There’s a hippo outside my tent. It’s been there, ten, twenty, thirty minutes; maybe longer. I can’t tell. Does the hippo know I’m here? Inside this tent, in South Luangwa National Park? It mustn’t. It’d go nuts if it knew I was here, less than ten metres away, separated from it by just a thin canvas wall. Lie back down. Go to sleep. Try to slow my heart. Try to calm down. Go to sleep.
South Luangwa National Park
I’m camping. By myself. In South Luangwa National Park.
I came to this part of the world to see one animal in particular: African Hunting Dogs. I arrived only to discover I’m here at the wrong time of year. The Dogs have just had pups. They’ll be holed up with their litter for another few weeks.
No Dogs then. No matter. There are plenty of other animals to see in South Luangwa NP. In the last two days I’ve spotted lions, leopards, kudu, Thornicroft’s Giraffes, Crawshay’s Zebras, hyenas, and the cute, half striped, half spotted genet. And hippos, of course. Plenty of them around.
The campground I’m staying in backs onto the Luangwa River. Stand at the top of the riverbank and you’ll see a herd of hippo, no matter what time of day. Herd? More like a pod. A pod of whales. A pod of floating, bloated sacs; ever moaning, groaning, sighing; occasionally raising an enormous block-shaped head, jaws stretched wide apart; a terrifying demonstration of size and might. On the muddy shore: storks. Black Storks. Saddle-billed Storks. Yellow-billed Storks. African Openbill Storks.
Running along the sandy riverbank: families of wart hogs, grubby from rolling in the dry, silty sand.
Swimming beside the hippos, among the hippos: Nile Crocodiles. And in the morning, and sometimes late afternoon: fishermen, perched in precariously-narrow dugout canoes. One little nudge from a croc, or a hippo, and in they go. Blip. They’re underwater. Never seen again. Fishermen go missing all the time. It makes me nervous just watching them.
The river is the hippo’s home during the day, but at some point in the night they haul themselves out of the mud, climb the river bank, tramp through the trees, and make their way to their feeding ground of choice: a grassy bog, on the far side of the campground. The path they take? A clearing through the trees, a clearing that some thoughtful person has erected my tent alongside.
‘We put the tents there because the elephants and hippos pass by in the night,’ the lodge manager – there’s a lodge not far from the campsite – informs me over breakfast. ‘The tents are there for our more adventurous guests of South Luangwa, those who want an up close and personal experience.’
It would have been nice to know that beforehand. I chose to stay in a tent because it was the cheapest option, not because I was after adventure. I might have declined the tent if I’d known it was on the edge of a hippo highway. I guess that explains why I am the only one in the campsite.
‘Have you ever stayed in a tent?’ I ask the lodge manager.
‘Yes,’ the rotund Zambian replies. ‘I stayed in the tent one time, shortly after we installed them, because I wished to see an elephant up close. It was a dream of mine. To see it, not from the inside of a car, you understand? So I take one of the tents, one of the tents at the very edge of the clearing, like you have, and I go to sleep. Then, I hear the elephants trumpeting at some point in the night, and I wake up.’
I nod. I heard elephants trumpeting outside my tent last night as well. I thought they were a safe distance away, off in the dense vegetation of South Luangwa. I didn’t realise they were going to be standing outside my front door.
‘So I get out of bed, and open the tent door. Just from the bottom. Very quietly. Like this.’ He mimes slowly, carefully unzipping the tent flap. ‘And then, when I get the tent door open just a little, I see the elephant legs right outside my tent. You understand? I cannot see the body of the elephant. It is too close. Just the legs. Honestly, I just see the legs. Right there. So close I can touch them.’
The lodge manager is excited by the memory. His stubby thighs are bouncing up and down, his eyes have lit up.
‘And I freeze,’ he laughs. ‘I slowly put down the tent door, I don’t zip it; I get back into bed, I close my eyes, and I try to sleep, but I am shaking. Like this.’ He shows me his vibrating hands.
‘And that was it? You never did it again?
‘Once is enough.’ The lodge manager, smiling, chuckling, shakes his head wistfully.
Night One in the tent was, as a whole, comfortable. I paid no mind to the noises of the jungle. I knew there were animals out there, but I was tired, I was fast asleep. I’d be woken up by a noise, but immediately fall asleep again. I jumped up once, when a baboon landed on the tent, but even that didn’t keep me up for long.
Night Two is a different story. Now I know I’m camped on a hippo highway. It’s exciting. I know the hippos will be there, tens of them, scores maybe, passing right outside my tent. I should take a peep.
The night got off to a bad start. I had dinner in the lodge. That part was fine. Then the lodge manager insisted a ranger escort me back to my tent, a high-power spotlight used to search every bush and tree on the way. It takes ten minutes to reach the campsite.
This is different. Last night I was allowed to wander back alone, using just my feeble head torch to light the way. What has changed since?
Had someone spotted an animal prowling the grounds? A lion? A leopard? A hippo?
The ranger escorts me to the edge of the campsite, then turns and scampers back to the lodge.
Wait! I have questions. But he is gone.
What about accessing the toilet block during the night? It’s only a fifty-metre walk, but is it safe? And why is he leaving me at the edge of the campsite, instead of taking me all the way to my tent? The jungle inside the campground looks identical to the jungle outside the campground. Do the lions know the campsite is off-limits?
I am, once again, the only person in the campsite, the only one out here in the jungle. Everyone else is sheltering behind the thick walls of the lodge.
I enter the tent, roll up the window nearest my sleeping mat, lie down, and sleep.
I wake up. How much time has passed? Did a noise wake me? What time is it?
I prop myself on my elbow, take a look out the window. I don’t expect to see anything, but there, right in the middle of the easement, is a hippo. It’s about thirty metres away, its head down to the ground, nibbling on the grass. Unbelievable!
I watch for a minute. The hippo continues to feed, its head at ground level. It moves one leg forward, continues to eat. A dark mound in the night.
I lay back down, return to sleep.
I wake up. Did a noise wake me? Was I even asleep? I can’t tell. Take another look out the window.
There’s a hippo out there; I’m pretty sure it’s the same one, only it’s a little closer. It’s shuffled around so that it’s facing my tent. Each step it takes brings it closer to me.
I lie back down. Close my eyes.
Did time just pass? Did I sleep? I’m fatigued, woozy, confused.
Where’s the hippo?
It’s still there, bathed in shadow, head fixed to the ground. It takes another step towards me
I lay down, focus on the ceiling of the tent.
The tent goes monochromatic; light begins strobing through the window as if from a lightning storm. I look out the window. The hippo is beside the tent, right there, its face pressing up against the window, its gigantic, baleful eye level with mine.
I wake up. I dreamt that last bit. Am I awake now? Hard to tell.
The hippo is still outside, but it is feeding silently, placidly, showing no sign of embarking upon a murderous rampage.
It’s really close now though. Just five metres away.
Five metres is too close for a hippo. It looks peaceful, but humans and hippos don’t mix. It’d go berserk if it suddenly realised I was here. Better remain completely silent.
What if I sneeze? What if my phone goes off? What if I just woke up and left the tent to go to the toilet block, not knowing there was a hippo there? Instant death?
I’m getting carried away. Just lie back down. Go to sleep. It’ll move on soon.
Can’t sleep. My heart is beating too fast.
I sneak another peek, only lifting my head just high enough to confirm the location of the hippo, not wanting to alert it to my presence. I make out the enormous mound of its back. So close now. It takes another step towards me. Is it coming towards me deliberately? Does it know I’m here? Can it smell me?
No. Go to sleep. Lie down. Sleep. Sleep.
Can’t sleep. Sit up. The hippo is just two metres away. I can hear it chewing. I can hear it breathing. It’s too close. I can’t deal with this anymore.
Lie down. Close your eyes. Go to sleep. Slow down heart. Slow down heart. Slow. Slow… slow… slow…
I wake up. The roof of the tent is bouncing up and down; several small depressions, made from tiny, human-like hands, at the source. A baboon. It jumps into the trees.
A snuffling at the door. Not a hippo, something smaller, something dog-sized. A hyena, maybe? I hope so. If a hyena is there it means the hippo is gone.
Slowly, cautiously, I pull myself up onto my elbow. I look out the window.
I see an empty easement bathed in still moonlight.
Relief. Sweet relief.
I’ve learnt my lesson. I know what to do tomorrow night. Keep the window flap down. Ignore the jungle noises. Remain blissfully unaware. Ignorance is the key to a good night’s rest in South Luangwa National Park.
Practical information on South Luangwa National Park:
South Luangwa National Park is in east Zambia’s Luangwa River valley.