Thursday, 5 September 2013

Tom and the Crocodile

                                       Tom and the Crocodile.

This story has been told often, and published often – but never to conclusion.

During the late seventies, Tom Yssel and his colleague, Louis Olivier were junior

game rangers in the Kruger National Park.

On the fateful Sunday of 21 November 1976 they were both on study leave in

Skukuza rest camp, preparing for their exams in wildlife management.

When a group of friends hinted at a picnic, the books were promptly pushed aside – it

was as good an excuse as any.  They grabbed their fishing gear and went in search of

earth worms as bait for the fierce tilapia which abound in the Sabi.

Still being young bachelors at that stage, their contribution to the picnic consisted

mostly of fishing gear and a couple of cold beers.

Crossing the Sabi river at the low water bridge just outside Skukuza, they turned right

onto the first fire break.  On the northern bank of the Sabi there are some secluded

picnic spots for the exclusive use of  Parks Board employees.

On arrival, they were dismayed at the spot their friends had chosen.  It was the most

beautiful spot of the lot, with huge shady trees and lush green grass – perfect for a

picnic, but at this point the river was no more than knee deep.  A short distance

downstream, however, there was a deep, dark pool – ideal habitat for large tilapia. 

The pool was more accessible from the opposite bank, so they walked through the

shallow water to the south bank.

It was early summer and although the thunder clouds had been building and rumbling

in the late afternoons over the past week, the first rains had not yet come.  The water

was therefore still as clear as that of a well-maintained swimming pool.

The fishing was good, and by the time they were called for lunch, they must have

caught and released two dozen fish.

In some circles there is a theory that one should never cross a river in the same spot

twice.  If you were spotted the first time, a crocodile would patiently lie in wait at the

same spot for up to a full day.  Whether this is true or not is irrelevant – the crocodile

was there, lying in ambush with its perfect camouflage.

Louis was in the lead as they entered the water.  He was having some trouble with all

the gear he was carrying, and stopped to sort out the problem.  Tom passed him, and

the next moment there was a huge splash and Tom shouted.

The crocodile was so big that its back could not have been covered by more than a

few inches of crystal clear water, yet nobody had spotted it.  It had grabbed Tom by

the lower leg, and proceeded to drag him downstream to deep water.  Louis knew he

had to stop this from happening and he dove under the croc, heaving it back upstream. 

Louis is an incredibly strong man, but to this day he maintains with conviction that he

had help from Above.  The combined weight of the crocodile, with Tom in its jaws,

must have been at least eight times that of Louis.  Yet, against the current, Louis

shifted this weight towards shallower water and the north bank, where pandemonium

had broken out. 

The croc repeatedly shook Tom violently, shifting its grip higher every time.  The

teeth of crocodiles are not designed for chewing, but for gripping and tearing.  They

would shake their prey and spin their bodies while maintaining a grip, thereby tearing

the prey apart.  Tom knew this – if the croc spun, he had to spin with it or it would

tear his leg off.  All during the fight he was leaning forward over the crocodile as far

as he could reach, maintaining a firm grip on its head.  During one of these violent

shakings Tom’s thigh bone broke with the crack of a rifle shot.

Louis was still heaving and blocking the croc away from the deep water.  At the same

time he attacked the animal’s eyes with a small pocket knife, but the blade kept

folding back, and he threw the useless knife away in disgust.

Hans Kolver, one of the helicopter pilots, had by now also entered the water and

joined the fight.  The water right next to the bank was slightly deeper, and Louis spent

a lot of time under the crocodile, lifting its head out of the water so Tom could

breathe.  Someone on the bank handed them a folding spade with which to attack the

croc, but a single violent swipe of the tail sent the tool flying into deep water.

By now the croc had its jaws clamped around Tom’s midsection, and there was blood

everywhere.  Hans was trying to stick his fingers into the crocodile’s eyes, but once a

croc closes its external eyelid, you could just as well try to stick your finger into a

walnut.  Then Hans got lucky and he caught the croc with one eye open.  The croc let

go of Tom, and with a bone-crunching snap closed its jaws on Hans’ shoulder.

Tom got up in an adrenaline fuelled fury, intent on continuing the fight.  He fell down

again in the waist deep water.  Looking down he saw to his horror that his one foot

was pointing backwards, and his intestines were hanging out and floating in the

current in front of him.     

Louis was beside himself with fury, and when someone handed him a sturdy knife

from one of the tackle boxes, he attacked with renewed vengeance.  With a terrific

blow he plunged the knife deep into the monster’s eye socket.

The crocodile immediately let go of Hans, and headed for deep water.

For Hans and Louis the fight was over, but for Tom it was the beginning of a fight

that would span years.  He was flown to the Nelspruit hospital, where his gruesome

wounds were treated. 

As far as the crocodile was concerned, it had only been doing what crocodiles do. 

The humans were the impostors.  Had the croc not been wounded, it would have been

left alone.  However, it is Parks Board policy that, if the problem was man-made,

intervention is required.  To Tom’s friends, this was as good an excuse as any – that

same afternoon they were stalking the river, armed with heavy calibre rifles.  The

crocodile was lying on a rock in the deep pool, and one of the rangers killed it with a

single shot.  They would bring a boat and retrieve it in the morning.

That night, however, the heavens opened and the carcass was swept away in the flood.

Tom’s wounds became septic, and he was transferred to the Intensive Care Unit of the

Eugene Marais hospital in Pretoria.  He spent most of the next seven months in the

ICU – initially he was fighting for his life, and later he was fighting for his leg. 

General consensus amongst the Academics was that there was no way his leg could be

saved – his femur was fractured, and most of the muscle tissue on his thigh had been

torn away.  The blood supply was insufficient for healing to take place – and a

considerable amount of heavily infected bone at the fracture site had to be removed.  

Tom refused amputation.

Numerous operations followed, and eventually the infection cleared up.  Tom’s

femur, however, could not be repaired due to insufficient tissue and insufficient blood


For nearly the next twenty years Tom had to make do with two ‘knees’ on his one leg. 

Initially he could barely walk with his crutches, but as the other muscles grew

stronger and compensated, his ambulatory efforts got progressively better.

He persevered with the tenacity of a Staffordshire terrier, and eventually threw away

the crutches.  After that it was not long before he resumed his position as game ranger

in the Kruger Park.  Even with the still broken femur, he was remarkably agile – he

could ride his scrambler, and he could climb a mountain.

But walking like a crankshaft was beginning to take its toll on his back.

During the late 80’s Prof Erich Raubenheimer, then head of anatomical pathology at

Medunsa University, contacted me. During my post-graduate year at Medunsa Erich

and I had spent a lot of time on research in the Kruger Park, and he knew Tom well. 

Prof. Obwegeser, a world famous orthopaedic surgeon from Zurich was visiting

Medunsa, and was interested in seeing Tom.

I promptly organised a few days in the bush for the gentlemen.  On examining Tom,

Prof Obwegeser concluded that he can remove a strip of muscle with suitable blood

supply from elsewhere on Tom’s body, transplant it to the leg, and mend the bone. 

The operation would, however, have to be done in Zurich.  He was prepared to do the

operation free of charge.

Our elation was soon dampened by a little further research – even if the operation

itself was not going to cost a penny, the travel, the hospital, anaesthetic, recuperation,

medication............ the list was endless.  It was simply not financially viable.  There

was just no way it could be done.

So life returned to normal for several years.

Then one day, out of the blue, a brilliant orthopaedic surgeon in Pretoria announced

that he was now ready to do the same operation.  First, a large enough piece of muscle

with the right arteries and veins had to be identified.  The tests were done at the then

Rob Ferreira hospital in Nelspruit.  Radio-active markers were injected into arteries

and veins, and mapping done with X-rays.  Tom refused general anaesthetic, and

when he was wheeled out of theatre, I could see on his face that he had been through a

tough time.  ‘Oomleeu,’ he said, ‘I need lots of cold beer and tall grass.’  I will never

forget those words.

We stocked up and headed into the bush.  It is at times like this that hard men talk

about things seldom mentioned – pain, fear, uncertainty....

This was the beginning of another titanic struggle in Tom’s life.

The operation was a resounding success.  A large piece of muscle was transplanted

from his back, and his femur repaired with countless screws and plates.  To keep

things stable, he was fitted with a Hoffman apparatus – the external stainless steel

rods made him look like an old TV antenna.  For the next couple of years his only

clothing would be a shirt and a long dust-coat.

Complications soon set in.  Small areas of bone with insufficient blood supply would

die, become infected, and had to be removed surgically.  This just went on and on,

and he must have had at least five more operations over the next three years.

Tom fought it with the same tenacity, never complaining and never giving up.

There is a lesson in this for all of us – never, ever give up.  And always fish from a

high bank, well clear of the water…..

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