I push out in my kayak, safe in the knowledge that I’ve only experienced an attack once.
The blue water ripples ahead, neither too still nor too choppy. No trees or bits of plants dot the surface, nothing which could offer camouflage or a place to hide. A cool breeze ripples the patches of grass on the north-western bank, and the blades sigh. I sigh with them. Lush green trees tower overhead. In the distance behind me, the sounds of children punctuate the air.
Something about the scene back then didn’t sit well in my gut. The warning signs had made themselves evident. Vegetation and amputated logs floated across the murky water. You could have hidden a horse in that river. But Pierce Arnold, an experienced guide, assured me of the safety, with a smirk and a twitch of his moustache. I later found out he was full of it. It spilt out of his intestines when the crocodile snapped him in half.
My paddle slices the water, and the White Nile tugs the kayak. That old feeling surges through my veins and settles in my stomach. A sense of tranquillity intermingled with the spice of adventure. My receptors calm as the expectant neurotransmitters flood the system. Like a million addicts getting their fix. A far cry from the emotions that roiled within my bowels the day I earned these scars.
I survived. Fate didn’t save me; I saved myself. My stupidity might have led to the attack, but my cunning got me out of it. I knew how crocodiles killed their prey. They can hold their breaths for up to an hour — if they don’t rip you to shreds or swallow you, they drown you. Crocodiles use something called a death roll. Experts estimate their attack is 100 times deadlier than a shark’s. The bite is seldom a case of mistaken identity with crocs, as is often the situation with sharks.
The sounds of civilisation fade into the distance as the music of the Nile takes over. The call of a million birds dances over the lap of water as my oar splashes through the gentle waves. My motions rotate around, smooth and relaxed. Up, down, forwards, backwards. A couple of antelopes take a deep drink and bleat their contentment on the far side. Their deerlike eyes follow my progress, but my presence does not alarm them. I smile.
When the crocodile finished with Mr Arnold and my turn came around, I went for the bastard’s eyes. His bite tore my skin open in several places and shattered the bone, but I didn’t give him a chance to pull me under the water. If he’d dragged me beneath, I would have never resurfaced. Well, not in one piece, anyway. When I got to the riverbank, I found that Mr Arnold’s safari hat had also made it to shore. A half-shredded, blood-soaked reminder.
A hush settles over the river as the continent relaxes into a heat-induced siesta. I obey the waters and let the flow take me as it has taken so many others over the years. I follow the curves and bends from south to north, with the Al-Sudd swampland to my rear. I once read about some Egyptian adventurers who claimed to have kayaked the length of the Nile. In reality, they only kayaked the Egyptian part. What of its tributaries, which flow through Uganda and Sudan? Could one person ever do such an undertaking? When I have more experience of the White and Blue Niles, I may attempt the feat.
The trick is to trust your instincts. Your gut knows what’s up, often faster than your brain does. The stomach takes the facts and reacts to them as and when they come. The brain takes a moment to register and analyse, and — sometimes — it slots the critical stuff at the back. The brain helps you plan in the long term. The gut keeps you alive in the now. If I’d listened to my instincts back then, I wouldn’t have a dozen laceration scars on my right arm. So I always trust my instincts. They’ve never failed me since.
Up, down, forwards, backwards. My oar cuts through the glass as if it isn’t even there. Up, down, forwards, back. The same old movements, well-practised and honed. My muscles ripple with each cycle, those on my right arm beneath a layer of scar tissue. I haven’t set off from the very start of the Nile — that would be Lake Victoria. How long a journey would it be? The White Nile stretches for almost 4,000 km and the main Nile for 7,000 km. Up, down, forwards, backwards. It took the Egyptian kayakers 40-something days. The marshes blur past. Up, down, forwards, back. I guess it would take me 60 plus days if you considered the difficulty of penetrating the Sudd, and—
My paddle dips into the murk and strikes something solid and meaty.
Cold lightning crackles my nerve endings, and my gorge rises into my throat. Gooseflesh prickles my skin, and the air in my lungs comes to a halt. The silence of the Nile juxtaposes with the thump of blood in my eardrums. No noise, except the passive lap of the river against the side of my watercraft. No birds call, no antelopes bleat, no children laugh and scream in the distance.
I retract my stick too late.
The Nile crocodile’s snout emerges from the darkness, half the length of my kayak.
I lean on instinct away from this dinosaur, as its dead eyes regard me with no emotion whatsoever. Pure reptilian brain — hunt, feed, kill. The kayak sways as I tilt, and for one vertiginous second, I almost spill myself into the water with this beast. I suck in a breath to yell for help, but no sound escapes my paralysed vocal cords. I prepare to do battle with a throwback to the dinosaur period. I remember to go for the eyes, the eyes, the eyes. A voice at the back of my head screams, unhelpful: Has my gut betrayed me?
Unhindered, the kayak’s nose ploughs ahead and breaks the waters where the croc’s body remains hidden. I will stick the belly of the beast but with a moulded polyethene resin instead of a spear. Will the shock be enough to scare the monster away, or will I only stir the rage of this ambush predator? Does it even matter, has he lain in wait for me, spotted me from a mile off?
My kayak cuts through the foam and strikes nothing. The croc’s toothy maw bounces off the side and goes spinning off my flank. My jaw drops, and the cogs in my fear-frozen mind struggle to turn.
Only a head.
Shredded flesh dangles from the wound behind this prehistoric beast’s skull. The leathery skin left hangs in tattered ribbons. Beneath the mess, bits of meat and innards reveal themselves. The dinosaur’s head twirls back around, and I look into its glassed over gaze once more. Its eyes remain dead, but there is a finality to their sheen this time.
I laugh. The sound comes across as nervous and unhinged in the quiet of the river. This remnant from the Cretaceous period is dead. I will suffer no crocodile attack today. My instincts are as tried and true as ever. I—
I frown when the gravity of the discovery hits me.
What could take down a 16-foot, 5,000-pound crocodile? And, further to that point, what could take down that animal and not want to eat it? Out here, animals will risk their lives for a scrap of food. Croc skin might be too harsh for our human chompers, but plenty of Nile-dwellers can tear through it. What on Earth could—
A movement blurs to my left, big and dark and fast and silent.
The answer comes when her eyes and ears poke the surface, and she emerges from the depths like a submarine.
It baffles the mind how something so enormous can move with such stealth and speed. She didn’t kill it for food; she killed it because it strayed into her territory. She killed it because she could — as a demonstration of strength, as a message to the other reptiles in the area. Finally, she killed it because she wanted to. Like she wants to kill me right now. And one need only look into her eyes to know that what she wants, she gets.
I have no time to scream before the hippo strikes.