I had an Island once on the great Lake Kariba…(Rob Fynn)8 min read

ESMERELDA

By Rob Fynn, (Author of biography, Angel in a Thorn Bush, where this story features.)

I had an Island once on the great Lake Kariba, off shore the Matusadona National Park. It was named after the brave and famous Rupert Fothergill who had led the rescue operation, called Operation Noah, for all the animals trapped on the high ground as the lake rose. Together with a small band of dedicated young men, they saved thousands of creatures from drowning, from black rhino to black mambas, finding a new home for them in the Matuse, as we affectionately call that Park today.

When we arrived in 1972 to build our lodge, it was virgin bush. No habitation other than from the animal kingdom had graced the land. The island vegetation was scrubby, hardly a tree taller than a man, thanks to years of elephant trimming, and the original bush clearing operation, instigated before the lake came up to remove all trees for future fishing grounds. Monstrous D9 Caterpillars pulling battleship chains attached to gigantic 4m diameter water-filled steel balls had ruthlessly cleared huge areas. Erroneously, Fothergill had been classified as a fishing ground. The result for us was we desperately needed shade from the relentless Zambezi sun. 

I decided that our priority must be building the focal point of the Lodge, a large double-storied thatch Gazebo—dining room downstairs, ‘look out’ bar upstairs, before anything else. A daunting project for a young 24 yr old with his rookie team, most of whom had never seen a tool other than the traditional ‘demo’, a small axe used by traditional tribe’s people, as their first venture into building safari camps. My design had come from painstakingly building a model with bits of grass, imagining how we would handle the huge beams and trusses from the ground up onto the structure’s chore line of 14 x 8m poles we would position, standing on their own, like a secret missile site, without any power tools or machinery of any kind. It was to become the forerunner of many safari lodges that sprouted around Zimbabwe after independence, the only one of its kind at the time, combining something of the best from the magnificent old colonial architectural ambience.

This became our warehouse where we would stack all the easily removable and more valuable materials, their ordering and delivery a mission in itself as all movement on the road from Salisbury, as it was then, now Harare, to Kariba was in armed convoys 

as the liberation bush war raged. It was also to be the living room for my wife and I and our three small children, all under the age of 5, and our administration centre, albeit jammed full with stores.

By paraffin lamp with our little family over dinner one evening, I heard a scuffling down the other end of the cavernous building. Picking up a paraffin lamp, I tiptoed down to investigate the intruder, suddenly finding myself standing next to an equally surprised hippo. We both jumped and hippo shuffled off while I retreated. Nothing too unusual about that in our wild environment. Next evening, same noise, same time. I cautiously re-investigated, expecting and indeed meeting friend hippo again. We looked at each other curiously, and quietly went our separate ways. Every evening thereafter, for the next three years, Esmerelda, as we named ‘her’, after the big and famous lady singer, came visiting at dinner time. She became so familiar that I could walk slowly up and greet her with a hand shake to her tusk, when she would open wide her huge gaping mouth, breathing hot sweet hippo breath over me,shaking her head up and down. As construction progressed she adapted to the new situations, arriving as we sat down with our guests for dinner under the stars, to graze quietly, well, noisily actually, on our cultured lawn. Diners would have this gigantic mouth chomping next to them, and occasionally a huge grinning jaw would rest on their flimsy raffia iron frame table, collapsing it under a hippo head weight of + 200kg, leaving a wobbly looking table and guest. 

She also took to visiting the harbour at the end of the day when the boats from the afternoon’s activities were being rowed ashore from the jetty for the night’s parking. She would slide quietly astern of a boat, open her mouth over the engine, and give it a gentle push to help it on its way, the paddling boatman on the bows chuckling with delight as he and his boat slid up the bank. 

In between assisting the boatmen, she would frolic about, lying on her back in the mud, paddling her stumpy legs in the air to the cheers of onlookers gathered for the daily cabaret. We were at pains to warn everyone that she was indeed a wild hippo, and that they should avoid approaching or feeding her. Sands, my wife, was a good, and bad, example in this respect. When she noticed Esmerelda approaching during dinner, she would quietly collect her plate and glass of wine and make smartly for the stairs leading up to our ‘look out’ bar. Most of the guests took this as their cue to do the same. A mass exodus would follow, leaving just me and my immediate dining companions who I’d managed to restrain, and one hippo, all peacefully continuing our meal with the peanut gallery audience above us.

A group of German visitors arrived, celebrating a birthday, for which they’d specially brought a keg of beer. We consumed this in one evening. Next morning we were regaled with stories of weaving young men finding Esmarelda asleep on a sandpit near the path on their way home and taking pictures of each other reposing on her, which they showed us. Whether she was truly asleep, or plain tolerant, I don’t know, other than realizing what plain lucky young men they were, and the risk we were taking with our wild/tame camp hippo, though we all loved her.

She must have been the most photographed hippo in the world. One day, we received a letter from a lady in Canada who had just read about and seen pictures of Esmerelda in a Toronto newspaper. She related her strange story of how she had been working on a rhino project in the Matusadona two years before. Her favourite evening activity was to sit on the high ground at a point behind Fothergill and watch the sun go down. 

‘One evening,’ she wrote, ‘an extraordinary spectacle played out before me. A big cow hippo started running up and down the shoreline, enraged and bellowing. Catastrophically, it ran onto one of the many sharp, spear like stumps that stood amongst the grass [left from the living trees that had been submerged by the rising lake and were now dead and broken and as hard as steel], impaling herself, where she died in roaring agony. Aghast and dumbfounded, I walked down to inspect the carcass and seek the cause of the commotion, which I never found—maybe a croc after her baby? What I did find was the baby hippo nearby, which after a while overcame its shyness and approached its now dead mother, and me. An adoption process took place, and I walked back to the camp with a baby hippo following. We now had a no options camp pet, whom we named ‘Hey You’. We had to feed ‘her’ mealie meal (the staple diet of everybody in Africa, including Hey You). This rapidly became a somewhat hefty and unexpected increase in our food budget. I encouraged the cook to add grass in an attempt to wean the young lady off the mealie meal. No ways. Mealie meal was tastier. 

‘One day the cook, whose grass cutting duties were becoming quite onerous, suggested we pour the mealie meal onto the grass. Reducing its quantity daily, we finally persuaded Hey You into being a grass eating hippo. She would walk with me, even swim in the lake together, her keeping the crocs at bay, I hoped. She was a great companion. We bade a sad adieu after six months, returning again three months later to check on her. We boated round the bays I new so well, calling her name. There was a particular hippo that seemed quite friendly, but we didn’t want to presume on the reunion, in case it was somebody else!’ 

Our Canadian friend posed the question whether Esmerelda might be their ‘Hey You’, describing that ‘Hey You’ loved chocolate mousse, and could we try her on it? We didn’t, but I did notice a particularly brown set of hippo teeth. It was possible, and I passed on her best love. 

We called Esmarelda ‘her’, as that’s who we thought she was, until one evening we were amazed to see ‘her’ with a full and unashamed erection. It is very difficult to sex a young hippo, their genitals being completely hidden. Poor Esmerelda, in this delicate state, was greeted with hoots of laughter from all her onlookers. Soon after this, clearly the beginning of her manhood, she came unwittingly into competition with two territorial bulls, who chased ‘her’ off Fothergill to Long Island, some 5km offshore. There she seemed to settle down until a sad episode with some fishermen who mistook her intention when she came up with mouth wide open to envelope their  engine and give them a playful nudge, ended in her being shot dead. We had lost a special and much loved member of our family.

The moral of the story: No matter how cute and lovable they may be, leave wild animals to be wild – they will always be happier in the long run that way.