Kayaking in St. Lucia Estuary, South Africa

The Most Frightening Kayak Trip On The Planet

Derek South Africa 48 Comments

Kayaking in St. Lucia Estuary, South Africa
Have you ever had an experience that you were so excited about before it began, but then, once you found yourself in the middle of that experience, you started to wonder if it was such a good idea after all?

That’s exactly what I went through at one point during my visit to South Africa. And it all had to do with an early morning kayak ride.

Ordinarily, I am more than happy to participate in a leisurely kayak experience and never have I felt my life threatened in any way whatsoever while paddling around any body of water. But, when I found myself paddling a kayak around the St. Lucia Estuary in South Africa, that all changed, and it changed quite quickly.

Fish don’t scare me, but what does scare me is the sight of an 8-inch shark fin rising out of the water only 2 meters from my kayak, just seconds after leaving the shore, especially when there was never any mention of sharks during the orientation we received before getting into the water.

And when I pointed out to our guide that I saw what appeared to be a shark fin, only then did he inform us that this estuary is, in fact, home to three different kinds of sharks. Great news.

However, after keeping my eye on the middle of the estuary for about five minutes and not seeing any more fins, I finally began to relax and enjoy the paddling. But of course, when the main aim of your kayak trip is to spot hippos and crocodiles in the wild, any moments of relaxation are not going to last very long at all.

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The first crocodile we spotted was resting on the bank of the water, but once our three kayaks were only 8 meters or so away, it quickly entered the water and began to swim off. I started to breathe again, right until the son-of-a-witch turned around, popped it’s two eyes out of the water and just stared at me. Yes, me.

Then, as my kayaking partner Rachelle (from TheTravelBite.com) and I frantically tried to catch up to the rest of the group (we were in the kayak at the back), the crocodile would dip down into the murky water and ten seconds later, re-appear in a new location, still following me, still staring me down and still making me somewhat nervous.

Crocodiles eat people. And being in the wild with them, busting through their habitat in three large kayaks suddenly seemed like quite a questionable idea. It continued to seem like a questionable idea for the next fifteen minutes as that massive crocodile swam behind me, once even popping up directly to my right, only 3 meters away.

Crocodile in St. Lucia, South Africa

To be honest, the only thing that could take my attention away from the thought of being eaten by a crocodile, was the thought of being snapped in half by a hippopotamus.

So, when we spotted a 2000 kg hippo grazing on the side of the estuary and then suddenly head towards the water, break into a jog (apparently hippos can run at a speed of 44 kms/hr) and continue jogging in the direction of our kayaks, I really began preparing for a most unfortunate end to my life.

Luckily, the hippo ran right into the water where he, too, proceeded to stick only his eyes above the surface, watching us quite closely, just as the crocodile was doing from the other direction.

Hippopotamus in South Africa

Now you might think that the ideal thing to do at this point in order to calm down and regain one’s composure would be to take a break from kayaking, a short rest if you will. We took a break alright, paddling across the estuary to a quiet spot along the shore where we parked the kayaks and stepped onto dry land. But this ‘quiet spot’ turned out to be an area where hippos enter and exit the water in order to eat.

And if there’s one thing I learned about hippos during my time in South Africa, it’s that these beasts do not appreciate it when anything or anyone is standing in their path as they roam the banks of an estuary. So what did we do? We hung around this area for about ten minutes.

In the end, we were not attacked of course, but when we climbed back into the kayaks, we were then taken to an area of thick marshes, narrow channels and mangrove forests, all places that could easily hide a hungry crocodile or hippopotamus.

It was not a comfortable ride as I tried to pay close attention to my surroundings, as if my spotting a crocodile swimming towards me would in any way prevent it from biting off my arm.

In all honesty, this was the scariest activity I have ever participated in. Scarier than sky-diving, scarier than swimming with whale-sharks, scarier than volcano boarding in Nicaragua, scarier than traveling to Pakistan or Afghanistan.

But, at the same time, just as is the case with all of those above experiences, kayaking with crocodiles, hippopotamuses and sharks is something I would do again without hesitation. It’s also something that I would recommend to every individual who travels to this part of the world. Just face the fear, feel the terror of being surrounded, in the wild, by such amazing creatures.

After all, this is perhaps one of the most unique opportunities in South Africa to get so very close to these animals. It’s impossible to describe the feeling properly so you’ll just have to experience it for yourself.

And just think of the photos you’ll take!


Our kayak tour in South Africa was operated by St. Lucia Kayak Safaris, which I would recommend to anyone looking for adventure and interesting knowledge about the area and wildlife you encounter.

And as a side note, nobody has ever been injured or attacked in the many years that this kayak tour has been operating!

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Comments 48

  1. Luciie B

    what an amazing story. or terrifying depending on how you look at it 😛

    I remember a similar ‘activity’ that my family and I did when I was 10 and still too young to think about how dangerous it actually was. I’m glad it was that way though because now I have these amazing memories of being so close to crocodiles and hippos without too much thought towards all the dangers.
    Skip forward to 2014 and I’m a socially anxious youth scared of….most things and I can’t imagine ever having the guts to do it again as an adult 😛

    Reading your posts from Africa and Turkey bring me back to my childhood and I Love perusing through your website 🙂

  2. Jordy

    Well… I did the same thing in St. Lucia in 2009! That was just crazy!!
    I wasn’t very scared of the crocodiles… They were just laying in the water, doing nothing. I think they see the kayak as a to big thing to atack…? Sometimes when peddling you just felt a crocolile…. :l

    But when we looked from 80m to a group of hippo’s, one big hippo bull came after us. We had to kayak for our lives! Those things are fast!!! Of course I was stuck on a sandbank for some seconds :l
    Then a baby hippo and mother came with there eyes above the water at I think 6 meter. I was so scared!!!! Actually our guide was very scared too…. In the end we all survived, but it was the most stupid thing I ever did!!

    You just think, when they offer a trip like this, it would be safe!! But in South-Africa the rules are a little different ^^ Well… now it’s a nice story!!

    1. Earl

      Hey Jordy – I have this feeling that everyone who does participate in this tour has some kind of close encounter with some kind of large, territorial animal!

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  4. jonbar

    Oh man that’s scary. I was reading this reacting like a scary movie. Biting my nails, and I swear I was this close to screaming out “don’t go in there Earl!” I can’t imaging how I would react. Probably pass out. I applaud you on your staying conscious 😛

    I had an experience sort of like that. I was heading to Australia a couple years ago, which is awesome. But what was not awesome was watching “World’s Deadliest Animals: Australia” in science class a couple weeks before. I knew that I would be fine, since most of the dangerous animals are in the west, and I was heading to Melbourne, which is really safe. But then I saw this guy (http://www.flickr.com/photos/jonbar18/6791402643/ -not for the faint of heart) and I freaked. Luckily the rest of the trip was mostly uneventful.

    1. Earl

      Hey Jonbar – That photo you linked to is listed as ‘private’ and so it can’t be viewed 🙂 But I remember when I was studying abroad in Melbourne and one day I woke up and found a massive, multi-colored spider in the corner of my room. I was too afraid to get out of bed and I had to call one of my Australian friends who lived in the same dorm building to come over and get rid of it….

  5. Ron

    Wow that’s some intense stuff man! lol Being a reptile handler back home, I’ve had opportunities to work with crocodiles close up (meaning feeding them…but not me of course…) and to have an opportunity to see them in the wild….I’ll be honest I’m pretty crazy but even I’d have to think twice about that one!

    1. Earl

      Hey Ron – I’d have to agree that the word ‘crazy’ should definitely be used to describe anyone who is a reptile handler 🙂

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  8. Gemma

    Oh my god.

    That sounds absolutely petrifying, were the sharks in the water dangerous as well? or were they a more friendly type?

    The only real scary experience with animals in the wild I’ve had was in the National Parks in West USA. We were planning to stay in the camp site at Sequoia, pulled up to the lodge and my dad realised that that there had been a bear sighting in the last few days. We didn’t hang around and stayed in a hotel overnight as my dad freaked out about the bear but hey, would have been cool to see one! 🙂

    1. Earl

      Hey Gemma – I’m not sure if they were dangerous or not but our guide didn’t seem to bothered at all. So I’m guessing they don’t aggressively attack people as long as you don’t bother them! And I’m quite sure that seeing a bear would be just as, if not more, frightening of an experience. I think your father made a good call 🙂

  9. charmine

    Earl,this is scary stuff! I wouldn’t like to have those creatures follow me so close…I might freeze up in the kayak or fall into the water and pass out. lol. But,I did get a fright when walking with friends through the forests around our resort in the hills of Satoli N.India.The locals kept telling us to watch out for Leopards as this is leopard territory! Fortunately we saw none.

    1. Earl

      Hey Charmine – I would say that your story is equally as scary! There are definitely leopards in that area that you visited in India so those locals were not joking around!

    1. Earl

      Thanks for that Behzad and I welcome you to the site! I hope you continue to enjoy what you read and I look forward to you ‘joining’ me on my travels!

  10. Kevin - The Mad Traveler

    One doesn’t want to overstate the danger of these things, but as with any safari type activity, the animals are not given employee manuals by the park rangers and guides. (Number 1: Please refrain from eating the guests). Every once in a while you do hear about the guy who drew the unlucky lottery number for Death by Wildlife. We had a pretty pulse-raising experience with an elephant that could have ended badly. Still, would we do it again? Hell yes!

    1. Earl

      Hey Kevin – Well said…going into the wild is, well, going into the wild. And there are always some risks as a result. What an insane encounter you had with those elephants…that seems even more frightening to me given their size. Suddenly the crocs don’t seem so bad after all 🙂

  11. Jarmo

    Woah, that is quite the adventure! Seriously, the only thing missing from the collection of deadly creatures stalking you was a tiger or a lion! 🙂

    1. Earl

      Hey Jarmo – I’m quite sure the presence, or possible presence, of tigers or lions might have kept me away from this adventure 🙂

  12. Bama

    Wow Derek! Even I had to take a deep breath when reading this post. But this kind of experience is what you will always remember throughout your life (and awe people), I believe.

    1. Earl

      Hey Bama – It was a great experience and still shocks me every time I think about it. And of course, in reality, this tour would not be in operation if it actually posed a real threat to people’s lives!

  13. Rachelle Lucas

    I think living around gators in Florida, I grossly underestimated the danger we were in. 😉

    It was quite a juxtaposition … the stillness of the water and the peaceful setting, yet surrounded by two very dangerous animals. Glad we didn’t tip the kayak!

    1. Earl

      Hey Rachelle – That could be, especially considering that gators don’t aggressively attack people, while crocodiles will! Thanks for being a great kayaking partner and yes, it sure is a good thing that we managed to keep ourselves above the water at all times 🙂

  14. Andi of My Beautiful Adventures

    Wow what an intense but awesome experience! I felt that way when I went shark cage diving in SA. I was so over the top excited, however once you’re in the water and the sharks are getting upset and banging against the cage…it’s a different feeling than excitement.

    1. Earl

      Hey Andi – Intense is the perfect word to describe it…as I can imagine shark cage diving would be. I don’t know if I would have been able to handle both activities on the same trip!

    1. Earl

      Hey Stephanie – I didn’t get many photos unfortunately and the crocodile photo is actually from one of the other kayakers. My main concern was making sure our kayak didn’t fall too far behind the others!

  15. Caz Makepeace

    Having spent time in St Lucia, I really felt your fear in this post. St Lucia is one of my favourite posts but I was constantly on edge in the town. We camped in the gardens of a hostel near the waters edge where hippos would graze. There was a row of trees which acted as a fence, but really they are hippos?

    We would often go on walks with the staff of the hostel. They took us through the mangroves walking within metres of crocs and crawling through the lantana near the beach, where poisonous vipers live and the dried poo of leopards were.

    Living on the edge!! And it was the best time ever!!! So love that place. I want to go back and do a kayak tour now. I know I will be terrified as hippos freak me the most.

    What an adventure. i’m so glad you went to South Africa.

    1. Earl

      Hey Caz – Those walks sound even more intense than the kayaking! Even at the place we stayed (Umlilo Lodge which was two streets back from the main road), every night the hippos would arrive in the field across the street and start grazing. And if we wanted to walk into town, we had to walk down the dark street knowing that massive hippos are so very close.

      What a place!! And just like you, that initial fear always led to excitement and awe at what I was actually experiencing!

  16. Liv

    Sounds like you did well to avoid the hippos Earl. They kill more people each year in Africa than any other animal which is a scary statistic, I’d imagine, if you’re heading out in a little kayak!

    1. Earl

      Hey Liv – That fact is one that we learned on the first day we arrived in South Africa which is what made this trip extra-scary, but at the same time, extra-exciting as well!

  17. Dyanne@TravelnLass

    Hmmm… I wonder if that’s the same spot I also kayaked amid crocs and hippos at St. Lucia. Yup, the crocs are scary, but it’s those hippos that are the most dangerous. Our guide made sure we stayed a good ways away from them.

    1. Earl

      Hey Dyanne – The hippos are the real threat given that they do kill more people every year than any other animal over there of course…the kayaking was in the main estuary, just a couple minutes drive from the center of town. I think they might be the only operator that runs the tours in this area so perhaps it was the same 🙂 Glad you survived as well!

  18. El

    “Crocodiles eat people.” is a superb observation. I love adventure, but I don’t think you’ll ever find me in a kayak among shark, croc, and hippo infested waters. I am perfectly happy living vicariously through you on this one!

  19. Cynthia Scarborough

    Earl, the hippos freak me out. Sharks and crocs I can handle. We have sharks, alligators and a few saltwater (small) crocs here in Florida. I still don’t care for them following me though.

    Glad y’all made it back in one piece!

  20. Tracey

    Holy moses!!! I can relate when I went scuba diving in golf of Thailand for a night dive. PETRIFIED. You could see the glimmer of Barracuda eyes. Good for you for keeping your wits about you!

    1. Earl

      Hey Tracey – Haha…that sounds like a crazy experience as well. I’m not sure which would be more difficult, trying to swim away from barracudas chasing you or trying to paddle away from hippos!

  21. Sergio Felix

    I don’t know if I have watched National Geographic a lot but I would feel perfectly uncomfortable if I was in that kayak situation.

    I also can’t picture sharks in waters where hippos and crocs swim… that’s just crazy.

    Oh by the way you reminded me of some dudes who were kayaking in Sooke, BC trying to spot killer whales and all of a sudden they start getting surrounded.

    Even though the guy holding the camera doesn’t stops laughing you can immediately tell they were scared as hell.

    Here’s the video in case you haven’t seen it (which I doubt)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GIrsrRnerHY

    Sergio

  22. Forest

    Oh man would I be scared!!! I don’t do great in water but I force myself to do it.

    When I lived in Egypt I used to go to the Red Sea a few times a month to sail. The dolphins scared the life out of me (massive animals) and knowing sharks were in those waters made me nervous when I capsized!

    This looks amazing though, I would FORCE myself to do it.

  23. Matthew Cheyne

    I’m glad you came out of this one alive! This is definitely one of those times when I’m happy to live vicariously through you and not experience it myself directly.

    1. Earl

      Hey Didier – Of course I knew what I was going to experience but still, that’s much different than when you suddenly turn a corner and see these animals right in front of you 🙂 And yes, they do have insurance although you do sign a waiver form, just as you do with basically any other adventure tour in the world.

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