When my time came, Ben tied the rope around my waist and lowered me towards the water, but halfway down the rope snapped and I went splashing into the water, screaming, “Mayibabooo!”
I said my last prayer as I disappeared beneath the surface of the water. The pain of the impact with the water cut through my whole body like a knife. The water felt ice cold on my skin despite the Limpopo heat. When I came to the surface, the flowing water tossed me about like a leaf, smashing me against a concrete pillar that supported part of the bridge. The pillar stopped me from being swept further down the river.
My weight pulled me down under the water, but I resurfaced again, gasping for air. It was like someone was holding my nostrils tight because I had to hold my breath under the water. Despite the deafening sound of the Limpopo River, I heard a voice shouting,
“Oh my God. Oh My God the British woman has fallen into the river.”
Each time I got above the water, I splattered franticly in an effort to stay afloat as if my body had suddenly doubled in weight. I could swim but I did not want to leave the sanctuary of the pillar that had turned God to me. I feared that I would be easily swept down the stream by the powerful water like a feather. I panicked and went under the water but as I struggled to the surface again; suddenly something got hold of my left leg with a crushing pain and pulled me back under. I clutched at anything: water, air and nothing as I was dragged down under.
“Oh God! Mama lo! Mayi babo! Something has caught my left leg! Please help me! Please help!” I screamed as the creature hauled me under the water at will, despite trying to stay afloat against its mighty strength. I swallowed some of the water. I was drowning. I came above the water again. I grabbed at the pillar for dear life and refused to go down, but the creature managed to drag me back under the water at its pleasure!
When I resurfaced again, Joe had joined the struggle. He was hitting the creature with a weapon, as its teeth cut deep into my flesh. He went under the water with us and came up to the surface with us too.
“Let go crocodile, let her go animal!” Joe shouted and it was then that it dawned on me that a crocodile had caught me. That sent a chill down my spine. I had never heard or known of anyone who survived the Limpopo River crocodile attack before.
I started saying my last prayers but stopped half way through, because I did not want to die. If I had to die, I would die fighting, not praying. I had said many prayers in my life before, that would uffice, I thought to myself. More action was needed than words. I had to fight in order to survive.
I tried to wriggle out of the crocodile’s grip in vain, but Joe continued to thump it, hitting it repeatedly, shouting and telling it to let go. Someone illuminated me with a torch and I could see a dark stain spreading in the water. Was it my blood? Was I bleeding? Was I dying? There was a tearing pain in my calf, as though the crocodile was trying to chew my leg while it was still attached to my body.
I gasped and screamed at the top of my voice, “Mama lo! Oh God! Nkosiyami! Help me! Please help me! I’m dying! Ngadliwayingwenya ngiphila bo, (the crocodile is eating me alive).” I struggled and screamed, “It’s chewing my leg, please help...!” It dragged me under the water again, but I knew that I had to die fighting.
Fighting my way back to the surface of the water was a struggle, but it had to be done. The crocodile sank its teeth deep into my calf, digging deeper with each blow it took from Joe. The pain was excruciating.
I had read stories of people, who fought and won battles against crocodiles, but they lost limbs - hands and legs were left in the water (and they were not fighting the Limpopo River crocodiles, by the way). Those people talked about attacking the crocodile’s palatal valve, nostrils and eyes. I began searching for its palatal valve feeling all over its rough, hard-skinned and slippery head.
Fight or flight was a luxury that day, as it gave a choice of escaping, but in my situation, it was fight or die. Finally my fingers clutched the soft part of the crocodile’s mouth and I convinced myself that it was the palatal valve? I clawed into the soft tissue with an eagle’s claws, trying to rip it off with my bear fingers, as Joe continued to pound its head, trying to damage its nostrils, I suppose.
It is a known fact that crocodiles do not like their nostrils being messed about; they often let go. I was reassured that Joe was hitting it where it hurts.
I started to feel some numbness in my left leg. The dark stain in the water spread on the surface. The sensation in my left leg was going and I thought that the crocodile had chopped it off and disappeared. I screamed at the top of my voice, “The crocodile has chopped off my leg! It has swallowed my leg! Please help! The crocodile has gone with my leg. Sengiyisilima bo, (I’m now disabled!) Help me please, please, please! I can’t feel my leg! My leg’s gone aaaaaaaaaaaa...”
“Shut up British woman, the crocodile is still holding onto your leg, you haven’t lost it! So shut up!” I have never been slapped and felt good before? That night, Joe’s slap reassured me that I was still in one piece and that he was not about to give up on me either. It brought me back to here and now.
I reached for the crocodile’s jaws again and frantically tried to pull out whatever I could grab in its mouth. Surprisingly, its mouth was like a big empty cave with nothing to hold onto. In response, it nailed its teeth deep into the flesh of my left leg. At some point during the struggle, I felt I got a good grip of something soft - palatal valve, but then I thought that it could have been my imagination. Imagination or not, it did not care; I clawed my fingers into it, but it continued to hold my leg like a vice. I screamed and begged for life until Ben joined the struggle,
“Joe, I’ve a knife! I’ll gore its eyes out! I’ll blind it!” He stabbed at the crocodile’s head in frenzy. “Stay strong British woman, staystrong!” He reassured me. I continued to pull the organs in its mouth and Ben and Joe continued with their blows, until the crocodile finally let go.
The two men lifted me out of the water and put me on the ground away from the river. Crocodiles have been known to follow their victims out of their comfort zone sometimes.
They laid me down flat, but straight away I tried to sit up and check my wounds, but Joe shouted at me, “Lie down British woman. Lie down!” he added, “You have lost too much blood already.” He then turned to Ben, “What happened to the rope?”
“I don’t know! I guess it just snapped,” replied Ben. The rest of the group gathered around me, one man paced up and down, murmuring something under his breath. If that was my prayer, it had obviously been overtaken by events. The other man, just stood there dumfounded, holding his chin and as still as a mummy, as if he suffered from catatonic schizophrenia. The man with a torch continued to light me up as if to make sure that I was in one piece.
The short woman with puppy eyes stood a distance from the rest of the group. She designated herself a role of an onlooker, a non-participant. She was having none of it. It was like I had leprosy and she did not want to catch it.
Joe paced up and down shaking his head like a possessed witchdoctor, saying, “I swear by my mother’s life, that rope can hang all of us from the bridge without breaking! It can hang a thousand elephants. I can’t believe that it broke like a thin piece of string. Like a piece of nothing! No, it can’t just snap like that.”
My perception of border escorts had always been negative. I saw them as conmen, robbers, school dropouts, waste of space, money grabbers, but in a flash, that view changed that day. They became my personal saviours. They acted like the masters of a passenger ship, only disembarking from the sinking vessel when no one else remained on board. That night they could have ignored my pleas and taken care of the rest of the group. As if following the teaching from the Bible, they left the rest of their flock unattended, just to save my life. They could have ignored me and reassured themselves and the group that no one would have been able to rescue me and then continued with their journey as if nothing had happened. When a crocodile eats one, it gobbles up all the evidence, leaving no DNA, nothing to turn their lives upside down at some point in the future. They could have drowned in the process of saving my life, but they chose to exhibit the best of human nature.
A story is told of an experiment carried out on a baboon, with an infant, to compare human and animal protective instincts to their offspring. The baboon’s feet were tied down onto an empty deep swimming pool floor, to stop it from escaping as the water level rose. The pool was gradually filled with water. As the level of the water rose to the baboon’s chest, the baboon put its young one on its shoulders. When the water level reached its shoulders, the baboon put its infant over its head. And when the water reached its head and the risk of drowning was no longer an imagination but reality, the animal nature of the baboon came to the fore. It put its young one beneath its feet and stood on it to avoid drowning. But Joe and Ben showed that human beings were different from their cousins.
Out of the blue, the short woman with puppy eyes, who continued to stand furthest from the group, shouted, “Please let’s go, the kombi will not wait for us forever!” She stood there, akimbo, uninterested in what had happened to me. I wondered if she was jealous of the attention I was getting. We all ignored her. She was obviously missing an organ that would separate her from a baboon.
Her body was so small that I was convinced it could not accommodate a heart.
As I continued to bleed, Joe took off his shirt and wrapped it around the wounds on my left leg, which was beginning to swell at a rate that was starting to alarm me. I feared that I might not be able to walk to Musina and I privately wondered what could happen to me?
Would the good men continue to delay the rest of the group to save one person? I convinced myself that would not leave me behind to die.
Eventually, Joe allowed me to sit up with my legs stretched. His shirt was soaking red with my blood. I felt a bit cold and took my jeans jacket from my handbag, which had my purse with my British passport, zipped in its inner jacket pocket, and put it on.
Fortunately, I had left my handbag on the bridge for Ben to bring it down, as I could not multi-task the rope and my handbag. I trembled with both shock and cold. When I attempted to stand up, a sharp pain pierced my heart. I felt dizzy, collapsed to the floor and passed out.
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