I should have known that the big, doofy looking hippopotamus is one of the most dangerous animals in Africa, more deadly than a leopard, rhinoceros, or a slithery, venomous boomslang. I should have known these vegetarians can run 40 Km/h and like to sink knife-like bottom teeth into their victims to make a point. Any mom who takes her kids on a self-drive safari through an African national park would have done her research, right? But I didn’t.
The Kruger National Park is the size of Wales—about 20,000 square kilometers. A few paved roads crisscross rolling land dotted with small rocky mountains, acacia trees with three-inch spines, and waving grass, but
the bumpy dirt roads are best for spotting wildlife. A high-wheel base, four-wheel drive is ideal to cruise the Kruger—the Land Rover being the safari king–but we rented a much cheaper VW Polo with a plastic bumper. Navigating down to a watering hole where two-dozen elephants lolled in the mud, I nearly tore the damn thing off when I rolled over what I thought was an elephant turd. A terrible grinding noise scared a Marabou stork off its log and when I backed up, a piece of bumper was lying in the dirt. The elephant dung had camouflaged the stump of a leadwood tree–a hidden danger inside the electrified gates of the Kruger that nobody warns you about.
The number #1 rule inside the park—the one rangers would like to tattoo on every tourist’s forehead–is never (NEVER!) get out of your car except in marked “alighting” spots. This is because animals see humans and their vehicles as one and will rarely attack something so big. When a herd of pug-nosed water buffalo came so close to our car I could have grabbed a
long, curved horn, or a leopard turned to study us with yellow eyes, we of course heeded this rule. But the rules got a little hazy one muggy afternoon when we spotted a hippopotamus grazing on the manicured lawn outside the main gate, underneath a statue of the lion-haired Paul Kruger himself. In this tranquil scenario, the hippo seemed to be a park mascot—an animal ambassador about as threatening as Gloria from the movie “Madagascar.” So, when Ethan walked into the office to book us a campsite for the night, I picked up my camera, told the kids to stay put, and opened the car door.
A little background is necessary here so I don’t come across as a complete idiot. Two days before this seminal moment, we had stopped at a used car lot in Phalaborwa to ask if there was a VW dealer where we could get our damaged bumper fixed. The owner was a tanned, friendly Afrikaner (a South African of Dutch, French or German descent) whose daughter peeked at us from behind her father’s big form. There was no dealer, but Francois was a great source for child-friendly things to do in the area.
“You must go to the wildlife rehabilitation center in Hoedspruit,” he said. “They have big cats and the kids can get right up close.” The little girl’s face lit up.
“Oh yes! You must go an’ ‘ave a look!” she said, in her lyrical South African accent. “They ‘ave an ‘ippo you can feed with a titty bottle!”
Feed an ‘ippo? In ‘Oedspruit? With a titty bottle? Fabulous! I would give it a hug while I was at it, like a chubby, loveable pet! I was thinking about this bottle fed hippo as I walked across the lawn, when I should have been thinking about safari rule #2: there is no such thing as a tame big game animal.
I put the lens cap in my pocket and checked my aperture. If Gloria was shy and went thumping off into the trees, I might only get one shot. Vehicles were parked along the entrance road, but the hippo and I had the lawn to ourselves, separated only by a small, dead tree. I got close enough to see a little red-beaked bird picking nits off her back and snapped a picture. I walked another ten feet, marveling through my telephoto lens at the deep creases in her leathery hide, the rosy pink of her spoon-shaped ears and heavy belly, and her short, beaver-like tail. I took another few steps and raised the camera again. And that’s when Gloria raised her head.
The black mamba is the most venomous snake in the Kruger, growing to four and a half meters, with a neurotoxic poison that first paralyzes your body and then shuts down your heart. Lions have killed thousands of people in Africa, even though they’d prefer to eat a more filling water buffalo. And the bite of the tiny, much-feared mosquito is responsible for over a million malaria deaths each year. These endings, while certainly painful and unpleasant, at least carry a little panache–as in “Did you hear Suzanne was killed by a ten-foot long black mamba?” or “The lions ate everything but her flip-flops!” Cocktail party chatter about me being flattened by a camera shy hippo just doesn’t have the same ring. But now there was a chance this ignominious end was going to be my epitaph.
The hippopotamus stared at me, her eyes black and unfriendly. In the millisecond that often separates a good outcome from a bad one, I turned to
run, snapping one last photo as Gloria began to charge. A decade of live news reporting had taught me that when a protest turns violent, a tornado strikes, or a firestorm gets too close, you run like mad but KEEP THE CAMERA ROLLING. “Get to a vehicle!” my mind screamed, the odds of the one dead tree stopping a one-ton hippo not good. I could feel (or did I just imagine it?) the ground trembling and Gloria’s hot, musty breath on my neck as I streaked for a big white van parked on the road.
The rush that comes with cheating death must be the reason extreme athletes love to walk the edge. When I ducked behind the van, peeking over the hood as Gloria rumbled to a halt a dozen feet away, I felt very alive, humbled, thankful, and exhilarated all at once. I watched the hippo trot back to the fence line to resume her lunch, and then noticed a couple staring at me from the van’s front seats. I wanted them to hug me–a high five at least! —and pour me a shot of whiskey. After all, I had just outrun a hippo. What I got was an ass chewing as big as Africa itself.
“What the hell were you doing, you ninny!” yelled the woman. She had frizzy blond hair and the tanned, lined face of a seasoned explorer. “You are damn lucky she pulled off!” I had never been called a ninny before and I started to giggle, a defense mechanism perhaps, or a stress response.
“I’m so-so-sorry,” I stammered, nearly levitating with adrenaline. “I thought.. um.. I thought, well, that she was.. um.. like.. tame?” Now the man craned his neck so he could scold the Ugly American.
“Hippos are the most aggressive animal in Africa,” he spat. “And there is no such thing as a tame animal inside this park!”
“But this is outside the park,” I reminded him, taking a stab at redemption. Like a turtle, the man pulled his head back into the van, rolled up the windows and sped away, leaving only the dead tree between me and a once again tame looking Gloria. I scurried back to the Polo on shaky legs.
“Did you get charged by the hippopotamus?” Ethan asked when he returned a few minutes later, like he didn’t know the answer.
“I did,” I answered, happy to see him, to hear the kids whining for the iPhone, to feel the scratchy fabric of the Polo’s cheap seats. “How did you know?”
“There was a big ruckus inside,” he laughed. “And the clerk said, ‘The hippo is chasing a STOOPID woman!’ I figured it had to be you.”
The fact is that I have always been a little stupid (I like to think of it as brave) around wild animals. When I was six years old, I brought a baby rattle snake home to my dad, its little triangular-shaped head stuck firmly between my thumb and forefinger just like he’d shown me on garter snakes. A few years later, a neighbor boy dared me to hold a large alligator lizard he’d caught for five seconds. When it sunk its small, sharp teeth into my hand, I counted to five before shaking it off, the bloody welt feeling like a red badge of courage. And just a day before the hippo charge, I’d let a Golden Orb spider the size of Ado’s hand crawl up my arm on yellow, barbed legs. But the beauty of being human—the über-mammal at the top of the food chain–is that it is never too late to learn from our mistakes.
During the fifty kilometer drive to the Oliphants rest camp where we would sleep above a wide, wild river in a round, thatch-roofed hut, Africa displayed her gifts: gold and cinnamon colored giraffes towered over the scrub like exquisite stuffed animals, and zebra nipped and chased each other, standing out like jailbirds against the camouflage colors of the bush. The sun was making a ruckus in the western sky when Ethan suddenly pulled our little grey car to a stop along side a big grey elephant. The bull weighed maybe five tons, his curving white tusks coming to perfect, wicked points. The elephant flapped his ears hard and lifted his trunk skyward, in interest or agitation we did not know. It was a powerful, spellbinding moment, but the ghost of Gloria whispered that we were a little too close.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said to Ethan, panic slithering up my spine. “I’m scared.”