Hippos are among the most irascible creatures on the continent. While they are typically content to sleep away the day on the shore of a river or in the shallows, when alarmed they are quick to show their hostile side. Hippos are reputed to cause more human deaths than any other large animal in Africa (though some claim the cape buffalo holds this honor).

Although an adult hippo has no natural predators, it quickly retreats to the safety of the deep water when it encounters the unexpected, such as a canoe coming around the bend. Most human deaths occur when the unlucky victim finds himself between a startled hippo and the deep water. Females with young are especially dangerous.

Despite their huge teeth and aggressive nature, hippos are strictly grazers (grass eaters). They leave the water at night and travel up to six miles along well-worn paths in search of grass.

One of the best places to encounter hippos is along the Zambezi River between Zambia and Zimbabwe. A group of us did a three-day canoe safari on the Zambezi in the area of Mana Pools National Park on the Zimbabwe side and Lower Zambezi National Park on the Zambia side. At night, we stayed in well-appointed camps along the river in Zambia. By day, we drifted leisurely down the great river. Along the way, we saw a great many crocodiles and quite a few elephants on the river banks. But the highlight for me was seeing all the hippos.

Our guide was careful to keep us out of trouble. The recommended procedure – which seems to be accepted by the hippos – is to rap on the side of the canoe with the paddle whenever we approached a pod of hippos or came around a blind corner. This gave the hippos a chance to move to the deeper water where they felt safe and could regard us from a comfortable distance. During one tense moment, we came around a bend without the customary warning and scared two hippos and a large crocodile into the water beneath our canoes. One could easily imagine one of the hippos accidentally (or in a rage) tipping over the canoe and leaving us to the mercy of the crocodile. As you might have guessed by now, however, I didn't get eaten.

Another area full of hippos is The Selous in southern Tanzania (a little visited park, but one of my favorites).

While in Africa, I heard several versions of an old folk tale about the hippo. To read the short tale in a pop-up window, click here