On Hippos – St. Lucia Lake, South Africa

What is the most dangerous animal in Africa? Surprisingly, not the ferocious lion or fearsome crocodile. In fact, more people are killed by the hippopotamus than any other wild animal, either by being trampled to death or having their boat capsized. These giant herbivores can weigh up to 3,200 kilos.

The Ugandan natives have a legend to explain the hippo’s peculiar habits.

When Hippo came to Africa he found the climate so hot that he asked God’s permission to spend the days submerged in water to escape from the sun’s rays, and after dark to come ashore to browse the lush grasses. God was dubious and thought that Hippo might eat fish instead of grass if he lived in the water. He ordered Hippo to spread out his excrement with his tail when he comes ashore to prove there are no fish bones.

The male hippo uses his stumpy, flat tail as a catapult to spread the "bullshit" to mark territory and paths on land, also to intimidate opponents and impress females. Like politicians, the best spreader is "top dog".

Hippo heads for the pool
Hippo heads for the pool

Hippos are gregarious and like to live in shallow water to cover their bodies so that they can move gracefully tippy-toe on the bottom. They remain submerged for two to four minutes, poking their heads up briefly with ears and nose just visible to survey the scene.

Ears flicker independently to expel water, the nose spouts water whale-like, and if curious or aggressive, a monstrous head appears with yawning mouth displaying huge lower incisors sure to frighten any interloper.

A great place to see hippos in their native habitat is St. Lucia Lake on the northeast coast of South Africa, 275 kilometers north of Durban. The muddy waters average one and a half metres deep and this is the home for 800 hippos and 2000 crocodiles. The adjacent St. Lucia township boasts the occasional wandering hippo at night in the main street, even so, the region is known as the "Elephant Coast".

The St. Lucia Lake is a meandering estuary (Africa’s largest) with only a narrow connection to the sea. It is chock full of fish that attract many water birds such as pelicans, flamingoes and fish eagles, and provides sport for boat fishermen. It is famous as a reserve for hippos and crocodiles, which are dangerous creatures to be treated with respect.

A great place to stay is Bib’s International Backpackers. They arranged with St. Lucia Safaris a two hour Hippo Cruise in a 16-seater boat having a canopy to protect you from the sun. It travels slowly up the lake, stopping here and there for viewing the wildlife, covering a distance of about 30 kilometers.

My experience was as follows: Hugging the mangrove shoreline, we came across huge basking crocodiles while above glided a manificent fish eagle. Nudging up to a mudbank we watched the antics of the red mangrove crab and mudskippers while hoping that no crocs were too close. Our guide explained the ecology of the esturine system. The hippos were midstream and had their babies with them. Yawn, yawn! – they’ve seen it all before, these silly boats full of gawking tourists!

Swaziland Visit

From St. Lucia, I went to another hippo haunt at Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary in the nearby Kingdom of Swaziland, which is the smallest country in southern hemisphere. Controversial and polygamous King Mswati III is 36 years old and was educated in England. The system of government seems to cope with managing an economy based on sugar cane, forest products and tourism. However, unemployment is at over 30% and AIDS is widespread.

The capital, Mbabane, has several modern shopping malls and no shortage of the latest consumer goods. I found two Internet cafés so was able to make contact with the outside world. Swaziland is noted for its wonderful craft goods. Not to be missed is Baobab Batik, which produces fantastic batik cushion covers, wall hangings and tablecloths often with animal themes, including elephants and hippos.

Mlilwane is one of five wildlife sanctuaries that tourists can enjoy. It is halfway to Manzini, the other main town in Swaziland, which has a total population of about one million. The Main Camp offers accommodation ranging from luxury chalets to cottages to Beehive grass huts, whilst 6 kilometers away is Sondzela Backpackers Lodge, a large thatched-roofed building with beds for 40 people.

A Braai at main camp
A Braai at main camp

A shuttle bus runs regularly between the Royal Swazi Sun Hotel, located on the sanctuary perimeter, and Sondzela Lodge to Main Camp, so that tourists may dine at the famed Hippo Haunt Restaurant. It specialises in game meats – impala, wildebeest, warthog and ostrich steaks. The diners have full view of the hippo pool through sloping glass windows that extend over the water. I watched a crocodile and turtles swim up close while savouring a venison pie. Two hippos further out cavorted and yawned menacingly.

Sunny days at Main Camp are a hive of activity with day-trippers having braais (barbecues), where huge quantities of steak, chops and boerewors sausage sizzle over glowing embers, much to the interest of free-ranging ostriches and warthogs used to eating up the scraps. I watched an ostrich gobble up chop bones, paper napkins and plates while impalas pranced about.

Warthog and hippo at lunch
Warthog and hippo at lunch

Hippo feeding time for the benefit of tourists is 3 pm. Warthogs follow the ranger and his wheelbarrow full of grain which is emptied onto an open spot adjacent to the hippo pool. On schedule, hippo comes marching out of the pool and scatters the warthogs and quickly scoffs down the morsel, becoming a photographic model for a moment before retiring to the murky waters. Normal diet is aquatic plants, grass and fruits.

What a wonderful life has the hippo! No worries and all these tourists to show off to!

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