I once knew a girl who collected all things hippopotamus. They are so cute, she would tell me. Maybe a baby hippo is cute; but then again practically all babies are cute. When you are in the water with these two ton Tessies though there is nothing cute about them regardless of their age; most especially when they try to bite you in half as one attempted to do to during a fishing trip on the Zambezi River near Victoria Falls.
“Let’s go fishing”, my friend said. Tiger fish was to be the catch of the day. We arranged for a fishing guide early the next morning. I thought we were going to fish in some hippo-less body of water somewhere, not in the hippo rich Zambezi River. When reality hit that fishing in the hippo rich Zambezi was indeed what I signed up for I felt I had to bone up and be brave.
The guide – a man probably sixty years old - who had most likely fished that river most his life - parked his truck at a lodge where his boat – a small fourteen footer - was roped to a long rickety dock. He loaded my friend and I, a tackle box, several rods and reels, and a cooler onto the boat and off we went down a very wide portion of the river. Much to my delight there were no hippos in sight. The guide stopped the boat at a beautiful spot where I learned his tricks for tiger fishing and cast my reel. My friend, the guide and I fished this spot for a while with no luck. After about thirty minutes the guide suggested we head to another spot in the opposite direction, passing the place where we began the journey.
My friend and I were sitting in the back of the boat in a set of swivel seats facing the rear. The guide noticeably sped the boat up and swerved to the left casually hugging the river bank. That’s when I noticed the pod of hippos that was to our left; the river bank on our right. Just as I noticed the hippos and not three seconds after we passed them, a huge male hippo – the biggest I had ever seen - catapulted out of the water in the wake of our boat, three quarters of his enormous body breached the water, mouth agape showing us his massive tusks with those beady hippo eyes staring straight at me – his intended target. It happened very fast but I felt like I stared into his big open mouth for ten minutes. When the hippo sunk back into the river and disappeared I looked at my friend; he back at me; our mouths open almost as big as the hippos. I knew this hippos’ intent was to get us out of his territory and he was going to do that by flipping our boat then biting the first one of us he came to in half. He was only three seconds too late in accomplishing his goal.
I went cold with sweat. Every hair on my neck and arms was on end.
When the guide stopped the boat about four (or seemingly thirty) minutes later further down river and turned around I must have still had a look of terror on my face. He asked what was wrong. I said, “I can’t find my spit and I have to pee.” My friend laughed – perhaps out of nervousness – then told our fishing guide what had happened as the guide proceeded to turn off the boat and cast out the lines. The guide didn’t even know it happened and didn’t seem overly concerned but I was still in terror.
I told my friend and the guide I wanted off the water. They wanted to keep fishing so it was quickly agreed they would take me back to the dock then go back out onto the river to fish. As the guide tried to start the boat to take me back it wouldn’t crank. The boat engine coughed and spat while we drifted in the mighty Zambezi’s current…, right towards the angry hippos’ pod. I am quite sure I peed myself; even if it was just a little.
As the boat drifted, more and more beady eyes broke the waters' surface.
I don’t exaggerate when I say we were only a minute or two from certain death when the boat motor roared to life, the guide steering us quickly away from this angry mob. But it wasn’t until I was off the boat, safely back on the dock that I breathed again.
That evening I went back to that same lodge with some locals and enjoyed a wonderful braai (bar-b-q). I told the story of the encounter with this angry, territorial hippo and mentioned that the only person I was familiar with who had survived a hippo attack was a guy named Paul Templer who appeared on many shows telling his story of a hippo attack on his boat where he lost an arm and another man died. One of my dinner mates said, “Ah, yes that happened right out here,” pointing to where we had been fishing that morning.
Death by hippo is not my fate. It wasn’t that day and now I know it won’t be because I am almost certain I will ever be in the water with hippopotamus again.