Hippo Highways: Day 2 of our Walking Safari

Hippo in the Luangwa River Yawns

In the late afternoons, hippos yawn A LOT. After spending most of the day in the water, they’re having an oxygen deprivation issue. Photograph, Cat Gassiot.

Sausage tree on the banks of a lagoon in South Luangwa National Park in Zambia

A sausage tree on the banks of a lagoon. It won’t be long before this lagoon dries out. Photograph, Ann Fisher

The first night in Luangwa Bush Camp (LBC), a camp that moves location each evening, our tents had been on the banks of the Luangwa river.

After a light breakfast and some coffee, we left for our second day of walking. Before long, we were skirting a lagoon. In South Luangwa, these come and go with the rainy season — and this lagoon was ribboning down to a slender line of green.

By the time August comes around, it will be completely gone until the rains return. At this point though, we still needed the makeshift log bridge Braston had laid across at the beginning of the season.

Log bridge across a lagoon, South Luangwa National Park, Zambia

Our guide, Braston, gives Carolyn a hand across the makeshift bridge. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Hippo Highways

All animals make tracks, and many create trails. On our three days of walking safari in the Luangwa Bush Camp with Robin Pope Safaris, we developed a special appreciation for hippos.

When you’re the third largest land mammal in the world, you don’t make trails. Trails are for sissies, um . . . antelope. Hippos — hippos make HIGHWAYS.

Why do three women from Texas love Hippo Highways? Because in Africa, even flat isn’t flat!

Uneven ground in Luangwa National Park caused by elephant tracks

The terrain can be challenging. Even “flat” ground is often heavily pockmarked with deep animal tracks, and you find yourself carefully picking your way through. Good hiking boots with ankle support are a MUST! Photograph, Ann Fisher.

We were not in a mountainous or even hilly part of the continent, but to assume that a flat savannah is indeed flat is to grossly underestimate what a herd of elephant or buffalo can do to a swathe of mud.

Once the rains finish for the season, the mud hardens into fields of deeply pockmarked concrete. Walking across these spaces requires constant concentration and balance.

But when you find a hippo highway through a field like the one above, they have pounded all that stuff flat. Yes, a living, breathing bulldozer of an animal weighing 3,000 to 9,000 pounds (1,360 – 4,082 kilograms) can pretty much flatten anything!

Hippo in a lagoon in South Luangwa National Park.

I may look funny, but I’m BIG, I’m BAD, and I’m just sayin’ — don’t be messing with hippos! Photograph, Cat Gassiot.

Show Us Some Respect! A Few Hippo Facts
Length: 10.8 to 16.5 feet (3.3 to 5 m)

Height: up to 5.2 feet (1.6 m) tall, from hooves to shoulders

Average female weighs 3,000 lbs (1,400 kg)

Males weigh 3,500 to 9,920 lbs. (1600-4,500 kg)

Lifespan: 40 to 50 years

They can remain underwater for up to 6 minutes at a time.

Speed: up to 19 mph (32 kph), on land

Razor sharp tusks

3rd largest mammal on the planet (Elephants & White Rhino are larger)

They live in social groups called “pods” or “bloats,” — average size of 15 hippos, with one dominant male.

In dry periods, pods may be forced to live right next to one another, in groups of up to 40 — causing a lot of fights between males.

They’re aggressive, considered to be the most dangerous animal in Africa. Hippos kill app. 2,900 humans each year.

Hippo highway from the Luangwa river up and over the steep bank.

Hippo highway from the Luangwa river up and over the steep bank. Hippo highways are perfect human trails for traversing steep banks of rivers and oxbow lakes. Photograph, Carolyn Fisher.

Hippos leave the rivers and lagoons each evening, traveling as far as five miles, and spend four to five hours grazing. As they do so, they forge massive trails to get over river banks.

They consume around 80 lbs. of vegetation overnight, which is not much, considering their body mass. Since they live sedentary lives, spending more than 16 hours each day standing in the water and sleeping on river banks, they can get by with this modest quantity.

Often they are far from the river, and because they hold their heads down when they walk, “seeing” their way home doesn’t really work. They mark their trails with droppings — and as an unusual hippo hallmark, they spread their poo out, making a strong scent signal that helps them find their way back to their lagoon or river quickly.

Nile Cabbage in South Luangwa National Park.

Braston shows us some Nile cabbage and other aquatic plants the hippos drag with them. One of the great parts of being on a walking safari is getting to touch and hold things like this. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

As they leave the lagoons, hippos often drag great clumps of Nile cabbages out, trailing their long roots along with them. We watched baboons, puku, and impala enjoying these leave-behinds several times.

Our Day

The early morning was sunny with a cloudless sky, and after leaving the lagoon and following a hippo highway across a field of elephant tracks, we found a troop of baboons underneath ebony trees, playing and feeding.

In the near distance, a small herd of elephants grazed on trees and shrubs. We stood and watched for some time. Two juvenile elephants were near the baboons, much closer to us than the family.

The baboons were occupied with baboon things — grooming, the young playing, the males staying alert for signs of predators. We were content to stay and watch for as long as we could — for as long as we remained downwind of the elephants. Sure enough, when the breeze shifted, and the adult females smelled us, one crossed the small field quickly, concerned for the youngsters. It was time for us to walk on.

Elephants and baboons South Luangwa National Park Zambia.

We stood and watched the baboons and the young elephants until the wind shifted — and the protective mother hurried to find out about the human smell. Photographs, Cat Gassiot

Luangwa Bush Camp Robin Pope Safaris

Our second location for our bush camp was in a grove of large mahogany trees. Here you’re looking toward the dining table and full bar in the background. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

By the time we arrived at our second camp in a grove of mahogany trees, the morning breeze had gone still, and it was warm — we’d had a sweaty end to the walk.

We tossed our day packs around the campaign table and had a look about the new camp.

I dug into the bar’s ice chest and came up with the perfect antidote to hot and sweaty: a Windhoek Lager beer. Cat and Carolyn settled in to visit and review the pictures, then Braston rejoined us after checking that everything was ship-shape with the new camp site.

It wasn’t long before Boniface was ready to serve lunch, which was outstanding as usual.

Windhoek Lager beer from Namibia

Windhoek beer from Namibia. Very good! Photograph, Carolyn Fisher.

After lunch comes siesta time, and my sister, my daughter and I quickly found that this was the best time of day for a shower. What does a shower look like on a walking safari with Robin Pope? Better than anything I’ve had camping!

The shower screen was sturdy and private, and on the ground was a raised platform covered with a bamboo mat so that you weren’t standing in mud. The shower came from an Igloo container attached to a rope and slung over a sturdy branch. The camp team brought heated water and filled the Igloo for each of us, and a great rain water shower head rigged under the Igloo let you control water. I’m SO spoiled now that I may never go back to camping on my own!

I took a long nap after my shower, and woke for afternoon tea ready for the second walk. Clouds had rolled in while we were sleeping, and the afternoon was breezy and cooler.

The afternoon walk took us first along an oxbow lake that was once the main channel of the Luangwa river. We found groups of bachelor hippos in the pockets of water that hadn’t yet disappeared. Our presence startled one of them, and he came charging up the bank and trotted swiftly away. It is startling to see how fast this guy moved!

Catherine got a still sequence of the hippo running, but I’ve chosen instead to show you a video from Johan Vermeulen of a hippo chase he caught a few years ago in South Luangwa National Park that gives you a better idea of how swift and dangerous a motivated hippo can be!

Leaving the oxbow behind, we turned and wove our way in and out of thickets along the high bank of the Luangwa river. We would disappear into trees and dense growth, only to pop out again in a clearing on the riverbank — like windows looking out onto the great river.

We met Isaac and the Range Rover a little way down the Luangwa for sundowners. The clouds had broken up a bit, enough to give us some sunset color reflected on the water . . . a lovely end to our day with cocktails and wine, the sounds of hippos calling, and the gradual fading of light. Braston regaled us with one of his many tales, which proved to rival Kipling’s Just So Stories.

The sun sets on our second evening in Luangwa Bush Camp with Robin Pope Safaris.

The sun sets on our second evening in Luangwa Bush Camp with Robin Pope Safaris. Photograph, Ann Fisher

Braston’s Story of How the Hippo Came to Live in the River

Once upon a time, hippos were covered in long fur and lived on the savannahs of Africa eating grass.

One day, there was a terrible fire. The hippos ran like the wind to escape, but they were caught. Before they could get away, the fire burned away all of their beautiful fur. They ran to the great river and were saved, but without their fur, their skin was delicate, and the fierce African sun scorched them painfully. They decided they would live in the river.

The crocodiles were displeased, and came to hippos saying, “Look, good animals, this will not work. We are happy that you were saved, but there are FAR to many of you, and you are very large. The food on the river — well, there just isn’t enough. We cannot have you eating our meat . . . we will ALL starve!”

And the hippos said, “No, crocodiles you are wrong. You see, we are vegetarians, and we only eat grass and plants. We can make this work — at night we will go ashore and feed, while the sun is down and our skins will not burn.”

The crocodiles eyed the hippos warily, not trusting that they wouldn’t eat all of their food. So the hippos said, “We have an idea, so that you will know we are telling the truth — whenever we go ashore, we will spread out our poo, and that way you can see that all we are eating is plants.”

And to this day, all hippos go ashore to graze, and they spread their poo along their hippo highways.

Hippo mother and child napping next to the Luangwa River.

Hippo mother and child napping next to the Luangwa River. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Elephant in South Luangwa National Park

In her hills and hollows, in her wrinkles, perhaps . . . there is the topography of the whole earth. African Elephant. Photograph, Ann Fisher

If you enjoyed this, head over to
Walking Safari, Day One:

We walked single-file out of the Camp Tena Tena just after dawn on a Sunday morning. There were six of us. In the lead, Chris carried the rifle, followed by Braston our guide. I came next, then my daughter, Catherine, my sister Carolyn, and finally Bishod, guide in training.

To walk the savannah, down, up and over empty oxbow lakes, and then step into the cool shade of a grove of ebony — it’s like that. You feel Africa close. [excerpt]


27 Comments on Hippo Highways: Day 2 of our Walking Safari

  1. jenruizwriter // August 22, 2017 at 9:05 pm // Reply

    I had no idea hippos were so dangerous! Especially the yawning, it throws you off haha like they’d be too out of breath to chase you 🙂 great adventure Ann!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow! I always though Hippos were big, but your facts really put it in perspective. As tall as a human and several thousand pounds. I imagine they are quite intimidating in person. I also didn’t know they were aggressive. Definitely good info to have!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, they REALLY big. In terms of weight, just for an idea, an Ford F450 Superduty truck weighs 6,120 lbs. (2,780 kg) — so think about a male hippo at 3,500 – 9,000 lbs. — so an intermediate size hippo would have the weight of an 5450. MASSIVE animals. When the one went running up the river bank we were in awe.


  3. I remember going to the zoo when I was young, thinking hippos are adorable (even their name is cute) until someone told me they’re the deadliest animals in the Amazon… and in Africa too, wow. I still love them though and would love to experience this one day


    • Well — hippos are only native to Africa. Now, Pablo Escobar was responsible for creating a herd of 35 in Columbia — so there are some in South America, but they certainly don’t belong there.


  4. Wow they move fast! I understand why they are so dangerous. Seems to me that have no predators, but I guess that is really not the case since you showed an alligator eating off one!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, it’s unlikely the croc actually killed that hippo. The hippo probably died of something else, like an infected wound from a fight with a dominant male. The croc would be part of the clean-up crew :).


  5. Hippo is such amazing creature and deadly too when provoked. I’d love to see them in their natural habitat one day soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hippos are my absolute favorite animal ever. I know it’s weird, but it started in middle school and I’ve collected them ever since. I, of course, have always wanted to see them in Africa but haven’t made it happen yet. Maybe it’s time to remedy that?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ashley, don’t wait as long as I did — whenever you can get there, go for it. Truly one of the most amazing trips of my life — I can hardly wait to go back.


  7. I never knew hippos can run so fast. Never did I know that they are aggressive (killing as many as 2,900 humans per year??)! Thank you for sharing your beautiful pictures and amazing experience. Now I’m motivated to travel to Zambia so that I can see them in the wild!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t know much about hippos before my trip. I did know they were considered dangerous, but I had no idea they were responsible for as many human deaths as they are. I loved watching them, but certainly have a great respect for them now!


  8. The hippo facts you provided in this post are incredibly interesting. I had no idea that hippos could live up to 50 years and stay underwater for six minutes. I’ve gained a newfound respect for these creatures, and I wouldn’t want to make one angry….

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Hippos are beautiful animals. I wonder if they “groom” the river like elephants groom the savanna. I heard that without pigs, there would be no mud puddles. Without mud puddles, the stand of trees would dry out. So it takes about 40 acres of trees to have a family of pigs and make mud puddles for everybody.

    If pigs make mud puddles, I imagine that the hippos do a stellar job of deepening the river so that it stays wet longer into the season. I wonder what the river would look like without hippos making mud (and poop)

    Liked by 1 person

    • You know, that’s a great question — and I don’t know the answer. There may indeed be a benefit they make — particularly in the lagoons, keeping them deeper in some spots so the water lasts longer.


  10. wow! Day 2 looks pretty special. I’m a big hippo fan and have always wanted to see them in the wild although I know they are super aggressive when angry! so cute tho!!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. When you showed me the tracks and the terrain, I felt like I was there. It sounds so exhilirating! And a little scary. Hippos are all the rage right now in Cincinnati. (Baby Fiona at the zoo.) So with all the hippo facts we keep learning, I feel like the hippos could be the most dangerous animals of all to cross paths with. And yet, they’re fascinating. I want to do this. Someday.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Like you, I love the hippos. We did have a couple of startling encounters, but I have a lot of faith in the knowledge of our guides, and I would return in a heartbeat.


  12. Such amazing photos and stories! I would be intimidated by the fast pace of a hippo for sure! I loved the origin story of water hippos! 🙂


  13. Reblogged this on Life and Random Thinking and commented:
    Africa, hippos, folk lore, pictures made this a special post to reblog. No plans to do a walk about in African heat? Then see here to find what we missed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The heat really wasn’t bad. We were there in June, which is winter time in Zambia. Temperatures most days ranged from 55° F (12.5 °C) at night to around 80° F (26.6° C) during the day. This one day though, it was warmer, and without a breeze, we were feeling it. Most days it was perfect! — Now, I don’t think I’d want to do this in October!


  14. mycountryepoque // August 11, 2017 at 11:15 am // Reply

    awww Ann, thank you for posting. I love your pictures. and absolutely love the mother and child, so cute. It was such a good read. Happy that you are having some great days in the wilderness. Enjoy your African Safaris and am sure the animals love your visit. I enjoyed reading from you,. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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