Five friends went on a fishing trip down the Zambesi. Their terrifying story was dramatised recently on a UK Channel 4 program.
Arthur Taylor and Alistair Gellatly, two experienced Safari guides, planned the trip. They did not anticipate trouble.
Fay Taylor, Arthur’s English wife, and her parents Clive and Brenda Kelly went with them. Brenda was not keen to go but finally agreed as it was the last day of their visit to Zambia.
It nearly became the last day of their lives.
The Zambesi is an awe inspiring river. It has amazing bird life and a great diversity of animal life including hippos and huge crocodiles.
The atmosphere was very relaxed as they floated down river. Fay commented: “We passed so many schools of hippos and they were all lazing about. They looked so peaceful and placid.”
Brenda caught a fish. The group were planning to go to a shady spot to celebrate when the boat was hit by a hippo. All five went overboard and the boat was overturned.
Fay commented: “My subconscious was saying: ‘This is it; this is the end.'”
They had to face the fact that they were in the water of one of the most crocodile infested rivers in the world.
Fay was frightened: “To think about my bare dangly legs – it sent a chill through me to think that at any moment now one of us could be taken by a crocodile.”
Clive and Alistair clung on to the boat as the others were swept away by the current.
Arthur managed to grab Fay and Brenda as they struggled to keep their heads above water. Luckily, the current took them towards the middle of the river where there was a submerged island.
They reached a spot where they could stand with the water up to their knees. However, there was still a good chance of being eaten.
Alistair decided to swim for help and was swept three or four hundred metres down river. He swam into an inlet and his feet touched ground. He stood up and saw a crocodile in the water looking at him from about twenty yards away. It then submerged ominously.
Alistair described his thoughts:
“I didn’t quite know what to do. I decided to go for the croc and maybe chase it. I went under the water to see where the croc was. As I started to go for the croc, it came for me.
“It was going for my legs. I pushed it away with my left hand. It disappeared for a bit and then it latched straight on to my right arm. It was trying to really tear my arm off. I was getting pretty weak.
“I thought it was over but I had one last idea and reached into its mouth with my left arm to reach the flap that keeps water out of its throat. The second I reached in with my left hand it let go.”
The savage attack broke Alistair’s arm in three places and his shoulder joint was ripped from its socket: “I was very weak; I had lost a lot of blood.”
He made a tourniquet to save what was left.
Fay heard him shouting “Oh My God! Oh My God!” and thought he was just exhausted and relieved that he had got to the other side. He then yelled that he had been bitten by a croc.
Arthur said: “We weren’t sure whether he could survive for an hour let alone a day.”
Arthur decided that he, too, must go for help. He set out for the Zimbabwe side of the river. Fay told him that he would not help Alistair if he got himself eaten.
He realised that there were too many crocs on the bank and decided to return.
Meanwhile, Alistair moved away from the river to avoid another attack from the crocodile. He sat down under a tree. The slightest movement was agony.
Clive was still stranded in the middle of the river on the boat which was now beginning to sink. Fay saw the danger:
“My dad had no choice but to swim. If the boat went down in the night he would not have stood a chance.”
He was a poor swimmer and had to fight the current. Fay was terrified that a croc would take him before he reached her. To their enormous relief, he reached the sandbank safely.
Alistair, on shore, was threatened by gangrene. His wound was full of bacteria from the crocodile’s teeth. A friend of his lost his leg after being chewed by a lion even though he reached hospital within eight hours. If the gangrene didn’t get Alistair, the predators would.
Back in the river, any hope of being found before sunset was remote. Arthur thought about swimming towards the Zambian side to see how Alistair was but Fay stopped him:
“I knew I could not bear him to go and that I would not survive without him.”
Eventually, the group decided to head as a whole for the Zambian shore. However, Fay could not follow through with the plan. Now, they faced the prospect of a terrifying night on their submerged island with no hope of rescue.
They just stood shouting “Alistair!” until the sun went down and the hyenas started calling. After that, if he had called back, he would have attracted nearby predators.
Night is the most dangerous time in the African bush and leopards, lions and hyenas can smell the scent of blood from miles away.
Arthur gathered some stones to throw at any predators. I was once out at night in Zakuru, in Kenya, and noticed a pack of dogs not far from me. Like Alistair, I picked up some stones to throw at them if they came after me.
Unlike him I was able to walk fast and get back to a lodging house. I spent the night on the porch with a guard armed with a huge knife on the other side of the porch from me. At least, I could lie down and get some sleep.
Fay described conditions in the river:
“When it got dark the wind picked up and it really got cold. I was absolutely freezing and my teeth were chattering and I just couldn’t get warm.”
“It was extremely cold. You are in extreme danger because there is a good chance a crocodile will come and get you in the night.”
They got in a ring and huddled together. They tried to keep a lookout on all sides.
Fay described their thoughts: “We were straining to see into the water and all the time you are thinking about crocodiles – huge snapping jaws and gaping mouths – it was just a terrifying thought.”
Clumps of floating vegetation looked like crocs. They hit one clump with the paddle until they realised it was just leaves and branches.
Back on shore, Alistair was worried that he had left a blood trail that would attract lions and hyenas. He heard grazing and looked up and saw a buffalo:
“It looked right at me. Buffaloes can be really dangerous and have killed a lot of people. For some reason it came and lay down about ten yards away. I just can’t believe it happened. It was like a little sentry lying there – a big sentry.”
In the river, Fay thought about the reality of the situation:
“The darkness all around us made you realize just how vulnerable you were in that great vastness. You were nothing. Things were just out of your control.”
Arthur, too, realized how vulnerable they were:
“We knew we might not make it till the morning. Fay was worried that she might never see her kids again.”
They heard a crocodile slapping its tail in the water as it came nearer. They could clearly see the jagged edge of its tail. Big panic!
Arthur hit the water with the paddle and the croc veered off into the main stream. They were on tenterhooks after that in case another came by.
Alistair, on shore, knew he should keep awake but could not. He might slip into unconsciousness and be dead by morning. He just could not keep awake.
Back on the submerged island, everyone was suffering. Arthur described their condition:
“Standing for such a long time, you get really tired. Our backs were aching and we were freezing cold.”
Arthur wanted to sit down in the water which was warmer than the air above it.
Fay said: “You can’t sit down because you will get wet and then cold and get hypothermia. We’ve just got to get through this. We have two children to think about and they need us.
“When daylight came, it was a relief because we had made it through the night but we were worried that Alistair had bled to death. Physically and mentally we were just exhausted. “
After almost twenty hours stranded in the water the group were desperate. They were thinking it was another day and somebody had got to come past.
They saw what looked like a white boat but it was just white birds flying towards them. Their hopes were shattered.
Fay commented: “We just felt helpless – completely helpless.”
Meanwhile Alistair was woken from his sleep by safari ants gnawing viciously at his wounds:
“It was pain like needles all over the place especially on my arm. I realised there were ants biting me.”
Their bites triggered a surge of adrenalin which snapped him out of his unconsciousness and probably saved his life. Alistair forced himself to hobble on. It was not twenty four hours since the crocodile attack.
He thought he heard the sound of a boat and staggered down to the river but could not see anyone. He fell asleep on the bank despite the threat of crocodiles. On the ‘island’ the others were beginning to lose hope.
When Alistair woke he saw a couple and a boat parked on the other side of the river. He was unable to shout and they moved away.
On the river his friends could do nothing but await their fate but suddenly Brenda spotted two canoes. Incredibly some canoeists had ventured this far down the river. Fay and the others were overjoyed.
“They had seen us and thought: ‘What strange people fishing in the middle of the river.’ I can’t tell you how we felt. It was just a sense of relief. We were going to be alright. It was also still worry for Alistair.”
Later the couple with the boat came back and spotted Alistair on the bank. They took him to safety where he was reunited with the others. He lived on and even his arm was saved in hospital.
All five survived. Arthur and Alistair still go fishing on the same stretch of river. Clive and Brenda still visit Africa regularly but won’t go fishing any morel Fay spends most of her weekends in the bush but she rarely goes out on the river:
“I always feel anxious when I get in a boat even after all these years. It was just such a terrible experience but we all survived – all five of us.”
Several success and survival lessons emerge from their story.
Keep clear of lonely and dangerous areas whether on a river or in the city.
Keep aware of everything that is going on around you.
Walk or swim to the safest areas available.
Don’t give up when a crocodile or some other equivalent ‘monster’ grabs you! Keep fighting while you still can. “Do not go gentle into that good night!”
There is safety in numbers! Watch each other’s backs!
Stay alert and aware all night if necessary.
Appreciate being able to have a good night’s sleep whenever you want.
Sometimes waiting for help can be wiser than risky attempts to help yourself.
Perhaps the key lesson is to appreciate just how easy and pleasant our lives are. We can lie down in a comfortable, warm bed whenever we want without worrying about a crocodile coming to eat us!
Success and greater rewards often follow appreciation and gratitude for what we already possess.
I will try to remember the story of crocodile island every day and night so that I can daily enjoy the fact that I am not stuck in the middle of a river with killer crocs all around me!