When you grow up in Holland and ride a bike and eat cheese and the wildest animal you ever see is a stork, it doesn’t occur to you that one day you’ll be an expat in Africa and in touching distance of a very wild crocodile. But such are the vagaries of life.
Dear reader, I trust you remember my (mis)adventure of almost landing in prison in Uganda when I was a new bride. When fortunately my mate, our two friends and I were rescued from the clutches of a crazy drunk cop, we drove on to go camping in Queen Elizabeth National Park, one of several game parks in Uganda. More adventure awaited us there. It’s true, expat life can be exciting! Here’s the tale:
A Crocodile, a Stupid Tourist, and Other Wild Animals
The campground is located not far from a gorgeous five star safari lodge near the Nile river, the kind where foreigners with money come and drink creatively decorated cocktails and eat fabulous gourmet meals and take guided wildlife safaris.
The campground, however, is merely a clearing in the bush. No water, no facilities, nada. What there is is a sign, a big one:
LEAVE ENOUGH SPACE BETWEEN TENTS
FOR THE ELEPHANTS
TO MOVE THROUGH!
The place is empty of humans and other wildlife. We pitch up our two tents, which we have borrowed, and yes, we do leave plenty of room between them. As we are getting organized, more campers arrive, two young Catholic brothers, missionaries newly arrived from England. They are winter pale and frail looking. We chat briefly as they too pitch up their tent. Then the four of us leave to go to the lodge where we sneakily wash up in the pristine rest room and then have a drink at the bar to spy on the rich tourists to see how they live. They live well. Suffice it to say that the unfashionable, unbejeweled four of us – two Peace Corps volunteers and their mates — do not belong in this place. (Hi D and L! Do you remember this?)
We eat food we have brought with us and go to bed, hoping the elephants will not trample our tents. They do not. I do hear various wildlife noises but not enough to keep me awake. The trauma of our almost-ending-up-in-jail has wiped me out, I suspect, and I sleep.
However, the Catholic brothers are not so lucky. We wake up the next morning and the two of them crawl out of their tent looking even more pale, sort of greenish actually. They heard loud chomping noises around the tent in the middle of the night, they tell us.
“Very close by,” one of them says.
“I opened the flap and looked out the window,” the other one says, his voice unsteady. “You won’t believe what I saw!” Unsteady or not, he clearly intends to create a bit of suspense here with his story.
“What, what?” we say right on cue.
“A hippo! His snout was almost up against the screen!”
For a moment we all stare at him in stunned silence as we visualize this terrifying scene. Coming face to face with a hippo is not nothing, and clearly not something the two have been prepared for in their missionary training.
Fortunately nothing else happened. The beast moved on, but the two men of God did not sleep for the rest of the night. I suspect they were on their knees.
We think of hippos as lolling around in water, but in fact they graze on terra firma at night and can be found trundling along quite a distance from the water.
Later that day we go on a boat tour on the Nile, joining some of the lodge tourists, all of them decked out in fashionable safari gear and festooned with expensive cameras and binoculars. The boat is a low, flat affair with a tarpaulin stretched over the top for shade. We are a dozen or so.
So here I am, little Dutch me, floating on the Mighty River Nile! How cool is that! It’s almost like being in a movie! I think of the old explorers, of Stanley and Livingston and so on, but not for long because my knowledge of history is not impressive. I get lost in my surroundings — the birds, the animals and monkeys on the river banks, the sounds and sights and smells.
Hippos are wallowing everywhere, but appear not to be interested in us. Neither are the crocodiles. We float up alongside one monster of a specimen stretched out on a sandbar. He seems asleep or comatose. I could lean over and touch him, almost, which I am not about to do, trust me. It gives me the creeps to see those thick rugged scales so close up.
We study the huge reptile and listen to the guide. The crocodile doesn’t move or twitch and we consider the possibility that he is dead.
As we are beginning to pull away, I notice the hand of one of the fancy lodge tourists as he tosses something at the croc. Something small – a bottle cap – goes flying though the air.
It’s as if a bomb explodes: An enormous upheaval of water and movement and sound engulfs us. The monster crocodile takes off like a projectile and disappears into the water.
He could have landed in the boat. He could have killed one or all of us. We could all have ended up in the river and chewed to death by his friends.
As I sit there, soaking wet, my heart racing, the thought occurs to me that perhaps I should have stayed home in Holland like a good girl. I could at this very moment be eating a cheese sandwich or drinking a cup of tea or shopping for a lipstick and be perfectly safe with no danger of a crocodile coming for me.
Then again, I wouldn’t have this story to tell.
The most dangerous animal we see that day? A stupid tourist.
* * *
What’s lurking in your memory about tourists — the good, the bad and the stupid? Have you ever been close to a dangerous animal?