As an aspiring conservationist, I recognise the importance of appreciating all forms of life – the ‘cute’ and the ‘beautiful’, the ‘ugly’ and the ‘ferocious’. But, quite frankly, I have always found it most difficult to love crocodiles.
When I was a child I had a recurring nightmare in which I watched hopelessly as my dad got dragged into our dam and was devoured by an enormous croc. This may have come from listening to stories like Peter Capstick’s gory Death in the Long Grass, which has a whole chapter on man-eating crocodiles, hardly appropriate for a six-year-old. My fixation with J.M. Barry’s Peter Pan may have added to my fear, especially when watching the theatre production with the larger-than-life tick-tocking croc biting off Captain Hook’s hand.
Would it have been different if I could fly like Peter Pan? Recently, I had the unique experience of doing just that, and it made me wonder whether crocodiles have nightmares too.
The icy air on my face made my eyes water as we walked to the airfield. The bush was still waking up and I tried hard to stifle a yawn. We casually made our way down a dust path surrounded by long yellow grass. Unbeknown to us, a pride of six lions was sleeping just a few metres away. With each step my excitement grew – I was about to fly with John Coppinger in his microlight over Zambia’s beautiful South Luangwa National Park. John and Carol Coppinger own Remote Africa Safaris, fittingly named for this little piece of paradise. Knowing about John’s vast flying experience, I could relax and enjoy every minute. I was in safe hands. As we took off, a hippo munched nonchalantly in the middle of the runway. ‘Only in Africa,’ I thought. Once in the air, I was overcome with awe, my heart beating with the urgency of trying to take it all in. Surely this must be the most beautiful place in Africa!
I remember laughing at how funny the giraffes looked from above, with their legs splayed out awkwardly as they cantered in slow motion. We flew close enough to see a baby African fish-eagle in its nest – a complete novelty – as well as a giant eagle-owl, staring up at us, reflecting my own wide-eyed wonderment.
But I couldn’t help noticing that none of the animals were particularly perturbed by us, except for, to my secret satisfaction, the crocodiles. While the hippos lazed like immovable shiny boulders, their scaly neighbours took off like darts, every one of them shooting straight off the riverbanks and swimming wildly to the centre of the river as if their very lives depended on it. ‘Why was this?’ I wondered. The Luangwa River is notorious for its monstrous crocodiles, but in the short moment we flew over them, they were so helplessly vulnerable!
Well, here’s one explanation for this bizarre behaviour, inspired by the theories of John himself: Perhaps the microlight reminds the crocs of the birds that tormented them as youngsters? Yes, birds – eagles, herons, marabou storks and ground-hornbills. Imagine for a moment that you are a newborn crocodile, only 30 cm long, opening your eyes to the world for the first time. After her eggs have hatched, a female crocodile carries her squeaking youngsters in her mouth to the water’s edge and releases them to the reedy unknown where only one, maybe two, of the 50-plus hatchlings will survive. The rest will be eaten by up by monitor lizards, otters, the odd hyaena lurking at the water’s edge and, you’ve guessed it – birds.
Although staring into the eyes and fake toothy smile of a croc is still pretty unnerving, I often look back at the microlight trip and smile to myself, knowing that crocs have a vulnerable side too. I spent the whole of breakfast that day trying to hide my joyful grin, not only because I’d been delighted to witness the soft side of crocs, but also because the entire experience from beginning to end had been truly dream-like.
Go micro-lighting with Remote Africa Safaris
Sometimes a different view is required to put life in perspective. Guests looking for this perspective should experience the most exhilarating activity on offer at Tafika Camp: microlight flights piloted by Remote Africa Safaris‘ owner, John Coppinger. A tour above the ever-changing Luangwa River gives guests an opportunity to view, and begin to understand, the inner workings of the Luangwa Valley and how the river supports the wide variety of wildlife that is evident in the valley basin. Flights take place at sunrise, ensuring a smooth ride and clear conditions, and allowing guests to take part in the morning’s later, regular game-viewing activities. Flights last an average of 15 minutes and offer a perfect bird’s-eye view of both the Luangwa wildlife and the scenery surrounding Tafika Camp. The flights may only be arranged during a guest’s stay and must be paid for on site.