The day of the hippo and the boat that got away

A close en­counter on Botswana’s Chobe River

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - SU­SAN KURO­SAWA

HOW fast can a hippo move? Rather rapidly, as it turns out, and with rosy mouth agape, this par­tic­u­lar spec­i­men looks as if it might swal­low us whole, with the con­ti­nent of Africa for af­ters.

My younger son and I are on a sun­downer cruise aboard a flat­bot­tomed boat on the Chobe River in the Chobe Na­tional Park in north­ern Botswana; the flood plains stretch across to Namibia and all is green and bur­nished gold the fading af­ter­noon light. The ami­able Cap­tain Ali is in charge of our group from Sanc­tu­ary Chobe Chilwero lodge and all has been very good so far. We­have seen ba­boons ca­vort­ing on the banks, spoon­bill storks fish­ing for tad­poles with their ef­fi­ciently shaped scoop­ing beaks, and masses of elephants wad­ing in the shal­lows and then, with star­tling ease, swim­ming across the river, the lit­tle ones us­ing their tiny

in trunks as periscopes. Al­ways in the back­ground are the hip­pos, mov­ing as blithely as bal­leri­nas on reedy islets or rev­el­ling in the muddy shal­lows and boom­ing in uni­son, low and throaty, like a basso pro­fundo choir.

One mas­sive male erupts from the water near a si­tatunga; the an­te­lope’s legs are splayed as it bows to drink from the river­bank, and then it wob­bles in shock and al­most falls over.

Now we are about to find out how that si­tatunga feels. Cap­tain Ali has taken our lit­tle canopied boat close to shore and is telling his dozen pas­sen­gers about the so­cial habits of hip­pos, par­tic­u­larly the ter­ri­to­rial males, two of which are eye­ing off each other among tall grasses and grunt­ing with men­ace as a cov­eted fe­male stands to one side. I fancy she is yawn­ing.

Per­haps the an­i­mals can hear Cap­tain Ali’s un­com­pli­men­tary re­marks about their be­hav­iour, as the big­ger of the two sud­denly launches him­self into the water and de­cides to chase us off.

It is im­pos­si­ble to de­scribe the speed at which this hap­pens. You would think that such a fatso of a beast would take for­ever to get mov­ing. But you would be wrong.

This chap moves like a rocket and is upon us be­fore we can even ad­just our cam­eras, that mouth as big as, well, Botswana it­self. Cap­tain Ali guns the mo­tor and we roar off, but not be­fore sev­eral of us shout out words that start with F and S, and they are not fid­dle­sticks and sug­ar­pops. Of course we were not re­ally in any dan­ger, but such mo­ments of raw and un­scripted con­nec­tion with na­ture, such spine-tin­gling thrills, de­fine an African sa­fari.

My son and I travel deeper into Chobe Na­tional Park and through Zam­bia over the next week. We walk at day­break through the South Luangwa Na­tional Park with a ranger; we see Vic­to­ria Falls in all its foam­ing, thun­der­ing glory; and at the Zam­bia-zim- babwe bor­der we pocket Zim­bab­wean notes in laugh­able de­nom­i­na­tions of up to 100 tril­lion, be­ing sold by hawk­ers for about $US1.

But what do we chat about with fel­low guests at our lodges as the camp­fires flicker and the Mosi Lagers are passed around? It is about none of this. We talk about be­ing chased by a rogue hippo in the Chobe River, and my son rues not re­act­ing fast enough with his cam­era to cap­ture the mo­ment.

None of us that day in the lit­tle boat was quick enough to snap a picture, but the mo­ment is for­ever im­printed on our mem­o­ries. aber­crom­biekent.com.au sanc­tu­aryre­treats.com

J. M. KURO­SAWA

Hip­popota­muses are ca­pa­ble of mov­ing with sur­pris­ing speed

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