The warning signs along South Africa’s Indian Ocean coastline are rather unusual, to say the least. It’s not sharp bends or speed bumps you have to look out for – it’s hippos.
At the bottom of a gorgeously languid estuary system, St Lucia initially appears to be a happy-go-lucky holiday town. But despite the sunshine, bars, restaurants and boat trips, there’s also an ever-present menace from portly beasts.
The town, about 150 miles north of Durban, was built on a hippo pathway and every evening the animals leave the water to graze in grassy fields – the hippos have simply refused to acknowledge that they should shift.
David explored St Lucia, a town in South Africa which is home to a ‘hippo pathway’ where the dangerous animals, pictured here fighting on the estuary, roam freely
If walking or driving after dark, there’s a strong chance that you might encounter one of the so-called ‘townies’. But as staff of the hippo-watching river cruises during the day warn, you don’t want to get too close to them.
Hippos are responsible for more deaths in Africa every year than any other mammal, which is quite something considering they’re vegetarian. Skipper Stacey Farrell, at the helm of the Shoreline Boat and Walking Safaris vessel, says it’s their temperament that’s the problem.
‘They are extremely territorial,’ she says. ‘If we were another hippo, they’d be attacking us.’
We’re very fortunate that the three families nearest the town are now tolerant of boats. This allows us to get remarkably close. Elsewhere in Africa – and, indeed, further down the estuary – hippos are much more likely to attack boats. They are very grouchy, aggressive and instinctively opt for fight rather than flight.
If walking or driving after dark, there’s a strong chance that you might encounter one of the so-called ‘townies’
It’s instructive that there are also crocodiles – we see them sunning themselves on the banks – and bull sharks in the water. But they give the hippos a wide berth. Even those great predators don’t want to take them on.
As the boat sidles up to one family, there’s a furore.
One’s probably trodden on another’s foot, and there’s a cacophony of grunting going on. They’re in the water because they can’t sweat. Spending the day belly-down in the shallows is an essential coping mechanism under the hot sun.
But that doesn’t stop the little ones from playing. One leaps out of the water, doing its best impression of a flying fish. It’s remarkably cute – or at least it seems that way until I ask what would happen if I jumped in with it.
Without the slightest hesitation, Stacey answers: ‘Its mum would kill you.’
Yes, I think I’ll drive to the restaurant this evening…