Two Of A Kind On The Hippo Chute


Many people do not know, and that once included me, that hippos are among Africa’s most dangerous animals. They do in fact kill quite a few people every year, usually local fishermen. The main source of contention is when a human presence is deemed an obstacle to a hippo’s return to its territorial waters. Hippos spend the dark hours roving through the bush chomping large quantities of grass. But they like to return to their lakes and rivers by sun-up.

They are very thinned skinned and although they produce a red oily secretion to protect themselves, any unexpected delay out in the hot sun can cause them to become ferociously overheated, if not downright murderous. We had a hair-raising experience ourselves when we were living in Zambia. We were on a guided bush walk in the magnificent South Luangwa Valley. Lucky for us we had a wise Zambian Park Ranger accompanying our party. You can read the story at Grouchy Hippo, Laid Out Lions.

The hippos in the photo were our neighbours at Kenya’s Mara River Camp. Every morning at first light I would watch them emerge from the bush on the bank across from our tent. Full grown hippos weigh anything between three and six thousand pounds so the return to the river, even on custom-made hippo-slides, took some negotiating: head first or bottom first that is the question.

KindaSquare #6

Three Hippopotamuses Or Should That Be Hippopotami? Either Way, It’s Hard To Type ~ Thursday’s Special

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Hippos can be very disagreeable at the best of times, and downright murderous if you upset them. They are probably at their most peaceable in the water, but that does not mean that they may not capsize a  passing boat if they’ve a mind to. They spend the night hours grazing on shore, and consume huge quantities of grass, around 100lb (45kg) a night.

These Lake Naivasha hippos especially like the close-cropped lawns of the lakeside hotels, so it’s not good idea for guests to go wandering around the gardens after dark. The hazard reduces towards daybreak when the grazers usually return to the water, not liking to be caught out in the sun despite having their own in-built skin care product – a red oily secretion that protects them from dehydrating and overheating.

Once when we were Zambia, on a guided walk in the Luangwa Valley, we encountered a huge bull who was late returning to the river, and couldn’t find an accessible way down a steeply shelving bank to the water. He was so furious he decided to charge us.  (See Grouchy Hippo, Laid Out Lions.) And this is perhaps one of the most surprising things about hippos, given their bulk and tonnage – their land speed capability. They can clock 18 mph at the gallop and easily outrun a human over short distances.

As to good points – they do go in for much companionable honking and grunting when a group is submerged together for the day’s wallowing. It is one of those Africa sounds that imprint on the consciousness – once heard, never forgotten.

Thursday’s Special: trio Now go head over to Paula’s to see her unforgettable puffin trio.

P.S. Hippopotamus – the name is derived from the Greek meaning river horse. Hippos have no horse connections but are distantly related to pigs.

copyright 2018 Tish Farrell

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