WATCH FOR HIPPOS, CROCODILES; AT LEAST THE HIPPOS ALONG THE ZAMBESI RIVER ARE VEGETARIANS

VICTORIA FALLS, Zimbabwe – Are that big-mouthed, loud-larynxed hippo’s tonsils pink? Or is it just the setting sun reflecting off the water into its face?

We are not going to get close enough to find out. Sure, this is one of those creatures that seemed so lovable as portrayed in Walt Disney’s “Fantasia,” decked out in tutus and gavotting sweetly to the “Waltz of the Flowers.” However, . . . . However, you do not want to cruise up to massive chinside to check tonsils by applying a tongue suppressor and coaxing, “Say aaahhh, please.” No. When a hippo snorts, “Aaahhh!” as this one is doing without any prompting, it shivers the timbers of any foolishly really-up-close boat, and threatens passengers’ eardrums, at the least.

These are bad-tempered water dudes, says the skipper of our 25-foot craft that seems so frail in the presence of a plenty-ton Zambezi River hippopotamus.

“This is close enough,” says Larry Munkombwe at the wheel of the flat-bottomed power boat that is idling about 100 feet from the protruding gray head and shoulders of a resident monster. “They are very dangerous. Hippos are responsible for several thousand human deaths a year in Zimbabwe.

“They can’t swim, you know.”

I didn’t know.

“But they run on the bottom, and they run very fast. This one has popped up for air. But they can stay under for quite a time, and they like to tip over boats. They account for a lot of drownings. He could overturn us, so we’ll keep our distance.”

Hippos are vegetarians with no taste for human beings, Munkombwe says. “But they can mangle and stomp you to death, knock you around badly if they catch somebody on land. They look ponderous, but are deceptively fast for a short distance.”

Beside us four hooded eyes appear like floating Ping-Pong balls, behind two snouts. A pair of crocodiles are watching us watching the hippo. They would love the hippo to play bump-the-boat and force a turnover. Crocs aren’t squeamish or fussy about people flesh.

Mukombwe says sadly, “Just this morning a guy fishing on the bank, not far from here, was eaten by a crocodile. I knew him. People saw it. The croc came out of the river so fast, got behind the guy, and forced him into the water. It was over quick. Never go swimming or wading in the Zambezi. This river has more crocs per 100 meters than any place else in the world. They’re bigger – maybe 15 feet, almost 600 pounds – and more aggressive than your American alligators.”

“Somebody told us,” says Marie Jowett, an Englishwoman, “this boat ride is one of the most peaceful things you can do. But we’re being shadowed by crocodiles, maybe undermined by hippos . . . .”

“Just stay in the boat and relax. Have a beer,” says the skipper, laughing. “You’ll see.”

He’s right, and Zambezi brand beer is very good.

The evening Jet Boat Cruise is a relatively recent addition to the Zambezi scene, a different look at this goliath of a river. Most visitors see the Zambezi from another direction and in its most agitated state – toppling over a 300-foot cliff as steaming, storming, stupendous Victoria Falls, a mile-plus-wide stretch of wild, wilfully, wondrous water.

But up here, above the free-fall frenzy, the mighty 1,700- mile-long Zambezi is easy, olive drab-hued, loafing along on its way to cataclysm amid cataracts. As a World Heritage area, this sector still leads a sheltered life much as it was when the Scottish missionary-explorer David Livingstone followed the river and the tall tales he’d heard from natives to the tall Falls in 1855, christening it for his queen, Victoria.

Heavy bush lines the banks. Wandering elephants are crazy about the the fruit of the lala, palm trees that impersonate starbursts. Small grassy islands, lily pads, hyacinths of white and purple punctuate the flow. Away from the mainstream, the river cuts through forested tracts, creating mysterious corridors.

Of course, there are tour boats, large and not very maneuverable, offering excursions-with-meals. But the shallow draft Jet Boats, which can travel through rapids and in depths of mere inches, skittering like water bugs, are the fun. And it’s soon clear to his five passengers that Larry Munkombwe knows his river and his vehicle intimately. He’s not going to let the monitoring crocs or hippos get us.

Demonstrating controlled brinksmanship, he steers among crosscurrents, eddies, rocks, swerving through white water toward Devil’s Cataract, the west end of the falls, to within 100 yards of the rim of no return: Victoria’s downfall. The edge, a football field away, has an innocent enough look that is contradicted by the ominous rumble and clouds of mist. Long before Queen Victoria and Livingstone, the local folks called it “the smoke that thunders.”

“No closer,” Larry says with a smile. Nobody wants to go over this falls in a barrel or anything else.

Now the return voyage from the precipice turns serene, placid, blood-pressure-lowering as the sun lowers, too, signaling quitting time. Time to go home. More hippos appear in water turned tangerine. They look friendlier, belching and waving goodbye by wiggling their ears.

But they are upstaged by a blizzard of egrets. It is avian rush hour. Open-boot storks seek their trees.

“Do they deliver babies here, too?” wonders Marie Jowett.

“Of course – but black babies,” quips ebony-faced Larry.

A dense flock of black ibises, crying like babies, speeds toward a waterberry tree on an island that they share with snowy egrets, creating a harlequin pattern of black and white. Flurries of black-masked-yellow-feathered weaver birds return to the fuzzy nests they’ve loomed, which hang from trees like Christmas ornaments.

Larry takes us into a side stream, a gloomy hallway of another birdy rooming house, that evokes Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Then he pulls up against the shore, saying, “I want to show you something special. Just a short walk.”

“But it’s all been special,” say Marie’s husband, Bill Jowett.

“We are very proud of this,” he says, nodding upward. Suddenly we realize that the branches above belong to an endless tree: an ancient, wrinkled, twisted baobab. “It’s also a walk to go around the trunk – 65 feet. It’s 100 feet tall and 1,700 years old. We would like to see it up against one of your American redwoods.”

Sorry, but I didn’t bring one.

Back in the boat we are overcome by the light show of dusk. The river is aflame, the sky tinted champagne, smoky blue, rose, lilac.

It’s that way until he docks and helps us off. Thanks, Larry. The hippos and crocs didn’t get us – but the Zambezi did.

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