Hippo Highways: Day 2 of our Walking Safari

After a light breakfast and some coffee, we left for our second day of walking. Why do three women from Texas love Hippo Highways? Because in Africa, even flat isn’t flat!

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]


 

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.

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

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.

Imagine stretching out your hands and running them over the face of the elephant there, just there in the picture, above.

Feel the smooth tusks, and let your fingers run up across the wide variety of skin, craggy with wrinkles. Hear her breath, and let her ruffle your hair with her trunk. Smell the grassiness of the twigs and leaves she chews.

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.

The word safari means an expedition to observe or hunt animals in their natural habitat. “Safari” entered the English language in 1869, from Swahili,  but was originally from the Arabic term safara, meaning to travel. To walk in the bush, to be with the animals on foot is the truest experience of the phrase, “to be on safari.”

We walked from 6:30 until about 10:45 in the morning, when we walked into Luangwa Bush Camp. This temporary, true camp rotates between four camp sites.

Luangwa Bush Camp walking safari Robin Pope Safaris
We stopped for a tea break each morning, and Bishod would prepare tea or coffee for all of us. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

We met our guide Braston at breakfast that morning, and he covered the basics: we walk single file, always single file, with Chris on the lead with the rifle. If there is anything, we hold still, maintain the line.

Was I afraid? That first morning, I admit that I was uncomfortable. I’d just met Braston, Chris, and Bishod, and here we were walking into the bush with them. The night before we’d seen a pride of lions.

We’d barely been walking twenty minutes when we surprised a hippo who then went crashing through the thicket, right past us, to get away. We all froze, just as instructed.

It was wonderful.

Hyena South Luangwa National Park Zambia
The hyena waits, listening, sifting the air for smells, for clues there may be a kill to find, to steal. Photograph, Ann Fisher
Crocodile feeds on hippo carcass
The day before we started our walking safari, I was looking at the geese with my camera when suddenly a crocodile lunged out of the water to feed on the hippo.

We walked around one of the many lagoons, this one where we’d seen  a croc feeding on a dead hippo the day before. The smell of decay was strong and sweet, the body still almost completely intact.

The hippo was too far out in the water for the lion and hyena to get to, and the crocs would not really be able to break into the carcass until decay advances further, softening the tissue.

Rounding the side of another lagoon, we spotted a hyena, walked along near the den — she trotted off, but stayed close. Hyena in different parts of Africa behave differently. In some places, hyenas hunt like other predators.

Hyena Poop
No, they aren’t ping pong balls — it’s hyena poop, white as snow from all the bones they eat. Photograph, Carolyn Fisher.

In South Luangwa, food is plentiful, and the hyena act as scavengers — and rarely take a kill themselves.

Part of a walking safari is tracking — learning about animals and spoor — and quite surprisingly for us, hyena poop is white! They consume so much calcium as they eat bone that the stuff stands out like it’s lit from within, it’s so bright.

Baby Giraffe South Luangwa National Park Zambia
When we first came upon the tower of giraffes, this baby sprinted towards the safety of its mom. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
a Tower of Giraffes
We settled in for tea, and the giraffes returned their focus to breakfasting on leaves. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

We spent thirty minutes or so watching a tower of giraffes — yes, learning the British collective words for animals, great fun! Braston suggested it was time to take a break and have some tea, and we found a spot very close to our long-necked friends. Morning tea and giraffes — what could be better?

Chris walked around several of the bushes in our immediate vicinity, checking to be sure everything was safe, and Braston designated one for our latrine needs. Yes, if you’re going to walk in the bush on a remote African safari, you’re going to poop in the bush, just like the hyena :-).

Crocodile tracks South Luangwa National Park Zambia
The arrows point out the drag line of the crocodile’s tail, the sweeping scratch marks of its claws, and the close-up shows the scale pattern in the tracks. Fascinating stuff!

Following tea, we spent close to another two hours walking, stopping to examine lion tracks, crocodile tracks — which consist of a tail dragging line and scaly foot prints, and porcupine tracks. Braston broke open aardvark dung to show the ant remains speckled inside of it. Our favorite animal path? The hippo highways — trails the hippos make in their nocturnal grazing forays into the bush, as they string necklaces of Nile cabbage out behind them.

Luangwa Bush Camp Tent, Robin Pope Safaris walking safari
Our first tent at Luangwa Bush Camp. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Around 10:30, we paused to watch a “business” of mongoose cross our trail before walking into our camp. After four hours out in the bush, it was lovely to walk to Luangwa Bush Camp (LBC) with everything set up and waiting for us. Braston showed us the layout — our tents, two pit latrines with comfy toilet seats, a bucket shower rig, and a full bar. All just for us. LBC maximum capacity is three tents, a total of six guests, but we had it all to ourselves.

Luangwa Bush Camp Robin Pope Safaris Walking Safari
Catherine reviews photographs — our view at this location? A large pod of hippos on the great Luangwa River. Alternate collective word for hippos: a “bloat” :-). Photographs, Ann Fisher.

Our wonderful young camp cook, Boniface, served lunch at 11:30 on a table looking out on the hippos, and afterwards it was time for siesta.

Catherine sacked out in our tent, finding the beds very comfy — mattresses on the floor of the tent, made up with soft cotton sheets and coverlet. I settled in one of the camp chairs to write and watch the hippo family, who had decided that the morning standing in the river had quite exhausted all of them. It was time for a pod-wide afternoon sunbath-nap combo.

I was working on an account of the day in my journal, when I was surprised to hear an extraordinarily loud snoring. I looked at the hippos, but then realized it was coming from behind me. It was Catherine!

Hippos nap on the river beach of the Luangwa
Siesta for all! The hippos snooze away the warm middle of the day. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Following our afternoon tea we walked back out of camp to explore further. Just before sunset, Isaac met us with the Range Rover at the agreed location near the lagoon. We watched the sun go down, and the lovely fingernail moon begin to show itself, and enjoyed our world of bird song and frogs, and the whooshing blow of a hippo surfacing. It was a good time to be quiet, enjoy our wine, and watch the evening come.

Sunset on a lagoon in South Luangwa National Park
Sunset on the lagoon – magical time. Photograph, Ann Fisher
Female Leopard Luangwa National Park Zambia
Beautiful female leopard on the hunt. Photograph, Cat Gassiot.

When we finally clambered up into the Rover, it was time for a bit of night game-driving. I remember saying to Carolyn, “the day has been perfect. It doesn’t make any difference to me if we see nothing at all.”

The day had one more gift for us, a female leopard on the hunt. We stayed with her only briefly.

We were tired and it was time for everyone to go their own way.

Our first day of the walking safari had been perfect, and we arrived back in camp to find it full of warm kerosene light, and Boniface with dinner nearly ready.

Dinner in Luangwa Bush Camp
Cat, Carolyn, and Braston talk about the day while we wait for dinner. Photograph, Ann Fisher

This is the second in a series of posts reviewing our safari in Zambia. We spent 12 days with Robin Pope Safaris: 8 days on game drives at Tena Tena, Nsefu, and Luangwa River camp.

Read the first installment of safari series here, Our African Safari in Zambia: