Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Hoping for Hippos in the Okavango Panhandle

Ngepi Camp, Caprivi Region, Namibia

You get a lot of advice while traveling in Africa: some of it useful, some of it not. Sitting in a tiny, unsteady canoe on the Okavango River, I believed my last piece of advice, delivered in heavily-accented, broken English from our Hambukushu guide could prove the most useful advice yet. “If you in water by hippo, go away from boat. If you in water by croc, go to boat.”

The Okavango River runs east to west along the border between Angola and Namibia, before heading south and draining into an inland delta inside Botswana. The bush camps inside the Okavango delta in Botswana are only accessible by charter flights, and therefore tourists with thick wallets. The Okavango delta panhandle, in the Caprivi Region of Namibia is accessible by 2WD Kias, and poorer tourists…namely us.

Ngepi Camp is one of the larger, more established camps on the panhandle. It is famous for its environmentally conscious practices, lively bar, and hundreds of hippos. Hippos are responsible for more deaths in African than any other species, and hippos are the most territorial of all animals. Ngepi is built inside hippo territory, and its boat tours are famous for coming into direct, and sometimes dangerous contact with the animals. Meg and I think both hoped for some hippo excitement as we pulled onto the Okavango floodplain and into Ngepi Camp.

Our campsite lay at the north end of the camp, atop of a steep six-foot bank overlooking the Okavango River. The campsites next to us were vacant while we set up our tent, but within the hour a pickup truck backed into the campsite next to us. The truck was full of Dutch bird enthusiasts, and piloted by a jovial South African tour guide. I asked the guide about the likelihood of seeing hippos, and he said we would probably see many of them in the river during the day, and certainly hear them at night. He also said that we had a great camping location because the steep riverbank at our feet was too steep for the hippos to climb. Nice to know.

Meg and I lunched at the campsite and kept our eyes on the opposite bank for hippos. The first hippo we saw was rock. The second rock we saw was a hippo that eventually dove into the river with a great splash. Then, after noon one hippos broke the tranquility of the setting with a series of tremendous grunts that sounded like a 2-stroke engine sputtering to a stop. The hippo was answered, a minute later, by another series of staccato grunts. The volley continued, but the range of noises increased; sometimes the hippos sounded like bellowing cows, sometimes likes trumpeting elephants.

At sunset the hippos became even more vocal. As we cooked our camp meal of pasta and sauce we watched their silhouettes emerge in groups from the grassy plain across the river and slide into the water. Their communications grew as the night wore on, and their deep grunts came across the water and reached our tent in full force. We both laughed at the strange noises that lulled us to sleep, comfortable in the fact that they could not climb the steep bank with their stunted legs.

Just after sunrise the following morning Meg and I met our guide for the river tour. He was standing on the bank of the river, and greeted us with a warm smile. He was very thin and very dark, and introduced himself as Potso. He handed us bright orange life jackets and waved for us to follow him down the sandy bank to a row of small, brown canoes resting on the side of the Okavango River.

A watu is narrow boat made from the carved out trunk of a tree that resembles a small canoe. It has been lifeblood of the Caprivi tribes for thousands of years, supplying them with food, transportation, and economic stability. However, as I wedge myself into the thin narrow dugout, I feel anything but stable. The boat rolled from one side to the other with every slight movement I made. I gripped the smooth side of the canoe to steady myself and my fingers dipped into the water inches below its rim.

When Meg and I were settled, Potso jumped into the stern of the boat, dug his paddle into the sandy bottom, and pushed us backwards into the Okavango River. After turning the boat into the current, and heading upstream, he began his safety lesson for the day.
“If you in water by hippo, go away from boat. If you in water by croc, go to boat. Okay?”
Meg turned around from the bow of the boat to look at me, her excited face framed by the large orange rectangle of life jacket.

Potso stood in the back of the boat as he skillfully paddled the watu along the slow current of the river’s edge. He kept his eyes on the bank of the river, searching for wildlife in the tall reeds, and only spoke when he saw an animal. Initially there were only birds. Meg was unimpressed by the herons and kingfishers, and I could almost hear the sighs in her head as she deliberately ignored the guide’s demonstrations and scanned the water for the hippos and crocs she wanted to see.

Around the first bend, just beyond the boundaries of Ngepi Camp, Meg saw the first hippo. It was a bull, and he was in the water with its round gray back, and bulbous head above the water. The hippo guarded the center of the river just in front of a sand island. Potso did not stop paddling, and the watu slid towards it.

The hippo knew we were coming. It had been facing us when we rounded the bend, and he continued to watch us as the watu slid silently towards it. Potso whispered as we passed drew just twenty feet from its head. “Stay quiet. This hippo like to attack watu. Hippo does no see blue color, so local people have blue watu to make hippo confuse.” Our watu was brown.

After we passed the hippo Potso turned the watu towards the sand island behind it. The current immediately took hold of the watu and pulled us sideways towards the hippo. Potso leaned into the current and dug his thin, wooden paddle into the water fiercely to keep us away from him. The hippo grunted a warning to us, and soon we were in the calm water behind the island and moving beyond him. He did not attack, and we did not have to “go away from boat.”

In the far channel, behind the island was a herd of hippos lazing in shallow water. There were about ten of them, mostly adults, and a few adolescents. They were more intimidated by us than the male, and charged towards the far side of the river as we turned the corner with a huge commotion of lumbering hippos, open mouths and waves of white water.

Potso pulled the boat onto a sandbar that extended from the island and we got out of the watu to watch them. Once we were on land, the herd became more relaxed, believing that we were at a safe distance. They rested comfortable in the water near each other, and occasionally breached to open their huge jaws in what seemed to be yawning motions. Sometimes they would blow huge plumes of water from their nostrils that resembled spouting whales.

We examined their deep, three-toed footprints in the sand on the beach and I wondered about their awesome power. Potso explained that the males were larger and darker than the females, and that there could only be one male per group. Sons of the dominant male were threats to him, and would leave herd at before maturity, only return to challenge for dominance and the right to mate with his relatives.

Meg and I could have watched them all day, but after twenty minutes we were directed back to the watu. Potso paddled us back across the channel in front of the male, and dug into the water to re-cross the channel. While digging into the water he pointed his chin to the direction we were heading, and said, “croc.”

The croc was lying on the muddy bank, its body and tail out of the water, its head lying flat on the surface in the slow current. It was about ten feet long, and a dark greenish gray color. Potso pulled the boat directly towards it. When we were ten feet away from it, it slid quickly into the river, and disappeared. Potsotso kept paddling for the spot it was lying, and turned the boat downstream where the croc had entered the water. It was directly under us, somewhere in the murky green water. The watu suddenly felt even more unstable and small.

“Croc is not danger now. In wet season you have worry for croc. They take many animals from the village. No now. Too cold.”

The watu slid easily back downstream towards the camp, and passed the male hippo and another herd of hippo without incident. Beyond the southern boundary of the camp Potso crossed the Okavango River again before turning upstream on the opposite bank, along the Caprivi National Park. Along this bank we completed our viewing of the ‘African Big Five’ by catching a glimpse of a male water buffalo hiding in the tall reeds. We also saw a troupe of vervet, or blue-balled, monkeys lounging under a huge acacia tree.

I think Meg and I were both a little disappointed that we did not come face-to-face with an annoyed hippo, but perhaps we should be glad. Many hippo encounters do not end well, and we can tempt fate another day.


  1. I love hippos. My new favorite animal! Nice stuff Todd and Meg. What an adventure!

  2. A good read! I'm in Namibia and am currently on my way to paddle down the Okavango so it was nice to read a bit about it.. :)