Continent, one goal for my bucket list would be to catch a wild crocodile. This bizarre goal I attribute to fascination I had drawn from the larger than life characters of the late, great Steve Irwin, and also, the gung-ho American herpetologist Brady Barr; who both taught me to appreciate the animal’s amazing qualities, as well as keep a healthy respect for them as apex predators.
I did eventually cross that one goal off my list my second journey to Africa. It was in a thick, mangrove-like forest along the Ndolo river, not far from the Mbari. It was late in the night, and a few guys and I were scouring the water’s edge, just inside the thick stuff, searching for the mythical water loving antelope- the water chevrotain. It was in my search, that I caught a glow of two tiny red eyes, illuminated by my headlamp in the river below. I snuck down for a closer look and found a two foot crocodile suspended in the shallow water. Without considering much, I lunged for it, scooping it up with one hand, while stumbling into the water. I came up soaking and laughing, holding up my small prize.
I held the wiry little creature in my hands and observed it closely. Even being just a baby, I could feel the animal’s strength pulsating within my hands, as he writhed, and thrashed. The scales on his back and tail, and especially his head, were starting to harden with age. He let out a few frog-like cries of distress, before I let the critter go.
A few nights later, I was scanning the side of the Mbari river with my flashlight, and soon caught the tell-tale sign of a Nile crocodile from the bright red reflection of its eyes on the surface if the water. The embankment was very steep, but I wasn’t deterred. I was eager to catch juvenile crocodiles, and this one looked like the perfect candidate. I started down river, grabbing tree roots suspended from the steep embankment wall. Every few steps, I would stumble and an inch or two of my shoes would dip in the water. Now, as I got closer to the shining eyes, I began to get farther and farther away from the safety of good foot placement. Just as I was nearing the animal, I could barely hold on to the steep wall without hanging over the river. It was here, dangling from the roots that I realized I had made a grave mistake in my choice of specimen to pursue; just then, the eyes turned toward me, and I saw the space that separated them was immense. The crocodile in front of me was a good twelve feet long- easily capable of eating me. Disturbed by the pebbles my feet loosed into the river, the crocodile swam toward me. Faster than a thought, I had both feet up at my hands, hanging completely by the tree roots. With a few pumps of its tail, the reptile glided directly beneath me. Eventually, it moved across the river and disappeared.
When I was satisfied the croc was gone, I scrambled as hard as I could back to the safety of camp. The croc never saw me, and it’s a good thing, as I am told they can be very good leapers when in pursuit of prey…
…After three years of working close to large crocs, and hearing various terrifying tales of the modern dinosaurs, I had sufficiently built up a healthy respect of sub-Saharan African waters. Now, I stood at the water’s edge at night, about to take a plunge into the cold black water. I stripped to my boxers; a chilly night air sent goose bumps down my body. I shuttered at the thought of diving into the blackness- the snapping of jaws- the terrible pressure covering me- the inevitable spin- and blacking out. I imagined pieces of my limbs floating up down river, and getting caught in the mangroves for my companions to find in the morning.
I breathed uneasily, trying to swallow the heavy heartbeats in my throat. Erik must have sensed my hesitation, and tried his best to give me a helpful suggestion: “How about you shine your light around until you’re sure there are no crocs close by, and then dive in and get it over with.”
Great idea. I shined my powerful light to the left- nothing. Then the right… I let out a loud groan, as two clearly visible red eyes shown on the bank at the other end of the river to the right. Erik let out a nervous laugh.
“Yeah, real good idea,” I said. Without another thought, I gathered my last courage and made a running dive. The water was cold, the memory of the swim a blur. Soon after, I stood on the ferry, at the other end of the river, shaking off the water and the fear. I was safe for this swim.