We were reminded this past week that Africa is a wild place when one of our white-water rafting trips on the Great Usutu River was disturbed by a stray hippo. On Saturday the 31st January 2015, one of our guests was hospitalized with bite wounds to the upper leg after being toppled from his raft by the animal. The surprise incident occurred on Swaziland’s Great Usutu River on a stretch of river used on an almost daily basis by Swazi Trails for its full-day white-water rafting trips.
The following extract is taken from our Press Statement covering this event:
The injured tourist was a 41 year old South African by the name of Louw Visagie who lives in Pretoria. He and his brother Willie Visagie were visiting Swaziland on a 3-day adventure trip organised by South African based Mathinthinyane Adventures and hosted locally by Swazi Trails. Their group consisted of 13 individuals including tour leader Jason Kilian. After the incident Visagie was collected from the Mphaphati area by EMS Paramedics from Siteki and shuttled to the Mbabane Clinic Private Hospital. Despite loosing a considerable amount of blood during the ordeal he managed to maintain consciousness throughout the process and had other concerned parties cackling with his sense of humour.
According to Swazi Trails Managing Director Darron Raw, the incident was the first of its kind encountered by the company which has been running river trips in the same area continuously since 1991.
“There is no doubt we were taken by surprise,” said Darron Raw of Swazi Trails, “as the closest we have heard of hippo presence is the Tambuti area, which is 25km downstream of where our trips run. And whilst we are sad that our first encounter with a hippo was an unpleasant one, we are particularly grateful that the incident was not worse.”
Visagie is currently recuperating in hospital and is expected to be transferred to a South African facility later in the week. The wounds inflicted were confined to his upper left thigh where the hippo’s teeth left four major puncture wounds right through his leg. According to the medical team who operated on him, it was particularly fortuitous that there was no bone or artery damage, given the nature of his injuries.
Relating the details of the incident Visagie mentioned that the attack came without warning. “ I was paddling together with my brother Willie, I was at the back and he was in the front. We saw a hippo come out of the reeds suddenly into the river close to us. It immediately charged our boat and we were flipped into the air. Whilst I was swimming to the bank the hippo grabbed me and shook me in its mouth. Fortunately it released me and I crawled into the reeds on the river bank.”
Equally shaken, his brother Willie continued the account: “We immediately attempted to stem the blood flow by using t-shirts to plug the holes. Thereafter his leg was bandaged when the first aid kit arrived and we sent word to arrange an evacuation.”
“We are extremely thankful for the police from Sithobela who responded to the call, as well as the EMS team from Siteki who arrived very quickly despite the distance they had to travel,” said Swazi Trails Lead Guide Bheki Gadlela, “and for them finding us at the pick-up point in this remote area first-time round.”
Gadlela, who was guiding the rafting trip with his younger brother Melusi Magagula are both from the Mphaphati area having grown up on the river bank there. Gadlela has been guiding raft trips since the late 1990’s and it was his first time to see a hippo in the water. His brother joined the company in December 2014 and is a trainee guide.
Melusi took responsibility for getting the remaining tourists back to safety, as they had been scattered by the incident. “We took a cautious route and went far upstream before crossing back to the southern bank,” he said, “and I am happy that they all remained calm and patient.”
As to how this will effect white-water rafting trips in the future, Raw responded that: “Now that we are aware of the danger we will proceed with great caution going forward. There are commercial rafting and canoe operations that co-exist side-by-side with hippo in South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe and we have already contacted our counterparts there for advice on operating procedures and safety.”
“This is a steep learning curve for us and we plan to learn fast. We had a trip booked the very next day which continued as planned, even after we had informed the clients for that day of the problem we encountered the day before. Fortunately those who participate in activities like white-water rafting have a high tolerance for risk. It is our job to inform them of those risks and then to provide a professional service such the possibilities of accidents are minimized,” Raw clarified.
“We also engaging the neighbouring community in our plans to mitigate risk, as they are possibly more at risk of hippo incidents than we are. We have spoken to the Indvuna of the area Mr Samson Dlamini, as well as Mrs Lukhele the Head Teacher of Mphaphati Primary,” added Raw, “ so as to spread awareness in the area about the presence of hippo in the river nearby and to share what we have learned with them. It is our intention to try ensure that there are no other incidents involving this stray hippo and we intend to monitor its movements as best we can. The Big Game Parks wildlife conservation authorities have also been communicated with and they have undertaken to monitor the situation.”
Earlier in the week Visagie was presented with the remains of his bent and hippo-buckled paddle by the Swazi Trails guide team who visited him in hospital… “just so he’d never find himself up the creek and without a paddle,” they said. The team mentioned repeatedly the huge amount of respect that they had for Visagie, whose positive attitude was an inspiration to them.
“He has encouraged us to carry on with our river guiding work and not to be deterred by this freak accident”, said raft guide Phil Mothata, “this guy is a true legend, and this hippo story is going to be retold many many times!”
Plans have already been made for Louw and his brother Willie to return to the Great Usutu River to finish off the rest of their interrupted trip… “maybe even before the end of the year”, interjected Willie. In the meantime Swazi Trails have wished him a full and speedy recovery.
Concludes Raw, ” what we didn’t expect in the aftermath of this somewhat nightmarish accident, has been the resilience of our adventure clientele. Whilst we braced ourselves for a sudden drop in demand, to date we haven’t had a single cancellation and in fact, our initial offers to booked customers this past week to be refunded for their trips, or to be re-directed to other sections of river in the interim, were greeted with disdain. We’ve had rafters insisting on doing our full day trips despite our subtle suggestions to stick to half-day section above where the incident occurred. There is a reason why we like this rafting business – and its simply that we get to hang out with pretty solid people – who aren’t scared to go out of their comfort zones.”
For further information or clarification contact:
Darron Raw – Swazi Trails: darron (at) swazitrails.co.sz
Postscript: 8th March
Swazi Trails has run rafting trips on average every second or third day following the incident and the stray hippo has not been seen on our rafting section again.
During this period we adopted a procedure used by other canoe and rafting companies on rivers known to harbour either stray or resident hippo, and that is to have a “beater” paddling well out in front of our trips. This ensures that any hippo are woken up and detected well before any rafts may arrive. Our research indicates that hippo tend to only react aggressively when they are surprised or have their space encroached upon. Fortunately the Great Usutu is a very wide river and our rafting trips have good opportunity to respect and avoid hippos, by giving them ample space.
Post-postscript 10th April
Having heard that the hippo had been sited further upstream by farmers we undertook an exploratory trip down the upper Usutu river on the 8th April and found him living in an area approximately 30km upstream from our rafting section. There is good grazing where he is and its not too populated… so we are confident he will remain there. We’ll be keeping an eye on him…