For my 60th birthday, I took by son and daughter and my daughter’s fiancé, Doug, to Zambia Africa for a walking safari. My son, daughter and I had all been out on trails before with the Wilderness Leadership School in Durban, South Africa and considered ourselves to be sophisticated with regard to safaris. Doug on the other hand had never been out of the United States. And, the closest to Africa he had been was on the African Jungle Ride at Disneyland --which he enjoyed.
We arrived in Zambia a little jet lagged and arose our first morning in the bush to be greeted by our guide NuTumbo and huge strapping and very serious Zambian. Nutumbo gathered the four of us around him for his instructions for our first walk in Zambia. First he introduced us to Rafael who was to be our protector on the walk. Rafael displayed the “elephant” gun he would be carrying -- a short ranged, powerful and very loud weapon! Nutumbo then told us that we would be walking along a river bank and that he needed to give us special instructions in the unlikely - repeat unlikely - event of a hippo charge. He explained how hippos are the most dangerous animal in Africa – killing more people each year that crocodiles, buffalo, elephants and lions combined. Their two huge incisors can cut a man in half. Except for Doug - we had heard this all before, bla bla bla!. And, we knew from our experience that hippo charges on land are extremely rare. Sensing our impertinence, Nutumbo suddenly got very serious and said in an extra loud voice.
“You have to listen to me very carefully. In the event of a hippo charge you must not run – Whatever you do, do not run! Instead freeze in place and look towards me. I will develop a sophisticated and detailed escape plan. And you do exactly what I tell you to do.”
Although now paying attention to Nutumbo, my son and I were still joking under our breath. “Crap if I’m ever charged by a hippo I’m probably going to fucking run”, etc. So Nutumbo made the two of us stand up and repeat after him “In the event of a hippo charge we do not run, again we do not run! Instead we look to Nutumbo who will give us a detailed sophisticated escape plan and we follow it. Then he repeated the same drill with Doug, who was busy cleaning his camera, and my daughter making them stand up and repeat the instructions two more times. Our instructions now complete and the absolute authority of Nutumbo established we saddled up and left for our hike -- Nutumbo in the lead; Rafael bringing up the rear.
Ten minutes into our hike we are walking along the top of a beautiful river bank about 20 feet above a sandy area that then runs about 100 feet to the river itself. In the distance you can see hippo’s lounging in the river. Every once in a while there is a break in the river bank where animals have created large paths leading down to the river so they can drink.
I am in the rear of our hiking group with Rafael right behind me (I like to stay near the elephant gun?) Doug is walking some 20 feet in front of me and my son and daughter further ahead and closer to Nutumbo. I hear Doug say under his breath, almost as a question, Hippo? So I quicken my step to pull alongside of Doug. I glance down one of these animals paths to the river. Sure enough there’s a hippo – but not just a hippo, a bull hippo – and one that is already trotting, now running and now in a full on charge. Closing fast, uphill but only 40 feet away. I scream HIPPO CHARGE! And instinctually dive under an 18 inch bush. Like that’s really going to save me – so much for my sophistication. I look up at Doug who is sort of backing away from the hippo, but seemingly more concerned about getting his camera to eye level to get a good shot. Ah, naiveté!
Now everything slows down in my mind -- milliseconds seem like full seconds. BOOM Rafael fires off a blast over the hippo’s head. Now we all freeze in place. But I can hear the hippo still coming. I glance up again at Doug and his expression has changed from mild amusement to absolute horror. I look down the trail and catch the eyes of my son and daughter -- anxious, foreboding, scared stiff. In unison, we all snap our heads towards Nutumbo to get his sophisticated and detailed escape plan. Instead, after what seems an eternity, Nutumbo simply screams RUN, RUN!
And, run we did. BOOM Rafael fires again. Now in a full out run, I glance back over my shoulder and see a huge dust cloud. Rafael’s shot has hit the ground in front of the hippo and spewed up all sorts of rocks and debris. As the cloud clears I can see the hippo standing still, blinking its eyes covered in dust; now turning and heading off a different direction. Whew. As quickly as the danger came it has now left!
It’s time for a long family hug. As we walk towards one another still breathing deeply, egos bruised, but thankful to be alive, my daughter says “Hey Nutumbo, that was quite a detailed and sophisticated plan.” My son adds “Whatever you do don’t run; my ass!” But, of course, it’s Doug who has the last word. He sticks out his hand to Nutumbo, shakes hands, and says “That was great! Can we do it again?”