“Africa’s a great place,” said our guide, sliding the safety back on his .375 H & H, “but don’t make any mistakes…”
The rasping metallic whine of Christmas beetles saturated the hot, still air at midday of November 21st, 1976, the shrill sound blending with the oily, watery roll at the head of the pool of the Sabi River in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. The smoke of barbecue fires paled the lances of sunlight through the riverine bush as the chatter of relaxed Park staff paused to hear the thump and roar of an approaching ranger’s bush vehicle. In a swirl of hanging red dust, rangers Tom Yssel and Louis Olivier got out and walked over to the party, which included the families of Park helicopter pilots Hans Kolver and Dickie Kaiser. They had been studying for an exam they had to take the next day, but the summer scorch of the Lowveld changed their minds and they decided to join their friends for an easy afternoon. That it would not be.
Frans Laubscher, the Kruger’s chief engineer, was also there, fishing across the river from a wide stone outcrop while his wife and family got the low coals ready for boerewors sausages and beef. Tom and Louis decided to wade out and see how he was doing while the food was grilling, and as they splashed through the shallows at the side of the pool, it suddenly came to Tom that he had forgotten to strap on his constant companion, a Ruger .357 revolver. Curiously, Louis had also forgotten his sheath knife. A deadly mistake on both parts…
At a shout that skoff was ready, Frans reeled in and came over to the two rangers. Louis led the way back, followed by Tom and Frans, still fussing with his fishing rod. Pausing, Louis let Tom pass him and waited for Frans to come up. As Louis opened his mouth to speak, there was a depth charge of bursting water, a dull flash of something gigantic and a searing scream from Tom froze the area into shock.
Damnit, thought Louis, Tom shouldn’t play the bloody fool like that! Only Tom wasn’t kidding. He had been grabbed by 16 feet of crocodile, his lower right leg crushed between the thick, rounded teeth. A low, bloody wake spread as the onlookers gasped in terror, the huge croc effortlessly swimming into the deeper water of the pool with Tom as helpless as a rag doll.
Perhaps it was Tom’s face that prompted Louis; that look of utter agony and death that still haunts him. Louis’ brain shifted into that frozen, savage clarity of combat and he threw himself in a half-dive straight at the giant croc. Pushing below it, he tried to grasp it around the body, but it was far too large. Finding the bottom under his feet, he struggled to slow it, as it swam with the inexorable power of its 2,000 pounds. His bare feet bloodied by the sharp river rocks, he surfaced, and in the second he drew in a sweet, new gasp of air, he saw that the croc had moved his terrible bite up to Tom’s thigh.
Tom Yssel was wrapped around the croc’s head, clinging with every reserve of his strength to prevent the croc from ripping off his leg. Despite his agony, he reflexively gulped air every time his head was clear of the surface. Beneath him, at the croc’s belly, Louis had grabbed a rear leg in a desperate bid to keep the killer from reaching deep water. Incredibly, with the raw power of desperation, Louis managed to change the angle of the huge eating machine a few degrees towards a sand bar and away from the dark depths of the pool. Almost certainly, this success prevented Tom’s being drowned immediately.
In the oxygen-starved brain of Louis Olivier, there suddenly bloomed the realization that there was a small knife in his rear pants pocket. Holding the now thrashing, lashing croc with one hand, he managed to get it free and opened the 2½-inch blade with his teeth! Pressing it against the croc’s stomach, he tried to “zip it open.” As he tried to shove the steel in, there was a small twink! and the blade broke off at the handle.
Berserk with fear, anger and frustration, Olivier actually then pulled himself onto the croc’s back and attacked it with his bare fists, smashing away until his knuckles and hands were a mass of raw flesh from the armored head and back. Still punching with all his strength, Louis Olivier and his best friend disappeared under the surface as the croc submerged.
In the mad thrashing and twisting, Louis lost his grip. A thump from the giant’s tail knocked him over and over, finally reaching the surface as he almost passed out. When he cleared his vision he was astonished to see Hans Kolver on top of the croc, swinging insanely with his fists at the croc’s head.
Hans, who could see only the croc with his jaws set on Tom, had known that Tom was beyond help. Yet, he couldn’t let him die without knowing that his friends had tried to help. He jumped straight for the animal’s head! Incredibly, Tom was still conscious and had the presence of mind to scream to Hans, “Go for the goddam eyes!” Hans did. So large was the head that Tom had been unable to reach them himself.
With a savage tear, Hans dug at the slit-pupils and knew he was getting the reptile’s attention. It exploded in a flurry of agony, shaking Tom above the water like a heron with a small fish in its bill. Even the horrified families on the bank heard the loud, soggy snap! as Tom’s thigh was broken. The croc then slid below the surface again, but by now, Louis was back in the battle.
Somehow Louis Olivier got under the croc’s head and, with a huge burst of adrenalin, forced it and Tom’s mangled body clear of the water. Tom even had a chance to take another breath and croak his thanks through his agony.
Louis was at this point incoherent with rage, actually believing that he could kill the crocodile with his own hands, and this an animal that can and has dragged full-grown rhinos inexorably to a watery death. He tried to grab it in a bear hug again, but it was far too large. Grabbing a hind leg, he tried to drag it to the bank, but the irresistible smash of the great tail knocked him almost senseless yards away.
While all this was going on, Hans was still thumping the skull and trying to rip the eyes out. He was hurting the croc, too, as it flipped and reared each time the finger dug deep. Had Tom not been so tightly wrapped around the snout, his leg would have certainly been torn off.
Louis, half-dazed, realized that he was no match for the croc barehanded. A weapon! Where? He staggered out of the pool and made it to his car. A chill hit him as he realized that he had not brought his knife nor had Tom thought to strap on the .357 Magnum. Forgetting that any cookout is stiff with butcher knives, he weaved back to the bank and jumped in empty-handed!
Somehow, the croc had surfaced beneath an overhanging tree at the pool’s edge and Tom had grabbed the branches in a death grip. To everybody’s increasing horror, the croc was now holding him clamped across the stomach, the terrible wound pumping blood in a swirling cloud that billowed downstream. As Tom hung between the jaws and the branches, Hans strained with all his might to keep the huge, tooth-studded head up. Tom, almost dead from shock and loss of blood muttered that he would see Hans “on the other side.” Hans snapped at him to quit that kind of talk, but Tom could not have had much hope. Nearly 15 minutes had gone by since he was attacked.
Back at the scene, Louis scrambled up the bank, grabbed a stout branch and dangled his legs in front of Tom, yelling for him to grab on. With the help of Dickie Kaiser, who was now thoroughly involved, Louis had Kaiser hold him under the arms as they tried to literally rip Tom free from the jaws of the croc, which may have been partially blinded by now. With each tug, the terrible teeth tore deeper into Tom’s midriff.
Something seemed to give and the men on the bank thought they might be winning. But, it was Hans, back underneath the croc, killing himself trying to lift it. Of course, it was not possible and the croc began to gain, the branches being torn through Louis’ bleeding hands as he and Dickie were inexorably drawn down the bank.
Dickie Kaiser’s wife, Corrie, ran up with a small one-handed gardening shovel and put it into Louis’ hand. He slipped into the river next to the croc’s head and tried a slash at the eyes. But, Hans thought he was passing it to him and stuck out his hand. The tool flipped off his knuckles and sand to the bottom of the pool.
The battle for Tom Yssel’s life continued. The croc would not let him go nor would Tom’s friends give him up. They tried everything, including suffocation by sticking fingers into the creature’s nostrils, but it was hopeless. Even worse, the croc, with frightening speed would sometimes release Tom and slash at one of them, only to again grab Tom before he could be pulled free. Each new bite opened huge wounds and tatters of intestines fluttered in the pink current. Tom Yssel was dying in a hurry.
Knowing that Tom was almost gone, the others decided on one more attack on the croc’s eyes. As Tom tensed for the awful shaking of the croc’s head, there was a lighting surge of power and teeth as the croc released Yssel and lunged at Hans! By reflex, he crossed his arms before his chest, but the croc snapped down on his wrist, crushing it like dry spaghetti. As Hans turned away, he was then caught by the upper arm, tearing off much of his bicep. The front teeth held him as surely as they had Tom.
Next to Hans, Tom was chest-deep in the bloody water, balanced on one leg and trying to keep his insides from becoming his outsides. Hyped on adrenalin, he desperately wanted to help Hans, but thought better of it when he noticed with no small interest that one of his feet was facing backwards! Realizing that the stream of blood downstream would likely bring reinforcements for the croc, he started for the bank.
Hans had, probably more by good luck than design, managed to get a firm thumb grip on the croc’s eye socket. This enabled him to turn with the spinning animal as it tried to tear his arm off. As he struggled, Corrie Kaiser arrived again, this time with more substantial armaments in the form of a butcher knife. Louis Olivier got hold of it and waded over to Hans and the croc. Carefully, he felt for the eye not containing Hans’ thumb and with all his strength shoved the steel up to the hilt. The croc quivered, released Hans and sculled off to deep water.
Chest deep in bloody water, the three men realized that a mass attack could happen any second. Hans, despite his own terrible bites, almost literally threw Tom up the bank into the hands of Louis and the rest of the party. He then took what he called “the longest walk of my life” – about 20 yards through the gore-stained water to where he could climb to safety.
Louis, at this point, was overcome with anger. Incredibly, he waded back into the river with the butcher knife, the blade bent into a U from impact with the croc’s skull, and stood screaming for the croc to dare come and get him. Happily, there were no takers. After a few moments, he almost collapsed and waded back to shore to help load up Tom Yssel for his trip to the stitchery.
Tom’s right thigh bone was completely bitten in half and he drifted between life and death for many weeks at Nelspruit Hospital, where he had been flown by helicopter. He was so weak, in fact, that the doctors dared not take off his leg. Most of his wounds became terribly infected from the croc’s teeth, but thanks to then-new miracle drugs, when I spoke with him at Pretoriuskop, his park headquarters last July, he was in fine fettle despite an obvious limp.
The croc fared not so well and was executed the next day by a ranger. He was five meters long, which makes about 16½ feet. This is a lot of crocodile, especially if it is biting you.
Both Louis Olivier and Hans Kolver were later awarded the Volraad Woltemade decoration, the highest civilian award for valor in South Africa, equivalent to Britain’s George Medal.
I can think of only one comment to reference this heroic and grisly tale, and it was made by PH Gordon Cundill after we were charged by a bull hippo: “Africa’s a great place,” said he, sliding the safety back on his .375 H & H, “but don’t make any mistakes…”
Story written by Peter Capstick. Find more like it on Sporting Classics Daily. To read more stories from writers’ adventures in Africa, check out Africa: 41 Dark Adventures from the Dark Continent.