It is early morning, a cool breeze runs over our faces while we drive in our open 4x4. Following the course of the magnificient Chobe River we set off to find the perfect spot. With the engine switched off, my eight guests and I sit in absolute silence on the roof of the truck, each with a freshly brewed African cup of coffee and a 'beskuit' or rusk.
Breathing in the sweet morning scents we wait, hoping for the big herds of elephants to arrive. With a 360 degree view of the most beautiful stretch of river in Southern Africa there is absolute calm. As the time slows we see zebras, giraffes, hippos, crocs..... but no elephants. We even spot a pack of African wild dogs playing excitedly, perhaps an indication that they have recently fed. Explaining to the guests that it is very rare to see them, nevermind so playfull, the calmness is suddenly interrupted by the spine-chilling howl of a hyena, who comes sprinting past us. It is focussed on something, something at the water's edge. On the bank in the mud lies a fully grown hippo, motionless .... perhaps dead? She twitches...and the we notice a small, precious package in the mud behind her: a brand new baby hippopotamus! She has just given birth!
The hyena, eternal opportunist and master tracker, has been drawn here by the blood. In a flash the hyena decends on the helpless youngster and snatches it from behind its weakened and immobile mother. "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!" cry my guests, unable to contain their emotions or objectivity. There is no TV screen in front of us. We are here, involved, a part of this remarkable and dramatic story. We are inhaling the same air and hearing the same cries. This baby has not even taken its first breath, its eyes have barely opened, and already it stares death in the face. Unable to rise and get to the aid of her moaning, helpless calf, the mother stares ahead with what seems like eyes full of tears. Soon, it will all be over.
From nowhere she arrives, running down the hill in silence, a powerful Godsend wind: a large matriarch elephant storms right past us, and in a bizarre show of trust leaves her own calf just two metres away from our vehicle. She unleashes a ferocious trumpet and with her ears pinned back and her trunk high in the air, she charges straight at the hyena, with the rest of her herd gathering to watch from behind. With three and a half tons of grey giant bearing down on it the hyena drops the baby hippo, and in its panic to escape dives through the hooked thorns of a wooly caper bush.
I am dumb-sturck by what I am witnessing, my fingers absently wrapping around my forgotten camera, knowing no images will ever portray what is happening here. An animal leaving its young in the safety of others to save another of a different kind?
The mother hippo finally magaes to rise, and rushes to her calf's side, who has only a missing ear to show for the miracle it just took park in. After a brief reunion, the mother hippo and elephant face each other and stare deep into eachother's eyes for two long minutes. What are they thinking? We are overcome with emotion and questions, we have just witnessed one of nature's most beautiful encounters. The matriarch turns towards us and her calf, who has remained motionless beside our vehicle throughout the episode: not even the binoculars that fall from our roof distract its attention. Why has the calf not stayed with the safety of its mother? Why has she left the calf with us? My only answer to the guests is that Mother Nature has decided this young hippo's life must not end today.
The mother ambles up to us and stares at us briefly, before collecting her young one and leading it back across the river. Just before disappearing, she turns and looks at the hippo and calf. Her facial expression says something like "Hamba Kahle", or "Stay well".
Returning to the same spot many months later I see a mother hippo and a youngster with no right ear. I retell the story to my new guests around the evening campfire, and we speak of things not understood, a way of the world we are often blind to. A hyena calls in the darkness, and I wonder what other stories are unfolding as we speak.
This experience will remain with me for ever and I will dedicate my life to conserving the wilderness and teaching others to help do the same.