It's Not Over 'Til The Fat Hippo Sings
PICTURE a two-ton hippopotamus, snoozing in a deceptively quiet fashion in murky river water; or on shore, its thick skin, tank-like body, and giant jaws in full view, munching grass. Then picture an earnest, 140-pound reporter with a microphone and tape recorder in hand, trying to coax sound out of these shy, but dangerous creatures. My hippo ``hunt'' (for sound and photos) took place recently in Africa's biggest and most remote game reserve, the Selous.Skip to next paragraph
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Day 1. My photographer wife, Betty, two friends, and I hiked down a steep bluff from our tent camp and boarded a small motorboat for a ride on the wide Rufiji River, home to thousands of hippos.
As our boat approached the first batch of hippos, I set up my microphone. This would be easy, I thought, since I had been assured hippos are unabashed noisemakers.
But as we moved closer, most of the hippos sunk underwater.
When they surfaced, all we could see were their eyes and ears, like submarine periscopes. And not a sound.
Hippos - whose full name, hippopotamus, is seldom used - are especially equipped for submarine-like living. They can hold their breath for up to 20 minutes underwater. Baby hippos suck milk from their mothers underwater. And hippos can walk, even trot, along river or pond bottoms.
Day 2. This time we set out on an all-day river trip, on a bigger boat: about 20 seats, with a nice roof for shade.
We came across a group of hippos standing on a sandbar. It's only when hippos are out of the water that you appreciate their enormous size. But big and tough as they were, they ran for the protection of the familiar water, their thick, stubby feet propelling their box-car bodies at surprising speed. They dove into the water. Sometimes hippos shoot up halfway out of the water, then dive in again, their gigantic rear ends making a huge splash as they go under. If they would just learn back dives, you could see their pink tummies.
Hippos spend most of the day in the water, coming out to graze at night. Unlike the many crocodiles we saw along the river, hippos are not meat-eaters. African folklore explains it this way:
Hippos were first created to live on land. But they preferred the cool water because the African sun is so hot. The creator believed the hippos would eat all the fish if they were allowed to stay in water. So a deal was struck: The hippos got permission to live in the water but promised not to eat the fish. And to prove they were not eating fish, the hippos agreed to open their mouths wide now and then to show there were no fish inside.
The day-long river trip was fun. But my tape was still empty.
Day 3. Having failed to record hippo sounds by boat, I decided to ride a car up to an inland hippo pond.
As I crouched in the hot midday sun on the shore, waiting to record some of the hippos in the pool, an armed ranger stood behind me. Hippos have attacked and killed people on occasion. It is especially dangerous to get between a hippo and the water, or between an adult and its baby.
And sometimes they come right out of the water and attack. A man from Scotland who stayed in our camp told me that while staying at another camp, he had been chased by a hippo coming out of the water. It chased him all the way to his cabin, where he ran in and shut the door.