From the time I was a little boy I have always been an avid fisherman. I get it from my father, who often took my brother Mike and me on fishing adventures when we were young, from the black bass, white bass and crappies in the lakes of Texas to the trout in the streams and rivers of Oregon to the speckled trout, redfish and black drum in the Gulf of Mexico. That's why, when I had a chance to do some serious game fishing in Ethiopia, I jumped on it.
We were near the Sudan border within a short walk of the Gilo River, a Nile tributary, and we had recently moved into a missionary compound run by a Dutchman named Peter (I do not remember his last name). We had begun bathing in the river, even though large crocodiles had been spotted near the bathing area (but that's another story). One time while we were bathing I noticed that Peter showed up with a spinning rig and large lure attached. He cast into the river two or three times without any action and then quit. I asked him if he had ever caught anything or had any strikes and he told me no. The following weekend I asked Peter if I could borrow his fishing rod and he said OK. As I headed for the river, the rest of the group decided to join me, including Wayne Schandelmeier, who brought his camera.
As I fished my way along the riverbank, the rest of the group, including Peter and his wife, followed along but mostly chatted and socialized. For me, however, this was not a social event, and I did not intend for it to culminate in two or three casts. I had been seriously beating the water for 30 or 40 minutes, when suddenly something hit my line like a ton of bricks! The pole bent double and the drag spun furiously. The fish was all over the river, which was only about twenty yards wide. It scooted upriver then back downriver, often breaking the surface with huge jumps at lightning speed, then submerging again and stripping off more line, eventually easing up, then starting all over again. I could hear the oohs and ahs along with shouts of encouragement from behind me on the sandy bank as the others watched in amazement. After about ten or fifteen minutes of this, the fish finally started to tire and I slowly worked him towards me. He had at least one more jump in him though; he raced across the river in front of me and burst out of the water a good five feet into the air, twisting and turning and quickly nosedived back into the water on a dead run. All of a sudden, as the fish disappeared into the dark water, I noticed a spear whizzing over my right shoulder and cutting through the water towards the point where the fish should have been, and the tremendous pressure on the line abruptly ceased. A local native clad only in a breechcloth ran splashing past me into the river and grabbed the butt end of the spear, which was sticking up out of the water, and he hoisted it into the air with both hands. On one end of the long spear was an enormous tiger fish, gaffed right through the center. Long, sharp, needle-like teeth completely lined the fish's upper and lower jaws, giving it a grisly appearance. Wayne snapped a picture of me and the spear-chucking native with the tiger fish. The spear landed exactly where you see it in the picture. We weighed the fish back at camp and, if memory serves me correctly, it was somewhere in the 25-pound range. Peter's wife, whose name I've forgotten, served us all fried tiger fish filets the next day, and they were fantastic.
The crocodile: the only one of Ethiopia's many dangerous animals that I truly feared. Lived in terror of is more accurate. None of the other fearsome creatures of Ethiopia could instill within me the mind-numbing terror of the Nile crocodile. Not the lion, the leopard, the hyena, the hippo, the cape buffalo, the rhino, the wild dog, the baboon or even the elephant. I've often wondered why. After all, the others are just as ferocious, and will kill you just as dead. Much later I began to realize that it was probably the water. The dark water . . . that you can't see into. At least with the others I would meet them in my own world, i.e., on land. I could see them coming, I could move as fast as I am able and fight as hard as I am able. In the crocodile's world, I wouldn't see him until he was already there, his crushing jaws dragging me down to a world where I would never breathe again. And I could only fight in futile slow motion as he engulfed me in his death roll . . . Yeah, I'm sure that's it: the water.
Thinking about it now gives me the creeps, as it has many times since I left the country. Still, I'm sure none of my comrades ever suspected how terrified I was of crocodiles. Why? Because I ventured into the crocodile's world many times with them at my side. But never without a lump in my throat. And I never experienced that terror until I was actually there, in the croc's world. Oh, I had seen the blown-up picture in Dr. Babb's office of the mostly-decomposed torso of the Peace Corps volunteer that had been cut out of the sixteen-footer that had eaten him (I actually read about that incident later in Peter Capstick's book, Maneater). But I didn't think about that much at the time. Not until I entered the Gilo River and the swamps along the Sudan border.
On the Sudan border, we ran most of our second-order level line close to the Gilo River, a Nile tributary. So we were always close to water. My first glimpse of the crocs was from the cockpit of a Hiller looking down at them. When a pilot flew close, the crocs would sometimes look up and open their gaping mouths wide as if to swallow the machine. More often, though, they just rose up and made a beeline back into their own world, the water.
Everyone bathed in the Gilo River, so I did too, only close to shore. Of course those were the most nervous baths I had ever taken. I swam in the river as well when I dared, in the deep water, but only when others were with me, not that that would have helped. One day some of the villagers came to our camp and told us that there was a crocodile in the bathing area, so I carried my trusty M1 carbine to the river to dispose of the intruder. I'd be taking him from my world after all. I shot him right between the eyes, but he just thrashed around for a few seconds and disappeared back into the depths of his world. After that I saw a friend from flight line shoot a croc in the same spot with a standard M1 Garand. It blew the croc's head clean off and he turned belly up. Because of that and the incident with the black mamba, I only used standard M1's instead of carbines from then on, even if they were heavier.
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ETHIOPIA: FISH STORIES
Mesfin Concheto with Croc.
Those are my memories of my most prominent encounters with the snakes of Ethiopia, and I'm sure that other surveyors could tell of more harrowing encounters in the field, because we all thrashed through the jungles, swamps, deserts, bush and long grass of Ethiopia with abandon. It was our job. Of course I've heard other stories from the field, such as the person who was sitting in a truck and heard a spraying sound on the window. When he turned to look, he saw it was a spitting cobra spraying poison at his face on the other side of the glass. The only thing I wondered about that story was why the truck's windows would be closed out there in that heat? God knows we sure didn't have any air conditioners. I also remember a story about one of the natives who threw a machete from twenty feet and chopped off a cobra's head. I can certainly believe that; those guys could really chuck.
I continued to fish the Gilo regularly for as long as we stayed at that compound, and I, along with some others, caught quite a few more tiger fish, but none of them were nearly as big as that first one. The others were all in the 5- to 15-pound range. I later learned that the African tiger fish is considered to be one of the top game fish in the world, and I can understand why. I also looked up the tiger fish in the Fishing Encyclopedia and learned that they reach a size of 30-35 pounds (not to be confused with the Goliath tiger fish), so the one I caught was undoubtedly a pretty nice fish. I did actually see one other tiger fish in the Gilo that might have been as big. In fact at one point I thought I had it on my line too and was reeling it in. When it got close, however, I realized that I was actually reeling in a 7- or 8-pound tiger fish, and that the larger tiger fish was in the process of attacking the smaller one, biting huge chunks out of it as I reeled it in, even up to the point where it was very close to shore. That demonstrated to me just how aggressive and voracious the tiger fish can be.
In addition to the tiger fish, there was another denizen of the river that gave those fishermen among us more than a little excitement during our love affair with the Gilo: the legendary Nile Perch.
After my experience with the tiger fish, others also took to borrowing Peter's fishing gear to fish the river, but I was still probably the most constant fisherman of the group. One day I hooked onto something that simply starting pulling my line down the river with tremendous speed and no sign of letting up. No jumping or darting, just an incredibly strong and steady pull. It crossed my mind for a moment that I might have hooked into a crocodile. I tightened the drag as much as I dared and allowed it to go on for a while, but it soon became obvious that the creature was not going to let up before it took out all the line. And unfortunately I was unable to run down the riverbank with the fish because the bank was treacherous. There were sheer embankments as high as thirty feet in some areas that one could not traverse while fighting a monster on the other end of the line. So I eventually wound up tightening the drag to the point where the line snapped.
That was the first of Peter's two lures that I lost in the mouths of two very large Nile perch. The second was in the same area of the river, and Wayne happened to be with me on that day. I got the fish close enough to shore this time that its dorsal fin rose out of the water before it took off downriver with the second lure. When Wayne told the story back at camp, he spread his arms as far apart as he could and said, "Bill had a fish on with a fin THIS big!" One of our chopper pilots, Lee Rodwalt, became very interested when he heard that, so he borrowed another one of Peter's lures the next day and we all went down to the river. This time, when Lee hooked the fish, Wayne held Lee's rod while Lee ran back around the trail to the top of the embankment, then some of us hoisted Wayne as high up the embankment as we could, and Lee climbed down far enough so that Wayne could hand the rod up to him. It continued that way through each embankment that was encountered, running with the fish down the river until it eventually tired out and could be reeled in. When the fish finally floated lazily into the bank, everyone was astonished at the sheer size of this so-called "perch." After some of the natives carried the fish back to camp, we weighed the monster, and I believe it came in at 175 pounds. Our rodman, Mesfin, made the comment that the fish could easily swallow a small child. No one disagreed.
I later learned that Nile perch generally make one tremendous run after they are hooked, then they are done in and can be easily reeled in. But that first run can be a lulu. Lee was later able to land one more big Nile perch using the same "buddy system" technique. Peter's wife, incidentally, fried up some filets from the first Nile perch, and they were pretty darned tasty. The bulk of the fish we caught though were donated to the local Anuak village, as there always seemed to be a shortage of food. I imagine those two Nile Perch were able to feed the entire village for quite some time.
ETHIOPIA: THE CROCS
As we continued our level line we came through a number of villages along the river. I noticed several men in these villages who had a leg missing, usually severed just below the knee. I asked one man how it happened through our interpreter and was taken aback when he told us that he carried a knife with him when he was in the water, and he cut off his own leg to save his life when a croc latched on to his leg. I tended to believe the story at the time because the storyteller seemed genuine. I've often wondered since, though, how a knife could so quickly cut through a man's leg bones. I suppose if the croc's jaws had already partially crushed the bones it could be done. But what a horrific story!
As our line came closer to the large swamp, we heard from locals that the Sudanese Army had crossed the border into Ethiopia and was killing everyone in sight because they believed the local villages were harboring Sudanese rebels. We knew it was true because the villages we passed through were all deserted. We had already met with these rebels in their camp and were amazed at the conglomerate of weapons, and the red communist symbols on their caps. Anyway, we decided to lay low at the missionary compound for a while until the Sudanese Army returned to their country, but a certain officer came out on a C-47 and ordered us not only to keep running the level line out there, but to go and spike out in the swamp until the line was finished. Forget the fact that we could have . . . no,should have been killed by the Sudanese Army. Forget the mosquitoes that nearly drove me insane one night when I had a hole in my mosquito net. The problem for me was that whenever we flew over the swamp area in helicopters, it seemed that every open body of water that we viewed from above was infested with crocodiles. Well, one day we came to one of those open bodies of water, and we had to cross it. We each took our turns carrying equipment over our heads and wading into the water, which was about thirty yards across (but seemed like much more), and came up to our shoulders at the deepest part (which was most of the way). This was undoubtedly the most terrified I ever was in Ethiopia. I kept thinking about the large numbers of crocs I saw from the helicopters lurking in this exact same kind of pool. I knew at any moment I was going to feel that crushing pressure on my lower leg, and that would be it. I don't know how many times I went back and forth, I was too numb with fear. But we all did it, and I'm sure the others were plenty scared as well, although you wouldn't have known it. In the end we all made it through safely. I do remember that every one of us was so anxious that we all forgot to empty our pockets before we crossed, so we spent a lot of time that evening drying out our wallets, ID's and paper bills by the fire. But that was OK. We were just glad to be alive.
I later learned later that the crocodile is the most prolific maneater in the world. He eats four times as many people as his nearest competitor, the leopard. I guess it's better that I didn't find that out until later . . . much later.
When I first arrived in Ethiopia in 1967 I was advised by a certain SP5 that no Mapping Mission personnel had ever been bitten by any of the many venomous snakes that inhabited the country. That made me feel pretty good. However, I was informed shortly thereafter by a missionary that if anyone was ever bitten by any of Ethiopia's venomous snakes and didn't receive the antivenin within a couple of hours, the chances of survival were non-existent. He said that's why they always kept some on hand. Since I knew by then that our field parties didn't carry any antivenin, that made me feel pretty bad. Oh well, everyone knows that soldiers are way more expendable than missionaries. I'm happy to report, however, that I never had occasion to put that missionary's statement to the test, but it wasn't from lack of trying.
My first exposure to the aggressiveness of the dreaded black mamba actually occurred one evening, of all places, on a crowded dance floor in a bar in Jima. I was sitting opposite the open door on the other side of the room about twenty feet away, enjoying my warm Melotti (well, as much as you can enjoy a warm Melotti), when I heard people start to scream over the music and noticed them scrambling to clear the floor. When the area in front of me cleared, I looked down to see a shiny black form slithering across the floor towards me. Luckily it wasn't one of the sixteen-foot monsters you read about; only about seven feet or so, obviously a youngster. I pasted myself against the wall with the rest of the crowd while the snake was hurriedly shooed out another open door with a stick or chair or something. People immediately went back to dancing as if nothing had happened. Didn't even have to change the record.
My next exposure to what I am sure was a black mamba occurred near the Sudan border where we were running second order levels through some tall elephant grass. I was trying to focus my crosshairs on the foresight rod, which can be pretty tough when you're recording rod temperatures of 60 degrees centigrade; the heat waves were making everything bounce around. All of a sudden I noticed the rod falling out of my instrument's field of view, while at the same time I heard my rodman, Mesfin, yelling in a shrill voice, "A SNAKE! There is a BEEG snake!" When I looked up from the instrument, I spotted Mesfin running across the elephant grass at top speed, he seemed almost to be skimming over the top of it, while continuing to scream barely intelligible epithets that I was no longer attempting to decipher. I had already gotten the point. So, with the bravado that only the very young or the very addled-by-heat-exposure possess, I grabbed my trusty M1 carbine from my umbrella man and marched boldly towards the area where Mesfin had set up his rod, which had been partially cleared with a machete. As I stepped into the cleared area while scanning it carefully, I pulled back the bolt of my trusty carbine to chamber a round, when a strange thing happened: the bolt came loose in my hand. So what did I do? I sped across the elephant grass after Mesfin at top speed yelling, "A SNAKE! There is a BEEG snake!" . . . Well, no, of course I didn't do that, but it sure makes for a better story when I tell it that way. I did make a hasty retreat, however, and after we all satisfied ourselves that the snake had skedaddled, we continued running our level line.
Mesfin later told me that while he was holding the rod, the snake's huge black head surfaced through the tall grass and stared directly at him from about chest height from only a few feet away. I guess that would be enough to give anyone a bit of a fright, although we teased him about it later. I'm not sure who got teased the most though . . . him or me?
The only other potential experience I had with a black mamba was also indoors, at the club in Addis no less. A flight line worker whose name I didn't know was sitting next to me at the bar handling a black baby snake about seven inches long. He handed it to me and I let it run around my hand and fingers for a while before giving it back to him. Only later did a friend of mine named Raymond inform me that it was indeed a baby black mamba. I don't know for sure if that was true or if he was just joshing me, or whether handling the baby snake was a dangerous thing to do or not. Come to think of it though, I don’t recall ever seeing that flight line guy again after that (?).
Mesfin and I also crossed paths with a green mamba on the gravel road to Jima one day. Trees completely covered the road where we were again running second order levels. As we levelled up a fairly steep slope, Mesfin and I, along with the other party members, Keith MacIntyre and Wayne Schandelmeier, were pretty close to each other, maybe forty feet apart, when a brilliant lucent green snake fell out of the trees onto the road between us. This green mamba was only about four or five feet long, so it didn't give Mesfin quite the start that the black mamba did, and he decided to approach it. As he approached, the snake immediately took off in the direction away from Mesfin and towards me, Wayne, Keith and the instrument. What surprised me was the blinding speed of this snake. Mesfin loped after it and quickly built his stride to an all-out run, but incredibly the snake kept pace with him. Keith and Wayne and I, who were all standing around the instrument, moved smartly out of the way as the green mamba and Mesfin sped past us. Mesfin soon grew tired of chasing it though, and so we went back to our work and let the green mamba go back to his.
Undoubtedly the closest I personally ever came to "death on the dark continent" was in a concrete-base thatched-roof house near the Sudan border. At the time I never really realized just how lucky I was to escape or just how bad it could have been. The house was being lent to us by a missionary group. It was great because it had running water, a toilet and a shower, luxuries we weren't used to in that area. We set up our cots inside, and a couple of times people claimed to have seen snakes moving through the thatch in the ceiling/roof, but nobody made a big deal out of it.
Anyway, I was entering the house one evening at dusk. As I opened the screen door my eyes caught a sudden movement to my right. I immediately jumped back, just in time to avoid the angry strike of a puff adder. I hollered and folks came rushing over, and the natives soon got rid of the snake. Shortly after the incident we started playing cards, and I pretty much forgot about the whole thing for the next thirty years or so, except to tell the story a few times. It was, as I said, about thirty years later that I was watching an episode of "The Crocodile Hunter," where Steve Irwin was handling the most deadly snakes of Africa. When he came to the puff adder, he was handling a snake that was about the same size as the one that struck at me, and I have to say that seeing it really took me back those thirty years. The viper's horned, scaled head and wide-set, beady yellow eyes can be quite intimidating. What particularly took me aback, however, was when he said that the puff adder was one of the fastest striking snakes in the world, and once it strikes, people are generally not able to avoid it because of its lightning speed. Then he went on to enlighten me as to just how slow and horrible death can be for someone bitten by the puff adder, including loss of limbs. That shook me up, thirty years later, even more than when the snake took its strike at me in the first place.
Another time we were spiking out on the road to Jima and we came across a French construction crew called Razel. Some of their native workers had just killed a python that looked to be at least 20 feet long. I know this is hard to believe, but I actually thought it was closer to 25 feet, judging from the skin that they were holding up for pictures. This would be a record even by today's standards. Keith MacIntyre was able to get a picture, so you can judge for yourself. It is a little difficult to estimate the size based this picture though, because the angle on the bulk of the snakeskin slants from front to back. Just take my word for it, when it is fully stretched out from side to side, it is a BEEG snake.
"Ethiopia: The Snakes", "Ethiopia: The Crocs" and "Ethiopia: Fish Stories"
Copyright © Bill Flynn 2009
Used with author's permission.
ETHIOPIA: THE SNAKES
Razel crew with Python.
STORIES AND MEMORIES