01 July 2024

The Danubian Crocodile That Died Young


In our article published on the Danubian Islands blog on 10 June 2024 (Island in the Sea of Nettles), we falsely claimed that the name of the Danubian island at the foot of the Felső-Öreghegy hill in Dunaföldvár, Hungary was the Felső-Öreghegyi Island. On the contrary, the reality is that the geographical name Krokodil Island is shown on a Danube site plan from 1910. We apologise to all our readers and will henceforth use the name Crocodile Island as a word of honour, because it is much cooler.  

A crocodile and a loess hill combined on a postcard from Dunaföldvár.

For our readers used to TikTok videos, to recap: the Felső-Öreghegy Island Crocodile Island in Dunaföldvár first appeared as a sandbar on a map in 1850, after less than four decades it was connected to the right bank by a cross dyke, after which a massive sedimentation started, which resulted in the Crocodile being quite difficult to approach today. Our readers, who are used to longer texts are warmly welcome to continue with the next paragraph:  

The Crocodile Island and the cross dyke beneath the barren loess hills

At Dunaföldvár, the Danube cuts sharply into the right bank, gradually destroying the loess hill called Öreghegy (Old Mountain). Over time, erosion caused this hill to split into two parts, the Upper and Lower Öreghegy, and Dunaföldvár was able to settle in the valley between the two. The erosive impact of the Danube is well illustrated by the steep loess walls of the height and steepness of the castle walls, although most of these are obscured by the recent growth of floodplain forest.  

Crocodile Island was first depicted as an unnamed sandbar on 12 May 1850. It is possible, of course, that an even older map will come to light, but what is certain is that the earliest maps from the 1850s to the 1860s all depicted it as a long, narrow sandbar, whether they were maps showing the location of ship mills, the situation of the riverbed or maps of 19th century land use. The northern tip of the sandbar stretched from the westernmost point of the Danube for almost a kilometre to the church of St. Ilona in Dunaföldvárr. In addition, there was a lower sandbar in the middle of the Danube at Dunaföldvár, roughly in the section of the present day Beszédes József bridge, which was later dredged away because it was an obstacle to navigation.

12 May 1850. The ship mills and the sandbars are both important features of the Danubian maps near Dunaföldvár. (source

Crocodile Island was first depicted as a sandbar in 1910, but the geographical name appeared in the local press earlier, in 1889, and was associated with mostly wildly fictious stories. It was first mentioned in the Szekszárd Vidéke periodical, but the esoteric article published here reveals little of the island's history other than the geographical name, and the fact that the island was already known by that name:
"There is also talk of a witches' castle near the shipyard, in the vicinity of the Crocodile Island in the Danube. Here, on quiet summer nights, children's cries can be heard and occasionally flames rise from the water. Next time Pepi Etl will bring along a heart-strengthening spirit from Szekszárd, as he intends to blow it up..." (source
Ten years later, the death of a tinker's lad adds to our hydrological knowledge of the curiously named island: 
Vilmos Szavalovics, a 26-year-old tinker, fell victim to an unwise act of recklessness in the town of Dunaföldvar. Although he and several of his companions went swimming in the Danube in a rather drunken state, and although he was not a good swimmer, he took to the water in the most shallow part of the Danube to reach the so-called "Crocodile" island. But he paid for his courage with his life, for he was swept away by the tide and buried by the waves before help arrived. His body was recovered on 27 July [1899] in Dunaföldvár. (source
1910. The only mention of the Crocodile Island on a map

From the description it is likely that in the summer of 1899 the T-shaped embankment on the island had not yet been completed, as the tinker apprentice would obviously not have chosen to swim, even when drunk, if it is possible to walk onto the island on dry feet through a stone dam. We also learn that at this time the drift line was still at the base of the loess walls, making it very difficult for those attempting to swim along the shore of the island. But the most surreal account of the island was published in 1911, when it was last mentioned in written form as 'Crocodile':
Crocodile in the Danube. This somewhat unbelievable news is reported from Dunaföldvár: the employees of the timber merchant Sándor Schvarcz were busy removing sleepers from the Danube when a huge crocodile emerged from the plank. At first the workers were frightened by the teeth-gnashing reptile, but when the restless crocodile lunged at them, they beat it to death with their axes. Interestingly, in this very part of the Danube where the crocodile adventure took place, there is an island that has been called 'Crocodile Island' for years. It is thought likely that the dangerous reptile escaped from a transport of animals that had recently passed through the area. (source

The case of the tragically extinct crocodile, if it happened years earlier, might explain the strange name of the island of Dunaföldvár, but in that order it is a very astonishing story, the like of which we have never even read before. Subsequently, the geographical name 'Krokodil' disappears from sources and maps alike. 

1930. An island is growing on both sides of the "T"-shaped dyke 

At the time of the "Crocodile Incident", there was already a T-shaped dyke connecting the island to the right river bank, which soon sealed the fate of the island, but prevented further lateral erosion of the Upper Öreghegy. The drift line of the river was moved away from the already thoroughly undercut loess slopes and the bed, narrowed by the stone dyke, began to deepen. In 1930, the cross-dam appeared to have forced the water of the tributary back into the main branch partly through the reef, resulting in the splitting of Crocodile Island. At this time, the entire island must have been about 400 metres long.

 28th September 1959. 

At the low water level of 181 centimetres measured in Budapest on 28 September 1959, the riverbed formations whose reforestation is currently defining the island's appearance are already visible. The shallow sandbar formation starting at the northern tip and the filling below the cross-dam can be observed. On the aerial photograph, the island is still divided into two distinct parts, a similar situation as a few years later on the map of the Danube, the only map other than the 1910 map to include any name for the island. 

The upper and lower sandbars around 1963.

This map of the Danube must have been made sometime in the first half of the 1960s. It provides detailed information on the state of the Danube at that time and is the first to show the island in the form of an ice-cream broken in half. The handle is the Lower sandbar and the core of the ice-cream is the Upper sandbar. Blue crescents mark the mostly water-covered bar formed in the riverbed opposite the 1562 river kilometre marker. The shape depicted on the map does not in the least resemble a naturally formed island.

15th September 1966.

Although the T-shaped dyke was marked on the 1930 map, the river regulation structure was probably covered by the Danube even at medium water levels, as shown on the 1966 aerial photograph. The river fills the bed up to the base of the loess walls, just as it did before the regulation. The Hungarian Hydroinfo archive records a water level of 385 centimetres in Budapest at the time, and there is nothing between the island and the shore to break the grey monotony of the water surface, just as the barren monotony of the island is punctuated by a few trees. 

The forested Crocodile island in 2005. 

Comparing the situation in 1966 with the present situation, the expansion of vegetation is striking. This process has occurred in a similar way almost everywhere along the Hungarian stretch of the Danube: the lowering of the riverbed due to river regulation has led to the drying up of certain riparian areas, allowing vegetation to establish and succession to take place. This was no different in the area of Dunaföldvár, where one of the largest river bed subsidence events in Hungary took place. Since the process is irreversible, just as the crocodile that was beaten to death could not have been brought back to life by the dock workers in 1911, it is unlikely that Crocodile Island will ever be a real Danube island again, as it never really was. But this is not necessarily a problem, as the sea of nettles that has grown up on the floodplain preserves a Danube jewel box of unique natural value.

Preferably for a long time to come. 

Translated with DeepL.com (free version)

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