December 13th, 2006 – by: Chelsea
The crocodile was hardly stirring under my weight. He had just been hauled out of the Okavango Riverâ€™s dark water like an over-sized fish. He fit snugly in our tin boat, and wore on his face a mischievous grin.
For a wild crocodile in a scientific experiment, he was surprisingly inert. Only two people sat on his back, and he behaved like a well-mannered dog when someone took his measurements.
I had expected more thrashing when I volunteered for an Earthwatch project concerning one of Africaâ€™s largest predators.
Earthwatch is a not-for-profit organisation recruiting volunteers for animal research projects across the globe. The expeditions arenâ€™t for the faint-hearted, and this one â€“ called Crocodiles of the Okavango â€“ lived up to expectations. I was warned we would camp in a remote region not far from the Kalahari Desert, and that I was more likely to die from an insect bite than the harshness of the sun (which itself was allegedly unbearable).
Earthwatchâ€™s resident researchers were appropriately tough and tanned. Their lifestyle was the envy of any would-be adventurer: moonlighting with crocodiles, playing mechanic with the research vehicles, and cleaning camp; all under the African sky.
But their life wasnâ€™t all fieldwork. Each researcher was either a Masters or PhD student conducting research for their thesis.
Their projects were many and varied, ranging from the study of crocodile DNA, to nesting habits, population dynamics, and so on.
My job as a volunteer was to help them collect data. Every night, after wolfing down braai (Afrikaans for â€˜barbecueâ€™) dinner and gulping still-hot tea, I joined them in their tin boat exploring the waterways of the Okavango River. A researcher and a volunteer huddled at the boatâ€™s stern, wielding a spotlight. When it swept over red eye-shine, the boat driver made a bee-line for the red dot. One researcher flung a flimsy noose around the red eyeâ€™s owner: a crocodile. It was hauled into the boat, where someone wrapped its nose with tape and two volunteers sprawled on its back. Thatâ€™s how I came to be cheek-to-cheek with a crocodile.
Hugging a crocodile isnâ€™t the only thing I can boast about.
There is something eternally magical about Africa. Each night we enjoyed a coffee break at 1 am. We tied boat to the tall papyrus stalks lining the river, opened a tin of biscuits and dunked them in our cups. Then we sat in silence, listening to hushing sound of wind rippling across vast papyrus rafts, interrupted only by reed frogsâ€™ musical tinkling. Stars in the sky were mirrored in the water. It was like being in a twilight zone. Pitiless mosquitoes were the only thing ruining the moment.
Now and then, a splash erupted reminding us we werenâ€™t alone. Our companions were mostly hippos, African Darters, and on occasion, the elusive Sitatunga antelope.
As I knocked the end of my coffee cup, coaxing the last mulched drops of coffee into my mouth, Iâ€™d never felt so satisfied. The coffee was unremarkable, but I felt so lucky to work so closely with wild African animals: a privilege usually reserved for top researchers.