I've been fortunate enough to have travelled extensively over the past half century. Consequently, I'm one of those people that has built up many experiences and stories to tell. At the tender young age of *cough* 49, I've actually had quite a few near death experiences at various points throughout my travels. Here are some of the more interesting ones.
Hang on, it's quite a ride…
1. River Tully, Queensland, Australia
Nearly drowned whilst white water rafting
Probably the most harrowing of experience of my life was the time I decided to go white water rapid rafting on the Tully River in Queensland, Australia. Sandy had elected not to participate and instead enjoyed a relaxing day at the hostel we were staying at the time. Never one to miss up such a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I went alone.
The trip started well enough, with safety briefings and so on. By around mid-afternoon, we had rafted a decent stretch of the river already and we had now reached some of the more tumultuous sections. The river was flowing quite fast and there were plenty of thrills in our five-man raft, as we coursed over the rapids and were being knocked about by the full force of the water. Despite being quite rough, myself and three others managed to stay in the raft with the guide and did our best to follow his instructions, which admittedly was mostly to not fall in.
The buffeting worsened and the raft lifted several times to a near 45 degree angle. Suddenly, the raft's ability to remain upright was severely tested when a huge rapid lifted it to a full 90 degrees to the water before it righted itself again. Unfortunately, this wasn't until after I had fallen into the raging torrent. As if that wasn't bad enough, the raft had shifted position in the water before righting itself and landed squarely on top of me. I hadn't noticed this at the time as I was under the water and struggling to determine which way was up. Worse still, I hadn't had time to take a big gulp of air before being submerged and was now starting to panic. Struggling against the torrents, I flailed around and reaching for the surface of the water only to find the impenetrable object that was the raft. With my eyes closed, I had no idea of which way to go and just flapped my arms around as blind panic overwhelmed me. It seemed like this went on forever before I suddenly felt something tug at my arm. It was the strong arm of the guide pulling me to safety.
What had happened is that the raft was moving in the same direction I was moving, so my relative position to the bottom of the raft stayed the same. At the time, after I had been rescued and draped over the side of the raft trying to recover, it all seemed like a lot of fun and we were actually all laughing at the situation. It's only in the cold light of day that you truly realise just how much danger there was. Had the guide not realised what had happened and thrust his arm under the raft to grab for me, I would almost certainly have drowned that day.
2. Similan Islands, Thailand
Attacked by a Giant Mooray Eel
Whilst on a SCUBA live-aboard diving trip off the south west coast of Thailand, we were taken to one particular dive site where we were told there was a giant moray eel. Now, there's nothing particularly unusual about this; I've seen giant moorays a few times before. What made this one a little more unique was that it lived under a sea fan and it was pretty much exposed. Normally, you'd only see the head of a moray eel poking out of its hiding place and so to see one fully exposed was kind of unusual.
Being the avid underwater photographer I was, I donned my wet-suit and got all my camera equipment ready and we commenced with the dive. I had with me a special camera with underwater housing, plus an extension with an underwater strobe light. Add to this all my other SCUBA gear and I look somewhat like an alien from another planet.
One of the things you learn as a SCUBA diver is to not flail about too much, which might disturb the bottom sediment and cloud up the water, for example. As such, you instinctively try to make gently movements and not flap about. So, off I gracefully swim, together with all my kit, towards where this eel was supposed to hang out. Sure enough, a sea fan comes into view and there beneath it is a beautiful giant moray eel in all its full-length glory just sitting there and hanging out. Now, giant moorays have very sharp teeth and you wouldn’t want to get too close to one. It's quite capable of biting a finger clean off. There were no other features other than this sea fan and the bottom was just plain sand, so I'm doing a delicate balancing act to maintain my buoyancy and orientation such that I don't stir up the sea bed but all the while trying to get closer and getting my camera equipment ready for some great shots.
Suddenly, when I've floated to within about three metres of the beast, it turns its head and stares directly at me with its jaws wide open. I can see the rows of razor sharp teeth and I'm already thinking this was a bad idea. With a few very gentle wafts of my hands, I fix my position and come to a buoyant halt. What I really wanted to do was to turn around and swim away but by automatic instinct to not stir up the seabed was keeping me from doing so. The next thing I know, the eel starts to charge at me. It doesn't swim particular fast but it gets closer and closer. Now, my finger are working overtime as I'm desperately trying to back away from it. My heart starts pounding and my breathing gets shallow. Within a matter of seconds, my anxiety has shot through the roof and I've totally forgotten the most basic of skills, like breathing. Emma, as the animal is known to the divers, slithers sight up to the front of my mask. Her head and body are about as thick as my thigh and is about three metres long. With its jaws full of teeth now bearing down on my face, it's a terrifyingly imposing beast. Suddenly, and with no apparent reason, it then backs away and coils itself back under its fan.
It was later explained to me that unscrupulous divers have gone to this site with pieces of chicken attached to the side of their camera equipment with the express intention of enticing the eel out so they could better photograph it. Emma had been conditioned to identify camera equipment with a food source.
3. Kruger National Park, South Africa
Safaris were one of my most favorite activities when we travelled. At first, it can seem boring, as you may very well travel for hours without seeing any animals at all but you develop a sort of a sixth sense as you scan the bush for movement or that tell-tale sign something is there. We were doing a safari drive in the Kruger National Park in South Africa and a troupe of Chacma baboons – about 50 in all – suddenly meandered into view just ahead of us. They seemed in no hurry and so I just drifted to a halt, lowered the windows (it was quite hot) and turned off the ignition. We sat there and just enjoyed the view as this family of baboons went about their business.
Suddenly, with no obvious explanation, all the baboons became very agitated. They were screaming and jumping up and down. Some even jumped onto our vehicle. They were clearly very stressed (I had to thoroughly wash the car later that day). I have brought the car to a halt to the side of the road. Off to our left, just a few metres into the bush, we suddenly noticed a lioness. She was on all fours and staring at the troupe of baboons. The lioness was stood at the base of an acacia tree. Up in the tree, there was a baby baboon. The lioness now eyed this baboon, which appeared to have no perceivable escape route. There were no other bushes or trees close enough for it to jump to and to jump to the ground would have meant certain death.
Stunned, we both looked on as this lioness looked back and forth between the frightened and squealing baby baboon and the now very agitated group of baboons just a few metres ahead of us. As I fixed my gaze on the lioness, she slowly turned and looked me directly in the eye. Now my heart really started to pound. If she so desired, the lioness could easily have launched herself at us and was close enough for it to be all over before we knew it. Trying desperately not to make any sudden movements, I reached for the window switch and clicked it and…nothing happened (the ignition was in the off position). At this point panic set in and I lost all ability to think straight. It didn't occur to me at the time that I could just turn the ignition to on and then the windows would wind up. All I could think of was whether I could fend off a fully-grown lioness – a hungry one at that!
As if this stare-off between me and the lioness wasn't bad enough, a second lioness then emerged from the bush and joined the first. Amazingly, it started climbing the acacia tree and was pushing repeatedly on the branches to try to rattle the baby baboon loose. Despite being around 130Kg (285 Lbs), with no less agility than my domestic cat at home, the second lioness leaped up into the tree. The baby baboon tried to jump to another branch but the lioness grabbed it mid-flight. She dropped to the ground with the baby baboon now limp in her mouth. An adult baboon, presumably the baby's mother, then comes rushing towards the two lionesses and the first lioness lunges and grabs her – snapping her neck instantly. Both lionesses now meander slowly away from us into the bush and each with a dead baboon hanging from its jaws.
It was a good 5-10 minutes after all the animals had cleared the area that we finally calmed down from the excitement. Along with several other cars that had pulled up behind us, we went to a nearby bridge to talk about the incident. One of these cars was a park ranger. He told me that he'd worked there for 20 years and had never seen anything like it in all that time. He said he had his hands on the ignition key all the time.
4. Okavango Delta, Botswana
Charged by an elephant
The Okavango Delta is an absolutely amazing place and it became one of the highlights of our African sojourn, although not necessarily for all the right reasons. As a part of a larger Cape Town (South Africa) to Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe) overland truck safari, we spent a few days in the Okavango Delta doing bushwalks. At least, that was the plan.
On our first day in the bush, we arrived late in the day and it was too late to do a bush walk, so we set up camp instead. Our local guide wanted to tell us all some stories around the campfire and so proceeded to explain just how dangerous our situation was. We were in the middle of nowhere and in an environment that was totally at the control of all the wild animals. Our guide did a fantastic job at scaring the absolute living shit out of all of us by going into quite some detail about just exactly how each and every last animal we were likely to encounter could, and would if given half the chance, kill and eat us. It was a restless night for many of us.
The cacophony of sounds you hear in the bush – especially at night – is truly remarkable and, depending on your disposition, quite unsettling. One of the noises we heard that night was an elephant trumpeting loudly. It couldn’t have been more than a hundred metres away.
At around 5am the following morning, myself, two others from our group, our guide and one of the local guides prepared for an early morning bush walk. Between what the local guide had told us the night before and the knowledge that there was an elephant in the near vicinity, I can tell you I was more than a little apprehensive about setting out with little more than our feet as our best defense against what the Okavango had to throw at us.
We walked in single file and strayed probably less than 200 Km from the camp-site before the local guide stopped abruptly and bent his knees to get low to the ground. We all followed suit. Very slowly, he beckoned us forward. Ahead of us, and just behind an acacia bush, was a full-grown male elephant. It was sporting a huge gash down the side of its face. The guide suggested this was the elephant we heard last night and that is had been in an altercation with another animal. Readying my camera, I inched forward to get a clear shot at the magnificent beast. Wanting to get a clear shot, a slowly edged to one side trying to find a vantage that avoided the branches of the acacia. As I was peering through the viewfinder, there was a tap on my shoulder. "Mr. Chris, we leave now!" the guide said. "Just one more moment, I've almost got a clear shot," I replied. "Mr. Chris! You will die where you stand!" I was almost in full view and just about ready to take my shot. Suddenly, the elephant turned at trumpeted very loudly. It threw its ears forwards and started charging directly towards me. I looked over my shoulder but nobody was there. Everyone had scattered. The local guide was now about a hundred metres behind me and sprinting. Instinctively, I started running after him, stumbling as I went and barely able to keep hold of my camera. I developed Olympic legs at that moment and ran like my life very much depended on it. That turns out to be the case, as by the time I found refuse behind a tree some hundred metres further, I looked over my shoulder to see the elephant standing on the very spot I had stood with my camera. The local guide kept whispering loudly to me to stop breathing so as to stop making any noise. If the elephant didn't kill me, I thought the lack of oxygen from not breathing after doing a hundred metre dash might. When I checked my camera later that morning, all I managed to find was a rather out of focus shot of the animal - taken whilst under duress, of course.