An African Diary Part VIII: The Hippopotamus Chase

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Day 19: Monday December 7, 2015

How sweet is the day when one sleeps until nearly 8am! I rejoiced when I looked at my phone to see the time. It was stifling hot when I went to bed last night and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to sleep, but sleep I did! I awoke with the predawn glow at 5:30 with a full bladder, and it being semi-light out, wasn’t terrified to make the trip to the bathroom.  I lazed about in the tent after Rug got up, enjoying the coolness of the day and starfishing a while. Our adventure (and what an adventure it would be!) for the day wasn’t until 4pm so I had all day to do as I pleased. I went to the lounge to do a little internetting and then Rug and I decided to order breakfast as it was only $5. After living on camp fare for so long, a little break now and then was needed. And let me tell you – the home bread was absolutely to die for!

I put down my mat around 11am when Rug went for a swim in the river cage. I placed it in the shade and faced the beautiful opening in the river reeds that afforded me the peaceful view of the Okavango River slowly slipping by, the egrets swooping in low against the river, their wingtips nearly touching the surface as they scanned for food.  I finally had space all to myself and it felt so wonderful to be able to practice in complete privacy out in nature! Out in the river, two hippos came into view, and I couldn’t believe that I was practicing yoga on the rivers edge where hippos were bathing! How can my life be this magical?! I got out my Sivananda book and spend the next two ours totally immersed in my practice trying new variations, challenging myself and finding such peace. I felt so strong, so connected, so blissful when I finished, and was so thankful for these amazing opportunities to practice yoga in such beautiful, healing places.

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Swallow-tailed bee-eater

After yoga, I did some research for my next move to Thailand and then we had lunch just before heading out on our adventure.  We were going on a Mokoro canoe ride on the Okavango river.  The word Mokoro was borrowed from Botswana, but in Namibia the locals call them Watu canoes.  We set out low in the water – I mean really low. Hands and feet safely inside with all the safety instructions from our guide Karay.

“You must keep your hands and feet inside the canoe at all times. We have snakes and hippos and crocodiles in the river so we must be very careful. Do not drink the water. If we encounter a hippo and he is aggressive, do not panic. He will likely leave us alone after his show of aggression, but if you panic and you jump in the water, then you will become lunch for the crocodiles!”.

Sure, no sweat! The river was calm, shallow and beautiful. We hugged the far shores for it bordered Botswana National park and was usually more lively.  Slowly and smoothly, Karay paddled us along, pointing out all of the many different bird species along the way – the pied kingfisher, the striped kingfisher, the African fish eagle, the little egret, the great egret, the cape vulture, the tawny eagle, the marabou stark, the African jacana, the Egyptian geese, the black headed heron, the common moorhen, the greater painted snipe, the marico sunbird … and so many more! I cant begin to recall half of them! We paddled out to the pod of hippos, but not too close of course, Karay knows very well to keep a safe distance of one to two hundred meters. We watched them and suddenly felt much more vulnerable in our tiny little canoe resting a mere inch from the surface, than we did in that big pontoon boat! One bite, I realized would snap this little thing clear in half or one upward thrust of those monstrous heads and we’d be in the water, a tasty snack for the crocs!

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I put my trust in Karay’s hands and onward we went. He paddled us up small channels where lavender, white and yellow water lilies were sprouting all over.  Puckered fish mouths stealthily snatched bugs off the surface of the water everywhere, giving the otherwise glassy surface a pockmarked appearance.  It was deliciously peaceful.  The afternoon was warm but not unbearable as there was a nice breeze along the river and the only sounds were the calls of the birds and the distant laughter and splashing of local children in the water, brave souls swimming off the banks of these dangerous, predator filled waters.

Karay jammed the paddle down into the sand and swung us around suddenly.

“Python! In the reeds! Look!”.

Karay clearly had impeccable vision as I struggled to see it even when he pointed it out. But there, nestled in the reeds just a few feet from us, sure enough appeared the scaly, sallow skin of a fat python. At first glance I thought it was Anaconda size (the movie) and was pretty sure we needed to boogie the hell on out of there NOW! But as I saw it from a different angle I saw it was more like the width of a very large grapefruit – still rather disconcerting! It was at least five times the size of the one we saw the previous day on our game drive.

I was slightly relieved when I was no longer three feet away from a massive python, and we continued down the river.

Having the luxury of and duties that came with the front seat, I was spying out all I could up ahead. Did that log just move? It looks like a hippo head… but no. The thing is, in Africa you think that every tall tree suddenly looks like a giraffe, every large grey rock looks like an elephant, every stick in the river looks like a crocodile tail, every river rock a hippo.

I voiced my concern anyway and as we got closer, discovered I was actually right this time! His ears twitched and his eyes followed us as Karay expertly made a sharp turn to take us immediately away from him as we did not want to be that close to a lone bull hippo.

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We banked hard to the right and saw just behind us on the far shore another huge bull on land.  We could see huge scrapes along his shoulder and side – battle scars from a recent fight.  Karay taught us that the injured ones must stay out of the water as much as possible so their wounds can heal – which is difficult since hippos constantly need their skin to be wet -or it will dry out. Hippos are semiaquatic – that strange mixture of animal between living on land and in water. We rarely saw a hippo out of water; these beasts can hold their breath for an impressive five minutes – they are the whales of the rivers… (they are actually, literally descended from whales!)

We escaped unscathed from the young bulls territory and continued on down the river visiting some more channels, seeing antelope and warthog on the shores coming down for a drink. Heading back we stopped at a sandbar in the middle of the river, beached ourselves and stretched our legs after making sure it was clear of crocs, snakes and of course, hippos!  We could see the massive prints of a huge hippo, followed closely by a teeny set of baby’s!  Karay taught us much about the hippos and this environment.

“The ecosystem is so important. I was born and raised right here along this stretch of the Okavango River. The people used to hunt the game, fish the rivers and cut down much of the vegetation – too much of it – without thought, and now it is time to protect nature because without nature there can be no us – we depend on her and so must protect her. We must protect all things, even the python and the black mambos for they all play a part in our ecosystem”.

I listened thoughtfully and agreed wholeheartedly.  But out discussion was soon interrupted by wild a thrashing in the water just down river from us towards where we had seen the young bull.

“Ah, they are fighting!” Karay explained excitedly.

We all turned and stared as a huge bull chased after a young juvenile.  The two were now engaged in a full out violent battle. Hippos are fiercely territorial and jealous. When you see them in groups it is all females, only one male and their young.  When you see a hippo alone it’s a bachelor holding down his spot in the river looking for females and ferociously fighting off any males who dare to come too close.

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Their cavernous mouths opened wide like some grotesque leg trap for giants, and snapped closed with the same speed and ferocity of those notorious traps.   A great, guttural growl reverberated from their throats; it was deep and steady like some purring monster. And then they would roar, mouths wide, and it sounded nothing less than a boat motor struggling and then suddenly roaring to life, as the throttle is opened up. I suppose that’s the effect when the throat of some colossal beast is half filled with water and he growls and bellows! They sent walls of water crashing around each other as their chasmal mouths slammed down on the water amid the cacophony of roars. This little corner of the river had suddenly become tempestuous battle field.

Our little guy (I was of course rooting for the under dog) mounted himself on a large rock on the rivers edge to gain some leverage and we saw for the first time how small and young the poor guy was – was wasn’t even half the size of the beastly bull attacking him! He stood atop his rock, now on level with his opponent and swung his head wildly as if hoping to catch his adversary with a mighty head-butt.  The mature bull kept his gaping mouth wide open, huge canines jutting out like knives, roaring all the while. The juvenile’s entire head could have fit in the big ones mouth! But he kept swinging it wildly, hitting the big one on the side, always ensuring to keep his head just out of reach of the others gaping mouth. It was a tremendous show of bravery (or perhaps it was desperation) and I cheered on my little one valiantly. He eventually lost his ground atop the rock and they both disappeared under the water for a moment before erupting through the surface and going right back into battle. It was terribly vicious and it made me that much more certain I didn’t ever want to cross a hippos path!

And yet that is exactly what we had to do only minutes later…

W reluctantly left the fight as we needed to be back before the sunset. I hoped my little guy persevered and didn’t get injured too badly. We pushed off the sand bank and began heading back, constantly looking over our shoulders as the battle faded behind us. There had been another lone bull sitting in the middle of the river all day and so we hugged the near shore tightly, keeping our distance, but as we came along parallel to him he thrust his massive head high out of the water, snapping his jaws and snorting at us. We laughed and excitedly watched his display, having seen it a few times the day before on the Kwando river, but from a much safer boat…

We paddled on, Rug and I not thinking much of the display until Karay says, in a quiet, dead serious voice, with an air of finality, “He is coming”.  We looked back nervously and sure enough, the bull was staring us down and swimming fast – right for us! Karay began to paddle furiously , even closer to the shore now, so close the reeds were crashing over our faces, so close we nearly clipped it, but we were speeding along, not having to fight the current of the river further out. I l kept looking back and he kept coming.  And that’s when I thought, ‘Holy shit. What do I do? Do I jump out and run on land? Karay had just told us how terribly fast they could run on land (20mph) there’s no way I could outrun them, but I’d be even worse off in the water, my god how do such gargantuan beasts move so fast? Plus, what about the crocs and pythons?! It had to be land then, it was my only option. Jesus, I might be about to get chomped by a hippo!’.

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A Fish Eagle perches in the trees on the side of the river

I sat there, heart pounding in my chest, wondering how quickly I could jump to the shore, and how I could thrash my way through the thick tangle of bush. My mother’s only warning to me when I was heading to Africa was, ‘Watch out for the Hippos’. Was she going to have to hear the news that her daughter was stomped and chomped by a hippo? These thoughts raced through my head in a torrent, until Karay broke through them.

“He has failed” Karay announced triumphantly.  Glancing back, I saw he was no longer in hot pursuit of us, but just sitting there staring us down, nostrils flaring, growling, as if daring us to be so audacious again.

“Holy shit… we just got chased by a hippo!”,  I exclaimed to my crew, laughing nervously. I kept my eye on him until we were well out of sight. I was beyond thankful there were no more hippos ahead in the river.  We paddled on, now at a normal pace, Karay getting his breath back, all silently ruminating on our much too close encounter, hearts still hammering. To break the silence and ease the excited tension, Karay asked us if we knew why hippos opened their mouths so wide.

“As a warning?” I asked.

“No, this is not why. I will help you. I will tell you the real story”, he responded with a coy smile.

“In the Beginning, God created the animals and he created the hippo last. He was going to put him on land with all the other big animals- giraffe, rhino, elephant- but the hippo said, ‘Please God, I don’t want to be on land; I love the water, please put me in the river.’

‘But you are so big’, God said.  ‘If i put you in the river, you will eat all of the fish!’.

‘No, I will only eat the plants, no fish, I promise. Please let me live in the river.’

God acquiesced. ‘Okay, fine. As long as you don’t eat the fish, you can live in the river.’

And so God put the hippo in the river and one day the hippo opened his mouth real wide towards the heavens and said, “See God? No fish!”

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Our game drive ‘hippo’ face

We laughed and cheered at Karay’s anecdote and felt the tension over our close encounter with said wide mouth melt away. A few minutes more and we arrived back at camp.

I thanked Karay for his wonderful ride down the river and for keeping us safe and out running the hippo and giving us such a memorable experience and for sharing his knowledge and stories with us. We shook hands, huge knowing smiles all around, and headed back to camp.

What had started out as a calm and uneventful day turned into what all of them do in Africa – spectacular and unforgettable!

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Sunset on the Okavango River

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