Friday, April 22, 2011

Running scared

Running just isn't my thing.

I've never understood what people gain from jogging (apart from joint problems) or why any sane biped would want to run a marathon.

Of course I did do cross-country running for PE back in high school (we jogged out the school gates, sauntered to a friend's house, drank coffee for two hours and then jogged back in through the gates). I guess that doesn't count.

However, since coming to Africa, I've discovered that there are times when I'm happy to run with the best of them.

And yesterday was one of them.

The occupational hazards of a mongoose researcher: I've taken to my heels to avoid ostriches, bulls, poachers, rhinos, elephants and a hand-raised ground squirrel. Said demonic ground squirrel (sporting HUGE teeth and an ankle-biting fetish) shown above.

When I first moved into this house (located right on the banks of the Oliphants River) I was very cautious about walking by the water's edge. You see this river is home to a multitude of Nile crocodiles: little cute teeny ones – goggle-eyed and stripy in black, yellow and green - who high-tail it for the water the moment they see you, up to massive behemoths 5 m (16.5 ft) long who just lie there and watch as you pass. They bask on the beaches, waddle along the roads between river and dams, and creep out at night to drag away anything unwise enough to die within 500m of the river.

A Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) paddling in the dam near my house. When I stopped to photograph his grisly prize (an ill-starred waterbuck the size of a large horse), he hastily towed it further off shore.

So when it came to walking with my dogs in the river bed, I was initially very wary about getting too close to the water. After all, I'd seen those scary wildlife documentaries where the crocodiles leap out of the water to snatch milling wildebeests off the bank. And let's not forget killer whales, beaching themselves on the sand for a mouthful of unsuspecting seal pup.
You simply can't trust aquatic predators to stay in their rightful element.

Yet after three years of riverbank rambles, free of anyone trying to eat me, I've become a little blasé.

Well yesterday I got a shock.

The dogs and I were wending our way along the river bed, ploughing through the drifted sand and clambering over rocks, when I spotted a huge crocodile basking on the beach of a mid-stream island. It was one of the really massive ones, close to 4 m (13 ft) long and it looked more like a felled rainforest tree than an actual animal. I cannot describe to you how awesome these creatures are. It's not so much their length as their immense bulk; they can weigh up to 1000 kg (2200 lbs). I can never look at them without shivering inside and feeling that reptiles simply should NOT get this big. And they've effectively cured me of a lifelong desire to meet a dinosaur.

The world's worst photograph of a mammoth crocodile (sorry!). Crocs have all sorts of spiffy adaptations, like a palatial valve (a fleshy flap at the back of the tongue) which seals their throat when below water. Normally crocs dive for up to 15-20 minutes but, when harassed, they can stay below for 2 hours, reducing their heart rate to 2-3 beats a minute and closing their heart valves to redirect blood to only essential organs.

The dogs and I picked our way across the sandy beach toward the creature, stopping about 3 m (10 ft) from the water's edge. I'd been a bit hesitant about approaching it so directly as I didn't want to disturb it, but these big guys tend to be very confident and there was about 25 m (82 ft) of fast-flowing river swirling between us. The dogs, of course, simply didn't see it (they never see crocodiles unless they move) and I was keen for them to do so, so they'd understand why I keep insisting the water is dangerous.

While we were standing on the beach, enjoying the vicarious thrill of gazing at such an awesome predator, the awesome predator lurched to its feet - standing up on fully straightened legs (called a 'high-walk' in crocodile parlance) which made it waist-height - swung round to face us and plunged into the river. It came surging toward us through the water at full speed (about 15 kph/10 mph according to the books), and it took me a moment or two to realise, 'hey, it's coming straight at us!'

Coincidence, surely.

I walked a few steps downstream and it immediately altered its path so its trajectory would intercept us.

Oh God!

By now it was half way across the river and I felt a rush of alarm, disbelief and dismay as I realised we were now on the menu. I envisioned the beast hurtling out of the water in front of us; a creature at least ten times my own body mass.

It was at this point that I turned and ran.


I'm afraid I cannot tell you whether the crocodile actually emerged on to our beach, as I didn't stop to look back.
And neither did the dogs.
We just ran.

And from now on, I'm going be to very cautious again!

I thought you should see what these big guys are capable of. If you go here you can view a series of eight photos showing what happened during this horrible interaction.
Photo by Martin Nyfeler/Barcroft Media, and posted on Flickr by Arno Meintjes.


  1. Your posts continue to give me HEART ATTACKS! OMG. And that shot with the elephants? I am SO not going to look at any subsequent ones or I'll cry for sure. Jeepers, terrifying and I'm SO glad you and yours are okay. Brings to mind rule #1 in the movie Zombieland: Cardio. If you stay in shape, you outrun all the fat people and THEY get their brains eaten and not you. The repeated it in huge letters across the screen whenever THAT is what saved the hero. And that is why it's Rule #1. SO GLAD YOU ARE FAST!!! Jeez. Wow. Gonna need to post a link to this for sure.

    One thing about huge reptiles? I cannot imagine a reptile having ANYTHING in the same galaxy as mercy. Absolutely not. Like asking for kindness from a coffee pot. Not happening.

    (gotta go collapse, now...phew!)

  2. Glad you and your dogs weren't dinner. The last photo reminds me of Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories' The Elephant's Child.

  3. I wonder what your fellow countryman Steve Irwin would have done in your place? What an adrenaline rush, great story. I guess that poor elephant had a sore snozzle for a while.

  4. p.s. I remember learning about crocodile hearts in my comparative physiology class--WEIRD. I still remember they were pretty freaky, but I guess now I know why.

  5. Those so-and-sos can launch themselves out of the water like rockets. I'm glad the dogs had the good sense to bolt along with you, rather than be curious.

    Btw, this hasn't done much to allay my fear of crocs! I'm not going back down to the coast, that's for sure.

    (Handy tip from Biobabbler about zombies. I'm taking notes. You never know.)

  6. Biobabbler,
    There's a flaw in Rule No 1. What if you're on your own?? Perhaps I should feed up my dogs just to be on the safe side.
    It's safe to check out the elephant photos - they get away.
    Re reptilian mercy: I guess that's why 'crocodile tears' is such an evocative and enduring idiom (apparently it first appeared in the 14th Century - how many people even knew what a crocodile was back then?). But don't forget that crocodiles are exceptionally protective and attentive (caring?) parents.

    I just reread the Elephant's Child (all I remembered was the great grey-green greasy Limpopo). As a kid I disliked the Just So Stories (weird for an animal-obsessed child). I think I must have been born an evolutionary biologist - I always felt cheated that they never told you the 'real' answer to the question!

    Steve Irwin is dead; I am still alive.

    My dogs are always so shocked when I break into a run (they perceive me as a tortoise-like being) that they don't hesitate to flee too.
    I wonder if brain-eating zombies are more common in Oz than Africa? I guess you can't be too careful.

  7. Way back in the 1950's may father managed a farm on the Oliphants River, just below where the Strydom Tunnel(the name may have changed) is, before it was built. We were having a picnic on the banks of the river one day, when a crocodile decided it would make one of us its meal. As it approached, with only its eyes and nose visible, my father picked up a rock which he hurled at the beast. His aim was perfect. He hit it right on the nose and it made a very rapid disappearance. We also moved to a safer spot.
    I spite of that we used to bathe in the river where it ran over the rocks. My parents worked on the principle that the crocs would not bother us there.
    In my youth I swam in the Runde River and the Zambezi River, in spite of having seen some big crocs around - oh the folly of youth.


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