In 2008, I went to Africa for the first time and was close to being killed by a hippo. Hopefully that first sentence is enough to get you to read the rest of the story.
In case you didn’t know, Victoria Falls is the largest waterfall in the world and can be found at the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe. We were staying at a beautiful hotel that is right on the river and had a private entrance directly to the national park at the top of the waterfall. Victoria Falls also has a really cool natural formation called Devil’s Pool where you can swim right at the edge of the waterfall with little danger of going over the edge. That is something I wanted to see, but the waterfall is a mile-wide so it can be hard to find.
In the national park, they have what are known as illegal guides. Basically these are just locals hoping to make money off of tourists somehow. So we asked one if he would take us to Devil’s Pool despite the fact that the sun was already starting to set. He assured us that it would only take 15 minutes so we decided to go for it. If you’ve ever been to Africa, then you know that everything takes, at a minimum, twice as long as they tell you. So by the time we hopped from rock to rock all the way to the pool, 45 minutes had passed and the sun was gone.
Let me take a minute to remind you what dark is. If you live in the city, you are used to walking down the street and having some sort of light source other than the moon. That is not the case in much of Africa. For the rest of the story, we had only the moon and later one small lightbulb by a gate.
We finally made it back after tripping and slipping on the wet rocks in the dark with more than a few bruises on our legs. At some point, I considered the fact that there might be crocodiles but the river was running pretty fast so I dismissed it. A hippo never crossed my mind despite having seen them less than a mile up the river earlier that day.
When we got back to dry land, we found the gate to our hotel property locked but there was a little market that also had a gate and we could see a light shining on the gated entrance. We started to walk along the fence to the gate, hoping to flag someone down, when an enormous shadow passed in front of the gate. When I say enormous, I mean that on all fours it came up to my shoulders.
Two relevant facts about hippos is that they typically come out of the water after sunset to feed on grass because its cooler and they are also considered to be the most dangerous animal in Africa.
Our illegal guide immediately stopped and whispered for us to do the same as the creature passed through the light and stopped in the shadows about 30 feet from us. So here we are standing there with a hippo staring at us although we can’t see it anymore, an electric fence to our left and the river 40 feet to our right.
I have to break from the story to give you a little more perspective. Earlier that day, Mindy and I were walking through the hotel grounds to go to get a drink. There are tons of monkeys hanging out in the trees which is very charming at first. On of them spies Mindy walking with her lime green camera case which to a monkey I assume looks just like an apple. He jumps down from the tree and comes right at Mindy with arms raised and teeth showing. She screams and jumps on my back. Luckily the hotel has staff dedicated to monkey control. They actually pay guys to walk around with slingshots and keep the monkeys from hassling guests too much. He runs over and scares the monkey away.
Mindy asked me later why I didn’t do anything to protect her. My response was “I’m from Dallas. I have no built-in reaction for what to do in the event of a monkey attack.” My point in this tangent is that there are some situations in life that are so unexpected that you really have no idea how to react because nothing in your collective experience really prepared you. For me, coming face-to-face with a 4000 lb hippo was one of those. I was prepared to take my chances climbing the electric fence.
Ok so just a reminder, we are standing in the dark, 30 feet from a hippo with no chance of running away from it. After about an hour (in my head, 30 seconds in real life) of standing still, our guide picks up a rock and throws it behind the hippo. The hippo takes off. There were only three directions it could possibly run. The first was horizontal to the rocky waterfall which was likely not a realistic option to him. The second was at an angle in the 40 feet we had between us and the river. The third was directly at us meaning imminent death. I don’t think our guide took number three into account when he threw the rock, but I was glad that the hippo chose route number two and it sprinted passed us within about 15 feet, impressively fast for such a large animal.
This is the part where I tell you what I learned from this experience. First is that everything in Africa takes longer than you think. Second is that you should not be afraid and try new things because when you get old you’ll have really unique stories to tell your grand kids.