Aggressive and unpredictable, hippos kill more humans in Africa than any other animal, so swimming with Jessica the hippo was an extraordinary experience.
Jessica was orphaned after floods and was rescued by South African farmers near Hoedspruit on the border with Kruger. They bottle-fed her and while it was assumed she’d go off and join a hippo pod downstream, but she retained affection for her rescuers and chose to stay in the river in front of their house and become part of the family – a story that made her famous and she’s appeared on countless wildlife documentaries, and most astonishingly, she let people swim with her.
With giant teeth and powerful gaping jaw, I approached Jessica with extreme hesitation, but she let me slip into the water and amazingly let me put my arms around her rubbery neck. We glided off into the river and she gently allowed me to stroke her whiskery nose and flickering ears. When she’d had enough of her passenger, she softly shrugged me off her shoulder and paddled away with a few nonchalant snorts and grunts.
Meeting a hippo face to face was nothing short of surreal, and perhaps Jessica is the only hippo in the world who has forgotten how aggressive and scary she is supposed to be.