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