The Surfing Hippo

Jun 30, 2008

Mission: The Surfing Hippo
Date: 31 May to 30 June 2008
Requesting organisation: Paul Dutton, Ecologist
Location: Dolphin Coast from Ballito to the Mdhloti River, Kwazulu Natal
Pilot: Paul Dutton

The photo shows South Africa’s surfing hippo, frolicking in the waves at Ballito.

Bateleurs pilot Paul Dutton flew on five different days to track the progress of a hippo wandering along the Dolphin Coast from Ballito all the way to the Mdhloti River.  This is his account of what the hippo came to mean to him, and to many South Africans, before meeting an untimely end:

“The Dolphin Coast (the North Coast of KwaZulu-Natal) whose beaches were once recipient of Blue Flag status and a holiday mecca for visitors, has become one of South Africa’s first victims of our planet’s irreversible climate change. Tourism entrepreneurs offering holiday venues “on the beach front” found their installations either teetering over the edge of the beach or, in some cases, sharing the tide with dolphins. Broken sewerage systems spewed raw effluent onto the swimming beaches, black flags replaced blue, and the and visitors stayed away.

That was March 2007 when the autumn equinox, a cyclone in the Mozambique channel, and a  strong on-shore wind came together to wreak havoc in a matter of hours. Mdloti to Ballito and was wiped off the tourist map. I was also a victim on the day when a tsunami-sized wave swept me and my friend, Meg Jordan, over a wall and onto the beach where we were left bleeding and somewhat broken – requiring the help of a local Titan, Wayne Labuschagne, who helped us out seconds before the arrival of another wave.

One year later a lone hippopotamus, seemingly a messenger of hope, suddenly appeared in the shore break off Ballito. Once empty car parks filled to capacity.  It seemed as though a holiday mood had returned to the depressed Dolphin Coast. Years before another hippo named Huberta walked and swam from St Lucia to the Eastern Cape over a period of two and a half years, capturing the imagination of the nation and getting more media coverage than the spectre of an approaching world war.  Sadly her journey was cut short when two ignorant farmers shot her and she now stands mute as an exhibit in the King William’s Town museum.

The latest wanderer became another flagship icon, symbolizing relief from the xenophobia, crime, and economic woes that dominated our media. At last we could send out some good news from our troubled country. The Bateleurs – Flying for the Environment in Africa once again responded to my call for help by supporting several flights in ZS-DLI Spirit of the Wilderness to  track the peregrinations of our hippo as it wandered the beaches at night, seeking pasture and sanctuary in various estuaries of the North Coast.  

Naming the hippo Nkululeko (Freedom) won Ms Maryann Grafetsberger a prize of an hour’s flight in Spirit of the Wilderness, helping track the hippo by its distinctive spoor above the high water left from the previous evening’s wandering.

Finally Nkululeko found the Mdhloti River with its fresh water and abundant pasture – but its sojourn here was short.  The custodians of KZN’s wildlife – without attempting to capture and translocate the animal – had it shot at night as it grazed the banks of the river.  A local man had been found dead with head wounds for which Nkululeko was accused as the perpetrator.

Nkululeko was unceremoniously dumped in a landfill and no-one bothered even to determine the sex of the creature, and we still do not have the details of  the autopsy that was supposedly done on the dead man.

Having been a game ranger in KZN I do not for one moment believe that Nkululeko was responsible for the man’s death. The killing of this icon by the wild life authority, eZemvelo, speaks reams as to how little thought is given to caring for our country’s natural wild treasures.”

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