Close calls – part 6
Hannes Wessels tells the remarkable story of the late Alistair Gellatly, a Zambian professional hunter who, against all odds, survived both a hippo and a crocodile attack on the Zambezi River.
It was a magnificent Easter Sunday morning on the Zambezi River. Canoe guide Phil Longden led his party of German tourists into a channel off the main river which separates Zambia and Zimbabwe in southern Africa. Their trip had been a happy one and the spectacles they had come in search of had filled their cameras. The vista ahead promised more of the same; waterbuck and impala grazed quietly on the green riverine grasses while brilliant white egrets danced at the feet of Cape buffalo as their hooves unearthed a well-stocked larder of insects. Unmistakable brown blobs rippled the calm water downriver as hippos grunted and chortled. On the sandbanks, crocodiles basked in the sun, languid but alert.
The guide was tall, dark and handsome with the physique of an Olympian. He was not new to these waters and the Zambezi ran in his veins. With time to relax, he called the little flotilla together and organised a ‘leg-over’ whereby the canoes were held together by their occupants who placed their feet in the adjoining boats. They relaxed and let the current take them slowly downriver while savouring the scene.
Suddenly, tranquility was shattered when an unseen hippo burst out of the reeds adjacent to them and crashed into the water. The guide barked the order to disengage and pushed a canoe away from him, but as he retrieved his foot, great gaping jaws burst out of the water below him and snapped closed on his leg. He struck out at the attacker with his paddle but was pulled into the water and dragged down while the hippo tore at his leg. Clients screamed and whipped the water with their paddles as Phil surfaced and was hoisted quickly aboard and taken to shore. What was left of a fine limb was a bloody, lacerated mess. The lower leg remained connected, but only tenuously. Then it was quiet again and he watched as his blue paddle drifted away downstream.
After unsuccessfully seeking help on the south side of the river, the shaken party returned to Zambia where they were discovered after dark and taken to a camp from which a casualty evacuation could be arranged, but that night gangrene set in. When the surgeons went to work, they amputated the leg below the knee. It would be a long road to recovery.
Forty eight hours later and over a hundred miles downstream, a fishing party consisting of Alistair Gellatly, Arthur and Fay Taylor, and Clive and Brenda Kelly, were aboard their power-boat in the middle of the river. Similarly unaware of the danger lurking below them, they were stunned when a hippo suddenly pounded into their boat. All six of them were sent crashing into a corner creating a weight imbalance and setting the vessel at an angle. A second thump against the hull followed, causing the boat to capsize, and the occupants were dumped in the water.
Arthur and Fay grabbed hold of Brenda who could not swim and helped her to the nearest sandbar. Alistair and Clive had managed to grab the trailing rope from the boat and managed to clamber on top of the upturned hull.
Summing up the options, Alistair decided that the best way to get help would be to swim to the bank and run to a nearby fishing camp some 5km away. Into the water he plunged, successfully making it to the bank some 100m away. But while he was looking for some even ground on which to climb out, he saw a Nile crocodile swimming towards him. Believing attack to be the best defense, he swam straight towards it, but it suddenly submerged and disappeared. Alistair followed and dived. He was hit three times before he felt teeth sink in and his forearm was firmly clamped in the reptile’s mouth.
The fight for his life had begun in earnest. Thrashing and turning, the crocodile dragged him down into the depths, and he was amazed at the power of it. Battling back, Alistair managed to pull the croc towards him and get his legs around it in a ‘scissors grip’ whilst attempting to gouge its eyes out with his thumbs as it rolled repeatedly under the water. While bringing no relief, this effort seemed to cause him more pain, and he eventually managed to force his left hand down the crocodile’s throat, thereby opening a valve which prevents water from entering the crocodile’s lungs. This worked and it let go after what seemed like an eternity. Alistair, with his lungs bursting, made it to the surface.
Broken, breathless and in pain, he braced himself for another attack whilst searching for a likely exit point. Spotting a suitable spot, he swam and waded as fast as he could, hauled himself from the water and staggered to relative safety where he collapsed. His right arm was severely mutilated, the elbow was dislocated and several bones were broken. Blood pumped from the lacerations, so he moved to a shallow part of the river and washed his wounds before binding and bandaging his arm with strips from his shirt. He then tried to make himself comfortable as he waited for help.
The afternoon passed by, the sun set and no rescue came.
The rest of the party, meanwhile, remained abandoned on the sandbar which was now a foot underwater. Arthur, being a seasoned hunter and outdoorsman, knew only too well that darkness would bring increased danger of attacks as the crocodiles would become emboldened, but he kept his thoughts to himself. At dusk, desperate for a weapon of sorts to use to defend himself and the rest of the party with, he saw something blue floating towards them and watched it closely.
Serendipity had struck; it was Phillip Longden’s paddle, and Arthur waded out to grab it with alacrity.
Alistair, meanwhile, had made a basic bed of leaves among a pile of rocks, and gathered together a bunch of stones with which to defend himself, realising that lions or hyenas may happen upon the scene during the night. Then his day darkened when a bull Cape buffalo approached him at close quarters. He expected the worst but relief followed when the animal stared at him, noted his presence and proceeded to graze quietly close by.
As the light faded, Alistair looked on in amazement as the big bull came in closer to where he lay but clearly bereft of any hostile intent. Then, astonishingly, the old bull lay down within spitting distance and seemed to be assuming the role of protector. Lions roared and hyenas, following his blood-trail, circled close throughout the night, but the buffalo remained at his post bringing comfort to the wounded fisherman who slept fitfully as he fought off attacks by an army of red ants that came at him repeatedly.
For the marooned foursome, it was a night of terror as Arthur flailed the water through the hours of darkness to keep the crocodiles at bay. Despite his best efforts, some pressed home their assaults and had to be beaten off on land by hard blows to the head. All night, the group watched reptilian eyes circling in the moonlight, knowing that death would surely follow if Arthur relented for any reason. Fortunately, Arthur’s strength and fortitude prevailed and they survived to see the dawn.
On land, Alistair watched the scarred old bull rise with the sun, look at him as if to bid farewell and amble off into the trees. Feeling a little stronger, he fashioned a sling for his arm and started walking to the camp to his east. Six hours later, he spotted some Zimbabwean fishermen on the water. Too weak to shout for help he could only sit and wave until he caught their eye. Initially, they waved back but then realised something was amiss and came to investigate. Seeing his wounds they immediately boated him to their camp and then went off to collect the others from the sandbank.
First aid was administered and air rescue services were called in. However, the first plane failed to start again after it had landed, and only that evening did another aircraft arrive which then flew Alistair to Harare where he was operated on. Surgery and skin grafts followed which saved his arm, albeit with reduced flexibility, and in due course a full recovery was made.