Tipped by Hippo
I looked on in shocked horror as a spray of water erupted from beneath the canoe. The huge gaping mouth of a hippo enveloped the center section where one of the men sat, wide eyed, frozen in the moment. Teeth came through the fiberglass bottom underneath him and completely surrounded his legs from the top. Incredibly, the hippo did not close its’ mouth crushing his legs, but lifted the whole craft a meter out of the water. Men went sprawling in every direction.
I found myself digging my paddle into the water and steering the canoe toward the mess ahead as my mind said, “Don’t go there! You will be hurt. It’s not safe.” Funny that.
I had been asked to guide the Southern Baptist Missions leadership training group at Ruckomechi Camp on the mouth of the Rukomechi River where it empties into the Zambezi. I had flown many of these men around Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia and Malawi for years and was really looking forward to spending time with them in what is, without a doubt, one of my favorite places on the planet; the Zambezi Valley. We had the camp to ourselves and I was impressed with the joy these men took in their surroundings, in their God, in nature and each other. They laughed easy and loud. Jokes came thick and fast. In every situation I felt built up myself, and could see that others were being built up as well. We had wonderful times sharing stories in the open thatched lodge on the banks of the river and around the campfire at night. Being from the Southern part of the United States they had such a different culture from my own and many of the stereotypes of “Good ole boys” were readily apparent to me. I loved the difference. But it was more than their culture. They were made special by what they believed.
In the heat of the day they sat up their horseshoes and played under the Albida trees that cover the whole campground with shade. Elephant came right through the camp and walked by the men as they played. It was a lovely sight. I was showering in my chalet one morning when someone called my name. When I got dressed and opened the rickety old door there was a cow elephant right in my doorway eating Albida pods off the roof. I could have reached out and touched her. It is that kind of place. Another morning we got up to find an old buffalo bull lying quietly inside the ring of Chalets chewing calmly. It was a safe place for him, sheltered from the lions that are never far away, and he spent the whole day there not bothered by our presence in the least. I, on the other hand continued to look at him with a jaundiced eye, knowing how quickly these old “daga boys” can be on their feet and at full speed, coming to stick a horn through your stomach. We had once had one of the guests at Fothergill Island killed in just such a situation after surprising a resting buffalo as the couple returned to their chalet after supper. You don’t want to fool with these animals. Many PH’s put them at the top of the list as the most dangerous animals in Africa. I have had my share of hair raising experiences with them and could not bring myself to trust him completely.
There were many activities to choose from there. I took walks in the mornings and we did game drives most afternoons. But one day we organized a canoe safari. We took 3 canoes and put in about 10 kilometers upstream from Ruckomechi, drifting lazily downstream. An African river guide was in the back of one canoe with one passenger, another canoe had 3 men in it and I followed up in the back of the last canoe with another man. I had brought a few fishing rods, as tiger fishing is amazing on the Zambezi. I set up a rod for my guy with a spinner on it and showed him how to cast. He had that figured out in no time. Then I told him to put the spinner right at the downstream tip of one of the many little islands we were passing. He did and instantly was hit by one of these salmon size fighting fish. I don’t know whether they are named for their stripes or their huge set of teeth but it is thrilling to have one of them on the end of your line and you will only get about one in four that you hook all the way into the boat. Often you will get one right up to the edge after a long fight and at the last second it will jump into the air, tailwalk across the water and spit your tackle out of its’ mouth right in front of you, giving you a sly look as it glides back into the water, apparently no worse for the wear. I like that.
We drifted on and came to a small island where an elephant grazed quietly next to the water. We were able to come only feet away from him as he ate above us unconcerned. As the sun started to go down we approached Ruckomechi river mouth again and were able to see our camp. We could also see about 4 hippos who had spread themselves evenly across the channel we were in. The small grass islands on each side of us left only 40 meters or so between their banks and it was pretty crowded with three canoes and 4 hippos! They laughed at us, as hippos like to do, and one opened his mouth in an aggressive display of his very large teeth. We held back just paddling in position, deciding what we should do. All but the middle boat, which was very short on steering and brakes. They had still not quite learned how to handle their craft. They just kind of circled around. The river guide in the front boat said he thought he could get through by the edge of the bank of the island to our right and started through quickly. The hippo all went under water as he passed. The second canoe was drifting dangerously toward where the hippos had gone down and I told them to get back over to the edge so we could try to go through the same place. They began to see their situation and paddled toward the bank with feeling. Having gathered speed now, they hit it bow first and the current turned them gently around into a backward drift directly over where the hippo were. I beckoned them back but as I did the water seemed to rise on it’s own under the canoe and the open mouth of a hippo picked the little craft a full meter into the air. I found myself paddling toward the confusion while one man drifted downstream and was picked up by the other canoe. We pulled up by the capsized canoe and, as is usually the case, everyone really wanted out of the water, almost capsizing us as well. I told them to climb quickly onto the upturned boat and we towed them to the shore as the hippos laughed and scoffed at us. There are massive crocs in this area who are not above picking up an easy meal. Only a month earlier an American girl had been taken right out of the canoe she was riding in and this was very fresh in my mind. We worked quickly to get the men to the shore of the island and as two of them dripped dry I took two men over to the mainland riverbank. The hippo were now quite aggressive and as I walked the canoe back upstream, returning for the others and thinking of crocodiles, they moved even closer. I loaded everyone else into the canoe and hugged the bank of the island as we again went downstream to the actual river bank. I pulled the canoe up onto the landing and we all walked into camp from the back side. As we did we passed three wrecked canoes with obvious hippo bite chunks out of them and one that had actually been smashed into 4 large pieces and a bunch of small ones by an angry elephant bull. Apparently the animals in this area did not always take kindly to people in their section of river!
There were some very entertaining renditions of the story around the campfire that night and the laughter flowed as easily as the river.Capsized with Crocodiles
It had been a long day flying from Fothergill Island on Lake Kariba to the town of Kariba and then down the Zambezi River to Chikwenya Camp. One of the premier Safari camps in Zimbabwe. I had taken a couple of trips there that day and stayed over for lunch, which was my habit, waiting to take the last load of people back to Kariba to catch the Air Zim flight to Harare. There was just enough light to grab my pre-packed backpack and jump in the canoe with the 2.5 horsepower Yamaha engine on the back and motor out to Long Island before the sun went down. I would be joining Cher and the boys to sing around the campfire for a bunch of kids at a Scripture Union Camp that would be on the island for the week. The son of Fothergill owner, Rob Fynn, was going to come along with me so we went down to the dock where the canoe was parked and ready to go and jumped in. As I steered the little Canadian style fiberglass canoe out of the harbor we passed elephants, impala and buffalo on the shoreline and hippos spraying water into the air like steam and I felt the comforting coolness of dusk, like arms around me, wash away the heat of the day.
It was about 30 minutes out to the island and along the way we passed a little area of long grass that stuck out of the water marking what is a very small island when the level of the lake is down. But now that the water level had risen, it had gone under leaving nothing visible but the grass and a big crocodile about 14 feet long. We motored on by, enjoying the liquid sunset that we were enveloped in. Cher was there to meet me and had our tents all set up and after dropping my bag there, we went off to supper. It was a wonderful evening enhanced by a campfire and crystal clear sky full of stars. We sang for the kids, who loved us, and enjoyed a peaceful night’s sleep outdoors.
We woke early to the sound of a strong wind out of the southeast and as the light dawned we could see rough water out past the entrance to the little bay where we had docked our boats. I had a long day of flying waiting for me and felt some obligation to get back, but not to die in the process. I guess that is what convinced me, foolishly, to get in the canoe and go out to the mouth of the bay to look at how rough it actually was. As we got ready to board, Rory jumped into the back seat and said, “I am driving”. I said, “Get OUT!” But through lots of wheedling and saying, “Come on. We’re just having a look from the mouth of the bay and then coming right back. What is the big deal….Please, Please, PLEASE?!?!” I finally jumped in the front and we headed out. As we got closer to the entrance the water grew rougher and it was obviously too much for the canoe but there was no turning happening. I finally turned to Rory and said, “This is too bad. We have to go back. Now!” Rory just looked at me and carried on going straight ahead. After many threats and almost capsizing the canoe getting out of my seat to go back and punch the little rat, I finally sat down with my arms folded in front of me, swearing to finish that punching bit when we got back to shore. The waves were quite big and the bow of the little canoe was really coming up quite far in the air before coming down with a splash. At least Rory was keeping the bow into the waves. I turned around to see what he was doing and he sat there smiling back at me, while with each wave about a gallon of water entered the boat over the gunnels. As the little tin that had once held beans or peas floated by him I asked what he was doing. He smiled back. “What do you mean?” I said, “BAIL!” He took up a very methodical bailing motion…one tin out, one gallon in, one tin out, one gallon in…. We carried on through a few more waves, sinking a bit more with each one. I sat there thinking, “Oh, this is just great!” and turned to see Rory, still bailing, while the contents of the canoe floated away and the gunnels were 2 inches under water. I asked again what he might be doing. He said, “You told me to bail.”
“Do you really think you are going to…?” No. “We had better consider this an emergency situation and put on our life jackets,” I said, as I pulled mine over my arms and prepared for what was to come. “Rob is going to kill me if I lose this engine!” he replied as he wrapped his life jacket around the little 2.5 horse Yami.
I took stock of our situation. We were about half way between the two islands. We were being blown toward the Zambian shoreline some 30 kilometers away. There is said to be a crocodile for every meter of shoreline in the lake and we had seen that big 14 footer very close to our present position just last night. We didn’t want to drift toward his little grass island and we didn’t really want to float off to Zambia so we paddled just to hold our position and hoped for a passing boat to see us. We were still able to sit in the canoe, which had 3 little sections of flotation built into the body of the boat, but they were obviously leaking and the canoe was slowly going down. Within half an hour we were up to our necks in the water. I thought it would be best to stay with the boat as it looked big and didn’t have dangling bits that looked like they should be chewed on. Rory was all for not being eaten. Something we agreed on! The spare tin of petrol floating by him gave him the idea that if he saw a croc he could quickly empty the petrol out on the water and light it with his cigarette lighter! I pointed out that he would probably be very close to that burning fuel and it might be painful to the burns already on his arm and hand, and after all, his eyelashes were really only just starting to grow back now.
About a month earlier Rory had been trying to procure some fuel for his friend’s motorcycle so they could go out and party. While siphoning out of his dad’s car and having difficulty seeing in the dark garage, he had used his lighter for some illumination and Voila! Lots of light! The fire which caught the car and spread to the garage had also burned his arm, hand and face. His friend dropped him off outside a hospital emergency room and sped away.
We kept our paddles ready as weapons of sorts and as the canoe continued to go under even more we worked at keeping everything together. After treading water for about 2 hours we could just touch the canoe with our toes and I made the decision that we would go for the grass island and take our chances with the crocs. This was slow work and looking down at the sinking submerged canoe I saw a large dark shape cruise under us. We became more enthusiastic about getting into shallower water and made every effort to get there without splashing and drawing attention to ourselves.
Finally, we started seeing the sand under us and then we hit the bottom. We continued to work the canoe up out of the water until we could actually pull it up and start to dump the water out. We were still not out of danger here as the island was about 2 feet under water and we were getting very tired. Just then over the horizon came Boss Jim, the big metal boat like something out of The African Queen but welded together out of pieces of scrap metal. It was painted battleship grey and, although we usually thought of her (or was it him in this case) as very ugly, it was very beautiful now. Cher was waving at us as she stood atop the side and hung onto the roofing poles. Moggy Whitaker was at the wheel and he came about sharply and headed toward us. It was a lovely sight. We were on board in no time, tying the canoe to the stern of Boss Jim, and on our way back to Fothergill.
I rushed up to the lodge and grabbed a bite to eat. Then I went to the house and changed into my pilot uniform of Khaki shirt with stripes, shorts with knee high socks and a pair of veldskoens. It was a full day of flying and although I was tired it was a good tired. Glad to not be in the belly of a croc. It was a great day at the office.