March 29, 2005
The Chichewa word for hippopotamus is “mvuu.” Although I have not talked much about the flora and fauna here in Malawi, it is impossible to live here and not be astounded by the natural beauty of the country. After spending 24 hours in Liwonde National Park, I have an even greater appreciation for this country’s natural wonders.
My parents, who are visiting from New Jersey, treated us to an overnight stay in Liwonde National Park at Mvuu Camp. To get there we took a boat ride of over an hour. We saw dozens of hippos in the Shire River along the way. A hippo can hold its breath for 5-15 minutes, but you eventually see them poke their noses, round eyes and tiny ears above the water. If you are really lucky you will see one yawn and open its huge jaw. A large bull hippo can have teeth that are 28 inches long and can open its mouth 4 feet wide. It is a sight to behold. Occasionally we saw hippos leaning on each other’s backs catching a 5 minute nap. Our guide told us that they take turns doing this during the day. They spend their days in the cool river and at night come out and graze.
On the safari that we took in a truck from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m. that night, we saw hippos on the land eating grass by the ton. Brooke and Heather spotted several baby hippos eating near their mother’s side. You realize just how huge they are when you see them out of the water. Adult hippos weigh between 2,500 and 6,000 pounds. They feel more vulnerable when they are out of the water, so it is not wise to provoke them. Hippos are responsible for more human deaths than any other wild animal in Africa.
In the middle of the night, while we were sleeping in our tent beside the Shire River, I awoke to hear heavy footfalls outside. Sure enough, about ten feet from our front door, was a huge hippo tearing up tender hunks of grass. Sometimes hippos will travel up to 6 miles to graze at night, but this one found plenty right in our camp. I was very quiet, and watched him for about an hour until he ate his 100 pounds of grass and splashed his way back into the river.
The next morning on our River Safari, the guide told us that hippos mate, give birth (after an 8 month gestation period), fight and play in the water. They can walk along the bottom, but are buoyant and can swim well despite their short legs. When we went down a quiet inlet, in search of elephants, the guide noted that the water was muddy, which indicates large animal activity. There we spotted a big grey object in the reeds. It was a dead hippo. The guide explained that the hippos must have been fighting all night. They are territorial animals. This unfortunate animal obviously lost the fight, but it was the crocodile’s gain. We spotted at least 8 of the large reptiles in the water trying to feed on the dead hippo. It was a sight none of us will forget.
However, the other thing I will remember is the hour I spent quietly sitting on the bank of the river outside our tent watching the hippos on the other side of the river through binoculars. Sometimes the mothers would give their children rides on their broad grey backs. Hippos secrete a pink substance that acts as a sunscreen and soothes and prevents skin infections. Sometimes cattle egrets will land on a hippo’s back and perch there. Hippos make grunting, growling noises to communicate with each other, and close their nostrils when they submerge to prevent water from getting in. There are about 150,000 of these “River Horses” in sub-Saharan Africa, and I felt very privileged to be able to observe these remarkable creations.