Wrestling a Crocodile For a Friend

'Courage is simply the willingness to be afraid and act anyway.'
Robert AnthonyIt has been almost 30 years since the day Louis Olivier and Hans Kolver fought an enormous crocodile for the life of their friend and colleague Tom Yssel. Louis and Tom, deciding they deserved a break while preparing for an upcoming exam, joined a few other Kruger staff members with their families for a picnic and some leisure fishing on the banks of the Sabie River a few kilometres downstream from Skukuza.

It was a popular spot, a beautiful day and the water was crisp and clear as a glass of drinking water. 'You could see and identify the different fish species as they swam by', says Louis. 'The water level was quite low, probably knee-high.' Louis and Tom decided to cross the river which was flowing about 20 metres wide, to an island on the southern side from where they would continue their fishing attempts. At lunchtime, the others called them across. While Louis was packing the last of the fishing tackle, Tom entered the water. He heard a sudden commotion and thought Tom was joking about being caught by a crocodile. However, as he straightened up and saw the look on his friend's face he knew his friend was in serious trouble. It was in that moment, when Louis saw the huge black back of the crocodile, with Tom whom he had grapped by the left leg, in its jaws, as it was swimming to deeper waters, that he had made the decision that helped save Tom's life. 'I have been called a hero ever since that day, but to have done what I did, took but a split second's decision. After that everything happened with our Lord taking care of matters in His way. During my life here in Kruger, I have been in a few tight situations, yet every time and better than any slip fielder in a professional cricket team, He had snapped me up out of trouble time and again without ever dropping me.'

Louis dived into the water and got hold of the crocodile around the body. While being submerged, he wrestled with the fast swimming crocodile in an effort to keep it from getting into deep waters which were only a few metres downstream. 'I think that first manoeuvre helped us win the fight in the end because I managed to deviate the crocodile from course, keeping it in shallower water where we could stand up during the struggle. If not, Tom would soon have been drowned with the crocodile merely submerging into the deep. Keeping the monster afloat and not allowing it to steady itself helped as well because once it started to twist over, as crocodiles do with a larger prey in the mouth, it would have severed Tom's leg in one effort.

At the same time I tried to stick the crocodile with my pocket knife into the body but the blade kept on folding close, never penetrating at all. Without thinking any further, I soon chucked the knife out of the water.'Hans Kolver, a pilot in Kruger, was still on the northern side of the river and heard the commotion. He ran closer to join what he initially thought was some horse-playing in the water. However, as he jumped from the river bank, he saw what was really happening. As he stood up in the water next to the crocodile's huge head, Tom immediately urged him to stick his fingers in the reptile's eyes, which he repeatedly did.

At that time and until much later, Hans did not know Louis was below the water surface, wrestling the crocodile. It was a monstrous animal which bettered its grip on Tom every now and then by letting go but instantly gripping him again higher up on his body. Every time as Hans struck it in the eyes, it would immediately retaliate by shaking Tom the way a dog would shake a piece of cloth. Tom survived this by folding forward, grapping the crocodile around the head to lessen the whiplash effect which otherwise would have broken his body. Still moving sideways but forward, the crocodile eventually swam with Tom into the northern riverbank underneath some overhanging vegetation, submerging and drowning him.

Hans, who was still at the side of the crocodile's head, all the time clawing at its eyes, was swept away by this motion. Louis saw this when coming up for breath. He quickly moved past the crocodile and lifted Tom's head up, allowing him to breathe. With that done, Louis moved backwards and in desperation, tried to pick the crocodile up by the middle in an effort move it into the open. The back of crocodile was however so broad and wide that Louis could only manage to stretch across it, not getting a grip on it at all. He moved further back and grapped the crocodile around the tail and pulled it back into the main stream, away from the overhanging vegetation.

'I am not that strong. On that instant however, our Lord gave me the strength to pull the crocodile with two humans attached to it backwards for a quite a distance with very little effort. We estimated later that the combined mass might have weighed a ton, or more.' Realising how seemingly easy the tug-of-war went, Louis decided to pull the load to the river edge and out of the water. The crocodile had other ideas however, and whipped Louis with its tail, sending him flying. Apart from badly bruising his rib cage, it also knocked some sense into Louis. He ran from the water to fetch Tom's revolver at their vehicle. Halfway there he remembered they had left it at Skukuza Camp. He ran back to where the crocodile had once more propped Tom up against the river bank, although this time at a clear patch.

He laid flat on his stomach and anchored himself by holding on a Maetenus shrub. Dangling his legs in front of Tom, he urged him to hold onto them so he can pull him out. Dickie Kaiser, another pilot at the Park, grapped Louis's right arm above the elbow, anchoring him more. 'Tom was coming remarkably easy. What we did not know was that Hans, not knowing what we were doing, was lifting the crocodile's head above the dirtied and muddied water to get to a proper aim at its eyes.'Once Hans dropped the head, the crocodile started pulling backwards. Louis remember the Maetenus thorns cutting through his hand but when Dickie's hands started sliding over his arm, he realised that they were losing the tug-of-war with Tom being the rope. Shouting, he told Tom to let go of his legs. Immediately, as Tom released Louis's legs, the crocodile stopped pulling and propped Tom up, once more, against the river bank.

At that moment, Dickie's wife Corrie brought Louis a military type folding spade with which to hit the crocodile. Still hanging onto the shrub, Louis swung around with the spade in hand. Hans meanwhile thought that the spade was handed to him but as he grapped at it, the crocodile started shaking Tom once more, hitting the spade from both their hands, sending it flying away into the water. It was moment of total despair. Things however then happened in rapid succession. After handing Louis the spade Corrie instantly rushed back to fetch a knife which she had seen in a nearby fishing tackle box. 'I felt invincible the moment Corrie gave me the knife.' He dropped into the water intending to have a proper go at the crocodile. With the crocodile's head momentarily out of the water still shaking Tom, Hans managed, with full force, to stick the fingers of both his hands into its eyes. It must have been most painful.

The crocodile instantly let go of Tom, but at the same time, grabbed Hans by the arm, snapping it on impact. Louis recalls Hans shouting:' Help! It has me now!' Immediately it was swimming away having already gripped Hans by the shoulder. Louis raced through the water, grabbed the crocodile around the neck and stuck the knife in its eye. It was the first time Hans realised Louis was also fighting he crocodile. As the blood gushed over Louis' hand it instantly let go of Hans. Louis had all intent to stay with the crocodile in order to finish the fight which it had started. However, instantly and in one almost nonchalant turn, it broke from his grip, disappearing into deeper waters. Tom was still standing where the crocodile had left him. While Louis stood guard knife in hand, Hans helped Tom out the water.

As much as he could pull the massive crocodile around while wrestling for his friend's life, once Tom was on shore, Louis could not even support him. With everybody merely looking on, he dragged his friend onto the back of their vehicle. As can be imagined, Tom had sustained serious injuries - several bones were broken and his stomach was ripped open, but mercifully, at that stage he felt little pain. With Hans in the passenger seat beside him, Louis raced to Skukuza from where Tom was flown per helicopter to hospital in Nelspruit. Hans, less injured, was taken by car. Tom was soon transferred from Nelspruit to the Eugene Marais Hospital in Pretoria after his injuries became septic. He almost lost his leg because of this. He spent some six months in hospital, recovering from his wounds after which he took up his position as Section Ranger in the Park again.

Hans and Louis both received the Woltemade Decoration for Bravery. At the time, it was the second time in the history of the country that the award had been made. Yet, Louis says, two things mean more to him than the award. The first was that afterwards, Tom said to him: 'I knew you would come help me,' and the second was some time later, when Tom and his wife named their second born son after him. Louis married Trix, six weeks after that fateful Sunday morning of 21 November 1976. They have been in the Park ever since.
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