Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Diving with the Crocodiles... Reptile Angel

I have just returned from the most amazing place on earth… The Okavango Delta in Botswana. I headed to the Delta for a real bush adventure, with my dear and most incredibly adventurous friends Gail and Mark Addison. The goal? To dive with the infamous crocodiles of the delta, yes, free of any cages. I know what you are thinking… Shark Girl is now truly insane. Maybe I even thought that a bit, before heading on the trip. But, I have always been obsessed with the Delta – and crocodiles. Let’s be honest, they scare the crap out of me. So, I thought what better way to conquer that fear?

I became one of the first people to do just that. I met a group heading to Botswana from Johannesburg. An incredible group of Brits with a Scot mixed in for good measure. We drove from Johannesburg to Maun, Botswana, and then jumped on boats for the rest of our trek. The boat ride was gorgeous as we whisked through a snaking river flanked by tall reeds and grasses and often, elephants, hippos, impalas and countless birds awaiting us around a bend. Eight hours later, with our camping and dive gear in tow, we arrived at a little island that we would call home for the next week.

Sodwana certainly was a step in the right direction, but nothing could have truly prepared me for the way we were about to spend the week. After leaving all my electronics behind (quite hesitantly I might add – I have not left my cell phone or computer behind in the last 12 years), I discovered that we were truly old-school camping. I had a tent doled out to me, a small lantern, and a bed roll and was told to make my home. The toilet was a hole in the back of the camp with a seat placed precariously over it, and our water came from the frigid river. My eyes were wide when I began imagining the bugs that I was about to come in contact with – not to mention the animals. Turns out, as the flood waters raise the water levels, the animals become “trapped” on their islands. Our island had hippos in our backyard, elephants, lions, hyenas, and buffalo – not to mention crocs.

Now I have been on safari before, but typically, there is quite a bit separating you from the wildlife. Not here – and not on an adventure with the Addisons! Hippos walked past our tents at night, hyenas sat in our camp, and elephants meandered by. The first night was torture, me in my little tent by myself whimpering and shaking with every noise. I was convinced a lion was outside waiting to rip me to shreds… or a hippo preparing to charge… or a hungry hyena with ten of his friends… How could this possibly be safe?!?! There were roars of three different lion prides that night, deep bellows of angry hippos pissed that we were sleeping in their grazing areas, and the sounds of elephants splashing about, calling to each other so closely, I thought they were actually in my tent. I was amazed and horrified all at once! I learned to love the sounds of the bush after that, but it definitely took a bit of getting used to.

Diving the Okavango Delta was something I may never forget – or be able to describe. The flood waters were rising by the minute, so we were able to explore beautiful underwater cathedrals woven of reeds of every shape and size, fanning papyrus, water lilies and about 100 other species of beautiful underwater plants and grasses. Stripped, dotted and mottle fish of every shape and size darted through the reeds, which were sometimes a kilometer or two thick. The water was crystal clear and shallow enough that the red plants glistened brightly and vibrantly, offset by the beautiful, fine white sand, silver fish and green grasses. Even though it was frigid, we spent hours free-diving, completely captivated with the thought we were exploring a place so few people would dare to venture – and one that was truly a natural work of art.

Although we tried hard to find the crocodiles underwater, they were masters at camouflage. So, while I dove in waters full of ten to sixteen foot crocodiles, I never saw a single one underwater - but I knew they were there as they slunk into the water right before I got in. I did however, see something underwater that would make most Africans’ hearts stop. Hippos. We unintentionally dove so closely to them that we actually bumped into one, giving him quite a fright. Now, while hippos seem like huge cows, they are actually responsible for more deaths than crocodiles and sharks combined. They can be extremely territorial, unpredictable and vicious. So, the last thing we wanted to meet underwater was the animal we met on countless occasions.

At one point, I came to the surface to get my bearings – having recently lost the entire group by accidentally diverting down a narrow hippo path that opened into a huge hippo pool, determined to not make that mistake again – to find a boat full of tourists eagerly snapping my picture, amazed at the crazy girl diving in what are perceived as some of the most dangerous waters in the world. Most certainly I made at least five different trip albums, imagining the tales they would tell their friends about the horned creature that was defying all logic and reason!

I did, however, have quite a fright when I woke up one day with my thigh throbbing. My lymph node was completely swollen. Turns out I had a rotting wound on the back of my heel, blood poisoning, and tick bite fever from Sodwana (I KNEW IT PAUL!). I received a good dose of bush medicine as the wound was cleaned and the flesh removed with a huge thorn from an Acacia tree while Gail (who I am so lucky to call my friend, especially now) held me down writhing in pain. Thank goodness someone had a strong dose of Cipro for me. I had wondered why I had splitting headaches and a fever for three days prior… but, that certainly didn’t keep me from diving.

Our time out of the water was just as magical. We would spend hours gliding through many different areas of the river, each with its own distinctive and equally beautiful vegetation. And, even better, we would stop at islands and hike, only feet away from the animals. Mother elephants and babies, giraffes, impalas, bush buck, hippos, buffalo, wart hogs, baboons… the list goes on and on. On foot, without any sort of protection other than our incredible guide, Eron, a river bushman who carried a spear that I was desperate for since my arrival at Maun, we were able to experience the true Africa only feet away – something I will always treasure. One day, we hiked with elephants, the next, we watched an impala leap for what seemed like hours through water deeper than his body in an incredible spectacle. Another day I was inches from a giraffe, another day was surrounded by a pack of warthogs, one of whom I had quite a tender moment with which involved kisses, and our final thrill? Tracking a pride of lions into a swampy marsh only to have the impressive and beautiful hungry, horny male lion charge us – an image burned into my mind forever. One minute he was roaring at us from 150 feet away, the next he was racing towards us only stopping at twenty feet with me in front, as I was capturing all the topside video this trip. A few lessons learned: never run when a lion charges even though it scares you to the bone. But if a hippo or elephant start charging, run like hell.

I began loving eating under the stars, falling asleep to the hippos calling to one another (probably strategizing how they would all surround my tent later and crush me to death), using the “bathroom” knowing an elephant was splashing feet away, and waking up to the screaming fish eagles. Oh, and being dirty. Yes, it was great to take some time away from washing, caring about the way I looked, using pesky hair dryers and makeup, or even looking in the mirror a single time for an entire week!

I am and will forever be Bush Barbie now. (See more pictures...)


OJ said...

Julie the croc and hippo blog is awesome! Loved reading about your and Gail's adventures in the bush... Really have to try to get my mind around the crocs to hopefully join you one day :-) Had a good chuckle at the thought of you featuring in folk's holiday albums.

Rupert said...

Crazy, crazy and crazy!!! So sharks first then in february, then you, Paul, the angels and I are heading back to find the elusive crocs of the Okavango!

Wolfgang said...

Gotta be careful - crocs DO bite occasionally.... :-)