Words & photography by Bryan Havemann
When a mammal has the reputation of killing more people in Africa than any other animal, it really should get our undivided attention, and our respect. Things gets even more interesting when you learn that such an animal is a herbivore! Of course, I’m referring to the hippopotamus, an extremely dangerous beast that was only excluded from the Big 5 list because it’s relatively easy to hunt.
During the day, hippos stay in or near water, usually only venturing from their watery haven at night to go in search of food. It’s usually during these nightly forays that they encounter humans, and because they feel vulnerable out of the water, they often attack. When a hippo feels threatened, it will not hesitate to charge, and it can easily outrun a person. They have sets of razor-sharp canines and incisors in both the upper and lower jaws, and these grow continuously, rubbing together and sharpening into formidable weapons of high-quality ivory. They attack with their huge mouths wide open and are capable of biting a human in half, so their attacks are often fatal.
I’ve had a number of close encounters with hippo during my life, but thankfully, I’m still here to tell the tales.
In my teenage years, while attending Florida Park High School, I was privileged to be able to join a school trip to the Okavango Swamps in Botswana. Our mode of transport was a Land Rover Series 3 LWB SW that had a small boat packed on its roof. The second vehicle in our expedition was another Land Rover, carrying a group of boys from Park Town Boys High School. The trip from Johannesburg up to the swamps was epic, but very slow and filled with numerous breakdowns and punctures – all part of the adventure. When we finally arrived at our campsite in Moremi Game Reserve, we pitched camp next to the water and settled down for the night in our tents. During the night I was woken up by the sound of grass being munched just centimetres from where my head lay against the tent wall. I peeked out, and there was a hippo the size of a bus wandering through our camp in the moonlight.
The following day, we put our small boat and its little Seagull motor into the water, whereupon we realised that our boat would take only three boys at a squeeze. So we commandeered a large aluminium boat that must have been left there by the authorities, and attached the motor to that raft. It must be said that the tiny Seagull motor looked like a dragonfly perched on the side of an oil tanker.
Nine of us climbed on-board, and we made our way through the channels of papyrus to a large open patch of water. The water was crystal clear – it was amazing to see the fish swimming beneath the boat, especially the large Vundu of the barbel family. When we were halfway across this open lake, we heard an almighty splash directly behind the boat. It sounded like someone had set off a depth charge nearby. I remember turning towards the sound and seeing a massive pink mouth open to 180 degrees, as well as huge curved tusks trying to bite the boat in half. We immediately turned the boat towards the nearest embankment and watched as the massive hippo ran along the bottom of the lake before launching out of the water in an attempt to grab the boat again. Because the water was so clear, we could watch the hippo’s every move and see its terrifying intent. The poorly-powered Seagull motor (1hp) coupled to an 8-metre boat, felt painfully slow; I’m sure it was our crazed hand-paddling that eventually got us safely to shore.
As soon as the boat ran aground, we all sprang from its hull and watched in horror as the hippo reared out the water, growling and grunting in fury. We later heard that this particular hippo was a territorial bull with a bad reputation for chasing boats and any intruders on his space.
Two days later, the hippo incident was all but forgotten, and because the water was so clear, we couldn’t resist snorkelling in a quiet channel. We dived down and swam in the tunnels created by the hippo as they walked along the riverbed, surrounded by white sand and clouds of fish. As I was skimming along one of these hippo tunnels (about 2-metres deep) a huge commotion in the water suddenly stirred the sand and I came face to face with a hippo cow and her small calf. I turned and kicked for the surface, swimming back to the boat to tell the others what I’d seen. Shortly afterwards, they were all diving down for a closer look. In hindsight, we were incredibly foolish that day, and I suspect the only reason the hippo didn’t attack us is because we were obviously out of our depth and no possible threat.