Floating Island Blues…
an Encounter with a crocodile (or two, plus a tree stump, and a large fish!)
© Copyright 2022 by Sammy Nderitu
Photo courtesy of Pfuderi at Pixabay.
The floods in the immediate environs of Lake Baringo in late 2019 and early 2020 caused a lot of disruption and grief to many, but the floating islands they occasioned in plenty was one of the more delightful spectacles to behold.
A floating island is a mass of aquatic plants, mud and solid earth/peat clustered together and floating on the water, usually driven at will by currents and the wind. Although rare in oceans, they are found a lot on marshlands, lakes and wetlands, especially after a wind storm or during periods of excessive rainfall and floods.
The area beneath the floating mat of soil and vegetation is usually rich in all forms of aquatic life, and once the island decides to go on an odyssey around the lake, lots of ‘tourists’ take the journey along with it, until it either reattaches to another part of the shore or to a fixed island, or is broken up by heavy winds.
These amazing natural phenomena, known as ‘Lik Lik Aislans’ in Papua New Guinea and ‘Camalotes’ in Argentina, have fascinated humans for eons, and their ability to enthrall is only rivalled by the danger they sometimes deliver to the unwitting hosts they encounter on their travels. According to an American Historian, Chet van Duzer, they have been known to contain passengers as varied as snakes, deer, parrots, monkeys and even a puma.
Hippos love to graze in their lush vegetation, usually by standing/jumping alongside the island. A famous story which makes the rounds in Santa Fe, Argentina is especially chilling. On April 18, 1825, during floods on the Ro Paran River, two friars at the Convento de San Francisco were killed by a jaguar delivered by a ‘camalote’.
But I digress. It was not the pursuit of ‘camalotes’ that had brought me to the sleepy, idyllic village of Kampi ya Samaki in Baringo. While I was here to provide accounting services to a hotel located on the shore of the largest fresh-water lake in the Rift valley, Lake Baringo, I was always ready to play the tourist when the slightest chance afforded itself.
It was a Saturday and we were therefore working up to 1 pm. A floating island had drifted close to the restaurant where I was just closing my accounts for the day. I got the whimsical idea that I could row a boat close to the floating island, then dismount and embark on a sightseeing tour to discover the various fauna and flora harbored by floating islands – rumors of scorpions, snakes, crabs and other friendly creatures awaiting there did not deter me.
I therefore quickly grabbed a rowing boat from a colleague who had just finished his rounds for the day, and rowed as fast as I could towards the island, determined to reconnoiter round the island to see how far it went. As soon as I had approached close enough to the island to differentiate the tall grasses from the papyrus shrubs, it was time to throw caution to the winds.
I silently slipped into the warm water and was soon swimming noiselessly around the island, until I got to the side away from the shore. I swam on, ensuring to keep a fair distance away from the island. I was fearful of what it held.
I also kept an alert eye on the water to ensure I did not bump into any unsavory traffic. In a few minutes I came to the head of the island. There was now a solid block of hazard-infested floating land to my left, between me and the shore, and miles of open lake on my right.
There was a crocodile floating at the head of the island, just a bit of eyes, snout, and body showing above the water. I had been sure that I would not run into any hippos, because if there are any you will know long beforehand; they usually announce their presence every few minutes by surfacing to breath, snorting and spurting noisily all the while.
While I had not expected crocodiles, at the back of my mind I had known it was possible that they would be lurking close to the abundant food source that a floating island can be. But nothing had prepared me for the experience of being in the water and looking face to face at a crocodile, at a distance of about twenty meters away.
I looked into the eyes of the crocodile and it looked back at me impassively, no doubt wondering what I was. I had been swimming slow breaststroke, keeping my head above the water throughout. My approach had therefore been smooth, silent and unannounced, very unlike the splashing and noisy furor that most human swimming is associated with.
My senses suddenly sharpened as my body kicked into survival mode; I noted that the crocodile was relatively small, about my size, which meant it was about 6 feet in length. Noting that I was terrified, the lizard part of my brain took over; it told me not to panic, to keep my eyes locked with the crocodile, and to swim backwards, ensuring that I did not make any splashing noises-no doubt some long forgotten advice read somewhere a long time ago.
Just as I was doing exactly that, I saw another bigger crocodile-two of them, closer to the island and towards my left. On a clockface, the floating island being at 9 o’clock, the first croc was at 12 o’clock, directly ahead of me, and the other two at 10 o’clock, a bit to my left, between me and the floating island. Was I surrounded? Was a pack of crocodiles gunning for me?
No, a quick look around confirmed that the coast was clear behind me. I didn’t need second bidding; I swam backwards in breaststroke, with my eyes swiveling between the three crocs in turn, and my destination in the open lake behind me.
The first crocodile started coming in my direction slowly and contemplatively, like a predator assured of its prey, with its eyes locked on me. The other two remained stationary to my left, close to the island.
I swam to my right backwards, trying to distance myself from the island and the crocs; I was distancing myself from the shore but also away from the floating island, and away from the first croc which was still swimming slowly towards me.
I Increased my speed, still swimming backwards, taking quick looks behind me to see where I was going, and remembering not to panic or to make any splashing noises. I noted that the distance between me and following croc was getting bigger, and steadily I left it in the distance.
I was not yet out of the woods yet. I still had to get to my boat, which I had tied to the remains of a dried-up tree closer to shore. To get to it, I would have to swim around the floating island, which unbeknownst to me had been drifting downwind on the current. I therefore had a longer distance to swim; back round the tail of the floating island and up on the shoreward way.
The easiest way to get to my boat would have been to remain stationary and let the island drift by on my left, then swim straight left to where I had secured my boat. But with the crocodile at the head of the island pursuing me, I had no option; I had to swim faster than the drifting island, all the way down to the tail and back up again.
This I did slowly and painstakingly, now swimming frontwards but sweeping my back every few seconds looking for the following crocodile; of this there was no trace. All the time I kept alert and watchful of my surroundings as well as of where I was going-don’t bump into a croc now, will you.
I was making good progress when suddenly a large fish surfaced to my right, jumping right out of the water and diving almost immediately, but not before I almost spit out my heart in panic. Had the flying fish sensed my barely disguised horrified state of mind and decided to pull my leg a little?
It was probably just feeding or on a similarly innocent errand, but I did not stick around to investigate. Round the island I steadily swam. It was only then that I discovered that the floating island had been drifting downwind. I had a much longer distance to swim — about two hundred meters — to get to where I had tied my boat. It was time to utilize my long-practiced hours of endurance swimming.
All this time the thoughts going through my mind were of human encounters with crocs and hippos that I had read of; very few had ended happily. Whatever happened, I was determined not to sell myself cheaply, and in my mind, I ran through the options available to me; the defense against a croc-a strong thumb in the croc’s eye, the defense against a hippo-zero. I was now approaching the area full of dead leafless trees where I had tied my boat.
That is how it is with some trees; without water they will dry up, but give them too much water and the result is the same-they dry up, leaving just a skeleton of dead branches and trunk sticking out of the water, like the tentacles of a giant octopus. The trees formerly located on dry land adjacent to the lake were now completely submerged under expansionist forces of the lake, and unable to breathe, they had given up the ghost without a fight.
Nothing at all could have prepared me for the impact caused by my left leg hitting something submerged in the water, and I shouted aloud in terror. In an instant I was chock-full of adrenaline, as the fight-or-flight instinct kicked in; I flailed around in the water, trying to spot the crocodile that had thumped me with its first exploratory thrust, preliminary to making a full-frontal attack on my legs or body.
Teeth gritted, every muscle tingling, I was all primed to fight to the death, when the next instant realization dawned on me. My terrible adversary, whom I had accidentally hit with my swimming leg, was stationary, unmoving, fixed-in-place; it only could be the remains of one of the dead trees around me, but one whose trunk had gotten cut off below water- a tree stump underwater.
I was flooded with overwhelming relief that I would not be sticking my thumbs in any eyes, at least not just yet. I had to take a break after my near-death experience-albeit death by heart attack, not by being eaten by a hungry leviathan.
I floated for a while on the water, finally managing, after a few seconds, to regain my composure and to calm the shaking caused by excess adrenaline. Then I continued swimming, smiling a bit at myself for crying out loud like a toddler; I had almost wet my already wet pants because of a dead tree!
Though still about a hundred and fifty meters away from my boat, I was now coming to the head of the island. This time I was on the landward side, having swam all the way round the island, which was still floating interminably alongside me.
Wonder of wonders, who should I encounter again? It was the crocs that I had left at the head of the floating island. One of them again locked eyes with me, about thirty meters away, and started following me as I again turned around and started swimming backwards, eyes on the reptile.
Once again, my trepidation was short-lived, as I again left the fella receding in the distance, with the floating island landscaped in the background. In between glaring down the croc, I had been making constant peeks behind my back and with relief I located my boat in the distance. However, I dared not turn my back on the distant croc and the island, until I could barely see the croc with my straining eyes.
Only then did I turn around and swim with strong silent strokes, with all my senses still at peak performance level. I was amazed at the visual clarity I was experiencing, with everything seeming accentuated in stark relief.
All this while I was thanking God for small mercies, and medium mercies, and big mercies, ‘til I finally pulled myself into my boat. Breathless and limp with relief, I lay at the bottom of the boat, gasping for breath.
When I recovered my strength and my senses, I noticed that the sun was almost disappearing under the horizon. Those were the days of corona-virus, with the attendant curfews, and the accompanying enthusiastic declarations of war by the police on anybody and everybody walking around after curfew hours.
I still had to row to shore and get home before the 7pm curfew. I therefore applied myself with a will to the task before me, and thankfully I made it home by 6:50 pm.
Nderitu is a first-time novelist who lives in Nakuru, Kenya, is
married to one wife and is a father to three children. He has worked
as a banker in an international bank and has also been an accountant. Although
he is currently a freelance proofreader and editor, as well as a
finance and accounts consultant, he is looking to be a full-time
author and to write many more books in future.