By Joan Larsen
By the time our very small plane had landed on a remote airstrip in the African country of Botswana, I felt I had researched every bird and animal we even had a sliver of a chance of seeing. However, it always seemed that the zoo hippos, heads peeking out of water, had been so benign and slow in the zoo setting that I felt no particular danger upon seeing them in the wild.
I was so wrong.
I was an innocent and didn’t know that there are more people killed by hippos in Africa than by another other scary wild animal living on that continent. Think: 3500 people killed by hippos there every year. I don’t know but — doesn’t that seem a lot by an animal that seems so – well – sluggish??
Little did I know that – within a few nights on safari – I was to be pointed out as “the one” who had the evening encounter with a bevy of “hippos-of-the-enormous-size” now on land . . . and lived to tell about it.
A safari is an adventure off the beaten path. Definitely my sort of thing. In the country of Botswana in southern Africa, lies an untrampled wilderness called the Okavango Delta — home to a dizzying amount of flora, world-class fauna that included elephants, buffaloes, wildebeests, giraffes, Nile crocodiles, lions, cheetahs, leopards, rhinos, baboons – more and more — and, in the many days you stay, you never see another human visitor other than the 18 or so that are on your island safari camp.
It is your own private paradise. . . and home for the world of wild animals, of course.
In the early morn, we took high-slung 4-wheel drive open vehicles to see how many lions and elephants were out and about – not using roads but knowing our driver would search out the zebras and giraffes and be able to spot the well-hidden cheetahs.
In later morning, two to a mokoro (a dugout log canoe that had a draft of about 3 inches), we would float down waterways under the guidance of the Ba Yei tribe – experienced polers for the last few centuries. We sliced through tall green reeds, channels covered with water lilies, and floating islands heavy with high greenery, serenaded by snoring or grunting hippos, snoozing by day and not seen. A dream world – with birds seen nowhere else in this world – posing for photos, surprises of wild animals around every corner.
“Camp” was a misnomer, of course. We were well-zipped-in in heavy canvas tents – very large with real beds with down comforters, and furnishings to kill for. Real bathroom facilities were outside the tent but sheltered just enough to be private. “Beautiful and safe” is what I thought that first night. Even lions couldn’t get into this tent.
During the night, my arm must have drifted over my head against the canvas tent side, pressing it. And then I felt the pressure of a large animal or more on the other side moving along, pressing my arm back. I screamed – which didn’t bother the animal outside one bit. And it wasn’t until the second night that I found that my docile hippos had chosen their prime grass feeding grounds to be the large area around the tent. When a hippo eats 80 pounds of short grass a night to live, well, you can find him munching for many hours – wherever he wants to.
Another game drive in the golden hours before sundown, giving us plenty to talk about at the group dinner table with senior staff, eager to fill us in on anything and everything we had questions about, would be a delight.
A gong announced dinner at 8. We were gawking at the beauty around us in the setting sun as we began our walk from the door of our tent down the slightly raised wooden walkway toward the outdoor dining area a little distance away. We were in high spirits, laughing.
And then – everywhere ahead of the walkway on both sides we saw hippopotamuses – animals that we now heard were highly aggressive on land and highly territorial as well – who were right there planning to spend their night munching on the abundant grass.
We froze as if we were statues. They seemed everywhere. Using hand signals, we tried to decide our next move. Not moving seemed the only way.
Of course, at the group dinner, our chairs were empty so it was guessed that something had happened. Next thing we saw coming our way on the board walk were two male staff members, each carrying a rifle, approaching carefully. With one behind and one in front of us, we slowly proceeded past the hippos – just a little bit out of our heads at that moment. “More than a little bit” if I were honest.
There was high excitement that night at dinner over this — and lots of talking. It was said that if you come between a hippo on land and his escape route to water, or between a mother hippo and her offspring, your life expectancy is probably seconds. On land, these sluggish animals can outrun you at 30 miles per hour.
From that night on, we opted for an armed escort from our beautiful tented room and back. I noticed that all guests had personal escorts whenever they chose to leave the late evening cocktail time and head for bed. We were visitors in this world that all these animals called “home”.
SAFARI in Swahili means “journey” – it is being transported to another world. For three weeks of travel through a world we could not believe, there was a magic and a beauty the like of which we had never seen before . . . and, of course, we will never forget that we had camped in the playground of the hippos, who had foraged happily within feet of our tent every single night.
And we had lived to tell about it. For a few minutes that evening as we were frozen on that boardwalk, it certainly became a story to be forever remembered!!!
Travel is like falling in love, the world is made new again.
Writer Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth. But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again. She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home.”