Sunday, January 24, 2010

Wild Encounters – Courting Crocodylus Niloticus – the Day my Heart Stood Still

Am I scared, I ask myself. The answer is a silent ‘no’ followed by ‘perhaps’ followed by ‘certainly’. I and fear doesn’t seem sound somehow when spoken in the same sentence, even if it is my mind that is doing all the rambling. I am unnerved for sure, without an iota of doubt. My limbs, especially the lower ones are trembling under their own accord propelled by some mysterious forces that is way out of my conscious control. So are my teeth, only figuratively though, and thank god for that. Since according to my guide our survival depends on our silence and moreover the sunbathing beauties eyeing us through slit red eyes within handshaking distance don’t mean any harm unless they are hungry (which they certainly look) or we disturb their siesta with some wild gestures. That was a day when I cussed and cussed my inborn guts and curiosity, both of which were on that day trying their best to detach from my body. Was I or am I completely irrevocably insanely insidiously masochistically figuratively and bluntly mad. Perhaps both, since I was, at least on that tepid afternoon and perhaps, I still am.

The jungle is spookily silent and sonorous. It’s my pole-vaulting heart that is deafening my ears. No primates or insects, no mammals or reptiles make any sound. ‘Windy’ my Zambian guide and friend for last two weeks and I are deep inside the rainforest swamps of Luangwa National Park, where I had absolutely no intention to be. But then in Africa your intent and actions are often at the extreme ends of a very long road. My original intention, if I can still recall cohesively, was to explore the Muchinga Mountain Range. Why on Earth would I harbor that intent, if you were to ask then I really don’t know the answer. Muchinga Mountain sounded like cool mountains and I like cool mountains, even if phonetically.

During my teen safari when we walked and got nearly killed god only knows how many times we had endeavored to climb or at least walk through every conceivable mountain region in Africa. We survived the odyssey but could not nick Muchinga for a very simple reason. Within the collective knowledge pool about Africa between the four half-brained teenagers (including one blonde for Pete’s sake) and the fake guide the word Muchinga did not exist. But neither did so many other facts and figures as well since our combined Africa-knowledge-pool, even if I were to write it down in ant like scrawl (mind you in those days we didn’t have computers) would perhaps be able to fill up one side of a playing card, if I hadn’t missed out on commas, full stops and other punctuation marks, that is! Our African odyssey till today remains the biggest personal mystery to me of all times. And on a subsequent trip to the Dark Continent with my sagacious swagger induced by knowledge I had to go looking for Muchinga. What I hadn’t bargained or hoped for was another guide who would once again lead me with his sweet tongue into a journey that I had not even hoped or dreamt of undertaking ever.

I would like to believe that I did caress Muchinga even if briefly, for it was a tribute I had to pay for my other three friends of yesteryears – my fellow African voyagers (as they must remain for eternity). Soon we were trampling through thick and untowardly jungles spaced with small tiny hamlets of human sufferings. Most of them were poacher-hunters hired by big buck making foreign companies for illegal animal trades. ‘Windy’ knew all of them and I suspected that he was actually passing me on as a prospective client in their native tongue to the villagers for them to welcome me with such alacrity. The trip goes on fine with my vegetarian-preferred gullets being bombarded by offerings of flesh, both cooked and uncooked (burnt, raw, bloodied). It’s good to have a constitution that can accept anything (like me) and a life-ethos that does not include ‘expectations’ (like me) of any kind. I really can’t complain about what was happening I was enjoying it thoroughly. After all, this is experiential living and learning at its fullest. Given few more weeks and I am certain I will be able to run barefoot on the thorny ground and be able to bring down gazelles with stone spear. ‘Windy’ is also a master storyteller and as we hop skip and jump through the jungles, hills and tribal habitations he keeps me engaged with unbelievable tales of the wild. Of valor and virility, of courage and conviction, of food and fun, and not surprisingly in all of them the male protagonist is suspiciously similar to ‘Windy’. That is the hallmark of a master storyteller.

The jungles have plenty to offer in terms of food and diversions and bipeds and quadrupeds as well. Every night we camp near or right in the midst of some merrymaking tribes or extended families. I begin to appreciate and even roll my tongue around Bemba, Tonga, Nyanja and Lunda much to the amusement of my intrepid companion, the slayer of lions and grappler of hippos. ‘Windy’ is muscular in a sinew way and black in a glinting coalfish way. He is so intensely black that I start having a complex. Whenever he parts his lips to utter something, anything, even to spit (that he does often) his sparkling dentures literally light up the atmosphere. Hence whenever ‘Windy’ opens his mouth he is smiling and is invisible when he is not. I realize few days into the adventure that although we are not where I wish to be, and ‘Windy’ has only a vague notion of where we could be, we are not really lost. We are somewhere, hopefully within the international borders of Zambia, and that is something. African philosophy and Indian faith make the ideal bed-partners. Drop an African and an Indian even in the bleak oxygen starved outer space and they will still be rejoicing that the view indeed is splendid from the top, not to mention that they both would be celebrated as venerated heroes back home. ‘Windy’ is ecstatic and I am ruminative to the degree of being murderous. I mean even my fondness for getting lost and being in lost places has its limits.

My map and compass points to East as our direction to salvation while ‘Windy’ points exactly on the opposite way. And we both are ready to part ways to prove our respective points, to whom I am not sure; for if we parted we would never see each other again of that we both are dead sure. My understanding of the local lingo and customs or rather the absence of it decided the day. I followed ‘Windy’. Over the next few days we had adventures of all kinds, including strange ghoulish rituals but they are commonplace at such places and for my blog visitors as well who are now so charged up with adrenalin that if I write a post where I am not about to die or do not break something resembling a bone then they don’t want to listen. So I will keep this post short and take you back to where I was completely and undoubtedly unnerved and ready to wet my pants in that order.

Don’t get me wrong. ‘Windy’ wanted us to wade through a muddy swampy marshy rivulet of considerable girth with unknown depth and bottom profile that had nearly a score of the largest and decisively disgusting looking crocs I had ever seen in my real life scattered at varying distance from almost hugging to almost spitting in various degrees of repose. What was common though to all the beasts were their red slit eyes, all half shut or half open (if you are an optimist like me) and all of those drunken and dreary eyes fixed unflinchingly onto us. ‘Windy’ being invisible and also blessed by the local voodoo perhaps those eyes preyed only on me. Though I don’t remember when, but that could well be the precise millisecond during which my brain registered what ‘Windy’ intended, that I turned into a believer from a staunch agnostic. It is said that necessity is the mother of invention and my god did I invent god pronto, or what! Though every atom of my body strained to scream even as my real body turned into jelly that had yet to see the inside of a refrigerator freezer, ‘Windy’ pantomimed silence and the overacted gesture of being chewed alive by the audience even if I dared so much as a breath above whisper.

I am a die-hard animal lover, wilder the better and more lovable is the way I figure it. With my varied close encounters with all things wild and wonderful including anacondas, pythons, cobras, tarantulas and black widows, polar and black bears, hyenas, lions and tigers, wolves, wild boars, wild dogs, sharks, sting rays and what have you – did I also mention that some of them were hungry as well – even with such a marvelous body of experience if there was one animal (wild and lovable) that I had not still reconciled to and sincerely avoided was a crocodile in its habitat. We all at some point of inopportune time of our lives sleep or dream through a nightmare. Some of us live through one, some of us live and thrive through one, while some live and die in the process. There must be very few who create one first, the most dreadful possible and then walk into it while awake and then try to live through it. This was my moment. Death is my pal, dearest among the dear ones. I don’t repel or deny death. I accept it with fervor and warmth, fondness and fecundity often reserved for the nearest and dearest. What could be nearer and dearer than death for a mortal? The crocs did not stir any despair of death in my troubled bosom. They only stirred pure, unadulterated, all consuming, total sum of all fears. I was scared therefore I am – seemed like the quote for the moment. There was no logic, no reason, no fore or afterthought no melodrama, no prejudice or perversion, no thoughts, no regrets, no nothing. I had transformed into fear itself. I am fear. On previous occasions whenever my mind froze it was solely due to plunging temperatures at very high places. Today deep in the jungles of Zambia my mind froze since it lost all its heat. For some bizarre reason the title of my childhood favorite author Alistair MacLean’s book ‘Fear is the Key’ keeps buzzing around. If I could find Mr. MacLean I would like to ask him, ‘Key to what?’

Rotating my eyeballs as far as humanly possible without popping them out of the sockets I take stock of the situation. As far as I could discern through my fast-depleting brain of an already non-existent one there were around 15 monsters lying still on the bog filled ground. Two serrated blocks of logwood floated in the water, alarmingly close to our proposed crossing point. They could actually be logwoods I tell my heart though it would be a bad place to confirm it either way once in the water. If they were crocs then I wasn’t far from hell, which surprisingly I find deeply consoling. Could there be more, inside the muddy water, away from human eye? I wonder but then I remember one of those useless trivia that have the habit of popping up at all the wrong moments – crocodiles are found either on land sunbathing, or floating with only the eyes, nose and back exposed. Rarely do they remain submerged under normal conditions, unless threatened, and they never ever sit on the bottom. ‘Windy’ and I could not be anything even remotely threatening to these giants, of which even the smallest could easily swallow the two of us lengthwise and still have room for more. Barely moving, almost gliding and levitating above ground, ‘Windy’ has managed to reach the water. He gestures for me to move. I am transfixed; my limbs are immobile as my eyes are locked with the nearest Crocodylus Niloticus. He seems to be sleeping with eyes half-open (even at this moment my mind doesn’t accept that the eyes could as well be half-shut; I am a die-hard optimist). I order my legs to levitate. Not a muscle quiver. The fear that holds me down is solid like a block of osmium. My fearless mind, that has brought me back alive on countless situations far worse than the present one, tells me that I can’t hold my ground forever. I will move, I have to move, either I do it before or after the croc wakes up hungry is entirely my choice. Just one step, one toe at a time… slowly I feel blood rush down to my extremities and my fear frozen body begins to thaw. I walk towards ‘Windy’ keeping half of my body turned towards the closest predator.

I reach my guide and gesticulating through the eyeballs draw his attention to the floating logwoods. He sees them for the first time and if it were possible for ‘Windy’ then he actually ashens or loses color. He now sweats profusely. I am not certain if that is a good sign or a bad omen. ‘Windy’ is a proud Chewa male who can easily keep pace with a running deer and spear a lion before lunch. He normally doesn’t sweat even under most abnormal situations. On the other hand I have been sweating ever since landing at Lusaka International Airport. Right on cue, as so many times earlier, when my death and doom is certain, my mind begins to shed all fear and rationality returns so that I may view and experience my death with utmost clarity of senses and soul. Ironical I suppose, since at those moments a momentary loss of mind or a bout of delusion or even an absence of consciousness would actually lessen the agony of transition from this world to the nether one. Nevertheless, I begin to get my bearings back and check out the worst case scenario. ‘Windy’ and I are too close to the water, our toes (shoes) are actually wet, the 15 or so brutes seem to have edged closer, tightening the loose circle around us like a noose and the two floating logwoods are actually that and nothing else. We can’t retreat since that is not the way and now two crocs are lying exactly on our retreat trail. They are also twitching their tails to a slow beat of silent Muganda (a Zambian dance form). A croc getting excited is the worst sign of all. God only knows when they had had their last meal. The water patch is barely five meters across and we can be on the other side in a flash. Crocs can out-swim a torpedo in water but on land they are rather sluggish. I also hope that the trivia about crocs never lying at the bottom of a river is true. To hell with caution! I grab ‘Windy’ by his immobile and cold hand and jump into the river like a waltzing hippo in heat.

Thus suddenly jerked out of his senses ‘Windy’ leaps up akin to a monkey and in two gigantic strides is across the river outpacing me by a clear two meter and half. I run through the thigh-deep water, with feet clawing through the bottom mud, like a hovercraft on fire. We don’t stop or look back till we have placed at least another 10 meters between us and the river and have climbed over a natural embankment. What I see immediately sets my blood and mind freezing, though now we are beyond any crocodile danger. Majority of the brutes are now at the edge of the water on the other side, jaws salivating over our footprints, and the two floating logwoods are nowhere to be seen. They were not logwoods after all – the thought strikes both of us at the same instant and we collapse on the ground. Now that the threat is over, the fear returns and hammers us like sledgehammer. The fact that a 15 ft Crocodylus Niloticus’ jaw perhaps missed my ankles by less than an inch seemed to grip me in a feverish pitch refusing to let go of my innards. We reach the road after three more days and from there I use the shortest route, both in terms of distance and time, to exit Zambia. The Crocodylus Niloticus would continue to haunt my dreams for long.
P.S. The memory of the above incident was triggered few days ago while chatting with a friend in US who was going to watch American crocs or gators in the swamps of Florida. I mentioned in the passing that I had once the idiotic audacity to wade through a croc infested river with sunbathing crocs all around. She asked me to pen it down. So here’s the story. But this post is meant for my friend Karthik who only wants to hear my wild tales of wild animals, me included. I am beginning to now believe his uncle and my close buddy Raj who claims that the lad has some unexplained wild streak indeed somewhere within his vastly smiling countenance. Why else such wild wishes… nevertheless if Karthik and wild lads and lasses like him like this story then it has been worth it, notwithstanding my terror-stricken heart which had to undergo the nearly-forgotten agony again as I reminiscenced and re-lived the most petrifying moments of my life. I could have actually gone into a cardiac seizure while I wrote this post. Karthik, you owe me a big one now, bro!

The accompanying picture is courtesy my friend, the well known wildlife ecologist, Bruce G Marcot, USA


  1. Wow Satya! Atleast give us a 'JHALAK' of your teenage African Safari while we wait for the book on the same.

  2. chillingly great fun, this! i remember picking up and holding a baby croc when i was 10... the baby a little over a foot, but just feeling the strength in its virile muscles and its bullwhip like tail (at barely a couple months old, it could easily dismember my forearm), filled me with such awe.

    the most interesting thing about these stupendous reptiles is that they never stop smiling. Nature has a dark sense of humour :)

    The gators were beautiful and there is much to learn from the relationship the swamp birds share with them. Thanks for a super post, S!

  3. Geez...I've bitten a few nails off reading this account. Gripping adrenalin is off the charts. Bauhout Shukriya

  4. GOD...wading thru a swamp full of crocs, SATYA!!!!! don't u dare do anything like that anymore, PLEASE!