THE SNAP SHOT
22nd February 1991, South Africa
The dermatologist at Johannesburg Hospital shook his head slowly from side to side, whistling through his teeth. He raised the dressings and examined the welts and burns that wove their way up and around Albie’s legs and groin like melted candle wax. Albie winced as the nurse checked the intravenous drip on his arm. His grimace detracted briefly from the rictus downturn of his mouth, his sole, immovable expression. The shadows under his eyes contrasted with the fright-induced pallor of his skin, giving him the visual persona of a glum clown. So deep was Albie’s misery that the pillow beneath his scarecrow hair was soaked from the steady trickle of tears from his dull, staring eyes.
“You are a very lucky man indeed, Mr Van Rijn, but you also know how foolish you have been, don’t you, eh? You will survive this, but your skin will never recover. We’ll have to do skin grafts onto your legs and you’ll have permanent scaring on your lower body. Another hour and you would have dissolved. Literally, man. Did you know that of all the creatures roaming this planet, none has more concentrated levels of hydrochloric acid in its stomach than the crocodile?”
His disdain was absolute, compounding Albie’s feelings of turpitude and regret. Snatching at the yellow curtain surrounding Albie’s bed, the doctor left him to wallow in his self-pity and consider his invalided future. Like the husk of his once smooth-skinned body, Albie’s dreams lay in tatters. They would have to be addressed on another day. For now, the twenty-two year old was inert, subsumed with melancholy, watching the ceiling fan rotate methodically. He tuned out from the relentless shouting and clatter of the ward with its cloying stench of disinfectant and lay, hypnotised by the opaque flutter cast against the fly-filled strip lighting.
In this sterile environment, his thoughts turned to Kurt and Fenyang, the safari guide and driver whose quick-thinking and strength had heaved him from the shadow of death. He resolved to track them down and thank them personally for saving his life, one day. One day if he was ever discharged. One day if he had the courage to face the world and unburden himself from his shame. The thought of his release from hospital forced a choking gasp through his misshapen mouth, and retriggered the well of tears. Prone and still, he stared up at the whirring fan, replaying in his mind the tragi-comedic events that had conspired to leave him scarred for life and turn him into a short-lived tabloid celebrity.
* * *
I am camping alone in the Krugersdorp reserve. My tent is staked on a rocky outcrop above the bushveldt and a narrow lake – a safe vantage point from which to photograph wildlife and to take in the pungent smells and the cacophony of sounds during my self-imposed naturalist exile in the wild. I relish this solitude, the richness of the landscape, communing with nature and perfecting the art of bushcraft, far removed from my artificial urban existence.
I am rested, but I haven’t slept a wink all night. In the darkness, the bush came to life and my solitude only sought to enhance the noises surrounding me – the thudding of big feet, growls, snorts, cackles and splashes from the lake below. Above, the stars were bright and abundant in the black of night, like a spill of Kimberly diamonds on soot. Smells too, were accentuated – an earthiness mixed with musk, dung, blossom and putrefying mud. I was electrified by the excitement of my vulnerability with just the dying embers of a camp-fire, a personal alarm and a horse pistol for protection.
At sunrise, I sit mesmerised by the wildlife which has congregated at the water’s edge, as the vapour rises off the water in the coolness of the dawn. Wattled cranes are joined by hadeda ibises and black collared barbets. Grey loeries sweep in for a quick drink and I espy hornbills, hoopoes and a lilac-breasted roller. A lone Burchell’s coucal scratches around a tree, before scarpering to make way for an elephant and her calf. I see a leopard, camouflaged against the shoreline, slinking back into the veldt. The colours are strong and sharp. I perch on my rock, peering through binoculars, swapping them for my camera, consulting notebooks. I am in heaven.
It’s midday. The sun is high and scorching. It’s time to relight the fire, brew more Rooibos and flex my stiffening legs. I scramble down to the water’s edge to refill my billycan, simultaneously rotating and walking, ears and eyes straining to check for signs of danger. In my laceless tennis shoes, I squelch across the heavily imprinted shore and scoop up my plastic container with cloudy water, noticing that, at present, no other animals or birds are foraging on this side of the lake. As I turn back towards the rocky outcrop, I sense a shift in the nature of the lakeside. Nothing moves, nothing changes. It is simply an anticipation or a prelude to … something.
My scalp prickles with fear and I ease the pistol from its holster. I stand stock still, nostrils flaring, my heart thumping like a djembe drum.
I don’t have to wait long. In an instant the mud appears to erupt as half a tonne of nile crocodile lunges from the silt at the water’s edge and zig-zags towards me with great alacrity from just thirty feet away.
In my heightened state of alertness my reflexes are lightening quick. I line up the pistol, my arms outstretched and pull the trigger. A single bullet is despatched straight between the eyes of the reptile. It’s legs give way and the dirt brown, archosaur slews into the mud at my feet. A thousand birds scatter into the haze at the sound of the gunshot, as it reverberates into the bush. I stand there panting, shaking and still holding the handle of the water container in my other hand. A trail of tepid mud drips onto my eyelashes and lips from the splatter created when this colossus crashed.
In the palpability of relief, I sit down on the crocodile’s back and laugh. I have averted death and pitched myself against one of the most lethal creatures in Africa. And I have won. Little Albie van Rijn from Rivonia. I have slain Goliath. I am fucking Crocodile Dundee! I throw my head back and hoot - a real belly-aching hyena laugh, until tears cascade down my aching cheeks.
In the half hour that follows, once I have regained my composure, I busy myself examining and handling the dead beast. I estimate this bull crocodylus niloticus to be the combined length of three men and as heavy as a horse. Still chuckling, I feel its rough, plastic-like scales and knobs on its neck and tail and the creamy-green mosaic of its underbelly as I scrape away the drying mud. Its large sharp claws are as black as polished jet and its third eyelids have closed over vacant, staring slit pupils. I ease up the croc’s grinning mouth to reveal and touch its razored teeth. Two have cracked open like eggs to reveal new teeth emerging beneath through its pale gums. Lake water spills out of its jaws onto the ooze. A pair of vultures circle in readiness high above.
But I am the only person for miles around who has witnessed the vanquishing of this monster. I have to record my conquest for posterity, like the shark-hunters who hoist man-eating catches onto the quay and pose for the local newspaper next to gaping jaws. Chortling with excitement, I insert my last roll of film into my Nikon.
I photograph the crocodile from every angle. Click. A close-ups of its eyes. Click. It’s protruding teeth. Check the focus, watch the light, mind the glare of the sun. Click. I place the camera on the end of its nose and photograph its head down the length of its snout, the bullet hole resembling a Cyclops’ eye. Click. I take shots of its claws and its feet. Click, click, click.
I step back a few paces to photograph the crocodile in its entirety, when with shock, I realise I have just two pictures left on the film. What about me? I am the conqueror. I want to be in the picture too, or no one will ever believe Albie van Rijn’s incredible conquest.
I spot a thick, sturdy stick, and formulate in my mind the perfect trophy picture. I straddle the creature’s neck and with enormous effort, pull its deadweight top jaw up, digging my fingers into its nostrils, like a bowling ball. I use the stick to prop open the croc’s jaws.
Then, rather clumsily and still sniggering to myself, I rig up the camera on a one minute self-timer selection and place it on my rucksack about fifteen feet in front of the crocodile. I check the focus and adjust its position one more time before sprinting back to crouch beamingly next to my new friend. I smile for the camera. Click. Just one more shot left.
I peer into the crocodile’s mouth which reveals a neutral shaded aperture about the size of a garbage can. These gaping jaws fringed with teeth will make a wonderful close up. It would be even better if I could be in the picture too. If I squeeze, I could slide in through its jaws, leaving just my head sticking out. Now that would be a picture!
A thorny acacia bush is the receptacle for my t-shirt and hat as I strip down to my briefs. I must retain my pistol, just in case, and my canvas shorts will have a role to play in my cameo. I sprint back to the camera and switch on the timer. The countdown is on but I must be quick. I mustn’t screw this up. Using my shorts as a mat, I place them on the croc’s lower teeth. Pistol in one hand I squeeze my slight frame into the reptile’s gaping mouth, around the stick, pushing my legs down inside its cold, slimy gullet. This feels weird. Shit, it’s tight! Avoiding the knife-like stalactite rows of teeth on the upper jaw, I giggle as my limbs descend. Air farts its way out of the croc’s throat and water spurts around me as I force my body deep into his. From my waist downwards, I wedge myself into the gut of this prehistoric creature. It’s so cold! I raise my lower arm in a kind of salute, obscuring the stick from the camera. Unable to move, my skin smarts but I manage to smirk into the lens. I wait …Click.
But when I come to ease myself out, I realise I am trapped in a vacuum. I’m not laughing now. Shit! I can’t move. I’m fucking stuck! Help! I’m not laughing now. Unable to wriggle or gain a purchase in this vice-like grip, I have pushed my left foot through the pyloric sphincter at the entrance of the crocodile’s stomach and acid is seeping out along my legs, searing into my epidermis. Help me, somebody help me!
I’m panicking and can’t breathe. Like a boa-constrictor this dead creature is pressing the life out of me, squeezing the air from my stifled lungs. I choke out a shout to the wilderness and nobody hears. My arms and shoulders flail against the upper teeth of the crocodile, sending rivulets of blood from the lacerations down to my hands and onto my gun. Flies buzz and crawl. Then I pass out.
My next recollection, four hours later, is of a lean black man tapping me on the nose. I open one sticky eye and see a blurred cluster of concerned individuals in a safari Landrover behind him, peering at me. The man calls in English to the safari guide and together they haul my transuding body out of the crocodile’s mouth. As in a difficult birth, my limp, bleeding torso is heaved from the digestive tract with a loud sucking noise. The black man hoists me over his shoulder and wades into the lake where we collapse. Gently he rubs my loose, blistered and partially digested skin, washing away the acid. I open my mouth to scream, but can only manage a silent retch.
* * *
A starched nurse, popped her head around the curtain. “There’s a man here from the Press Association. He wants to interview you. They’ve seen your film and you’re famous. Your picture’s been wired around the world. You’ll be in all the papers tomorrow.” She looked at Albie pityingly, smiled and disappeared. He exhaled wearily at the inevitability of a media circus and cast his mind back to his rocky outcrop. Right now, it would be glowing with the heat of the day and the lake would be still and dark, the sun dropping behind the black horizon against the flamingo sky. The carcass of the giant crocodile would already be ripped apart and consumed. The creature at the top of the food chain had slithered to the bottom and was now providing nourishment to a different strata of life. Another day passing in the African bushveldt. Another tear rolling onto the pillow. Click. Another photo opportunity too far.
This is based on an actual event that happened in 1988 in Kenya.
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