It was in the recent past that I was reading an interesting article by Kingsley Holgate where mention was made of the ‘seven pebble’ story which equates to a man’s active life, whereby each pebble denotes a 10-year bracket. On my last trip to Botswana in November 2008 I stopped at a bridge crossing the Boro River just outside Maun and picked up pebble no.7.
The story I am about to tell took place in the early 80’s just west of Chief’s Island deep in the magnificent Okavango swamps. The early morning mist over our lagoon lay like a sleeping giant just above the water’s surface and around the edge was a myriad of insects dancing to the ‘Phantom of the Opera’. It was mid-winter and my group of three couples from Durban were reluctant to leave the warmth of their sleeping bags. The night before had been punctuated by lion roars on Chief’s Island and it was decided that we would make an early start and take our boat to a point closer to where the lion activity emanated from. The chance of finding them was somewhat remote but not out of the realms of possibility.
The lid of the rampant kettle began to rattle like Dlamini’s taxi exhaust going through the sound barrier. In my experience some people get going easily and others need three heaps of caffeine to kick start their day. On this occasion everyone was eager to see what lay ahead. Little knowing what a close call was in store for these intrepid adventures. We were on the water at around 5.30am heading in the general direction of whichever channel was to take us closer to our intended rendezvous with the big cats. The silence on board was only broken by the sound of our outboard churning us upstream. Joseph our river guide was happily picking his way through this maze of channels like he had an inbuilt G.P.S.
We were all deep in thought waiting for the sun’s warmth to have the desired effect when I happened to go to the front of the boat to see a ‘bow wave’ in the water about 20 metres ahead of us, thankfully heading away from the boat. In that moment I said to Joseph what did he think it was and he remarked that it was either a crocodile or a gust of wind on the water. In that moment the tranquility was suddenly broken as the said bow wave turned into a most irate hippo that came up under our aluminum boat with enormous force picking the back end up and in so doing unseating our river guide who fortunately was catapulted on to a floating raft of papyrus, wide-eyed and shaking uncontrollably with fear.
At this moment I ran for the back of the boat hoping to open the throttle and steer us away from the next onslaught. On my way I caught a brief glimpse on the ashen faces of my frightened young adventurers, asking for some form of guidance – to which all I could really say was hold onto the boat.
No sooner had I said this when the next deafening collision happened – this time on the side of the boat, tipping it perilously to one side and because I had been standing. I was sent head first into the water along with one of the young wives of the group. All I can remember at that point was looking back whilst treading water only to see the front of the boat way out of the water and the rest of the party hanging on to one part or another prior to the boat sinking into eight feet of water and everybody scrambling to the relative safety of floating papyrus. The weight of a human on the rafts however caused them to sink slowly which can be a tad unnerving as this area is known for its large crocodiles.
It took a while for everyone to recover from the initial shock and to take stock of the situation. A sunken boat for eight people, busily treading water – the nearest bit of dry land about 500 meters away and forty-eight hours by water to the nearest help. It’s at times like this you wished you were in a dull 9-5 routine in the middle of the concrete jungle, instead of out here where things tend to bite, and you are in this wild environment.
Anyway, back to the story – I heard a snort of expelling air from further upstream which signaled that Humphrey was happy with his handiwork and hopefully would continue to wallow as these large beasts are known to do until you catch him on a ‘bad hair day’. One of the guys wives was sobbing out of control which although I fully understood under the circumstances I didn’t want to attract the hippo’s attention to our plight.
There was no alternative but to attempt to pull the boat up. If you have ever tried to bring a sunken 15–20-foot boat to the surface, then you will now the meaning ‘damn nigh’ impossible. On the count of three my volunteers, you, you, and you will inch the boat up the slant of the papyrus. After interminable efforts of breaths, rests, and continuing encouragement we finally managed to get the rim of the boat clear of the water. Whilst our river guide, Joseph kept a watch for the girls and any danger that may be lurking.
What I didn’t understand was as much as we baled the water out the level wasn’t dropping. My heart sank to by now my blue crinkled feet as I felt the bottom only to discover five enormous holes made by the hippo as he bit the boat. Now what!!? It’s not normal for a shy bushman like me to ask people to take their clothes off but hell what else are we going to plug the five holes with. We had lost everything including all the cameras and outboard motors in a matter of a few minutes. We literally only had what we were wearing.
With great effort managed to plug the holes as best I could and to everyone’s disbelief our little ship was once more afloat albeit temporarily. The fact that we were going downstream was a great help, but before leaving the spot I decided I would have to come back and dive for the cameras and small auxiliary outboard that we could clearly see at the bottom. The stunned silence as we edged our way down was the result of our near-death brush with nature and the post traumatic shock that was inevitable. The first object we were to encounter on the trip back to the island was the red petrol tank. So that’s why they paint them red? The next especially useful piece of equipment was the long pole all these river people use to propel their Mokoro’s. This was amazing and made the trip more possible.
On reaching our camp there was a huge sigh as ‘terra-firma’ was for the first time that day felt underfoot. Joseph and I dismantled the outboard as best we would and dried out all the parts that of course were by now totally waterlogged. Can you imagine our relief as the engine fired and burst into life? We were still 2 days by boat from Crocodile camp which was our base camp. This without any motor was a daunting trip.
It was then time the river guide and I had to head back upstream to the spot and attempt to recover all the goods. To say we were both apprehensive was an understatement, but this was our responsibility and we had to do it in the name of guiding people through Africa. Don’t tell anybody but I actually quite enjoyed it. Must be bl….. bush happy or something.
Fortunately, when we reached the spot Humphrey was not to be seen and I managed to recover all the cameras, outboard and one of my shoes – amazingly the other had got stuck in the boat during our ordeal. Can you imagine the silly questions people would ask in Maun if they saw me walking around in one shoe?
When we got back, we could hear laughter emanating from our rustic camp only to find our five days’ supply of alcoholic beverage was receiving a severe pounding from the bedraggled, shell shocked crew who by now were giggling hysterically to release the tension of the last few hours!!
We managed to get back to crocodile camp without further incident. However, every Mokoro paddler that we passed got the fully embellished story and by bush telegraph reached our base camp before we did!
Crocodile camp was abuzz when we arrived and the then owner (manager Tony Graham) said he was amazed that we had all survived this hippo encounter. We went onto Savuti where we had an amazing lion experience, but that is another story for another day.
N.B. the photo’s that accompany this article were taken with the cameras that I retrieved from eight foot of water.
Thank you Mr. Nikon!!