How to feed a hippo… (and live to tell the tale!)
By Lucy Corne
I’ve never been terribly fond of animals. It’s not that I don’t like looking at them; I just have an innate fear of anything with more legs than I have. So imagine my surprise when one sticky afternoon on the border of the Kruger National Park I found myself with my hand in a hippo’s mouth.
Of course, South Africa is well known as a safari destination, and opportunities to get up close with fierce creatures present themselves often. I’d already stood on the sidelines while friends petted lion cubs, stroked cheetahs and rode elephants.
Then a modest sign at the side of the road jumped out and grabbed my attention. Having explored the less-than-engaging town of Hoedspruit we were searching for some way to kill time, so a notice inviting us to meet, pet and feed an actual hippo was a welcome diversion to say the least.
By the time our bottom-of-the-range hire car had navigated the dirt road leading to the hippo’s home, I was starting to have second thoughts. How could it be safe? I’d heard the stories, as I’m sure you have – it’s an oft-quoted fact that hippos kill more people than any other mammal in Africa.
Was I actually contemplating touching such a dangerous beast? I quickly decided that I would be the official photographer while Shawn, my boyfriend and ever-enthusiastic travelling companion diced with death.
We pulled up at a somewhat ramshackle house and I hesitantly got out, met by a pair of savage-looking dogs – an ubiquitous part of rural South African life and always a nail-biting experience for me.
You might start to understand just how scared of four-legged creatures I am if you were to see me trying to climb on to a car roof to avoid the standard sniffing from a guard dog.
Shawn was already walking up to the house, when I suddenly noticed something rather odd.
“Oh my God Shawn! There’s a hippo!” I exclaimed, becoming more nervous by the second.
Looking around he failed to notice the bulking form standing right in front of him, dismissing it as some kind of elaborate lawn ornament. There, outside the house standing watch like some kind of bizarre guard dog was Jessica, the adolescent hippo that’s become a local celebrity.
I was astounded to see an animal with such a reputation for destruction just wandering around the garden and will be the first to admit that I began to retreat slowly to the relative safety of the car. Then we heard a chuckle and turned to face Tonie Joubert, a retired ranger who still favours the khaki uniform of his working days, minus the shoes that is.
“I see you’ve met Jessica already. Are you ready to feed her?” he asked us, producing a bucket of sweet potatoes, apparently one of her favourite snacks.
Immediately rising to the challenge, Shawn delved his hand into the bucket and put his faith in a somewhat quirky man he’d only just met, while I stood at a safe distance, reluctantly taking photographs.
You might think me a little feeble but while I wasn’t rushing to thrust a hand into her mouth I also wasn’t trying to clamber up a tree, which was really quite a step forward.
While the boys fed Jessica, Tonie told us the story of how she came to live at his home, a tale worthy of any live action Disney movie.
“I first found Jessica in March 2000,” he recalled. “She was a newborn baby with the umbilical cord still attached. It was a day after a bad storm and she must have been separated from her mother as soon as she was born.”
He went on to tell us the amazing story of Jessica’s rescue and recuperation on his rural estate and consequent upbringing as a house hippo.
“Hippos tend to stay close to their mothers for many years, so her chances of survival in the wild were slim. We decided that having rescued her we had to follow through and bring her up. When she was younger she was just like a human child – sometimes she would come and climb into bed with us at night!” he laughs.
“Of course, when she started getting bigger and had broken a couple of beds we had to put a stop to that, so she’d sleep out here with the dogs. We never forced her to stay though. The river is right there and she’s always had the option to wander off. Sometimes she disappears for a couple of days, but she must be pretty happy here – she always comes back!”
Perhaps it’s for her adoring fans, for Jessica has become quite the celebrity in town, starring in documentaries and drawing tourists from near and far, keen to add hippo stroking to their repertoire of travel tales.
“Shall we head down to the river?” He asked, just as another car pulled up, probably with a couple more fans inside. “I’ll just go and deal with these guys,” Tonie told us. “Just follow the path down to the river – if you get lost Jessica will show you the way.”
I suddenly found myself in what I considered to be a perilous situation. There I was making my way down to the river with a 2000-pound animal trundling a few feet behind me and all I could think of was ‘never get between a hippo and the water – that’s when people get trampled…’
A Great Relief
It came as a great relief to reach the bridge and finally feel in control as Jessica slipped into the water, safely below me. Tonie soon appeared and continued the fascinating account of Jessica’s life.
“Sometimes she gets visits from a group of local hippos,” he said. “They come down here like kids coming to call for her and she’ll go off and swim with them for a while. She’s really so human sometimes it’s unreal!”
Indeed, Jessica does have human traits, even recognising a dozen or so words in Afrikaans. The most important trigger word is bek, meaning ‘mouth’ and when you manage to pronounce it just right, she approaches the bridge, jaws wide open ready to be fed a tasty treat.
Thrilled with this new pastime, Shawn continued to ply her with potatoes, while Tonie looked on, dangling his feet in a river that’s rife with crocs and wild hippos as well as his beloved Jessica. Not for the first time that day I was reminded of Crocodile Dundee and I tried in vain to think of a similarly manly nickname to bestow on him. Sadly, as impressive as it is to rescue and hand-rear the continent’s most dangerous creature, “Hippo Joubert” simply isn’t a cool moniker.
Time for Coffee
“Right then, time for coffee,” Tonie announced. Thinking the nerve-wracking time with Jessica was over I got to my feet, only to realise that the coffee in question was destined for the hippo and not for me. Producing three bottles of a watery brew, he kept one for himself and handed one each to Shawn and I.
“Oh, I’m fine,” I assured him, trying to make light of the situation. “Someone has to take the photos, right?” He showed Shawn how to feed her, then turned his attention to me.
“A lot of people that come here don’t want to get too close,” he told me. “I understand that it can be a bit scary, but to date not one single person has left without feeding or petting her. Now you don’t want to be the first do you?”
Seeing that I was indeed a prize wimp, used to being the only one not joining in a dangerous act, he quickly changed his tack. “Listen, I’m not trying to convince you so that I can get your money, but just think about it. When are you ever going to get the chance again to touch or feed a live hippo? And how often are you going to be back in Hoedspruit? I wouldn’t want you to leave here regretting not doing it.”
Of course, I knew he was right – the probability of visiting the sleepy backwater of Hoedspruit ever again was pretty slim and what a cool story to tell my friends! Reluctantly I took a two-litre bottle of weak coffee, handed my camera to Shawn and shuffled a little closer.
As they always say, a picture speaks a thousand words and the snaps of me feeding Jessica say a lot. I somehow managed to stay a little more than an arm’s length away, stretching in to reach her enormous mouth.
Guzzled the Drink
As she guzzled the drink she looked right into my eyes showing me that she trusted me, so I tried to return the favour. I hadn’t planned to actually touch her, but cautiously leaned in to pat her rubbery nose, though I drew the line at the slimy tongue which Shawn assured me felt like a slippery piece of foam.
As we made our way back down the dirt road to our campsite I realised there are a couple of truths about Africa that every visitor should know.
First of all – listen to the locals; they always know what’s best, whether it’s which dirt track to take, where to eat the prime cuts of meat or whether or not to thrust your hand into a hippo’s mouth.
And second, always keep your eyes open – Africa is deliciously unpredictable and you never know what fascinating find you might spot at the side of the road.
Look out for a small sign on the R531, 10km west of Hoedspruit, then head a further 8km down a dirt road. Hoedspruit is in Limpopo, South Africa’s northernmost province, which borders Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
You can visit Jessica every day from 10am until 12pm and again from 3pm until 5pm. If you’re in the area outside these hours give Tonie a call on 015 795 5349 and he might be able to fit you in.
There’s a nominal charge of R50 ($7.20), which goes towards the rather pricey upkeep of a teenage hippo!
Although the town itself is little more than a blip on the map, there is a surprising amount to do in the surrounding area, particularly for animal lovers. The Orpen Gate of the magnificent Kruger National Park is a short drive away and offers superb self-drive safari opportunities to see the Big Five. Entry is R135 ($19.50) per day for adults and R66 ($9.50) for children.
For guaranteed close encounters with a variety of animals, head to the Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre or the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre, both of which offer tours and the chance to get close to some rare species. If you fancy a break from the animal sightings, try the kilometre-long Echo Caves or take a drive through the ever impressive Blyde River Canyon, with its many breathtaking viewpoints.
At the bottom end of the scale, Blyde Canyon Backpackers is a great budget option with bargain A-frame cabins or more plush self-catering chalets with en suite bathrooms. It’s 25km from Hoedspruit, just off the R531, tel: 015 795 5130, email. Camping is R50 ($7.20), bush cabins R70 ($10)per person and a chalet costs R240 ($34.50).
For those looking for something more luxurious, Tshukudu Game Lodge offers packages including a night in the magnificent rooms, all meals, two game drives and a morning walk where you can get close to the orphaned animals that are cared for here. Off the R40, north of Hoedspruit, tel: 015 793 2476, email, Single R1700 ($245), double R2800 ($403).
For more accommodation options, find unique Panorama Route hotels and interesting tours in the Panorama Route.
After graduating with a degree in journalism in 2000, Lucy Corne has been nursing a stubborn case of itchy feet. Using freelance writing and EFL teaching as a means to get around, she has suffered with diarrhea and fallen off horses in countless countries. She has written three guidebooks on Spain and South Africa and currently lives in rural South Korea, where she teaches English to teenage boys and lives a life of semi-celebrity as one of four non-Koreans in town. Visit her website.