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Monday, June 25, 2012

Croc Attack


A great many hunters who come to Africa each year will spend some of their time along the shore of a lake or one of the great rivers like the Zambezi. A day or two spent fishing is the ideal way to unwind before, during or after a hunt. Now, most of us who have the Africa bug have watched one of the many documentaries on the Masai Mara and the great wildebeest migration, and part and parcel of this annual cycle is the havoc crocodiles wreak on animals swimming across the rivers - in many ways, the giant reptiles are the ultimate predators, being so good at what they do that evolution has passed them by for over a hundred million years. They are the embodiment of stealth, cunning and sheer terror. If I wake in the middle of the night and I happen by chance to recall one beautiful spring day on the Zambezi, fishing for chessa in the Kariba gorge a quarter of a century ago and the croc that materialized from the depths literally at my feet I won’t fall asleep again soon. They lay just millimetres below the water’s surface, and they are able to approach their victims to within inches before a mighty sweep of the tail launches them missile-like out of the water to seize their unsuspecting quarry. They retreat back into the depths, where they will perform the “death roll”, a manoeuvre in which the croc spins its body in an attempt to tear bits of meat from the prey. Should the poor creature still be struggling, it is dragged beneath the surface, and patiently held till it drowns. Many hunters from Europe or the United States have grown up in wilderness areas where nothing really bites. I spent every spare moment of my youth in the Sierra Nevada mountains or the Nevada desert. No predators lurked beneath the water anywhere, and to catch a glimpse of a black bear or a mountain lion was an unexpected treat. Not soon the Dark Continent. Recently along the shores of Kariba at Charara a night fisherman was seized by a crock. His friend rushed in to help and was taken by another. One man survived. Ant Williams interviewed the fortunate one in his hospital room:

“Sitting at the hospital bedside of one Lourens Erasmus recently, the hair on my neck prickled with these images as he related his story. The victim of a crocodile attack early in May at the National Anglers’ Union of Zimbabwe’s Charara site on lake Kariba, he survived a vicious mauling which had all the hallmarks typical of these beasts. Zimbabwe being what it is, the rumour mill had sprung into action, with all sorts of inaccurate - even ludicrous - stories surrounding the tragedy emerging.

Lourens (aged 53), a Selous farmer, and his good friend visiting from South Africa, Frank Trott (aged 72), had been at Kariba for a week of bream fishing. Returning to their lakeside Cloven Hall chalet - sighted on the point at Charara - they prepared dinner as the sun set and a full moon peaked over the eastern horizon. Although the bream fishing had been good, Lourens who had never caught a silver barbel wandered down to the water’s edge outside the lodge, scouting for a safe and comfortable spot to set up for a bit of night fishing. Kariba had been rising, and water had started flooding the still green grass of the shallow flood-plain. Walking a few metres along the bank in the almost ankle deep water, he stopped at a point where thicker Kariba weed marked deeper water. Curiosity satisfied, Lourens turned to walk back to the lodge. It was just after 8pm.

From behind him, the water exploded in a spray of weed and debris, as a croc which had been laying in the thicker weed watching him, launched its attack. In a split second, Lourens now laying in the water, was held firmly in the crushing jaws of the croc. Its top jaw clamped across his lower back, with the lower jaw piercing his upper right thigh between his legs, the croc easily overpowered him and dragged him backwards into the water. Once in deeper water, the reptile began its death roll, flicking Lourens head over heel several times. As it stopped, Lourens’ head broke the surface and he was now almost chest deep in the lake. In spite of the shock of the sudden attack, Lourens realised a croc had him, and remembering stories that poking at an attacking croc’s eyes will trigger a release, he reached down locating the bony ridge above its eye. As he pushed his finger deep into the eye socket, the croc began shaking him again forcing Lourens to abandon his attempts. Unable to move, he called out for help.

Somewhere out on the water, and across the bay, several people were answering Lourens’ cries for help. Frank, unaware of what had transpired over the previous couple of minutes, ran out to see what was happening. “A croc’s got me” said Lourens... the silver sparkling water calm around him as he stood motionless in the croc’s grip. It would seem the croc believed its prey to be submerged and drowning, and was content to lay still gathering its strength before devouring its victim. Without hesitation, Frank waded in to help Lourens, reaching out for his hand. As they touched, Lourens felt something brush past his free leg, at which point Frank exclaimed he too had been attacked. In a second, Frank was dragged into deeper water and disappeared from sight.

A deathly silence fell over the moonlit night again and  Lourens cried out once more, and was answered by a cooperative fisherman somewhere out on the water in a small boat. Paddling toward Lourens, he called reassuringly. As the small 10' boat came alongside, Lourens latched on and manoeuvred himself around the stern to grab on to the transom. Daring not to move too much, Lourens was handed a section of broomstick like wood by the fisherman - probably a piece of a broken paddle. Carefully directing it down, Lourens probed to find the croc’s open jaws, and in one movement, plunged the stick into the croc’s throat. He was released immediately and clambered on board the little boat.

Back on the shore, unconcerned by his injuries - or not even fully aware of their extent, Lourens quickly got to his truck and launched Frank’s boat. Aided by his rescuer, they scoured the bay for almost half an hour trying in vane to find Frank. Weak from shock and now in pain, Lourens had to withdraw from the search, and was rushed to the MARS clinic in Kariba by Francois Bernadie (Charara’s manager), where he spent three days before being moved to Harare. Following several skin graft operations, Lourens expects to make a full recovery. Tragically, Frank was killed by the crocodile and while his body was not recovered, National Parks did shoot a croc they identified as the culprit.

It is easy to become complacent on and around our many lakes and dams, and especially so at Kariba. Many is the time, I and others, nonchalantly wade into the water while launching or retrieving boats, or indeed while fishing. How close, and how many times has danger been lurking only metres away? I shudder to think... Lourens knows though.

Frank was known as a true and selfless friend, and will be missed by the many people who knew him. We join others in extending our sympathies to Frank’s family.”

You have come to Africa to hunt - but be very careful you don’t become the hunted!

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