Terror on the Zambezi

by Hannes Wessels

Their trip had been a happy one and the sights they had come in search of had filled their cameras. The vista ahead offered more of the same. Waterbuck, impala and buffalo grazed peacefully on the riverine grasses while crocodile lay languidly on the sand- bars. Unmistakable brown blobs rippled the calm water as the hippo down river grunted and chortled.

The guide was tall, dark and handsome with the physique of an Olympian. He was not new to these waters and the Zambezi ran in his veins. With time to relax, he called the little flotilla together and organised a ‘leg-over’ whereby the canoes were held in parallel by the occupants placing their feet in the adjoining canoe. They relaxed and let the current take them slowly down while savouring the scene.

Suddenly, tranquility was shattered when an unseen hippo burst out of the reed-bank adjacent to them and crashed into the water. The guide barked the order to disengage and pushed a canoe away from him but as he retrieved his foot great gaping jaws burst out of the water below him and snapped closed on his leg. He struck out at the attacker with his paddle but was pulled into the water and dragged down while the hippo tore at his leg. Clients screamed and whipped the water with their paddles as Longden surfaced and was hoisted quickly aboard and taken to shore.  What was left of a fine limb was a bloody, lacerated mess. The lower leg remained connected but tenuously. Then it was quiet again and he saw his blue paddle drifting away.

After unsuccessfully seeking help on the south side the shaken party returned to Zambia where they were discovered after dark and taken to a camp from which a casualty evacuation could be arranged but that night gangrene set in. When the surgeons went to work they amputated the leg below the knee. A long recovery road was about to begin.

Forty eight hours later and over a hundred miles downstream a fishing party consisting of, Alistair Gellatly, Arthur and Fay Taylor and Clive and Brenda Kelly, were aboard their power-boat in the middle of the river. Similarly unaware of the danger lurking below them they were stunned when the boat prow reared out of the water as a hippo pounded into it. All six of them went crashing into a corner creating a weight imbalance and setting the vessel at an angle. A second smack on the hull followed, the boat capsized and the occupants were dumped in the water.

Alistair Gellatly, Arthur and Fay Taylor

Alistair Gellatly, Arthur and Fay Taylor

Arthur and Fay grabbed hold of Brenda who could not swim and helped her to the nearest sand bar.  Alistair and Clive had managed to grab the trailing rope from the boat which had settled in the water with its nose still visible and manged to clamber atop the hull.

Summing up the options, Alistair decided that the best way to get help would be to swim to the bank and run to a nearby fishing camp, 5 kilometers away.  In to the water he plunged and safely made the hundred meters to the bank but while looking for somewhere with even ground to climb out he saw a seven-foot crocodile swimming towards him.  Believing attack to be the best defense he swam straight towards it but it came head on before suddenly submerging. Alistair followed and dived and was soon hit three times before he felt teeth sink in and his forearm was firmly clamped in the reptile’s mouth.

The fight for life had begun in earnest. Thrashing and turning, the crocodile dragged him down into the depths and he was amazed at the pulling power of a relatively small specimen.  Battling back, Alistair managed to pull the croc towards him and get his legs around it in a ‘scissors grip’ so he rolled with him while attempting to gouge its eyes out with his thumbs.  While bringing no relief this effort seemed to cause him more pain than the crocodile and he eventually managed to force his left hand down its throat, thereby opening a valve which prevents water entering the croc’s lungs.  This worked and it let go and after what seemed an incredibly long time. Alistair, with lungs bursting, made the surface.

Broken, breathless and in pain he braced for another attack when he spotted a likely exit point which he hurried to and hauled himself from the water, staggered to relative safety and collapsed. His right arm was severely mutilated, the elbow was dislocated and several bones were broken.  Blood pumped; he managed to move to a shallow part of the river, wash his wounds and bind and bandage his arm with strips from his shirt. Then he tried to make himself comfortable and hope for help.

The afternoon passed by, the sun set and no rescue came.  The rest of the party remained abandoned on the sand-bar which was now a foot underwater. Arthur, being a seasoned hunter and outdoorsman well knew darkness would bring increased danger of attacks as the crocodiles became emboldened but he kept his thoughts to himself. At dusk, desperate for a weapon of sorts to use to defend them something blue floating towards them caught his eye and he watched it closely. Serendipity had struck; it was Phillip Longden’s paddle and he waded out to grab it with alacrity.

Alistair meanwhile had made a basic bed with leaves in a pile of rocks, and gathered together a bunch of stones with which to defend himself, realising that lions or hyenas may happen upon the scene during the night. Then his day darkened when a buffalo bull approached him and he expected the worst but relief followed when the animal stared, noted his presence and proceeded to graze quietly close by. As the light faded Alistair looked on in amazement as the big bull came in closer to where he lay but clearly bereft of any hostile intent. Then, astonishingly, he lay down within spitting distance and seemed to be assuming the role of protector. Lions roared and hyena, following his blood-trail, circled close throughout the night but the buffalo remained at his post bringing comfort to the wounded fisherman who slept fitfully as he fought off attacks by an army of red ants that came at him repeatedly.

For the marooned foursome it was a night of terror as Arthur flailed the water through the hours of darkness to keep the crocodiles at bay. Despite his best efforts some pressed home their assaults and had to be beaten off on land by hard blows to the head. All night the group watched reptilian eyes circling in the moonlight knowing that death would surely follow if Arthur relented for any reason but strength and fortitude prevailed and they survived to see the dawn.

On land, Alistair watched the scarred old bull rise with the sun, look at him as if to bid farewell and amble off into the trees. Feeling a little stronger he fashioned a sling for his arm and started walking to the camp to his east. Six hours later he spotted some Zimbabwean fishermen on the water. Too weak to shout for help he could only sit and wave until he caught their eye. Initially they waved back then realised something was amiss and came to investigate.  Seeing his wounds they immediately boated him to their camp and then went off to collect the others off the sand bank.

First aid was applied and air rescue services were called in.  However the first plane failed to start again and only that evening did another aircraft land to fly Alistair to Harare where he was operated on.  Surgery and skin grafts followed which saved his arm, albeit with reduced flexibility and a full recovery was made.

(This incident took place in 1994)

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