FOR a heart-stopping, adrenalin-charged and hyper-tense few minutes, I thought that maybe our number was up.
Whirr, splutter, cough, cough, pop went the un-co-operative outboard motor, once, twice and up to eight or ten times as our guide, face ever-reddening attempted to keep his cool…and his passengers from panicking.
The pod of thirty hippos which had been playing blissfully in the deep waters of the Usuto River where it spreads out into the vast Banzi flood pan of the Ndumo Wilderness Reserve, were not accustomed to having intruders in their midst.
They had rarely seen a boat before, and it was such an unusual occurrence, might have wondered if the Martians had arrived.
This is wildlife safari at its spine-tingling best as, at first, they wheeled around in unison to peer at us inquisitively, their beady eyes and Desperate Dan chins protruding as our flat-bottomed punt approached.
Then an adult bull broke away, bobbed under the coffee-coloured surface and, feet treading furiously as if running on the bottom, headed straight for us at a heart-stopping rate.
Our park ranger had earlier switched the engine off and turned the boat around to float in reverse gently and quietly towards them to give us a closer look as they snorted great plumes of spray into the air, making noises like some mighty herd of untamed stallions.
His plan was intelligent and simple: If any came too close for comfort, he’d fire the engine with the rope-pull starter, open up the throttle and we’d be off at speed and heading away from any potential danger.
These great wallowing hulks weigh in at anything up to two tons apiece. If one chose to, and he had never before been close enough to test the theory, it could swim right under the lightweight aluminium-hulled craft and flip us over as if it was made of paper.
On the sandbanks lining the reed beds to the left and right, big crocs (and I mean monsters) were conserving their energy for just such a moment to present itself. They might seem lazy and cumbersome but are opportunist and can, as they say, make it snappy when the scent of dinner is in the air and they turn instantly into intense, single-minded and toothy torpedoes.
Earlier our guide had warned us: “Don’t fall in. You wouldn’t get back out again.”
The thought was enough to make his little eager group of passengers gulp even though there was at that time nothing much to make the pulse race apart from a flock of bright yellow weaver birds which darted out before us.
Now, those words returned like a spear to the heart as we surveyed each of the banks which seemed half a mile away, looking for a fallen tree or branch to cling to if we were forced to attempt to break the record for a two-and-a-half second crawl.
I thought, “this is it”, no kidding, as he tugged and pulled at the starter chord and each time the motor failed to respond to his increasingly frantic efforts.
As he yanked with one hand, the other tweaked and tinkered furtively with the fuel settings as he fought to get that stubborn thing to fire into life.
Hearts in mouths, we watched in concentrated silence attempting to see where the big pink face the size of an easy chair would surface next.
Then, with a roar, the engine finally burst into life and the prow lifted dramatically as, full throttle, we sped off as fast as the propeller could churn the depths.
That instant, a line of bubbles broke the surface and shot past on the left leaving a telltale trail that the hippo had gathered up a considerable head of steam before us.
Up ahead he surfaced in the centre of the channel to block our course.
Now even more determined to get us out of that still potentially difficult predicament, our boatman jerked the tiller over to take us safely out of reach.
No words had until now been spoken.
When the first utterance came, attempting to be calm and reassuring all at once, our relieved guide stressed that we had never been in any REAL danger.
“They can become aggressive.
“If they come at you with head and chest out of the water and mouth wide open, that’s when you know it’s time to go,” he said.
It niggled for a second that the dramatic encounter had maybe all been immaculately staged for added dramatic effect.
…That night, the outboard engine was stripped and overhauled for peace of mind.
Those who think the game drive business in South Africa provides little more than a chance to cruise through the bush and gaze at docile creatures so accustomed to human presence they are almost semi-tame, are kidding themselves.