I am trying to cling the bottom of the river with my hands, they are completely sinking in the sand. It helps, but just for a few seconds. The stream is so strong that we are being rapidly carried down the river. Again and again Amos is trying to stick the monopod into the sand. We are struggling from last strength in order to keep ourselves in a place. The depth is about 8.5 meters and a black abyss teeming with giant crocodiles is behind us. I am trying to dodge my face from the rushing debris that fell into the water upstream. The visibility is only few meters. I can only see pieces of dirt, twigs, leaves, dead stems of papyrus, and here in this mass we lose Walter. He went up to check our boat and then got out of our sight. I can see Amos is nervous. He is trying to listen to the noise of the engine, but all that we can hear is only the roar of the river. He looks up, hoping to see the bottom of the boat, then looks into my eyes very gently and fatherly, trying to calm me down. Having seen his support, I try my best to hook to the bottom and to him. I can`t determine my feelings - I don`t feel bodily fear anymore, though I should. This is only my third dive here and we have already got into a trap... And how fine our journey this began!!!
20 hours ago.
We met Lisa in Namibia, Lisa, who has been organizing all my trips to Africa for many years. I always feel myself in a complete safety when I know she leads me from town to town day by day under a strict control, I am sure nothing wrong will happen to me as she is always keeps the track of events. This fragile woman simply does everything at the highest level. And it is a great relief for me to know that she decided to accompany me personally in this dangerous trip. By the way I can`t stop amazing the number of her friends, acquaintances and communications!
It took us an hour and a half to get to Botswana. Coming closer to the airport we see a small runway on the edge of the world, and I am very surprised to see a customs officer in the midth of the field! We go through the passport control right there. This fact confirms me one more time that Lisa can do anything. And even now I am smiling remembering it. We are met by Greg, the organizer of our spontaneous camp. We get in his car and head towards our temporary house. Сows, donkeys, goats are constantly jump out on the road like a disaster. Greg has to show the skill of driving, avoiding collisions. According to him, this is the place where the majority of accidents occur with the participation of livestock. And as a convincing proof of his words we meet a lame man with crutches. Tio is a black strongly build man, his car unfortunately bumped into a large bull on his way home two days ago. The car splashed into pieces and as a result - a fractured leg. Even two days later the wounds look scary, but despite this injury he behaves like a regular trump! Tio will be a part of our team these day and our lives will depend on him. This black man is our skipper and an expert in crocodile`s behavior. His duty is to watch for bubbles in the water when we are at the bottom, he must always know the exact place where we rise up on the surface, because after it we have only a few seconds until the crocodile detects us... this is so called a Dead zone. This monster attacks only on the surface, as a man, crocs don`t like water getting into the mouth. And one more thing, the crocodile`s vision is much more weaker under the water. So the safest place in the river is to stay at the bottom.
Camp. Our tent camp is based on the island. We are surrounded by water, you can get here only by boat and it takes us at least 50 minutes. Only water, crocodiles and hippos are around the camp. Yet we sometimes hear the elephants, but never see them. On the island we meet Walter and Francois. Walter is a very nice man about 65 years old, well-built with a huge hook around the neck. His kind and charming smile immediately finds favours in my eyes. He is constantly joking and behaves himself like a kid, and only once having noticed his laid-back look I can realise that he had a long and difficult way of life. Walter is an important member of our team. Three of us: me, Amos and Walter are going to dive together. Now I can tell that Walter is one of the courageous and bravest divers I have ever met. He has swum without any special armour or shelter with the largest predators such as sharks, whales and crocodiles. And the hook which he wears around his neck, he pulled out by himself from the shark`s lower jaw and thereby saved this sea monster from a terrible discomfort. The most documentaries about the dangerous underwater animals in the coastal waters of South Africa were filmed with the participation and assistance of Walter. And now it is my honour to meet him.
Francois. Yeah, our Franco is undoubtedly the most fun licensed paramedic in the world! He has made a three-day journey from South Africa to Botswana to bring all the medication that may be necessary on occasion. He is a cheerful young man 33 years old. He is always in a good mood and constantly jokes. With smiles and merry songs we are going to the most dangerous adventure I have ever had...and will hardly ever have in my life! Our routine is very simple. We get up early. Have breakfast at 7. a.m. Then at 8. 30 we quickly pull our suits for scuba diving on, check the equipment and leave the camp to start our searches for 5-dollar Bob and Fat Albert. In this kind way our guys call these giant monsters. The length from the top of the nose to the end of the tail the length varies from 4 to 6 metres. Without any doubt they are real monsters!
Soon after our arrival to the island we sey off to explore the territory and at the same time I have to observe how our team will dive. Today the test dive will be made by Amos, Walter and Francois. What a surprise it was for me when I knew that our doctor is also a diving instructor and for more than 7 years he has been working with Walter in Dublin, showing the tiger sharks to the brave tourists. And to confirm this fact Francois shows me his scars. I am really impressed and feel even more respect to him.
Amos. I can talk about him endlessly. I can`t find the words to express the respect to his courage and bravery. He has already become a legend and beyond any doubt the hero of our days. To know him personally and have the opportunity to learn and work with him is a great luck and honor for me. Throughout his life this man is very passionate about everything he does, whether he is observing animals or simply takes a documentary photographs from the battlefield. I can`t even imagine where the limit of his courage is. He served in the Special Forces, it was there where he began to make photographs thereby entertaining his friends. Then he worked as a war correspondent at Assoshieted press, and even in a studio where he shot the US celebrities,... but found his true vocation interacting with nature, especially with the large predators. More than 20 years he spent travelling around the world. You can`t find any free week in his busy schedule. And a geography of the places where he has been, impresses you even more. He shot polar bears, whales, crocodiles, great white sharks, leopard seals... The story of his life proves that animals are no more dangerous than the people are, and when you converse with them you should know exactly everything about their habits and strictly follow the rules of conduct. It is impossible to dictate the rules of conduct in a strange house, so when you interact with the nature you should know that sometimes a single error and neglect can cost you a life.
And here is the time "X" at last - I have been preparing for it for so many months.
Early rise. The day is breaking. Terrible cold, about +5C. And it is in Africa, in the month of July! My thin silk pajamas does not give me any warmth. Only the hotter keeps it, carefully put under the duvet. Every morning I am grateful to Lisa for a real bed, specially delivered for me on the island. I didn`t ask for any special conditions and was ready to sleep in a sleeping bag, but was pleasantly surprised to see the bed in my tent. And now every cold morning I can`t help but admiring Lisa`s care and resourcefulness.
7.00 am. The Breakfast time. Sitting by the fire with a plate in my hand I am looking towards the river with fear and anxiety. Over the river there is a cloud of steam. At this time of a year the water temperature is much higher than the air temperature. I look there and think that the huge monsters are hiding somewhere in this fog and today I am going to meet them and close enough... if I am lucky... It makes my skin creep when I think about it. Amos as if sensed my mood, encouragingly claps me on the shoulder.
The red sun is rising slowly. Warm rays try to awaken the fighting spirit in me. No way back,as this was only my idea... Time to pull the suit for scuba diving on and and prepare the equipment. We should start at 8.30.
Well, everything is ready: snorkeling and photographic equipment, personal belongings. So we go. The plan is to find a shallow, quiet channel and check out my abilities. Only then, if I pass the exam with honours, I will be admitted to the serious depth, where everyone will be responsible for their lives. Here is the moment "X" to which I had prepared for so many months.
I passed the diving test successfully as well I passed the test on cold. My mentors congratulated me. And it was not clear which of us was happier: me or my friends...Later on the men avouched me that they thought I would be a burden on them under the water as I didn`t have enough experience. Dressed in wet suits and not putting off the fins, we head towards the main channel. What a cold! Besides, my suit is full of ice water, so I put on my jacket for alpine skiing and a cap. But all in vein: I am shivering and shaking like an aspen leaf in the wind. I must say that this feeling of terrible cold will accompany me until the last dive on the Okavango.
On our way we come across small crocodiles- 2-3 meters, but we need some larger ones. Our goal is a big fat "Bob". We know the place where one of them likes to relax. Lucky we are! Here it is! Having seen us the crocodile quickly slips into the water.We don`t loose time, pull the equipment and masks on, count "1,2,3" and fall down into the water.These seconds are the scariest for me... We have to get to the bottom as fast as possible and it can reach a depth of 10-13 meters. I have a terrible earache, the heart is pounding as if it wants to jump out off my chest and come back on the boat, to the warmth and safety.
Having reached the bottom we press to it. Amos is the first who goes down the river, then me and Walter. The visibility is very poor, sometimes it is no more than a meter. I can see only lots of garbage that the flow carries straight in the face. The bottom is mostly covered with clay. It is impossible to see a crocodile even if he has a giant size in such conditions. Each hill of dirt that sticks out of the dark muddy waters reminds me a reptile. I constantly look back. I can`t help feeling that when we are looking for it, the river monster has already found and follows us. And here is our good luck! We have found the monster from the first time! It is lying on the sandy island in the midst of the clay. We`ve swum close enough and I am one meter away from it. I start clinging to the bottom, trying to slow down the motion - I wouldn`t like to bump into the crocodile least of all in the world. But Walter pushes me forwards it. The croc feeling the fuss, takes off and goes into the darkness. I am so disappointed! According to the rules, we can not pursue the fugitives, and immediately start moving to the surface, and it is even more scary than the plunging. By the agreement between us, Walter is the first who pop up. He checks the boat, beeps, and then returns to the bottom. Then the men help me unbutton the BAN (vest), so that it remains to hang on one shoulder, than check if there any air in it. And in this state I am getting up to the surface. That is the moment of horror when your life depends on the speed of exit out of water and a strong control of emotions. How many times after that I surfaced and saw that the boat had already claimed over. And in these moments, according to the instructions it is necessary to return to the bottom immediately. And what a temptation: to swim towards the boat or to the shore like stink ... but it could be my last swim then, because the predator was still in the water - 98 per cent there... These reptiles are very attached to their seats. And afterwards, it was proved for many times.
I don't have even time to recover from the terror and to warm my frozen body, but we have to start our searches again. It doesn't take us 10 minutes as we find a large "fortune" basking in the sun 5 metres apart us. And the same thing occurs: a crocodile,having seen us, reluctantly slips into the water. We pull the equipment on and jump into the water with the Olympic speed. Oh, damn, I flew my mask off and at once my nose begin gulping water. Again the feeling of horror, but I take myself in hands. No time to panic, it is necessary to fall down to the bottom, because Amos and Walter are there already and the boat drifted out. This time the flow is much stronger and the water more turbid. I can hardly notice the men. Finally I am next to them, can relax a little, but because of the terror I am greedily gasping for the air, it seems to me I am suffocating... again I have to fight against my fears... Amos noticed that something wrong with me, takes my hand and makes me look him in the eyes. I see his soft, kind eyes, and calmness like a wave spreads through my body. I calm down. The strong stream dashingly carries us down the river. We decided to emerge, but the depth is 12 meters. I have no time to equalize my ears. The situation is very dangerous, Walter has already disappeared from sight, and we don't see the bottom of the boat in these conditions. Again and again Amos sticks the monopod GoPro in the sand, but the current is too strong. After 10 minutes we decided to emerge to the surface.
He helps me to unbutton BSD, verifies the absence of air, and for a moment our eyes meet, he takes and squeezes my hand. I feel how he worries about me, the situation is really dangerous, but this time I'm not afraid. May be I am tired of fear, or I was covered with the feeling of hopelessness over my head or maybe a sense of self-preservation took over. I go upstairs quickly and rapidly, knowing that I have no chance to return there. In case of failure, I'll be at the bottom...alone...
To be continued ...