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If zebras and wildebeests take their changes in Kenya’s crocodile-infested waters, then so would we. (Jeanette Stock)
If zebras and wildebeests take their changes in Kenya’s crocodile-infested waters, then so would we. (Jeanette Stock)

What's it like to swim in a crocodile-infested river? Add to ...

Tripping columns offer readers a chance to share their adventures - those times when, far from what's familiar, you must improvise in the midst of a wild travel moment. They are the stories you can't wait to tell when you get home.

I had already decided to say “yes” to everything that summer. So it wasn’t that hard to agree to go swimming in the murky Migori River in Western Kenya. It was that, or put up with the compounding layers of dirt on my skin.

The dry season had arrived in Nyanza and our rooftop rain catchment was running dry. In the arid landscape, each drop of water was like gold. As my friends and I still had two weeks left in our volunteer health-education placement, the luxury of a 10-minute shower was a far off dream.

In a pretense of hygiene we would slip into immodest bikinis twice a week and splash water from a communal bucket on our smelliest parts. Then we were reduced to baby-wipe ablutions and fantasies about ice cubes. Mostly, though, we just waited for a rain day. When the cloud towers began to roll in we put on our dirtiest clothes and became our own spin-cycles as we stood beneath the water pouring off the roof, lathering our T-shirted bodies as we stood bare-foot in the grass. The snakes don’t like the rain – or so we told ourselves. I saw one, once, at the bottom of the garden. I can’t decide which of us was more afraid.

When the guys from the village up the hill invited us in their best English to follow them down the winding path, we jumped at the opportunity. That part wasn’t difficult. If the unknown weren’t our siren song, why would any of us be here? You can get cheap thrills at Canada’s Wonderland for a fraction of the price of any of our plane tickets – it would have been poor value to say no.

Getting us in the river, however, was a more challenging negotiation. We giggled nervously when the boys took a running jump at the mucky water. I questioningly mimed snapping jaws with my arms, and was taken aback when they laughed.

In safety briefings, we were told that crocodiles the size of fire trucks lurked in every trickle of water on this continent, waiting to use our bones as toothpicks. Surveying a river with this knowledge, every log looks predatory. We began to discuss other potential dangers. Did we take our bilharzias (parasite) medications? What if the current was stronger than it looked? Would our gastrointestinal systems survive if we accidentally swallowed some water?

Eventually, the guys tired of our excuses and began to corral us toward the riverbank. Giving up, we stripped off as much clothing as we dared and threw ourselves in. As the current swirled around me I felt a week’s worth of heat wash off my skin and head downstream. Being immersed in brown, possibly contaminated, water has never felt so good.

Later that summer I sat atop a Range Rover and watched a float of crocodiles clamp wildebeest after wildebeest in their jaws, rolling them under a very similar looking river. It reminded me of our swimming hole adventure, and I decided that – no matter how dirty I felt – next time I’d stick with baby wipes.

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