From the Mouth – Death by Hippos

Billy Ward is not your typical human. Funny, outgoing, slightly seedy and definitely hilarious, he mixes slight bravery and masses of fear with finding himself in ever more stupid adventures. If there is one thing he can guarantee, it’s that even the most mundane trips can become an epic adventure. 

Karma is just around the next bend – honest.

Riding a new BMW 1200 GSA Adventure through rural Zambia in the summer is such a pleasure and a nice way to spend ones life – and earn a living. The sun was shining and my spirits were high. The main group of riders were hours ahead of me now, due to the fact that I was fulfilling my ‘tale end Charley’ role, which means fixing a few punctures along the way and helping riders through some challenging sandy sections. Front-end Charley – a proper Charley, was undoubtedly already at the destination hotel and ready to cool off in the pool after sipping an African favourite, a spiced rum and coke.

 I’m experienced enough to know that lions eat people, elephants trample them and hippos may be vegetarian, but they’re continually angry and can give you a nasty suck.

Earlier I’d spent a couple of hours at a collapsed bridge. The fact that it had collapsed wouldn’t have been clear till it was too late. You’d find yourself flying through the air with all the local kids watching, perhaps thinking you were really cool – till the landing. Not having Sky Channel or Guy Martin on tap, the local kids get a lot of pleasure watching old white people doing stupid things on big motorbikes, in their backyard. It’s probably educational too.

The bridge had washed out during recent biblical rains (apparently sent by someone’s God due to a Gay Pride march in San Francisco eight months earlier) and the way across was now down a steep siding into the dry sandy riverbed and back up the other bank. The sand was deep. Deep enough to make you feel like you’d chosen the wrong bike, wrong tyres, wrong body and wrong holiday. I was unsure of whether I was the last rider or not, so decided to wait for a while and make certain no latecomers inadvertently did an Evel Knievel over the ravine.

I checked my watch. It was about four thirty in the afternoon and as sunset would be between five thirty and six I decided not to wait any longer. I was definitely last man standing and needed to crack on as riding in the dark in Africa is a massive big “no” – the night-time is for the animals. A few miles down the track I came across Brian and Karen, an Australian couple on a BMW GS 800, stuck at the side of the track with a flat rear tyre, looking hot and a bit stressed. They’d obviously been there a while.

Hoorah, Billy’s here, our hero”, I heard them say – in my head. They may have also said “He’s so cool, clever and attractive. He’ll fix the puncture and we can catch-up with the rest of the group before the lions, tigers and bears come out looking for their dinner.” Of course, that may have been in my head as well.

The trouble is, when it comes to punctures, the GS 1200’s with their tubeless tyres are literally a 10min job, but the GS 800s are tubed. It’s a different story. Wheel off, tyre off, tube out etc. I’m really only equipped for the quick fix 1200s, so we have a conundrum: three people, one working bike, it’s getting dark and I’m experienced enough to know that lions eat people, elephants trample them and hippos may be vegetarian, but they’re continually angry and can give you a nasty suck.

We’re in the bush about a kilometre from a river. It’s hot and sticky, with a beautiful yet mysterious canopy of jungle in the near distance where the hungry bad things live. We had no phone cover, no chance of getting help and were at least four hours ride away from any form of civilisation. I had to work through the possible solutions quickly.

Brian was a nice guy. His wife Karen was gorgeous. OK, I have it. Send Brian on ahead on my bike, while I create a Bear Grylls inspired night shelter for Karen and me. It’ll be a cold night, but using our own body heat wisely, we’ll probably make it through the night. Brian can organise our recovery in the morning, or in a few days, or weeks. Ok, ok – so I was lonely.

While I was still musing through my options, Brian grabbed my arm. “Billy, the sun is dropping below the horizon, this is serious man, what are we going to do?”

So, the right course of action was taken. Working on the Karma principle and the simple fact that it was my job to look after the clients, I gave them my bike and wished them a safe onward journey to the comfort and safety of the hotel, some four or five hours ride away. I’ll stay the night here with their bike and they can arrange the support vehicle to return early in the morning with a few tools and an inner tube. Don’t you just hate reality sometimes?

Re-reading my survival leaflet, which conveniently came free with my Swiss Army knife, I noted that neither lion attacks nor hippo-buggerings were covered in any great detail.

As the loving couple rode off into the setting sun clutching each other tightly, I waved, gently wiping a tear from my eye wondering which was worst; being eaten alive by a lion or buggered by a hippo in the dead of night. Yes, I know, I’m a bit of a thinker.

I moved the bike into the bush and went collecting wood and stones to create the centrepiece of my evening – a fire. This would be a bad time to get bitten by a snake so I sang Abba songs really loud as I moved through the scrub searching for fuel – snakes hate Abba, it’s a commonly known fact.

Twilight here is really non-existent and in a very short time the sun had gone to bed and the stars were twinkling across a beautiful black canopy. The Milky Way was as clear as in an astrology textbook. I’d built a nice camp with branches, some big logs and stones. I’d used some petrol soaked rags wrapped around a couple of sticks as a method to scare animals away in an emergency and placed them to one side. I also had a collection of rocks, my handy catapult, bought in Lusaka from a ten year old, a Swiss Army knife and my military strike torch all neatly laid out in my armoury in case the bad things come to get me.

I had good night vision and felt pretty happy in my little wilderness camp – till I lit the fire that is. Once lit my vision was restricted to the immediate area around the fire. Looking outward to the bush it was just pitch black, full of demons eyes, lions and tigers – all of them staring back at me and waiting.

In that few seconds I changed from ‘Billy Big Bollox’ to wanting my mummy now. Right now!

I heard what was definitely a kill – that desperate throaty scream and gurgle of a poor creature that was obviously now in the mouth of a predator.

Being a little dismayed at how quick my wood pile was being consumed by the raging bonfire I acknowledged the stark reality that at some point I’d need to venture back into the bush for more wood. Re-reading my survival leaflet, which conveniently came free with my Swiss Army knife, I noted that neither lion attacks nor hippo-buggerings were covered in any great detail. I could feel the change in the air as the hot sticky sweat of the day was now having a chilling effect on my meaty, edible and desirable body. That’s when the noises started.

At first it was just an occasional hooting owl and a snorting pig like noise. Then came the frogs, bats and the insects. A veritable orchestra of fauna and flora began to ring out in every direction. I tried to keep calm and roll with it. I’ve heard it all before – but not alone, in the dark, in the bush. It wasn’t easy. Then just when I thought I’m good, my nerves were shattered by a crunching, munching, rushing noise that clearly indicated something large, something near.  This was underpinned by a deep breathy baritone grunting that caused nearby bushes to resonate and birds to take flight.

Hippos make a great noise. Once you’ve heard it, you’ll always recognise it. Their mouths can open as wide as two metres from top to bottom jaw – which, when you think about it, means that I could literally stand up inside a hippos mouth. Its teeth are sharp and full of bacteria and a bull can weigh in at over three tons. It’s as big as a small van – a van with teeth, bad breath and a wicked temper.

Well, I knew what it was and I was scared, for sure. They can often travel a few miles from the river in search of good grass. I looked around my camp and noticed how lovely the grass seemed. Then, a long way away I heard what was definitely a kill – that desperate throaty scream and gurgle of a poor creature that was obviously now in the mouth of a predator. It at least took my mind off the hippo. Out of sheer terror I considered running along the road in the direction of the hotel, just to be out of the bush – but funnily enough, animals do this too, for the same reasons – so I dropped that idea. Nope, there was nowhere to run. I even thought of praying, but was unsure to whom?

Still sitting in the light of the fire, my ears were like radar. I noticed how the noises changed throughout the night as different cycles of life moved on or stopped. I thought, ironically, how lucky I was to even experience these fears and my mind took me back to living on a scruffy housing estate in Liverpool as a teenager, with high unemployment, high crime and limited horizons. I thought too how my eight year old told her class and teacher a few years ago, that her dad was an adventurer, like the man in the Indiana Jones films, and how I was invited to do a talk about Africa to the rest of the school. So, all in all things are good yeah? The noises morphed into a low background melody. I’d not been eaten yet and I slowly drifted off into deeper thoughts and memories about success and failure, about relationships, nasal hair and the merits of waxing. If I did get eaten right now, would I have changed anything that had gone before?

Billy, Billy…! What are you on?” Came a voice driving a thin wedge between my dreams and reality. It took a second or two to break away from my thoughts and then I saw John, our lead guide, a Cyclops with his military style head torch casting a beam of diffused red light across the camp. He walking towards me, framed majestically by a glowing sky, the beginnings of a new dawn.

The fire was out, but still glowing. Apparently, John had been looking for me for a good hour or so.

Bet you were shitting yourself out here Billy boy!” He said as we loaded the stricken BMW onto the trailer.

Nah, not really John”, I said, full of confidence “Hard-core mate, all good here. Just another day in the office”.

Stay happy, take opportunities and be nice to hippos…

Inset: Fancy Africa with Biketruck – oh and Charley Boorman? Each year they lead a group of people across Southern Africa. Riding BMW’s from Cape Town up into Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique and Lesotho before returning back to Cape Town. A real adventure and a great laugh

Check out and follow Billy on Twitter / Facebook

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