Grouchy Hippo, Laid-out Lions

It always seemed astonishing to me that, should you be lucky enough to locate them, you can simply drive up to dozing lions and take their photographs. Even if you sit doing this for half an hour or more, they will barely deign to register your presence. These big cat shots were all taken in Kenya, but it was while we were living in Zambia, and visiting South Luangwa, that our young South African guide briefed us on the proper protocol when encountering lions.



lions in the Taita reserve 1992

At the time we were driving around a Luangwa salt pan where we had come upon a pride of lions lying about in the thorn scrub. The guide told us that as long as  our profiles remained within the frame of the vehicle (in this case an open-topped safari truck) the lions would not give two hoots about us. To them we would appear to be part of the truck and from which they perceived no particular threat.

South Luangwa - out on the salt pan lion hunting

Out on the Luangwa salt pan, me in the back seat. The lions had been spotted earlier before the sun came up.

South Luangwa - spot the lions 1

Not a good photo, but the light was poor and I had only my Olympus trip.


However, I was scarcely reassured by this newly acquired knowledge of how-not-to-upset-a-lion when the next day, at 5 a.m., the same guide took us on a hike through the bush. It is all so very different on foot. For one thing, it can be hard to see  far ahead, what with all the tall grasses and potato bushes. The guide, though, seemed perfectly relaxed. He had already led us to within thirty paces of a browsing elephant, and assured us that it was entirely peaceable since its ears were not out, nor its trunk thrust to the side in charge mode. He had explained, too, how elephants move silently, in effect walking on tiptoes, the backs of their feet cushions of fat. For a time I kept looking behind me. It had never occurred to me before that something as large as an elephant could sneak up on me.

Our guide then spotted a herd of buffalo. This pleased him because he said that in Luangwa lions preyed on buffalo and the big cats were thus never far behind. And so keeping a careful watch on which way the wind was blowing our scent, he and our accompanying park ranger, White, set out to find some. This involved much careful manoeuvring, first around a small group of  passing elephants, and then around the buffalo herd.

Clearly, being on foot, the keeping-one’s-profile-inside-the-vehicle strategy would be quite useless. We had no vehicle. Instead we were told to stake out likely trees to scramble up. I eyed the leadwood and sausage trees doubtfully. A few decades had passed since I had done any tree-climbing. I did not think I could do it – not even to escape a charging  lion or buffalo.

Later I was to read a white settler tale of how if you were ‘treed’ by buffalo, they would lick any appendage you had not managed to haul high enough into the branches, and go on licking until your flesh was abraded to the bone. I’m glad I did not know that then. I already knew that buffalo were probably the most dangerous beasts in Africa, and it did not do to cross them- ever.

In the end we did not find lion. I was both disappointed and relieved. By then we had been out walking for several hours, and had only stopped for a tea break. The late morning sun burned down overhead, and we headed back to camp along the Luangwa River, me thinking mostly of breakfast. The members of our small party chatted amiably, enjoying the shimmering meanders of the river. We might have been walking in a city park for all the care we were taking. It was lucky, then, that we had White, the park ranger with us. It was he who drew our guide’s attention to the big bull hippo further along the track. The great beast was attempting to negotiate a shelving river bank, and having some difficulty. Several times he slithered half way down, but could not bring himself to take the final plunge.

The guide said it was most unusual to see a hippo out of the river so late in the day. They liked to be back in the river before sun-up, this after the night spent foraging for grass. He was clearly upset, but we were still some way off, so we stood and watched. Some of us were even laughing at the hippo’s dilemma. The bank was simply too steep. His huge bulk gleamed an angry red under the sun.

Then someone must have laughed too loudly, for suddenly the bull gave up trying to slide into the river. With a bellow he swung towards us and came charging down the path. While White took up a position behind a thorn bush, the guide urged us to move several hundred yards back along the path, across an old lagoon to where a fisherman’s big dug-out had been beached. We were to stand behind the dug-out until he came for us.

We did not need to be told twice. The boat looked reassuringly substantial, although it reminded me of the guide’s earlier tea break tale. We had stopped at a fisherman’s old campsite, and it was there that he told us how a fisherman had recently been mangled to death by a hippo. As we reached the dug-out I vaguely wondered if this boat had belonged to the poor man.

Meanwhile the ranger and the guide, held their position behind the thorn bush, and began to clap very loudly.

For too many seconds the bull came on. The ranger had his rifle at the ready. The guide kept clapping. Then at the last moment, the hippo ran out of steam and veered off into the undergrowth. There were sighs of relief all round.  When the guide came to round us up, he informed us that White had been more than ready to, as he put it,  part the bull from his brains, but they were nonetheless glad that this had not been necessary. Apart from being scared, the incident made me uncomfortable. I saw then that safari-going had its responsibilities, and was not simply an exciting jaunt. If White had been forced to shoot the hippo it would have been because we were intruding at a moment when the bull saw himself at great disadvantage. Who could blame him for charging?

South Luangwa - hippos and bull on the bank 2 wider view

The hippo when first sighted. You can just spot him under the tree on the right. Thereafter, I was running not snapping.


South Luangwa - traditional fishermen's dug-outs on a lagoon

The dug-out refuge point, and White leading us back to the path, the hippo now vanished from sight.


South Luangwa - dawn walk and hippos

Watching more peaceful hippo near our camp.


Back in camp it was of course a case of ‘travellers’ tales’.  We could sit around over a late breakfast, talking of all the things we had seen that morning, and especially of our near miss with one very angry hippo. At such times, and as so often happened in Zambia, life did not seem altogether real.

South Luangwa - Tenatena camp dining room under a rain tree

The dining room at Tena Tena camp, beside the river and under a rain tree


© 2013 Tish Farrell

26 thoughts on “Grouchy Hippo, Laid-out Lions

  1. Thanks for this very nice description of your “walking safaris” in Luangwa. That was actually the park where we experienced our first ever safari in 1986. Our son was very small so we did only “back-of -the -truck” game drives. I am gearing up to write a post about that experience as many funny things happened there. The world is a such a wonderful place, isn’t it!

  2. Sad to be reminded of how the animals of this world have been squeezed out, intimidated and killed. That’s a very nice picture of the two cats out there.

    1. Thank you, Shimon. I like to think there are still many wild places left where animals can thrive, but that might be me being overly optimistic. Thanks for all your comments on my other posts.

  3. Tish, prior to our holiday I would have been sceptical about spending half an hour with a lion and it not caring. However, after experiencing this on two ocassions and having a cheetah walk up the track, through our group and flop down on the track and wait for photos etc., I truly believe it is something that all should experience.

  4. Wow, what an experience. But amazing too no doubt once you came out the other side of it with no living being parted from their brains. It must have been a great relief that at least there was the dugout there to get behind.

    1. Yes, it would have awful if the ranger had been forced to shoot. I think the hippo was only intent on staking his claim to the river bank, given that he was rather stuck on top of it.

  5. What an amazing travellers tale and I can imagine you have so many more tucked away waiting to be shared. I was enthralled with your account of this adventure Tish. That dugout looked very flimsy I’m pleased, for your sake, it was not put to the test of a rampaging hippo. And the lion photos are superb.

  6. Tena Tena is a lovely spot, favourite place for hippos, on the Nsefu side. The cook had a problem with a young elephant who kept pushing through the wire mesh over the kitchen window and stealing food. To counter this, the cook left an open tin of chilli powder beside the window. This backfired when the elephant developed a taste for chilli!

    1. Piri piri tembo then. What a hoot. I remember reading farmers in Zimbabwe using chilli to keep elephants from their plots. Obviously not a fool-proof strategy.

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