The day of the hippo and the boat that got away
A close encounter on Botswana’s Chobe River
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
Hippopotamuses are capable of moving with surprising speed