2,900. That is the number of people that hippopotamuses kill each year on average. With that high number, they are considered the most dangerous animals in all of Africa. This fact was surprising to me. Before visiting South Africa, I was slightly nervous of lions and the many poisonous snakes in the country, but it never really occurred to me that Jessica the hippo could be dangerous. They’re just too cute to cause any harm, right? Apparently I was wrong.
Jessica the Hippo
During our tour in South Africa, we were planning to visit the world’s most famous hippo, Jessica, and interact with her up close. I was immensely excited to meet her, but things didn’t exactly go to plan. While Jessica is usually friendly to humans, she wasn’t a big fan of mine. Here is my story with Jessica the Hippo –
The day started with breakfast and a drive from Tshukudu Bush Camp, where we were staying, to Jessica the Hippo. The drive from Tshukudu wasn’t very long (less than an hour), but to get to Jessica, the road in the final 20 minutes or so was extremely rough. If you have poor neck control like I do, I would highly suggest bringing either a neck brace or something else that will assist in protecting your neck along the bumpy terrain. It was rough, but we finally made it to the site of Jessica the Hippo and I was insanely excited to get up close and personal with a hippo. I had never even seen a hippo, aside from on TV, before going on safari in Kruger Park, so this was a big deal.
After viewing a smaller orphaned hippo at the entrance, we began to make our way down to Jessica. There were steep ramps all the way to Jessica’s viewing platform, but the team at Epic Enabled did a fantastic job of getting me down there safely. They turned my powered wheelchair on manual mode and tied some ropes to my chair, with people in the front and back to help guide us down. It worked like a charm.
Before actually going all the way down to Jessica, we stopped about halfway and watched a short video about her. It was filmed by an Australian news crew and was very well done. It said that despite hippos being the most dangerous animals in Africa, Jessica was a loving hippo that was rescued back in the year 2000. During a flood that year, Jessica washed up and was found by Tonie and Shirley Joubert. Tonie and Shirley found her with her umbilical cord still attached, as she had just been born and tragically separated from her mom. It’s a sad story, but thanks to Tonie and Shirley, Jessica has lived a full life and they literally saved her. She has became their daughter and while she is still free to roam in the wild as much as she likes, she continues to come back to her human parents. She even comes inside the house for dinner and often sleeps in a bed. They have had to widen the doorway as Jessica gets bigger and also replace beds that she has broken. It’s a remarkable story and I’ll admit that I teared up a bit while watching the clip. Just seeing the love that Tonie and Shirley have for Jessica was moving. Needless to say, I was ready to meet Jessica.
We made our way down to Jessica’s viewing platform and soon, she put her head up on the platform. She was beautiful and ready for a snack. One at a time, everyone fed her some potatoes and petted her. Now this was where things got exciting, to say the least…
Once it was my turn to feed her, Tonie handed me a potato. I tried to reach down to feed her, but unfortunately I couldn’t reach over that far. I tried to maneuver a bit so that I could reach down to her, but apparently I wasn’t moving fast enough and Jessica wanted that potato immediately.
All of a sudden, she lunged out of the water toward me and my life flashed before my eyes… not really, but I did kind of black out. All I remember is seeing Jessica’s huge teeth and trying to turn away from her, but I couldn’t. Jessica missed biting my foot off by about one inch, but she had grabbed onto the side of my wheelchair with her massive teeth and was pulling me and my chair toward the water. Keep in mind that Jessica weighs about 3,800 pounds, so she’s quite powerful. I was desperately trying to turn my wheelchair away from her, but it wouldn’t budge. The guys were trying to pull my chair back as well, but Tonie jumped in and tried to calm Jessica down. Luckily, it worked.
Jessica loosened her grip after seeing her dad and went back into the water. I had to laugh to keep from crying, and was thankful to not be in a million pieces. The only damage was a few teeth marks on my chair. I’m not sure if Jessica was upset that I couldn’t feed her fast enough or if she just wanted some more iron in her diet, but this 20 second debacle was hands-down one of my craziest (and scariest) travel experiences ever.
Even though Jessica is the world’s most famous hippo and a tourist attraction of sorts, this experience goes to show that she, along with every other animal, is still wild and can cause danger, whether she means to or not. Whenever you’re dealing with animal interactions when traveling, there’s a risk. I have always considered myself an animal lover and before visiting Jessica, I knew that this was a possibility. I still can’t believe that I got to be the lucky one to nearly get eaten by her, but at least it made for a memorable experience. This could have very easily been a story with a much different ending, but we could “what if” all day.
If you are visiting South Africa, don’t let my experience discourage you from seeing Jessica. She is a remarkable creature and I am so glad that I got to meet her, and I’d encourage you to do the same. Just know the risk before you go. After all, traveling is all about breaking out of your comfort zone and taking risks, and I definitely did that. Sometimes things don’t go exactly as planned, but that’s the exciting part to be honest. I love traveling and not knowing what’s going to happen next. It’s exhilarating and why I continue to hit the open road.
See my full experience with Jessica the Hippo in this video –