Hippo Hoedown

24 02 2009



“For the sixth time, I don’t do hedges or rose bushes, okay?” (Kazinga Channel, Uganda)


It was a dark and stormy night…no, really!


Queen Elizabeth National Park in western Uganda stretches from Lake George to Lake Albert along the Kazinga Channel and offers wonderful scenery, excellent wildlife and one of the highest hippo populations in all of Africa.


We had set up our tents on a clear patch of grass not far from the water. After dinner, we headed up the hill to a lodge with a panoramic view of the channel. Lightning flashed in the distance and thunder rolled across the lake. The sky quickly changed from the gentle hues of sunset to boiling black clouds and within minutes torrential rain swept across the lodge’s immaculate lawns and lashed at the colonial verandas. We sat in the bar and watched the maelstrom outside, wondering how our tents were fairing in the deluge. As quickly as it had arrived, the storm swept away and we were left with only the gentle sound of drips from the eaves.


Cocktails over, we headed back down the hill towards our sodden campsite. Most tents were fine, with only one or two blown over and lying forlornly on the saturated ground. Earlier in the day we had washed clothes and hung them on laundry lines strung between our tents. These were now scattered around the campsite or hanging limply from the lines. We re-pegged them hoping they would dry overnight.


Before we retired, a ranger told us to be very careful during the night. Located as close to the channel as we were, hippos would likely emerge from the water and graze around our tents. If we got up, we should quietly open our tent flaps, stick our heads out and have a good look around before coming out, he instructed. Hippos were extremely aggressive and could easily outrun a human. He also added that we should not use flashlights because if we startled a hippo, it would definitely charge. With those happy notes ringing through our heads, we climbed into our canvas cocoons and settled down for the night.


Several hours later I awoke to the unmistakable sound of hippo snorts, grunts and an extremely large animal munching on the grass nearby. It was hard to know how close the self-propelled lawnmowers were, but they were close enough that I had no desire to take a look. Staring upwards, I could hear every breath and exhalation…along with constant munching. It was only then that I remembered the clothes line strung between the tents and suddenly envisioned a short-sighted masticating hippo bumbling into one, becoming alarmed and angrily charging off towards the river…dragging the tents and their occupants with them. In the darkness, my imagination grew and I could picture other hippos joining in the rampage and the occupants of the tents being pummelled like chicken breasts in a bag of seasoned flour. Sleep was now impossible. I listened intently to every sound and longed to hear my nearest grazer move away.


Eventually, the coast seemed clear. I quietly eased out of my sleeping bag and edged down the tent. Lying prone on the ground, I silently opened the zip and slid my head out at grass level. With baited breath I waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. I could hear hippos but not see any. I crawled free of the tent and crouched just in front of the flaps. I peered around the sides, but all was still clear. I tip-toed between the two tents and peered around the back…still clear. I eased up, undid the clothes line, turned around and edged back towards the entrance.


I could still hear the hippos but not see any…I hoped they couldn’t see me either. A shiver of relief went down my spine as I climbed back in and closed the zip behind me. In my sleeping bag, exhausted from stress, I slid back into unconsciousness.


Safe in my untethered world, the hippos now serenaded me to sleep…until my bladder suddenly woke up and demanded that I take it for a walk. I reluctantly started the climb back down the tent.



Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan


Lessons Learned the Hard Way – No. 36

18 09 2008


The African Darter renowned for always hitting the Bullseye (Matusadona, Zimbabwe)

When fleeing a charging elephant, always watch where you’re going.


Matusadona, Zimbabwe is one of the most beautiful spots in the world. Sitting on Lake Kariba in the Zambezi valley, the park can be explored on foot or from the water.


It was late afternoon and we were paddling along the shoreline, quietly venturing into tranquil bays and small waterways that wound their way into the bush. Before our expedition, the guide had warned us to be particularly aware of hippopotamuses, a creature that kills more people every year than lions or crocodiles. He cautioned us that the first rule when near a hippo is never to get between it and deep water as that’s when they’re at their most aggressive and dangerous. With that we set off.


When the ranger climbed into my canoe, I was initially rather excited. He was not only an experienced canoeist, but unlike me, he also knew what he was doing. It was only when we led the flotilla, ventured closest to the wildlife and ran interference for the rest of the panicked paddlers that I began to regret having him aboard.


From the silence of the water, we closely observed antelope, zebra, jackals and buffalo. Exotic, wildly-coloured birdlife flitted about our heads, while others were close enough to touch.  As the shadows lengthened, all was bliss…until we turned a corner and found a herd of elephant.


I was more than happy to watch them from afar. I have good eyesight and saw no reason to venture closer. They hadn’t invited us over for a chat. We weren’t carrying cakes. What could possibly be the benefit of proceeding forward? I grumbled to myself as my backseat paddler propelled us closer and closer.


We finally stopped just shy of the shoreline and no more than a few dozen metres from the herd. The rest of our party sensibly stopped well back.


The herd was contentedly grazing. Young calves played in the shadow of the adults while their older siblings ran around boisterously. We watched them in excited silence, our paddles idly across our laps, thoroughly enjoying our private audience. One of the young bulls ventured closer to us. I watched him, wondering when my companion would deem it wise to move away, but the elephant seemed uninterested and we remained in our spot.


Finally, the bull noticed us. He trumpeted loudly, threw his ears forward and stomped a few steps forward. I raised the paddle, but the guide whispered to stay still. He said it was just a mock charge and that the youngster was just throwing his weight around. The obstreperous elephant continued his tantrum. Safely in the hands of the guide, I enjoyed the display. The elephant’s ears went back, the trunk dropped, and our friend charged at us with menacing speed. Just as I raised my camera to take a snap, the guide’s paddle plunged into the water beside me.


“Paddle backwards! Paddle backwards!” he shouted.


The canoe shot back like a torpedo. The elephant continued to charge. I thrust my paddle into the shallow water trying to put as much distance between us and the petulant pachyderm as possible. We paddled frantically, finally gaining some momentum. My heart was pounding, the adrenalin was pumping but as the elephant reached the water’s edge and stopped his express train charge, I began to relax a bit.


“Stop paddling! Stop paddling!” the guide shouted, his paddle now countering my backward strokes with a furious frenzy.


Puzzled, I stop.


“Hippos!!!” he shouted, pointing at the little piggy ears, evil eyes and scarred hides that now surrounded us. We were in the midst of a maritime minefield.


The hippos splashed, snorted and hooted their protest of our trespass. Our canoe sat motionless as our guide carefully surveyed the encircling beasts. We carefully headed for deeper water. The hippos quietened down. My heartbeat returned to normal and the white knuckles that gripped the paddle loosened.


“The second rule when near a hippo” he suddenly explained, “is always to watch where you’re going”.


And with that we headed home.




Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan