“Maybe it’s a trap,” I thought to myself, while watching our guide swing a squawking fowl about, luring a massive crocodile onto the shore. “It could be a trap.” Then he was calling me over, asking me to crouch down next to this monster, and every rational synapse in brain was in agreement, screaming, “It’s a trap!” But I took a deep breath, and approached. If it was a trap, at least it would be an amazing way to go out.
In the rest of the world, crocodiles are (rightly!) regarded as fearsome killing machines, but they’ve lived in peace with the humans of Paga for generations. The locals believe this is because of an ancestral connection — an origin story relates how a crocodile helped Paga’s founder escape his enemies. Today, the reincarnated souls of the townspeople’s ancestors are believed to reside within the crocs, which are therefore considered sacred. Killing one is a capital offense; a crime on par with murder.
There are a few crocodile ponds in Paga, but we went to the most famous: the Chief’s Pond, found on the main road between Paga and Bolga. There’s almost no missing it; this is not just a popular attraction for tourists, but for all Ghanaians. Often, when we mentioned our trip to the north, locals would make sure we knew about Paga, and share their own pictures from the pond.
After paying the appropriate fee (two adults and the price of one live fowl) we followed the guide down to the water’s edge, and watched in pity as he waved the shrieking bird over the water, summoning the crocs to shore. A large specimen answered the call, poking his head out of the water, then methodically tramping up into the mud. Impatient, and to our unbelieving horror, he grabbed the croc by the tail and drug him onto higher ground. I felt sick — even if this wasn’t a trap (and it almost certainly was), the massive animal was now angry. Oh? What’s that? It’s time for me to come over and hug it? Wonderful.
It didn’t matter that every guidebook on Ghana says how safe Paga’s crocodiles are, or how many times we heard the same from locals, or even the fact that we could see people fishing and playing in the water, unbothered by the creatures swimming among them… my fear of crocodiles isn’t something that’s been “learned”. It’s instinctual, hard-coded into my DNA, and for a very good reason. These are monsters who can kill me, and who want to kill me. Just look at them. Evil personified.
But I pushed through my conditioning and stepped over to the crocodile, who was remaining perfectly, terrifyingly still. I grabbed his tail, as instructed, put my hand on his back, and looked confidently at the camera. I wanted to vomit.
As soon as I had stepped away, the custodian tossed the fowl to the crocodile, who spun around with awful speed and clamped its jaws down. Three bone-splintering bites CHOMP CHOMP CHOMP and the bird was no more. If it had spun on me like that, no way I could’ve jumped away in time. Its meal complete, the animal plodded back into the water and disappeared.