We watched the crossing again today and what a crossing it was. After counting nearly four hundred vultures at the main crossing we headed down to one of the trickier crossings. As before, the shore was lined with dead wildebeest and the vultures were feasting. The wildebeest were stacked into a few rock crevices across the river as if they had been wedged in while trying to reach the other side. Their bodies now ripe from the sun were finally being broken into by the vultures. The stench was overwhelming. Meanwhile, vultures waiting their turn lay wet and cold on the riverbank across the way, probably from earlier attempts to eat the floating corpses. As the sun rose over the valley, the birds stretched out their long wings and absorbed the warmth. The wings spread like beach umbrellas gave the riverside a look not so unlike that of the Jersey shore.
Meanwhile the cars were lining up. The wildebeest though nervous had been eyeing the green grass across the way for a while now. Their strange calls were reaching their peak as they planned their movements. Suddenly the first wildebeest rushed the water. At first it seemed more interested in getting a drink then in crossing, but as hordes of the black beasts lined up behind him, he had no choice. Looking across the way this seemed a rather treacherous place to cross – most of the alternative shore was lined with cliffs and dead bodies. Oddly the bodies seemed to attract the wildebeest rather than acting as a warning and as thousand pushed forward, they stepped onto their fallen comrades in a desperate effort to reach the top. Some struggled and made it, while others crashed down onto the crowd.
As the access points out of the water and the way back to the opposite shore filled, it became clear how so many animals had drown. The river wasn’t particularly deep or wide. Certainly the water rose high enough that the wildebeest had to swim and there was a bit of a current, but I had been having a hard time imagining how anything could drown here. As the wildebeest piled together like sardines in a tin, some were pushed beneath the water. They would struggle to move, but there was nowhere to go – neither forward or backward. Instead they sunk. Their heads slipped below the crowd and these unfortunate animals soon found themselves floating downstream. A few stretched their noses, even lifting their upper lip, in vain efforts to get a bit more air, but exhausted and probably wounded from the stampede, they soon dipped below the surface. You knew an animal had died when its horns rather than its mouth were all you could see.
Fifteen or so wildebeest met this untimely death as the others marched onwards and upwards, gradually clearing the cliffs. A few found an easier crossing upstream, but the majority seemed determined to take the steepest route. One fell and landed on its back among the rocks. It wasn’t until the crossing was nearly over that we noticed it struggling. When simple kicking didn’t work, it took to immense flailing and slammed its head repeatedly into the rock behind it as it tried to lift itself. Whack, whack, whack, but in the end it remained on its back. A few calves also turned out to be stragglers and stood on the rocks beneath the cliff unable to go up and unwilling to go back. This was when the crocodile moved into the water.
The crocodile crept towards three calves who were wedged against the riverbank – standing but still very much in the water. The reptile crept in and soon lay a few feet from the calves. After a brief stare down where the calf looked its killer in the eyes, the crocodile leaped out and grabbed the little guy behind the neck. Under and done for he was in just a few minutes. After drowning his prey, the crocodile moved to the other side and left the carcass. He then returned for one of the remaining calves. This one made a leap for it, but still found its rear leg in the jaws of the predator. The crocodile slowly eased the calf into the water, where it struggled to swim with three legs and a dead-weight. The croc made vague attempts to pull the calf under, but someone the yearling kept its nose above the water. As the crocodile neared its resting spot, where it had left its last victim, the calf struggled and eventually found itself standing on the shore – crocodile still attached. Meanwhile with another great Whack, the adult across the river had finally righted itself and stood unsure whether to proceed forward or return. It was about that time that the crocodile decided it had had enough fun for one day and released the calf. The survivor limped onto the shore – “Hyena food” said my field assistant, John.
As the crossing ended, everything reset itself. The crocodile moved back onto shore for another nap, the vultures returned to feeding, and the wildebeest stood noisily undecided besides the tourist vehicles.