Posted in Africa, Nature, Travel

A Thunder of Hippos

An excerpt from my book-in-progress:

Whenever I leave for Africa I’m always, invariably asked, “Aren’t you afraid?”

“Of what?”

“Snakes. Alligators. Lions.”

“Well,” I usually reply, “there are no alligators in Africa. Only crocodiles.”

“So crocodiles, whatever.”

Once, in Tanzania, I saw a submerged crocodile lunge up amid four wildebeest faster than they, or I, could blink. I don’t know how, but he missed all of them as they leapt in four different directions. I’ve never taken a bathing suit to Africa. Didn’t seem like a great idea on my first trip and less so on subsequent ones.

Lions? Well, lions will consider me prey if I act like prey. Look! Breakfast! And it’s fat and slow!

The possibility of actually encountering a lion is pretty rare. There are only about 20,000 lions left in Africa, down from 200,000 in 1975. Until 2007 Botswana allowed 50 lions to be hunted per year. By the time a hunting ban was enacted many of the male trophies were just two or three years old – requiring hair extensions woven into their manes before they were mounted on a hunter’s wall.

B&W male lion

Snakes? There are a lot of snakes in Africa. Black mambas. Vipers. Cobras. Pythons. Boomslangs. Puff adders.   In the Okavango Delta I could encounter Egyptian cobras or a puff adder or an African rock python or a black mamba or perhaps even a shy boomslang. I could, but I haven’t. In all the times I’ve been to Africa, I’ve never seen a snake. Bad luck, I guess, because each of these snakes, in their own way, is fascinating, and I really wouldn’t mind seeing one of them.

The deadliest animal in Africa is not a snake nor a crocodile nor a lion – it’s the hippo, those oddly comic, rotund herbivores that Walt Disney put in tutus. Hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal: several hundred per year. In contrast, sharks kill only around ten people per year, worldwide.

Hippos don’t even eat the people they kill. They emerge at night from ponds and rivers to spend all night eating grass. Their beady, sherry-colored eyes don’t see well, but their sense of smell is acute. Males defend territory, females their calves. They can outrun you, and you never know what might set them off.

In 2002, I was on a game drive with six people in an open-sided Landcruiser. Laid-back hippo blimps floated in a nearby pond. One of the hippos grunted, burbling like a submerged tuba.

A herd of hippos is known as a “thunder” – possibly a reference to their size, but more likely because of the noises they make. When a group of hippos get going, their combined grunts sound like rolling thunder. But these hippos were relatively quiet. They rose and sank, twirled their ears, exhaled wetly through their nostrils.

It was that magic half-hour before sunset when the light is golden and incredible – perfect for photographs. A short distance away a male grazed on flowers. I raised my camera.

Without warning, the hippo opened his mouth in a threat gesture, displaying his long, razor-sharp canines. A second later, he charged, head swinging side to side like a giant sledgehammer, running directly for us at a surprisingly clip, intent on slamming into our vehicle. Since a hippo’s top speed is around twenty miles per hour, he was closing fast. All I could see through my camera lens were those massive incisors, as the autofocus kept singing out zzzzt zzzt, zzzzzt zzzt.

Charging hippo b&w

Luckily, the engine of our vehicle started without a cough and the hippo just missed the back bumper. He continued on into the bush for thirty yards before stopping to wonder where we had gone.


Cheryl Merrill’s essays have been published in Fourth Genre, Pilgrimage, Brevity, Seems, South Loop Review, Ghoti, Alaska Quarterly Review, Adventum and Isotope. “Singing Like Yma Sumac” was selected for the Best of Brevity 2005 and Creative Nonfiction #27. It was also included in the anthology Short Takes: Model Essays for Composition, 10th Edition. Another essay, “Trunk,” was chosen for Special Mention in Pushcart 2008. She is currently working on a book about elephants: Larger than Life: Living in the Shadows of Elephants.

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