Croc ahead! Our front boatman named C-Company signaled by pointing to the left riverbank – and a few of the paddlers up front noticed a long, black form slither quickly into the Okavango River. We immediately formed a single tight row of yellow kayaks behind our guide and sped past the beast’s entry site. This was not a place to chatter or piddle-paddle along, but a place to overcome in a silent and anxious group effort. You just never know. This time, we passed without any encounter.
Our group of eight Westerners had just set off on the first Natural Habitat Expeditions Trans-Okavango exploratory trip – paddling 120 kilometers across the huge Okavango Delta in Botswana. This was to be a journey from the panhandle in the northwest of the country into the lower delta, where the river finally peters out into the sands of the mighty Kalahari Desert. The Okavango Delta is called the Seventh Natural Wonder of the World due to the abundance and variety of its wildlife and pristine habitat.
Our local kayaking guide, John Sandenbergh, was a 52-year-old kind and soft-spoken Botswana native and Africa expedition veteran extraordinaire. He was the first leader of a small group to transect the Okavango Delta all the way to the Victoria Falls on the Zambian border – an arduous journey of almost 640 kilometers. John was certainly a fellow with plenty of African water under his keel and an innate passion for exploration.“A bit of croc hassle” John mentioned, as he was going through the pre-trip equipment talk at put-in, casually pointing to the aft of one of our kayaks. We noticed an inch-deep hole in the boat from the incisor of a crocodile that had attacked from behind.
“Just a small nibble – it leaks some, but we can fix it easily.” John also explained that he had removed the deck bungee cords and rudders – less material for any teeth to grab on to, and less of a chance to be dragged down. Well, well – good to know!
From the perspective of a croc kayak attack, John had definitely had his share of personal experience. In 2011, he and two friends were doing a private trans-Okavango trip. Out of the blue one morning, near the village of Xugana, a mid-sized crocodile bore down from a perpendicular angle on the two front paddlers. John’s friend succeeded in turning his boat into the line of attack and the determined reptile dove under both boats and was able to strike John from the other side with open jaws.
Instinctively, John jammed his paddle into the open mouth of the croc to avoid tipping over. Not surprisingly, the paddle snapped in two under the strain, and the kayak flipped. John’s first reaction was not to exit the boat, and in utter desperation he kicked out the front bulkhead wall and was able to slide into the protective kayak shell. He was able to breathe in the air pocket of the overturned kayak and waited in sheer terror for the final reptilian strike. Something knocked on the hull and he thought it was all over. But by pure luck a motorboat carrying a late-season honeymoon couple had just rounded a corner in the river and scared the crocodile away. John was overturned and saved by helping hands, and it was only later that same day when the shock had subsided that he discovered he had broken two ribs from the impact of the attack. John returned to kayaking the Okavango – though alas, he admitted that he started smoking again shortly after the incident.
Crocodile attacks on the Okavango are not common, but they do happen. When I asked a villager what the locals do in order avoid encounters when they journey out on the delta in their traditional dugout canoes called mokoros, he answered, “We stay in the shallows among the reeds and avoid the deeper channels!” Too bad, because our group had to stay in the channels to cover the necessary distances in a timely manner using the swift winter currents of the river.
Crocs in the delta have been known to cause trouble even out of the water. A couple of years ago near the village of Shakawe, a mother and her two kids aged 6 and 14 decided to take a knee-deep dip in the water. They were warned by the villagers not to wake up the local crocodile. The mother walked out a bit farther from the bank to sit down, and the monster hit her midriff, jaws wide open. Her kids watched in shock as her body was flipped up high into the air and subsequently dragged away and twirled around violently in a vice grip. She and the Nile crocodile were never to be seen again.
So, with boats rigged for croc attacks and stories like that embedded in our consciousness, we made a plan. We assumed that at the time of our journey during the Botswana winter, the temperature of the water would be at its lowest. Hopefully it would be chilly enough to keep a cold-blooded reptile less active. And with regard to water logistics, we decided to keep a tight paddling formation between two motorboats, one in the front and one aft. In case of a crocodile or hippo sighting, the idea would be to quickly group up, increase our pace, and trust that the whine of the propellers underwater would deter the animals from getting too close.
The game plan worked this time – we were never accosted at any of the many croc or hippo waypoints on John’s GPS track – or when we came across crocs sliding into the river. But on the second-to-last day we were soberly reminded of what we could have been facing. We were all back in the large aluminum motorboat, and when we rounded a bend in the river, we saw an enormous crocodile diving into the water in front of us. We passed the spot, and when we went back to try to view the crocodile again, we suddenly saw it lying motionless close to the reeds on the bottom of the left riverbank. He was a monster at least 12 feet long with a head wider than the breadth of our kayaks, and the white teeth of his closed jaws displaying an ironic smile. We nicknamed him Maximus – but we could afford to be cavalier in the safety of the larger boat. Perhaps it would be have been okay to paddle swiftly over him in our tippy plastic kayaks.
But you just never know…
In light of the threat posed by crocodiles to kayakers in the Okavango Delta, Natural Habitat Expeditions has opted not to offer this Exploratory Trip in the future. Check out our other Botswana expeditions on our African Safaris page.