The Southern African National History Unit (SANHU) is based in Skukuza. For more than a year, the crew filmed scientists and vets as they tried to unravel why crocodiles are dying in the Olifants River Gorge. Despite countless trips to the gorge, SANHU producer, Katy Johnson, would be back in a flash if she could.
Very few people get to live their dream; I am one of the lucky few who do. For as long as I can remember I wanted to be surrounded by wildlife when I grew up and as the years went by my dream evolve. Eventually my heart was set on the idea of working in wildlife film, exploring the fascinating worlds of nature and television, alongside the likes of Sir David Attenborough – well one can dream! I was ten when I worked out what it was I wanted to do, and now almost twenty years later its no longer a dream, it’s reality!
I have now been living and working as a producer in the Kruger National Park for almost two years and everyday brings something novel and exciting – from filming blue crocodiles, to being chased by elephants on my way home, its part and parcel of living here!
Of all the amazing projects I have been privilege to be a part of, one in particular stands out. I think it is a combination of the topic, the place, the people and the tragedy that really captured my imagination. In following this story I have been to places I honestly could never have dreamt of, and have seen, smelt and experienced things I would never have expected.
It all started in May of 2008, when the first dead crocodiles were spotted in the Olifants gorge. Back then no one could have imagined where it would have taken us. Now almost two years down the track, there are probably more unanswered questions then we started with, but during our quest to find answers there have been many unbelievable moments spent in one of Kruger’s most spectacular wilderness secrets.
Countless trips into the gorge have been made to try and find the mystery cause of the devastating disease that smashed through the Kruger’s crocodile population, resulting in over 200 deaths. Each trip has been different, but they have all had their moments. From hippo steaks to cremating crocodiles, no trip was ever boring. They would challenge everyone’s patience and stamina (well some more than others), but hardly ever would you hear anyone complain. I think when you are down in the gorge, you just realize how incredibly privileged you are.
Although I have seen some spectacular sights during our day trips into the gorge, the vision of a flying four metre crocodile suspended 10 metre below a helicopter bringing carcasses out of the gorge, being one image I wont easily forget. It is the night trips to catch the crocodiles that I love the most.
Nighttime at the Gorge
Walking at night, in the pitch black, along the waters edge in the Olifants gorge is truly the most incredible thing I have ever done. There is always a sense of danger and excitement, as you never quite know what you might quite literally bump into. The gorge takes on a life of it’s own at night. Everything is so quiet and still and the darkness is heightened by the fact we always go when there is no moon, as this is the best time to catch crocodiles. Darkness envelops everything, as we navigate along the steep gorge walls with only the blue light from peoples head torches eerily showing us the way.
The real spectacle comes not when Danie and his team nooses a crocodile and wrestles it into submission; but when we occasionally stop to take a rest and can look up at the millions of stars piercing through the perpetual darkness. For me the Southern Hemisphere stars have always been more incredible, than the Northern ones I grew up with. But I challenge anyone, to find anywhere that they look more spectacular.
Framed by the hard edges of the steep gorge walls, which seem to stretch up for an eternity. The stars pierce the soft velvety sky; their incandescence and sheer magnitude is breathtaking and somewhat hypnotic. It is easy to get lost in them, as exhaustion from trying to keep up with the group catches up when you finally stop to rest. It always amazes me at how nimble the guys are in the gorge, unlike me who manages to find difficulties with walking at the best of times; they gracefully pick their way along the gorges treacherous walls with the greatest of ease.
There is a sense of tranquillity that envelopes everyone when you stop for a moment in the gorge, the silence only broken by the soft sound of the Olifants river lapping against gorge walls or the occasional snort of a hippo as it surfaces.
It always feels that almost as soon as you stop its time to move off again. The scientists and vets hope that the crocodiles we catch could hold the key to explaining what is killing their kin. They are sampled and radio transmitters are attached, these send information pertaining to the crocodile’s whereabouts and movements. Hopefully the crocodiles themselves will lead us to where they are contracting this killer disease.
Crocodile capture is not all Steve Irwin, in real life it is a lot quieter and things never go as smoothly. Most of the time the crocodiles will disappear right at the last moment, sinking into the murky depths just as the noose is lowered into the catching position. Once you have finally noosed them then the real battle begins, crocodile versus man (well men – it’s never a fair fight), it is all a matter of who will tire first.
I am glad to say I have never witnessed the crocodiles winning! I am also pleased to be involved with filming during this point and therefore unable to help, or more like hinder, the catching crew. Often they are poised treacherously on the side of the river, or sometimes knee deep in rapids totally dependent on the spotter to ensure no other crocodiles or hippos are about. After a long battle between man and crocodile, where both end up exhausted, the crocodile is finally over come and sampling can begin.
The team have become experts in insuring this is done as quickly and painlessly as possible. But you can’t help but feel that the crocodile has been somewhat violated by the end of the process, as it slinks back into the murky water only now with brightly coloured tags attached to its tail.
After all the fun and games are over and enough crocodiles are caught, or exhaustion has finally won out, then we head back to our bush camp. The camps vary depending on where we are catching and how many people there are, but all are special in their own right. Whether it be camping beneath the ancient baobab, at the confluence, or my personal favourite on a sandbank in nothing but sleeping bags in the middle of the gorge under the stars – every night, in this incredible area of remote wilderness, is special.
After numerous trips down into the gorge, countless crocodiles caught and sampled, and endless slips, trips, falls and occasionally the odd total submergence!! You’d think we would get bored, that the gorge would loose its appeal, however sitting here writing this I yearn to go back as there is truly nowhere I would rather be!
By Katy Johnson