Kenya Stories and Tips

Life alongside the hippos

Hippos on the Masai Mara Photo, Nairobi, Kenya

If I were asked what my favourite part of the Safari was I would firstly say "all of it", but if pushed I say that I thoroughly enjoyed viewing the Hippopotamus. The Hippopotamus Amphibious (to give it its full scientific name) or, as it’s more affectionately known, the Hippo is the third largest land mammal and can weigh up to 3.5 tons. Indeed with that weight and its formidable body (13 feet long and 5 feet tall) it is almost free of predators. Occasionally there are reports of crocodiles killing the Hippo (or River Horse) but often they live side by side and show each other reasonable respect and of course a hungry lion will be prepared to "have a go". Although it is fair to say that the Lion will usually avoid the Hippo and opt for an easier prey.

The Hippo (known in the native tongue as Kiboko) is almost comedic in appearance and its stumpy little legs with four toed webbed feet manage to support its massive body without too much difficulty. Despite its ponderous strolling on terra firma it is reported that the Hippo can reach speeds between 30 – 40 Kilometres per hour but not surprisingly they can’t maintain that speed for long. In water they have a much more leisurely paddling speed of 8 kilometres an hour.

Our first sighting of a hippo had been, at a distance, back in Amboseli and this had been a few semi submerged animals and a single hippo munching the grass. I was extremely disappointed. But sightings here in the Masai Mara were to be much more spectacular.

On our first outing we saw a small waterhole covered in dense water foliage. All we could see were the top of their heads with their small ears and tiny eyes. They seemed fairly content and although this vision of them was fascinating I was still left wanting! However, to see these semi-submerged animals slowly disappear in front of our eyes and then not re-appear for ages required some explanation. Our guide explained that that the adult could remain totally submerged for up to six minutes and had been known to sleep under water rising automatically to the surface to take in air before returning to the depths for the continuation of its nap.

Our second day out on Safari gave me exactly what I was looking for - the sight of hippos wallowing in the water and then walking in the shallower places. There was a large group of them and these hefty beasts remained on view. Our guide took a good look round and then said we could get out of the open air truck to take photos. There was a steep drop in front of us and so we were safe from the hippos. Some were semi submerged whilst others strolled in the shallower water and all was peaceful until a couple decided to have a dispute over territory. There was much bellowing and displays of aggression until one decided that he would withdraw. The successful hippo almost seemed to shrug as it settled down in the deep water for a much needed rest!

It was here that our guide told us about the way the hippo was created. "Initially", he explained "the hippo was a land animal, but, finding it too hot on dry land it asked if it could be adapted to spend time in the water" The story continued that after some discussion with his creator a compromised and agreed that the hippo could be adapted for life on land and in the water on one condition and that was that it would never eat flesh.

The hippo readily agreed but its maker was not finished in laying down conditions! "I want to be able to evidence that you’re not breaking the rules" their maker said "and so I’ll want to check out your mouth for flesh or fish bones". That seemed a reasonable condition to the Hippo so it agreed that it would regularly open its mouth for inspection. That wasn’t all as the Hippo’s maker wanted to be able to check the digested food for evidence and although the Hippo was less convinced about this one he finally agreed. "So that’s why the hippo’s mouth opens really wide" said our guide "and why it sprays its excreta around. He’s saying look no bones there!" That was a great tale and worthy of a couple of chortles from us!

The following morning we saw a group of hippos returning to their watery retreat. They’d been out overnight to graze on the grass and many will have consumed up to 150 pounds in weight. Apparently they have a set routine and after clambering up the banks of the river they take their nocturnal wandering, normally, our guide explained, on a two or three mile circuit. These creatures of habit munch away through the night and their intake of nutrient sets them up for their day time activity of slumber and swimming.

We made it to their lake before the small group and were able to see them settle down into their daily routine. It surprised me how these huge animals fair trotted down a fairly steep slope before settling down with the rest of their group close to the water’s edge. "A spot of sunbathing" exclaimed our guide "but they have to be careful or they get burnt". And then he pointed out an animal with what did indeed look like over exposed skin.

What was clear, from the scene in front of us, was that many of them carried battle scars. Probably they were caused by internal arguments with other hippos. As if to emphasise that possibility a couple of hippos went into attack mode – it was short lived but the vanquished limped out of the water to the security of the sandy bank. As if to emphasise his contempt he sprayed the ground around him (need I say more!) He cautiously joined the group slumbering on the water’s edge – not too close but I suspect close enough for security if his aggressor decided to have another go at him.

Life watching the hippos is certainly not dull and we’d seen them in many of their different habitats and modes – semi-submerged, grazing, fighting and relaxing. My hippo experience was complete.

Many thanks to our guide at Governors.

Been to this destination?

Share Your Story or Tip