Bossy and powerful, yet somehow rather cute, hippos are one of the easiest animals to find on an African safari. Most of the time you’ll be gazing at a series of grey mounds in the water. But on a multi-day safari you’ll also enjoy the excitement of hippos marching across the plains, or opening their monumental jaws.
The Most Misunderstood of Africa’s Mammals
Hippos have a strange fictionalised reputation. They’re portrayed as cuddly affable giants, which is about as incorrect as you could get. These are very aggressive mammals that would squash rather than hold you in embrace. Their days are spent grunting and fighting in the water, with their nights spent grunting and grazing through monumental quantities of grass.
Males are always competing for wading and mating rights, barging their way into a rival as they seek a place of authority within the pod. We’ll never forget the haunting sound that accompanied two males clashing heads at Lake Naivasha. We also remember the resonant sounds that lingered through the evening, as the defeated male was uprooting trees and grunting in anguish.
The Perfect Animal for a Safari Picnic
Hippos aren’t wanderers. They protect their piece of a lake or river, which makes them incredibly easy to find. Guides know that a certain river bend will be filled with a pod, so they tailor the game drive and stop at the river for a picnic or coffee break. Hippos are widespread across Africa and most parks have a small resident population.
Most famously, they’re found in large numbers in and around floodplains. For example, Northern Botswana, especially the Okavango Delta, has so many hippos you can see hundreds on a single boat cruise.
In the water they’re like large blobs. But stay patient and keep watching. Occasionally one of them yawns, revealing a staggering jaw. Sometimes two have a little quarrel, or one emerges onto the bank for a brief bit of food. When you take a picnic you have time to watch the pod’s behaviour and really appreciate the nuances of what’s going on.
The Elusive Hippo Out of the Water Sight
A more elusive and impressive sight is hippos out of the water. Dusk is a mystical time and we know some excellent camps that overlook the water, meaning you can watch the hippos emerge as sunset paints the sky. Nighttime game drives reveal them on the grasslands, slowly munching their way through an astonishing quantity of grass.
Sunset boat cruises also provide legendary shots of the nocturnal hippos emerging. We can recommend some great cruises on the Zambezi and Chobe rivers, where you sip cocktails as the pod starts emerging from the water.
Bizarrely, hippos can’t actually swim. Instead, they hold their breath, sink to the bottom of the water, and walk. While there’s a predictability that makes locating them easy, these are animals full of surprise and unusual antics, especially when you find the big pods that number 20 or more individuals.
Being Amongst Hippos on Your African Safari
Throughout the evening you hear echoed wheeze-honks and watch the silhouette of a giant grazer explore the plains below the camp. But when morning comes the hippos are gone, returned to their daily wading spaces in the water. Hippos are one of African safaris easiest finds, but seeing them in the open requires good guides and great camps.
Our understanding of Africa helps us recommended destinations that are perfect for all the adoring hippo fan in everyone.