Ignorance was bliss. Careering full-throttle down a narrow channel in the reed-choked bay, minutes away from a gaudy sunset over Botswana's Okavango Delta, we seemed to be in a secret passage to paradise. Exotic birds, shockingly turquoise and lilac, flew overhead. White storks waded the shallows. Impalas grazed on the shore. There were no other boats, or people, within miles. The channel was almost precisely the width of our aluminum dinghy, and it occurred to me that boats must have created this path. I guessed that each time a boat zipped through—we were moving at a startling rate of speed—its propellers cleared the waterway of reeds. I asked the guide steering the outboard if this were true.
"No, no," he said, smiling. "Hippos make the channel. We call this place Hippo Alley."
I ruminated on that a moment. I knew next to nothing about hippopotamuses, but on my flight into the town of Maun, near the delta, I'd heard one story that got my attention. My seatmate happened to be a lady from Cape Town, South Africa, who was going to visit her sister in Maun. During an otherwise ordinary conversation, the lady said she was a little nervous about her accommodations because two of her sister's neighbors had recently been killed by a hippo. They all lived near a river, and one sweltering night the neighbors had chosen to sleep outside on their lawn. In the morning their bodies were discovered mangled in the grass, nearly bitten in two by a hippopotamus.
I asked my riverboat guide, who was in his 20s, "What happens if we encounter a hippo in Hippo Alley?" It was clear to me that even if we were able to stop before hurtling into the beast, we would not be able to retreat. The reeds were too thick and the channel too narrow to turn the boat around. Nor did the guide have a gun.
The young Botswanan laughed. "Then, I'm afraid, we must swim," he said.
Gallows humor. Nothing like it. Fortunately, we did not run into a hippo in Hippo Alley. Later, though, we found a herd of eight hippos in a wide oxbow in the Okavango River. The cavalier guide delighted in charging the hippos at full speed and turning the boat hard to spray water in their direction. The tops of their heads bobbed in the water, and each time one surfaced, it blew air out of its upturned nostrils in an audible pfoooosh, spouting somewhat like a whale. Later, doing some research, I learned that this was not merely a breathing exercise. The hippos were threatening us. It was insanity to be provoking them. Eleven years earlier, on that same river, a guide and a tourist from the game-watching camp at which I was staying were killed by a hippo that overturned their boat. Ignorance, however, was the operative word for the day, and all five of us on this boat enjoyed the show as the guide kept risking our lives.
After returning to the States, I recounted my river adventure to my father-in-law, who had been to Botswana a year earlier and had stayed at a different camp. He exhaled deeply, stubbed out his cigarette and said the closest to death he had ever come was in a guide boat in the Okavango Delta—and he reminded me that he'd fought in Korea. His guide had motored pell-mell past a herd of perhaps 15 hippos and continued downstream before pulling into shore some 200 yards away. The guide cut the engine, and everyone began to climb out for a walk. The guide, though, suddenly looked back. They'd obviously parked in the hippos' territory. A hippo, and these behemoths average about 3,000 pounds, was galloping its way through the shallows. Everyone scrambled back into the boat.
The hippo kept coming. Hippos can outrun a man, and this one was now inside a hundred yards. The engine, luckily, started on the first pull, but before the guide could finish executing a turn in those accursed reeds, the charging hippo was nearly upon the boat. Its huge mouth was open, and clearly visible in the yawning pink-and-purple maw were a pair of foot-long, daggerlike teeth that curved up from the lower jaw. Everyone made for the bow as the hippo, just five yards behind, bounded along at the same speed as the boat. After a few seconds of terror, the boat finally pulled away.
It is time, long past time, to give the hippopotamus its due as a killer. In Africa, the only continent on which modern hippopotamuses are endemic, they are thought to kill more people each year than lions, leopards, cape buffalo and elephants combined, largely because human beings, who tend to live near water, are more likely to come into contact with them. It is also widely accepted—if unverifiable, since accurate numbers are not kept throughout Africa—that the hippo sends more people to an early grave than does the crocodile. A rough estimate is a couple of hundred hippo-caused fatalities every year. Yet for some reason this quivering mass of muscle and bottled-up rage remains the Rodney Dangerfield of the animal kingdom.
Why don't small children and brave men have nightmares about Hippopotamus amphibius, one of the most dangerous four-legged mammals on earth? Crocodiles inspire fear and loathing, yet there are men who wrestle them bare-handed. The lion is crowned King of Beasts, but it can be trained to sit on a stool and roar on command. Bears are made to dance, tigers to jump through fiery hoops, killer whales to belly flop and elephants to stand on their hind legs like giant poodles. When was the last time you saw a hippopotamus wrestled into submission or cowering before the circus whip?