Between a Croc and a Hard Place

The Omo Valley of Southern Ethiopia is one of the most isolated places on earth.

I was at the end of a three week expedition documenting local tribes that have no cultural or linguistic connections to any other peoples on the African continent and who until recently have not seen many outsiders.
The unique tribes of the Omo, such as the Mursi and Dasanesh people, have evolved inside a cultural fishbowl and I wanted to see them before the hordes of safari companies discovered and descended on them.

I had spent a sleepless night inside a small tent with my guide as we listened to a leopard chuffing and prowling just outside and in the morning found fresh scat right outside our tent flap. Having only a thin layer of nylon between you and a predator is very unnerving to say the least.

My final obstacle was the mighty Omo River, a twisting, churning mass of surging water the color of caramel and the happy hunting grounds for thousands of crocodiles.

At one of the narrows where the water flow is slowed enough by boulders to allow crossing in a dugout, a local man offered to take me for a price and I warily stepped into the most unstable boat I have ever handled, and that included numerous kayaks. It was carved from a single tree trunk and so thin that I could actually see the sides bending in the river current. Once on the water I felt we would flip over at any moment as the gentleman guided us into the current with a paddle made from a tree branch. The current was so swift that we would end up two hundred yards downstream from our put in point.

Several large crocs slid into the water at the same time, taking up stations on either side of us, only their carnivorous eyes visible above the water line as they paralleled us into the middle of the river, anticipating an easy meal. African crocodiles are incredibly aggressive and known to lunge and take people right out of boats, so having four within arms reach caused me to focus on the opposite shore as we both paddled for all we were worth. As I alternated paddle strokes, turning my head from side to side, our eyes locked onto each other, predator and prey, and time stopped as it seemed I was suspended, immobile, between several hungry carnivores, all willing me into the water.

My concentration was so complete that when the large bull Hippo lunged straight up out of the water no more than ten feet ahead I did not react for a second. Hippos kill more people every year in Africa than crocodiles and this one was in full attack mode, closing fast. We never saw the Hippo until it charged and even the local man screamed when it surfaced like a submarine blowing all ballast.

There was nowhere to go with crocs all around me and an enraged Hippo directly in front, so I just braced for the impact as an image of my wife flashed in my mind and I uttered a quick prayer. Suddenly I was showered by a tremendous wave of water, almost swamping the dugout, as the Hippo came up a second time, directly behind us and again, crash dove inches from the boat. I knew he was directly underneath our keel and I expected to be tossed into the water any second when I was thrown forward as our bow dug into the mud of the opposite shore.

We had made it and two people never exited a boat faster than we did, scrambling up the muddy hillside, trying to put distance between us and the crocs that were now surrounding the dugout. The Hippo that was now on shore but unable to climb the hillside to get at us just stood there pawing the ground and snorting with rage.
I was frantically trying to climb so fast that I lacerated my hands on the rocky outcroppings and dragging myself over the ledge I collapsed, covered in mud,sucking air and not sure if I was really still alive or not.

That is when I looked up to see I was staring down the barrel of an AK47 automatic rifle. I had found the last tribe I had come to photograph.

J M Dorsey

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