New Year’s Eve day found me and four fellow PCVs setting out from Garoua to track a pod of hippos in the Benoue with Le Maitre d’Hippopotome—the Hippo Master—a self-appointed hippo conservationist and wrangler, and one of Garoua’s resident characters. We met him Tuesday morning at the bridge that spans the Benoue River south of Garoua. The area beside the foot of the bridge was already bustling; children hawked palm hearts and kola nuts from trays on their heads, while women poured frothy millet beer, or bilbil, into voluptuously shaped clay pots. The tangy odor of fish hung over everything, punctuated with whiffs of noxious river mud.
After lively negotiation with a clutter of moto drivers, three PCVs piled on to one moto, leaving me and a youth development volunteer, Santina, to get on behind Le Maitre. We sped over the bridge and a few kilometers down the paved road before turning off onto a dirt path that led into the bush.
This was when Santina and I started to realize that Le Maitre, albeit a man with numerous abilities and undeniable hippo charisma, is not a very practiced moto driver. I had gone out with him once before, almost exactly a year ago, and he had ridden as a passenger behind a licensed moto driver; why he decided this time around to conduct the motorcycle himself is unclear to me, but quickly became a matter of no small concern. There is a particular set of skills necessary to steering a moto in the bush, among them knowing how to deal with sand traps. Most moto drivers will slow, stick both flip-flopped feet into the deep drifts of sand, and waddle the moto through the patch until the path becomes firm again. Le Maitre, on the other hand, tried to gun his way through the sweeping sand, a method guaranteed to fail.
About twenty minutes—and several alarming wobbles through sand—into our trip, we hit the longest patch of deep sand we had yet encountered. Le Maitre approached it, like the others, with unwarranted gumption. The moto immediately started fishtailing wildly from side to side; his response was to throw himself forward. Predictably, the moto flew out to the side, throwing me off and trapping Santina and Le Maitre beneath it.
Sliding in the sand had slowed us considerably, so neither of the riders tangled in the moto were hurt beyond scrapes and bruises. I, however, had thrown my arm out to break my fall, and managed to impale my elbow on a rock. I felt nothing, only the impact of the fall, but as we picked ourselves up and dusted off, I noticed blood running freely down my forearm. Our friends, seeing that we had wiped out, stopped the lead moto and ran back to check on us. My friend Brian drew in his breath with a sharp hiss. I turned my arm; there was a deep inch-long puncture right below my elbow. Santina helped me pour water over it, nudging out as much sand as possible. Rachel, an agroforestry volunteer posted in Garoua, offered a thin scarf as a makeshift bandage, and Brian helped me tie it into a tourniquet. It was just shy of uncomfortably tight, but provided enough pressure to stop the bleeding.
We arrived without any further mishaps in a small fishing village on the banks of the Benoue. There Le Maitre stored the motos; he and the other moto driver, now wearing the hat of Canoe Paddler In Chief, made their way to the water’s edge with the five of us in tow. We piled into long, shallow wooden pirogues and glided out into the middle of the river, where we let the current carry us downstream.
Soon enough we spotted the first massive hippo head, eyes and nostrils just breaking the surface of the water, a Mesozoic monster watching us watch it. Further downriver we could see the rest of the pod, mostly submerged but betraying their unseen bulk with occasional glimpses of a vast arched back. We eased to the starboard shore and got out for a closer look.
The striking thing about hippos is their size. Pictures cannot convey the length of their teeth, the enormity of their yawns, or the sheer underwater mass of these creatures, leftover megafauna from a bygone era. The five of us stayed on land, watching and taking pictures, marveling over their deeply reverberating grunts and seemingly unhingeable jaws gawping and closing like a real-life version of the children’s game Hungry Hungry Hippo. Le Maitre, on the other hand, waded promptly into the water towards the pod, calling to them in Fulfulde.
“You know, I read about a guy in Garoua who had trained a hippo and rode it in the river,” Rachel mused, as we watched Le Maitre with trepidation. “Then it killed someone, so they had to put it down.” She paused. “I’m pretty sure that was this guy.” We nodded thoughtfully, digesting this information. It might have been better to know this before we put our safety in Le Maitre’s hands. Then again, now that we were this far into it, it might have been better not to know at all—or at least not until we were safely back in Garoua.
But we were not fated to watch a hippo mauling, at least not that day; Le Maitre finally, grudgingly responded to our beseeching calls and left the water. We got back in our boats and headed for Garoua, where I had to deal with the hole in my arm.
The worst part wasn’t cleaning the wound. The worst part wasn’t the lack of anesthetic. The worst part wasn’t the first stitch, hooked into my skin with a curved needle like a tool for fixing tapestries, nor the subsequent stitching, obscured by blood so that the nurse had to hook the skin several times before pulling it closed. No, the worst part was the two-ounce shot of penicillin and lidocaine administered straight into my left glute through a terrifyingly, comically, unnecessarily large syringe. The shot just kept happening, far beyond the point at which I expected the needle to be withdrawn, my muscle aching the more liquid was forced into it. I limped back to the Garoua transit house and curled up for a stiff, pained nap.
But I woke up from the nap ready to welcome 2014, and even made it out to go dancing at midnight. Happy New Year from Cameroon; by definition, it’s gotta start on a better foot than 2013 left on.