The Incredible Journey of a Hippo with Wanderlust

Huberta had a nose for adventure. For some reason, she grew bored of her water world in the St Lucia Estuary. She figured there must be more to life than bobbing in water by day and grazing by night. In November 1928, Huberta left her pod behind and hit the road – headed south.

It was to be an epic journey lasting more than two years and traversing 1 600 kilometers. Nothing quite like it had ever been recorded before – or has been since.

Huberta’s Epic Journey begins…

Initially named Hubert, as she was believed to be an intrepid male hippo, just why Huberta left her stomping ground had everyone baffled. Some thought she was in search of a mate, others speculated she was fleeing the area where her mother was killed, and still, others suggested she wanted to visit the lands of her ancestors. Regardless, Huberta was fearless and on a mission.

An attempt was made to capture her when she settled for a while at the Mhlanga River, just north of Durban, but she had no desire to live in the Johannesburg Zoo, so she soldiered on. After being spotted visiting a Durban beach for a dip in the ocean, sauntering down the main street of the city, and arriving uninvited at the Durban Country Club while a function was in full swing, Huberta garnered a following and minor celebrity status – both locally and abroad. She even featured in the Natal Mercury, accompanied by the only photo taken of her while alive.

Leaving the summer heat of Durban, Huberta headed for the Umgeni River to cool off. She grazed her way across gardens and golf courses as she went, traveling quietly at night while most of the world was asleep. She was extremely elusive and this prowess led to the Natal Provincial Council declaring intrepid Huberta as ‘royal game’. This meant that Huberta could no longer be hunted or captured, as it was now illegal and punishable. So Huberta should now be safe. She was also revered by the Zulu and Xhosa who ascribed mythical status to her, believing she embodied the spirit of a great chief.

After crossing 122 rivers, being spotted sleeping across a railway line, and leaving mostly only footprints as evidence she had passed by, Huberta arrived safely in East London in March 1931. The illustrious hippo made the Keiskamma River her new home and lived there peacefully for a month. That should have been the happy ending to Huberta’s incredible journey, but was not.

Instead, Huberta was shot dead by farmers, as she basked peacefully in the river. The farmers claimed they didn’t know it was the famous hippo they’d shot. Her protected ‘royal game’ status had not kept Huberta safe after all, and there was a public outcry that the farmers be arrested and tried. They were each fined ₤25 for the deed.

News of Huberta’s death spread far and wide. It was even discussed in parliament in South Africa, the Chicago Tribune published a tribute to her, and cards, wreaths, and donations were sent to honor her.

Huberta’s body was later recovered downstream in the Keiskamma River and sent to a London taxidermist. On arrival back in South Africa the following year, she was welcomed home by 20 000 people, who came to see her mount in the Durban Museum. After her incredible journey, Huberta now resides safely ever after in the Amathole Museum in King William’s Town.

Photograph © Christoff Els

Did you know?

  • hippos are a highlight when you go to Crooks Corner in the Makuleke area or when you’re at Croc Dam in Karongwe
  • they are sociable animals and big bulls will have a harem of cows
  • the majority of hippo vocalizations happen underwater
  • hippos click and sing, similar to the sounds whales make
  • rural people use the thick hippo hide to make whips
  • the main threats to hippos are humans, climate change, and prolonged periods of drought

Learn the facts: Are hippos related to whales?

The “hippo” meaning horse and “potamous” meaning river, was named by the ancient Egyptians.

The common hippopotamus, or hippo, is a large, mostly herbivorous, semiaquatic mammal and ungulate native to sub-Saharan Africa. It is one of only two extant species in the family Hippopotamidae.

Until 1909, naturalists grouped hippos with pigs, based on molar patterns. Several lines of evidence, first from blood proteins, then from molecular systematics, DNA, and the fossil records, show that their closest living relatives are cetaceans – whales, dolphins, and porpoises. The common ancestor of hippos and whales branched off from Ruminantia and the rest of the even-toed ungulates; the cetacean and hippo lineages split soon afterward.

About the Author: 

Keri Harvey is a Travel Writer and Photographer, travelling for Keri is life, like breathing.