The hypnotic silence of that crisp winter’s night exploded with incomparable force. Thunderous impacts and lightning-like cracks sent forth tremors that stunned us as we lay awake and motionless on the ground near the epicenter. The devastating blows temporarily ceased, replaced by guttural gurgles and heavy breathing. Apart from the frightful proximity to camp, I could not comprehend what was taking place beyond the tent fabric. Consequently, it was my responsibility as lead Trails Guide to crawl out of my tent and inspect our circumstances.
The assistant Trails Guide André and I were rather pleased by our camp site selection earlier that day. It would be difficult to beat that pristine location on the bank of the dry Mphongolo River in northern Kruger National Park. Situated in the center of an open terrace, a few large trees suggested a serene ‘island’ where we could rest for the first night of our backpack Trail. André set his tent up next to mine, while the eight guests kept the camp compact and to our right. There was a cheerful banter around camp as light rapidly faded and the concept of three self-sufficient nights under African skies became tangible. We had become participants in a wild and unpredictable environment once more.
As I moved out of the tent to investigate our situation, I was confronted by two Hippopotamus bulls that had decided to sort out their differences less than three meters from the closest tent. There they stood, four tons of energy, locked together by tusk-filled gapes. The goliaths took up a substantial amount of space and I was terrified. I feared for the safety of our guests that lay trapped in their tents and the very real possibility of them being trampled. No sooner had I processed this worrisome scenario when the intense tusk lashing and body blows continued. The steamroller was back in motion with no consideration for the immediate landscape, which included our camp. In the bright glow of a full moon, one bull snagged his opponent’s lower jaw and raised his front legs off the ground much like a front end loader scooping a shipping container. Control was steadily lost and the partly elevated Hippo tumbled back to the ground clattering onto his side causing our already troubled camp to tremble. It caused one of the pre-briefed guests to break the anxious, but nevertheless instructed muteness. “I can’t see anything, what on Earth is going on out there?” I could not have scripted a more undesirable state of affairs if I tried. The two evenly matched Hippos had locked jaws again and momentum started turning for the worse.
They were heading directly for André’s tent. He had been watching the clash of titans through his mesh screen up to this point, but decided that it was a good time to join me outside. Due to dwindling space between the Hippo bulls and the conventional tent exit, Andre had to create a ‘back door’ with his knife to reach my side. “This is ridiculous” he whispered as we each loaded a round from the magazine box into the chamber of our rifles. I was hesitant to switch on the bright torch that was attached to my rifle barrel as I anticipated it would force a negative response from the Hippos. Up to this point, they had completely disregarded our presence, being totally focused on one another. The last thing we wanted to do is react to a quick change of variables given such limited time and space. All that we could do now was wait.
“Once the Hippo touches your tent, we will have to shoot” I told André. I was already lining up a brain shot on the animal retreating towards me, which was desperately trying to regain control. Considering my line of fire, the solid bullet would pass through the head of my target, but also penetrate the body of the advancing bull. “You will have to kill the Hippo furthest away from us once my shot goes off” I instructed André as they moved closer still. Allowing a shot and wounded animal to move away from such an incident is both dangerous and unethical. It was now a matter of meters between the Hippos and André’s modified tent. I had a great sense of reluctance to squeeze the trigger. Trails Guides have no intention to kill animals. In fact, they pride themselves by never ending up in a situation where they have to do so. The firearms they carry provide an absolute last resort against injury or death. Most Trails Guides never need to use them. Yet, there we stood on the verge of killing two Hippo bulls to prevent them from bulldozing into our camp.
At less than two meters away from André’s tent the momentum miraculously started to turn, so did our luck. Fortunately the retreating bull started steering his challenger away from our camp with a convincing jaw lock. They crashed off and did some bush clearing some 30 meters off. The rumpus continued for more than two hours, but as time passed so too did the distance between the engrossed beasts and our humbled camp.
There was obviously a great sense of relief once the threat had passed. Our guests crawled out from their tents and started unpacking their thoughts and uncertainties about this extraordinary encounter. “Why did you not shoot, they were right on top of us?” one guest exclaimed. I believed that it was worth giving them the benefit of the doubt, I replied.
The early morning rays revealed the intensity of the battle. Apart from deep and heavy gouge marks in the hard Earth, frothy blood lay everywhere. All of it was way too close for comfort. When Hippopotamuses fight, it is the Trails Guide’s confidence that suffers.