The day a hippo attacked us

Cristiana Dias Baptista*

I’ve never thought of myself as neither a brave nor a brainless person. I am not one to throw myself in the first adventure that turns up. Actually, I think that deep down I am quite fearful. But as I am also very rational, most of the time I convince myself of doing stuff I wouldn’t initially do, by using arguments as simple as “chances are very small”. That works for very basic situations, like driving down to the beach and for others not so basics, like bungee jumping. The truth is that my desire of living new and different things makes me do stuff most of my friends wouldn’t.

Last June the 10th I flew to Africa together with Patricia, a great friend and companion of many roads. Our first destination, more precisely, was the small village of Maun, in Botswana. Maun is the main stop for those doing Safaris in the reserves of Moremi and Chobe, famous worldwide for their diversity and quantity of animals. It was love at first sight! Straight off the plane we found the ideal mixture of the exotic Africa (river signs “Beware of Crocs) and British comfort (tents with bed, side lamp and fully equipped toilet). Not to mention smiling people and the perfect scenery. 

We found out about our first program in Maun at our backpackers’ accommodation; it was a mokoro trip. Mokoros are little canoes made out of wood, fiber glass or aluminum. We enrolled on our arrival and next morning, after a two hour journey between a jeep and a motor boat we arrived at the mokoro meeting point, where the guides (all locals) and other travelers were waiting.

There were six mokoros in our group. Each had two passengers and a “poler” standing in the back (Venice style). Some of the travelers were there for overnight trips camping by the river. All seemed very organized and professional. Looking back, I remember that not for a second did I consider the risks involved in that activity. The apparent professionalism of the tour and having other people participating gave me a false sense of safety.

Off we went. Shortly after departing we were surprised to see our canoe heading in the opposite direction to the other five. The following conversation between our “poler” Nelson and I took place:

– Nelson, where are we going?

– Look!

– What?

– A croc.

– What?

– A croc.

– What? A croc?

In a split second I saw this huge, scary (and scared) croc flying from shore (about 3 meters away) where it was resting, and coming directly towards us.

Nelson, nosso herói.
Nelson, our hero.

The outcome? Nelson became our hero. Through the day we managed to see another scared croc, this time a bit closer and on the shore. We also passed through a “hippo pool” and, luckily, spot two of the beasts twice, on our way out and back. When the day was over we had a big smile on our faces, delighted to be experiencing exactly what we had hoped.

The days that followed were very special. We saw more hippos, this time from a motor boat, and at all times felt that everything was under control and the chance of an incident, very remote. We also met and talked to a lot of people, some from Botswana and others living there, and to them everything we were doing seemed very natural and safe.

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Meno a Kwena

On the seventh day we began a mobile safari, six days and nights camping in the bush. Our companions were Sonja and Hans, a lovely and fun German couple; and the locals Mike, our guide, Gabriel, Kapapa and Orris, the staff in charge of our camp. They were all very gentle and attentive.

We drove for about four hours on a dirty road before getting to Moremi Game Reserve. Once inside the park we saw zebras, giraffes, wild dogs and hyenas. We passed half a dozen elephants, turned a corner and there it was, our camp site, right there in the middle of the Reserve. No fences or guns, our protection was the vague idea that wild animals don’t usually come too near to the camps. If they do, it is at night when we are in the tent, and as they don’t perceive tents as a threat, they don’t attack.

collage2

For the first time in the trip I felt anxious. “What about all the other times when I am in the camp but out of the tent?” I thought to myself. My comfort came from the thought of all the other people that I know that had been on a mobile safari and survived unscathed. “That is right, chances are very slim.” But the discomfort was now instilled.

On the second day, the news of a mokoro trip in the afternoon came as a surprise to all of us. We had all already had a mokoro experience and neither we nor the Germans were very excited to do it again. To me in particular, with the discomfort already there, the idea of jumping in a tiny boat surrounded by wild animals wasn’t very pleasant.     

Either way, at around 3 PM we arrived at the mokoro site, on the River Khwai. I felt like giving up, but I didn’t want to be a party pooper. “You’ve done it before, don’t be a pain.” That and the fact that the knot in my stomach wasn’t any different from the one I feel when I board a plane made me suppress my fear once more.

Before boarding the canoe we received some instructions. I remember one clearly: Don’t put your hands in the water as some plants might cut. We also signed the notorious “waiver”, exempting everyone of anything that might happen to us. With the knot in my stomach tightening I thought it was wise to clarify a point:

– What about hippos and crocs? Isn’t it dangerous?

Answer:

– No. There are no crocs on this river and the hippos are in the deepest areas. We only go where it is shallow.

Myself:

– What If there is one?

Answer:

– Stay on the boat.

Not quite convinced I boarded a mokoro for the last time in my life.

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The ride began smoothly, maybe too smoothly. The silence was so absolute that it was almost oppressive. It was that typical silence that precedes a tragedy in horror movies. Ah, how easy it is to state that now. But the truth is, if oppressive silences were to precede a tragedy, the whole trip would have been a huge tragedy, as there isn’t a more absolute silence than the silence of the bush at night.

Five or ten minutes passed. We stopped to check on a pretty blue bird. Our “poler”, a boy of no more than 18 years of age, gave us a piece of water lily root, their typical food. The boat was once more sliding softly in the water. The German’s mokoro was now out of site. Silence. I felt what it seemed like a big wave coming from our left. I looked back and there it was, half a meter away.

There was no doubt we were being attacked by a fully grown hippo. It wasn’t a movie, a rehearsal, a silly fear, an “If”. All my fears, the reasonable ones and the unreasonable ones, materialised. “This is it. It is happening.”

I remembered the instruction: “Stay on the boat”. I looked forward and tried to keep my balance. I felt the boat shake behind me and heard the splash of someone falling in the water. I thought it was Paty. I looked over my right shoulder and was relieved to see she was still there. We were both still there.

I later realized that the ‘splash’ was the “poler”. Once the hippo charged at his feet he didn’t think twice and jumped. I don’t blame him.

My relief didn’t last a second. With extreme violence the mokoro capsized. Now we were in the water with the most violent animal in Africa attacking us. Hippos are the biggest killers in the African continent, killing up to 3000 people per year – it was worse knowing that.

To think that my time had come was unavoidable. Not knowing if I would be bitten or rammed, I waited for the impact. I tried to submerge fully under water and stay still beneath the over-turned mokoro, hoping not to be noticed. I thought of Paty, she should be right behind me. Was she? I was afraid…very afraid. Suddenly my mokoro shelter was ripped from above me. Instinctively, I stood up. The water was waist deep. By some crazy miracle Paty was also there, standing.

Do we run? Do we stand still? We had received instructions for every animal, but the hippo instruction was no longer valid. Feeling unsure, we tentatively and slowly walked to the shore.

Sonja, Hans and their “poler” had heard and seen some of what happened to us and came to our assistance. I remember thinking that they seemed frightened. They embraced us strongly. Walking along the river I tried to recreate in my head what had just happened. The only clear scene that I had (and still have) in my head was of the hippo half a meter away coming towards us. I began laughing and soon I was crying hysterically (for the next 48 hours Paty and I took turns on crying and laughing, laughing and crying).

In a few minutes we arrived at our car only to find a group of Dutch people receiving the same raw instructions we had received 10 minutes earlier. “Watch for the plants?”

The remains of our belongings and destroyed mokoro were rescued. By looking at the small canoe and the teeth marks left in it we could deduce what had happened and how lucky we were. The hippo bit the boat twice. The first bite was in the back, approximately 15 centimeters behind Paty. The second, with the canoe already upside down, was exactly between the two of us. Fifteen centimeters to the left or to the right and one of us wouldn’t be there anymore. But we were.

We waited at the river bank for what it seemed an eternity. A lot of people were radioed, including a policemen and the park warden. I still don’t know where their concern lay. For sure it wasn’t with us, as no one (besides our guide, Sonja and Hans) asked us any questions. All very weird in a country where people seemed so friendly. Maybe it was a mix of embarrassment and familiarity. Talking to some of the locals we discovered that almost all of them had a hippo attack story to tell, some of them with no survivors.

Looking back, I realize that we were in a haze of shock and euphoria. The truth is that all we wanted at the time was a room with walls. But we went back to our tent. When finally alone, Paty and I discussed our options. To stay was not an easy decision…but, we stayed…maybe because there wasn`t an easy alternative. We were hundreds of kilometers (on a dirt Road) from the closest town, but also, at least in my mind, because to leave at that point wasn’t right. I didn’t want an experience that had been so great until that incident, to end like that…in fear.

It is easy to understand that the four remaining days in the bush weren’t the most comfortable. Once you become statistics, your capacity to argue with your fears using “chances are slim” is gone. Your permanent thought becomes “it can happen”. To dine listening to lions roar “potentially” two kilometers away became frightening. Trust me. But our persistence rewarded us with some unforgettable moments, like the pride of lions, including four or five cubs, parading to drink water with the sun setting in the background.

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After the bush, we travelled for a further 15 days. Many times I caught myself thinking about the lessons one is supposed to learn following an experience like ours. I’ve reached a few obvious conclusions: don’t ever board a tiny canoe in a river with hippos; your ICloud has a purpose, use it!; and when travelling, download your photos whenever you have the chance; last but not least, your camera strap is there for a reason, keep it around your neck.

Of course I believe and hope there are more profound and subjective lessons. If our most common experiences change us every day, what of an experience that brought death so close. At least now my relation with fear is different. I hope it is more mature.

However, every cloud… losing our cameras and phones forced us to disconnect. For 20 days we lived a digital detox. We could only connect to our real experiences and to one another. We lived every day of our trip with an intensity that is not usual anymore, old school. We felt a detachment and, ironically, a connection that only the greatest trips make you feel. That might be the only real way to experience Africa. It was beautiful.

*Cristiana is a journalist and an economist. Her passions in life are travelling and story telling.

Editing David McGahan

Photos: Hans Holzhaider

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