In the land of the surfing hippos

Last September the Gabonese government announced the creation of 13 national parks, covering 11 percent of the country. A major force behind this decision was J. Michael Fay, a driven (some would say obsessed) biologist with the New York based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), who had walked some 2,000 miles across central Africa to document its flora and fauna. In Loango National Park, a model for the other parks, Fay made his efforts to instill solid management and inspire private investment, keeping a daily journal of his experiences. In his entries he celebrates the Loango’s coast, speaks his mind about conservation, and describes some of the work that’s making the world’s newest park system a success.

The Heron

The mangroves here are big trees, their stilt roots forming an impenetrable tangle like some kind of jungle gym. Paddling conditions were perfect – slight breeze coming off the ocean, cumulus clouds shading the sun (no more than 80°F),

and not a tsetse fly to be seen. As we rounded the sharp bend leading us inland, the kayak leaving a silvery wake on the dark surface, some fruit bats scared up a big bird.

We got into position for a look, and my eyes met with what looked like an overdressed clown with a sharp beak. Its breast was a rich rusty brown, the throat a bright white, the back and wings a crisp blackish brown. But the eyes: Wow, what eyes! In a bird the size of a raven they were about as big as a human’s and lined with a thick white ring. This thing was the most wonderful avian delight I’d ever seen. A look in A Guide to the Birds of Western Africa revealed the bird to be the white-backed night heron. “Largely nocturnal; secretive and very shy by day,” the book said. Hardly an adequate description of what we saw. The authors might have added: “Yet another little known and unbelievably beautiful product of nature that can be seen on any day in Loango National Park.”

The Hippo

As we advanced upstream, the river narrowed, and snags began to block our progress. My eyes scanned the muddy

bank, which suddenly began to surge. So did my heart, as the form of a massive hippo materialized no more than 25 feet in front of the boat. Face-on to us, he plunged into the water like a battleship released from dry dock full-speed ahead. He’d been sleeping under a tree, and we had scared him in what he may have judged a surprise attack. We paddled frantically for the mangroves on the opposite bank, which seemed a mile away.

“Go, go, go,” shouted Jane, “he’s coming. He’s right behind the boat.” The theme music of “Jaws” popped into my head, along with visions of this behemoth chomping our plastic kayak right in half.

When we reached a tangle of mangrove roots – slippery like spaghetti and virtually ungrippable (ungraspable) – I tossed the paddle aside and catapulted Malia up into the tree. Jane and I followed, clambering and slithering over the spaghetti branches until we had about ten feet of jungle between us and the water’s edge. We looked back only to see a boil of water erupting just behind the empty kayak. The hippo had plunged into the black depths.

We sat motionless for the better part of an hour, eyes fixed on the water like spooked prey. Because passage on foot through the mangrove maze wasn’t an option, we’d have to hop back in that boat and get ourselves downstream without stirring the now invisible beast. All was quiet. Would it stay that way? Jane and Malia struggled through the mangrove roots until they were about a hundred feet downstream. I jumped in the kayak, tipping it hard from side to side to call the hippo’s bluff. The water stayed calm. No bubbles, no movement. That was good. 1 recovered the paddle and lost no time in zipping downstream to fetch the ladies, slipping as quietly as possible past every swirl and bubble.


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In the land of the surfing hippos