Thursday, November 26, 2009


‘Shame on humanity!’ read the subject. It was an e-mail from an old friend. ‘Denmark’s shame!’ read another from a colleague. ‘Help save them…’ read yet another e-mail. I opened all three in different windows... It was yet another chain of forwards... And they all had the same set of pictures and common plea that echoed through my inbox… A series of pictures… The first one from a distance showed a cold green valley which had the sea running through it… they call them fjords in Scandinavia. But a stretch of the blue grey waters was stained red… blood red! And there were a few boats drifting along on the crimson waters….

The next photograph was of a rather graphic nature. It was a closer view of the sea harbour… From this angle, the water was the shade of slushy watermelon juice. But this was not a bleeding fruit that lay in the water but a great creature, both powerful and benign, that lay bleeding and gasping in a pool of his blood – a pilot whale. Pilot whales are cetaceans, large aquatic mammals, part of the same family that comprises dolphins and large whales. These sensitive and intelligent creatures are about 20 feet long and weigh as much as an SUV. But these powerful creatures are not aggressive towards people. They are, in fact, friendly and curious… but more of that later.

Pictures number three, four and five opened to macabre scenes of blonde haired burly men, ostensibly from those in their late teens to the early 50s standing in the deep water amongst the whales that were thrashing about in the shallows. Some of them were hauling these whales in with ropes, while others were swinging mean looking metal hooks that caught the whales by their skin and blubber… Once ‘hooked’, the other pictures revealed that they were pulled onto the shore by these hooks and ropes where their dorsal fin and spine was hacked through with a whaling knife. In spite of the coup de grâce with the knife, the whales did not die immediately and oft en it would be minutes before the life ebbed away from that great, but by now chopped up body.

There were more pictures… one showed a butchered female with a calf that was bleeding but alive, its body arching in agony; another had an image of a large whale writhing and apparently screaming in agony while a couple of young men were slashing away at it with sharp hooks and the last one showed the harbour waters again… The water seemed to ripple with agitation as pilot whale tails fl ailed about in the throes of death. Each of these pictures had captions that described the moment and below that was a request by each of the senders who had sent this e-mail personally requesting me, as a conscientious reader and as someone they know to believe has a heart that oft en beats, to sign the petition that followed. The petitions on each of the mails had many hundreds of names, from nations far apart from each other and as distinct in culture as Hong Kong, South Africa and Argentina. They also added that this was an outrage that cannot be allowed to continue… Someone else wrote that these pilot whales are really very friendly and curious, and oft en come near boats to establish contact. That they emit a cry like the sound of a child’s wail when they are struck by the hooks, and that their eyes speak of betrayal.

So is it really true? Are these creatures really that intelligent? Where is this cruel and barbaric act perpetrated? And why were they sending these pictures to people around the world? Well the bit about whales and dolphins treating humans like kindred spirits is actually true. They are amongst the most intelligent of creatures, perhaps as much as the great apes, our closest cousins. There are almost no known cases of a whale or a dolphin attacking a human being without provocation (read whaling ships and harpoons). But there have been umpteen cases of whales and dolphins and porpoises that roam free and wild in our oceans swimming up to boats, canoes and even divers and interacting with them with gentle curiosity, as if aware of how fragile we are when compared to their immense and supremely powerful.
There have been instances of dolphins and small whales, like the pilot whale and the killer whale, (the one from “Free Willy”) saving a child who might have been drowning. There are legends and accounts also of dolphins defending and protecting injured divers from sharks. They just feel a sense of innate kinship which we human beings find difficult to reciprocate.

The e-mail in question, which reached Indians this winter, is actually about a phenomena that takes place every summer in the Faroe Islands (a group of islands that are a part of the kingdom of Denmark). This event is a regulated ritual, a rite of passage if you will, where these whales that are found within a certain distance from land are herded in towards the beach by a ring of boats. Their intelligence and inquisitiveness might work against them and might attract them towards the boats and thus oft en to their deaths. Once in the harbour or ‘beached’, they are then massacred like the photographs I’ve described to you.

And something about this massacre of innocents has riled people from all over the world so they put together a set of pictures, signed their names and sent it around. I too believe that such cruelty has no place or need in a world where we all have plenty to eat without us having to take lives, cruelly and unnecessarily…. And yet here’s my reply to my fellow armchair environmentalists… condemn me if you will but this is the way I felt…

“Dear fellow hypocrites and vultures... I mean we scavenge the dead so that makes us vultures... and now about the bit about being hypocrites....

Carnivores, you have no qualms about animals being reared for you under the most cruel conditions possible, where they grow in squalor and their eyes never see the sun until their chopped heads are displayed on a butcher’s stall... chickens are skinned alive while goats get their legs smashed during transit and bleat through the pain till their necks are slashed and left to bleed... you feel no pain when a lamb thrashes about in pain for your epicurean pleasures but just when it is a dog being cooked in Korea or a whale being slaughtered in Japan or the Faroe Islands, suddenly your conscience wakes up and you find yourself on high moral ground which allows you to preach to the Faroese or the Koreans...

So are some animals more equal than others...?? A little piglet, or a fluffy yellow chick or a lamb does not deserve your compassion because your conditioning makes you immune to their pain, but suddenly you feel the cry of a whale’s agony... SHAME ON YOU TOO!!

We have no right to comment on the meat eating habits of others, while we ourselves gorge on the dead... whether the creature is rare or numerous, wild or domesticated, makes no moral difference, only an academic and ecological one...

That’s why I gave up on meat.


My friends were shocked by that reply, and also I suspect a wee bit embarrassed. Of course I feel that the killing of whales should be stopped, but long ago I had faced the same dilemma. I had given up eating mammal meat after an episode I have mentioned in a previous column but one of the prime reasons was a debate I got into during a trip to Norway. Annika, a whaler’s daughter who also ran the reception at the hotel I was staying in Bergen, was defending her cultural heritage as a proud race of whale hunters. And she said that it was like us eating chicken and goats. I wriggled out of that debate by talking about extinctions etc. but her contention stayed with me. The justification of taking a life had far more to do with ethics and morality and little to do with availability. If I’m ever cornered by destiny on a desert island with a fellow sailor, with nothing to eat, I can’t justifiably kill and eat my fellow castaway, can I? We can strive to escape or die trying but not ever raise a finger on each other in hunger.

I stopped eating all meat from then on because I knew that otherwise, I was being a hypocrite.

I got a solitary reply to my e-mail that said, “let’s do what it takes”. I wrote back saying that we can earn the right to engage the Faroese and make them listen to us only if we stop eating meat ourselves. Otherwise, they’ll only say that it is a question of culture and not ethics and human values... I had no right to eat meat of one sort and condemn others for eating another sort… That just becomes a silly beef or pork debate...

The respondent agreed. Now, instead of a chain mail, we’ll start a campaign that will reach out to Faroese children and show them the joy of sharing this world with whales as well as request the International Whaling Commission for more legislation to protect the whales. Will keep you updated.


Thursday, November 19, 2009


I’m not really in on the ‘chain mail’ and ‘e-mail forwards’ scene. But this week, two friends of mine called and insisted that I must, for once, open their e-mails in my ‘inbox’. “Not the regular stuff!”, “You won’t be disappointed”, This is important”… they sent texts till I gave in, pulled out my wallet and fished for the little strip of brown paper on which I had noted down my password…

“!@#$*”… password entered in, and voila, sitting right on top of a neat pile of unread messages were the two e-mails. I clicked on the first one. It had a link… click! It was a ‘youtube’ video about fur farms in China. If you haven’t seen it, let me take you through it…

The video was apparently shot in secrecy and carries footage from a number of Chinese fur farms where visitors are usually not allowed. China is one of the world’s largest producers of cheap fur that finds itself on trimmings and coats in shopping malls around the world, including perhaps the one in your neighbourhood. The film opens with images of foxes and minks housed in wire cages so tiny that it would make even the act of turning seem like an acrobatic feat; then it zooms in into the eyes of a beautiful animal, a raccoon dog. It is a type of wild dog and looks like a cute little grey and black panda with a tail. It is found in China, and like the mink, is bred in farms for its fur. The animal looks soulfully into the camera. Just then, a hand opens the latch, catches the animal by its tail, and pulls it out. The man holds the animal by its hind legs, swings it up in a manner reminiscent of the washer men at the ‘dhobi ghat’ and brings it down on the hard earth with a sickening thud… the impact smashes the animal’s face and perhaps breaks its neck. A close-up reveals that the animal is still alive as it blinks into the camera… next to it lie other raccoon dogs that had previously received the same treatment. The odd quivering leg or flick of a tail tells you that the body may be broken but is very much alive.

A hand grabs three of these broken animals by their tails and carries them away to a pole where one of them is picked up and one of its hind legs is tied to a loop. There the animal hangs, upside down. The man takes out a big knife, and one is grateful for the fact that the animal has stopped moving… perhaps it is finally dead. The man starts cutting the skin from the leg that was tied and in pain, the poor dog, still very much alive, starts kicking and screaming… unperturbed, the man continues to cut open the skin around the tail and keeps peeling it off with his hands as if he was removing a sweater off a child. The animal continues to struggle, but its strength gives way and by the time the man is pulling the skin off the raccoon dog’s neck and face, it is almost still. The pelt comes off in one piece and the animal, a ghastly naked pink and white with blotches of deep red is pulled off the rope and thrown onto a heap of other pink bodies. Tufts of hair around the paws are all that remain of the soft fur that it once called its own. As the pain-wracked body settles on the heap, the rear leg twitches, and to one’s horror the dog lifts its pink head and looks right at you, through the camera… The eyes look abnormally big on that frightening visage… skinned alive, the head kept lolling as the animal writhed in unimaginable pain for unending minutes.

That wasn’t the end of the video though. Then there was a fox that was taken out of a cage and this time it was clubbed with an iron pipe a couple of times… the skinners didn’t bother to check if the animal was dead and started cutting it up. The fox which had perhaps only been stunned came to his senses and started struggling again. This time the man didn’t bother with the club and just kicked the animals head with his boots and then stood on the animal’s neck. Thick red blood came out in spurts from its nostrils, as others kept working on it with the knife. Another clip showed another fur farm where the animals kept in those cages were domestic dogs, cats and rabbits… the cages were being dropped from the back of a truck and the animals were howling in pain because they were breaking limbs on impact… and then more bludgeoning and ‘skinning alive’ followed. It is not easy for me to write this for the images dance in front of my eyes as I write, and the knowledge that I too might have encouraged these horrid acts through buying decisions only makes it more difficult…

Fur, after a self-conscious hiatus, has returned on garment racks around the world with China leading the way, followed by countries like Russia, France and even India. While the exclusive and expensive mink and ermine coats had always been around, they had experienced a dip in global popularity until faux fur showed up and then fur, both faux and real, showed up with a vengeance on runways and shop windows. Today, in stores, alongside a mink you could find coats and trimmings made of rabbit fur (either from India or France) and fox fur, as well as cheap fur from the raccoon dog. While some websites might say that fur from China is the one you should be wary of, the truth is that fur from anywhere can only be obtained by acts of barbaric cruelty… it is in the nature of industry.

In fur farms, from the raccoon dog farms of China to the rabbit farms in Himachal Pradesh, and in the wild, on the ice floes of Canada where every year hundreds of baby seals are beaten to death and in the north European tundra where a fur bearing animal like a sable or fox could lie trapped in snares in the snow for days till the trapper returns and puts it out of its misery (many gnaw their own paws off and escape but then die of their wounds), everywhere, the animals are killed slowly and painfully because the pelts need to be blemish-free and the relatively more humane (if there could be such a word in this context) methods you could imagine are all likely to damage the pelt and drastically reduce the price that it would fetch. Designer labels, from Armani and Gautier to Dior and Cavalli, they all use fur, some even after having sworn they ‘won’t ever again’. You and I, we walk into those stores, run our fingers along the soft warmth of the trim, admire the elegance of the apparel and if we can afford it, we pick it up and hope to bask in the green tinged light of admiration on an appropriate occasion, refusing to think of the animal that once hid its nose in that same fur to keep itself warm; refusing to think of the monstrous and unimaginably brutal process through which that hide was snatched from its rightful owner while it thrashed about in pain so that it could reach me and feed my vanity; refusing to see the blood that reddens my hand every time I run my fingers through its unbelievable softness.

And faux fur needn’t be any better. A lot of real fur emerging out of China is a lot cheaper than faux fur and is often used on trimmings mixed with faux fur. A number of stores that claimed, and apparently believed, they were selling faux fur, were in fact selling raccoon dog fur. It was so cheap that even consumers couldn’t believe they had picked up real fur. (‘Real faux fur’ will always have a fabric base, while ‘fake faux’ will have a skin base)

Karl Langerfeld, head designer for Chanel, insists that fur is fair because it is an industry that supports so many today and it is a case of a fair battle between man and beast and one’s got to win. What do I say to such naiveté? See the video about ‘fur farms’ on and you’ll know for yourself. As for this savagery supporting an industry, well so did slavery but a President and a nation went to war for it. Knowingly or unknowingly, many amongst us would have supported this cruel trade in the past but there is no excuse now. You can’t say “I don’t want to see that gruesome video” and pretend you don’t know any better and keep buying fur because the truth is, you do… but if you still think you’ll look good only if you hang a bleeding carcass around your neck, well then maybe you really need it more than the poor animal did…

This winter, what we buy, or don’t buy, will go a small way towards strengthening or weakening an industry that posterity is bound to be ashamed of… And on such a day, how would history look back at us?


Thursday, November 12, 2009


7th November 2009: 0930 hrs: a Saturday. The alarm rings…

An arm, heavy with slumber, drops on the phone and shuts out the noise. An irritating little voice in my head screams out ‘darn, I’m late…! again…!!’ I roll over, trying to block out that voice but it was too loud… I opened my eyes and looked up at the ceiling… ‘why, oh why, can’t I sleep some more?’ I had been keeping crazy hours, staying awake till dawn chasing deadlines and doing some research over the last three-four days and had slept at about five-thirty in the morning. My body craved for a few more hours of shuteye but duty called… I had this seminar to attend. Now, most seminars, you’ll admit, on the best of days, are rather effective tranquilisers. You could struggle like a headless chicken to stay awake, but like death creeping up on the chicken, sleep will creep up on you, and before you know it, your head would be lolling in tune with the drone from the speakers… until of course your neighbour, by now also in the arms of Morpheus, nuzzles into your shoulder, tickles you with his moustache, dribbles into your ear and lets out a loud snort while snoring… So you wake up with a start, shrug him off, open your eyes wide, pinch yourself and the battle starts all over again.

So, while driving to the venue, I kept thinking up techniques I could use to keep myself awake before the sandman struck. I could pinch my eyelids, I could bite my lips till I bled and I could dream up a few ‘attractive’ possibilities to keep myself engaged… I really didn’t want to embarrass myself at the event, so with an action plan in place, I walked into the hall.

The auditorium was packed to the brim and overflowing at the exit points. By the time I fought my way in, the first panelist was in the swing of things. As I settled in as unobtrusively as possible, I saw the big banner that said, ‘The Indomitable Spirit of Survival’ in bold and had the icon of a phoenix flying across… hmm, this smelt different… refreshingly different… This seminar was celebrating the unconquerable power of the human spirit that under extraordinary circumstances forges ordinary human beings into towers of spiritual strength. As the speakers bared their heart, I forgot to blink… for why else were my eyes moist…?

Let me introduce you to these luminous lights whose stories can light up countless lives…

There were many heroes who were honoured that day at the seminar. One was Captain Mohan Singh Kohli, a veteran mountaineer and a pioneer in the realm of adventure sports, who had defied death to court glory on the highest of peaks and inspired the audience with his joie de vivre and limitless passion for adventure. Though a smart young septuagenarian today, he spoke with the unbridled joy of a boy who had run up a high cliff and jumped off the edge and into the ocean, taking in the view as he fell, and reminding himself that next time he has to do it upside down. Appetite for a challenge and a lust for “views like no other on earth” took this man up the tallest mountains and down the angriest rivers and it is that very hunger, he said, that was responsible for every great moment of discovery and self-discovery in the history of man.

Then there was this young lady who walked up to the lectern and greeted everybody with a joyful lilt in her voice. She spoke about her work as a primary school teacher living a regular life, teaching children, singing, dancing and socialising… and then she signed off with the words, “I live a very active and busy life”. The audience rose to its feet and gave her a standing ovation. That’s strange wouldn’t you think? What’s the big deal, you’d say… but if you took a closer look you would see that she had her head to one side, she spoke well but haltingly at times, and in her eyes there was a faraway look; her eyes spoke of her heart, through an expression that seemed to combine hurt, and forgiveness for those who had hurt, a love for life, a steely determination and above all a dream that one day her body and her mind would give in to her ‘indomitable spirit’… Tamanna Chona was born with cerebral palsy, an ailment that severely compromised her physical and mental abilities.

Spasticity is difficult to live with. I had imagined that to ‘normal folk’, the struggles of an autistic person to attain normalcy might not seem significant enough or might even seem to be in vain. Most live out their lives as dependent objects of pity at best, and usually as victims of derision and exploitation and worse. But that day when a ‘once autistic’ Tamanna stood in front of hundreds and declared her will to live ‘normally’ like everybody else, she was taking a stand for her own self-belief, the faith of her mentors and the call for independence, pride and dignity for all… She truly is a ‘special’ person.

Preeti Monga was next up as speaker and she is one of the most elegant people you could hope to meet. Tall and charming, she has an aura of energy around her that is both infectious and inspiring. A grandmother in her 50s, she has been a model and an aerobics instructor. Her true calling, of course, would have to be her work as a motivational speaker for her words have inspired countless people with visual disabilities like her, to yet again aspire to, and achieve the ‘holy grail’ of independence and ‘normalcy’, a gift that I’ve now learnt to cherish and be grateful for; for I doubt I would have had their courage… Perhaps disabilities (and I will not undermine their tremendous fortitude and courage in this uphill battle with fate by calling them ‘differently abled’) are tests reserved for the strong.

Finally, a tiny figure draped in white walked up to the microphone. The emcee pulled the microphone down so that she could reach it. Time had etched her face into a picture of serene strength. She spoke in Bangla with beautiful simplicity. A translator translated her story for the audience, and on more than one occasion, his voice cracked with emotion.

Suhasini Mistry, illiterate and poor, was married to a man who was dying before her very eyes. He wasn’t dying of an incurable disease but of apathy and neglect. Too poor to afford treatment at a hospital, the man died leaving Suhasini her four children and a 75 paisa inheritance. That day, that diminutive little figure while grieving for her husband, took a gigantic oath. She swore that one day, no matter how hard the challenges, she would set up a hospital where poor patients like her husband would be treated and given medicines for free. That was more than three decades ago. Today, in the village of Hanspukur stands the 35 bed Humanity Hospital, where 25000 patients are treated every year and given medicines too, all without charging the patients a penny. The hospital has 15 visiting doctors and one permanent doctor – Suhasini’s younger son. But it wasn’t an easy journey. Suhasini had to work as a labourer, a housemaid and a vegetable vendor to make ends meet. Her young children (two sons and two daughters) wanted to work but she insisted on their education. Her children studied hard in school. But after school hours they worked harder in the fields and in shops to add to their meager income. Later, when I spoke to the doctor-son, he told of a time when they would share 500 grams of rice and a couple of green chillies, over five days, between the five of them.

But all through the hardships Suhasini ensured that her children had an education, that one of them necessarily became a doctor and that from every rupee they earned, they always saved a portion for their dream hospital (even if that meant going hungry to bed).

The courage, the resilience and the fortitude of this little woman humbled all in her presence.

When pushed by a disability or a disaster, some of us oft en dig in and discover a reservoir of strength that goads us towards greatness. Such a phenomenon is inspiring, admirable but also conceivable. But what eternal flame must guide a Suhasini for her to be able to starve herself and her children for decades, to feed a dream that today has saved countless lives. At one point in her speech, she held one end of her saree and extended her arms, speaking of a time when she had to beg to keep the dream alive, and even in that moment of utter humility, she remained determined and dignified, for she begged not for herself but for a thousand strangers who live off her alms.

That was the first seminar where I saw people moved to tears. It was the first seminar where the audience, no matter what our achievements, felt dwarfed by those giants on that stage. It was the first time I emerged from an auditorium a changed man, inspired, humbled, cleansed and awake…


Thursday, November 5, 2009


Click! Click! Click!! The Mara can make a photographer out of a blind man. My last frame of the African Savannah was taken from the back of a Safari van as it sped north. It was an image that seared itself in my mind even as a dust cloud from the tyres shrouded it from view, like a magic portal closing the gates to a secret world. I looked at the image I had captured … On the screen, hemmed in by the frame, stretched a cloudless blue sky on top and an infinite plain of golden grass at the bottom. On the left hand corner, lay a large and lonely boulder. On it stood a tall and wiry man. His long and sinewy limbs seemed to have been forged by the very earth that he now stood on. A short tunic, that seemed to have been dipped and dyed in a vat of blood struggled to cover his large ebony frame and one end of it fl uttered in the wind like a proud red flag. He was a Masai – fearless lion hunters and cattle herders who live on the Mara. I flipped through the other fragments of the Masai Mara that I had gathered in my camera over the last three days. As the van sped away towards our next destination, Lake Naivasha, the straight roads and the barren landscape dulled the senses and I drifted in and out of slumber till we reached the hills. There, round a bend on the slope, I got yet another glimpse of paradise… a blue sheet of still water stretched over a soda pan – Lake Nakuru. As the soft warm light of a setting sun melted into the waters, the whole lake seemed to go up in flames of bright burning pink… flamingoes! Hundreds and thousands of them! The shallow waters were thick with these pink birds trawling the lake bed for algae… I stayed and watched the flamingoes and other wildlife till the sun slipped off the horizon and I headed for my shelter for the night – a resort at the edge of a freshwater lake nearby, Lake Naivasha.

It was a leisurely evening at the restaurant at the resort. Here it’s pertinent to mention the layout of the property. Lake Naivasha has a surface area that extends beyond 100 sq. kms and near the bank grows a thick swamp of papyrus reeds. Beyond that lies a grass bank on which sits the resort. About 50 metres from the swamp, home to crocodiles, water buffalo, waterbuck, water-birds and hippopotami, is a wire fence that keeps out the wildlife.

We were sitting in the restaurant. Outside, through the large French windows, we could see a manicured garden with a paved path illuminated with torches running past the pool and disappearing into the darkness. Further away past the dark shadows of the swamps, we could see the waters of the lake, reflecting the last retreating rays of a set sun. It was rather quiet, but for the occasional clutter of stainless steel scraping china and the gentle jabber of tired tourists.

Then I noticed that the Spaniard sitting across my table was looking rather odd. He had his mouth open and his hand had brought a forkful of spaghetti right up to his lips but his hand and his mouth had frozen, his gaze transfixed on something behind me. I turned to follow his gaze. And I kid you not, I blinked twice before I could believe what I was seeing… In the lawn, metres away from the entrance to the restaurant, was a gigantic hippopotamus. A Japanese couple, hand in hand, had just walked out of the door for an evening stroll and right before my eyes almost bumped into the behemoth. The woman screamed and the man froze… expressions straight out of the Godzilla movies. Then the two of them stumbled and turned and ran back inside, screaming… hearing their screams, attendants ran out and even before they’d reached the door, spied the beast and stopped short. Hurriedly, they closed the door that opened onto the lawns and asked guests to leave from the other side and head for their rooms. Some of us stayed back and followed the security staff that had been called in to try and shoo the monster away.

Before I proceed with the story, here’s a perspective for those who might wonder why people were running scared of what looks like an overgrown pig and is basically a harmless vegetarian. Well, this ‘harmless vegetarian’ is in fact labeled ‘the most dangerous animal in Africa’, responsible for far more human casualties than lions, leopards or elephants. Weighing more than 4000 kgs (that’s two Hummers placed on top of each other… and with khukris for teeth), and with jaws that can snap a man in two, hippos seem to topple boats and bite off human limbs with the sort of casual disdain with which we stomp on cockroaches. And they are most aggressive when they find a man between them and the water…

There was mayhem all around. “Kiboko (hippo in swahili)! Kiboko (hippo)!!” screamed the hotel staff. Guests would run a short distance, start clicking and when the hippo trundled towards them, run and scream some more before stopping to shoot again. Meanwhile, the hotel employees didn’t know who to shoo away first – the wayward kiboko or their wayward guests. After a lot of “ha-ing” and ‘hoo-ing’, they managed to herd the hippo away from the lawns and declared the way to the cottages ‘safe’.

I was hurrying towards my cottage when a great grey shadow, like a ghost, glided past the bushes on my right and emerged on the pathway, less than two metres away and right in front. Cold sweat trickled down the nape of my neck as the hippo blocked the path to the cottage, looking at me with its tiny beady eyes and spinning its tail like a fan as it sprayed the pathway with dung. Done with dumping, it moved off the path and into the shadows again. I didn’t move. I couldn’t see in the dark and didn’t want to bump into to the beast. After a while, I heard someone drop a tray and scream, followed by loud voices. So the hippo had moved away… I jogged off towards the cottage.

Tucked in bed, I ruminated over the evening’s adventure and shuddered at the thought of what might have been. I turned off the lights and went off to sleep. Sometime later in the night, I woke up. The cottage had a frameless glass double-door that opened onto the lawn. I had left the curtains open. From my bed, in the soft white light of a full moon, I could see the lawns extending into the shadows of the swamp and a light mist gathering along the grass, like a cotton carpet. I got up to draw the curtains. As I neared the glass pane, I pressed my nose against it and stared into the night. The hippo was out there somewhere. They said it had never happened before; that it was an old male, driven out of the lake by a younger male. I sent out a silent prayer, hoping that no would run into the surly old fellow in the dark. Having drawn the curtains, as I turned towards the bed I heard something rustling outside. Instinctively, I sat down and peered through the curtains…

Whoa! Staring right in my face, mere inches away, separated by a glass door no more than an inch thick, was the enormous head of Africa’s greatest killer. I could hear those lips chomping grass and see the vapour escape from his nostrils. I exhaled with a shudder. The hippo stopped grazing from the edge of my threshold and looked into my eyes. I held my breath; his ears twitched and for an eternal moment we stared into each other’s eyes, trying to read the other’s mind. My head was racing… even if the hippo was to belch into the door, I suspected the glass door would come crashing down. For some reason, the hotel had the good sense to provide a sturdy wooden door to the bathroom and I started calculating if I would have the time to make it to the bath in time if the glass-door came down. The hippo must have been doing its own calculations. It kept staring. I stopped thinking, losing myself in this intimate moment with a wild animal. I was close enough to count its long eye lashes. I wanted to touch its muzzle and wondered how the hippo might react… I was scared, I was excited, I was enthralled! The hippo stood there, as if waiting for me to make the next move; to remove that barrier and make contact. I gently opened the latch… but I couldn’t muster the courage to open the door. The hippo kept looking, waiting… and then it blinked, wiggled its ears and slowly walked away towards a bush under my window. The spell was broken. I slowly opened the door. A cool breeze wafted in and I could smell the hippo… I sat down ever so slowly on the floor. The hippo threw a sideways glance but kept on grazing, just a few feet away… and that’s how we remained, long into the night….