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Okavango Expedition 2013: The Hippo Whisperers

From Steve Boyes’ (@drsteveboyes) expedition diary: After the massive release of leaving the dry floodplains from the last few days, it was very difficult to deal with the series of hippo encounters we had this morning. The research team was hoping to drift down the channel counting birds and recuperating from five days of physical...

From Steve Boyes’ (@drsteveboyes) expedition diary:

After the massive release of leaving the dry floodplains from the last few days, it was very difficult to deal with the series of hippo encounters we had this morning.

The research team was hoping to drift down the channel counting birds and recuperating from five days of physical labour in the wilderness. Each pod of hippos refused to move out of the only dried up channel bed we both have to use in this magnificent wilderness. We clapped and slapped the water. We talk and whispered to them, pleading with them to us pass without harm. We waved our arms in frustration. The baYei polers with us were the most vocal and interactive with the hippos, continuing an age-old relationship that has played out over thousands of years.

From Paul Steyn’s (@paulsteyn1) expedition diary:

My experience of hippos has always been one of pure respect. It’s common knowledge that these animals result in the most number of human fatalities in Africa. With this in mind, I was enormously surprised with the confidence that the baYei polers were facing up to these lumps today

There’s only so much space in the thin waterways of the Okavango, and hippos, being fairly sizable water-dwellers, take up most of the room. The first pod we encountered was slightly skittish and moved off as we approached, but soon they found their way back to the water just ahead of our mokoros. The baYei polers, with their hundreds of years experience dealing with these types of situations, knew exactly what to do.

Chaps trying to move the hippos from our path - a technique the baYei have used for many years.
Chaps trying to move the hippos from our path – a technique the baYei have used for many years.

The only way I can describe the polers hippo diversion technique is a combination of ‘hippo whispering’ combined with blind, savage balls! GB, Chaps, KG and the guys used their poles to slap the water, communicate through a series of guttural sounds, and charge at the hippos like crazy people. I watched all this happen in awe. And then, when the hippos started to charge back, the awe somehow turned to blind fright, and I didn’t know whether to run or join in with the mad shouting. Some of the beasts left the water but a majority stuck around in the pool right in front of our mokoros. We had to come up with another plan.

For the first time I was given sole command of our mokoro while KG chatted to the hippos. I poled up beside the pod, hugging the bank. This was everything I’d been advised never to do near territorial hippos. At one point I was poling not more than 5 meters from the hippos. Despite the odd pissed off grunt, I thankfully managed to sneak past without getting flattened.

I’d figured that this ‘hippo-whispering’ was a once-off thing, never to be attempted again. But we repeated this process in various ways four or five times before camp. Chasing and intimidating hippos has become something of a habit now. Just before sunset I was photographing one big male in a pool, and just as I started moving off, he reared up and came at me the intent to end my life (or so I thought). I shouted at the big guy and told him to back the hell off.

It may seem aggressive the way we dealt with the hippo situation today, but the baYei have had hundreds of years to understand their place in this system, and this is just one important way they get by.

Survival becomes second nature in the wilderness. And I’m surprising myself every day

From Steve Boyes’ expedition diary:

The baYei arrived in the Okavango Delta in the late 1770s when Hankuzi, a hippo hunter from the Zambezi valley, left his home in search of hippos with his family. He poled and poled across the Chobe flats, down into the Linyanti swamps, and eventually into the Okavango Delta on the floodwaters. Most importantly he arrived with a new and revolutionary technology, the mokoro, a dug-out canoe carved from local hardwood trees. When they arrived they discovered thousands of hippo in a wetland wonderland, shallow, flat and perfect for mokoros to traverse with ease. On the periphery of the Okavango they met the Banoka River Bushman who had been living in the area for millennia. They shared technology, knowledge and genes and, along with the Tswana and Hambakushu, established the villages inside and surrounding the delta.

The Banoka people knew everything about living in the Okavango Delta, but had not ventured more than 20 kilometers into this vast wilderness. The baYei were the first human beings to enter the central delta with their mokoros and the knowledge of the Banoka. They were the first to bring European ivory hunters into the Okavango Delta in the 1890s when rindepest eradicated most of the buffalo and with them the tsetse flies that were killing these first explorers with sleeping sickness. As then, the baYei are the gatekeepers of the remotest regions of the Okavango Delta that is only accessible using mokoros.

The stunning plains in front of Mombo, Chiefs Island.
The stunning plains in front of Mombo, Chiefs Island.

As people from the developed world, it is impossible to understand the interaction between indigenous peoples and their wild. The wilderness that people from “developed” countries approach is subtle. Rock and ice, secondary forests, high mountains, polar regions and places that have been allowed to be “wild”. Beautiful places that connect us with eternity and make us believe in this planet and realign how we live our lives. This results in a deep, sensitive experiences alone in the wilderness thinking about our role on earth. Dealing with a wilderness with teeth, claws, tusks and horns everyday has a different effect on a people. The baYei, for instance, take no risks and have learnt to always interact with wildlife and make sure they understand what you are doing, whether that be catch fish, hunt lechwe, or simply pass by. People need to break this separation. We need to recognise our unity with all life on earth and initiate natural interactions with our blue planet that celebrates our place on this planet.

 We look forward to learning more tomorrow. Please follow our footsteps at

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Steve Boyes
Steve Boyes has dedicated his life to conserving Africa's wilderness areas and the species that depend upon them. After having worked as a camp manager and wilderness guide in the Okavango Delta and doing his PhD field work on the little-known Meyer's Parrot, Steve took up a position as a Centre of Excellence Postdoctoral Fellow at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology. He has since been appointed the Scientific Director of the Wild Bird Trust and is a 2014 TED Fellow. His work takes him all over Africa, but his day-to-day activities are committed to South Africa's endemic and Critically Endangered Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus). Based in Hogsback Village in the Eastern Cape (South Africa), Steve runs the Cape Parrot Project, which aims to stimulate positive change for the species through high-quality research and community-based conservation action. When not in Hogsback, Steve can be found in the Okavango Delta where he explores remote areas of this wetland wilderness on "mokoros" or dug-out canoes to study endangered bird species in areas that are otherwise inaccessible. Steve is a 2013 National Geographic Emerging Explorer for his work in the Okavango Delta and on the Cape Parrot Project.