29 August 1999

Beware of the hippo


Canoeing down the Zambezi

It is the sound of Zimbabwe at night that you remember. As you lie in your gauze-topped tent, canopied with uncountable stars, the insects play their symphony, a joyous, polyrhythmic nocturnal percussion of crickets, while in the distance the lascivious baritone chuckles of hippopotamus and an occasional lion’s roar offer meaty counterpoint. Somehow this wild, almost tangible clamour is the sweetest lullaby, sending you off to another blissful night of hard-earned sleep. You will rise at dawn for another day’s canoeing down the crystal-blue waters of the Zambezi. Life is good.

We had arrived in Mana Pools National Park after a half-hour flight from Kariba in a buzzy and bouncy light aircraft. It was flown by a humourless blond man in shades, who reminded me worryingly of the T2000 shape-changing android in Terminator 2, but he got us there safely, to a scorching red-earth airstrip. From there we were collected and driven to our first night’s home, Vundu Camp on the river, where we fed ravenously from a table piled with cold meats and salads before paddling out to drink cocktails on a sandbank as the sun set. Surely it couldn’t get any better than this? But it did.

Not all safaris are the same. Some trips will house the traveller in a beautiful game lodge (such as the gorgeously welcoming Landela Lodge, just outside the capital, Harare, where we stayed for one night after flying into the country), and then merely take you out on “game drives”, where you watch the wildlife from a truck. Nice enough, but not the real thing. Natureways’ choice of walking or canoeing trails has you living and moving among the animals.

Of course, this being the luxury end of the market, guests are not expected to haul their luggage around in backpacks. We stayed at a different camp every night, travelling 20km or so downriver while a small fleet of trucks brought our bags, the tents, and the spectacular food: every night saw huge fried steaks, salads, stuffed vegetables and rice or potatoes, together with pleasingly limitless amounts of beer and wine.

As dawn breaks on another day, we are roused and stagger out of the tents for tea and toast round the fire, before settling into the boats for another day on the water. Canoeing through the spectacular wilderness in the early morning is the best way to wake up I’ve ever encountered. In ordinary life, friends will happily attest that I am a sullen, semi-conscious monster in the morning, yet on safari, after a night’s heavy drinking and laughter with only three hours’ sleep, it only takes ten minutes and a contemplative coffee and cigarette to have me looking forward to the day’s exertions with unalloyed pleasure. Africa is surely a battery-charger for the soul.

The canoeing, by the way, is not some Hawaii Five-O fitness test: each vessel takes two or three people, and those less disposed to strenuous exercise can loll in the front of a boat, straw hat at a jaunty angle, with the guides providing most of the power. You might not want to trail your fingers and toes in the water, however: it is clean enough to drink, but it is also home to crocodiles, whose ridged greeny-brown spines speed past regularly, often within feet of the canoe. The pace is relaxed enough for us to down oars every so often and point our binoculars at the latest heart-stopping sight: a colony of carmine bee-eaters in flight, birds that build their own little hotels in the stony riverbank; a herd of water buffalo fording the river a few hundred metres ahead; or a “pod” of hippos jauntily splashing around in the water.

Ah, cute things, hippos, rolling around in their glorious mud. But they’re not to be messed with. Our indefatigable guide James, a wide-grinned redhead with an encyclopaedic knowledge of wildlife, botany and astronomy and the cause of much acute khaki fever among female travellers, says that hippos kill more people every year than any other animal. The problem is, they just don’t like to be pushed around. They’ll munch your boat clean in two and you can say goodbye to any arms or legs that happen to be in the way of their gargantuan teeth. We experience a vivid proof of this one morning, canoeing through long grass down a narrow stream off the main body of the river. Up ahead, a single hippo floats in the bend. The water passage is too narrow for our four boats to get past him without angering him, so we stop. Mr Hippo starts snorting and rearing out of the water; we beat our paddles on the surface to try to frighten him away. But he’s not going anywhere. It’s a Mexican hippo stand-off.

Eventually James guides us over to side and we disembark onto the riverbank. While his apprentice guide, Tafara (a man of exceptional eyesight, who can see things in the distance that we have trouble finding with binoculars) ties up the canoes and pulls them slowly, very slowly, past the hippo right at the water’s edge, James stands with his rifle aimed straight at the beast, who is still snorting and spluttering, on the brink of a full-blown charge (they may look ungainly, but hippos are fast as hell when they want to be). Eventually the hippo gives a final angry bellow and swims off back in the direction we came from. At his own pace, mind. He’s just decided that’s where he wants to go. Later James tells us that he spotted marks on the hippo’s head indicating that he’d been in a fight the night before, and so was generally in a very grouchy mood.

It’s not all water-based travelling; after the first early-morning hours, we tie up the canoes and emerge into a shady riverbank spot to eat a hearty breakfast of cereals, juices, eggs and bacon. This morning we are blessed, as a trio of elephants take an interest in us and wander slowly up to these strange breakfasting monkeys. To the elephants, after all, we are not so different from the baboons cavorting and barking like dogs around another tree a way off. But James warns us to keep very quiet and still, as the lead elephant ambles to within three feet of our canvas stools. The tonnage of this massive beast moves amazingly quietly, stepping delicately as if on rubber legs, and his deeply etched grey hide fills my entire field of vision. I have to strain my neck upwards to gaze at his face. It is an overwhelming moment for all of us, as the elephant, near enough to reach out and stroke, diffidently picks up a few pieces of fruit from the ground with his trunk, and then easily ambles away before cantering at surprising speed down the bank and splashing into the river for a shower.

It’s back into the river for us too, once we have recovered from a long, stunned silence. Later on we will stop for lunch on a sandbank in the middle of the river, and perhaps an impromptu game of cricket with tennis ball and canoe paddles. The afternoon’s canoeing will be broken up with a short walk in the woods alongside the river, where the light filters through the canopy in a greenish tinge and enormous vines hang down from the treetops, while we marvel at termite colonies reaching fifteen feet in height, and spot impala deer bounding around gaily in the distance.

Our trip was at the end of the season, in late October: a good time to go on safari in Zimbabwe, as the weather is not too hot, and there aren’t too many mosquitoes. Essentials for the trip are the best pair of binoculars you can afford, and gallons of high-factor suncream and insect repellent – and, of course, a decent camera. But the searing light that you can almost taste, the pervasive, sweet smell of the soil, and the music of the wildlife – all these things about Zimbabwe will quickly make you realise how limited photography is, how thoroughly incapable it is of capturing the essence of the place. Africa plants something in your soul that seeps directly in through the pores, and no photographs can convey it. And the image that stays most clearly with me from this trip is the one that I don’t have time to photograph.

One day we drive from our camp to the woods for a serious walk. James wants to show us something. As we get off the truck, buffalo in the distance catch the early-morning light through a great, hazy cloud of dust thrown up by their massed hooves. In another direction, we see a pack of wild dogs: they have the most efficient set of teeth of any predator, and a pack of them can bring down a buffalo. The adults are dozing in the shade, while the puppies play around with an impala skull, picked clean and glistening white in the sun. Then we follow James, who is eyeing the ground watching for scuffed tracks in the dirt and leading us deeper into the woods.

We are told to walk quietly, in single file and precisely in his footsteps. Then he suddenly stops, motions us to come up behind him, and points. Luxuriously sprawled on the dirt floor of the woods, not thirty feet away, are three lionesses, golden fur rising and falling with their breath as they sleep after a night’s hunting. Very soon, however, they wake up and rise smoothly to their feet. One lioness gazes with idle curiosity directly into my eyes. I stop breathing. The moment seems to go on for ever – and then they all turn tail and trot away, disappearing among the trees.

  • alan gibson

    Be the Predator – Not the Prey ;-)
    More award wining reportagerie by Pop Cult’s devil-may-careless Alain Gibson.

    Imagine the horror… You are midway through your dream family holiday, a self catering canoe trip up the Congo, when suddenly the river turns nasty: A large male hippopotamus, flagrantly erect, has mistaken your small dugout for a female of the species. Your family are in the water and Mr. hippo is now mighty pissed. Normally this brute is a harmless vegan but hippopotami are well known for their aggressive behaviour, especially when coitus interuptus is involved – He’s angry, his cavernous mouth armed with gigantic teeth is about to clamp down and smash your puny body… What do you do???

    Steve Cadaver has spent countless years accumulating a vast repertoire of aboriginal hunting, tracking and bare knuckle, animal combative tactics. These strategies are know to only a select few, very hard men, including the Navy Seals. Steve recently returned from a two year Inuit Polar bear wrestling camp, held at a secret location close to the North Pole. Cadaver is just as well known for showing naked aggression to journos, so I considered myself fortunate to hold the interview and also to escape with all my teeth. What follows is a direct transcription of Cadaver’s rambling monologue and a unique insight into his singular world view.

    P.C. So, Steve it’s been a while – how did you get back from the polar wasteland?
    S.C. “I barely got home alive, only the thought of completing my Pop Cult article and a diet of sun-dried walrus blubber saw me through.”
    P.C. We hear that you have finally decided to release some of your less extreme ideas into the public domain, do you think this is entirely wise?
    S.C. “If you follow my eight week program the answer to the hippo dilemma and many other carnivorous questions will be your own property. The first week of this unique program (African Safari) is free – not just to any old John Doe but to the exclusive readership of your prestigious magazine only!.”

    Here is “African Safari”, the first week of Steve’s eight week programme – free to Pop Cult’s readership…

    Great White sharks, a living, predatory, prehistoric fossil with a big mouth filled with hundreds of pointy teeth. This shark fears no one (apart from Orcas and Steve Cadaver), bossing his hood with a Don-like attitude. Under normal circumstances, this cold-blooded, primeval killer would only bite your leg off if you bore a close resemblance to a fat little fur seal. However, I can think of a few friends who fit this description quite closely (Tommy), so if the beast did go for you – Show it aggression / go psycho then while it is momentarily stunned by your temerity, quickly swim to its side (use a modified Breast stroke here, not the crawl, as this can occasionally leave your foot in the sharks mouth at a critical point) and employ a swift rabbit punch next to the gills, combined this with a fin disabling wrench and an eye-gouge. This should do the trick. It’s always good to be prepared and remember, those fins are worth a fortune in Japan….

    The Nile crocodiles are experts at the ambush attack – they are very patient and can wait concealed under the water for hours by breathing through a hollow reed. Their eyes are like swimming goggles and they will easily spot anyone taking a sly leak in the murky waters of their riverbank home. Using subterfuge the toothy behemoth rears its ugly, handbag skinned head with swift-like dexterity, clamping down its powerful jaw-like mandibles onto the victims fleshy extremities. Escape is all but impossible due to the Crocs ratchet like teeth. What can you do? Take the monster by surprise… Relax; let it take you into its horrific death roll, then simply swim to the side of the riverbank when it least expects it.

    An agitated Grizzly Bear can reach up to 10 meters in height, that’s as long as a double decker bus and twice as aggressive. His arms are powerful enough to knock a small child’s head clean off, he can climb trees or shove them over if they look a bit too prickly. A big bear can eat clean through a cow in under forty minutes. Imagine the scene, you have accidentally driven your open-top sports car through the bear’s picnic, stalled and flooded the engine… The horror! Don’t delay now, leap out of your seat (after unfastening your seatbelt), assume the fencing position and – as he charges into your Combative arena – feint with a lead jab then lash out with a devastating Thai leg kick, just above the knee. As you bony shin smashes into Mr. Grizzly’s tender nerve cluster, strike him repeatedly in the groin with your steering lock, that you kept concealed up your Ralph Lauren polo shirt in case of just such an incident.

    A heavily pregnant White Rhino, these lumbering armour plated bulldozers may be an endangered species but you would feel in danger of extinction yourself if one was bearing down on you at fifty four K.P.H. whilst you were lying prone, engaging in a spot of tan work under the dusky African sky. If that horn skewers you, you could be kebab meat for the hyenas. First, leap to your feet at the last minute thus evading her initial drive by. Then use more footwork to outfox the blind bastard as you reach for your trusty hunting rifle stashed under the Land rover dashboard (remember those horns are worth hard cash).

    The Spotted Hyena will normally eat carrion if it is available but remember what we said about Kebab meat? Once they have had a few lean hours in the savannah nightclub, they will take whatever they can. The Hyena is all muscle, teeth and bone, don’t try to punch him in the head or you may break your fist. As he lunges forward to bite your face off, ignore the stench of his putrid breath and spear you hand straight down his throat. It is important to achieve maximum penetration so that your shoulder wedges his jaws open. Grope around inside that fetid gastric chamber until you can feel his beating heart of darkness, then seize the organ and rip it, still pumping, from his body.

    What about a rabid giraffe? I hear you say. A double sidekick to ankle – then the knee, should bring it down to range. Then quickly, run round to its rear – grab the tail and run up its back, using the ribs as steps. Finally, leap up into a neck lock and clinch tightly with a guillotine throat lock until all breathing stops…

    Poisonous snakes are simple – small ones, just stamp on their heads with your heavy desert boots. Flashing a torch in their eyes whilst you grab their tail can fool more tricky devils. Now quickly, crack them like a whip and watch as the poisonous head flays off into the sand. At the very least, doing the wet towel snap should disconnect the nerves of the spinal column, causing total paralysis, thus enabling you to skin the bastards alive. Snakeskin makes a trendy belt and their kidneys (eaten raw) will make you irresistible to women…

    To receive the remaining seven weeks of this fascinating and essential program (the Hippopotamus dilemma is solved in the eighth week), send a cheque for only £999.95 to Pop Cult for each additional week you require. Private Combative training is also available at exorbitantly expensive rates. Terms and conditions apply. Do not attempt to perform any of these procedures unless you are fully trained in these combative tactics or are Steve Cadaver. All of these Combative stratagems are non-functional and none are guaranteed to work on the street. Steve Cadaver is a fictional parody and not meant to resemble anyone eaten by crocodiles or mauled to death by Grizzly bears.
    Alan Gibson

  • Please say it’s a joke that Steve Cadaver is only a fictional parody; he sounds like the coolest man alive. :)