The rhythm of our days has fallen into a morning drive to look for animals, which takes us to lunch; and then a late afternoon-into-sunset safari drive. This morning, instead of driving, we walked.
We can walk around Chitengo Camp, of course, and there’s plenty to see here — vervet monkeys, baboons, lots of birds and warthogs (and we’ve heard stories of lions and elephants crossing the airstrip); but it felt different to walk, to be more a part of the landscape than driving through it. We didn’t see as many animals, but the things that we saw, we saw in a different way.
We examined a variety of poop, including elephant and the enormous seeds they pass; discovered a small, disciplined army of Matabele ants headed out in search of food (not at all like our ants scurrying around at home); watched a crocodile snooze on the bank.
We spent a long time simply watching storks fishing (four species, including the striking-looking saddle-billed, which will be new in Zoo Boise’s Gorongosa exhibit). We identified birds as they flew by — or more accurately: Birders that they are, Heidi Ware, with our group, and Steve Burns, director of Zoo Boise, identified them and told us. Although we’re getting better. And we had breakfast in a treehouse.
We tromped through a yellow fever tree forest (a tree that photosynthesizes through its bark, hence the yellow color; and so named because people thought they got malaria from the tree. Of course, it merely grows in damp places that mosquitoes like.) In the wet season, elephants take refuge on the higher ground, which we knew to be true by all the trees they’d toppled in search of the tender leaves and to feed calves lower to the ground. Big trees.
Now that it’s dry, the elephants have gone elsewhere in search of waterholes. But still, we walked with an armed guard in front and one behind our group. It never felt unsafe, but it is different walking through both an unfamiliar landscape and one in which humans are on the food chain. It makes one alert and attentive.
The hippos we saw on our afternoon outing are likely to make my top 10 list. We were going to the Urema River in search of them, but as we — which is to say, half of our group in one vehicle — cruised down road No.1, our driver slammed on the brakes. Warthogs and waterbucks commonly amuse us in their flight to cross the road, like deer back home. But this was no warthog.
It was a hippo that bolted out of the woods, ran across the road and into the bush. We sat there in wonder, still digesting what we had seen. Pink-and-gray; enormous. Surprisingly fast and graceful; so totally unexpected.
“I have never seen a hippo so close,” says Ana Meyreles, manager of activities for Girassol, the park concession. “So close.”
Just a little while later, we stopped and, even sitting in the vehicle, we could hear the hippo splash and blow in the river. Hippos blow sort of like a whale, only it seems louder. Accompanied by our guards, we picked our way closer to a perch above the river, still vibrating from our encounter.
In answer to your question: What did you do late this afternoon? The answer is: We watched a hippo.
As afternoon gently turned into evening, the hippo swim, dive, blow, splash, munch. We took lots of photos when it opened its mouth — really big — like a yawn. A hamerkop bird sat on its head. We laughed.
The sun set, the clouds reflecting pink on the river. Hadeda ibis squawked their warnings, Burcell’s coucals made their watery call. (Are you impressed? Heidi told me.) A kingfisher hovered, looking for dinner. The hippo continued to splash. And us — we watched. We stood there in the grass and watched. It was enough.
But of course, the story doesn’t end there. Our guides had seen someone walking on the other side of the river. After we made our way back to the car, they confronted him — from a pretty weak position, of course. Guns pointed, they told him to stop. He fled.
Likely it’s they are poachers illegally fishing, either commercially or for subsistence. They could have set snares. Either way, they’re illegal and threatening the resources of the park. I don’t know how much hippos are poached, but I cringed thinking of the hippo swimming happily in the river. Now — our hippo.
P.S. It just so happens that one of the conservation projects voted on by Zoo Boise patrons gave $50,000 to recruit and train 40 new rangers from the communities around the national park.