Mana Pools hippo charge: A close call

chased-by-a-hippo-zimbabwe-africaHippos, when placidly blowing bubbles and grunting in the water, don’t seem like much of a threat to humans. Everyone knows they’re vegetarian, after all – how dangerous can they be? Very. I found out the hard way that a hippo charge can happen very quickly. And that hippos are MUCH bigger and quicker than they seem at first glance.

Hippos account for more deaths in Africa than any other large animal, due to their size, unpredictability and extremely bad tempers. They react with great speed and force if they feel threatened or if their territory is in danger. The main danger for humans is that hippos aren’t scared of using their massive jaws to protect themselves, and they are so much bigger than humans that they can easily outrun and flatten them in a stampede. They weigh between 1500 kg and 3600 kg (4000 lbs and 8000 lbs) and are Africa’s third largest mammal after the elephant and white rhino.Mana Pools HippoWe knew the basic rules of walking in hippo territory. #1: If a hippo is on the land, never put yourself between the animal and the water: the hippo will attack you if you block its route to safety.#2: Always stay downwind of a hippo; never catch it by surprise. #3: Always stay near anthills and high ground to use as protection if a hippo does attack. #4: Never do anything that the hippo could perceive as a threat to its territory.

As it so happened, on this occasion we were mindful of rule #1, but weren’t really thinking about the others. We were walking next to an enormous pool (aptly called Long Pool), near a section where the bank of the pool is very flat – very easy for animals to move out of the water at speed. We saw a large hippo in the near distance – on the land – and we stopped walking to take photos. Hippos prefer to eat on land at night-time, so it was a surprise and a treat to see its full, large form in daylight.

Mana Pools - Long Pool Long Pool – it looks idyllic but is home to many hippos and crocodiles.

Suddenly the hippo stopped and looked our way. We realised that we were in the wrong wind position – we were upwind and the hippo had smelled us. It walked towards the water, still quite far from us, and then trotted into the pool with a splash.

Mana Pools Hippo Long Pool The hippo retreated into the water, and it seemed like the danger was over.

I didn’t think anything of it – in my mind, we were out of danger because the hippo was safely in the water and we were safely on land. Ben thought otherwise – thank goodness for his bush know-how. He decided that the situation was risky because we had made the hippo uneasy. Ben saw a large anthill just behind us (which none of us had noticed before) and told us to run to the top of it. We obeyed, laughing as we ran, thinking it was a game of pretending what we would do if a hippo chased us.

The smiles were wiped off our faces in less than a minute. Without warning, the same hippo emerged out of the water and onto the very ground where we had just been standing. It moved at a thundering pace, its feet stamping on the ground with loud thuds. As it ran towards us, I imagined our deaths and I saw the newspaper headlines: “Tourists killed in hippo stampede”. Subtitle: “The story of how some dumb idiots met their demise”. There were a few seconds where I truly thought it was going to be over. I’ve seen hippos climb up steep river banks and I knew that our anthill wasn’t hippo-proof.

Just as the hippo reached the base of our little tower, it turned with agility and ran around it. Then we saw the reason for its speed: two more hippos arose from the water, also running over the bank where we’d just been standing, but this time their intentions were clear. These two hippos were chasing the first one, and a great battle ensued. The hippos started fighting at the base of the anthill, their great teeth crashing against each other and vociferous grunts rising in the air. It was at this point that I imagined us stranded atop the anthill for hours, even ‘til nightfall, waiting for these beasts to finally resolve their heated disputes.

If Ben hadn’t told us to run a few moments before, the hippos would have flattened us with ease. We had been standing in the exact place that they were now fighting. They could have attacked us with their jaws in the way we’d just witnessed them do to each other. As I was standing there, I said prayer of thanks that God placed that anthill within short reach. If not, this could have been a very different story.

Mana Pools Zim anthill < On top of the anthill – showing relieved smiles after our close escape.

After a few minutes of battle, two of the hippos retreated into the water and the other disappeared into the bush. We waited for a while, hoping it would return to the pool – the idea of coming across it again as we walked back to the car wasn’t a pleasant one. Eventually we had to descend from our mound and return to the car, which was a fair distance away. We decided to first walk as far from the water as possible, to minimise our chances of seeing the rogue hippo again. That walk back to the car felt incredibly slow: we did a big distance trying to get far away from the water; all the while we were nervous of stumbling upon the grumpy hippo again; and we were forced to walk in denser bush than usual, increasing our chances of accidentally imposing ourselves on an elephant, buffalo or lion. When we did finally reach our car in safety, our nervousness dissolved as we excitedly re-lived the escape.

On reflection, the hippo must have felt threatened when we originally watched it on the bank. It ran into the water for safety even though we were reasonably far away from it. In doing so, we could have made the hippo encroach into the other hippos’ water-territory, and they chased it out with force. The place that they chased it  – well, that happened to be where we had just been standing, so it was partly a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It was a true wake-up call though: things can seem so safe and peaceful one minute, and completely change the next. On our next walk through the bush, we were much more aware of anthills, and more sensitive to our surroundings – and kept a little more distance from the water. It gave us one more reason to give all wild animals a wide berth.

I didn’t get a chance to take a photo of us being charged, obviously, as I didn’t want to be the idiot who slipped down the mound and got chomped whilst trying to change the shutter speed.

If you want to see some footage, watch this video story of how a man managed to escape a hippo stampede – thankfully he had a clear running path! Also read the story of a man who survived a hippo attack here.

Part of the Classic Zimbabwe holiday 2013 series. Read the next post which uncovers more about the animals in this National Park: Residents of Mana Pools (photo post)

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Beth is the founder of Great Zimbabwe Guide Travel Blog: Zimbabwe’s first and longest-running independent online travel guide, created in 2010.

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