Andrew, an office colleague, convinced me to accompany him and some explorers on a relaxed rafting trip down a stretch of the Pongola River, on the border of the Ithala Game Reserve in Kwazulu-Natal. He hadn’t rafted this river before but said it should be easy going and we may even get to see game along the rivers’ edge. When we got to the river we pumped up the two inflatable rafts, made up food parcels, packed the wet bags and two kayaks and were given a demonstration of rafting signals.
‘ … whatever you do, don’t lose your rafting paddle …’ was a point stressed upon.
‘Otherwise you inherit your partners’ and have to row for two …’
Paul slipped in the minor issue of crocodiles. I thought he was joking till Jono whipped out his new serrated flick knife and Paul unsheathed his dagger. Nothing was mentioned about crocodiles before. Jono and Paul described the signs to look out for in the murky water and what to do when we spotted crocodiles.
‘When in the water and we encounter crocodiles, everyone is meant to stay close together.’
And my favourite, ‘If anyone is attacked by a crocodile while we are on the river, everyone should rush to that person and assist them in any way possible.’
The first day on the river was relaxing and we paddled through some shallows and minor rapid sections. Both Andrew and I got tossed out of our raft but quickly climbed back in. The towering cliffs and steep embankments we passed were astonishing. The second day we tumbled through a few bigger rapids and saw some crocodiles basking in the sun. After a few shallow rapids we drifted into a shadowy section of the river. Paul was a few meters ahead of Andrew and I. He rotated his kayak to see how everyone else was coming along. His kayak lifted strangely off the water. Paul warned us of a crocodile beneath. The crocodile lifted Pauls’ kayak again, this time much higher. Andrew and I paddled towards him, but he quickly paddled upstream, away from us towards the riverbank. I thought we were meant to stay close together and offer assistance. I hoped Andrew had his knife out and was prepared to use it. The others had already got to the riverbank and yelled for us to do likewise. Beneath the plastic bottom of our raft I felt something moving. I got my paddle out the water. I scanned around the nose of the raft. A few feet to the left I saw the eyes and snout of the crocodile. Andrew also saw it and estimated it to be approximately 3,0m long. It stared me in the eyes. A second or two later it submerged. I felt a violent tug downwards on the left side of the raft and noticed that I was sinking. My thoughts were drowning as the nose of the raft sunk beneath the water.
‘Don’t slip into the water!’ I thought.
Andrew was already back paddling away. We got to the vegetation-covered riverbank. Survival instinct took over. I left my paddle in the raft, hopped over the gear between Andrew and I and up onto the sheer embankment. I expected to see Andrew on solid ground already. He wasn’t! I looked into the muddy water and saw his hands and arms struggling to get a hold. He was trapped along a flat face of the bank and struggling to get out. I thought the worst had happened & the crocodile had got a vice-grip on his legs. The others were hysterically shouting for us to get out of the water. I scrambled down to Andrew. With all the splashing he was doing he probably sounded like an injured animal, an easy meal for the crocodile that was probably closing in on him. I grabbed him by his life preserver and pulled with all my strength, knocking the back of my head on an overhanging branch in the process. Andrew was out of the water but we were still close to the edge, within reach of a hungry crocodile. I retreated to higher ground. Andrew was still wrestling with the overhanging branch but eventually got to me. Both of us were thankful to be out of the water and away from the edge. When he caught his breath and regained colour Andrew joked, ‘Why didn’t you whack the crocodile with your paddle?’
I responded, ‘I’m Hindu. I believe in non-violence.’
S R Bhowandas