"Understand Robin, that while other predators might be curious or scared of you, these crocs are simply seeing you as food."
Supportive words from Neal, the croc master at Cango Wildlife, as he pulls a lever, raising my cage into the air and over a pool containing three of the biggest crocs you've ever seen.
I feel like a potato being lowered into a stew, or a large French fry about to be deep fried. Some tourists are looking at me with an expression I've become accustomed to. Their mouths agape, they think I'm crazy. Not the first, not the last.
About an hour off the coast of South Africa's Eastern Cape, Outshoorn draws tourists with two main attractions. The magnificent Cango Caves, easily amongst the world's most beautiful, and a long history of ostrich farming. It's a fun and quirky detour for those exploring the scenic Garden Route, with various roadside attractions and craft markets taking advantage of the passing traffic. Only one of them allows you to enter a small circular cage, and be lowered into a pool of crocodiles. While kids can cuddle cheetah cubs or look at snakes, birds, and other animals at Cango Wildlife, it's the croc cage diving that drew my attention. The only other place you can do something remotely similar is in Australia. Although not like this, and not with 3.5-metre Nile crocodiles.
My feet touch the water, which is generously warm. I'm wearing goggles for underwater views, when I can hold my breath and clutch the interior handles. Immediately, Ma Baker stirs. Up to this point, she looked like a dark shadow in the water. Another female named Sweet Sue slowly moves from beneath a viewing bridge, silently drifting towards my cage. Effortlessly, they hover around me.
The cage begins to look awfully thin. From my vantage point underwater, the crocs seem impossibly huge, pure dinosaur. I'm as close to these predators as anyone should ever want to be. Ma Baker's gold orbs look at me with the same curiosity I had the previous evening. I was at a local restaurant looking at a menu that included crocodile kebabs. I wondered how it would taste. Ma Baker, one of the biggest crocodiles in the park, was no doubt wondering the same things about me.
Although hippos are the biggest killer of man in Africa, crocodiles are rightly feared. One second you're crossing a river, filling a bucket up with water, or taking a dip, and in an explosive flash of violence, you're in the jaws of a large croc, spinning you round in a death roll. Drowned, they'll stash you under riverbanks and snack away as they need to.
All this was on my mind when Ma Baker decided to poke her sizable jaws into my cage, along with sharp three-inch claws. "Please resist the urge to touch her," says Neal above me. By that, I believe he means I should resist the urge to wet my pants. I hold my breath and duck underwater. Unlike her tough, scaly top, Ma Baker's belly seems soft and vulnerable. Sweet Sue is resting almost at my feet, when suddenly I lurch around. Hannibal, the biggest croc in the park, is somewhere in the shadows still, giving me the heebie-jeebies. The crocs are fed well enough, and since the cage enters their pool frequently during high season, they're used to its intrusion. Judging by their behaviour, they seem content just to play with their food.
The crane tugs the cage and I'm hoisted above the water, crocodiles at my feet, imagining myself as James Bond in a villain's lair. Few people get this close to a croc and live to tell the tale.
If you go:
Cango Wildlife is an animal and crocodile park located just a few miles outside of Outshoorn in the Eastern Cape. Entrance into the park costs $16, and includes zoo-like exhibitions, croc feeding, and free hourly tours. Cage diving with crocodiles is open to all 10 years and older, and costs an additional $40.
Vancouver-based travel writer Robin Esrock hosts Word Travels (CityTV/OLN) and is the author of the upcoming book, The Great Canadian Bucket List. You can find him at: www.robinesrock.com