On the 6th of January 2018 at around 14:00, while my granddaughter and I were crossing the Olifants River (in Limpopo) by foot, I inadvertently stepped on the back of a 3m crocodile. My wife and other members of the family were on the bank of the river. Some rangers who owned another guest house about 100m downstream heard the screams for help as our family members watched the gruesome situation that was unfolding.
[CAUTION: Some readers may find the images at the bottom of the article graphic in nature.]
The moment that I stood on the crocodile’s back it reacted with violence, gripping my right leg in its jaws and throwing me from side to side. I heard bones in my leg being crushed. While I fought for my life, I thought it was a futile attempt against such a large predator. The rangers were shooting into the water close to me attempting to frighten the crocodile. I managed to find its head while it was swimming into deeper water for the inevitable drowning. I forced my thumbs into its eye sockets with all my might. I think this went on for about 5 minutes after which I believe the croc was disoriented and literally spat me out close to a sandbank. A brave ranger jumped into the river and dragged me to the shore despite the massive risk to himself.
I was severely injured. The total time of the ordeal was estimated at 20 minutes. Later medical treatment showed a broken sternum with bruising of the heart, six broken ribs including a punctured lung, and massive tissue damage on the right chest, dislocated right collarbone, fractured scapular, both wrists were broken, internal bleeding, and of course multiple severe fractures of the right leg and foot.
I was stabilised using a tourniquet and odd bits of clothing to stop the bleeding. An ambulance had been called for from Tzaneen. The location was remote, and the roads were terrible. A paramedic arrived about an hour later with the ambulance following. Further stabilisation occurred, and I was placed in the ambulance only semi-conscious. The nature of the injuries required urgent treatment with sepsis already establishing itself. The ambulance was redirected to Polokwane, and my daughter went ahead to make arrangements at the hospital. The ambulance reached Polokwane at about 20H30, about six hours after the initial incident.
At Mediclinic Polokwane I was immediately treated for the severe injuries; lung drainage, wound cleaning and staples to reduce further blood loss, blood transfusion, artificial ventilation and directed for surgery – severe infection had already set in. A decision was made to airlift me to another hospital in Johannesburg using the ER24 Oneplan medical helicopter. At this stage, I was entirely unconscious under sedation. I was placed in trauma ICU at a hospital in Johannesburg at 02:00 on the 7th of January. Twelve surgeries followed during my induced coma over the next 14 days. Since I was unconscious I never even had the chance to enjoy the helicopter ride!
I am lead to believe that the infection from the leg and chest was too much for my body to handle. Together with a gross infection of my whole body, the massive damage caused to the foot and lower leg necessitated the amputation of the right lower leg through the knee. My sons and daughters were prepared for the inevitable but once the amputation had taken place the ‘numbers’ improved dramatically. I was strong physically and mentally. My recovery started.
After 44 days of intensive care, I was transferred to the general ward and then to a rehabilitation centre close to my home in Benoni. At the time of writing (20th August 2018) I have been back home for several months. I have re-joined the gym and swim an average of 1km daily. I am building strength, of course not as fast as I want, but much faster than anybody including the medical specialists could ever have thought possible. I have received a prosthetic leg and I am learning to use it effectively for most situations allowing a sign of progress to a “normal” life.
I could easily have passed on to the afterlife had it not been for the professional care given to me by the medical and helicopter staff. I also believe that the many prayers and messages of support have been a driving force in my recovery. I use this opportunity to thank all those that have supported me over the rescue and recovery period to date.
I have lived my life positively focused on the development of young people. I still have a lot to offer and this second chance at life stimulates me further to support humanity in any way I can.
*A real-life story told by Peter Knottenbelt. Peter’s daughter also won an Air Angels competition where she will have an exclusive VIP ride on the Gazelle 342 helicopter. She has asked that her dad be the recipient.