There’s no safari without a little danger. As this next story about a fearsome encounter set in Botswana’s bountiful Okovango marshes clearly shows.
Great stories are proof of life. For my first post here on Dibs On Utopia I decided to break the mother of all stories. The one tale all future adventures will be compared to. This is the story about our freak hippo accident in Botswana’s Okovango Delta. Yes, you heard right: FREAK-HIPPO-ACCIDENT. Earlier this year me and my family crashed into a hippopotamus going 40 mph with our boat. When we hit its giant head suddenly emerging in front of the bow, one family member got catapulted into the water …
You should see the other guy’s face.
April 5th 2013, Boro River in Botswana’s Okovango Delta. Heading back to Maun from a camping trip on Chief’s Island, the in-laws and me were enjoying our last day in Botswana. We were skimming over the river at high speed, occasionally unnerving its inhabitants. Our guide looked like he could steer his way through the marsh maze blindfolded. With seven hours of endless wetland ahead of us, we settled down under the canopy keeping an eye out for any action. After all, this was the heart of the Okovango with some of the richest game viewing anywhere in Africa.
The whole experience is largely one of blissful tranquility – until we see a hippopotamus up close. Its head emerging from the dark waters in front of us like the tin brown shoe of a giant …
The scent of wild sage burning filled the air. Smoldering bushfires in the distance left a veil of ashy white clouds like in a scene from Apocalypse Now. Only this was not hell, it is a largely unspoiled paradise. For the scenic flight operators high up above, we must have been a mere spec in this vast floating field of papyrus, bending and shimmering like a perpetuum mobile in every color of green imaginable. The whole experience is largely one of blissful tranquility – until we see a hippopotamus up close. Its head emerging from the dark waters in front of us like the tin brown shoe of a giant …
Eyeball to eyeball with what appears to be a single male hippo enjoying his lagoon, our captain turns the barge around to safety. With a roar from the outside motor, he draws a line of silt and bubbles in the murk. From a distance we waited, camera’s ready for a good photo-op: a hippo porpoising or showing it’s jaws. With the beast submerged again, the captain clutched to almost 40 mph trying to stay clear of where the hippo was last seen. Suddenly a loud hair-rising thud under the aluminum floor of the hull made the boat jump up and quickly turn sideways, almost capsizing. The force of the blow lifted my sister-in-law Fien, who was sitting in front of me, out of her seat … and into the river.
Hippos are known for their territorial behavior and aggressive displays.
As the boat drifted further off, tantalizingly slowly gliding to a stop, I remember standing up and feeling 50 pounds heavier, like the air had turned viscous. I turned my head towards her and blinked at Fien’s shrinking image disappearing into the background. From that moment on it felt like time itself had ground to a halt. In those few seconds I tried to grasp what happened: Is this all real? Did we really hit that hippo? Is that really Fien alone in the water over there? Then a bone-chilling scream penetrated my eardrums, snapping me back into reality.
As my mother-in-law frantically started screaming for help, I was looking back at our captain waiting for him to take action. One second, two seconds. Was he trying to put the boat in reverse? Already four seconds. Why aren’t we backing up towards her? Was the boat’s propellor damaged from the blow? This was taking too long. I looked back at Fien trying to figure out how fast she was swimming. By now I made my way to the back of the boat ready to launch myself.
The vast water mass between us and our only lifeline looked almost endless, like we were astronauts adrift in deep space staring back at our space module.
With my eyes locked on hers, I felt my body instinctively heightening all senses. My muscles were firing, my breathing had slowed down and my hearing had tuned out any irrelevant static. As I did a quick prayer in my head (I can’t believe I ‘m actually doing this?) I took a deep breath and one last look at the liquid darkness in front of me. Then I closed my eyes and dove in. Short and low, trying to stay clear of any giant water-dwelling mammals. Once resurfaced I hurried to Fien using but a few efficient freestyle strokes not to cause any unwanted attention. ‘Quick!’, she yelled, ‘GET-ME-OUT- OF-HERE!’. Her eyes wet and wide open in fear for what could be lurking in the dark around us (to give you an idea: crocodiles, loads of elephant, even python and at least one hippo).
Is this what I would have seen if I had opened my eyes while diving underwater? © Pami Noldan ‘Hippo at San Antonio Zoo’
Unlike in a suave Hollywood action sequence I grabbed her by the first thing I saw: her scarf. Rather clumsily, choking her a bit. Than I pulled her sweater tightly with my fist, turned my head around and fixed my eyes back towards the boat. The vast water mass between us and our only lifeline looked almost endless, like we were astronauts adrift in deep space staring back at our space module. I started pushing her towards the boat balancing on the waves with it’s stern for two thirds under. It looked like it took a lot of water.
Fien’s father Erik was on the back side waiting, leading us away from the propeller. ‘Pull me out!’, Fien urged her dad as she lifted one hand from the water. While he started hoisting her into safety I climbed into the boat and assisted him. Meanwhile it turns out that Karina, Fien’s mother, had thrown herself in the water to act as a decoy. Her clothes heavy with water, she was desperately clinging on the side of the boat with her legs still partially in the river. My girlfriend Eve yelled to me: ‘Quick, help mother!’ With my last ounce of adrenaline I was able to pull my mother-in-law in before my body shut down. She was the heaviest thing I lifted in my whole life.
With everyone safely back inside the boat, I could get a full picture of the chaos. Erik’s arm had a nasty cut that needed attending and my sweetheart was bruised from the waist down. It also took a while before we could convince Karina, with battered legs from the blow, that we all survived. For a moment it looked like her brain had fooled her into believing that Fien and I were still in danger or even worse, already gone for. Then, out of nowhere, not one but two male hippos bubbled up from the water and ran off hugging the banks of their lagoon. Feeling glad the hippos seemed unharmed we greedily took pictures as they looked back at us one more time before disappearing into a wall of reed.
- This footage accidentally started recording just seconds after our close shave with Hippopotamus Amphibius!
Her mother now reassured, Fien stood up shivering from her wet clothes, turned to me and said: ‘Jelle, thank you, brother, for doing what you did!’ She grabbed hold of me tightly and we didn’t let go for quite some time. Then the entire family joined in to hug it out. Erik was so grateful for saving his youngest that he almost crushed my ribs. All the while our guide and captain gawked at the scene. Although in retrospect, I think the man did what a captain is supposed to do in an emergency situation: steer the ship. Still the fact of the matter is, that was all he did.
He handed me my sunglasses. I turned my head to the water and saw my cap and flip-flops floating by. I reached inside my pockets and laid my iPod and binoculars out to dry in the sun after their waterproof test. Our camera sadly did not survive. Fien was holding it at the time of impact, hoping to snap the National Geographic Picture of the Year. For a while we tried looking for the camera, scanning the visible areas of the river but we were all too shook up to search for it. With the midday sun turning up its already sweltering heat, we felt more like throwing up. So for all you delta treasure divers: if you find our memory card, please notify us through the address in the right sidebar!
On the long ride home I asked Fien if she saw one of the hippos while she was down there. She shook her head, however told me she had fallen flat onto its slippery back, grazing the hippo with her leg, arms and face! Now we believe our survival was probably due to it being stunned from the accident the entire time. No matter how many times we tell this story, we still can’t believe we had a close shave with one of the most aggressive animals in Africa. And -except for the large scar on Erik’s arm- came out largely unscathed. In closing we just like to say (as people often so annoyingly do on those wildlife survivor shows): we don’t blame the hippo. It was just doing what it’s supposed to.
- Here’s a clip of a hippo attacking a jeep. They are no joke!