We had come to a halt, still in open water but only a few yards from the right bank. We could observe the hippo activity completely now and we watched them yawn, those huge gaping jaws showing off the chunky tusks on each corner. A low laugh would come from different individuals; it really did sound like a slow and deliberate guffaw and its echoes vibrated around the riverbank and into the forest.
We grew aware that the bull was not all together happy with our presence. He would gently raise his head, maybe to get a better look at us, maybe to show how big he was, and it would be associated with a blast of air through his nose which would send a spray several metres across the water.
All together with some young as well, we counted eleven hippos. The young had now gathered close to their mothers. We asked the warden whether it was safe to remain here. He seemed pretty relaxed so we continued to watch, although I did glance up at the bank to my right to see if there was an escape route if I needed it. In theory hippos are safer in water than on land. They feel calmer as they know they can submerge and move along the bottom, and as long as we did not directly confront them they would continue to wallow. They felt nervous and vulnerable on land. And at least in water if they came for you you might get a glancing blow and the water would take you away, on land the weight of a couple of ton of sausage would give you some nasty injuries… or so I rationalised.
Their behaviour continued to worry everyone but the warden. The bull had found a rock or sandbank in the river and was now raising himself out of the water past the shoulders while flapping his ears menacingly at us and continuing the snorts from his nostrils. Without us being aware of it happening, the rest of the family were now stretched up and down the left bank in a line about 100m long. A couple of the younger hippos were also mimicking the dominant bull; facing us and doing the same manoeuvres.
It was when the bull submerged and then re-emerged about 20m closer to us that the four tourists decided that enough was enough – nice to get so close but no need to aggravate them further. The river was wide at this point but a couple of the hippos were now upstream of us and in theory could cut off any attempt to retrace our cruise. There were still several hippos below us too and we were steadily being ambushed. So we told, did not ask, the guide that we would go. I put away my camera and quietly picked up the second oar and we turned the canoe round as gently as possible to face upstream and without making a ripple, pushed off… literally. Hugo and Gray had come to the same conclusion and also made off with as little disturbance as possible.
Whether the ambush was us just being paranoid, whether they were blustering or were just moving around their patch, we shall never know, but our gentle exit from their pool seemed to diffuse any tensions and they never followed us further upstream.