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.

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.

I felt safe with the ranger nearby, until I glanced over my shoulder and saw him peering into the bullet chamber of his old rifle - to see if it was loaded?

Hippos can be dangerous to hippos too.

I saw a picture of a wounded hippo with a deep gash in its forehead from the powerful bite of another hippo. Hippos sometimes fight in the water, awesome open jaw to open jaw. This morning, two hippos starting fighting on shore, then tumbled down the steep bank together, like two giant wrestlers. Apparently the fall surprised both of them because they stopped fighting once they hit the water.

Here at the pool, all I was accomplishing was giving the hippos some noontime entertainment. Under the scorching hot sun, I had sat for half an hour on the shore, waiting for the hippos to sound off. While I sweated, the hippos watched me from the cool water.

I gave up on that uncooperative group and turned my attention to an old bull hippo soaking alone nearby. He had a reputation for charging people. But even he was holding his huge tongue today.

This afternoon, we took one more trip in the small boat. This time our motor broke down, right near the spot where a bull hippo with a mean reputation had just sunk out of sight.

Hippos are big enough to come up under a boat, and overturn it. They can also bite through the bottom of a boat, which they have done on this river. It was a mysterious feeling, not knowing where the bull hippo was. We have had numerous big hippos suddenly surface and charge our boat.

So all eyes were on the spot where the bull had disappeared as we passed over it. Our captain was paddling hard, with the only paddle on board, one that looked like a hippo had bitten away half of it. We were glad when we reached shore safely.

One night, in desperation for hippo sounds, I even asked some children in camp to imitate them. The children were good sports, but they sounded pretty weak compared to the enormous noises hippos make.

The next morning we flew out of the camp. But a few days later, at Ruaha National Park, also in Tanzania, I thought I would make one last try to capture hippo sounds.

An hour before dark, I got my tape recorder out and walked to the edge of the river, where a dozen hippos and two dozen eyes watched my approach. Some of the hippos sank quickly beneath the water. When they surfaced, they sprayed the air with water as they exhaled.

After half an hour, several hippos began snorting and calling - giant blasts of sound: a series of deep, low grunts, sometimes ending with high-pitched squeal: huh, huh, huh, huh, huh, heee.

One would start, then another ... sometimes a whole group of them were bellowing at the same time. My tape recorder picked it up easily for a Christian Science Monitor radio program.

By now it was dark, time for the hippos to come out of the water. They seemed to be eyeing me with impatience.

So I walked back to the car, climbed in, and packed my tape recorder away. Then, just as we were starting to drive away, the whole hippo pool exploded with noise. Maybe they were laughing at my efforts to record them. Or maybe they were just saying goodbye.

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