Cause of death: flying hippo. I could see the coroner’s report as I finally gasped a breath on the hull of the mokoro canoe, sure that it could hear my heart thudding as the beast passed beneath us, inches below my belly, and the boat rocked. In the part of my brain that wasn’t processing whether I was still alive, I vaguely wondered how my mum would convey the news in her Christmas round-robin email.
It had come from nowhere. We had been laughing, reclined comfortably in the dugout canoe as we returned to the mainland of Botswana after a night camping out in the wild of the Okovango delta, where elephants and big cats patrolled through the night and could pass by your tent at any time.
When locals panic, you know there is something seriously wrong. ‘That was too close. Far too close’. Our guide was shaken. ‘Keep staying down’. Then after several achingly long minutes we crawled back into our seats and wove in silence back through the rivulets we had traversed at sunrise. ‘We have to go another way’.
We had started the previous day with a much more peaceful ride through the delta. We saw the snouts of a whole family of hippos in the distance and gawped with delight as we glided by, snapping shots of the ears and eyes poking out of the water that glinted in the late afternoon sun. Enough of a threat to be aware of, but far away enough that they didn’t seem bothered with us. ‘Keep your distance, and be quiet. Hippos just don’t like to be startled’. We were told. ‘And they don’t like it when you get between them and the water.’
On land, we pitched our tents. The trees offered protection from the sun, but also a showering in mopane worms, the caterpillars that are iconic in Botswana, featuring both on the currency, pula, and in local dishes. They dripped from every tree, and I squirmed with the constant unnerving feeling they had dropped into my hair and clothes. We dug a hole to shit in, sticking a loo roll on a spiked branch. Home for the night.
‘Don’t pee if you can help it. If you do, pee right by the tent. If you see eyes, get straight back in. If you see green eyes, it’s not a predator, but an elephant could still panic and stampede. If you see red eyes, it’s a predator, and they’ll be the last you’ll ever see.’ The warning was enough. I chose dehydration over death with my pants down.
As it neared evening, the sun bled red into the sky and made the earth a glowing furnace against which we became no more than silhouettes imprinted on the horizon.
That night, we lit a fire to keep the animals away, over which our guide cooked potjiekos, a southern African stew and brewed fresh roobios tea.Local people sang songs in the Setswana language and encouraged us to join them in swaying hips and clapping hands. All the while I kept an eye on the horizon for eyes of green and red.
Come dawn, it seemed the danger had passed. A quick breakfast and back in the mokoros. We had been travelling for nearly an hour when there was a crash in the bushes and we stopped suddenly. ‘Ssshhhh!’ the hand of our driver waved for us to be quiet.
If I had reached out an arm I could have touched the hippo we were faced with on the bank. Its head alone was as long as my body, its yellowed fangs as long as my hand, and sharp. And we were between it and the water. It snorted, kicked its back legs.
‘Get down’. The guide muttered under his breath and I slid under the seat, not taking my eyes off it. We stayed that way for several minutes, us watching it watching us. I didn’t dare breathe in case it could hear us. I wondered how much it weighed. If it charged, would it crush us immediately? Would we die from the impact, or drown if it brought us under the water?
Then it leapt. Just in front of the nose of the boat where I had been sitting, sending a wave over us, and the boat rocked with the weight of it pushing by.
I didn’t feel like an intrepid explorer. I felt very, very small.