Stories from Africa
A pod of hippos wade in the Nile River of Uganda as a tour boat views animals.
Sleeping with Hippos: Getting Close to African Wildlife
Where there is water there is life. This couldn't be more true than on the Nile River as it carves through the savannah of Uganda in Murchison National Park.
The grasslands have life, but the abundance of life is often concentrated around water. Some animals need it more than others, but they all need water for survival.
Our boat glided on the water and slowly moved up river. As it did, large pods of hippopotamuses, half submerged in the water, watched us carefully float by.
A hippo shows aggression while swimming in the Nile River of Uganda.
According to the World Health Organization, the most dangerous large land animal in Africa is the hippopotamus. Despite its primarily vegetarian diet, the world's third-largest land mammal is extremely aggressive and territorial.
The combination of sheer size (males average 6,000 pounds), sharp teeth and mobility both in and out of water make for a fearsome beast.
A hippo must stay moist because if its skin dries out, it will crack. Its skin also secretes a red fluid that is thought to be an antibiotic, sunscreen and skin moisturizer. People once thought the red secretion was blood and that hippos sweat blood.
Seeing large groups of them parked on the edge of the Nile River was a joy.
In the daytime, hippos are only seen in or near water. But at night, they can walk as far as six miles to graze on grass.
Hippos wade in the Nile River of Uganda as elephants graze on the bank.
Warthogs eat grass at the red Chill Rest Camp in Murchison National Park of Uganda, in the evening they are replaced by a hippo.
One particular place the hippos like to eat grass at night is the Red Chili Rest Camp. The campsite is located on a flat area above the river and is about a mile away.
The staff at the camp affectionately refers to one hippo as Gloria, apparently in honor of a character from the movie "Madagascar."
"Beware of Gloria. She's a wild animal that sometimes roams through the camp at night," said Gerald Tsapwe, the camp manager. "She won't bother you, if you don't bother her."
Fair enough. I wasn't planning on challenging Gloria to a wrestling match.
As I walked back to my tent after dinner one night, I noticed Gloria on the edge of the campsite eating grass. "That's cool," I thought. I noted where she was and slipped off to bed after a long day on a safari ride.
In the middle of the night, I was awakened by a loud sound just outside my tent. As I struggled to open my eyes to see what the noise was, Gloria slowly came into focus. She was right outside my tent window, barely an arm's length away.
I quietly perched up on my elbows, just a little, to try and get a better view. Although I don't know how much better view one needs of a hippo that is an arm's length away.
For a moment, Gloria stopped eating. I held my breath, concerned that she might be able to see or hear me. It was one of those strange moments that intrigued and caused fear at the same time. It was like being young and experiencing fire for the first time, wanting to reach out and touch it but knowing better.
After a short time, Gloria went back to grazing and wandered off to find more grass. I slipped back under my bedcovers, but my heart was beating a little too fast to fall asleep quickly.
Eventually, the munching sounds transformed into a lullaby and I fell asleep, knowing if I didn't bother Gloria she wouldn't bother me.