Yep - You heard correctly, a REAL headline - not just another sensational title grabber designed to get your attention! Although, if I did grab your attention, please read on!
I was attacked by a hippopotamus a few years ago and I lived to tell the tale. I have often recounted the story to many friends and captured audiences over the years, and it has often been pointed out to me that I should perhaps write about it! Having recently developed my blog, Baobab Lost, I felt that it was high time I tell the world my story. I don’t think there are many people who can recount such an event in their lifetime and even fewer yet who got away unscathed and alive.
So, the story goes...true story mind you
On a visit to my parent’s place, Zulani Safaris in the heart of the bushveld in South Africa, Limpopo province, it was decided one day that we were going to take a road trip through the Lowveld areas in and around Kruger National Park. Travelling in an eight-seater minivan along with Danish friends and family and visiting friends from the United Kingdom, we set off on our journey. Less than a day’s drive away from Zulani Safaris we arrived in an area called Sabie. For anyone wishing to visit South Africa, this area is a must see - adorned with beautiful waterfalls, lush scenery and ideally situated on the edge of the Kruger National Park. Just outside of Sabie flows the Sabie River, and along the banks of the Sabie River is an adventure tour facility that offers white-water rafting, mountain biking, zip lines, quad bike rides and much more.
Some of our Danish friends were very keen to do the white-water rafting trip along the Sabie River, and I was encouraged to go along. Always eager for an adventure - myself, my friend Nicola*, our Danish friend Nina and our English friend Tracy decided to take the 'plunge' so to speak. The guides drove us down to the embarking area and first gave us basic safety lessons and information about the type of white-water we might encounter along the way. The trip itself would only be a few hours long. The rafts were small two-man rafts called 'Crocodiles’. These are rubber inflated rafts and are a bit more comfortable to raft in then conventional canoes. We totaled four rafts altogether. Two of the rafts each had a guide, I and Nicola were in one raft, and Tracy and Nina were on the last one. Armed with our oars and eagerly waiting to get into the water (Mind you the day was very warm - midsummer), our guides gave us one final word about the trip that we were about to embark on. 'Not to worry' the one guide gallantly informed us ‘No Hippos have been spotted on this stretch of the Sabie River for over 8 years, so have fun ladies!' Yeah right. Famous last words...
Initially we crept along the slow flowing Sabie River as it meandered under the thick shady underbrush and trees. We were all timidly getting used to our rafts and how to use our oars effectively, so the slow pace of the water was at first welcome. I had personally done many white-water trips in my life before so I was at ease and looking forward to the next few hours, especially when we encounter proper white-water rapids! I sat in front of the boat and my friend Nicola sat at the back, while we drifted in front of the boat that Nina and Tracy were on, but still directly behind the two guides. It took a good while before we encountered some noteworthy rapids, and when we did - Oh the fun we had! Our adrenaline was pumping, and we were whooping and screaming on every rapid we splashed and crashed through!
About half way through our time on the river, our guides paddled over to us and explained that we were coming into a deep pooled area of the river, where the water flowed slowly and gently. They asked us to enter the pool and paddle over to the left embankment where the reeds were growing – and then instructed us to grab hold of the reeds and wait on their signal. The plan was for the guides to paddle through the pool and go down the next set of rapids. Once they were though the rapids, one of the guides would pull over to the embankment, get out and take photos of us as we approached and went down the rapids ourselves one by one. Good plan, right?
It so happened that one of the guides changed his mind at the last minute and decided to stay drifting in the pool with us, so he could then signal to us to come over to the rapids when his companion was able to get out of the water and be ready to snap photos. The second guide was a good 100 meters in front of us, and we watched as the first guide made his way down the rapids.
As instructed we slowly drifted over to the reeds and as I approached the embankment I reached up to grab hold of the grass reeds to keep the boat steady and in place...
As I reached up to grab hold of the reeds the reeds blew open and an extremely large (+-1500 Kg) hippopotamus breached through with his mouth wide open, tusks bared in an aggressive display of force. The moment is etched forever in my memory as if it happened yesterday. In that moment, my world went still and fast all at the same time. The noise was drowned out as I inhaled with shock and fear. I knew in that moment that I was in extreme danger. I often hear people recount stories about dangerous encounters or near-death experiences, and in some sense, I assume that some of it is exaggerated. However, in that moment I realized just how close I and that hippo truly were to each other. I could smell its breath. At the same distance that I had reached up for the reeds, the hippopotamus tusks and face now replaced it. And the hippo was angry to be sure. We had disturbed its territory.
In the seconds that followed, I don’t think I can remember a time in my life that I have ever been so frightened, yet I was also strangely calm as I knew that I had to try and do everything I could to survive. As the hippo reared up baring its tusks at us, the hippo snapped down and lunged for us in the boat. I had of course completely forgotten to hold onto any reeds and as a result the boat had drifted downstream a few inches. That was our saving grace. As the hippo launched itself at us, his mouth bared wide open again and clearly mad, his enormous mouth slammed down perfectly in the middle of the boat between myself and Nicola - missing us by a few inches each – but thankfully still missing us! If the raft had not drifted a few inches downstream, the hippo would be biting down on my head instead of the raft. The hippo, probably releasing that he was chomping down on rubber; slipped off and suddenly disappeared under water, however a mere split second later reared up under the boat, knocked us off and threw us out into the water. As Nicola and I scrambled to the surfaced, we saw the hippo surface less than a meter away from us. The hippo attempted to lunge at us again. At that moment, the only thing between us and the humungous hippo was the boat. Probably due to the waves of the water and the inertia of the hippo diving under and roaring back up again, we managed to get the boat to position sideways up and out of the water. It was a walled barrier keeping the hippo on one side and us on the other. The hippo frantically chomped on the boat while we desperately held the boat up to try and keep it away from us. I can remember seeing the hippo’s whiskers and nostrils flaring and the color of his yellow stained tusks! The hippo was inches away from our faces, and probably millimeters away from our hands as we tried to hold the hippo back with the boat. Its tusks kept bearing down on the side of the up turned boat, but they luckily couldn’t penetrate as the rubber of the raft was tough. Suddenly though, the hippo submerged and the boat slapped down on the water and everything went quiet. I knew then that the hippo had gone under, and I turned and yelled to Nicola to try and swim to shore. We had to get away. We had no idea where the hippo was, and now we were probably in even more danger as the hippo had become an invisible threat. As I turned to swim away- the hippo and I tangled up together under water. The hippo literally bumped its way across my legs and torso which were also completely submerged. I should admit and rather humbly I might add - that I truly thought in that moment I was going to die. Having grown up in Africa, I am very familiar with the dangers of crossing the path of a hippopotamus. Barring the crocodile, it accounts for the most human deaths caused by land and water animals on the African continent, so I had a right to be frightened. We are all familiar with the cliché that when there have been instances of near death experiences, people often use the term 'your whole life flashed before your eyes’. Let me be the one to tell you that it really does. In those precious moments, my entire existence seemed to slow down and speed up at the same time. A truly surreal sense of being that seemed to defy my normal sense of reality. I saw my past, my friends, my family and all that mattered. But what I also saw – was my future. I saw what was meant to be, what possibilities I had for my life, what joy was waiting for me and the difference I could make in other people’s lives.
But, back to my friend: The Humungous Hippo
I feebly attempted to try and twist away from the hippo in the moment we tangled up in the water, but I knew - one bite from this animal and I’m dead. I also feared for Nicola’s life as I could not place where she was at that time.
But then, just as mysteriously as the hippo arrived, the hippo vanished. The water went calm as the hippo slipped away into the deep cloudy pool, and I no longer felt it bumping and jostling against my legs. I stopped treading water and turned around as the chaos that had just ensued seemed oddly out of place as everything and everyone had fallen silent. I squinted against the sun and finally saw Nicola swimming over towards the reeds and she looked frightened but thankfully in one piece. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that Tracy and Nina were still on the boat but had back peddled up stream so far that they were almost half a kilometer away! (In the opposite direction – ahem 😉) but I don’t blame them! I was just relieved to see that they were all right and unhurt. Fearing though that the hippo might come and resurface, or he had friends he wanted us to meet, we swam towards the now capsized raft. Seeing though that it had been tipped over, we managed to turn it the right way around. Grabbing and clutching hold of the raft and clawing our way back on, we slumped with relief against the sides. Seconds later, realizing that we might not yet be out of danger we frantically started to look around for our oars. I noticed though that the oars had drifted downstream towards the second guide who was just staring at us, immobile, his face white. I screamed at him that he needed to move and help us. 'We need the oars!' I shouted. ‘We need to get away from here as fast as possible’ (Admittedly though my language might have been a bit more colorful at the time) The guide seemed frozen in his post and eventually he seemed to finally react and like a sloth who had just smoked a barrel of Marijuana, he slowly moved to grab the oars gingerly and delicately swatted them to us. The oars landed half way between us and the guide. Not very helpful, as it was still over 50 meters away from our position. So, Nicola and I had to use our hands to paddle our way down to the oars so could get clear of the pool as fast as possible. We were literally in the middle of the African wilderness and we had to continue our journey downstream to get to the pick-up point. We finally caught up with the guide, and as Tracy and Nina joined us, we disembarked on the rocks for a few moments. Visibly shaken, we took stock of what happened and tried to calm ourselves down. It truly was a miracle that we survived the attack. Most stories that you hear about involving any close encounter with hippopotamus’s end in tragedy and I for one was very aware of it.
Finally making our way down the rapids to meet up with the other very confused looking guide who had been waiting for us the entire time. We told him the story of what had happened. He could not see the commotion from his vantage point but had heard a lot of screaming, shouting and splashing. The guide who was with us in the pool, seemed to be at a loss for words for the rest of the trip. I think he probably realized that his ' last seen a hippo in 8 years' line was a thing of the past for any future white-water rafting excursion he may choose to guide
Finally, we made it back to the adventure spot and told our story to our family members and friends. A story that I am very grateful that I can actually sit down and tell everyone about... It also culminated in a massive change in my own personal life and set me on a path that turned out to be a game changer. Thank you, Mr. Hippo, – you are forever my hero. Or Mrs. Hippo. I don’t know, I didn’t have time to ‘look’