ODESSA, Fla. (WFLA) – A Tampa Bay area couple is sharing their story of survival after the trip of a lifetime turned into a life and death struggle.
Kristen Yaldor and her husband Ryan planned a dream trip to South Africa for Thanksgiving of 2018. The timing of the trip allowed Kristen to celebrate her birthday.
The couple decided to make the trip even more special with a canoe trip down an African river to see wildlife. Photos from the guide company showed exotic wildlife on the shoreline.
“The photos online made it appear that you might see some elephants along the shoreline and there might be some good photo opportunities,” Kristen told WFLA.
She and her husband maintain the guide company never told them there had been dangerous encounters on the river before.
During the trip, their guide spotted several hippos on the far side of the river and told them to aim their canoes toward the other side.
Not far from shore, there was a sudden and unexpected explosion of water from under their canoe.
“That’s when – out of nowhere – a hippo came up under (our) canoe, a big thud under there, and I got launched into the air,” said Kristen.
Ryan was also thrown out of the canoe, but landed toward shore. In a matter of seconds, he reached the riverbank, but looked back and did not see his wife.
“I turned around and she was gone. She was nowhere to be found. We should have both come to the surface and she just wasn’t there,” said Ryan.
A large hippo had grabbed Kristen’s leg and was pulling her underwater.
“We started to swim to the shoreline and that’s when I was grabbed by my right leg and dragged under by the hippo,” she said.
Kristen somehow managed to get free, but her leg had been ripped open from the middle of her thigh down to her knee.
Her husband was able to get their cell phone out of her pants pocket. He called their hotel and managed to get them to arrange for a helicopter.
It took 45 minutes for the life-saving flight to arrive and hours more before she would reach a hospital in Johannesburg.
The couple says they were never adequately warned by the tour company of the dangers and they would like others to know before they consider booking similar tours.
“I’d like to get the word out that yes, it is dangerous. And I know that being in a wild environment, there is always some sort of danger but to not have all of the full information upfront that this happens quite often and it’s not just a one-off rarity,” Kristen said.
She spent a total of 27 days in the hospital and has endured 14 surgeries. She still walks with a limp but says she’s working toward competing in a 5K race, even if she has to walk a little.