I was several days deep into Ethiopia's Omo Valley, home to a handful of the most remote and unique tribal cultures in existence. Some scientists have called the Omo the petri dish of humanity because the diverse tribes that reside there have evolved in its closeted environment with no stylistic or linguistic connection to any other cultures on the African continent. It was so remote as to once qualify for rumors that it had been the Garden of Eden, and it was totally bypassed by the nomadic drug culture of the ‘60s.
The Omo received its first road in the mid 1960s, and in the half century since, there had been little evolution towards modernity. At the time, Ethiopia could be called idyllic and timeless, but all things pass, and now the Omo has become a regular safari stop for tour groups, while a massive dam redirects much of its' main river, altering the hereditary lifestyles of several tribes. Fortunately, I arrived long before the tour busses.
I had visited the gun culture of the Mursi people and was on my way to see the Dasanesh, who were as peaceful and docile as the Mursi were hostile and physical. But, to reach my destination, I first had to cross the Omo River.
I had crossed dozens of African rivers, some wide and raging, others not much more than a calm brook, so by those standards, the Omo is mediocre at best. It would be lost in the counting of hundreds of similar African rivers except that it is the artery that links many of the tribes. Plus it hosts a massive crocodile population.
I arrived with the morning sun roasting my back while casting my shadow almost to the opposite shore, and there, waving like a long-lost relative, was a young Dasanesh girl. Apparently her village had not had many visitors lately.
The Omo at that point was not wide but its coffee-colored waters moved with purpose. It was perhaps only fifty meters across, but first, finding a path to my boat through the black, steel-like bodies that lined the shore was problematic. Omo crocs were ubiquitous as rocks, many sound asleep with mouths wide open to help evaporate the day's heat. Though they appear lethargic, they can attack as though spring loaded, and a person on foot has no chance of outrunning them on shore, let alone in the water. They have but one purpose and that is to feed on the unwary and less powerful. If they have a thought process beyond their immediate needs, it has not yet been discovered. They are among an elite ranking of dinosaurs that have survived into the modern era.
My entre to the opposite side of the river was the classic African dugout: a pirogue—a single, hollowed-out log. Most measure some 15 feet in length while being narrow enough to make them inaccessible to many foreign girths. Their uniqueness lies in that they are hollowed to the point of light passing through as though it were mere hide, allowing them to bend in the river's wrath. They are poled standing upright by river men who appear carved out of ebony, with sculpted arms and chests by Michelangelo. It is a job they do from childhood to death and they are as much a part of the river as the crocs. While the river men have formed a symbiotic relationship with the local crocodile population, a determined animal would, and occasionally does, make short work of an Omo pirogue.
I stood on a bluff wondering how I would get down to a boat when a river man barked orders to several young boys who came running with tree branches and summarily shooed the living fossils, so thick you could walk on them, to make a path for me to race to my boat. The crocs moved as easily as house pets, the young boys sure in their dominance. That gave me a momentary image of the neighborhood I grew up in, where just walking down the street could get you shot and I saw the parallel to these youngsters playing among wild beasts that might eat them. I was taking all of this in while trying to squeeze my widening midsection into the pirogue.
My river man introduced himself as Jonah—said with such a straight face I did not have the heart to ask. As we shoved off, one large beast slithered in simultaneously, like a bullet into a magazine, a grand old dinosaur who stood out from the mob. It was larger than most and looked like an armored island while asleep on the shore. In the water I had no idea of its size but surely it was longer than my boat. Its mostly black plating had layers of yellow that added an eerie touch to its lethargic presence. It moved lazily, propelled by its great tail, snaking back and forth with the grace of a dancer, making barely a ripple, parallel to our boat, a single eye assessing us as though it were reading a menu; its overlapping teeth frozen in a perpetual grin. Only its eye and several scaly, dragon-like dorsal bumps broke the surface, hiding most of its menace below.
I locked eyes as it kept our pace, a steady 9:00 off our port, close enough to touch. I watched the unwavering eye just above the water, cutting a wake like a submarine's periscope, willing me to become a meal. As our dugout began to bend in the center of the river, I thought it a bad time to bring up what I considered to be a nautical design flaw of the boat.
I tucked my arms inside, my eyes no higher than three inches above my antagonist's as the crocodile grew in stature. At that point, I was sure it was 20 feet long. It tracked us like an escort, bestial and other-worldly. I have seen predator eyes up close—owls, falcons, eagles, and even wolves—but none carried the blank, malignant stare of a crocodile. I had been told much about them and read numerous stories of how they did not eat their kill immediately. After rolling repeatedly to both disorient its prey and force it to gulp water and drown, the croc will then look for a hiding place underwater, an old log or a hollow in the river mud where they would stash the carcass for it to decompose for several days and then enjoy it in gourmet rapture. I tried not to imagine myself being tucked under a submerged log as I cried out silently.
When you are eye to eye with a perfect killing machine and only a thin layer of bark separates you, the world becomes very intense. You notice that the eyes sit upright on both sides of an almost flat head giving it wraparound vision. When under attack, it will withdraw the entire eye back into the socket, while at night or underwater, a reflective wall of crystals on the retina amplifies its vision.
What may seem a witless beast is calculating the moment when it might strike, and you can see the armor plate move ever so slightly before the lightning quick lunge, and realize nothing you can do will deter it. It will come ten feet out of the water before its prey can react, seize it, and be gone. It is how they have hunted for thousands of years and the reason they survive today.
Those were my thoughts during the few minutes it took to cross the river that felt at the time like hours. My eyes left the croc only for a moment to marvel at the young sprite jumping and waving from the other shore, so happy and friendly. If I survived the crossing, I knew I would find a story.
As I stepped onto the opposite shore that held far fewer crocs, my hands shook and my knees were weak, while the river man called out with an ironic laugh, "That was old Nero, he is usually friendly."
"Too little, too late for humor," I thought.
The young girl was called Maeve and she was excited by this rare and exotic visitor from another world. She introduced me to the village head man for whom I had brought much appreciated gifts of fruit. Protocol was observed, with a bit of small talk, and I was officially welcomed. In Africa and Asia, it has been my experience that white hair carries respect with it. In remote societies I am usually addressed as "Papa," because I will be, without a doubt, older than the village elder who may be ancient at 40. These people realize that with age comes knowledge, and in societies with no written language, the old saying goes, "When an elder dies, it is like a library burning." The older I am, the more interested they are in me, and that has opened many doors that would be closed for a younger writer.
The village was a scattering of low, domed huts, on a mesa above the river, constructed of whatever detritus the river gave up, but mostly it was local tree bark, species unknown to me. To enter one, I had to crawl on my belly, the reason being that an intruder would have to extend his neck to be chopped off or struck if entering covertly in the middle of the night, a very necessary design element in rural Africa. Inside each hut a young child stoked a smoky fire that had no ventilation for escape.
I spent most of a day among people who were physically beautiful. They had flawless skin and unique adornment that included necklaces 30 feet long, wound endlessly around taut necks, and hats made from bullet casings and old soda bottle caps. They were pastoralists whose women dressed in animal skins and carried themselves with a regal bearing. They told me I was the first white visitor in over a month.
While it was the people I had come to see, it was the crocodile encounter on my crossing that kept returning to my thoughts. It was a primal moment that took over my brain for the next several days, the kind of moment that Livingston, Burton, and Speke knew, and a moment that few visitors to Africa will have the chance to experience. Next to that beast, I was early man. My mind sought a story about the Dasanesh, but the pen in my hand needed to write about the crocodile.
I have never before and probably never will again, be so close to a perfect killing machine, and the further away I get from that event, the more it returns to me. "Tribal" stories are quickly disappearing from travel literature, and close animal encounters are even rarer as man continues to poach ancient herds to the point of extinction. Close encounters with prehistoric carnivores terrify most but exhilarate a few. Hindsight has shown me that yes, I could have chosen a less precarious crossing and still made it to the village, but I was compelled by an undefinable essence that often drives me in such situations. It has fueled explorers since the dawn of time, and it is what has spread mankind across the globe from a remote corner of Africa; it is part of the inbred DNA of man to push the envelope. Those who do not travel might call such a drive a death wish, but those who explore will understand.
The old ways are quickly disappearing, and my day crossing the Omo River gave me a quick glimpse of old spear and loincloth Africa, where life was cheap and death came quickly. It felt good to see that spear and loincloth Africa still exists today, living in respectful proximity with deadly ancient creatures.
James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, author, and photographer who has traveled extensively in forty-some countries, mostly far off the beaten path. His primary interest is in documenting indigenous people in Asia and Africa. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club, and a member and former director of the Adventurers Club. See more at www.jamesdorsey.com.
Horses, Hooves, and Heat in Today's Evolving Ethiopia - Julia Hubbel
Jumping Into Matrimony in Ethiopia - James Michael Dorsey
Chillin' with the Geladas in Ethiopia - Claudia Flisi
Did I Have an Alligator Mother? - Judith Fein
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