Its World Hippo Day! And who wouldn’t want to celebrate hippos – those jolly, rotund, playful, animal caricatures? I’ve seen an immature hippo playing in a tiny waterhole with a stick, ducking it under, rolling on it, retrieving it, even tossing it in the air, and obviously having great fun. But, as is usually the case, there is another side to this story, and it involves an intimidating, potentially-dangerous river monster.
During the day, the hippos of the Okavango Delta in Botswana, tend to be in the lagoons, and if you’re in a mokoro (dug-out canoe) your skilled poler avoids them by crossing these areas of deep water quickly, and at the narrowest points. On a typical mokoro-ride as a tourist, you spend most of your time in the maze of narrow, shallow trails (made by hippos as they leave the water at night to graze on land). These channels can be only a foot wide and just inches deep, or they can be 6 feet wide with water a couple of meters deep. They are often edged with grasses and reeds several feet above your head, and in the narrowest channels they push in on you from all sides. The water is clear as can be, filtered by all the vegetation, and the drifting lily pads are beautiful. The sounds can be mesmerizing – rippling water, the swish of reeds, and plops as frogs drop into the water beside you. Then comes a loud bellow or grunt from a hippo, a mocking laugh of a sound, and suddenly you remember the the gaping mouth and the unexpected speed and agility of these huge beasts. For a while you imagine what you would do if one appeared beside you right now. Your heart beats quite a bit faster!
One day I remember that we returned to camp close to dusk, and had to to cross one last lagoon. The beautiful open stretch of water that we gazed at daily from camp suddenly took on a more menacing air. The dark waters merged with the darkening sky. Splashes and explosive grunts were the only clue to the pod of hippos close by. Our poler held us back in the grasses on the edge of the lagoon, watching and listening for a good time to cross, and I wondered if the amazing mokoro trip we had experienced had been worth this anxious last few minutes. Then we took off, smoothly poling through the waters, straight across the middle – where I closed my eyes, envisaging the approaching tidal wave of a plunging hippo. But we made it to dry land, and a lovely can of dry hunters too.
Although I’ve spent many hours on mekoro and in self-paddled canoes (definitely a more treacherous situation given my inability to travel in a straight line for long), luckily I haven’t met a really disgruntled hippo. However, the stories I’ve heard remind me that although messing around in boats might be fine, messing with hippos is something you definitely don’t want to try.
Enjoy World Hippo Day!