One thing I love the most about this job and the accompanying interactions with different people is that you get a good feel of different cultures and their perspectives on life. One of which I am most fond of is the interaction with the local Shangaan people here at Londolozi.
Having the privilege to learn and hear stories from trackers that have been in the game for almost three decades is exciting. Their stories are crazy. Not only what they’ve seen and done in the bush, but some of their folklore as well. Many of these stories are common between tribes, with a few minor variations, and I heard plenty of them as I was growing up, but the stories always get brought to life differently depending on who’s telling them
I was told a story not so long ago by tracker Joy Mathebula, who I have the good fortune of working with, about the relationship between the Hippo and the Hare. It is a story that stems from the Ndebele tribe in Zimbabwe but has spread its way through many of the tribes and cultures in Africa. Joy was told this story by many of the elders in his village and along with other stories similar to this, its a really fun and interesting way to learn the intricacies of the relationships that we find out here in the wild.
One morning when out on drive recently, we had an incredible sighting of a hippo out of the water feeding on some lush green grass. The hippo’s expression as he lifted his head to look at us was almost one of embarrassment, and as we had startled him by suddenly coming round a corner, he dashed back into the nearby waterhole. Driving a bit further we saw a little scrub hare dash into some long grass not too far from where the hippo had just been.
On drive that evening, standing off to one side from where I was pouring Gin and Tonics, Joy was having a quiet chuckle to himself, and I asked him what was so funny. He told me that our hippo sighting that morning had reminded him of the story from his childhood about why the hippo hides in the water during the day. He regaled our guests with it upon their insistence:
The Shangaan legend tells of a time when the Hippo was covered in a long and beautiful coat of fur. Unfortunately, he was immensely vain of his coat and took to staring at his reflection in the waterholes for hours on end. His vanity was such that it overflowed into open mockery of some of the other animals, who hippo didn’t believe were as beautiful as him. Unfortunately, one day by the waterhole, he chose to mock the Hare, a renowned trickster who, despite his small size, was generally known as an animal to be respected due to his cunning.
Affronted by the hippo’s insults, the hare plotted his revenge. Pretending to the hippo that he had prepared a nice bed of dry grass for him to sleep on, the Hare had in fact laid down the fuel for a fire, and once the hippo fell asleep on the grass, the Hare set it alight with a burning ember.
The flames scorched the hippo’s fur off, and so embarrassed was he that he chose to spend the rest of his days hiding in the safety of the water, ashamed to come out except at night to feed.
Or so the story goes…
The western world unromantically tends to stick to the reason instead of the myth: it is with a lack of fur and living a mostly an aquatic life the hippo’s skin has become extremely sensitive to the sun and they get sunburnt easily. Their skin dries out and starts to crack when they are out the water too long during the day. Spending most of their days submerged, they are in fact conserving energy, only using about a third as much per day as that of their terrestrial size-equivalent, the rhino.
The local stories are a lot more fun, I think…
Returning from evening game drive we are sometimes lucky to see the hippos setting out on the trek into the darkness to find some tasty grass. They are rather comical as they try to dash behind a bush or back into the water, almost as if they are shy and don’t want to be seen so naked and exposed.
I find old stories like Joy’s wonderful. With writing and record-keeping absent in much of old Africa, knowledge and culture was largely passed on through story-telling. Tales like this one of the hippo and the hare are just one more example of the incredibly colourful tapestry of African history.