Driving past the ever expanding expanse of the Great Rift Valley in Kenya, I could hear voices . . . echoes of the ghosts of men who had explored the continent in search of beast and bone, from a time when East Africa was the gateway to the Dark Continent. I had done the usual touristy jig; caught the Big Five on camera in the Mara, bartered greetings and traded souvenirs in a Masai village and gushed at the pink resplendence of the flamingoes in Lake Nakuru, but my real adventure was about to start when I least suspected it.
I was staying in a eco-resort by Lake Naivasha. On one end of the grassy lawns, there were the cottages, looking on to the lawns and a swimming pool, beyond which lay a beautiful lake. As night fell, diners gathered around the pool for a pool-side dinner – geriatric relics of the once great white hunter lounged around in khaki shorts, while tooling around with their Nikons and Canons. As I was taking it all in, there was a sudden commotion outside. The chef, who was handling the barbecue station at the far-side of the pool, ran past the guests screaming in Swahili – “Kiboko! Kiboko!!” A couple of Japanese tourists ran toward the barbecue station, camera in hand but were stopped by the hotel security staff who had rushed in – it was the same refrain – “Kiboko! Kiboko! Very dangerous! Can’t go!!”
This I had to see. What is it that had grown men shrieking like banshees. Unsure about what it might be, but convinced that whatever was out there would make for a great photo-op as well as an excellent fireside story, camera in hand, I sneaked out of the pool area that had been cordoned off by the security staff and walked across the lawns, away from the pool and the lake toward the café. I could see people chatting and cheering inside, unaware of the commotion outside. The lawns wore a chequered look – islands of lamp light, in an ocean of darkness. Scanning the ground ahead of me, as I was moving toward the café, I was suddenly stunned and blinded by a flashlight. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I could make out that the owner of the flashlight, accompanied by a tall shadow, walkie-talkie in hand, was gesticulating wildly. They kept pointing at something behind me in the darkness. I turned and peered through the shadows in vain and was about to turn away, when something moved . . . I kept straining and staring even as my heart began to beat faster and my mouth went dry . . . and then I saw it. Standing less than 10 yards away was a huge hippopotamus, its dull colouration rendered near invisible in the inky blackness of the night. It had apparently emerged from the lake to feed. Massive, hungry lips tore out clumps of grass and kept eating ravenously. The fact that it was hungry wasn’t really a concern – hippos are strict vegetarians – but the fact that hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal surely was. The Hippo, or Kiboko, as I later learnt it is called in Swahili, is the third largest land mammal in the world. Both males and females have tusks the size of Excalibur and when startled or angry their charge is almost unstoppable. Hippos have been known to saw right through the dreaded Nile crocodile, an animal feared by lions and revered by man; unsuspecting boats have often been attacked by protective bull hippos, its terrified occupants maimed or killed, but it is said that the hippo is most dangerous when it is on land, feeding and is startled by man who unwittingly comes between the animal and the water.
I tried to banish these thoughts and control my quivering breath. Kiboko was aware of my presence, but apart from the odd twitch of his ear every time I exhaled, thankfully he ignored me. Gently the breeze picked up and I realised that I was drenched in cold sweat. I gently backed away from the gigantic head with the beady eyes, ever so gently. The Hippo stopped eating, my heart stopped beating, and then it started eating again . . . my heart started beating again. Ten treacherous yards later, away, I moved behind a garden wall, took my camera and my life in my hands and clicked. A crowd had gathered by now, some running away and some toward the animal but I was in a zone of my own. Like a zombie I drifted toward the safety of my room both shaken and stirred. The photograph remains – a poor copy of the memory of a day when I was both incredibly stupid and incredibly lucky. Don Quixote would’ve been proud, I was embarrassed . . .