South Africa trip journal: learning the truth about hippos on a cruise in St. Lucia

North American hippo myth

In North America, hippos are portrayed as cute, jolly creatures. As a child, I had a loud, noisy game called Hungry Hippos, which was hours of loud, ear-shattering fun.

Hungry Hippos

In Canada, we also have a mythical creature called a house hippo, used to teach children about truth in advertising.

Around Christmas, we also have a Canadian mobile phone company ad which makes it seem like hippos are fun, festive, bargain-oriented creatures.

South African hippo reality

When I got to South Africa, I learned I have been led astray by North American hippo stereotypes. Hippos are mean. 

Not only are hippos mean, they are incredibly dangerous. I spent some time in St. Lucia, a small holiday town located on the St. Lucia Estuary in KwaZulu-Natal Province. During the day, hippos hang out in the shallow estuary, emerging at night to eat and wander the streets. There are specific warnings for this particular menace, as hippos can be quite aggressive and will think nothing of plowing through a human in its way.

Like most things I learned in South Africa, when you receive a specific warning, heed it.

South Africa St. Lucia hippo warning

Free-roaming hippo danger aside, I really wanted to see them hanging out in the estuary and enjoy a late-afternoon cruise. There were lots of hippos in the estuary, hanging out in pods, just under the surface of the water.

South Africa St. Lucia hippos

In our small boat, we went in for a closer look, and I was chilled by what I saw and heard:

South Africa St. Lucia hippo

The cold, dead-eyed stare of the hippo was pretty chilling, and his (or her) low, persistent growl was downright terrifying. Then, the full-on roar.

South Africa St. Lucia hippos

Then, these two started going at each other, furiously splashing water while battling for territory. It has been suggested that this particular image could also be used for some kind of weird, angry valentine.

South Africa St. Lucia hippos

In the end, hippos are best enjoyed at a safe distance.

South Africa St. Lucia hippos

Have you had an animal encounter that shattered your childhood expectations? Fire away in the comments!



  1. Wow! Amazing photos. So cool that you were able to see them up close.

    The danger is quite something. When I went on my horseback safari in SA there was a hippo pond, and the guide said “Don’t let your horse drink out of that pond, we’ve already lost two horses to the hippos.”

    Of course, promptly, one girl’s horse went to try and drink out of the pond. Our horses weren’t the most obedient.


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