The crackling of our camp fire sounded in my ears as I sat shrouded in darkness. I moved my feet in small circles, feeling my shoes brush against the soft sand which made up the sand bank. I gazed into the orange and red flames which lapped viciously at the night air. Beyond them was nothing but blackness. Yet I knew that concealed in the darkness were many, many animals.
My ears pricked at the gruff bellowing of a hippo which sounded eerily close. The accompanied splashing told me they must be wallowing in the Zambezi, but that was just a guess. Hippos made me feel on edge at the best of times but when I couldn't see them... well, the fear had just gone up a few notches. It was impossible to tell how near or far they were.
Our campsite was on a remote sand bank in the centre of the Zambezi river. We'd spent the entirety of the day canoeing here and being treated to numerous wildlife sightings along the way. I'd already seen first hand how dangerous hippos were when one tried to snap our canoe in half. It had been a rough start to the trip and I was secretly hoping that would be as close as I would get to a hippo this trip.
Just then another hippo called, this time from somewhere behind me. I jumped in alarm, noticing my fellow camp-mates also looking on edge. There was no denying it, we were completely surrounded by hippos. Would they venture onto the sand bank in the night? I winced when I realised I already knew the answer to that. When we'd arrived we had seen numerous hippo tracks zig-zagging across the island. I just prayed that they wouldn't venture too near the camp.
Hippo tracks across the sand bank
It was time to retreat to the tents for the night. Before all of our guides were tucked up in bed I made sure to empty my bladder, knowing at least for now, I was safe. I just prayed that I wouldn't need the toilet again for the night. I really didn't want to risk venturing into hippo island for a pee. Inwardly I knew this was wishful thinking. I hadn't gone a day in over 5 years without needing to pee at least once in the night so unless some miracle happened, I'd have to face my fears.
I settled into my sleeping bag beside Emily, my heart pounding in my chest as I listened to the hippos roaring and bellowing outside our flimsy green canvas.
I closed my eyes and waited for sleep to come.
I awoke from my sleep far sooner than I hoped. The tent was filled with a suffocating blackness and I shivered against the brutal cold. I trembled slightly when I became awake enough to be aware of the endless calls of hippos outside. It sounded like a chorus of continuous laughter and it was coming from all angles.
I tried to get comfortable in my sleeping bag and ignore the intense pressure in my bladder. I needed to pee. I needed to pee really, really badly.
My heart was pounding in my chest, smashing against my rib cage like it was a terrified bird trying to escape. It was so loud that I was convinced the hippos would be able to hear it. Could they smell fear?
A loud gruff call sounded in my ears. My eyes bulged in my skull when I realised how close it sounded. Was it close or was it just an echo? I pictured the huge bulk of a hippo making its way through the campsite.
I turned to Emily who was sleeping softly. We had made a pact that whenever one of us needed the toilet in the night, the other would accompany them for safety. I felt bad. Was I really about to wake her and send her into the danger zone with me?
I felt guilt. Maybe I should just try and sleep.
I closed my eyes, determined to ignore my demanding bladder. I remember my dad telling me that if you convince yourself you're not ticklish when someone tickles you then it starts to not tickle. Well maybe it was the same with peeing. I just needed to convince myself I didn't need to pee and then everything would be okay.
But it was no use.
I was suddenly aware that the louder hippo bellows hadn't sounded for a while which perhaps meant that there were no hippos close by right now. I may not get another opportunity like this.
And so I gently shook Emily who was quick to wake.
"I need to pee." I whispered, trying to keep the quiver from my voice.
Without hesitation, Emily reached for her head-torch and I did the same. I tied my laces, noticing that my hands were trembling which only made the task more tricky.
Once we were ready, I hesitantly began to undo the zip to our tent. I took a peep outside.
A large white moon shone down on the island, reflecting on the bright sand. It was like the island was caught in a spot light, the outlines of tents black against the brilliant sandy ground. It didn't look like there were any animals amongst the campsite and so I determined it would be safe for us to leave the tent behind.
I stepped out into the open, feeling the crisp night breeze wrapping around my body. I shivered with cold. It was winter in southern Africa and the nights were brutally cold.
I turned away from the semi-circle of tents, deciding to pee somewhere that wasn't out in the open. The most obvious spot would have been immediately behind my tent but I was convinced I was too exposed to our group and fear of embarrassment drove me on into the night.
The sky was aglow with stars, untainted by any light pollution. I craned my neck for a better view, convinced that I'd never seen so many stars in my life. It was the first time I had ever seen the milky-way and it was beautiful.
The stars were all I could see. As I ventured away from the tents, I realised that this side of the island was darker as if the moon wasn't touching it and the thin beam of light exiting my head torch was doing a poor job of illuminating the way through the night.
I should have just stopped near to the tents to pee but stupidity kept me going on into the endless night.
Suddenly there was a terrific roar, louder than anything I had ever heard. My stomach jolted in horror. Bleary-eyed, I only then noticed a mass of grey in front of me, the outline of a large hippo only a few metres ahead.
There was no time to think. Emily and I turned and ran for our lives.
The ground seemed to tremble as my head-torch juddered on my head, creating confusing zig-zag patterns that made me feel as though we were swimming. I heard my own coarse breathing, the clumsy shuffling of my feet in deep sand and the unmistakable thundering of feet through sand behind me as the hippo gave chase. I noticed a chorus of hippo calls filling the air, angry and constant, as if the hippo we had met had sent a warning to them. In the moment there were no thoughts other than the urgent need to reach our tent. I clocked that Emily was beside me and quick as a flash we unzipped our tent and threw ourselves inside.
I huddled myself, trembling violently as I realised how helpless we were. The flimsy tent wall would do very little to keep us safe from an angry charging hippo. I half-expected it to thunder into the walls at any moment. But it didn't. I felt dizzy with relief when I realised that the hippo hadn't followed us all the way back.
The relentless roaring and growling told us that the hippo was still close by and the responses from other hippos were just as close. They were definitely a lot nearer than before. It sounded as though a whole group of hippos were lingering on the outskirts of the campsite, wary and angry.
Beside me, Emily was also shaking. I felt wracked with guilt. I had put my friend in such a dangerous situation and I hadn't even peed!
I lay in a mixed state of terror and frustration. It was impossible to ignore the painful need to pee but there was no chance I could venture outside again.
I watched as Emily drifted quickly back to sleep and sighed. I concluded that I'd wait until it felt safe and then go alone. I didn't want to risk Emily's safety again.
But the hippos didn't leave.
The moon sank lower in the sky as the night dragged on but the endless symphony of hippo calls continued.
I got so desperate, I contemplated using a bottle. I rummaged around in my bag and brought out my only water bottle. I grimaced and then threw it down. I just couldn't do it! But I was so, so desperate. I felt like my bladder was going to explode and I'd involuntarily wet myself.
I picked up the water bottle again and spun it around in my hand. How would that even work? What if it went all over the tent? I placed it on my sleeping bag and held my head in my hands. I felt on the verge of tears but they wouldn't seem to come out. So my body just shook instead.
It was a long and painful night.
Dawn broke at 5am. I noticed the first streaks of pink and orange light in the sky and listened as the relentless hippos began to quiet down. At the very least I would be able to see what was in front of me so perhaps it was finally safe.
I unzipped my tent and took a deep breath. From the safety of my tent I looked out, noticing that the guides were stirring beside the ashes of the campfire. Oh, thank god!
I put my shoes on and shakily exited my tent, feeling the chill of the morning seep into my bones. I took a quick glance around me, ensuring there were no hippos to be seen on the island, before making my way over to the guides.
One rolled over in his sleeping bag beside the embers of the fire and then looked up at me as I approached.
"Is it safe to go to the loo now?" I asked nervously. "I tried to go in the night but I ran into a hippo and it chased me."
He looked at me sternly for a moment, his face expressionless as he processed what I had just told him. Then he let out a bellow of laughter before replying, "Hippos don't chase!"
I felt deflated. He wasn't taking me seriously at all. But I knew what happened. It may have only been a warning charge but I didn't imagine the scene.
He was so casual. I could only assume that everything must have been safe now.
And so I wandered through the deep sand through the early hours of the morning and finally peed.