Unhappy hippo encounter

22 Sep

It was about 5pm, the sun just starting to get lower. Dan who I was staying with at his camp asked me “do you want to go and explore in the Makoro (dug out canoe)?”. Naturally I’m always keen for a bit of adventure so said yes. Off we went, about to try and circumnavigate this island through the unchartered channels of swamp and reeds.

We pulled the makoro out of the water from which it was submerged with algae growing on it. Probably not a good sign. Once all the water was bailed out we made sure the crack in the front of it was above the water line. If I sat towards the back of the makoro it didn’t take on water. This was fine except Dan as looking like a Venice gondola paddler was standing up at the back paddling, wearing his wet tight boxers with my face about a metre away from his crouch! But things were going to get scarier.

Now you have a visual of Dan wearing wet tight boxers standing up in a dug out paddling with me staring at his crouch with the sun setting. Romantic. I wasn’t actually looking at his crouch though. I was facing the back to look for hippos coming from behind as Dan could see them from in front. As you may know Hippos are Africa’s most dangerous animals, killing more people than any other. I eard the other day in Katima that the stretch of Zambezi from Zambia down to Botswana there had been 28 hippo related deaths this year. Even though they are herbaphores (spelling? You know, vegetarian animals) they are extremely territorial. Thus makes them very dangerous if you get between them and the water, or if you happen to enter their territory in a makoro with a half naked Englishman.

It is fair to say that where we were there was no shortage of hippos, in fact Dan my trusty half naked guide always liked to mention that this Kwando river area is known for its dense population of hippos and elephants. From what I had seen I would have to agree, everyday I had seen hippos. When out on the motor boat you always saw them in the main channels hanging out with other hippos with their heads just above the water contemplating life.

You are probably asking “why the hell are you going out in a makoro in hippo infested waters at sunset?” Good question, especially when the locals don’t even consider doing this. You would never go out swimming if you had seen a great white shark in the bay that day. Plus you don’t have to ask around for long either until you have found someone who has experienced seeing a makoro and it’s occupant chomped in half by a pissed off hippo. So why? I suppose it comes down to adventure, that feeling of adrenalin, that feeling that makes you feel alive.

To say I was tenser than my bum cheeks when I spent the night in the cells after being denied entry to the US would be an understatement. Every water lilly or fish ripple turned into a hippo. Dan didn’t really help either with his running commentary, “see the white sand down there, that’s a hippo trail”, and yes as it was only a two metre wide channel between reeds, we were following it.

The later it got, the deeper into the unknown territory we got. You have to remember that although Dan had lived here for four years this was his first time in this part of the swamp as you can’t get to this area in a motor boat. Making me feel further at ease he exclaimed, “I’d never do this with a client”.

The channel we were following forked, right was a deep narrow channel heading into the reeds, left going to swampy grass that was a little closer to our good friend dry land. We took a left, but it wasn’t long before we couldn’t move due to the thick swampy grass. We both hopped out and started to push. Yes, there are crocodiles, as I write this I’m looking out at a bank 50 metres away with a 3 metre crocodile basking in the sun. To try and reassure myself I nervously asked Dan

“No crocodiles in this swampy area eh Dan?”

In his Steve Irwin accent, but being serious “Fuckin eh there are mate, but I’m more worried about the phythons”

“Cheers mate” I replied as we entered waist deep water pushing the makoro through the swampy grass.

20 metres later we were both back in the Makoro clear of the grass and able to paddle. By this time we had been on the water over an hour, the sun was close to setting. Dan was unsure of how to navigate the remaining impassable maze of reeds that lay between us and the tree we were aiming for about 500 metres away. We had three options, firstly try and navigate the unchartered territory and make it to our destination, secondly, get the makoro to dry land and walk back to camp, or thirdly turn around and paddle into the current the way we had come.

None of these options really stood out as a favourite. Going into a place that Dan had never been in the fading light, with no cell phones or light could only end up in us being stranded. Getting to dry land and walking back wasn’t an option as Dan had no shoes on and the thorns here are deadly, think some one having hammered nails into a plank of wood deadly. Our only option was to turn back.

To my relief we turned back. I would only be able to relax when I was seated back at camp by the fire with a cold beer. We were in the middle of untouched wilderness with the sun set reflexing off the glassy water and not a soul or sound in sight. But it was hard to truly appreciate it as I felt so vulnerable sitting at water level knowing we were in hippo territory. For some reason being on land with the lions, hyenas and elephants felt safer. Even though on land everything that wants to eat you can out run you, at least you have an option of running instead of just sitting there.

We were taking the safest of the three options and turning back. But it didn’t make me feel any more relaxed. Dan reassured me that I had every reason not to be relaxed,

“Hap, I’m bricking it too. Now the sun has set this is the time the Hippo’s leave the main channels and come down these narrow side channels for the night to get out and graze.”

Dan’s usual joking mood also changed his tone of voice more serious.

“If we get tipped, don’t swim on the surface they will get you. Dive down and swim to dry land”

I was now in full radar mode. I was facing the front panning the water ahead. I was also counting off the familiar landmarks that brought us closer to home. With the sun asleep until the morning the fading light sparkled off the open lagoon that we entered. This was familiar territory, 100 metres from camp. A place we had fished most evenings, a place I hadn’t seen any hippos. Finally I could start to relax.

Suddenly my radar went off “is that a hippo?” I nervously asked Dan. I waited for his reply to let me know that it was just another water lilly.

Dan’s tone was serious “Fuck it’s a hippo. Fuck it’s a big barstard. Fuck it’s moving towards us”

The hippos giant rock like head was about 20 metres away in the wide lagoon area. But the V like ripples made by his eyes were heading our way.

Dan now in his survival guide mode “quick, we’ll pull the makoro onto this island, let’s get out”

We pulled onto the tiny island that was home to a sole tree. The hippo coming around behind us, it’s eyes still firmly focused on us.

I was hanging on Dan’s every word. “stay calm, lets get to the dry land.”

We started off through the swampy grass with water around our knees. We had one more grassy channel to cross and luckily it didn’t look too deep. All I wanted to do was run as fast as possible through the swamp to the bank, but Dan was all about staying calm and doing a fast walk. I looked back, the hippo still moving towards us. Then his eyes went down under the water.

Stuff this walking business, I had seen these hippos move through the water like torpedos. Dan could calmly walk all he wanted, but I was last in line, therefore first on the menu. As I went to run the last 10 metres Dan disappeared as he fell forward with a splash and went under. I followed straight behind him with a splash. The once knee deep water had dropped off into a head height deep grassy channel. Now Dan was in the same panic state I was as we waited for the hippo torpedo to come barrelling down the channel. Scrambling over each other we desperately splashed and swam our way to the bank not bothering to look behind.

With adrenelin pulsing through us we could have wrestled a croc if it lay between us and that bank. We scampered up the bank on all fours. I didn’t stop running until at the bush line. When we arrived, we stood there looking at each other. All I could do was swear. My whole body was shaking uncontrollably, full body convulsions. The swearing slowly submerged into laughter, but still unable to form sentences.

Finally I recovered, and Dan with a smile said

“Now you have to go and get my shoes, they are only 30 metres down there”

Little did I know the reason Dan had a smile was because lying enroute was a big old tree beside the river that housed a resident bird population. As I shakily walked past jumping at every noise towards Dan’s shoes I approached the tree. Suddenly all the birds took flight squawking at the top of their lungs. I jumped so dam high in the air squealing that Dan nearly died from laughter.

We got back to camp and cracked a beer. As I took my first sip we heard a hippo just 15 metres from us out in the river. Oohhhhhh I had never felt so alive. Life was good.


5 Responses to “Unhappy hippo encounter”

  1. andysutherland September 23, 2011 at 2:51 pm #

    Crazy mate. Gotta get back on the blog wagon. Can’t believe you’re still over there??!! Stay safe buddy. Want to hear of your triumphs in person when you get back.

    • Hap September 23, 2011 at 6:18 pm #

      Hey Andy mate,
      good to have ya back. I hope all good Ozzie side.

  2. Geoff September 25, 2011 at 7:24 am #



    • Hap October 3, 2011 at 8:20 pm #

      best not show mum that one G.
      NBL hap

  3. barney October 4, 2011 at 3:18 am #

    One of the best posts I’ve read in a while. Loved every minute of it.

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