What happens when an impala gets stuck between a rock and hard place? Or rather, a hyena and a dam infested with hungry crocodiles? One would hope someone, or something, would come to its rescue… Sylvester ‘Silvo’ Motaln shares his extraordinary experience in the book 101 Kruger Tales.
The bestselling book, compiled and edited by Jeff Gordon, features 101 gripping sightings from visitors to the park, and Wild is giving our readers the opportunity to enjoy one of these tales absolutely free! Do you have your own Kruger tale to share? Submit your story and it might be featured in the next edition of 101 Kruger Tales.
“The hippo, the impala and the natural order of things” by Sylvester ‘Silvo’ Motaln
Hippos have a fearsome reputation. Grumpy, short-tempered and indiscriminately belligerent, they are said to be responsible for more deaths in Africa than any other large animal. But in the early summer of 2011, in the midst of a remarkable and gut-wrenching plight of an unlucky impala, we got to see another side to the hippopotamus – a scarcely believable altruism that flies in the face of their cantankerous reputation.
We were sitting in our car at Sunset Dam, just a stone’s throw from Lower Sabie rest camp, admiring the hippos, crocodiles and birds when suddenly the dense bush to our right exploded into action. An impala ewe burst out of the thicket, pursued by a brute of a hyena, and fled past us straight down towards the water’s edge.
It was a tragic blunder for the impala; with trees overhanging the water to its right, and a steep bank to its left, it was trapped on the shoreline. Its fate was sealed, and the hyena moved in for the kill.
But this impala seemed malcontent with the natural order of the food chain. With no way out on the land, it realised that there was still one possible, albeit unlikely, escape route: straight into the water. Why it didn’t just swim around the overhanging trees and get out the other side was beyond us all. Instead, it plunged into the water and began swimming towards the middle of the croc-infested dam.
“You’ve got to be joking,” exclaimed someone from one of the other cars as the impala paddled furiously, its head straining upwards, barely above the surface. We watched in horror as the crocodiles sunning themselves on the banks raised their bellies off the mud and slipped into the water in the way you only ever seem to see on television. The outcome was inevitable.
As the impala reached the middle, so did a large crocodile. There was a splash and the impala seemed to rise up out of the water, exposing much of its upper torso, before the croc readjusted, grabbed the ewe’s neck and began to pull it under. It was an awfully cruel thing to witness; the impala had escaped the jaws of a hyena only to land up in the jaws of a crocodile.
A semi-circle of hippos, submerged up to their eyes barely metres from the frothing attack, looked on dispassionately. It all seemed over for the impala, when suddenly something extraordinary happened. An enormous hippo – possibly the dominant male – broke ranks, surged through the water and viciously attacked the crocodile.
Meanwhile, the impala staggered forward a little, to within four or five metres from dry land. With the water barely reaching its knees, it stood for a while, rebuilding its strength. Incredibly, there was not a spot of blood on its neck or torso. It appeared to have emerged from its encounter with the crocodile unscathed.
But, like something from the Book of Job, the biblical misfortune continued to rain down on the poor impala. We hadn’t been the only ones watching the remarkable rescue: the hyena that had chased the impala into the water in the first place had been keeping a keen eye on proceedings too, and had scuttled around the side of the dam to greet the impala head-on.
An uneasy standoff ensued. For what seemed like an eternity, the impala stood bolt upright, frozen in the shallows, and stared across the few metres of water at the waiting hyena. As time passed we could only speculate how this would play out. The hyena was clearly unwilling to enter the shallows and get its feet wet – even when the impala edged forward to within a body’s length from the shore. The impala was not so foolish as to make a dash for it. Would it come down to which animal was most patient? Would we return tomorrow and find them exactly as we left them, still locked in a stalemate?
The urge to somehow place myself between the two and allow the impala to scamper out of the water and away into the bush was so strong, but this was nature at its most raw. All we could do was watch sadly and wait in hope that perhaps the impala would get one final chance – but it never came. The impala’s fate was sealed by another crocodile emerging unexpectedly from the depths. It grabbed the impala violently from the rear, before dragging it into deeper water.
But it wasn’t to be the impala’s lucky day. After a stalemate that seemed to last an eternity, another crocodile appeared from behind and dragged the impala into the water. The photographer just managed to capture the final moment before its muzzle was pulled beneath the surface.
Earlier, the dominant hippo had given the impala a second chance at life, but there was no third chance this time – and no altruistic intervention. The hippos barely noticed, and the water birds didn’t even glance up. Scrambling for my camera, I managed to capture one last photo of the impala’s muzzle, gasping its final breath, before it slipped beneath the surface.
The extraordinary spectacle was over and the natural order of things resumed. The hyena skulked off into the bush to find a less plucky meal, the hippos grunted and grumbled in the depths, and the water birds huddled down as the afternoon faded. But for maybe an hour afterwards, the successful crocodile paraded around the dam with the dead impala, holding aloft its trophy, as if declaring its victory over disorder.
Sylvester Motaln was raised in Bedfordshire, England but moved to South Africa in 1984 – the same year he first visited Kruger. He now lives in Gauteng, where he is managing director for an IT printing and network distribution company (www.big5.co.za) and a committee member of sports charity EXPRO (www.expro.co.za). A qualified pilot and yacht skipper, he returns to the park three or four times a year.
Where to get 101 Kruger Tales