Our first stop of the trip was a visit to Jessica the Hippo. This was a long awaited meeting and quite possibly one of the things I was most excited about on the whole trip. I can’t recall exactly when I first learned about Jessica. It was from a documentary and I remember thinking no way could this be real. And, never in my wildest dream did I actually think I would be able to visit her myself! My interest in Jessica was rekindled when “Idiot Abroad” did an episode about her. This led us to do some research and discover that Jessica was not far from us in Botswana! She lived outside of Kruger National Park, close to our planned overland route through South Africa. Not only was she within driving distance, it was possible to visit her, feed her, massage her and even stay overnight on the property! It sounded too good to be true! My anticipation for this visit built up to insane levels while awaiting our trip!
To give you some history….as a baby, Jessica washed away from her mama during the big floods of 2000 in the Blyde River Canyon area. Tony, who was a former game ranger found her tiny body on his property and decided to try to nurse her back to health because there was no way she would survived alone. The plan had been for her to return to the wild as soon as she was old enough, however, Jessica never wanted to leave. She has always been allowed to come and go as she pleases, but continues to choose to stay with Tony and his wife. They have both formed an incredible connection with Jessica and treat her like their child. She gets fed at least twice a day with ground maize or other chopped vegetables. She has bales of alfalfa and is able to graze in the garden freely. She also gets 4 bottles of rooibos tea daily. She is allowed to freely roam onto the front porch and inside the house. In fact, she has often tried to get into the couple’s bed and has even broken at least 4 bed frames!
If one pet hippo isn’t crazy enough – you won’t believe that 5 years ago, there was another big flood which washed another baby hippo onto Tony’s property! It was a baby male who they rescued and have raised just like Jessica. He is now 5 years old and his name is Richie! The tough part is that handling a baby male hippo is much more difficult than a female. it is not safe for him to move about freely because baby male hippos are a threat to all male hippos in the area. Grown males regularly seek out and kill baby male hippos – even their own sons because they don’t want any competition. The only way baby males survive is through the fierce protection of their mothers. Jessica didn’t have any connection to Richie so had no reason to protect him. In fact, she may have also killed him herself! They have had to keep Richie in a separate enclosure away from Jessica and away from the river where other males could attack. When he is big enough to protect himself, he will be allowed to roam freely.
It was going to be hard for the visit to live up to my expectations – but man it really did! Right as we pulled into the driveway, the first thing I saw was Richie ready to greet us! He was lounging in his pool but immediately came over and proceeded to open his mouth wide. It scared me at first, but then I realized he was just saying hello and hoping to be fed! At 5 years old he is already quite large. I quickly lost any fear of him and started to see him as a large lovable playmate.
There are organized visits for Jessica that happen 2-3 times a day, depending on how many people sign up. There were just a handful of visitors while we were there, but in the busy season we were told that up to 100 people come through in a day! The visit consists of a meet and greet where you watch a short clip of one of the documentaries about Jessica to introduce anyone who isn’t familiar with her history. Things have gotten too busy for Tony and Shirley to do the tours so they now have helpers. First step is prepping warm Rooibos tea for Jessica in liter size plastic bottles that have been fitted with a nipple for her to easily be able to drink. She also got a large bowl of ground up maize.
Guests can visit and feed her from a large dock over the river. One thing that Tony was always insistent on is that she never be forced to do anything. The visits happen when she wants – if she is busy in the garden or playing down the river and does not come down to the dock, then the visit doesn’t happen. However, she seems to really like it! I mean why not, she is getting fed good stuff! Jessica was ready and waiting at the dock when we walked down.
One by one we would give her a handful of maize then could pet her head. She is big and her jaws are huge but I didn’t feel scared of her…..but most people definitely were! After the maize, we gave her the bottles of tea to drink. Apparently, Jessica has gotten very discerning over the years….if the tea is not warm she won’t touch it. She also gets sick of certain foods. Like right now she won’t eat any carrots or whole corn – she will stick her nose up and just go back in the river!
Hippos are very smart and have an excellent memory. Jessica got sick a few years ago with salmonella and a male vet had to dart her with medicine because her skin was too thick for syringes. She remembers vividly and any man who has a similar voice will incite a big response from her! So when visiting men aren’t allowed to talk or kiss her on the mouth! Tony also told us a stories about how Jessica can learn to open any door. She will watch him once and then be able to lift latches or door handles by using her mouth! Unbelievable!
Most people were happy to just cruise through and have the short meeting with Jessica. But we wanted more time! We booked to stay a night in the guesthouse, which just happens to be an amazing traditional style thatch roofed house with an attached tree house. Also a fully functional kitchen and braai pit. The house was big enough for at least 6-8 people. There was a large deck overlooking the river where Jessica and other wild hippos roam. They also have had elephants and leopard on the property. It was beautiful and serene.
During our stay, we had more chances to see and interact with Jessica and Richie. During the day Jessica roams around the garden and grazes on grass. There is also a shack filled with alfala sprouts so she can basically eat as much as she wants. We were told that if you approach Jessica, you need to say hello and greet her. Otherwise she gets upset and will glare at you. I couldn’t believe it but we experienced the glare and its true!
Tony and Shirley were wonderful hosts. They invited us in for drinks and watermelon – which we then also got to feed to Richie! You can tell just how much they love these animals. They really are their children. I wish we had time to sit with them all day – the stories they have to tell are amazing. Tony especially – he has been a game park ranger in numerous reserves across South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The most interesting thing is that he used to be involved in culling – which is when animals are killed for a specific purpose – usually due to overpopulation. He has killed thousands of hippos in his career – but now is spending the rest of his life trying to make up for by taking care of Jessica and Richie.
We absolutely loved this experience and would recommend it to anyone – even those not interested in hippos! It truly is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Hippos are usually deadly creatures that must be avoided at all costs. To see such friendly and happy hippos up close – and get to kiss and hug them and even give them a massage was beyond amazing! You just can’t put into words how incredible it is! I love animals and this really marked a dream experience I never thought possible! Now I have been able to play with lions, cheetahs, tigers, elephants. Swim with humpbacks, sharks and dolphins. Ride an ostrich and elephant. My next dream is to play with pandas!
We were also pleasantly surprised by the town of Hoedspruit. It was tiny but had a really cute main street with nice shops and restaurants. We ate at Hat & Creek which was excellent! Probably the best meal we have had in months. There are also a number of huge farms in the area. We visited a mango farm during a bike race they host called Mango Mania. They had tents set up with their mango cultivators who let us try all different varieties and explained the various taste profiles. They even had a tasting area for about 20 new cross species they were trying out. Based on taste testing from locals – they then decided which species to plant for large scale production the following year. I had no idea there were so many types of mangoes! We even found one species that tasted like a pina colada!!! We bough two boxes and enjoyed at least 2 mangoes a day for the following few weeks