My life or death encounter in the African Bush
With a picnic lunch and fishing rods, Alistair Gellatly, 39, and four friends pushed out on the Zambezi River for a peaceful day of fishing. Zooming upstream on the swirling African river in April 1994, the boat weaved past sunbathing crocodiles, snorting hippos and elephants wallowing in the muddy shallows. Alistair eyed the creatures without concern. He’d spent most of his life in the bush as a safari guide.
Gellatly had brought his friends to spend a long Easter weekend at the small tourist camp he was building on a remote part of the Zambezi. They were his old pal Arthur Taylor, a construction manager, Arthur’s wife Fay and her parents Brenda and Clive Kelly, who had just returned from England.
This part of the wide Zambezi, which marked the boundary between Zambia and Zimbabwe, was a popular stretch for tourist boats, but today the party had it all to themselves. Alistair cut the engine to let the boat drift with the fast current. They started to fish.
Soon Brenda yelled, “I’ve got one!” Proudly she dropped the day’s first fish into the boat.
But just then, the boat leapt into the air, sending Clive and his daughter over opposite sides. The slight, grey-bearded ex-teacher surfaced, flicking water from his eyes. As his vision cleared, he saw the wide mouth of a hippo, just a few
feet away, charging again.
Clive heard its yellow tusks scraping over the fiberglass as the hippo’s jaw clamped onto the side of the boat. Then the two-tonne beast reared on its back legs and, with a single toss of its head, flipped the boat completely over. Its mission of defending its territory accomplished, the hippo backed down with a snort.
Still under the boat, Arthur grabbed Brenda and Fay. Arms linked, the trio swirled free of the craft and were swept downstream until they gained a footing on a submerged sandbank midstream.
With the hippo gone, Alistair and Clive climbed onto the upturned boat. Its heavier back end had sunk to the bottom and was stuck there. Alistair sat up on the bow jutting out of the water to take stock. The boat was marooned 100 yards from shore. Sixty yards downstream in mid-river, Arthur and the two women were slowly wading to where they could stand knee-deep in water on the sandbank. Everyone’s safe, Alistair thought with relief.
Alistair made a plan. He knew there was a fishing camp three miles downstream on the far side of the river; he could swim the 100 yards to the nearer bank, walk downriver and shout across. He’d seen many crocodiles in the river that morning. But swimming with “flat dogs” didn’t worry him that much. It was only noon, and the crocodiles were sunbathing lazily on the river banks.
“I’m going for help,” Alistair told Clive. Splashing as little as possible, he swam across the river toward a boggy inlet. But as he paddled closer, a grey shape slithered into the water. Alistair stopped to tread water; the crocodile stopped and looked at him. It was blocking the way to the bank.
Yelling and slapping the surface of the water, Alistair charged at the crocodile to frighten it off. It sank out of sight.
Alistair ducked under water to look for the animal, but was blinded by the mud cloud he’d kicked up. In a panic, Alistair lurched backwards into clear water and went under again. The eight-foot creature was coming at him like a torpedo.
Quickly Alistair jerked his legs up. Brushing against his feet, the croc vanished into a mud cloud. Then it whipped around and came back, its powerful tail whacking Alistair in the back as it passed. Gasping, Alistair surfaced for air, then went down, opened his eyes and looked into an open mouth with two rows of gleaming, yellow-brown teeth.
Like a huge mousetrap, the croc’s jaws clamped shut on both of Alistair’s arms. In spite of the searing pain, he had enough presence of mind to take a last breath as the croc dragged him under. Alistair managed to wrench his left hand free, but the reptile held firmly to his right forearm as it swam backwards, dragging him to deeper water.
The crocodile spun its body and whirled the 14-stone, six-foot man around in the water like a dishcloth being rinsed. Alistair felt his right forearm snap; his elbow and shoulder dislocated. It paused. Then Alistair realised it was turning again.
The scaly armour of the croc’s middle scratched the inside of Alistair’s own muscular thighs. Instinctively he clamped both legs round its belly and locked his ankles behind its back. When the beast rolled, he rolled with it. Locked in a fatal embrace, man and crocodile sank into deeper water.
Alistair’s frantic, powerful punches with his left fist simply glanced off the tough hide. His breath running out, he snatched a front foot and bent the claws back with all his strength. Again, no luck.
Recalling that crocodiles become docile when their eyes are covered or blinded, Alistair plunged his thumb into the croc’s eye, but the eyeball merely slithered around in its socket. He jabbed a forefinger into the other eye with no result. All the time the reptile kept shaking, and with each shake, blood spurted from Alistair’s arm, staining the water red.
Alistair’s lungs screamed for air. Desperately he took his free arm and jammed it into the reptile’s mouth, hoping he could force it to gag.
He felt sharp teeth rip his flesh as he drove his hand deeper and deeper. His fingers felt a rubbery flap at the back of the throat. Now! Grabbing the soft flesh between his fingers, he twisted and pulled.
With a spasm, the crocodile coughed. Its jaws opened involuntarily, just long enough to let Alistair jerk his arms free.
Paddling as best he could with his one good arm, Alistair surfaced. When he reached the bank, he lay gasping, utterly spent.
His right forearm was a gory mess, with deep jagged wounds, the joints twisted, the bone broken. Roused to action, he drove a sharp stick through his shirt sleeve and twisted it tightly to slow the bleeding.
Dazed and weak, Alistair lurched to his feet and staggered into the bush. He was determined to press
on with his plan to get help.
A few yards inland he faced a steep slope covered with scrub. Painfully he worked his way to the top, then blacked out. When he awoke, he struggled a few more yards, but a gully blocked his route.
Slithering down the slope again, he followed the river bank. He could see the three people on the sandbank and one on the overturned boat. “A croc got me,” he yelled across the river. “I’m OK, but I have to rest.”
Alistair knelt by the water, washed and covered his arm with a makeshift bandage and lay down. His only hope was to survive until morning and then try to reach the camp.
A new worry
Stranded on the overturned boat, Clive was heartsick when he saw Alistair stumble back alone. It meant they wouldn’t be rescued that day.
Though apprehensive, he decided to risk the swim to join the others on the sand bank. Now at least everyone was together.
Any thought of swimming for shore was dashed by the thought of Alistair’s ordeal—and the sight of a 12-foot crocodile sunning itself on the river bank. Their best hope was still with Alistair.
Drifting in and out of consciousness and wracked by pain, Alistair saw the darkness closing in—and the time when predators began to prowl. Get something to throw, he told himself. He piled stones beside himself.
From downriver came a chilling series of deep, throaty roars that were answered by other roars: lions calling to one another. Next he heard the yowling of hyenas, scavengers that could detect the scent of wounded animals from miles away.
Alistair had spent nights alone in the bush, but never without a fire—and a firearm. The blood trail he’d left was a well-posted road to an easy kill. He was fighting sleep when a loud roar made him jump. It was close. It seemed only a matter of time before something got him.
Suddenly all was silent, and Alistair’s skin prickled. He knew when big animals close in on their prey they go quiet. He strained his ears listening and then his eyelids drooped shut.
A strange noise brought Alistair fully awake. He heard heavy breathing and plodding footsteps. They were moving toward him. Craning his neck, he made out a set of enormous curving horns and the vast bulk of the last animal he expected to see—a Cape buffalo! A lone bull buffalo is one of the most feared animals in Africa.
Standing 20 yards away in the clearing, it lifted its muzzle to catch Alistair’s scent. Its enormous horns spanned over three feet. One hook of those horns could toss a man high in the air. The hunting world was full of stories of hunters gored or trampled to death by these behemoths.
Unable to run, Alistair sat up and lobbed a stone, hitting the beast in the head. But the buffalo merely shook its head as if bothered by a fly and stepped nearer.
At a distance of 30 feet, the buffalo stopped and gazed at Alistair. Then it carefully folded its front legs and, with a grunting sigh, laid down its
Astonished, Alistair watched as the buffalo placidly chewed cud, its gaze fixed on the bushy ridge above—the same direction Alistair had been watching all night. After puzzling it for some time, Alistair worked out the only explanation: the buffalo is guarding me! Finally, the injured man fell asleep.
Hours later, Alistair snapped awake and felt tickly things on his bare chest. Then, in his armpits, on his face, in his wounds, he felt hundreds of bites and stings. Red ants! Shouting in pain, he jumped up. The buffalo snorted with alarm as Alistair beat the insects off his body. He froze until the beast resumed its chewing.
Refreshed by his sleep, Alistair pondered his situation. As a guide, he’d seen animals inexplicably helping those of a different species. At a floodlit water hole once, he’d watched lions bring down a zebra, then seen a hippo try to nudge the dying zebra to its feet.
Alistair wondered if he was benefiting from another instance of one animal risking its life for another. Whatever the reason, he was thankful.
Suddenly the buffalo lurched to its feet and ran off, crashing through the scrub. Alistair became alert instantly. Was something coming?
Crouched against a rock, he relaxed as he realised what was coming—it was dawn.
Squinting into the brilliant light on the river, Alistair counted four figures. It’s a miracle, he thought, but we’re all alive!
Alistair Gellatly set off for the fishing camp. The trip took hours, but help eventually reached the stranded foursome. After recuperating from his injuries, he returned to his work as a safari guide, but with a renewed sense of wonder.
“Something really special happened that night,” he says. “A hippo tried to drown me, a crocodile almost ate me and then a buffalo helped me to survive. I don’t suppose anyone will ever be able to explain that act of mercy—but I will never forget it."
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