The Crocodile That Wouldn’t Croak

Shooting the 14-foot crocodile was easy. But after we loaded it aboard our 16-foot boat and headed for camp, the boat almost sank and then one of the croc's eyes opened and I realized it was still alive. That's when the engine quit...

The horror story began when we headed our 16-foot fiberglass inboard/outboard runabout into the mouth of the Senkwi River and quietly cruised upstream. The Senkwi has another name — a long African name that I can neither spell nor pronounce. But when translated, it tells of a fearsome god that dwells where there is no sun and whose slobber is filled with such deadly creatures that everything it touches is killed and devoured. The legend behind the name tells how the god’s deadly slobber gushes out of the earth and flows from a mountain, spreading death across the land, until it meets and is conquered by the benevolent god of the Zambezi River.

The river of death no longer flows into the mighty Zambezi but into Lake Kariba, which was formed by the damming of the Zambezi, but the putrid waters that spill into the man-made sea are still full of the devil’s own creatures.

Beyond the first bend in the river of death, the world transforms itself into the prehistoric. Trees do not bloom or bear leaf, having been raped by a blight that twisted them into bare roosts for sulking vultures and carrion-eating waterbirds. Great shaggy nests of dead grass, as large as a native hut, sag from the gnarled snags of tree limbs, and long-beaked birds cry out with cackling wails.

Little vegetation grew along the river. The banks were mostly bare earth and mud, dotted with shapeless stone and rimmed with a rock wall, all blending into a brown landscape. There was no game, but we knew that wild animals had been there at one time because skulls and other bones lay scattered along the banks as if a recent flood had cleansed the river’s depths of its dead.

Such a place demands silence and little was said as we slowly cruised upstream. Oomo and Jason, the two black Africans who normally smiled and talked to each other continuously, were silent and watchful, and clearly apprehensive, without knowing why. Neither of them lived nearby and they had not heard the legend of the river. Soon, though, they would have their own story of the river to tell their grandchildren. Before the safari ended, both told me that they would never go up that river again.

As we rounded each bend in the river, there was a splash a few hundred yards ahead and a quiet ripple radiated from shore.

“Crocs,” our professional hunter Mike Rowbotham would say, his voice tight.

I’d seen crocodiles before in Sudan’s Nile swamps and in French Equatorial Africa. In Botswana, I had witnessed an ear-shattering battle between a croc and a baboon. The baboon’s troopmates had viciously attacked the crocodile, but the hard-scaled reptile never loosened its jawlock on the unfortunate primate. It simply slid beneath the water and that was the end of the baboon.

The crocodiles that I’d seen before had never impressed me as being especially wary, but these crocs were so wild that there was little chance of getting a good look at one before it slid into the water and disappeared.

“Are they always this wild?” I asked Mike.

“Oh yes,” he answered, “they’re spooky. It’s tough to get a shot at one. They’re more wary than any game animal.”

That did it. Until that moment, I’d never had any real desire to hunt crocodiles, but learning that they were hard to bag presented a challenge. “Mike, I’ve got to shoot a croc,” I announced.

He raised his eyebrows for a long moment and then gazed into the deathly green water as if silently struggling with himself. Then the cloud passed from his face and he grinned with characteristic good humor.

“Okay, Jim, we’ll get one.”

Upstream, a silent form stirred the water’s surface for an instant and then disappeared, radiating ripples across the slow current. If anyone could deliver on that promise it would be Mike Rowbotham, operator of Hunter’s Tracks PTY, a leading safari outfitter. He had brought me and my hunting paJack Atcheson Sr. — as well respected in North America as Rowbotham was in Africa — on this safari in Zimbabwe, the game-rich inland African nation once known as Rhodesia.

Several times that week, we saw crocs in the water — as many as a dozen at a time. Their snouts and eyes barely broke the water’s surface and they looked like floating slabs of rotten wood. A few times, I was only a couple of feet from the creatures, and a killing shot through the eye and into the brain would have been simple. But shooting a croc in the water is usually a waste because they will sink immediately and no one wants to go diving for a crocodile in its home territory.

While we were watching a group of floating crocs, an unsuspecting coot landed in their midst and swam toward one of the motionless snouts. What happened next is as difficult to describe as the speed with which darkness fills a room when the light is switched off. The water boiled for an instant and then there was nothing but a gentle whirlpool. The coot simply vanished.

A more efficient and more remorseless killing machine than a crocodile does not exist in all of nature. So precisely honed are their killing techniques and instincts that millions of years have wrought no evolutionary improvements. They are as they were at the dawn of creation — as patient, as watchful, as swift, and just as incapable of pity.

By comparison, even the great white shark is second-class. The croc is infinitely more efficient because it thinks about killing and uses practiced stealth to catch its victims. And it can do this on land as well as in the water. A crocodile can sprint fast enough to grab an antelope before the victim gets up speed enough to escape. Knowing from past experience that it was useless to try approaching sunning crocodiles on the bank in a boat, we worked out a simple plan. We left Jason downstream with the boat and the rest of us skirted the river on foot. By staying hidden behind the standing snags and logs that lay along the river’s banks, we hoped to stalk within range.

After a mile or so of skirting the river, we topped a low hill and found ourselves looking down on a marshy flood plain. At first, the place seemed void of life, but after a quick look, Mike crouched behind the rotted shell of a tree and motioned all of us to do likewise. I peered cautiously from behind a stump through binoculars and spotted a sleeping croc, then another, and another. Lying along the opposite bank, there must have been 12 or 15.

The usual advice about bullet placement on a crocodile is, “Hit him behind the smile.” A croc’s mouth ends in an upward crook that looks like a cruel smile. This crook is more or less on a vertical line with the eye. Somewhere along this line is what passes for a brain — a target not much bigger than a walnut. If you study a croc’s head, you’ll see that there isn’t much space for a brain. The entire skull was designed for killing, not for thinking. Hitting a big crocodile anywhere except the brain is pretty much a wasted effort. Unless you can blow one apart with a howitzer, the croc’s reaction to a body shot will be almost no reaction at all.

Crawling on the hard-baked earth, I zigzagged from stump to stump until I was within about 200 yards of the sleeping crocodiles. There I found a tree carcass big enough to hide behind. After getting into a sitting position, I slipped the rifle’s sling behind my elbow and pulled it tight. By resting the rifle alongside the dead tree, the rifle was so steady that the crosshairs scarcely jiggled as they settled on the nearest crocodile’s head.

Luckily, the biggest croc was also the closest and lying broadside so that I had a clear view of its grim smile. For a moment, the crosshairs vibrated on the crocodile’s head; then they were still and the bullet crossed the river. The big croc’s tail violently lashed the water and then was dead still. The only motion I could see was a growing spot of thin red — behind the smile.

“Well done, Jim. That’s one good croc,” Mike said as he joined me.

He studied the beast through his dusty binoculars to make doubly sure it was dead.

“Oomo, run back and fetch Jason and the boat,” he called. “Let’s see if we can get that devil back to camp.”

A half-hour later, during which the croc had not twitched, we crossed the river in the boat and I had my first close-up look at my trophy. It was absolutely incredible. No animal I’ve ever bagged or seen was as awesome.

“It’s one of the biggest crocs I’ve ever seen,” Mike exclaimed.

That’s when I realized I had shot a monster croc.

The croc measured 141/2 feet from nose tip to tail tip and taped more than 16 feet over the curves.

With Jack’s video camera recording the scene, I walked around the beast, lifting and flexing its prehistoric feet, not believing, even with the evidence before me, that such a creature could exist, now or at any time. There was no bullet hole in the skull, only an inch-long crack where the .338 slug had blasted its way toward the brain. Incredibly, there was no exit wound. The same load that could drill completely through a Cape buffalo had been stopped by the crocodile’s head.

“Open its mouth so I can get a shot of the teeth,” Jack requested, aiming his camera at the creature’s blunt snout.

Slipping my fingers between the teeth, I got a grip on the jagged upper jaw and heaved it wide. Teeth rimmed the mouth like spikes of broken glass imbedded in the top of a wall. The mouth’s lining was white and fleshy, like that of a snake. The whiteness was spotted by watery reptile blood. The throat was choked by a clotting puddle of blood, dripping from the place where its brain had been. Even in death, the crocodile looked as though it still possessed a will to kill.

“Well, the thing must weigh three-quarters of a ton. We’ll have to tow it back to camp with the boat,” Mike said.

“Too risky, Mike. I don’t want to lose it,” I told him. “We’ve got to figure out a way to get it in the boat, even if we have to skin it here.”

With Jack Atcheson directing, we cut stout poles and, with two men to the pole, we levered the croc out of its slimy bed. After considerable grunting and cussing in a variety of languages, we heaved the croc’s head and forelegs over the boat’s bow. The massive head was too slippery to grasp, so Mike rigged a rope bridle around the head and snout that provided secure handholds. As it turned out, that was about the only smart thing we did all afternoon.

When the crocodile was about halfway in the boat, we relaxed our grip for a second to take a breather before the final heave. At that instant, the massive body expanded as if it were taking as dead still. The only motion I could see was a growing spot of thin red — behind the smile.

“Well done, Jim. That’s one good croc,” Mike said as he joined me.

He studied the beast through his dusty binoculars to make doubly sure it was dead.

“Oomo, run back and fetch Jason and the boat,” he called. “Let’s see if we can get that devil back to camp.”

A half-hour later, during which the croc had not twitched, we crossed the river in the boat and I had my first close-up look at my trophy. It was absolutely incredible. No animal I’ve ever bagged or seen was as awesome.

“It’s one of the biggest crocs I’ve ever seen,” Mike exclaimed.

That’s when I realized I had shot a monster croc.

The croc measured 141/2 feet from nose tip to tail tip and taped more than 16 feet over the curves.

With Jack’s video camera recording the scene, I walked around the beast, lifting and flexing its prehistoric feet, not believing, even with the evidence before me, that such a creature could exist, now or at any time. There was no bullet hole in the skull, only an inch-long crack where the .338 slug had blasted its way toward the brain. Incredibly, there was no exit wound. The same load that could drill completely through a Cape buffalo had been stopped by the crocodile’s head.

“Open its mouth so I can get a shot of the teeth,” Jack requested, aiming his camera at the creature’s blunt snout.

Slipping my fingers between the teeth, I got a grip on the jagged upper jaw and heaved it wide. Teeth rimmed the mouth like spikes of broken glass imbedded in the top of a wall. The mouth’s lining was white and fleshy, like that of a snake. The whiteness was spotted by watery reptile blood. The throat was choked by a clotting puddle of blood, dripping from the place where its brain had been. Even in death, the crocodile looked as though it still possessed a will to kill.

“Well, the thing must weigh three-quarters of a ton. We’ll have to tow it back to camp with the boat,” Mike said.

“Too risky, Mike. I don’t want to lose it,” I told him. “We’ve got to figure out a way to get it in the boat, even if we have to skin it here.”

With Jack Atcheson directing, we cut stout poles and, with two men to the pole, we levered the croc out of its slimy bed. After considerable grunting and cussing in a variety of languages, we heaved the croc’s head and forelegs over the boat’s bow. The massive head was too slippery to grasp, so Mike rigged a rope bridle around the head and snout that provided secure handholds. As it turned out, that was about the only smart thing we did all afternoon.

When the crocodile was about halfway in the boat, we relaxed our grip for a second to take a breather before the final heave. At that instant, the massive body expanded as if it were taking