Saturday, 18 February 2012

Never Smile at a Crocodile

All our trips have a certain commonality, forbye the collection of mosquito bites and pedalled miles. It's a tick-off of iconic fauna, be it the grizzlies in the Rockies, the rheas on the Pampa, the bison by the Great Slave Lake or Nessie in the Loch.  You've not completed a visit, gained your credibility tag, until you've scored that, sometimes elusive credit.  There's a procedure to collection, one that has to be completed in the requisite order.  No sightings can be made until: firstly, the valued fauna has been awarded tourist board status, to wit, it must appear at least three times in every piece of visitor propaganda. Mysticism and fabulism are no impediments to inclusion, which is why Nessie should be the Crest on the new Scottish coat-of-arms. Secondly, there must be the indirect confirmations of potential sightings.  They come  in varying forms: diners offering ''gator Po-boys", gas stations selling Grizzly chewing tobacco, roadside directions to the Official Monster Exhibition.  Finally there's the evidence that officialdom believes in the icon's existence: the request that makes you wonder why would you want to feed or harass an alligator, or the more ominous newspaper headline reporting 'bear attacks jogger'.  This visit being to the Deep South our quested fauna has to be a snake and an alligator.  We've carried out all the due diligences, moved through the various stages, scanned the brochures, clocked the menus, looked over every bridge at all the part-submerged logs and trees trying to tick off a crocogator.  All to no avail.  So far the script is running to form.  No serpents, no amphibians.  So if they won't come to us, we'll have to go to them.  It's time to canoe a bayou.
Rob's a good friend from college days, who, with Sandra, finds himself posted to Houston, and as a Munro-Bashing Aussie-Scot marooned in flattest east Texas where they haven't even got any Marilyns, has taken to kayaking.  Now as all enthusiasts know, if you leave your kit in a darkened corner, it will mysteriously procreate.  So as good fortune would have it, their collection of craft have miraculously bred and there's seats and paddles for all of us.  Maybe it's beginners luck, but that same good fortune will hold all day.  It's early February, it's meant to be wintertime when any self respecting 'gator is dug down, lost in a mud hole and kayakers are pulling on wetsuits, yet this morning we're in shorts, tee shirts and factor 15 sun screen.

 Having a guide who knows the convoluted bends of  an oxbowing bayou, which are leads and which dead-ends in a chemical plant's storm drain, is useful.  Better still are a pair of acclimatised eyes. I would never have seen that Moccasin water snake, basking on a log, moments after we launched, nor what I took to be a floating leaf, sliding quietly out from the bank.  In stealth mode we round a bend, close in, there it is, easy to see; it would have take a wall-eyed mole to have missed this ten-footer.  Some alligators, when spooked will leap with a crash and belly flop the water; others will just stare you out, quietly slip furtively down the bank and silently slide below the surface. This first confirmed 'tick' never moved.  We drifted on the light breeze, closer and closer.  Now I can see the colour of the gums, count the teeth; yellow, and too many.  Still it stays motionless.  Rob suggests, mischievously, that it's actually a dummy placed there by the tourist people, and frankly I was beginning to wonder.  Then the head moves; they've fitted animatronics - rather neat.  At three boat lengths, it slithers down the mud and settles below the water, barely a ripple disturbs the skin, leaving only a trickle of bubbles popping on the surface.  A trail that's moving ominously in my way.

Which is as close as you come to a 'gator story.  Unlike bear stories, there's no need for food stashes up trees, no steaming heaps of  poop by the side of the road, no adrenalin-infused dark time awakenings.  In short, there's no opportunity for fabricating a traveller's credible 'incredibility story'.  There are the ''fed 'gator, dead 'gator'' warnings, but the biggest risk is a disturbed beast leaping unexpectedly from the bank and swamping your kayak.  At the next bend I keep to the very middle of the bayou.

With time our eyes start to tune in, we become accustomed to picking out the good 'gator haul outs, spotting the telltale signs of mud slides, the sheltering part-submerged logs, the tangles of trapped, floating vegetation. These, the perfect bed for a dozing juvenile, whose parent will be close at hand, only I can't see it, - yet.  Spotting them in the shadows, their eyes and nostrils their only evidence, moments before they sink.

Guesstimating, and overestimating length with a fisherman's elasticated rule.  They're big, but it's not quite warm enough yet.  It will take a bit more sun for the real monsters to emerge.  Unlike the Scots' monster which only requires the post-pub closing time of a summer's tourist season to surface.

It's strange this feeling, this mixing in the same milieu with the last of the dinosaurs.  The slow, silent water, the scream of a disturbed osprey, the deliberate stalk of a hunting heron, the ragged tatters of grey moss dripping from the swamped, naked trees.  A lost, primordial world.  Or it would be, if it wasn't for the distant hum from the local chemical plant.  This frisson of imagined,  possible danger, a danger that  plays on your subconscious, such that when a giant catfish broaches the surface between your paddle and your hull, it takes several moments for your heart rate and your kayak to stabilise.

It's a privilege to be moving through this world, in an otherworld that has been consumed by a megacity's sprawl, devoured but not digested, in a craft that is as close as a person can naturally come to travelling with a relic from a past, a forgotten aeon.  It is I who refutes the idiom, as it is I who's smiling at the crocodile.