Sunday, August 30, 2015

Beware The Hippos!

One week ago today, I traveled out of Zimbabwe, through Botswana for about 30 minutes and into Namibia, where I would be spending the next two nights on one of the Ichobezi Safariboats on the Chobe River in southern Africa. After a few hours cruising upriver on the big houseboat and a couple of hours in a three-person tender boat (each cabin on the boat got exclusive use of a smaller or tender boat for wildlife viewing) getting a closer look at some of the animals I had come to the dark continent to see, it was time to relax a bit before dinner. And right at that time, I could think of no better place to sit, watch and listen than on the Chobe, which separates Namibia to the north from Botswana to the south.

Our boat and hotel in one was anchored to a small sand and grass island in the middle of the river, technically on Namibian soil, and we were feeling very much alone in the middle of nowhere, probably because that's exactly what we were. The four crew members who were taking care of us were conspicuously out of sight preparing dinner for us and the other three cabins on the boat were empty for the first night of our stay. It was just what I could have wished for on this vacation. Utter isolation. It wouldn't feel quite like this any other night of our trip.

At about 7:15 p.m., just 45 minutes or so after sunset, there was no trace whatsoever of sunlight which added to the feeling of remoteness. It was an amazing scene. There were more stars visible that night than I can recall seeing in a long time, highlighted by the Southern Cross, which is a sight I had never witnessed in my life. Despite the darkness, the brightly lit half moon allowed us to see shapes and masses in the night. Or at least I think it did. The darkness played tricks on our eyes but we believe we could make out dark things moving and bobbing in the river. And the dark things we think we saw were very large.

If our eyes weren't much good to us that night, our ears took in way more. Over an inconsistent background noise of a few unknown bird calls every now and then, there were other sounds in the night that had our imaginations running wild. Most frequent among these noises were minor to fairly serious splashes and the sound of breathing out so heavy that it kicked up water from the surface of the river, not unlike a whale surfacing and exhaling before diving again. But the more sinister sounds were what had our minds racing: low growls reminiscent of a bear and loud grunts that can only be described as a tenor pig (heavy on the bass) with an ape's intonation (ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh). The noises were coming from hippos in the water, which happened to be the same very large dark things we think we could make out in the night.

Of all the animals I hoped I would see in the wild in Africa, I was most looking forward to getting a closer look at some hippos. I'm fascinated by the large African mammals in general but the hippopotamus, which is so ungainly looking on land and so deceptively fast in the water, is my favorite. After dinner that first night on the boat, we retreated again to the rear deck of the houseboat to continue staring almost uselessly into the dark while listening to these beasts, hoping they might come ashore so we could see them better in the light emanating from our anchored ship. At about 9 p.m. we believe one did get out of the water and onto our island followed by a second but it appeared to us that the first chased the second right back into the river and things got quieter from there on. We went to bed, hoping that in the morning we'd get up and see four or five hippos grazing before us in the early morning light. We were disappointed. But not for long.

Hippo heads on the Zambezi River.
I came to Africa knowing that the most dangerous animal on the continent for humans is the hippo. These things kill more people each year than any other creature. More than lions, leopards, cheetahs and some of the other predators that you find on the continent by far. Some of this is based on human ignorance. Big cats are quick; have big teeth and claws; and are scary; hippos look happy, fat and slow; eat grass; and can be rationalized as decidedly unscary. But the hippopotamus in the water is a very dangerous animal and it's here where they do their damage. They are very territorial and will chase and attack boats, sometimes biting with their tusk like canines and sometimes capsizing the vessels. And if you don't expect that, I imagine it would be very easy to get killed by one of these things.

With that knowledge, the idea of cruising about a river in a tiny tiny boat with some hippos at large was a bit unnerving. My imaginings had us and a pilot swerving about on a very narrow waterway avoiding the piles and piles of hippos that were popping up all around our extremely fragile vessel. My only solace was that people do this all the time and you don't hear a lot of stories about hippos killing tourists. Maybe our guides would know what they were doing. The river, as it turned out, was a lot bigger than I expected. That helped a lot.

Maybe I scared myself to death before even getting on the water, but my first couple of encounters with hippos in the wild were very different than my preconceived notion that these things were menaces. On our last night in Zimbabwe, we had seen our first pods of hippos from the deck of a 35 foot long, 12 section hull boat on the Zambezi River. While we were told at the beginning of our cruise that the hull design would allow us to survive a hippo attack without sinking, it almost seemed like that warning was a joke. All the hippos we saw that evening stayed far from the boat and didn't show the slightest interest in having anything to do with us.

Our second hippo encounter was similarly uneventful. We had spotted a lone animal grazing on the north bank of the Chobe from our houseboat while motoring upriver and made a beeline for the thing when we launched on our first tender boat ride. Instead of seeming threatening, the hippo simply slid gently into the water, submerged and was gone before we could get close enough for a good picture. No aggression. No attack. No nothing. Maybe these things weren't that frightening and fierce after all.

Hippos near the shore of the Chobe River; the big one looking at you is NOT a good sign.
But by the end of that first tender boat ride the night we were alone on deck, I could very firmly believe that I would never want to get super close to an adult male hippo on the water in a very small boat. Because I had. And it didn't feel good.

First, they made our pilot visibly nervous. Don't get me wrong here, I believe we were never in real danger with David driving our boat, but he didn't like hippos at all. Our boat rides with David allowed us to get super close to elephants, Cape buffalo, crocodiles and all sorts of other creatures and to maximize the experience with these animals we cut the engine when near the shore I guess to allow us to hear the creatures and make them feel more secure. We were checking out a crocodile from about three feet away that first day when we heard a grunt from the water behind us. Before I could turn around and ask David "was that a hippo?" he had already started the engine and was backing up to move on. We never cut the engine around hippos. Never.

Second, we got charged by one as we were heading back to the big boat that night which made the sounds we would hear later so much more threatening. Most of the hippo groups we encountered behaved exactly the same way. During the day, they generally stick close to the shore in a family group: one adult male, a couple of females and maybe a younger calf or two. The male keeps the territory safe and the females keep the babies safe. So if you are cruising by in a boat, you get watched by a very concerned male hippo.

While he's watching you, he may grunt, snort and show you how big he is by raising his body and head out of the water. If that's not enough to scare you away, (and let's face it, we were there to see these things, not run from them) they will charge. And when they charge, they dive so you can't see them for a couple of seconds and they are fast. Like really fast. If you ever want to experience the full force of nature, sit in a small boat with a 3,000 pound plus male hippo rushing at you. I guarantee you won't want to stick around and see what happens. These things are powerful and scary and we fled. Later that week, I'd sit in an open vehicle about ten feet from a lion in the wild and wouldn't be as concerned as seeing a hippo chasing after our boat. Not even close. And that's still super weird to me.

Despite that harrowing experience, we were out the next morning in the small boat again and again we couldn't keep our distance from these things. So that meant more chasing, one similar to the night before where a single male shooed us away with a threat of violence and another where the group of five hippos spread out across the river and kept coming even as we tried to run and stop to look at other animals. I don't think it's paranoia when I suggest that those hippos were determined to chase us until we got far enough away to be tolerable to them. Eventually we did and we got a look at some other things.

A crash of hippos abandoning the shore for the safer waters.
As if all that hippos charging wasn't enough to make me never want to get in a small boat around these things ever again, our last tender boat ride sealed the deal for me in what I now refer to as the first of three "scare the tourists" moments that we had in Africa. Although in reality all of these occurrences were absolutely real and could have been really really scary.

It was early morning after our last night on the houseboat and we were determined to get another small boat ride in to get one last look at things from the river. Our focus that morning was on the shore, looking for leopards (that we never saw) and other creatures that were out just after sunrise. Things were especially slow that morning so not finding anything upriver we decided to pass by the houseboat and check out what was out early in the morning downriver. We had just passed the boat when we stopped dead in the water.

After five trips with David, we generally understood this type of abrupt stop to mean there was something close by worth looking at. But this stop was in the middle of the river where there was never anything interesting to see. We looked back and watched as David struggled to re-start the engine, fiddling with the levers (yes, that's a technical term) and tapping the gas can in a way that it looked like he was trying to coax fuel to magically appear and take us onward. And then we heard the hippo grunt. And while it was not visible to us, it sounded awfully close.

The next 15 seconds or however long it was seemed like a pretty long time as we watched David trying to get our engine re-started and we imagined a hippo in full on rush destroying our boat and then coming after us. And while that seems farfetched, it's really not. If we had been in its protected territory and it would have been close enough, there would have been a distinct possibility of that happening.

Eventually (and I'm sure it was not more than 15 seconds), the engine kicked in and we got moving again. But rather than heading upriver back to the boat and a hot breakfast, we moved downriver. And saw a hippo head in the middle of the river. So we moved to go around it. And found another one ahead of the boat's new path. And then another when we re-directed again. There were five or so of these creatures arrayed across the river watching us and cutting off any angle we took. So we decided caution was the better part of valor and slalomed between a couple of the heads and fled back home. This was way too close and I'm sure our speed saved us. But God forbid if that engine stopped. I never want to do that again really. Seriously.

I went to Africa to see the animals I looked at in zoos as a kid in their natural environments and learn and appreciate everything I could about them. And I did. I learned more about elephants, marabou storks, lions, hippos and a number of other species by watching and especially listening to them in unfenced and wide open nature in a few hours in Africa than I ever did in my whole life. I guess hippos are still my favorites, but I know for sure if I'm never in a small boat with these things in the water nearby, I'll be a happy man. It was totally scary. And totally worth it. I'll never forget the Chobe hippos. But I'll beware of them forever.

Hippo heads in the African sunset.

1 comment:

  1. Found you on Lonely Planet. Interesting stuff, never have I seen a hippo in the wild. They sound like the y could be pretty vicious. you can check out my travel blog here- Rich Trek travel / adventure writings cheers man, and enjoy the travels!