The very first trip I did for Geographic was to Africa with Derek and Beverly Joubert (Eternal Enemies: Lions and Hyenas, Lions of Darkness and others), so I didn’t know at all what to expect… One thing I thought would be interesting was to find out how the National Geographic photographers take a lot better photos than the tourists do.
‘Show me what you do that makes a difference,’ I ask Beverly.
She says, ‘The first thing you do is try to get into the environment with the animals – get where they live.’ So we go to this hippo pond, and I say: ‘Don’t tell me anything about what to expect because we’re going to be filming it and I want all of the reactions to be natural.’
‘Okay,’ she says, ‘but I have to tell you one thing: when the hippos charge, don’t run.’ Now, I’m not very bright, but I kinda locked in on the word ‘when.’ There wasn’t a qualifier. There wasn’t a maybe, a sometimes, or an ‘if they charge.’ It was: ‘when.’ So I’m filing that away.
‘After they charge,’ she says, ‘they’ll stop and assess your reaction. If you run, you’re libel to encourage their bad behavior and they’ll keep charging you. You want to keep them in the mock-charge range.’ Then, she adds, ‘The only way you’ll know it’s a mock charge is if it’s over and you’re still standing.’
As we start into the pond, she says: ‘The other thing I need to tell you is take off your shoes and socks.’ So, I take them off and start wading in and I see why. We step into this soft mud… that would fill your shoes. We’re about four steps in and Beverly says, ‘What we’re walking in is hippo dung.’
So, now I’ve got hippo dung squeezing between my toes. I’m knee deep in it, and there are about 40 hippos in this pond, 39 of whom are kinda moving away to the other side. One stands where he is… He turns and looks at us, and as we’re walking in, he charges. Of course, I immediately take about three steps back when I remember I’m not supposed to run. So, I stop and come back by Beverly. And the hippo stops and goes back to where he was.
Then he charges again and this time I only take two steps backwards because I’m getting better at this. And then he stops and backs up. And each time before he charges – because hippos do this – they open their mouth as wide as they can to let you see the full range of teeth and two big tusks. It’s referred to as yawning… but it’s really to show the weapons they’ve got glistening in there.
And then he charges a third time, the water is splashing and he gets really close. This time I look around and Beverly is starting to run… But he stopped, fortunately, otherwise I wouldn’t be telling you this story.
So he backs off, and Beverly starts taking pictures. That’s the point when she says, ‘Alright now, he’s calmed down. We’re in a really good position.’
To which I respond: ‘I’m in the middle of Botswana, knee deep in hippo dung, with 40 hippos who don’t want us here and you think this is a good position?’
‘You forgot about the crocodiles, ‘ she says.