Thursday, July 18, 2013

I Kissed a Hippo

At least once a day for the past three weeks Scott has been flying patterns in the airspace over Hoedspruit South Africa. Scott’s flying lessons are the reason we are in Hoedspruit for a month, the estimated time it will take for Scott to gain the hours needed for a microlight pilot license. I know now where the term “He has his head in the clouds” comes from because Scott completely and utterly loves flying. I’ve never seen him so happy.
“Ask Bruce if you will solo today,” I said. “I don’t want to miss your first lone take off and landing in a micro light!”

At 6am Scott sent a text to his flight instructor Bruce, “Do you think I will solo today? Tris wants to be there.” Bruce texted back, “You’ll only solo when I feel it’s right for you to do so.” So off Scott went to fly his circuits as usual with Bruce in the seat next to him. Two hours later he was back. Just by the look on his face I could tell. “You soloed didn’t you.” 

“Yes. Half-way through the lesson, Bruce turned to me and said, “You’re ready.” Scott had a pained look on his face. “I’m sorry you weren’t there. It was so unexpected that I didn’t have time to think. Bruce got out of the plane while it was on the runway and I flew one circuit and landed. I was only in the air for 5 minutes. It's not a big deal.”

I felt so many emotions all at once. I was so proud of him. I was happy and sad at the same time. How could I have missed such an important event.... More important for me than for Scott it seemed. Scott had started and stopped flying lessons since he was 14 years old. Many of his friends are or have been pilots, some have flown honorably for the military. As far as Scott was concerned this was just an opportunity to obtain a license once and for all, just for fun. But for me, it was a big deal. How often does one get to see their spouse flying a little plane, solo, over Africa? Only once!


I hugged and kissed him. “Congratulations Scott. I’m very proud of you.  I so wanted to be there… Did they give you champagne (as is customary at Hoedspruit Civil Airfield upon completion of a first solo flight) when you landed?…”. Then, “I can’t believe you went solo with out me!” which sounds funny now that I think about it. But those who know us know we do practically everything together. If there were any couple who would solo together, if would be us. We rarely celebrate individual victories or accomplishments without the other present for the champagne toast. Now, after 35 years, we had become like so many other couples who “do their own thing”. 

It seemed I should do something solo too. But it had to be something equally adventurous and risky and fun and death defying. I decided to confront my biggest fear in the biggest way possible. I drove 18 kilometers out of town and kissed a hippo.

The path to Jessica The World Famous Hippo is not easy. The heavily corrugated, potholed, intestine-jostling gravel road made me regret the entire bag of Doritos I ate when I stopped at The Giant Baobab on the way.
When I finally arrived at the farm where Jessica lives, Rein met me at the gate with, “You drove out here by yourself?”
“Yes.” I paused trying not to think about what would happen to all those Doritos if Jessica gave me a sudden fright. “My husband will be so sorry he missed this.” Then I asked, “Do you have champagne?”
Rein gave me a funny look. “Uh, Jessica drinks tea,” he answered.
“Okay whatever. My husband will still be sorry he missed this!”

Rein led me down to a fence made of logs and asked me to climb over it. Only it was a little taller than crotch height so my attempt at a slow motion hurdle was not very successful. Walking like Tex Ritter, I followed Rein to a wooden bench. “Sorry about that," he said. "I don’t know why the owners won’t install a gate for guests.” Then, “I’ll be right back. I think I hear another visitor.” Soon, short newlyweds from New York were seated next to me on the bench. I wondered how they got over the fence. Their stocky built guide stood a distance away enjoying a Coke. Maybe he lifted them over. We chatted about the animals they have seen so far on their trip, how long they are in Africa etc.

“Did you drive here by yourself?” they asked. “Weren’t you scared? What if something happened to your car?”

People often express surprise when they see me out and about by myself. Just the other day I decided to walk the 4 kilometers from Lisl’s house where we are staying in Raptors View to the main gate. Every time a vehicle came into view the driver slowed down and asked if I wanted a lift. I spent more time turning down rides than walking. I began to worry that I would miss my appointment for a desperately needed full body scrub (feet included which is a good value for me) at the Hoedspruit Day Spa so I ultimately accepted a ride from a contractor. 

“Are you walking alone?” he asked in his lilting born-in-Zimbabwe accent. “You aren’t afraid? Don’t you know that there are reptiles? And leopards?” and we talked about the recent leopard sightings all the way to the gate. There wasn’t enough time to discuss the snakes. Funny enough, I saw one yesterday while walking on the Aardvark Trail.                                                                     

I turned to the couple from New York “Sure I drove here alone! My husband and I used to do everything together but these days, not so much." I paused and watched as they comfortably swung their legs to and fro above the concrete patio floor. "How did you get over the fence?”

We watched a short video about Jessica. Jessica was only a few days old when she washed up on the bank of the Blyde River during the epic flood of 2000. If retired game ranger Tonie Roubert had not spotted Jessica trapped in some debris, she would have died. She spent the first five years of her life living in Tonie and Shirley’s home before being re-introduced to the river. For the last 13 years, the Rouberts swim with her, cuddle her, give her massages, and hand feed her sweet potatoes, corn, and warm rooibos tea from a bottle. Every night Jessica beds down on the veranda outside the house. She is never caged and she is free to roam the river with wilder hippos anytime she desires. Jessica sometimes joins a raft of hippos along the river for a day or two but she always comes back to the Joubert’s. She has a strong bond with their 5 dogs; one even sleeps on top of her at night and she has been featured in over 80 documentaries and movies.

Rein led us down a ramp to where Jessica was waiting in the water alongside a wobbly floating dock. He handed me a bucket half-filled with cut up sweet potatoes. “You can each take turns feeding Jessica. Place a slice of potato in her mouth and when she stops chewing and closes her mouth you can pet her nose.”

The first thing I noticed about Jessica is that she is the size of a VW bus. Her long, razor sharp tusks make my Nacho Cheese Dorito laden tummy do somersaults. The inside of Jessica's mouth is very pink and muscular looking - six pack gums so to speak. Also, she has bad breath.

I knelt down and popped a piece of potato in her cavernous mouth. She chewed twice before opening her mouth again for more. Each time I fed her I petted her nose. I couldn’t believe I was actually touching a hippo. Ever since we were charged by a hippo while canoeing on the Zambezi River in 2005, I have been terrified of hippos. I had no desire to get anywhere near them ever again. I think Jessica may have cured me.
After I fed her the potatoes, I massaged her back with my bare feet. After that, I gave her a big bottle of tea. After the tea, I gave her a kiss on her nose.

When I returned home that afternoon Scott, head in the clouds, forgot to ask where I had been.

It didn’t matter. I kissed a hippo!

1 comment:

  1. Teresa, this was such a great post! I'm catching up on the last 3 articles right now. I love your independent spirit and your ability to go out and do everything, even when you're by yourself.