It is fairly uncommon to catch hippos like this – snoozing ashore, though they may do it on sand banks in rivers. Their usual routine is to spend the night in the bush, roving far and wide and chomping masses of grass. Then at first light they start returning to the river so they can be well submerged in their watery territory before sun up. Their hides are 2 inches (5cm) thick, and although a red oily secretion gives some protection, they are very susceptible to over-heating and drying out. It can thus be fatal to find yourself between a river and a hippo intent on swift immersion.
We had our own alarming charging hippo encounter on the Luangwa River when we were living in Zambia. That story is HERE.
These particular sleeping hippos were caught on an early morning game drive, around 7 a.m. We drove right by them along a secluded stretch of the Mara River flood plain. Not an eye’s blink from any of them.
And the origins of the saying: to sleep like a top?
My Dictionary of Phrase and Fable tells me it relates to the children’s toy, the traditional wooden spinning top. Once well whipped into action, there is a point when the top seems perfectly still and silent.
And here’s an early 17th century usage:
“O for a pricke now like a nightingale, to put my breast against. I shall sleep like a top else.”
The Two Noble Kinsmen a play attributed to a John Fletcher – William Shakespeare collaboration.