Over kids' protest, gutsy grandma conquers African jungle

Over kids' protest, gutsy grandma conquers African jungle

SMITHFIELD - This community's silver-haired adventuress is still at it, topping her previous exploits in skydiving by once again jumping out of an aircraft - at age 88 - and following up two weeks later with a 15-day river and bush tour of Africa.

After coming eye-to-eye with hippos and a warthog, reeling in a razor-toothed tiger fish, and taking a helicopter flight over Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, Harriet Rocco returned to her retirement village home Aug. 19 and issued this report:

"I'm pooped."

Rocco, a world traveler in her younger days with her late husband, Dr. Albert Rocco, for the past several years has been busy checking off items on her "bucket list."

On July 21, a few weeks after her birthday, she made her third annual skydive from nearly 14,000 feet, and on Aug. 4 she soared off to Cape Town, South Africa, for the start of a trek by overland vehicle and riverboat through Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia.

The mother of four and grandmother of eight provided quite a nail-biter for her children, says daughter Connie, ignoring their entreaties against making the trip alone. Nor was she deterred when one tour agency declined to book her "because they thought I'd need too much help."

She does admit to leaning on a few shoulders and accepting a few wheelchair rides along the way, but, "I'm glad I did it."

When Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn plied "African" waters in the movie "The African Queen," they did so in studio tanks in England.

Rocco did it for real along the snake- and crocodile-rich Chobe River, dividing Namibia and Botswana, on the houseboat "Zambezi Queen."

The four-day ride was hardly spartan, however, because the boat is billed as a luxury craft with 14 cabins. Still, there were times when she was taken on explorations of the riverbank on smaller pontoon boats.

On overland excursions - the group stayed overnight in the comfort of hotels - she and the 14 others in her group saw "zillions of elephants," giraffes, lions, and a leopard perched 20 feet above them in a tree.

No shrinking violet - she's a canny poker player at home in the Village at Waterman Lake - Rocco enjoyed her group's visit to one particular watering hole: a bush-village pub where local fishermen danced at the end of their work day and rumba music blared.

She bellied up for a "shanty" - a mix of beer and lemonade.

Rocco's trip was one more adventure in a lifetime filled with them. Over the years she has white-water rafted on Montana's Snake River, ridden in a hot-air balloon, helicoptered through the Grand Canyon, ridden a gondola across the Mississippi River, and crossed through the Cold War's notorious "Checkpoint Charlie" at the Berlin Wall. She has visited all 50 states and a score of foreign countries.

Rocco began skydiving (she holds fast to an instructor on the way down) despite the hip replacement surgery she underwent a dozen years ago, disregarding her family doctor's advice against leaping from airplanes.

She keeps up with the times on her computer, and a few years ago had the image of a multicolored hummingbird tattooed on an ankle because "It seemed like a fun thing to do."

These days, Rocco can say of her "bucket list" what most of us can't say about ours - "My bucket is empty now."

Her travels done, at least for the time being, Rocco says she's content to play poker, see an occasional movie, and stick close to home, where the unvarnished advice she gives on aging - in her own inimitable style - is, "Screw the golden years."

If you want to chase a dream, she says, "Do it before you get to be 88."

On the other hand, she adds wistfully, there's that river cruise in Vietnam...