Leaning against a snoring wild hippopotamus with a beer in one hand and covering my nose with the other hand to block out the stench of her passing wind will stay with me for long time. She shook her blanket off and grunted contentedly as we sat around talking in the cool African night air. We being the youngest daughter (yes her again) me and the land owners who had rescued this mighty beast as a tiny orphan. We had wanted to meet Jessica the Hippo since seeing her on an Animal Planet programme and I admit that part of me was sceptical that the couple who rescued her really did have a wild hippopotamus wandering around their garden.
The youngest daughter and I had arrived in South Africa on a tiny landing strip and luckily been able to hire a Fiat Panda from a desk in the airport building. We later discovered that wild elephants don't take kindly to little cars and saw several quite alarming pictures of people standing on the bonnets of submerged cars with bull elephants trumpeting triumphantly nearby.
Still the car was cheap and we were on a tight budget so we put any negative thoughts out of our minds. We drove for miles on dusty dirt roads until we came to a hand painted sign pointing to a 12 feet high gate. It said simply 'Jessica' and we hugged ourselves with the anticipation of finally meeting this celebrity hippo.
The surreal nature of the holiday started to become apparent when one of the landowners walked towards us wearing full khaki complete with bush hat, bare feet and rifle. His wife then came over to greet us, a vision of haute couture, full make up and expensive jewellery. The smell of alcohol hung heavily in the air around them and I did fleetingly wonder if alcohol was a good pairing with the presumably loaded rifle. No matter we were here and we were looking forward to meeting Jessica.
There were the usual pleasantries before we were shown to our quarters. I was going to say rooms but what we were shown was basically a rickety shed perched up in a tree with a walled enclosure beneath. The furniture comprised just one stinking flea ridden armchair which we were told the resident bull terriers would fight us for and an exercise bike.
I wasn't about to get into a fight with the bull terriers so I stood as we were being told the basics about the place. I actually thought I was hallucinating with tiredness as I hadn't slept properly for so long. Sleep deprivation can cause all sorts of problems but bull terriers challenging me for a raggedy stained chair wasn't going to be one of them. The guy pointed to a ladder and said "mind your footing" before gaily telling us that one of the film crew who had stayed a while ago had broken a leg by tripping over the loose wiring on the ladder. This same ladder was to be our staircase up into the guest room aka the rickety shed perched in the top of a tree.
The guy left us without another word and we took a little while to get to grips with the reality of what we had come in to. We took our bags up into the tree shed and got into our night wear. We heard rustling about below and ventured down the ladder to see a tall guy bending over lighting logs in an enormous fire pit. With a broad grin he said "cook" and I realised that this fire pit was to be our stove as well as our heater.
He then left after we had thanked him and we thought we would get some sleep. There were no doors to lock only cast iron gates bolted into door frames. We perched for a moment, one of us on the flea chair and the other on the exercise bike. The bull terriers had jumped out over the gates and gone elsewhere which was a relief. It seemed that our couple of thousand rand for the room rental gave us no priority over the resident pack of semi wild dogs.
I do recall thinking that I would never complain again if in the future hotel staff hadn't changed my towels for couple of days. This experience was proving to be a whole different level of hospitality. Just as we were mulling over getting some sleep Crocodile Dundee as we named him walked back in with beer and cigarette on the go. He said a little too casually that if we encountered wild animals not to run and to put an obstacle between us and the hippo if she came at us. Lions apparently back off if you make yourself look big and whatever you do don't turn your back on them. With that he took a drag on his cigarette and a swig of beer and left again.
Me and the youngest daughter looked at each other in quiet disbelief and then climbed up into our tree room. The last words I heard her say as we were dozing were "Mum, leopards can climb trees can't they?" but I was too tired to care. I needed to relax and I needed to sleep.
The next morning we woke to the sound of the gate banging and as we ventured down the ladder we were confronted by a real full size wild hippopotamus. She was standing with her head hanging over the gate and her mouth wide open displaying teeth the size of cricket stumps. I think that with sleep deprivation, I had lost touch with reality the previous night so this encounter seemed quite normal. A young woman appeared beside the hippo and gave the youngest daughter a 2 litre cola bottle filled to the top and with a teat on the end. It was full of tea and she said "Must be decaff".
Yes I had definitely entered lah lah land. I was standing at the foot of a tree shack meeting a wild hippo who had a discerning taste in tea. The youngest daughter held the improvised feeding bottle and the hippo gulped greedily away. As the last drop was drained the hippo turned and walked away before laying down in the early morning African sun. I was staring in disbelief but the youngest daughter casually said "I wonder why she only likes decaff, I think it tastes disgusting".
As the days passed, we embraced the experience and we were going to the local markets to buy sacks of sweet potatoes and teabags for Jessica. We also bought beer and wine for the landowners who invited us for drinks into their bush house. They told us how they had met and that he had practically kidnapped her from her ultra wealthy family in Johannesburg. They had been married for years and she had retained all of her masseuse skills by practising on Jessica the hippo. She would sit on her back and rub essential oils into her skin whilst crooning into her ear and necking a few glasses of a good red. She told us that sharing her worries and thoughts with this creature actually relaxed her and her hippo into the rhythm of how to sleep properly. Strangely after a being there for a few days, nothing she told us seemed in any way unusual.
She had turned her back on wealth and the big city life for a simple life in the bush with her own Crocodile Dundee. She said she had never been happier and Jessica coming along had been the icing on her cake. She said that her husband declared his love for her regularly by throwing her in a ditch when any dangerous wild animals got near her. She didn't seem to think that sharing her world with a creature the size of a Volvo car who can run at 20 mph was in any way odd.
Laying in our tree shed listening to wild animals snuffling around outside was wonderful and as the days went on we left our worries behind and thought about how putting a perspective on problems can really help. We learnt how to relax and how to sleep properly.
You don't need to go to Africa, sleep in a tree shed and feed a wild hippo with decaffeinated tea to learn perspective but if you want to, that's cool.
If you want to learn how to relax, how to sleep properly and to get your worries into perspective then you need only come to me in Salisbury. My armchairs are soft and comfortable and you wont need to fight a flea ridden bull terrier to relax in one. You only need to make a call or send me an email.