Thursday, May 28, 2009

Playing hooky

Here's what I know: Hippos are the most dangerous animals in Africa. They can run upwards of 14 miles an hour, have seriously huge tusks and a massive jaw (not to mention their substantial bulk).

Here's where I was on Sunday night: Fisherman's camp - famous for the hippos that come up to eat the grass below the campsite that sits on the edge of Lake Naivasha.

Here's why I was there:
I've wanted to visit Hell's Gate National Park since I got here. It's just an hour from Nairobi (though by matatu it took me 4 hours...grrr...) and the only place where you can do walking or biking safaris (no lions or elephants - but there are buffalo and leopards so it does require some care!). I haven't had any friends interested in going when I've been free, so its been one of the many tourist attractions I've flat out missed until last week when my friend Allan, a volunteer in Mombasa, said he wanted to go and convinced me to skip my Monday classes (two of which ended up canceled thankfully).

Here's where our tent was:
About 15 feet from a very pathetic looking electric fence, that didn't appear to be on. Allan had impulsively leapt over it when the grass was hippo-free just after dinner, hitting it in the process with his metal crutch (he had a sprained ankle) with absolutely no reaction on the part of the fence.

Here's where everyone else's tents were:
A lot further away.

And finally, here's what happened: We went to sleep around 11, sad we hadn't seen any hippos but ready to rest in order to get up at 6 for our biking safari (for which I sadly have no pictures because I forgot to change my battery - snap!). At about 11:30 we were awoken by the unmistakable sound of a large animal outside the tent, most likely chewing the grass, but possibly just walking through the spongy ground (it had rained that day). Allan bolted out of the tent with my headlamp, while I simply rolled over and tried to get back to sleep since I knew I wouldn't be able to see anything and I was comfy.

A few minutes of relative silence passed. Then, I heard the deep, deafening roar of a single adult hippo. It broke through the night like nothing I've ever experienced. It sounded like he was just outside my tent, and I was sure that the fence we'd observed before must have had a gap we hadn't seen that allowed him to wander up to the grass next to the tent.

The roar was followed by the immediate sound of running directly past the tent. I remember being sure that it was the hippo itself, I could hear the weight in the movement, though thinking back I think I was hearing both the hippos mock charge and what I found out was Allan, crutches free, sprinting past the tent at virtually the same time. I wish I had words to articulate the combination of the roar and the speed of the thunderous running. The first few seconds of this video show what a charging hippo can look like:

Then, silence.

So there I was, by myself in a tent with no screen or way of seeing outside, knowing only that one of the most dangerous animals in the world was less than 20 feet away and really, really pissed off.

I didn't know how hippos sense things (apparently it's by smell so you want to get down wind of them if possible). I didn't want to call out to Allan for fear it would attract attention, and I was afraid to move in case of the same. While I could logically run through the fact that there was a fence, that all I represented was the motionless white structure of my tent and that all a hippo at that time would be interested in would be grass, I could not calm down. Allan finally came back to the tent and explained what had happened. He'd followed another hippo down the grass a bit and when he came back caught the second one square on with my head lamp, causing the mock charge.

There were a few more brays throughout the night, but for the most part it was calm. Of course I jumped at every rustle of the trees, constructing all sorts of scenarios in the aftermath of fear (at one point convinced there was a leopard outside, at another dreaming that a man with a machine gun was entering the tent). It is by far the most scared and powerless I have ever been.

The next day we learned that most likely the hippo near us has been cast out of his herd for trying to challenge the dominant male. For now, he's eating as much as he can so he can bulk up and try again. Incidentally, we also found out that a tourist was killed at Fisherman's camp in 2005 when she came between a hippo and its calf late at night.

Suffice it to say I gave the buffaloes a wide berth on our bike safari the next day.

1 comment:

Steve Shin said...

That has to be one of the BEST stories I have ever read. 8) It was so full of excitement!!!