The crossing

“Hurry up and wait” seems to be the perfect motto for wildebeest gathering up the courage to cross a river while looking, literally, for greener pastures. But once they get going everything happens fast; like the “moments of terror” part of the old aphorism about war. We’d spent a couple of hours of wonderful late evening sunlight, testing our patience against that of gnus. When the light began to fail the river crossing began. At dinner that night the story was that a gnu lost its footing and fell into the river, and the herd followed. Whatever it was, the crossing was panicky. Wildebeest thrashed in the water, upstream from a pod of ill-tempered hippos.

“Couldn’t they have done this twenty minutes ago?” I grumbled as I snapped off a series of shots. As a hippo yawned widely in front of the panicky herd of gnus, I got a photo which, in better light, I would have been proud of. It was all a little too blurry and pixellated to be a great photo, and with the landrover rocking, I was unable to control the camera enough for the long exposure required here.

A panicky herd of gnus is quite a phenomenon. They keep running forever. I think their high-strung temperament must be taking a toll on their life expectancy; in zoos they have been observed to live twice as long as the average in the wild. Nor can all of this difference be attributed to predation. I saw one wildebeest looking around desperately, slowly tracking back towards the river. This uncharacteristic behaviour probably meant that she had lost a calf. It had either been taken by a crocodile or was lost in the stampede.

The rest kept running. Even when they came to the road where our landrover was parked, they wouldn’t halt. They would only change direction and keep running. Panicky, high-strung are too mild to describe what they are. I think they wouldn’t run over a lion and kill it, but they could come close enough to one to be picked off.

As we saw them running off into the sunset, they kicked up masses of insects which, in turn, brought along several insectivorous birds. This would have been a midnight snack for the birds, since they had settled down almost an hour before. What a chain of events, I thought; that’s part of what a grassland ecosystem means.

River horses

We sat in our land rover in front of the Mara river where a bunch of wildebeest were gathering. They take a long time to make up their minds about whether to cross or not, and after a few hours’ wait you could just see the crowd thin out and disappear. I found looking at them quite boring. The river took a bend just to the left of where we’d parked. There was a bloat of hippos right in front of us, and another bloat almost out of sight around the bend. The nearer group was mostly submerged, but as in uffish thought I stood, one of the monsters raised its head above the river and smiled. “What a charming smile,” I said. “That? You are crazy,” replied The Family. She was quite upset with my suggestion that we go away to look for other animals for a while.

Hippos are territorial in water, and mark out a stretch of a river as their own. I’ve not seen a border skirmish among hippos, even in a documentary. So when a second hippo surfaced and started trying to bite the smiler, I guessed that it must be play. Hippo bloats have a single bull, but are otherwise mixed. I hadn’t seen them often enough to gauge whether these two were adults or juvenile. The fighting or play went on for a while, giving me something to photograph. The pair would spend a lot of time trying to bite and block with their jaws, but one or the other would sometimes submerge and reappear on the other side of its rival and try to bite it on the rump or side.

It is hard to believe that anything could be related to hippos, but when I found that their closest relatives are whales, I thought that it makes sense. Based on DNA studies, it is thought that Cetaceans and the Hippo lineage separated around 55 million years ago. At that time the atmosphere was 5 to 8 degrees Celsius warmer than today. It is known from fossils that hippos evolved in Africa. The oceans would have been rather high, and part of the modern range of the Hippopotamus was under water then. But what is even stranger is that hippos are (somewhat more distantly) related to antelopes, and like them have three chambered stomachs. I guess that is why hippos have to leave water to eat. It would be interesting to go on night safaris to see hippos grazing on grass.