Hippo encounters

Thursday, Dec. 29   6:45am.      Andrew and Kate Benc and sons Patrick and Richard stop by Casse 33 on their way to Shell jetty on N’Dogo lagoon for a day of fishing.  Celestine greets us at the jetty with the Carangue fueled and ready for launch.  The lagoon mirrors the morning sky, the silent reflection amplifying the distant calls of turacos and hornbills.  “The waters are still sleeping,” reflects Celestine, as we depart for Sette Cama.

Our plan was to arrive at high tide, but we are an hour past when we beach the Carangue on the lagoon side of the breakthrough, and the current is already emptying through to the sea beyond with increasing power.  I try my hand at spin-casting with a floating lure, hoping the current will direct my line to the turbulence at the mouth of the breakthrough, but before I can adjust position, the current has pulled line to the edge of the sand, and my lure spins hopelessly in the sand-abrading shallows that surface in the receding tide. I change to a sinking rapala but the strength of the tidal current is too great and line and lure are quickly beached.

Patrick and Richard and I try some trolling across the lagoon, along an island of mangroves. The sun appears through the veil of clouds and immediately the temperature rises as the humidity-laden air refracts beneath the sunlight.  The day is heating quickly.  White pelicans pass lazily overhead, drifting weightless on the thermals rising from the lagoon.  We come upon a monitor lizard hunting along the edge of the mangroves, and it plods off through the tangled roots like some battery-powered robot.  Richard manages to hook into a large barracuda and after a sporting struggle, we have it alongside the boat.  I try to manage the gaff, but being too careful to slide it under the gill of the slender, slippery fish, we lose it at the last instant.  It throws the lure, rolling back under the boat and diving away.

Back on the beach we have a quick lunch, then decide to go for tea at the Shell hut before spending an hour of mid-afternoon at rouge alley.  We try a little more trolling on our way.  Passing another mangrove island, we spot a hippo eyeing us, forty yards off the point of the island.  The classic portrait of round ears, bulging eyes and wire-whiskered snout slowly sinks from view, leaving us to wonder where it will next appear.

Breaking for tea at Shell hut, we spend a few minutes visiting with Alexanders’ and Fosters’, out for a few days of relaxation, then continue on to rouge alley.  Heading east from Sette Cama, we decide to work our way into rouge alley from river west, trolling up a narrow channel between islands of mangroves.  Rouge alley is comprised of a large shallow lake ringed by forested islands and peninsulas.  At the lake’s perimeter, I hook into a large carpe rouge, and with the light spin-casting gear tested nearly to the limits, struggle to crank in a four-kilo rouge.  This time Andrew handles the gaff with experience and the rouge is in the boat.

I pass the rod and take the wheel to circle back around where we entered the lake for another go.  The lake at this point is 1.6 meters in depth, as indicated on the depth-finder.  We slow to consider our next move, and, between our boat and shore, a great boil of water erupts as if some big oil drum has just bobbed to the surface.  The disturbance subsides, leaving us surprised at the mystery of its origin.  Thoughts of some giant fish, or crocodile or hippo pass around the boat when suddenly the boiling water erupts again, closer, then another, closer still, as whatever is churning the water below makes it way toward the boat, leaving us in a state of awe and frantic helplessness.  The sea mystery closes the distance on our boat with visible leaps and bounds; by now it is all but identifiable as a hippo charging toward the boat, and I throw the engine into neutral, preferring to deal with an angry hippo, rather than an angry, propeller-wounded hippo.  Within seconds it is passing directly under the boat, at 1.6 meters depth, then from beneath to the other side, continuing on for another twenty meters at full speed, moving through the water at perhaps three or four meters per second.  Then all is still again, but we are all eyes, searching the waters around us for what may be other hippos, not knowing where we might go to move out of the way, or whether we might move directly into another encounter.  After a few gripping moments we decide to continue our heading, and when we start out, there is additional commotion to lake side, as clearly several other animals move off to deeper water.  We slowly leave the area, and behind our wake detect muzzles breaking the surface of the lake, as the pod of hippos cautiously surveil their territory.  In retrospect, this was the same area where a fishing boat I was party to had a similar “boiling water” experience in early December that went unresolved.  It appears that this location has recurring hippo activity and deserves special caution, for hippos could easily crack the hull of a boat, or, if they breach the surface, could capsize a boat.  Not to mention the irritation of snagging one with a rapala.

The rest of our adventure takes us back across the lagoon.  The refreshing afternoon breeze provides some relief from the slumber-inducing heat and humidity of Sette Cama.  We pass narrow pirogues working their way between fishing nets, islands with ancient stands of forest set against the distant shimmering Doudou mountains of Moukalaba Doudou National Park, and overtake cormorant-like African darters skimming the water’s surface.  By 5:30, we cruise past the village of Plaine, and enter into the quiet shelter of Gamba lagoon.


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